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Boyhood

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When the gang picks him up, they call him just a boy, just a kid, how's he gonna pick up a big gun and keep up with them? How's he gonna prove he's a man if he's still knee high to a grasshopper? And Jesse grins from under a homemade binder and a sloppy buzzcut, thirteen and a half years of misfit crammed into cowboy boots and scuff marks who bites back, "just try me." Somehow, they find it impressive enough to keep him.

He joins Deadlock when his age lets them believe his voice just hasn't broke yet, and no one questions why he won't piss in front of the rest of them. They give him a little pistol, just a little too big for his fingers, and a belt of flashbangs, should he get into 'too much trouble'. It's a paltry armoury in comparison to what everyone else gets, but it enough to keep him safe when he scales the sides of vehicles, a monkey seeking a way in whilst the rest of the gang hold the drivers at gun point. Get in, scoop the loot, rough the place up, get out. At dinner, they'd praise him and give him more rice, ruffling his hair with one hand.

When he's fifteen, smoking begins to scratch on his voice - but not enough for Jesse's liking. He's lucky, when they stop a truck in the gorge and unload crates of medical supplies in the glaring sun. Jesse tasks himself with sorting through the boxes unbidden - before someone can throw the task on him - and makes a note of the contents. He strikes lucky in the fourteenth crate, just as the shadows are drawing long fingers across the landscape. The individual boxes are small, but Jesse's heart leaps when he picks one out and inspects it.

PRIMOTESTON DEPOT
FOR OILY INJECTION
TESTOSTERONE ENANTHATE 250mg

He nearly stabs one in his leg then and there, but a member of the gang passes by close enough to make him think again. Heaping as many into a box as he can, he stashes them under his tiny bunk, hands shaking as he shoves them out of sight. No one questions when he steals a first aid pack full of plasters and antiseptic wash, no one sees when he starts burying used needles next to Route 66 as the sun sets and his leg quivers from where he hit a vein on his first attempt. Jesse touches his soft cheeks in the broken mirror of the gang's makeshift bathroom and smiles.

"How d'ya spell your name?," one of the other gang members asks when he's sixteen, when they're squatting round a campfire high in the rocky ridge lining Route 66, bandaging recent wounds and checking on old ones. Jesse is scratching the hair on his leg, fingertips touching on scars from bullets zinging past and flick knives that were older than him

"Uhh," the question is surprising, if he's honest, "J-E-S-S-E. Why?" The other shrugs and goes back to picking a splinter out of the hand, and Jesse touches a hand to the scraggly beard hairs appearing on his chin. No one writes stuff down much here, so names aren't big outside of what to call each other. His fingers graze over the moustache that's slowly growing in on his top lip, sparse strands just about holding it together. Under the light of the moon, he tinkers with a new binder, chest slick with sweat as he sits cross legged and sews. They don't call him Jesse much, mostly it's just 'boy' or 'kid'. He smiles a little.

When he's seventeen - he thinks, he's bad at keeping counting, but his birthday was a few days ago, he's sure - he cracks a stolen shotgun over the head of a sheriff and steals his side arm, relishing the weight in his hand. His injection supply hasn't run out yet, even taking them every two weeks, and he's bronzed in the sun, hair shaggy around his ears and cheeks badly shaven. Fingers nicked and scarred drop the empty shotgun, favouring the stolen revolver which he points at the sheriff's chest, stuffing the man's hat onto his own head.

He's yelled at to come back, so he kicks dirt in the man's face and takes off with a deep laugh. His thigh aches a little and he stumbles a little - and the deputy almost catches him, grabbing at his clothing. Jesse throws a flashbang in the man's face, before disappearing into the gorge's cave system. He is limping by the time he catches up with the gang, but his smile's wide, hat lopsided over his ears. It's a little big, they comment, but no one takes it off him.

"Yer a weird kid, y'know that," one of them tells him, and Jesse only smiles, wide and toothy, homemade earrings jangling in home-pierced ears. His chest swells a little with pride, and he has to turn away to cough, the binder a little tight around him.

Maybe it's this that makes him two slow when the shadow clad soldiers of Blackwatch swarm the gorge one night, weaving through the caves to flush them out. Hat already on his head, he sticks the now friendly revolver in his waistband and tosses his remaining supplies in a bag, tossed over his shoulder as he heads for a mineshaft. Skittering over the rocks, he almost loses his footing as he climbs to the surface - behind him, the sound of gunshots fill the crumbling shaft, and he crawls faster, until he can shove at rotting planks and wiggle out--

Straight into the waiting hands of two soldiers, visors glowing faintly under the starry sky. Jesse wriggles and kicks, but he's shoved into the back of a transport vehicle, hands and feet shackled before he can get a single curse out. They take his revolver, his bag - they search the contents as his eyes widen and he struggles at his bonds. Jesse wheezes and snarls and grows teary eyed as they take the bag away. He quietens when the vehicle starts moving, curling up into a ball.

His interrogation is scheduled for the next morning - or eve? Or night? He has no concept of time inside the windowless jail cell they leave him in. The lights are too bright and he's shackled to the bed, untied only to be dragged silently down the eerily quiet halls to another room, just as bright. Jesse squirms in his seat as he's cuffed to his desk. They leave him his hat. Small consolations.

"That's just a kid, why'd you bring me a kid?" He looks up at the voice, at the man stood cross armed at the door. Jesse straightens and tries to cough the tightness out of his lungs, shifting in his seat as the man continues berating someone just out his line of sight, "what do you expect me to do with a goddamn child, I'm not sending him to jail." The man swears in Spanish, and Jesse feels something like kinship easing the race of his heart, even when the man comes inside and pulls out the chair opposite.

"What're you doing running with a gang?," even with a snarl of an expression and the scars on his jawline, the man's eyes are soft, worried even.

"Makin' a living," Jesse tries to sound big, adult, but his chest is hurting from sleeping in the binder and he has to curl over a bit to ease the pain. The man frowns and leans forward.

"You in pain, kid? Have they done anything to you?" Jesse tries to wave him off with a shake of his head, but the man is undeterred, standing again, almost as if he didn't want to sit in the first place, "bet they didn't even check you for injuries, did they." A soft click, and Jesse's wrists are free, the man hoisting him none too gently to his feet to inspect him, one hand on his shoulder. "Take your shirt off, c'mon."

Jesse looks the other way, gritting his teeth a little, "no." The man raises a brow.

"Now's not the time for fire, kid," he's chiding, even under the gruffness. "Take it off. No one's judging if you've got an embarrassing tattoo. You're hurt."

Jesse wants to complain, wants to shove him off - but instead his hands shake as he pulls at his shirt buttons, shoulders shrinking in as he tries to hide himself from view as he shucks the garment. His binder bites into his skin underneath, and he finds himself tugging at it a little, where it rides up on his stomach.

"Tch, no wonder you're hurting," is all the man replies, without making a move to touch him.

"What d'you mean?," Jesse holds one arm, wrist resting on his chest.

"It's too small," the man stares at him like he's stupid, and in that moment, he feels very much like he is. "How you've been cutting around in that binder is anyone's guess. We didn't find a spare in your belongings either."

"I've only got one."

"That's rough," the man steps back, arms folded again, inspecting him. "Wondered why you were so skinny, figured they weren't feeding you right. How long have you been taking hormones?" Jesse's mouth is too dry to answer. He looks at the floor. "We found them in your bag, if you're wondering. You can keep them if you play your cards right."

"Two years," he manages, and it crosses his mind to ask, "what d'ya mean, I'll get 'em back?"

The man's eyes are soft again, "listen, I've been sent in to present you with two options. Either I ship you to jail on numerous charges that you won't escape 'til you're in a coffin, or you come work for me. With the guys who brought you in." He leans against the desk, where Jesse had previously been cuffed, "I'd recommend the latter, if I were you. Better food, better bed. Best medical care in the country, so no more shooting up in the desert, damn, kid," for a moment, there's a flash of anger on his face, "you could've killed yourself. That's dangerous."

Jesse can't do anything but jump at the idea. When asked his name, he smiles, lopsided and chapped lipped, "Jesse McCree. J-E-S-S-E."

The man escorts him out, and the hand on his shoulder is strangely comforting, like hugging a family member you haven't seen in a while. "Gabriel, but you're to call me 'sir' like everyone else, got it?"

"Got it." He finds his bag in his new room, his injections neat in the medical cabinet in his bathroom. Within days, he has two new, fresh binders delivered to him, left on his bed with a note from Gabriel to never catch him in the old one again. (He burns it, almost gleeful at the chemical flares in his miniature bonfire, held behind the dorm building.) They give him back his revolver when he shows them how good he can shoot, and they give him back real bullets when he proves he is reliable out on a mission. His beard grows, albeit slowly. His confidence does with it.

There comes a day when, after manoeuvres practice, Gabriel pulls him aside, "Dr. Ziegler has been doing some reading and she tells me there's some surgery you might want to get done, so you don't have to wear that binder any more. Since we're pretty well staffed for the foreseeable, would you like that?" Jesse's eyes light up, the roof of his mouth a little dry. Gabriel's lips tug a little into the barest hint of a smile, "I'll take that as a yes."