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When Mama died, it was like time just stopped for Jesse, while everything around him moved in fast motion without him. The second the heart monitor blared out its monotone death sentence, Jesse couldn’t see anything but her face, now without life yet still holding pain. Pain from the cancer, pain from a life not fully lived, pain from knowing her son would be thrust into this great big world without her, and pain from not knowing what that entailed. Mama didn’t have a family, or at least none that Jesse knew. It had always just been the two of them. Mama worked three jobs and only came home long enough to sleep for maybe 4 hours at the most before heading out again. Her feet always ached, her hands were cracked and dry, and she always looked tired. But she always put on a smile when she saw Jesse.

Her Jessito. Only 15 but growing up so fast.

Jesse came back to reality when a hand clapped on his shoulder, startling him back to the waking world for the first time in a week. He looked up blearily at the teacher looming over him, a smile on their face. It felt like waking up after a long nap. Who was this guy? Coach… Anderson? Right, right. The lunchroom monitor for this period.

“You got lunch today? You didn’t come in with anything yesterday, either, I noticed. Did you eat?” The man questioned, his smile still stuck in place. Jesse struggled for a moment before finding his voice, raspy from disuse over the last week.

“Ran outta food,” Jesse offered before having to cough. The coach’s expression faltered into confusion and concern before plastering the smile back on nice and wide, though it was painfully fake now.

“Uh, is that so? Your momma ain’t packed you nothin’?” Jesse only stared up at the man, his eyes glazed over. He had been crying so much this week, he was exhausted from it. Hearing his mother mentioned so casually was prompting tears his body didn’t have the ability to produce anymore.

Coach Anderson stared for a moment before backing away from his hovering, motioning for Jesse to stand.

“Well come on then. Let’s, ah, get some food in you.”

Reality faded away again until a lunch tray with hot food was set in front of him at the small table he sat at in the foyer of the school office. Those 15 minutes had felt like hours. He slowly took the fork offered to him, digging into today’s lunch special. Jesse guessed it was supposed to be spaghetti and meatballs, though it was all so soft and mixed together there was no telling. He barely tasted it, head down as he eavesdropped on the conversation flowing out the principal’s office.

“I tried the house, her cell phone, all three of her jobs. The jobs all said they hadn’t seen her in a while now. Said she called in sick and never came back. I don’t know what to think. What do we do?” The squeaky voice of the assistant principal piped up. Jesse could envision her hands flailing about as she talked. He had always liked her. She was short and stout, getting flustered easily.

“I don’t know, I’ve never had to face this before. His file only lists his mother as family. And she’s gone missing? No personnel was told by him or anyone about this. What has he been doing all this time? He ran out of food, for Christ’s sake. He hasn’t asked for help or told anyone. Are we, uh… Is this a child services case, now?” The deeper voice of the principal responded, sounding more uncertain with every word.

Child services, huh? Jesse looked up and time had flown again. The woman looking back at him seemed friendly enough. Her curly black hair held his attention, watching the tight curls bounce and bob with each movement of her head. He slowly realized she had been talking this whole time and was now waiting for him to respond. He blinked, looking just to the right of her eyes when he asked her to repeat herself.

“Where’s your mother, Jesse?” The woman asked softly. Jesse could feel the eyes of several faculty members on him. Jesse opened his mouth to respond, but the reality of what was about to pass his lips halted his voice. He cleared his throat, ignoring his quickening breath.

“Mama died.”

 

 

And now Jesse stood on the meager, rotting porch that belonged to the man he supposed was his father. That’s what child services told him, anyway. They had tracked him down from the name on his birth certificate. The gringo hadn’t said more than 10 words to him, just waving his arm vaguely towards a room in the hallway before resuming watching old television shows with a beer in hand. This was a ritual of his Jesse would come to recognize as the only thing the old man really did. He lived off disability checks and Hungry Man frozen meals. Jesse didn’t know when the meals and beer replenished themselves, but it was like he never ran out.

Jesse didn’t hang around the man; Jesse holed himself up in the room he had been given, only coming out when he left for school or couldn’t hold off eating anymore. The room itself was an incredibly cluttered room full of God knows what. Papers, random bags of things, old outdated technology and garbage littered the room. An old, dusty, ugly, scratchy couch was his only solace, permanently sunken down from years of heavy trash weighing down the springs and cushions. Jesse had cleared it off, making it his hub for his routine of coming home, doing his homework, and staring at the ceiling until he fell asleep. His back protested the couch with the pain only an 80-year-old should feel, but eventually, he could ignore it and press on through the days.

The new high school he was integrated poorly into was fine enough. The teachers seemed uninterested in the newcomer, simply informing him of afterschool tutoring if he needed help catching up to their current curriculum. The school was large and in a big city like Santa Fe, they were probably used to new students moving in all the time. His fellow students were nice enough. Several had tried to talk with him, though Jesse’s tired eyes and fake smile tended to make them leave him alone. He had become a loner without trying.

So when he stood on the porch, staring at the setting sun, the last thing he had expected was someone speaking to him. He nearly jumped out of his skin at the unfamiliar voice, whipping his too-skinny body around to look at the source. On the porch to the left of his own was an older, pretty boy, leaning over the railing with a lit cigarette in his mouth. His slightly frizzy hair was a brown only slightly darker than his tanned skin, cascading in loose wavy locks past his shoulder blades and spilling everywhere they could touch across his shoulders. He looked down his hawkish nose at Jesse with suspicious green eyes, the small crooked smile fading a bit as he repeated himself.

“Hey, you hear me? I asked what you’re doing at old man McCree’s house. You makin’ trouble?” He called out, though his tone didn’t suggest he was angry. In fact, Jesse thought it sounded a little playful. Jesse blinked at the sound of his last name, wondering how this guy knew it until he realized the gringo inside must have been what he was referring to. He soured a bit at knowing he shared anything with the man, but put on his fake smile for the stranger.

“Ah, I live here, actually. This guy’s my pa, or supposed to be I guess. I just moved here a week or so ago. The name’s Jesse McCree.” Jesse surprised himself with how many words he got out of himself. It had been a while since he had said so much at one time.

“Xander Caine,” The boy responded, his smile widening and lazy, showing his teeth slightly. Jesse had never put much thought into looks, but boy was this guy only getting prettier. “Come over yonder and I’ll shake yer hand proper.”

Jesse chuckled a bit at the invitation, gladly escaping his porch for Xander’s own. Xander met him on the steps, shaking his hand firmly as promised. They both sat on the porch steps, their sides almost touching. Xander offered him a cigarette, and Jesse obliged, though the coughing fit on his first inhale had his new friend laughing. Jesse felt embarrassed, but Xander’s arm going across his shoulders once the coughing died down was an instant comfort.

“Well, Jesse,” Xander drawled, “Welcome to Santa Fe. Stick with me and we’ll take care of ya.”

 

 

Xander hadn’t lied. Jesse thrived over the next year with him. He more or less moved in with him after a month or so, and after a year passed the close touches and lingering stares gave way to Jesse’s first real relationship. It was innocent kissing at first, Xander never going farther than Jesse was comfortable with. When that turned into making out, it wasn’t long until Jesse eventually learned Xander’s body in more intimate ways. He worshipped his boyfriend with his hands, then eventually his mouth, and even once obliged Xander’s request to fuck his thighs, which had been filling out along with the rest of him now that he was actually fed regularly.

Jesse was turning 17 soon, just before his senior year would start. Xander drove him to school every morning this past year, but Jesse didn’t know what he did while he sat in his classes for nearly 8 hours a day. Xander had smiled, telling Jesse not to worry about him.

“I dropped out. My career path don’t require a basic education. Don’t worry your pretty little head about it. I take care of you, don’t I baby?” Jesse practically glowed at the casual pet name, melting into his touch on his cheek. “You go on. Remember to take that thing I gave you to Tony. Don’t let anyone see it, okay?”

Ah, right, the packages. Jesse acted as transport for Xander, giving some very large guy named Tony the brown bags that were tossed in his backpack every other morning. He met him behind the school at lunch, passing them over discreetly as requested. He didn’t ask what was in them, and quite frankly, he didn’t care to know.

He did notice that Xander, Tony, and any other guy who hung out around the house had a matching tattoo somewhere on their person. A skull with wings, a chain and a lock attached with “Deadlock Rebels” adorned on the scrolling banners above and below. Xander had brushed off Jesse’s inquiry about it, using his highly effective method of making Jesse melt under his touch, cooing words of adoration to him.

Jesse wasn’t stupid. He was happier pretending to be blissfully unaware. Xander, and by extension Deadlock, took care of him. He was happy, healthy, taken care of, and loved. The men who came by the house ruffled his hair and called him precious when they appeared. Xander would send him off to wait in their bedroom until they were gone, but Jesse knew what was going on. He just didn’t want to admit it.

Deadlock wasn’t some fun group of friends with matching tattoos. Deadlock was the biggest gang in Santa Fe, hell, maybe even in all of New Mexico. As long as they didn’t approach Jesse with any intent besides treating him like Xander’s dumb boyfriend, he could turn a blind eye.

 

 

The bliss ended when the new semester started. Jesse was 17, a senior, and the idea of college was being pushed by every teacher and counselor that he came into contact with. He accepted their information packets but didn’t put much thought into them, cramming them into his backpack with his books and binders.

He hadn’t thought about it again until Xander approached him with them in hand, his expression unreadable. Jesse looked up from his place at their dining table, working on the thick review packet for his history class. It was easy enough; history had always been his forte. Jesse ignored the nervous ball of ice feeling in his gut when Xander held up the pamphlets.

“You thinkin’ about college, huh?” Xander questioned, tone level yet somehow cold. Jesse’s eye darted nervously between the pamphlets and Xander’s stare. His mouth gaped open and closed, no answer he thought of able to escape him. He felt pinned by those emerald eyes.

“Let’s go for a ride, darlin’.”

Jesse hadn’t felt dread like this in a long time, but it felt like a long time coming. The loving touches and kisses had lessened lately. Xander was gone more, and came back frustrated and stressed. Jesse tried to help, but it only resulted in him either being pushed away or relieving his stress with roughness Jesse hadn’t known from him before. Jesse wasn’t exactly complaining, he actually preferred the latter. Being pushed away hurt more than he cared to admit. He wasn’t exactly used to the biting, clawing, and manhandling he was being subjected to lately, but he didn’t hate it either. It only made the now rarer gentle treatment all the more sweeter.

Nothing felt off about Xander opening the passenger door to his beat up little truck for him. That was normal, and Jesse loved the gesture. The door slamming shut beside him got his heart racing, though. Xander climbed into the driver’s seat and cranked the truck, punching the radio off the moment it began its blaring. Jesse blinked at him, awkwardly wringing the seat belt across his chest in his hands.

“Is everything okay?” Jesse whispered after nearly 10 minutes of silence. They had gotten onto a backroad with winding roads at this point. He jumped when Xander’s palm slammed the steering wheel.

“You ungrateful son of a bitch,” He growled out, “You plan to leave me after all I’ve done for you, and you ask if it’s okay?” Jesse gawked, only registering the rev of the engine in the back of his mind.

“W-What? Because of those pamphlets and junk? I didn’t ask for those, my teachers—“

“Don’t fucking lie to me!” Xander roared, whipping his head over to look at Jesse. “First the DEA busts our route down south, then our supplier starts tryin’ to renegotiate with bullshit demands, and now you’re trying to bail on me! I took you in! I took care of you! Your life was shit before I came into the picture!”

Jesse felt hot tears prick the corner of his eyes, taken aback. He gasped as the speeding truck turned hard on one of the road’s many sharp curves, Xander only looking to the road in time to see it. A shaky hand went to his startled heart.

“Xan, baby, p-please,” He gasped out, “I wasn’t gonna leave you, I couldn’t ever do that. You’re my everything, I swear, I swear.” Jesse knew how desperate he sounded, tears rolling down his cheeks. He wasn’t sure he would have really ever said these things without this kind of prompting, but the truck was definitely going much faster than this road intended and he was scared. Xander was barely dodging cars he barreled past on this two lane road, his concentration swinging back to Jesse when he wasn’t whipping the truck around the road, which was becoming more frequent with less care.

“Please slow down, please, let’s stop, let’s talk about—“ Jesse was cut off by a rough jostling of the truck’s frame, followed by the sudden and odd sensation of weightlessness. Before the blackness took him, all he saw was Xander’s face, focused on him the entire time.

 

 

---

 

 

“Where you goin’?” Xander’s drawl made him jump, making his feet freeze in place like it had been a demand to halt. Jesse turned in the bedroom doorway, swallowing down the nervous lump in his throat. The light coming from the hall wasn’t enough to illuminate the dark room entirely. Xan’s form, sitting up against the headboard, was only visible for a short moment when he struck a match from the box on the bedside table, lighting a cigarette in his mouth. The small orange glow was all he could see now.

“School. Like always, Xan. I gotta go back. It’s been 2 weeks. I’ve missed a lot an’ exams are coming up for this semester.” Jesse was surprised at how level his voice sounded, considering how fast his heart was pounding. God, how long had he been awake? Was he watching him get ready the whole time? Could you be stalked by someone you shared a bed with?

The orange dot rose and came towards him, making the smell of chemically enhanced tobacco smoke grow stronger. Jesse managed not to flinch when the gentle hand carded through his hair, undoing his quick work of brushing it earlier. It was getting shaggy.

“You go on. I ain’t takin’ you no more. You wanna go waste your time gettin’ you educated, fine, but I ain’t gonna help you no more in that department. When you come home, you ain’t wastin’ time on that junk. You understand me?” Jesse nodded, frowning despite his restraint. The voice Xander used with him was rarely gentle or kind anymore. Like he was an annoyance for trying to be his own person.

“Do you, um,” Jesse began awkwardly, ignoring the rougher stroking of his hair, “Do you have anything for Tony I’m supposed to take?”

The hand left his hair as Xander stepped away slightly, moving into the yellow light the hallway cast into the room. Jesse held his breath as he was regarded by dulled green eyes, the whites still bloodshot from whatever he had been on when he came home last night.

“Nah. Tony’s out of the picture now.” A barely noticeable glance of those eyes to the pistol on the dresser wasn’t missed by Jesse. He shuddered and nodded, turning quickly to take his leave. He almost made it to the front door before Xander’s voice stopped him again.

“Jess, baby, let me change your bandage first.” Jesse glances to the clock on the wall, noting he was already going to be late if he had to walk to school. Xander was slow when he changed the bandage for him. He was going to be at least an hour late if he let him. A look at his sore arm told him that he should probably give in to the soft beckoning behind him. Dry blood on it again.

He took a steadying breath and turned, allowing Xander to guide him to the bathroom, where all the gauze and such had been laid out to use the last few weeks daily. Jesse winced as the old bandage was taken off, the blood present there making it stick to the wound unpleasantly. The wound was still large, but the doctors had gotten it to close up enough that they were confident he could take care of it at home. It was still going to leave a scar, and judging from the fact it wasn’t closing up more before it started the healing process, it was going to be a big one. One side above the elbow almost to the other.

He almost lost the arm itself, they had told him. Xander had come out with not so much as bruises and scrapes. And he barely looked sorry for it. The bastard had driven them right off the hill on that curve and into the trees out of anger, and Jesse paid for it. He felt trapped for the weeks Xander insisted he stay at home while the arm recovered its ability to feel, to move. The doctors were right about his nerves recovering, the constant tingling turning to pain and soreness like it was supposed to, but the weeks of Xander’s doting and constant attention were not as welcome as it might have been before.

If Jesse had, to be honest, he was almost scared of him now. He hurt them without remorse and he was scared of when he might do it again. Things were getting more and more tense at home. The pistol was always in Xander’s reach, the visitors were never as nice to him anymore, and Xander came back strung out of his mind at night. If Jesse could avoid him and hide, it wouldn’t be so bad, but his attention was a constant demand when Xander was around.

Xander patted his shoulder when he was done, prompting Jesse to shoot up from his seat on the side of the tub and get going. His fingers were sore from chewing his cuticles as Xander had worked painfully slow. He scooped his backpack up from its abandoned place by the door and left before Xander could catch him and coax him back again.

 

 

“Jesse, tutoring hours are over. I need to lock up.” Jesse looked up from his make-up work, brain heavy from the mass intake of information over the course of the day. He needed to pass these exams or he’d fail his classes. He had missed too much and couldn’t make up for some of the work, earning him automatic zeroes. He had no doctor’s note for the two weeks Xander kept him captive.

“Sorry, Mrs. Clyde. Gotta catch up, y’know. I, uh, I can’t do this at home.” Jesse murmured in response, reluctantly packing up. The other students had only stayed for an hour or so before leaving. It was turning 6 pm now. The tutoring hours only went that late for the sake of exam weeks, but no one ever stayed that late any other time.

The teachers switched tutor duty every day, but Jesse’s developing habit of staying until he had to be kicked out was noticed fast. No one thought anything was amiss other than him truly trying to catch up until Friday when tutoring hours were not offered. Jesse had waited outside the normally assigned classroom for a half hour before one of his own teachers found him.

“We don’t offer afterschool tutoring on Fridays, Jesse. Don’t you want to get home and start your weekend?” Mr. Kirschner urged gently, staring down at his student, who was sitting with a locker to his back. Jesse stared at him for a moment before absorbing what he was told.

“I gotta catch up, Sir, exams are coming up and I missed too much. I can’t fail. I gotta get at least a 90 on all my exams or I gotta repeat the classes and I don’t have time for all that. I gotta finish on time, I gotta graduate, I—“ I gotta get out of here! Jesse was surprised that the thought even came to him. That’s what it was all about, wasn’t it? He needed to leave, but without his diploma, he couldn’t move on to college. And something in him needed that. He needed to prove to himself he wasn’t just a gangster’s dumb boy toy.

“Whoa, slow down Jesse. Don’t panic. If you keep it up like they tell me you have been this past week, you can catch up by the end of next week, I’m sure. Are you stressed about graduating because of college? Did you get accepted to your school already?” The teacher squatted next to where he was sitting, and the genuine concern was so foreign to Jesse at this point he almost wanted to cry. Sure, Xander had fed him and showed him affection and all, but did he actually ever care about him?

The mention of college only helped the panic settle in. “I-I haven’t applied anywhere, I haven’t even looked, I don’t even know if I should risk it—“

“Risk? Jesse, college isn’t a risk. It’s the next step. Sure, the classes are harder, but that’s not a bad thing. Bettering your education is important, and you have a lot of potential if you just try.” Jesse’s vigorous head shaking only confused the teacher further. “Tell me what’s bothering you. This is obviously more than you just need to catch up.”

Jesse took a few deep, steadying breaths. He couldn’t tell the truth. Xander’s wrath was not something he wanted to evoke. But if he wanted to get away and prove himself, he needed to go to college. He needed to get accepted before it was too late. But he didn’t know the first thing about doing that. He leaned his head back on the locker behind him, looking over to Mr. Kirschner, who was now sitting down from his previous squat.

“Can you help me?”

 

 

The next Monday, he wasn’t in the tutoring room after school. He was in Mr. Kirschner’s classroom, with all of his other teachers sitting at the pushed-together desks, heads bent over laptops and spread out college applications.

Mr. Kirschner had apparently spread the word to his other teachers that he had a near panic attack and needed guidance that he couldn’t get outside of the school. It surprised Jesse how much his normally apathetic teachers actually took an interest in helping him. He was reviewing a class with one teacher while the others compiled a list of schools for Jesse to look at.

Jesse had almost panicked again when the college in Santa Fe or one anywhere near New Mexico was brought up, simply babbling “I can’t be here, I can’t stay, I have to get away from here.” They calmed him down quickly, now looking at what California had to offer. Jesse had perked up at the thought of going out there for school.

“Okay,” his science teacher breathed out, “I think we’re caught up. I think you’ve got it. Just keep up before exam week and you’ll be fine.” Jesse let out a sigh of relief, packing his binder back into his backpack.

“What about this school in Los Angeles? My cousin’s daughter is going there, I could probably get her help getting you set up out there,” his history teacher spoke up, calling Jesse over to come look at her laptop screen. Jesse’s eyes brightened as she showed him the website.

“There. That’s my choice school. Everywhere else we picked can be backup, but I wanna go here,” Jesse proclaimed confidently. Mr. Kirschner found the application online and printed it out from his classroom printer, putting it on top of the few others they had printed out before. They amended to fill them out the next day, noting it was late already. Jesse seemed unhappy to go but was glad no one had suggested he take them home to complete himself. Just the idea of him even thinking of going to college was enough to spike Xander’s paranoia. He didn’t need him to see actual applications if just the pamphlets could set him off.

 

 

Jesse declined the offer of a ride home, knowing Xander watched for him. He was scared to stir him up. It was dark by the time he was walking up to the porch. Sure enough, a glowing orange dot and the smell of smoke told him Xander was sitting in the battered wicker loveseat in the corner of the porch. He stopped short of opening the door, hearing a low whistle. Xander calling to him. Like a dog.

“C’mere Jess.” Came the demand when Jesse still didn’t move. He shrugged his backpack off in front of the door, leaving it there before walking over to him in the dark. The porch light wasn’t on and it made Jesse nervous that he couldn’t quite see his face.

He heard the patting sound of Xander’s hand against the cushion next to him. Jesse sat down obediently, leaning away from the man. Several months ago, he would have clung to him at any chance. Xander remedied the change in behavior with his favorite method: gripping the hair above the back of his neck and forcing him closer. Jesse had learned not to fight against it anymore.

“You still stayin’ out late, huh? Ain’tcha caught up by now? Ain’t the end of the world if you drop out, baby. Look at me. I’m doin’ us just fine, huh?” Jesse nodded numbly, trying not to grit his teeth.

“My teachers said I’d be caught up by the end of this week if I keep it up. Then I won’t have to stay late anymore. I don’t wanna drop out, Xan. Don’t you want me to know a thing or two?” Jesse forced a smile, unsure if Xander could even see it in the orange glow of his cigarette, which was uncomfortably close to his face now. He squinted against the smoke blown in his face. Xander was quiet now. Never a good sign.

“I’ve had a long day. Been waitin’ a while for you. Why don’t you help me relax?” Jesse nodded, relieved. Okay. Nothing bad happening today. Sating Xander was something he knew how to do. He moved to get up, assuming they’d go into the house. The hand in his hair tightened, tugging him back down hard.

“Here?” Jesse near-whimpered, looking out to the street. The hand released from his hair, shoving him off the loveseat roughly.

“The boy’s’ll be here sometime tonight. Best make quick work ‘less you want an audience. You went and wasted your time at that damn school of yours, so I’d say you don’t got long ‘til they’re here.”

Jesse wasn’t sure he had ever gotten a cock in his mouth faster than just then. He managed to finish him off right as he heard two trucks pulling into their driveway, though, of course, Xander planned on coming on his face. He made him stay kneeled there while the guys walked up the steps, stroking his hair like he was a precious thing. Jesse felt damn humiliated when he was finally released to hide in the bedroom, not allowed to visit the bathroom to clean himself first. He did the best he could with a dirty, discarded shirt, though the tacky feeling stayed behind.

This wouldn’t be the last of this treatment. And Xander wouldn’t be the only one after that. While Jesse kept to his word and no longer stayed late at school after that week, he had managed to get his applications filled and sent off with the help of his teachers. Now it was just a waiting game.

In the meantime, he could feel himself going numb again. Come home, do what (or sometimes who) Xander told him until he was dismissed, try to fall asleep before he was joined in bed. It felt overwhelmingly like when Mama died all over again, but worse. He actually missed his old man’s couch. He had thought about just going back over there, but he knew he’d be found instantly and dragged back kicking and screaming. He had figured out by now that Old Man McCree was more or less ‘retired’ from Deadlock. His home acted as storage. People came in and out and he didn’t care as long as they kept him stocked with Budweiser and frozen meals.

Jesse liked to show his affection physically, but this wasn’t affection anymore. He was being used for pure gratification, for whoever he was passed to now. Xander used him as a bargaining chip half the time, if not simply to keep his underlings happy. He rarely got praised anymore, unless a pat on the cheek as someone sent him off once he was done counted. This wasn’t what he wanted in a relationship. He wanted to be loved, to be held, to feel proud to make someone feel good.

The only thing he could be thankful for is that he only had to use his hands or mouth, something he was considerably skilled at by now. A long time ago, when Jesse had hinted at being willing to give more, Xander had given him a disgusted look. “Anal’s for faggots. Deadlock ain’t faggots.” Jesse had nearly reeled at hearing something so harsh from him then. Now that he knew what Xander really was, it didn’t surprise him anymore.

He was getting out of this.

 

 

---

 

 

Jesse was beyond relieved to return to school after the winter break. Those few weeks had simply been numbly trying to survive and keep Xander pleased (which were basically the same thing at this point). He was exhausted from the amount of service now expected from him by the strangers in their home, and the fear that came with it.

Mr. Kirschner found him as soon as he entered the school foyer.
“I couldn’t contact you over the break, but I got a response from your choice school. Look!” His teacher’s giddiness was contagious. Jesse was excited before he even took the letter out of the already opened envelope.

“Yes! Yesyesyes!” Jesse was yelling as soon as he saw what he was looking for.

Accepted!

He calmed as he looked over the letter closer. He frowned, looking up at Mr. Kirschner.

“They want an awful lot of forms and paperwork. I don’t know the first thing about this junk.” Kirschner shook his head, giving Jesse a firm pat on the shoulder.

“We’re gonna walk you through it all. This is it, Jesse. You wanted to escape, right? Here’s your path. You’re meant for Los Angeles. We’re going to get you there.”

 

Sure enough, his teachers were helpful in getting the final paperwork together and sent off without keeping him too long after school over the next few weeks. Their praise for Jesse managing to pass his classes the past semester was almost overwhelming. He hadn’t heard praise in a long time. He excelled in his final semester, fueled by the hope he could somehow get the hell out of Santa Fe by the time the final exam results were in. His arm had even mostly healed up, the shiny pink scar still sensitive but solid.

In April his history teacher from last semester approached him. “My cousin’s daughter, the one I said goes to the school you’re going to, she said she found some students looking for a roommate for next semester, and she knows of a pizza place near their apartment that always hires a lot of employees over the summer when they lose their student workers. You’re planning on leaving as soon as possible, right?” Jesse had nodded vigorously, that dangerous feeling of hope swelling in his chest again.

The next month flew by as he buckled down for his final exams. He stayed behind every exam day, waiting patiently as his teachers let him take priority and graded his work as soon as he turned it in. And of course, he passed every one. The final day, as soon as he got the final pass, he was overjoyed. That soon deflated as soon as he stepped outside the school doors, declared free from his school duties. He looked around awkwardly, feeling his palms sweat as he realized he hadn’t thought of how to get to Los Angeles. He had told the principal that he would give them an address to send his diploma to, but that was as far as his confidence had gone. His teachers had tearily wished him luck before he had set out the door. And now?

Now he wasn’t so sure.

 

 

Freedom came as unexpected as it was sudden, turns out. He was sitting out on the porch steps, smoking a cigarette as he waited for whoever Xander had sold him off to for the afternoon. Xander himself was God knows where, though it was almost guaranteed he’d come back high. He stood as the van pulled up, breathing out a resigned sigh. To his surprise, the van parked and Mr. Kirschner got out.

“Jesse! We completely forgot to give you this before you left. We raised a little money to help you get started out there. Uh, your address is listed as the house next to this one. I guess that was a typo—“ Kirschner was cut off by Jesse’s frantic scramble towards him, gripping his shirt and startling him.

“Get me out of here! Take me to the bus station. But I can’t be here much longer. This is my only chance!” Jesse gasped out, eyes darting to the street.

“Jesse, what—“ Jesse’s breathing hitched as a car came down the street, setting his adrenaline on high. It wasn’t Xander’s truck, thank God, but Xander was probably about to get a call now that his boyfriend was being seen clinging to a stranger for dear life. Jesse wrenched the unlocked passenger door open to Kirschner’s van and shoved himself in, thankful the teacher caught on to his urgency and ran back around to the driver’s door, getting in as well. The van started just before they were rammed by the car. It was luck or fate or something otherworldly that gave them the fortune of the junker car’s engine dying on impact, while the van was now burning rubber to get away and down the street.

Jesse took in shaky breaths as they drove in silence, feeling tears well up. He was really doing it. He was going to get out. He was going to be free.

“Jesse, what the hell is going on? What are you mixed up in?” Kirschner’s voice cut through the silence after a while, interrupting his inner euphoria.

“Right. Okay. I guess someone deserves the truth, after all, you did for me. It started a few years ago, when my Mama died…”

The ride to the bus station only took 20 minutes, but with Jesse spilling his life thus far, it felt much longer. He recalled the past two years with his shoulders slumped forward, his eyes locked onto the floorboard. It felt odd strange to say it all out loud, especially to remember Xander in a loving light.

“So maybe I should have been more honest with you from the get-go. You’ve been helping some dumb Deadlock whore. I’m sorry for misleading you.”

Kirschner parked, turning to look at Jesse, blinking in bewilderment. “I’m a little amazed you went through all of that and didn’t tell anyone, honestly. We would have helped you get out of it. Deadlock has been a prominent presence in the area, but we try hard to keep our students out of it.” Jesse gives him a half-hearted shrug, rubbing his damaged arm.

“Jesse, I’m not mad you didn’t tell us what was going on. But I want you to take this money,” Kirschner hands him an envelope, smiling encouragingly, “and I want you to go live your best life. The address to that apartment we set you up with those guys looking for a roommate is in there, and so is the pizza place’s. The orientation information is in there, too. We helped you because we had faith in you, Jesse. You’re not stupid. You know that. You’re meant for something better than Santa Fe. We want you to go find it.”

Jesse wasn’t sure he had ever hugged anyone but his Mama so tight in his life. He sniffled a bit into the fabric of Kirschner’s shirt, shaking like a leaf. He didn’t know why. Maybe it was a come down from the adrenaline, maybe it was fear he wouldn’t really make it to Los Angeles and this was all a dream, or maybe he was just truly shocked at how everything had lined up so perfectly. He finally released the teacher, thanking him profusely before getting out of the van and taking the bus depot steps two at a time.

 

 

The envelope had $500 in it. It had been enough to get him situated with his new roommates and keep him fed before he started his new job. He was glad for the headstart; the cost of textbooks and other supplies was unbelievably steep. The pizza job was just enough to pay rent and get him by, but he was happy all the same. He had escaped to Los Angeles. He was going to be his own person, now.

One of his new roommates, Jamison, had peaked his interest in a new subject.

“BDSM isn’t like that Fifty Shades of Gray crap!” He was barking out, in yet another ranting rave, “I told her, I said, you gotta get that garbage out of your mind! There’s so much more to that shit!”

Jesse cocked an eyebrow, looking up from his assignment. “What are you on about now?”

“Well don’t pretend like you don’t know! You’re a kinky shit, ain’tcha?” Jamison let out his hair-raising giggle that Jesse didn’t think he would ever get over. The freshman blushed, sputtering in surprise. He had brought home a few people in the past couple of months, but he wasn’t sure he’d call anything they got into ‘kinky’.

“Aww, don’t blush! I know you’d like all that junk. Come on, you could come to Talon with me some night! I met this right big fellow there, we’re negotiating some stuff right now, but he’s supposed to meet me there soon. Just come see what the fuss is about!”

Jesse reluctantly agreed, though the more he looked up (and jerked off to) about BDSM, the more intrigued he found himself. He eventually joined Jamison on his trip out to Talon, though he was promptly abandoned at the door (“Sorry mate, I got a date with a big man! You’ll bump into something you like, I’m sure!”).

He took a deep breath and continued forward. This was freeing in the oddest way. He was exploring what he wanted to, on his terms. He almost shivered with excitement. This already felt right. And maybe Jamison was right. Maybe he’d bump into something or someone tonight.