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While You Were Vanishing

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Skyler's first impression is that Alaska looks nothing like New Mexico.

And that, she supposes, is probably the point. She knows better than anyone how tough it is to make a new start in the same place. Better to go somewhere, anywhere, where there are no reminders of home.

As the plane descends into Anchorage, she sees sharp-peaked mountains that make the Sandias almost look like gentle hills. She rents a car and drives down the Kenai Peninsula, the roads bracketed by green as far as she can see. There are glimpses of the ocean outside the window, and when she stops for a restroom and coffee she can smell salt water and pine needles and wood smoke, and the air tastes clean and crisp.

She knows she's seeing it with an outsider's eyes, and she knows that going somewhere new will rarely make you a new person, and somewhere that looks promising can change drastically if you spend enough time there. But even so, this place seems filled with quiet life.

She tells herself not to get her hopes up.

She checks the address written on a sheet of notebook paper on the passenger seat beside her, and checks the GPS again. The driveway is empty, so she pulls in and parks. There's no sign of anyone home in the small wooden house, but she pulls her coat around her and thumps up the porch stairs to knock on the door.

Silence.

She sits down on the steps, and waits.

--

The chill air is starting to seep into her bones and make her muscles ache when a dark blue pickup truck pulls into the driveway.

It hesitates near the road for a second, and Skyler holds her breath, hoping he doesn't drive away and disappear for good this time, hoping he isn't scared off.

Gravel crunches under the tires as the truck pulls in behind her rented SUV.

She cranes her neck to try to catch sight of the driver, but there's glare on the windshield and all she can see is the vague outline of a human shape.

It's a few long, agonizing moments before the driver's door opens and he steps out, slowly.

His hair is grown out, shaggy and down around his jaw, his face covered with a thick beard. His slight frame hasn't changed, and he's wearing a red plaid jacket that's at least two sizes too big for him. He locks the truck and shoves his hands in his pockets, approaches the house warily.

The scars on his face, down his check, the bridge of his nose, around his eye. Those are new. Probably not new, but it's the first Skyler has ever seen of them, and they only serve to make him look even less like the old APD mugshot that nobody had cared enough to show on the news in years.

"How'd you find me?" he asks.

"It wasn't easy," she says.

"Yeah. That's kind of the point."

She stands up from the porch stairs on numb legs and raises her hands, defensive. "I'm here alone. Nobody is looking for you."

He takes a deep, shuddering breath and moves past her to the door.

Skyler mentally crosses her fingers. "I'd like to ask for your help with something. Can I come in and talk to you?"

"Well, you came all this way, right?" he shrugs, noncommittal, avoiding her eyes. "Kind of a dick move to tell you to leave."

She smiles, hesitant but relieved. "Thank you, Jesse... oh. Is it okay if I call you Jesse? Or is Michael easier – "

He shrugs again and holds the door open. "Jesse's fine."

--

Jesse offers her something to drink, and he moves stiffly around the small kitchen making coffee for them both.

Skyler watches him closely, studies him, until he glances over his shoulder and catches her staring, and she drops her eyes to her hands.

"This is a nice house," she says, just to say something.

"Yeah. Thanks. My, uh... my parents sold my place in Albuquerque and got the money to me, so... y'know, it was some good starting money. It was kind of surprising they even gave a shit I was still alive, but... I guess people are full of surprises when you least expect 'em."

"Don't I know it," Skyler murmurs.

"Yeah. I guess you would." He sets a steaming mug of coffee in front of her.

She sips the coffee slowly and he sits across from her, fingers drumming on his own mug, anxious blue eyes demanding an explanation.

"I'm writing a book," she says.

"A book?"

"About... about everything that happened. I've done as much research as I could using whatever DEA files I could get access to, but... there's still so much that's unanswered. That can't be answered. Except... by you. You're the only person alive who can even begin to fill in some of the blanks. So I've come to ask for your help."

"Jesus. Mrs. White, I – "

"Please, call me Skyler."

"I – right. Of course. Sorry, I – I didn't think – " he shakes his head, like he's berating himself.

"It's okay. What were you saying?"

He stares down into his coffee cup. "I haven't talked about any of it. To anyone. I mean, I talked..." he trails off and takes a shaky breath. "I don't know how much you know, but I talked to the DEA, to... to your brother-in-law. After he found out it was, y'know, it was... who he was."

"I know about that," Skyler says. "My sister told me. She told me that you were staying with them and working with Hank, and he recorded a confession, but... it's gone. Someone broke into their house not long after Hank disappeared, after Walt disappeared, and the tape and Hank's notes and some of his files were taken."

Jesse looks up, his eyes wide, his face pale, like he might suddenly be sick. "Was she... your sister, she wasn't... she wasn't hurt, when..."

"No. No, she wasn't home when it happened."

He lets out a breath. "Thank God. Okay. That's good."

"So you know who did it?"

He nods, and scrubs a hand over his face, his gaze drifting to the window. He's silent for a long moment, then continues as though being sidetracked into the topic of Hank and Marie never happened. "I haven't talked about any of it since I left Albuquerque. I'm not sure how much I remember. I don't know if I'd be any help."

"If you're worried that I'm going to go to the police, or that I'll make it known that I found you, you don't have to be. Nobody is looking for you anymore. I only went looking because I was hoping to find out if you were still alive. It's complete dumb luck that I ended up actually finding you."

"No, no, I don't care about that, I just – I just don't – I can't – "

"Jesse, I understand how difficult this is to talk about. Believe me, I understand."

"I don't know that you would," he says quietly, his voice cold and empty.

"But I do," she says. "And what I don't understand, I want to. Honestly, I don't even know if I'll have the guts to publish this book. I just need to go through the process of doing it. Finding everything out. It's the only way I've been able to begin to deal with everything. By trying to understand it."

He looks up at her with narrow eyes. "So, what, as long as you feel better about it, who gives a shit what happens to me?" He barks a harsh, bitter laugh. "Yeah, I've done that one already. I'm not gonna do it again."

The chair scrapes against the hardwood floor with such force that it almost tips over, and his boots pound their way to the back door.

It slams behind him.

Skyler sits back in her chair, her hands shaking. This was a stupid idea. The whole thing was stupid. However he did it, the kid got away from Walt. She should have let him have that and let him be.

She expects to hear his car start up any second, but the sound of the engine never comes. Seconds stretch to minutes and she sips the coffee that's going cold.

Pushing the curtains on the back window aside, she peeks out and sees him lying on his back in the grass, smoking a cigarette.

Relieved, she gingerly steps out onto the back porch. "Jesse, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you – "

"When's your flight home?" he asks flatly.

Her heart sinks. She's disappointed, but knows she deserves it. "I only bought a one-way ticket."

His head rolls to the side, and he looks at her with a sceptical frown. "Kind of assuming a lot, isn't it?"

"I was optimistic." She shrugs, self deprecating, humbled. "I was hoping I would need to stay a couple of weeks, to really get in to everything. I didn't want to set anything because I didn't want to rush it. But... if I was wrong... then I'm sorry – "

"Stay here tonight at least. It's getting late, and it's a long drive to Anchorage." He stands up slowly and brushes dirt and grass off his clothes. "And I'm sorry... about that. I didn't mean to freak out like that, it's just..."

"It's okay."

He rocks back on his heels. "I have an extra bedroom."

"Thank you. I appreciate that."

She smiles, tries to convey concern, sympathy, gratitude, but he won't look at her.

"I can make soup or something," he says to his shoes.

"That would be great."

He nods, stubs the cigarette out in a birdbath littered with ashes and old butts, and walks back into the house, determined.

--

They eat in silence. Jesse has apparently lost his old need to maintain awkward dinner conversation, and Skyler is afraid to push him to talk about anything.

He insists on carrying her luggage in from the car. She notices him wince as he lifts the suitcase out of the back, and as he carries it up the stairs. He shows her to the guest bedroom, gives her clean towels and an extra blanket.

Skyler thanks him, and says goodnight, and turns to open her suitcase.

"He ruined my life," says the quiet voice behind her. She turns back to him in surprise and he goes on, his voice low and breaking, his eyes finally meeting hers. "He wanted me dead, and then he sent me off to something worse than that. Then he saved my life. For what it was worth. He saved it. And I... it's, like, what, almost three years now? And... I still don't know what the hell I'm supposed to do with that."

"I keep telling my son that it's okay to hate him and miss him at the same time," she says.

"I don't know if I miss him as much as I..." His brow furrows and he trails off. "How are your kids doing, anyway?"

"On his eighteenth birthday, my son was given almost nine million dollars in a trust fund from some old colleagues of Walt's. They said it was because our children were blameless victims of their father, and they felt so badly for them. But I know it's not from them. I don't know how he did it, but I know it's Walt's money. I think my son knows too, and I let him believe the story we were given because he needs it so much. We all do." Skyler smiles tightly. "I feel like shit about that every day. The other thing he did on his eighteenth birthday was legally change his name."

"It's gotta be a lot to deal with, for a kid that young."

"It's a lot to deal with for all of us," she sighs. "Anyway. My daughter, on the other hand, has no memory of her father, and I'm sure time will tell whether that's an advantage or not."

Jesse chews on his lip, looking away. "I'm sorry. About... everything."

She places a gentle hand on his shoulder and he tenses at the touch. "Even if you don't talk to me, you should talk to somebody."

"Have you?"

"No. And I'm a great example of what not to do. So you should listen to me."

Skyler squeezes his shoulder and feels the muscles loosen under her hand. His lips twitch into a faint smile, weak and doleful, his gaze fixed on the floor.

"Yeah. Well. Get some sleep. Let me know if you need anything, okay?"

"Thank you again, Jesse."

With one last sad almost-smile, he closes the door behind him.

Skyler sits on the bed. She wipes her eyes, but the tears won't stop falling.

He reminds her of Flynn, or the way Flynn was the last time she saw him, at least. Pissed off and damaged, anchorless and struggling to keep his heart in the right place. She hadn't expected that, but supposes it makes sense.

--

In the early morning, Skyler wakes from a fitful sleep and showers and dresses as quietly as she can. She re-packs her bag and goes to the living room, floorboards creaking beneath her feet despite her best efforts at silence.

The scent of marijuana hits her before she sees Jesse curled up on the couch, staring vacantly out the window with a joint in his hand. His head swivels toward the sound of her approach, and he jumps as though he'd forgotten she was even in the house. He snuffs the joint out and stashes it, waving the lingering smoke away with his hand.

"Hey. G'morning," he says with forced enthusiasm. "You sleep okay?"

"Fine," she lies. "Thanks."

"So, uh, you want some breakfast?"

He doesn't wait for an answer before he's rattling around the kitchen, making too much noise with pots and pans.

"Thank you."

Skyler watches him wrenching cupboards open and slamming them shut, banging bowls down on the counter, pushing the lever on the toaster down with a heavy fist. He glances up at her as he cradles a carton of eggs against his chest. He groans.

"I know that look, okay?" he says. "It's just for personal use. I'm not dealing, I'm not using anything harder. I don't even buy it, I grow it myself. So you don't have to worry that I'm gonna trap any more good, decent family men into the drug trade."

"That wasn't what I was worried about."

A headache sits tightly behind her eyes, the lack of sleep already draining her. She sinks into a chair.

"I don't blame you for anything that happened, Jesse. I didn't come here to accuse you of anything."

Eggs sizzle in the frying pan. The toast pops up and there's the scrape of a knife.

"I know," he says. "Sorry... I... I'm being, like, defensive, or... I don't know. It's just..." he glances at her over his shoulder. "You being here is so fucking weird. It's messing with my head."

"Yeah. Mine too. Maybe I should've called first."

"Maybe."

"Would you have talked to me on the phone?"

Jesse thinks about it. "Probably not. I would've thought your phone was tapped or something. I might've packed up and left town. So... maybe it is better that you came here. It's easier to believe you're not dicking me around since you went to so much trouble to get here."

That's a relief for her to hear. He might be edgy, he might be angry, he might not want to talk right now, but there's a chance he could trust her. Someday. Maybe.

He sets a plate in front of her, eggs and toast, and a cup of coffee.

"Can I ask you just one thing?"

"Okay..." his answer is hesitant, but sits across from her and waits patiently for the question.

"Were you there when he died?"

Silverware scrapes against ceramic as he pushes his food around the plate.

"No. Not right when it happened."

"You didn't...?"

"No." He looks her squarely in the eyes. "I didn't kill him."

She nods. "I didn't think so, but... I just needed to know."

"Would it have changed anything if I had?"

"No. It wouldn't."

He tears a small corner of toast off and drowns it in egg yolk. "What you said, last night, about how it's okay to hate him and miss him at the same time?"

"What about it?"

"Do you? Hate him and miss him?"

Skyler takes a long sip of coffee, relishing the warmth. "Every single day," she answers.

Jesse chews slowly, turning to look out the window, his expression blank and unreadable. The moment stalls, and Skyler gets the feeling that this is as far as it can go.

"So, I should get on the road soon. I might make it back to Anchorage in time to get on a flight this afternoon, or at least early tomorrow morning. I can leave my number, if you change your mind. And I promise you, my phone isn't tapped – "

"You should stay," he says.

"What?"

"Stay," he repeats. "Like I said, I don't know how much I really remember, but... if it's gonna help you, I'll try."

Skyler doesn't know what to do. She wants to leap across the table and hug him, but doubts he'd react favourably to that. She settles for a shaky smile. "Thank you, Jesse. And please, if at any time it gets to be too difficult, or... or just too weird to have me here, just tell me... tell me to fuck off, and I will."

"Alright. Deal."

He extends his hand across the table, and they shake on it.

It's a start.