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Autumn

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autumn: a time of full maturity, especially the late stages of full maturity or, sometimes, the early stages of decline

The first time he hears the name he is fourteen years old, skinny and towered over by most people his age, the tufts of bright hair that refuse to flatten on his head a constant recipient of his mother's pursed lips and disappointed eyes. It's murderously hot in Albuquerque, everything holding it's breath for the relief that comes after summer, the AC stuttering more and more with each day that passes at J.P. Wynne. He twists his legs Indian-style in a chair among boys that are bigger than him and girls that gaze past him at the JV basketball players. A guidance counselor whose name he didn't bother to catch paces in front of the blackboard, faux-bright voice lobbying between the assured joys of learning and cautionary tales of druggies, burnouts, kids who don't come to class.

That one kid whose mom probably dragged him in by a sweaty hand to the principal's office to insist that her gifted child be put in all the advanced classes speaks up, predictably, to inform them all that his schedule is incorrect, he is supposed to be placed in junior chemistry, not the sophomore anatomy class. He tested out, he says.

"Junior chemistry is Mr. White's class," the guidance counselor tells the boy, the rest of them forced to listen, doodle, wait. "And he doesn't accept freshman. You did test out of freshman biology which is why we've placed you in the anatomy class."

"But my mom said - "

"There's nothing I can do, honey. Your parents will have to take it up with Mr. White."

Jesse, doodling a superhero into the margins of his schedule, doesn't even blink.

-

He's sixteen, somewhat taller, a hat pulled over unruly blonde hair. Girls look twice when they see him now, a change he doesn't question, though his Aunt Jenny has always said it's his blue eyes. He misses her in a way he doesn't miss home, or whatever his parent's house is supposed to be. The way she laughs at his jokes instead of the disbelieving huff and spastic head-shaking he gets from his dad when he wanders in with eyes that are a little too glassy. She sends him postcards from beautiful places, places where there are red and gold leaves trailing from the sky like benevolent hands on your shoulders, cards addressed Dear and signed with love that looks as honest as it feels. He goes and sits outside her empty house sometimes (always after dark so no one in the posh neighborhood calls the cops because he "looks like a vagrant" according to his mother) whenever loneliness rubs a little too closely at his bones and even getting high with Brandon or Emilio feels too much like another chore, another expectation.

He gets his second postcard that month the morning he is supposed to start junior year. He's running late as usual, dad already gone to work and his mom rushing Jake out to his fancy private day-care long before he drags himself out of bed, eyes dragging under the weight of another late night.

He actually makes it to Wynne only twenty minutes after the last bell's rung, fishing in the pockets of loose jeans for the schedule that was handed to him at open house by another white-toothed vapid smile.

Chemistry - White, 8 am.

He vaguely recalls a slouching, squirrely-looking old dude from their assemblies as he punches open the door to the class, immediately greeted by the swivel of heads desperate for any diversion besides the nonsensical lines and letters sprawled out on the old-school blackboard.

The teacher looks up, squinting with eyes that'll someday need glasses, mouth open in a crooked sprawl.

"Jesse Pinkman?" he asks, glancing down at the roll.

"Yeah," he says, voice all gravel, tugging at the edge of his beanie.

"You get one free pass today," he says, and is the man actually smiling at him? He gestures openly to the few empty chairs, expectantly. "Take a seat."

He curls himself into a seat at the back, chair legs screeching against cheap floor, sending shockwaves of winces through the entire room. (He's next to a girl that whispers to him later that all he missed was a speech about science and change and some bunsen burner flame for effect. Jesse doesn't care about some rehearsed speech the dude's probably been giving since the dawn of time, and he doesn't know what a bunsen burner is, but he listens because she's pretty.)

"And Jesse?"

"Yeah, Mr. White?"

"Hat off."

-

There's not a lot that Jesse is good at, but here, after school hours facing down another mask of concern and disappointment, here: he's an expert.

It's colder out, and Jesse buries himself in long sleeves and jackets in the back of classrooms, head ducked to his drawing paper, feeling the weight of every teacher's eyes before they pass him by, another lost cause. He ticks them off in his head like homework assignments; some of them projects to see how far he can push, some of them bets like the doe-eyed first year English teacher who gave up disappointedly easily but whose failure won him enough free weed from Badger to last a week. Then there are the problem teachers: the ones determined to appear to care no matter what, the ones he doesn't want to actually piss off because he really doesn't feel like sitting through another in-school suspension.

The last man standing this fall is Mr. White, stooping behind his desk that houses another failed test, marked Jesse Pinkman and not much else (he even forgot the date this time), slashed and bleeding red on the white paper between them like an offering to some god, who if he had any pity would get Jesse out of this hellish conversation. Predictably, the man dives in for the holy grail of student-teacher bonding, another thing Jesse had been trying to avoid, like a game of operation, don't touch the edges.

"Is everything okay at home, Jesse?"

He stiffens, quiet, blue eyes clamped on the linoleum floor. The hat Mr. White is always telling him to take off is itching the back of his neck.

"You were doing so much better at the beginning of the year, what's changed?"

What does he think? That he's going to open up, throw it all out in the open, spill everything that's wrong across the floor like the titration that he knocked over last week, the broken beaker Mr. White didn't make him pay for? That he's gonna tell this man, this stranger that his aunt is home, and he's not, kicked out of his own house, that she's forgetting things and tired all the time and is slipping pills with her dinner when she thinks he's not looking? That the only time he hates getting high is when she's awake when he comes in, fumbling the latches a little too loudly, when he knows she knows that it isn't just weed he's been smoking this time, when she hugs him and asks if he likes those boys, that something behind her eyes breaks when he says that they're his friends, that it's worse than all the lectures and anger from his parents combined?

Jesse always won at operation as a kid. Don't touch the edges. He snarls instead.

"What, like you actually give a shit, yo?"

He knows how to do this, knows the drill, that if he pushes back hard enough they'll get off his back for good. Mr. White just stares back at him for a minute before speaking again, gently, and Jesse thinks for a second that he's gotten this man wrong, before he remembers that he doesn't care.

He remembers that conversation years later, after hearing I never thought you'd amount to much, and thinks that he was right all along, and this man is just a better liar than he thought.

-

Jesse isn't held back, surprisingly; the teachers overlook the plethora of unexcused absences and half-filled out, half-drawn over tests and pass him - just barely - into senior year. He's never been so happy to be unwanted somewhere before, and in celebration he even gets to school on time the first day of his last year in the hell hole that is J.P. Wynne. He was up early with Jenny, anyway, she'd made some kind of ridiculous kiddie breakfast for him, smiling pancakes and everything, that he'd teased her about mercilessly until both their faces were red with laughter. Even passing Mr. White on his way to English doesn't put a damper on his mood, though the prick smiles at him and says hello as if he didn't just fail him a few months before.

("What, you were angry that I was the only one who cared enough to fail you?" They're on hour seven out in the desert, water is low in the murderous heat and nothing from the chemistry to Mr. White's babbling is making much sense to Jesse anymore.

"That makes like, less than no sense, yo."

"Those teachers give up on the students so easily."

Jesse says nothing, swallows the little bit of hope he thinks he hears in that sentence, burying the way Mr. White berated him an hour ago in the back of his brain. )

-

He tries it for the first time three hours after her funeral. He'd had offers before that he refused, from Badger, from Emilio whose cousin apparently knows how to make the stuff. Jenny was the only person who hadn't left him and he'd be damned if he did it to her, so he goes to school, he graduates, spends long afternoons with her, making her lunch every day and bringing home things that'll make her laugh, stories about his teachers and scarves for her bald head. He buys her orange roses after she says they are happy flowers, and as little as he cares about plants he can't help but think how creepy the red and white ones that he passes in the store are, like blood or a funeral. She smiles whenever she sees them, tells him to look at how unusual and bright they are, staring at him all the while in a way that makes him ache as if she was already gone.

Jesse Pinkman doesn't go to graduation, not that his parents are there to even see it. He knows his teachers probably shake their heads, write him up as another lost cause, ignorant of the fact that he was sitting in a hospital room with the smell of starch and bleach and death in his nose, feeling his aunt's bones through the skin of her hand.

He doesn't speak to his parents at the funeral, but he goes sober as much as he wants not to, refusing to say goodbye to Aunt Jenny any other way. He forces himself to say hi to Jake, because it's not his brother's fault that he's a carbon copy of perfection stuck into a child's suit, but every one of his mother's tears feels like a joke, a slap to the face, and he nearly runs out of the church to get himself away from her.

He calls up Badger after locking up Aunt Jenny's house, afraid that if he stays there tonight he'll tear the place to pieces. He goes to Badger's place, meets some skinny guy named Pete, his heart thrumming as he watches them pull out a tiny bag of glass.

It's amazing, the way he can think and feel so much that he can ignore all the things he doesn't want to have around anymore, bury them deep in the back of his head, ride out the rest of the high on a clear, unblemished road.

-

Jesse thinks he's still high when he stumbles against the side of the house, tugging down his shirt as glares at the man in the car. He's staring back, mouth gaping and eyes squinted, just like that first day of class minus the well-meaning-teacher-smile. He doesn't know what the fuck Mr. fucking White is doing wrapped up in a marshmallow vest in the back of a DEA car, but he doesn't waste time trying to find out. He tears off down the road in his red bouncing car, wind through his window feeling like freedom on his face, like he's made it, like something is changing in the autumn air and no one can touch him.

-

It's after Emilio and Krazy-8 and the bathtub and everything else he doesn't want to think about that he goes to Mr. White's house. He doesn't belong at his parent's house, can't stomach the thought of another night in his child's room and all the melancholy of the kid who lived in that wooden box, dead paper and sketches and the bleeding slashes on that chemistry test. Jesse knows it's stupid and he should stay away, but still doesn't expect this kind of violent response from Mr. White. I cook meth and killed a man, he had said, but this kind of rage doesn't seem to fit him, crooked and ballooning like their lab safety aprons.

Why are you here?

I dunno.

The man's mustache twists as he mocks him, curling like a fraying mask. You are not how I remember you from class. Jesse can't believe he's opening this door again, but at least he's not blackmailing the dude. He's fucking paying him. He relishes the shock on Mr. White's face at the sight of the money. I did this too, Jesse thinks to himself, I earned this.

"Yeah, yeah that's right," he snarls, and he feels like they've been here before, like he's going in circles. "Hey - I didn't smoke it all."

The money parachutes down to float wet in the pool, curled and dark like dying leaves.

-

Cancer! You've got it right?

His voice is hoarse out here in the desert, tempered with heat and exhaustion and an unexpected anger.

"You should have told me," he says instead of the i can't do this i can't do this i don't want to do this that's running through his head.

He buries that too, with the sound of Mr. White's ragged coughs, steps into the RV, cooks.

-

He rubs a cactus bud between his fingers, relishing the prick on his skin.

They've been cooking together for a while now, perfecting a routine, a repertoire of sorts. Jesse is surprised by how normal it feels, how peaceful, way out in the desert with nothing but the wind and the sand and the chemistry to worry about. He feels like he's made it, that he found something that works, that he's good at, that'll make him something, and he finds himself thinking about everything he smokes up to ignore, about Aunt Jenny and the way she used to tell him he could do anything, and how she never said it like a liar.

"I wish we had some red leaves here, you know? Falling leaves and shit."

"It's too dry here for a fall like that," Mr. White says, and that's that.

-

He's amazed how he feels standing at this kitchen counter, bright light streaming in, the rattle of a too-thin front door. She's all in black in front of him, even her hair, but there's something that feels so light about him when he talking to her that reminds him of Aunt Jenny and happy flowers and all the ways things felt like before, all the sunshine of the world without the pressure gauge of drugs to see it through.

Jesse buys himself bright yellow sheets that Jane raises a sarcastic eyebrow at, and he thinks there's nothing so beautiful as her hair fanned out over them in the morning, all the laughter crammed inside her dark eyes.

-

Everything feels wrong after rehab; Jesse climbs into the Aztec with lead feet and stiff legs, as broken as the windshield in front of him. They don't talk about it, about any of it, Mr. White's idle chatter rattling in his ears isn't soothing the way it used to be, but he sinks into it as they drive back to town, letting himself get lost in the sound of a familiar voice and the bright sun glinting off the road, trying to let it all go, trying to forget about Tuco, about broken ribs and the taste of stale air in a car trunk, about crying to sleep in an RV and getting shoved around by the man who is supposed to be his partner, about the crunch of an ATM and the dead terror of a stalled engine way out in the desert.

He knows he won't be able to bury any of it. He knows he'll never forget Jane.

Jesse drifts off with his head against the window, thinking about doors, about lost perfection, Georgia O'Keefe and trying to get the picture right again and again and failing every damn time.

-

It's too fucking weird being back in his high school parking lot, much less minutes after Mr. White's apparently been fired, no matter what he wants to calls it. Sabbatical, my ass. Jesse wants to take a minute to let his past self relish this fact, the fact that he's watching this happen, but the man who failed him all those years ago isn't the same one who payed for his rehab after digging him out of some drug den, or begged Tuco for his life until he was blue in the face. He isn't the same either, he knows, eagerly waiting for Mr. White's verdict, his approval, for him to tell him he's good at this, that his meth is good, that it doesn't matter that this is the only thing he has.

It blows up in his goddamn face, of course, like every one of his high school chemistry experiments.

Maybe he is the same. Maybe both of them are. Jesse doesn't know who wears what mask anymore.

-

He buys orange roses for Jenny's grave, yellow tulips for Jane's. His aunt always said they were happy flowers. He doesn't quite remember what a smile looks like on his own face; when he fakes it at the store for the old fumbling cashier it peels the corners of his mouth like a sunburn. The sun is setting golden when he leaves the last cemetery after a long day at the lab, skimmed blue lying heavy in his pocket. Another routine, another chore, another expectation. He never hates the people who leave him more than himself.

-

They're scouring the lab for the fly, one tiny demonic fly that Jesse's isn't even sure existed at first, just some messed up projection from Mr. White's paranoid head. He wants to name it now, something horrific and awful if he could think of a name he hated enough. It's strange, being in the lab and not cooking, not following the routine; too quiet, too much time for him to think of other things, like how the yellow of their lab suits is the same yellow of his old sheets where Jane would curl around him in her sleep, the yellow of falling leaves in pictures Aunt Jenny would send. It morphs into the golden hue of sunset in his head, long evenings in the desert in the shadow of the RV, sand darkening into orange and the rattle of a dying man's cough, blood on a white towel, blood on Jenny's dissolving floors.

In a few weeks there will be blood all around him, blood on his red shirt, blood on the red floors. It cleans up nice, like everything else they've destroyed, washing off frighteningly quickly in the lab sink.

-

They end up in a diner of all places, which Jesse knows by now is where they go when Mr. White wants to talk, not to eat, but he orders an obscenely sized breakfast platter anyway, because he's fine, he's good, he's normal, and Mr. White can't just ask him to kill a man and watch another one die and then have a heart to heart like this is a goddamn normal business.

(He buries that thought too, with a hatchet and a voice that sounds far too much like his partner's saying it was necessary it was necessary. He doesn't know those faces will come up again in his dreams, that even drugs won't be enough to keep Gale Boetticher's eyes away from him.)

Jesse hates it all. The quiet clatter of forks, the too-blue sky unmarred outside, this man and his teacher's voice sitting across from him that he can't quite look at, these stupid white pants that they're both wearing, clean and white like a faux-friendly smile, too perfect, too unblemished for either of them. They've thrown themselves in bed with another Tuco, it just took them too long to see it. Tuco, grinning around his grill, laughing manic eyes that tore into you seconds later. Fring never smiled, not even when he carved lines into his henchman's neck. At least he didn't lie, Jesse thinks.

The shirts are better; brown like bitter coffee or dying leaves, crawling over the ground until they're crushed by a god's boot. It's honest. Not like them, not like the wedding ring shining on Mr. White's finger or the way Jesse's able to say Gale's name so clearly, his smooth voice the opposite of the shaking gun in his hand mere hours before. We know, now we know, now we understand each other. He smiles at Mr. White, plastic, blue eyes dead. He's glad he can make the man uncomfortable, see that brisk thrill of fear in the other's eyes before he drops his own. Operation. Don't touch the edges. Push just enough.

-

Waking up with the sun on his face, Jesse is amazed that he can even sleep anymore. He tugs himself out of bed, leaving Andrea and her dark blanket of hair behind. Flips on the stove, relishing the fact that the tool in his hand is a spatula, not another gun pressed against a lab partner's head. He makes smiling pancakes for Brock and Andrea, and coffee for himself. He still can't look at the boy without a chill of fear over what could have been. He wishes nightmares came only in your dreams; even in the sunny kitchen he can't help but think he hears the ring of the nursing home exploding in his ears, Mr. White's voice saying pull the trigger, again, again, pull the trigger.

-

"I'm out too, Mike," he says, shutting his eyes against the pity in Mike's eyes, the way the man wants to go to war with him again over his own idiocy. He buries it, buries it where he buries it all in a pile that grows bigger and bigger with names and faces and Drew Sharpe until it's pressing always pressing against his eyelids and he's living in it, in guilt and helplessness and his own stupidity and for a single horrible second he wonders if this is what Jane felt like, like drowning, as if everything was dead and paper thin and falling all around him, rising up and choking him with the crunch of dead leaves curling decaying fingers around his throat.

Jesse buries that too, and lies to himself that it's working, smiling in the mirror with false teeth, and then there's Mr. White knocking again on his door while he's tucking a gun into his waistband and Mike is the last name he tries to bury before it all implodes.

-

Jesse Pinkman wakes up in a house that looks like Barney threw up in it, sprawled across a bed that isn't his, deadened eyes turned towards pictures of a family that doesn't exist anymore. It all rushes back to his too-sober head, cigarettes and gasoline, Saul's blood on his hands, splinters from a broken door, he can't keep getting away with it. He feels like he's been going in circles his entire life and only just figured it out, trapped in Albuquerque under the thumb of a goddamn devil masquerading as a man. He's in front of him even now, mask in place on the table by the bed, in picture frames standing straight and proud like tombstones.

Mr. White in a red Santa suit.

It's the scariest fucking thing he's seen in a while, that picture. He knows it's from before but it's all such a goddamn lie and he thinks I know him better than every single one of you, and for a moment wants to sit there in that purple house and not say a damned thing to any of them at all.

Head clear?

Jesse wants to ask, wants to know it all, wants to know where and when and why it all went wrong, and if he could have stopped it if he was smarter. But there's a camera in the living room, and they're all looking at him for answers, Gomez's angry eyes and Schrader's edgy ones, and he knows they've all been stuck with the mask too, with this man playing at being Mr. White, dying and changing into someone else entirely. The lady's the only one who looks certain, eyes clear as she stares at his back, bent over their bookshelf as if he was actually reading any of those useless books.

Start from the beginning, Schrader says, and Jesse wants to cry, thinks did it really start all the way back then? Was I fucked all the way back then? He hopes his eyes don't give him away. Jesse grips the mug tighter, glances down at the D E A and wants to crush it in his hands, watch the ceramic melt and fall to the floor again, to bring everything down, all of it, crashing and dripping in blood.

"I first met Mr. White - Walter White … in junior year chemistry. He was my teacher."

-

He stalks off from the plaza, phone swinging dead in the booth behind him. I am awake, he remembers him saying, and it feels like years before. Jesse thinks he knows what he meant now, back in that gusty evening at the start of what passes for fall in Albuquerque, wind stirring like things were about to change, like something was about to grow instead of die.