A/N Thanks again to all of those who have left reviews. I appreciate all of them. I was thinking about this chapter in particular when I talked about doing outtakes for "missing" scenes. This chapter also feels like it's still setting the scene for what comes next. I'm not entirely sure what that is. I just go where the plot bunnies lead. Thanks for coming on that ride with me :-) Enjoy!
Jason blinked his eyes open and winced. He'd slept in the armchair in his bedroom and as comfortable as it was for him to sit in, it wasn't made for his 6foot frame to sleep comfortably. Still, it was a small price to pay for seeing Aria sleep so peacefully in his bed.
She'd fallen asleep not long after having a cup of hot chocolate in lieu of dessert last night and he hadn't had the heart to wake her up to send her home. So after sending her mother another text, he'd carefully carried her upstairs to his bedroom. He'd thought briefly about putting her in Alli's old room but even with the changes he'd made he suspected that might have been weird for her, especially if she woke up in the middle of the night.
Besides which, there was a part of him that simply wanted to see her there, in his bed, in his room, surrounded by his things. That same part of him was relishing everything about opening his eyes and having her face be the first thing he saw. He drank her in and committed the sight to memory.
It was weird how things happened. For all that he'd pictured waking up next to Aria more than once, it had never been under these circumstances. With the way things had been between them before she was attacked and hell, even after. She'd been keeping her distance and Jason had resigned himself to it.
He and Aria had never really been friends. They'd always teetered on the edge of something…more. He figured that after the kind of trauma that she'd experienced, she needed the comfort of the familiar – her friends and her family.
And then she'd turned up on his doorstep last night seeking comfort from him. Denying her that hadn't even crossed his mind. He'd do whatever he could to help her and worry about the consequences – and he didn't doubt there would be many - to his own peace of mind later.
Aria's eyes fluttered open and the hazel orbs locked on his. "Jason?" she queried.
"Hey," he said, his voice a bit scratchy from sleep.
Aria pushed herself up on her elbow. "Did you sleep in that chair?" she asked frowning. She didn't wait for him to answer. "You didn't have to do that."
"I didn't want too go far in case you woke up and were freaked out not to be home," he said.
Aria didn't state the obvious, which was that there was more than enough room in the bed for the both of them. She figured that would be opening a can of worms that neither she nor Jason was ready to deal with. So instead, she swung her legs over the side of the bed and gestured for him to come over.
"Well, you can lay down properly now," she said. "I'll go make breakfast."
Jason started to protest but Aria cut him off.
"Don't argue with me," she warned.
Jason smirked at her and the expression was so familiar that Aria felt her own lips turning up in a small smile.
"I can be bossy too, you know," she said.
"I see that," Jason said as he crossed the room.
Aria held back the covers and Jason dutifully got between them. It was like climbing into her, he thought to himself. The sheets and pillows had absorbed the scent of her skin and the hint of orange in her shampoo. He was surrounded by her smell and he found himself actually drifting off to sleep as Aria headed downstairs to the kitchen.
When he woke up again, he found Aria curled into the armchair with a cup of coffee in her hands.
"There was nothing edible in your refrigerator," she informed him. "So I went to the bakery for bagels and Danish. Borrowed your car, hope that's okay."
"It's fine," Jason said, sitting up. "How long was I out?"
"Only two hours," Aria said. She took a sip of her coffee and tried not to stare as Jason stretched. "So you have plans for today?" she asked.
"Nothing set in stone," Jason said. "Why?"
He started to ask when she was going back to school but decided against it. Her parents had probably figured that she should only head back when she felt ready for it.
"No reason," Aria said. "I was just wondering if I could hang out here. I mean, unless you're already tired of me."
She said it lightly but Jason didn't miss the nervous nibble of her bottom lip. He gave her a knowing look. "Avoiding your family?" he asked.
Aria sighed. "I know they mean well," she said. "There's just all this silent pressure to talk and I…"
She shook her head.
"You know they're just worried, right?" Jason asked.
"I know," Aria said. "Somehow that doesn't seem to make any difference."
"Okay," Jason said. "I was going to run some errands in Philly. Why don't you come with me? We'll make a day out of it."
"Really?" Aria asked.
"Yeah," Jason said. "But first I need caffeine and you probably want to run home and change."
Aria nodded and they headed downstairs. Jason was doctoring his coffee and Aria was toasting the bagels since she'd promised to fix breakfast, when the doorbell rang.
"I can get it," Aria said, since she was closer. She swung the door open never imagining for a minute that she'd find Ezra on the other side. She gaped at him, stunned for several seconds before words came to her.
"What are you doing here?" she asked hoarsely.
"I got a text message from A telling me this is where you were," he said soberly. "Were you ever going to answer my calls?"
"I left my phone at home," Aria said automatically.
Ezra gave her a look and Aria could see the concern etching itself on his face as he looked at her. She'd lost weight and despite the fact that she'd slept better last night than she had in weeks, she still looked exhausted.
"Why didn't you come to me?" Ezra asked.
"I…" Aria started.
"Aria, is everything okay?" Jason asked, walking over from the kitchen. His entire demeanor changed when he caught sight of Ezra. He looked down at Aria, noticed that the little color she'd had in her face had drained again and that her knuckles had turned white where she was clutching the doorknob.
He gently peeled her fingers away and angled his body in front of hers.
"I'll handle this," he murmured to her, stepping out onto the porch and closing the door behind him. He fixed Ezra with a hard look. "You can't be here right now," he said firmly.
"I don't think that's your call to make," Ezra said.
"Considering this is my property," Jason said. "It's definitely my call. But this isn't even about that. It's about Aria. It's about the fact that she's been through hell and the last thing she needs is you forcing a confrontation that she's not ready for."
Ezra looked like he wanted to argue further.
"Look," Jason said. "You say you love Aria and I actually believe you mean it. Prove me right and give her the time and space that she needs. She'll come talk to you when she's ready."
Ezra sighed knowing that even if he wanted to, he wasn't going to get past Jason and into that house to speak to Aria.
"Tell her that I'm here for her," Ezra said. "She just has to let me be."
"I'll pass it on," Jason said.
Ezra turned and walked away. Jason waited until the other man had gotten into his car and driven off before he went back inside. Aria was sitting on the bottom step, her arms wrapped around her knees.
Jason crouched down so they were more or less eye level and scanned her face.
"I'd almost convinced myself that maybe I could handle it," Aria said. "Seeing him but…"
She shook her head.
"He's not going to blindside you again," Jason said. "I promise."
"How do you do that?" Aria asked. "Make it seem like everything's going to be fine, going to go according to plan even though the odds are that nothing will go according to plan and everything will be as messed up tomorrow as it is right now."
Jason gave her knee a quick squeeze and then shifted so he was sitting next to her on the stairs.
"Getting clean was…rough," Jason said. "But I was lucky enough to have a sponsor who believed…to be honest I'm still not sure why he was so convinced that I was going to make it but he was."
Jason linked his hands together and looked straight ahead.
"He told me that if I just took every day as it came, I'd eventually get where I was going," Jason continued. "And he'd tell me that sometimes the only thing you need to get through another day is for someone else to believe you can."
He glanced over at her.
"It worked for me," he said. "So I figured it might work for you too."
Aria felt tears prick the backs of her eyes at his sincerity. How was it, she wondered, that the person she'd pushed the furthest out of her life was the only one who seemed to understand what she really needed? More than that, the only one who seemed to understand her?
"I don't deserve you," Aria said softly, leaning her head against his shoulder.
"Too bad," Jason said with a small smile. "You're stuck with me anyway."
"Thank you for today," Aria said. "I had a really good time."
"I'm glad to hear that," Jason said.
Aria smiled at him. When they'd left Rosewood this morning, she'd been hoping for a few hours of distraction at best. She hadn't imagined that she would actually be able to push away all her problems and her fears and be in the moment.
But Jason had made it easy. After taking care of a few things at his office, he'd driven them to Franklin Square and challenged her to a game of mini golf. It had been years since she last played and even though she lost, she'd had fun.
They'd had lunch at a Japanese steakhouse near Penn's Landing and spent the rest of the afternoon trolling art galleries. It was the first time in forever that Aria hadn't felt like a victim (A's) or a secret (Ezra's) or an oddity to gawked at (by the entire town). She'd felt like Aria and it felt good.
"See you soon?" Aria asked.
"Sure," Jason agreed.
Aria's smile stretched wider and she leaned across the console to kiss his cheek.
"Good night, Jason," she said, opening the car door and climbing out.
"Good night, Aria," Jason said.
Closing the car door, Aria scampered up the walk to her front door. With one foot inside she turned back around to wave, knowing that Jason was waiting to see her safely inside before he drove off.
"This is nice," Ella commented, walking towards Aria.
"What?" Aria asked.
"You," Ella said. "Smiling. It's been a while since I've seen that."
Aria shrugged a little uncomfortably.
"Your dad and Mike went to pick up dinner," Ella said. "You going to join us?"
Aria started to say no but changed her mind. Sitting down with the family for a meal might make her parents more amenable when she asked about going back to school sooner than Dr. Sullivan had suggested.
"Are you sure you're ready?" Byron asked, when Aria brought it up half way through dinner.
"Honestly, no," Aria said. "But I won't know unless I try. I want my life back and staying at home focusing on everything that happened isn't my life."
"Aria, what you went through," her mother began.
"Is something I have to process in my own way," Aria interrupted. "Please let me do that."
"I think what your mother was trying to get at is that you don't have deal with this on your own," Byron said.
"I'm not trying to deal with it on my own," Aria said. "I'm trying to deal with it, period."
Byron and Ella exchanged looks.
"See how you feel tomorrow," Ella said. "If you want to go to school in the morning, okay. On one condition."
"Which is?" Aria asked.
"You come home if it's too much," Ella said.
"Okay," Aria said.
"Promise?" Ella pressed.
"I promise," Aria said.