The first sense to return was smell.
The air of this place smelled fresh, clean, almost floral, a far cry from the sweat-choked miasma that pervaded the warehouse where Jesse usually slept. Even the interior cabin of the abandoned semitruck he had taken to hiding in some nights, nights when he knew other members of the Gang were on the prowl, smelled of old beer cans, discarded cigarette butts, and moth-eaten car-seat stuffing. But this smelled different – cared-for, lived-in. This was the smell of a place where someone cared what others thought when they entered their abode.
Opening his eyes, Jesse stared straight ahead, blinking a few times as he tried to decipher what his blurry vision could not quite yet put together. There were shapes in his vision, swimming shapes, gold and green against a sea of shadowy white. It took him a moment to settle his gaze, but when he finally did, he realized that he was looking at the ceiling of the place he now found himself in. He was lying on his back, it seemed, on a bed or a couch, with the ceiling stretching out over him in an immaculate sweep, the crystal chandelier dangling over his head throwing fractal light over the room in diamond-shaped dashes and pools. A faint, deep rumble overhead caused him to shift his gaze back a bit further, and as he tilted his head, he noticed a familiar face staring down at him, its dull, glowing eyes like four friendly beacons in a tunnel of his weary confusion.
B.O.B. whirred softly as Jesse stared up at him from what was apparently the omnic's lap, moving one of his massive hands to dab lightly at the boy's sweaty forehead with a cool towel, before setting it aside and instead using one of his fingers to gingerly push a lock of sticky hair out of his eyes. "Hey, B.O.B.," Jesse rasped, surprised at the sound coming out of him. He had not noticed before now just how dry his throat felt, but with the amount of sweat that seemed to be coming off of him, he supposed it was no surprise he was down a few litres of moisture waking up.
Sitting up slowly from B.O.B's lap, Jesse quickly buried his head in his hands, feeling the world start to spin full-tilt around him as he tried to hold himself upright. The pain was enormous, now that he was aware of it, with the pulsing of his head beating like a war drum against his clammy palms. His body ached from the night's events, his stomach churning with nausea, his mouth uncomfortably dry and numb. His shirt was soaked through to the skin on his armpits and chest, making it stick to him, chilling him to the bone in the climate-controlled air, and his matted, sweat-drenched hair felt like a swamp against the back of his head. Jumping a bit as he felt someone touch him again, Jesse quickly breathed a sigh of relief as he felt B.O.B. push his hair out of the way again, wiping some of the sweat from the back of his neck with the towel he had previously used to dab at Jesse's forehead.
"Thanks, B.O.B.," Jesse croaked, letting out a deep breath, before drawing his arms out in front of him to examine the inevitable carnage he knew would be there. As he had expected, his left arm had received most of the damage of the night before; fresh bruises were beginning to flower purple against his ashy skin, dotted by the familiar puffy pricks of new track marks, speckling his arm with dried blood. "Last night was a bad one, huh?" he asked, more to himself than to B.O.B., running the calloused thumb of his right hand over the still-sore holes in his arm. Letting out a sigh, he trailed his fingers down his arm, letting them wander over the black-ink skull and chains that took up most of the space on his inner forearm. The tattoo was old by now, at least two years old, but it was still raised and bumpy with the scars of an amateur tattooer. Even so, the image had long healed over as a part of his permanent skinmap, and he traced the eyes of the skull in thought, barely able to remember a time before the Gang had been part of who he was.
Jesse had never used drugs before becoming part of the Deadlock Gang, and the fact that he used them now still managed to surprise him from time to time. He had never seen himself as a drug user, let alone a drug smuggler, and he had had no reason to anticipate that changing when he had first joined forces with Ashe two years ago. When Deadlock had first started, the heists they had taken on had been small, few, and far-between: liquor store robberies, small-town bank holdups, even grand theft auto every once in a while, when time and circumstances suited them. Their operations had only begun to creep into more dangerous territory after Ashe began adding more members to the Gang, older members who had more experience doing more extreme criminal activities – and while at first Jesse had been resistant to any sort of change in their operations, it seemed all his concerns on the matter had gone in one of her pretty ears and out the other.
That was the first time he had begun to wonder, silently, if perhaps he was not as important to the Gang as Ashe had originally led him to believe – but her constant reassurance made it difficult for him to stay suspicious of her for very long. All it took was a few well-placed words and a batting of her big carnelian eyes, and all questions he had on the subject quickly melted away into the ether.
Jesse was torn from his train of thought by a hand reaching suddenly over his arm, and he watched as B.O.B. began to gingerly wash the remaining dried blood from his forearm using the same towel he had used earlier for the boy's forehead and neck. The bruises still remained, but without the blood he had to admit it at least looked a bit less worse for wear. Quickly tucking his arm away again, Jesse looked instead down towards the marble floor, not wanting to look at the track marks anymore. "I didn't…" he started to say, looking up, before quickly stopping himself mid-sentence, biting his lower lip. B.O.B. looked up at him in curiosity, his little green eyes beaming sincerely, but Jesse could not retain eye contact with the omnic, finding it hard to complete the thought. "They didn't, y'know…" he tried again, still unsure how best to word his question. "Before you brought me in last night, they didn't, like… I wasn't… they didn't…"
"They didn't getcha, if that's what you're tryin' to ask," Ashe's sharp voice cut over his fumbling train of thought, and Jesse looked up and across the way with a start, noticing for the first time that there was someone else in the room besides just himself and B.O.B. Sniffling quickly, Jesse sat up a bit straighter on the couch, pushing his sweaty hair hastily out of his eyes as he turned to face Ashe, feeling a warm flush rise to his cheeks at the thought that she had borne witness to his inelegant awakening – or worse, his undoubtedly unflattering passed-out state of only moments before. As he did so, a sudden wave of nausea crashed over him, and he covered his mouth, choking back vomit, immediately regretting reacting so quickly in an effort to cover up his embarrassment.
Ashe had always had an irresistible thrall over him; he had had an enormous crush on her from the first time he laid eyes on her, back when he was fifteen and she was seventeen, but she had made it clear back then that she had no interest in him in any sort of romantic way. She was only interested in him as a friend, she said, a fact which he could understand and respect, if somewhat begrudgingly in the first year or so of their relationship. That part of their friendship had not changed over the years, but unfortunately neither had his lingering attraction towards her, a fact he was certain she was well aware of, as she made full, unabashed use of the fact that she had him wrapped around her little finger at every possible opportunity. Still, he found he could not resent or fault her for it; at the very least it meant he got to spend more time around her, something he would never complain about, no matter the context in which it happened.
Blowing a lock of flyaway towhead hair out of her eyes, Ashe stared at Jesse from across the way, her posture not moving from her rigid, thoughtful poise: her elbows resting against her knees, hands folded patiently in front of her, as if counting down the seconds until he would turn his head and realize she had been sitting there all along. "Couple vultures had their eye on you, but B.O.B. snatched you up first," she told him, seeming to completely blow over his embarrassing show. He hoped that was true, and she would not bring it up again later for some reason or another, but he had learned over the years that that was almost never the case with Ashe. Even if it seemed like she had not caught something important or humiliating, it too often turned out she was only waiting for an opportunity to use it later to her advantage.
"Gotta be more careful when you're doin' that drug stuff," she told him, matter-of-factly, clearly less a show of empathy and more of an I-told-you-so. "B.O.B. won't always be waitin' around to spirit you away."
Jesse's brows furrowed faintly at the indelicate warning, but he said nothing in response, focusing his attention on keeping his breathing steady, trying hard not to throw up what little he could feel churning around in his queasy stomach. Despite his attempts at subtlety, however, it seemed B.O.B. had been trained to spot the signs of nausea, and Jesse quickly found a large bowl being slid into his lap from the side where B.O.B. sat, followed by the massive metal hand of the omnic butler beginning to gently pat his back, clearly trying his best to be sympathetic in the only way the robot knew how.
"Thanks, B.O.B.," Jesse croaked, nodding his appreciation to the robot, before looking down to stare at his wan reflection in the metal bowl. He noted with some despair his splotchy, sickly complexion, and found himself wishing he had had at least a little more time to prepare before Ashe had come to see him looking like this. He hated the fact that he was so weak to the draw of the Gang's drugs; he always felt ashamed whenever Ashe came around to find him high out of his mind, or, like now, coming down from a night of binging, looking like death. She had scolded him for it the first few times she had found him like this, blaming him for letting his guard down, but she had since dropped her verbal objections to his frequent drug use. Nowadays she simply took it as a part of life, accepting that he would most likely get fucked up after every successful import of product – an assumption he hated to think about, but mostly because it was almost completely true.
Breathing a heavy, shaky sigh, Jesse looked up at his surroundings again, taking in the expensive fixtures, the polished table-tops, the breakfront full of priceless baubles sitting beside a massive ebony-wood grandfather clock propped up against the wall. The clock's crystalline face was embedded with gold filigree numerals and mother of pearl phases of the moon, easily the most magnificent clock he had ever seen, but something about it seemed strangely familiar, as if he had seen one like it somewhere before. "What is this place?" he asked, coughing faintly, wiping his nose with the back of his sweaty hand.
Sparing a quick glance around the room, Ashe sucked at her ruby lip, taking in everything Jesse had been looking at, before returning her gaze to the young man again. "My parents' place," she answered, shortly. "Can't you tell from all the useless fancy finery? They sure love makin' sure everyone who sees this place knows they got money to burn." Looking over towards a nearby display, she scoffed, disgusted, her glower burning holes through the affluent fixtures. Then, shaking her head, she turned her attention back to Jesse again, her painted mouth twisted in an offended scowl. "Thankfully they're out of the country on business," she added. "Otherwise B.O.B. could'a gotten us both in a lot of trouble for bringing you here. As it is, he's gonna have to do some serious deep cleaning before they come back, to get everything up out of the upholstery."
"Have I been here before?" Jesse asked, pushing the conversation forward, blowing embarrassedly over her comment about him soiling her parents' expensive furniture. He was certain his profuse sweating had left some gruesome stains in its wake, a fact which was bad enough to think about Ashe having to see and deal with as it was, but the idea that any other fluids might have escaped him at some point during the night was not something he wanted to think about.
"Yep," Ashe answered, turning her head to glance over her shoulder at the extravagantly-decorated room. "Don't you recognize it? You've been here at least a time or two." Turning to look back at him again, she smirked at him, and then at B.O.B., offering the both of them a half-squinting smile, as if trying to pretend she was not sucking on something extremely sour. "B.O.B. can't help himself," she added, a faint, sarcastic disdain in her otherwise matter-of-fact voice. "He's programmed to give aid to those he thinks need it. Meanin' you. He's brought you here before when you were too stoned or plastered to make it back to the warehouse in one piece." Turning her eyes down to Jesse again, she snorted, softly, before giving a short, practical shrug of her slender shoulders. "Guess he figured you were too dumb not to hurt yourself in a state like that," she told him. "Damn near got me in trouble a couple times, bringin' you back here… but me casa is your casa, I guess. Whether I give permission for that fact or not… B.O.B."
B.O.B. whirred worriedly as she hissed his name, but Jesse quickly reached out a hand, putting it on the omnic's knee, letting him know that he appreciated him, even if Ashe was giving him guff. The word 'dumb' had hurt as it had left her lips, but he knew it was not an undeserved observation; he had been the one who had gotten too stoned the night prior to keep track of his own well-being, a decision which, as she had so indelicately pointed out, would probably have panned out terribly for him had it not been for the helpful intervention of B.O.B. That was just part of Ashe's character, he knew – she pulled no punches when it came to letting people know they were doing things she considered ill-advised.
Swinging his legs slowly around the side of the couch, Jesse gave a soft hiss as his bare feet touched the chilly marble floor, tucking his legs back up to the upholstery and looking around quickly to try to locate his boots. A moment later, he found them being gently pushed into his lap by B.O.B.'s large hand, and he looked up at the omnic again, nodding his thanks for what felt like the thousandth time since waking up. "Thanks, B.O.B.," he said, quietly, before bending down and starting to pull his boots back onto his feet, not wanting to address the issue at hand until he was ready to get up and go. Finished putting on his boots, he sighed, resting his elbows on his knees, before glancing over towards the grandfather clock behind Ashe, narrowing his eyes as he tried to read the time indicated by the decorative golden hands. His eyesight was the best in the Gang – the best in all of New Mexico, if his bragging had any truth to it – but the throbbing of his head was making it difficult to solidify anything more than ten feet away in his line of vision, and the hazy light of morning was making everything in the room look like a dull, marshy fog.
"What time is it?" he asked, rubbing at his eyes with the calloused heels of his palms, hoping the action might clear some of the shakiness from his vision.
Tilting the white-gold watch on her wrist into the wan morning light, Ashe paused, checking the time, before turning her sharp carnelian eyes back to Jesse, her gaze cutting through his still-woozy cognizance like a serrated knife. "Almost seven," she told him, shortly. "Think I'm gonna get everybody back to the warehouse by about eight, so we can get down to business by nine."
"Nine AM?" Jesse asked, looking up at her again, only to find that his vision had not improved much from where it had been before rubbing his eyes. "What's goin' on that you need everybody down to business by nine in the morning? Most ain't even had their first cup a' coffee by then." The thought of coffee was apparently enough to remind his body that it was still dehydrated from waking up, and he felt his throat tighten a bit around his last words, causing him to cough again. Silent as always, B.O.B. reached over to the nearby side-table, picking up an unopened bottle of water, before unscrewing the cap with one quick motion and handing it over to Jesse to drink.
"Thanks, B.O.B.," Jesse returned, taking the offered bottle with a grateful nod, before pushing his sweaty hair back from his face and starting to drink the water greedily down. It did not take long for that to backfire on him as well, however, and he found himself choking before the water even had a chance to make it halfway down, his throat cinching up at the sudden cool sensation, forcing the water back up to dribble over his chin as he coughed, unable to stop it.
"Careful you don't drink too quickly," Ashe warned, sarcastically late, causing Jesse to blush even harder than before, unable to even look at her as he coughed agonizingly through the pain. The embarrassment of choking on water in front of Ashe was bad enough, but her commentary just made it all the worse, combined with her earlier implication of his lack of common sense.
"Thanks," he choked back, just as sarcastic, trying hard to cover his humiliation with irony. "Glad you were here to tell me how to drink water." He could feel his eyes watering as he levelled his breathing, forcing himself to swallow hard, before he started to try again tentatively with the water, slower this time, careful not to repeat his last faux pas.
Ashe huffed at his pain, half-amused by his momentary misfortune, before looking away again, seeming to completely ignore his snarky return remark. "Well, now that you're fully awake, we can finally get down to business," she told him, pushing herself spryly to her feet, before starting to walk away from the couch setup, not even bothering to wait for Jesse and B.O.B. as she headed for the door. Shoving the puke-bowl aside into B.O.B.'s hands, Jesse fumbled unsteadily to his feet as well, pausing only a moment to shove down the dizzying sensation of verticality before rushing to catch up with Ashe. No matter how sick he was feeling, he was determined not to disappoint her, and so, pushing his lingering feelings of nausea aside, he lifted his chin, faking a spring in his step as he walked beside her like a large attentive pup, shoving his hands in the pockets of his leather vest as he listened to her talk.
"I was doin' a little bit of digging, little listenin' around," Ashe explained, not even seeming to notice how quickly Jesse had apparently recovered his functional health – either that, he supposed, or she was purposefully ignoring his painfully obvious attempts to disguise his heavy breathing, still struggling to expedite his recovery from his unceremonious awakening and subsequent heroin hangover. "And while I was doing that, I managed to uncover some plans for a shipment of military-grade weaponry goin' down – today. Little covert operation, perfect for a sting. Down on Route 66, near the gorge." Turning to look at Jesse then, Ashe flipped her long hair over her shoulder, smirking as he watched her with eager eyes, clinging onto her every word. "We know that place better'n anyone," she told him. "It's the perfect place to cut off an unsuspecting convoy. Huge bust, bigger than anything this li'l old Gang has ever gotten their mitts on before."
Allowing herself a small pause for effect, Ashe's ruby smile widened, her pearly teeth skating eagerly over her bottom lip as she gave a satisfied little wiggle of her shoulders. "This time tomorrow," she told him, her voice barely over an excited hiss, "we're gonna be rich."
"Sounds big," Jesse agreed, trying his best to sound enthused, but he had to work to keep a bit of wariness from his tone as he said it. For as long as he had been part of the Deadlock Gang, Ashe had always been the one best equipped to find the jobs with the biggest payoff – her flashy upbringing gave her access to more exclusive circles than the rest of the ruffians in the Gang, leading her to a better likelihood to overhear such opportunities. Still, as enthusiastic as Ashe was about this current enterprise, and as much as the circumstances of her social class did help in situations like these, he could not help feeling that there were certain elements about this operation that seemed a bit too good to be true. "Where'd you hear about this operation?" he asked, shifting his hands in his pockets. "Seems like somethin' this big wouldn't fall into just anybody's lap."
"I ain't just anybody, Jesse," Ashe reminded him, raising her slender brows.
"Oh, I know," Jesse answered, quickly, nodding along to show he understood. "Just seems to me like, I dunno… ain't you mighty young for people to just go tellin' you stuff like this? Great big busts like this one… wouldn't they usually trust that kinda stuff to, say… people more like… Silas?"
It was an honest question, and a fair one; for the last year or so, almost all of the Gang's biggest deals and busts had been brought to them by Ashe's left-hand recruit, Silas. That was the way these things worked, as far as Jesse knew: when someone knew something was going down, the first person to be told about it was usually the one they figured had the most ability to do something about it. While he and Ashe were technically the top of the food chain in the Gang, there was something about Silas that criminals responded to as being more notably leader-like, something both he and Ashe, for whatever reason, seemed to lack. Perhaps it was Silas' imposing physique, he figured, or perhaps it was the twenty-plus years he had on both his teenaged superiors – but either way, Jesse had grown used to hearing Silas' name whenever Ashe talked about some new job coming up.
As he watched, the smile on Ashe's face began to fade a bit at his words, but it only took a second for her to pull herself together again, quickly shaking her head and raising a hand to wave off his concerns. "No offense, Jess," she told him, clearly unconcerned whether she offended him or not. "But you don't know much. You're still just a kid, yourself." Pulling a slim silver case from her vest pocket, Ashe cracked it open, sliding out a pristine cigarette, before offering the case over towards Jesse and jerking her chin to indicate for him to take one as well. "Don't forget I'm the one who got you into this life," she added, watching as he slid a cigarette carefully from the case, doing his best not to bend it as he pulled it out. "Pretty sure I know a little bit more about this kinda business than you do."
Tucking his new cigarette in towards his chest, Jesse frowned, watching as Ashe closed the silver case with a snap, before returning it to her pocket and turning to face B.O.B. again. Leaning in towards the omnic, she waited for him to light the end of her cigarette with the little wick stashed inside his robotic thumb, before taking a deep drag and throwing her head back, blowing out the smoke in a long, drawn-out cloud over their heads. Finished lighting Ashe's cigarette, B.O.B. turned to Jesse next, holding out the little flame for him to use as well, his pinprick green eyes peering eagerly at him through the haze of Ashe's smoke. Jesse hesitated at the offer, glancing between his cigarette and the light, before handing the cigarette over for B.O.B. to take, waiting as the robot ignited the end himself before holding it back out for Jesse again, allowing the boy to retrieve the now-lit cigarette from the omnic's almost comically large hand.
"Thanks, B.O.B.," Jesse nodded, bringing the cigarette to his mouth for a drag, before wetting his lips and blowing out smoke, flicking the first film of ashes from the end. Ashe put far more faith and dependence on B.O.B. than Jesse could ever really fathom putting on another person, even an omnic butler – but, as the robot had waited on her hand and foot since she was a little girl, he supposed it made sense that expecting certain things of him had become second nature to her by now.
Taking another long drag of her cigarette, Ashe sighed, clearly bored, before exhaling smoke in a thin stream from her nose and carelessly flicking some embers onto the white-stone driveway of her parents' mansion. "Only me and a couple others know about the sting so far," she continued on as if she had never been interrupted, starting to walk down her parents' drive towards the street at the bottom of the hill. "Haven't really told anyone about it just yet. Just me an' Silas know about it, really. …Well, and now you." Jesse felt a flutter of adulation spark against his chest at her addendum, her last-minute mention of him as being on par with herself and Silas making him feel a bit more bolstered than only moments before. Still, he could not help feeling a certain wariness about the whole situation that not even vague flattery could quell, and he sucked his lip, rubbing the pad of his thumb conflictedly against the butt of his cigarette filter.
He knew full well that nothing he could say about the situation would have any real effect on Ashe; once she made up her mind about something, nothing else anyone said made any difference. Not only that, but he knew Ashe hated being second-guessed on anything she did, and he had already done so much to tick her off this morning – but even so, he felt he had to say something, if only to be able to say he tried. "You sure you know what you're doin'?" he asked, regretting the words almost as soon as they left his mouth. Stopping in her tracks, Ashe paused, frozen, before slowly turning to face him again, her expression poised in that ever-present mask of practiced confidence as she stared at him, daring him to continue.
"I-I'm just sayin', this whole thing… it seems pretty convenient, y'know?" Jesse added, trying hard to keep from fumbling over his words as he rushed to get his thoughts out as inoffensively as possible. "I mean, you, findin' out about this great big bust, right when Deadlock was gettin' off some sorta conflict with the other gangs—"
"Oh come on, Jesse," Ashe snapped over him, cutting him short, no longer even attempting to hide the aggravation in her voice. "What do you want, huh? To play it safe forever? Keep doin' little busts, barely scrapin' by?" Jesse faltered at her sudden change of tone, watching as she flicked a chunk of ashes irately from her cigarette, the still-smouldering bundle sparking orange as it hit the ground, bouncing and unfurling as it scattered out over the asphalt. "This is a big deal for us," she told him, angrily, picking distractedly at the filter with her thumbnail, an anxious habit Jesse could never be sure if she was aware she was doing or not. "I know you know this. I thought this kind of excitement and danger was what you wanted when you left that damn labour farm. If I'd known you were gonna puss out on me at the first sign of trouble I never would've told you about it!"
"That is what I wanted," Jesse argued, feeling suddenly self-conscious. "I just… I don't know if… I mean…"
Looking down to his boots, he frowned, huffing out a sharp breath and flicking ashes from the end of his cigarette. It was a dirty trick for her to play, bringing up his past every time he disagreed with her, but it was hard to argue against the fact that he would never have even been part of the Deadlock Gang if not for her intervention. He had been fifteen when Ashe had found him on the foster-work farm, the place he had called home since aging out of the church-run orphanage at the age of twelve. The New Mexico church had been the only place willing to take in children like two-year-old Jesse – overflow from government-run facilities too full of infants orphaned by the Omnic Crisis to be able to sustain effective functionality – but he had never managed to develop much taste for theology, despite his religious upbringing. The idea of a benevolent, all-knowing entity who preached love and care for the downtrodden seemed fanciful at best, and downright twisted at worse, when even he, a young child, could see how much death and pain the world was subjected to on a daily basis.
Regardless, Ashe had sweet-talked teenaged Jesse at the foster-work farm, convincing him to join the fledgling biker gang she was putting together, and he had agreed with no hesitation, swayed by her feminine charm. He had been her second-in-command back when Deadlock first started, her confidant, her right-hand man – but in reality, he knew that they had just been two kids playing dressup in a game neither of them fully understood. He had been young and naïve back then, and the promise of freedom and life on the open road had been too much for him to pass up. He had trusted Ashe in her vision, put his full faith in her, a decision which had completely defined the next two years of his life: two years of perilous heists, near-death experiences, and waking up from drug-addled nights he could barely remember, feeling sore all over but too afraid to ask where the pain had come from.
"Yeah, that's what I thought," Ashe cut in suddenly, causing Jesse to look up at her again, torn abruptly from his train of thought. "But all of this works out for us, see? That's what you're not gettin'. Me, learnin' about this first – it works out in our favour. This way I get to put whoever I want on the mission, an' nobody can question me about it."
"Are you gonna go on the mission?" Jesse asked, hopefully.
Shaking her head, Ashe took another drag of her cigarette, wetting her lips again before exhaling smoke in a thin, pensive line. "Not this time," she answered, flicking more ashes into the street. "I need to be back at base to make sure nothin' goes wrong. But that's why I want you out in the field, Jesse – I know I can trust you, so I want you to be my eyes and ears." Jesse flushed warm at the vote of confidence, feeling his heart swell faintly in his chest as he bit back an inadvertently goofy smile, reeling at what he knew was the closest thing to a compliment Ashe was likely to give. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he could still feel a nagging sensation telling him that there was something off about the details of this bad-streak-ending mega-bust, but the idea that Ashe was trusting him to be her man on the field for something this important was working devastatingly well to override any lingering feelings of wariness.
"Me?" Jesse asked, making certain he heard her correctly, feeling his heartbeat flutter in his chest. "You… you really want me on this mission?"
Ashe frowned at the question, taken aback at being second-guessed, and Jesse immediately regretted asking, hoping she would not retract the offer because he had been too slow to accept. "Well shit, yeah," she told him, sharply. "You're my ace in the hole. You're the only person I know for sure I can trust not to fuck this whole thing up." Taking another drag of her cigarette, she propped her painted hand impatiently on her hip, her eyes narrowing faintly as she looked him up and down, as if wondering now herself if this choice was really such a good idea. "Why?" she asked, testily, her eyes flashing ruby under the line of her hat as she blew out another thin line of smoke, flicking irritated cinders from her cigarette into the street. "You got some kind of problem with that? Do you not want to go on the mission? 'Cause if you don't—"
"N-no, no!" Jesse returned, quickly, shaking his head, throwing up his hands to show he meant no offense. "I mean— no! It's just that, I mean, I didn't think—"
"This is a big thing for me, Jesse," Ashe cut him off, not even bothering to wait for him to finish fumbling through his response, jabbing towards him with her cigarette and causing him to have to step back to avoid being burned by the end. "For both of us. Real big. That's why you're the first one I've told about it, save for Silas. 'Cause you're my best friend, and you've always been on my side." Taking another drag, she wet her lips, exhaling smoke, before turning her eyes down, flicking ashes from the end onto the asphalt at her feet. "Plus," she added, looking up at him again, "I figured you of all people would wanna be in on this. I see the way your talents keep bein' put to waste out there— and make no doubt about it, you are talented. You won't hear me say that to a lot of people, you know that. Barely anybody, in fact."
"Right, I know," Jesse agreed, feeling the goofy smile of before beginning to creep its way over his face again, unable to hold it back anymore as he started to feel tentatively good about the conversation once more. "I mean— yeah! But no, that's—you don't. Not really. I know that."
"Exactly," Ashe answered, taking another quick, hard drag of her cigarette, before huffing it out in a burst of smoke, gaining momentum. "You never get to do this kinda shit when Silas gets the jobs. That's the reason I asked you. Because you're good. Damn good. And I figured you'd be excited for a chance to show your skills in a real high-stakes mission." Jesse could feel his face starting to ache from smiling so hard at her compliments, and he looked down to his cigarette, noting the long stack of ash that had collected while he had been too distracted to remember to smoke. Flicking the cinders off into the street, he took a quick drag off the filter, coughing a bit as the tip of the cigarette crackled sluggishly to life again, sending ashy smoke rolling down his throat.
"You're the best lookout we got," Ashe told him, not even seeming to notice his awkward fumbling with the cigarette. "And I can't have a mission this big goin' down without our best eyes on the field to spot 'em comin'."
"W-well, yeah, of course," Jesse returned, eagerly, exhaling his smoke in a quick, curt stream, cursing inwardly as he stumbled over his words in his rush to sanction Ashe's decision to include him. "I mean – yeah! I've always wanted to do a high-stakes mission… Silas just never picked me for any of the ones he got, that's all. He said I was too young, that I was just a kid, but— I'll do it this time, for sure. I won't let you down, Ashe."
Chuckling softly at his gusto, Ashe took one last drag of her cigarette, flicking cinders onto the road as she shook her head, amused. "Calm down there, cowboy," she told him, smirking up at him under the brim of her hat, causing him to blush a bit at his own show of enthusiasm. "I trust you. I wouldn't've asked you to do this for me otherwise." Exhaling smoke, she glanced down at her painted nails, inspecting them in the first weak strains of morning light that had started to appear over the upcoming hill. For someone who lived the way she did – the way all of them in the Gang did – she had a certain unflappable vanity to her that Jesse could not quite understand, but which he found he greatly respected her dedication to nonetheless. No matter how rugged and unkempt the rest of the Deadlock Gang appeared, Ashe always remained impeccably groomed, and Jesse found himself feeling suddenly self-conscious about his own undoubtedly grotesque appearance by comparison.
He still wore his sweat-stained shirt and jeans from the night before, and his hair was still dishevelled from sleep, having had no time to find a comb after being woken up so unceremoniously. His current state of filthiness aside, he had seen his own reflection enough times to understand what he was working with: he was a scruffy boy, with a quick, crooked smile, noticeably soft despite the angled cut of his sun-freckled cheeks. His chestnut hair was overlong, in a constant state of cowlicked disarray, falling in unkempt, shaggy curtains around his unshaven face – but at seventeen, he had hardly begun to grow in any facial hair worth shaving, apart from a scruffy patch on his chin that most would hesitate to call a beard, but of which he was unbelievably proud. He was no great looker, a fact Ashe had informed him of on multiple occasions, but even so he knew there was significant improvement to be done from the grimy, unwashed state he currently found himself in, and he found himself wishing he had thought to at least put on some aftershave before following Ashe out the door.
"Y'know, I like you, Jesse," Ashe suddenly spoke up again, returning him abruptly back to the moment. "I'm glad I stole you away from that foster work program when I did. Who knows where you might've ended up if I hadn't? Might've just aged on out, ended up workin' on that farm the rest of your life." Flicking her spent cigarette to the ground, she indicated to B.O.B. with a lazy wave of her hand, continuing to walk as the omnic crushed the dwindling butt beneath his big metal foot behind her. "Nothin' worse in this life than monotony," Ashe sighed, glancing up to look almost wistfully at the last few fading stars still lingering overhead. "Children becomin' their parents, and the cycle just keeps going."
"I guess so," Jesse answered, awkwardly, unsure what else there was to say in response. For someone whose parents had given her so much privilege and leniency growing up, Ashe certainly had a large chip on her shoulder about the idea of turning out anything like them. Then again, he figured, flicking his cigarette to the ground and crushing it under the toe of his boot, he had never had parents to look after him the way she did – no one to nitpick his every move, no one to tell him what kind of man he should grow up to be, no one to be disappointed when he inevitably took a different path than the one they had picked out for him. He supposed he could see a small glimmer of where Ashe's bitterness stemmed from, but it still seemed strange to him, considering the safety and luxury of the mansion they had just walked away from. Even so, he had a different point of view on the matter than Ashe likely had, having never had what she had growing up, and so never having had the opportunity to eventually grow to resent it.
The thought of Ashe's charmed upbringing worked well to carry his distracted feet the rest of the way to the Gang's warehouse hideaway, and he stopped short as he approached the building, surprised by the massive metal cargo loading door looming suddenly skyward before him. He was surprised to realize he had walked the whole distance without even noticing the trek, but he had always had a bad habit of getting so lost in his own thoughts that he often lost track of what was going on around him. Turning his attention to Ashe again, he watched as she made her way over towards the pedestrian side entrance of the Deadlock hideout, rapping her knuckles sharply on the metal door and waiting for the sound of a husky voice on the other side asking the password to let her in.
"Who's out there?" The voice sounded vaguely like Silas, but through the heft of the metal door, it was difficult to tell.
"It's me, you fuckin' rancid raccoon," Ashe hissed through the door, making sure to keep her voice low so as not to alert any potential lookers-on to activity stirring at the Deadlock base. "An' I got McCree. I told him about the mission. Let me in so I can tell everybody else." A pause followed this bold command, and for a second Jesse feared Ashe's smart mouth might have gotten them both in trouble with whoever was on the other side of the door. A moment later, the sound of padlocks and chains being unfurled began to reach their ears through the muffled metal, followed by the sound of a heavy bar being lifted from across the doorframe, before the door itself finally swung open, revealing none other than Silas' dark frame silhouetted against the wan orange light of the warehouse interior.
Silas was a pallid, grizzled man, sunburnt-tan and tattooed from head to toe, with shaved raven-black hair, a whiskery shadow of a beard, and a thick, black moustache, of which he had always been incredibly proud. He was a tall enough man for his purposes, as tall as Jesse, but the way he carried himself beget a much larger presence, his aura of intimidation causing those around him to give him a wide, reverent berth as he passed. His arms were covered in images of ram's horns, flames, and skulls, and the curved spine of a black-ink snake tattoo curled over the edge of his angled jaw, the snake's open, fanged maw etched into the middle of his adam's apple, ensuring that no one who so much as looked at him would be able to miss it.
Silas liked to be intimidating, Jesse knew; he thrived on it, in fact. He had lost one of his arms in a gang war years back, and had wasted no time in replacing it with a deadly, ostentatious multi-tool, complete with a slatted hook he used in lieu of a hand for everyday activities. Along with the hook, Silas had implemented several slightly more lethal appliances for his arm, different weapons he could switch between at will, including both a rocket launcher and a flamethrower – just an excuse for him to utilize excessive firepower, Jesse figured, but with a man like Silas, no one dared speak those sorts of sentiments out loud. His favourite setting, however, was a custom gold-plated six-shooter, cleverly stashed inside the arm's forefront wrist compartment. Jesse had always admired that gun, so much so that he often considered painting his own black six-shooter gold to match, but he had never dared, not wanting Silas to have any reason to think the boy was trying to compete with him in any way.
Silas puffed at a dark-papered cigar as he stared out at the little group from the doorway, the heft of the stogie just wide enough to fit in the slat of his hook-hand. His nearly-black eyes were sharp and watchful as he took the three of them in, a thick film of cigar smoke obscuring his features as he did so, making him look spectral and otherworldly against the bleak haze of dawn. Jesse rubbed quickly his eyes, wondering if his vision had not quite cleared of the bleariness of before, but, looking up again, he realized that the issue was not with his eyes, but rather with the haze of smoke Silas had accumulated around him, making his countenance seem almost demonic as he smiled out at them from the door.
Reaching out with his good hand, Silas quickly ushered the trio inside, rumbling his deep, gravelly chuckle as he clapped Ashe on the back, welcoming her back to base. Once Ashe was through the door, however, he seemed to lose interest in the rest of her travelling party, barely bothering to acknowledge Jesse as the boy followed his friend through the door. He only seemed to pay attention to the boy long enough to reach out and drag him in by the arm, hurrying him along, before pulling the door just as roughly shut behind him, sealing them all inside the smoke-choked hall leading up to the main hideout. "Put that back," Silas ordered, sharply, pointing to the heavy crossbar slat now leaning against the side of the entryway. Jesse turned, looking down at the crossbar, still a bit dazed from being pulled around so unceremoniously, only to flinch as Silas popped him once upside the cheek, getting his attention again.
"You know how to bar a door, don't'cha, boy?" Silas insisted, clearly taking Jesse's hesitation as daftness. Taking a few self-satisfied puffs of his cigar, Silas's good hand suddenly darted out again, quick as a snake strike, taking hold of Jesse's chin, turning his face first one way, then the other, before sliding his calloused thumb roughly over the boy's still-puffy pink lips. "I seen the way you look at her," Silas told him, his voice dark, but with a hint of cruel amusement in it that nearly made Jesse sick to his stomach all over again. "Don't go gettin' any ideas. She don't want you, you know that. You ain't nothin'." Then, finished taunting him, Silas let go of his face again, looking him up and down once, before reaching out to ruffle Jesse's already-messy hair, chuckling to himself as he left it worse than before.
"Don't lollygag now," Silas mocked him, sucking another few puffs of his cigar, before turning to catch up with Ashe again, leaving Jesse and B.O.B. to fend for themselves at the back of the tiny procession.
B.O.B. immediately turned, starting to move to pick up the crossbar, but Jesse quickly stopped him, pressing a hand to his large metal arm, causing B.O.B. to look down in surprise. "I got it," Jesse said, offering the omnic a wan, weary smile, the best he could manage under the circumstances. "Thank you, B.O.B. You rest for a bit now. I can do this one." Moving past B.O.B. to the wall, Jesse bent down, hoisting the hefty bar in both arms, before moving it slowly over to the door and dropping it with a sharp breath back in its holders across the doorframe. Patting B.O.B.'s arm again, Jesse waved for him to come along, before starting to head up the stairs in the direction of the main hideout, already hearing Silas and Ashe's voices speaking loudly from somewhere near the back.
From the sound of things, he could tell they were likely in the area where all the metal shipping crates were stacked into something of a raised stage, the place Ashe liked to grandstand whenever she had something to say and wanted to ensure everyone paid attention to her when she said it. Whatever she and Silas were saying now sounded important, but their exact words were too muddled by the reverberating acoustics of the warehouse to come through clearly to the other side. Picking up his pace, Jesse hurried through the door leading to the warehouse floor, following the sound of Ashe's voice to the back and taking his place in the gathered crowd. He would take his place on the platform with her later, he told himself – he was sure it would not take long for her to notice he was missing from the stage – but right now it was more important for him to simply listen to what she was saying, so as not to interrupt her already-enthusiastic flow.
Even with his excitement still vibrating in his chest from Ashe's pep talk on the way to the warehouse, Jesse found he was having a hard time concentrating on whatever she was telling them now, too distracted by the sight of Silas standing beside her on the stacked crates, puffing away at his dark cigar, every so often turning to conspicuously look the Deadlock leader over. Silas made no effort to hide his lecherous expression as he surveyed Ashe in front of the crowd, and Jesse could feel blood rising to his cheeks, his hand clenching into a fist as his side as he bit back the urge to fight. Silas had always had a thing for Ashe, a fact he made no effort to hide, and while Jesse had no idea if the two of them had ever actually done anything together, he knew what kind of vile things Silas was into, and the idea of him doing any of those things to Ashe was enough to make Jesse wish he had never started thinking about the topic in the first place.
Looking quickly down again, he thinned his lips, working hard to push all semblance of the thought from his mind. He hoped that, if Ashe did have any sort of arrangement with Silas, she would at least have a bit more control over what she allowed him to do to her than Jesse had had. Silas had power and brains, both of which traits Ashe admired, but he was far from good enough for her in Jesse's opinion, and the thought of the middle-aged man running his hook over Ashe's naked body was enough to make his already-queasy stomach turn.
For all his current rank and standing, it was strange to think that Silas had originally been brought on in the Gang as just another hired muscle – but after several successful missions and a few bullets taken bravely for his debutante leader, he had gradually gained much more respect in the Gang, and especially from Ashe, who had begun to volley him up in the ranks after that, almost startlingly fast. During that time, Jesse had begun to notice that Silas only ever seemed to bring his information and news about the Gang to Ashe, but never to him; he had tried to bring this up to Ashe, convinced Silas was making a move to gradually cut him out, but she had assured him that Silas' interactions with her were merely a coincidence, and had no effect at all on how she viewed the Deadlock hierarchy.
That had seemed, to Jesse, like a pretty slim excuse for how close the two had become over the years – not to mention the smug attitude Silas always seemed to take on whenever Jesse was around – but he trusted Ashe implicitly, even when he could see his importance starting to clearly wane in his best friend's eyes. Of course, those had been the better times, before Jesse had been strongarmed by the Gang into doing more and harder drugs; like most of the Gang, save for a few of the better members, Silas knew that the boy was too proud to report back to Ashe whenever one of them caught him at the tail end of a binge and forced him to do whatever they pleased. Not only that, but Silas was a sadist, and he took great pleasure in humiliating Jesse as much as he could, whenever possible. Jesse supposed that was part of the reason he did so many drugs in the first place – trying to erase the memories of the feeling of Silas' hook against his fresh bruises, or the sensation of that gold-plated pistol pressed up against the back of his skull – but he also knew that was why neither Silas nor any of the other members of the Gang seemed to consider him much of an authority figure anymore.
It was difficult to be in charge when one lived in constant fear of their subordinates – and now that the Gang had gotten a taste of just how helpless he could be, he knew, deep down, that there was no hope of ever going back to the status quo of when Deadlock had first begun.
"McCree and Washer will be on lookout at the diner," Ashe announced, causing Jesse to look up at the sound of his name. The sudden distraction was enough to pull him out of his disagreeable train of thought, and he quickly looked over towards Washer, who sneered back at him in return. That was about the reaction he had expected to get from the wild-looking man – Washer had never liked sharing his post as lookout, and even less so with Jesse in particular, but even he had to admit that the kid had the best eyesight in the Gang. "McCree, what are you doin' down there anyway?" Ashe scolded, getting his attention again, causing him to look up as she gestured for him to join her and Silas on the crates. "Come up here. Almost missed you down there, hidin' in the back. You tryin' to blend in with these nasty old men?" Jesse's cheeks flushed with embarrassment at the callout, but he quickly did as he was told, sliding his way through the crowd before hoisting himself up onto the stage with the other two. Slipping his hands into the back pockets of his jeans, he stared out intently over the little congregation, working hard to ignore the feeling of Silas' black eyes boring into him from the other side of the platform.
"Silas will lead the cutoff team in the gorge," Ashe continued, pointing back towards her left-hand man. "Silas, Hong, Hummel, Lucky, you've got the sturdiest bikes, so you're in charge of the hitching gear. McCree's got the best aim so I want him, Cap, Kazinski, and Ford on fuses." Jesse's head jerked up quickly at the unexpected additional assignment, feeling his heart start to beat faster in his ears, and he could barely keep a small, eager grin from spreading across his face as he accepted the pouch full of shock-bombs being handed back to him across the stage. Opening the flap of the bag, he took a quick peek inside at the innocuous-looking silver bulbs, before fastening the bag closed again and sliding it on over his shoulder to rest securely at his hip.
Jesse could feel his cheeks burning with anticipation as he looked up again, watching Ashe continue speaking, waiting impatiently for her to finish so she could tell them that it was finally time to go. "Finch, Dyer, Reznikov, Laghari, y'all are on backup," Ashe continued with her assignments. "Wildling, Green, y'all sweep the tunnels to make sure our mark doesn't already have their own backup stationed in the gorge." From the growing roster, it seemed that nearly every major player in the Gang was being assigned some role in this sting, and Jesse felt the familiar knot of before starting to take shape in his stomach again at the thought of how large and heavily-guarded this shipment had to be to warrant such an impressive strike force. Even so, he knew Ashe had to know what she was doing, and so he quickly pushed the thought away again, resting his hand instead against the bag on his hip to get his spirits high for the mission once more.
"Gretzky, Santis, Buck, Vo, Hardy, Wildcat, you hang back with me," Ashe told them, pointing out over the crowd. "I'm gonna need y'all here at the warehouse for when the shipment comes in. We need to process it fast and see if what's comin' in matches any outstanding requests."
"Should we do a sweep for snipers before the convoy shows up?" Jesse asked, cutting into Ashe's presentation. As second-in-command, it made sense to him that he should have as much say in the preparation as Ashe or Silas did, and even if Ashe had not explicitly asked him for suggestions, he still figured he should make an effort to help her cover all her bases. Ashe stopped short in her tracks as he spoke, before slowly turning to look back at him across the stage, her expression fixed, frozen, and surprisingly cold. Despite her chilly countenance, however, he could not see that he had done anything wrong – if anything, he thought his suggestion was a good one, considering the amount of counterstrike attention she was already putting into the sting. "If they're haulin' that much weaponry—" he began to suggest again, only to this time find himself quickly cut off by Ashe before he could finish speaking.
"Sweeping for snipers would be a good idea," Ashe interrupted, propping her hands on her shapely hips. "Except nobody cuttin' through the gorge for stealth reasons would be stupid enough to use 'em. Besides, they'd have to know the place better'n we do, and we all know that's not happening." Silas smirked, emboldened by the shutdown, taking another self-satisfied puff of his cigar as he stood back, allowing Ashe to berate Jesse in front of the Gang. Recognizing his smug look, Jesse swallowed hard, not allowing his expression to flinch, refusing to give Silas the satisfaction of knowing how much Ashe's insults to his intelligence hurt. "Plus, I've already got guys checkin' the tunnels," Ashe added, holding out a hand in the direction of the referenced gorge. "We're covering all our bases. No need to go makin' everybody even more paranoid over nothing."
"Sorry Ashe," Jesse conceded, taking a step back to give her the spotlight again. "You're right. My mistake."
Ashe nodded, seeming satisfied with this response, before returning her attention to the group at large once more. "Everybody else I didn't mention, you hang back here with me, too," she told them, waving a hand out over the crowd. "You'll be on radio, keepin' in contact with the boys in the gorge. Once the initial sting is complete, you boys on the intercept team will radio in that the job's done. Then the home team will head out to meet you so we can all make sure the weapons make it back to base safely." Folding her arms again, she swept her gaze out over the gathered congregation, searching for any faces who seemed confused by the instructions she had given. Then, turning her attention instead to the man beside her on the stage, she indicated towards him with a nod of her head, satisfied with a job well done. "If there's no other questions, I'll let Silas take it from here," she said, before stepping back to allow Silas to take centre stage.
Silas grinned at the handoff, wasting no time in cycling out his slatted hook for the gold-plated gun and giving the chamber a satisfying spin as he made his way slowly to the front of the platform. Taking another puff of his cigar, he listened gleefully to the familiar, ominous whirring of the revolver, making sure everyone's attention was focused on him before he started to speak. "Now, Ashe went to a lot of trouble to find this mission for us," he told the assembly, very clearly taking great pleasure in the fact that he was important enough to know this. "I can't tell you nothin' solid just yet – Ashe's been workin' mighty close to the vest on this one – but what I can tell you is that our girl's been workin' hard behind the scenes on this. Chances are, if we pull this off right, we'll be one step closer to dealin' properly with at least a couple of our rival gangs."
A murmur went up from the crowd at this, and Jesse glanced around quickly, suddenly anxious, wondering why Ashe had not seen fit to mention this part of the mission information to him. It seemed unlike her to keep something this important to the Gang's wellbeing from him, but if she was keeping most of it from even Silas, then he supposed she was keeping it from everyone, himself included. For what felt like the thousandth time, the knot of uncertainty began to rise again in his chest, but he bit his lip, facing forward again to listen to the rest of what Silas had to say. "Anybody who's been payin' attention knows that we've had some rough times recently, here in Deadlock," Silas continued, tapping ashes from the end of his cigar. "But that's about to change. No more hidin' out in the shadows, tryin' to slip under the radar of the other gangs. The gang with all the weapons is the gang that makes the rules, and once we seize this shipment, we'll be the ones makin' the rules around here."
Taking another few puffs of his dark-papered cigar, Silas lifted his revolver to shoulder height, grinning as the hammer clicked back loudly on the gun, seemingly of its own accord. "Deadlock has paid its dues," he announced. "Two long years of workin' our asses off, recruitin' the best damn talents in the tri-state area, only to watch 'em get poached right out from under us." The statement hung awkwardly in the air as everyone fought to keep from turning their heads, determinedly not looking at the telling spot where a few now-missing members had once taken up space, but Jesse made no such effort, turning to stare at a spot near the front of the crowd where one of his favourite members had once habitually stood. He had been a short man, Jesse remembered, with a loud, booming voice, and though Jesse had never had the nerve to approach him, he had always found his presence comforting, in some odd way. Even from the cautious distance Jesse had always provided him with, he had seemed, to the boy, the antithesis of everything Silas represented – jovial, helpful, pink-faced and wise, like an uncle who had an answer for everything, and whose aura always seemed to warm whatever room he found himself in. Like Silas, this man had also lost an arm in a tragedy at some point in his life, but he had taken to using the subsequent prosthetic as a tool for building, rather than destruction.
Glancing up towards the spot where the man's fat, squat bike had once stood at the end of the now-much more uniform row, Jesse frowned, realizing for the first time that, despite his fond memories, he could not remember the biker's name. It had been something Slavic, that much he knew, but the specifics had been washed away with the ravages of time, lost like so many other precious memories to the benders that had all but ruined his still-developing mind. "Everyone knows we're good," Silas went on after a moment, drawing the room's attention back to him once more, and Jesse's along with it. "That's why everyone keeps tryin' to steal our members. We're the fuckin' best, and everybody knows it. Ashe knows it. That's why she started this Gang in the first place." Ashe did not glance up from inspecting her nails as Silas addressed her, and Jesse wondered if that was her way of keeping control of the situation – that level of nonchalance in the face of such a high-stakes mission was a ballsy power move, and allowing Silas to work as her mouthpiece without her even seeming concerned with monitoring him just made her seem all the more on top of the operation.
"I know it. All of you know it," Silas continued, indicating over the crowd with his now-cocked revolver. "Look around at each other – you're the fuckin' best there is. And we've all worked too damn hard and too damn long on this Gang for us to be seen as nothin' but a steppin'-stool to somethin' better. There is nothing better. We're the best. And after this sting, everybody else is gonna see that, too." Bringing his cigar back to his pallid lips, he took a deep puff of the dark-papered stogie, narrowing his eyes as he looked out over the crowd, preparing to make his final statement. "Now… who's ready to get fucking rich?" he hissed, his face splitting into a toothy, crocodilian grin as he said it, thick grey smoking seeping out from between his teeth as if his words had come from Satan, himself.
A cheer went up from the Gang at these words, the sound of grizzled male mirth enough to cause Jesse to jump a bit at the suddenness, drawn back to reality from a semi-trance he had not even noticed he had begun to slip into. He watched as the crowd around the crates began to disperse, looking up to his compatriots still on the stage in time to see Silas slide a hand around Ashe's slender waist, drawing her in close enough to whisper something low and gruff only inches away from her pretty face. Ashe waved a hand through the air between them, clearing the smell of Silas' cigar, before smirking up at him in turn and responding with something just as low, causing him to grin, seeming satisfied with whatever it was she had told him. Finished with their unsettling conversation then, Silas retrieved his hand from Ashe's waist, puffing away at his cigar as he leapt soundly down from the stack of crates before starting to sidle his way over towards the bikes, and the members mulling excitedly around them.
Spotting his opportunity, Jesse adjusted his sling-bag against his shoulder, before starting to make his way across the stage towards where Ashe now stood, alone. She had begun to turn away from the stage as he approached, preparing to hop down into B.O.B.'s waiting arms, but his hand on her shoulder made her stop halfway, turning to glance back at the unexpected gesture. B.O.B. whirred softly from the floor, lowering his arms, but he did not seem too distressed with the interruption, only watching as Jesse took a deep breath, preparing to ask Ashe whatever it was he had come over with the intent to say. Jesse wanted badly to ask what she and Silas had been talking about, what he had said that had made her smile, but he gritted his teeth, biting back the urge, telling himself to just be professional. He had no right to be jealous of Silas – Ashe was not Jesse's girlfriend, and she probably never would be – but it still made his cheeks burn and stomach turn to see Silas smiling and flirting with her in ways he never could.
"Shouldn't Finch stay back too, in case somethin' goes wrong?" Jesse asked, grasping for something pertinent to say. Glancing over towards the rest of the Gang, he watched as they mulled around their gathered bikes, easily able to pick out the doctor amongst the busy, buzzing crowd. Finch's expression was stern as he listened to two others in his allocated group talk about the upcoming mission, his arms folded across his narrow chest, and Jesse felt a slight boost of confidence as he watched the man, before turning his gaze back to Ashe again, waiting for some sort of credence for the merit of his suggestion.
Jesse liked Finch; he was a soft-spoken man, angular and bespectacled, not at all the type one would usually expect to find mulling about the ranks of a motorcycle gang. Despite his poindexter appearance, Finch was passionate about the bikes, and always seemed more than happy to teach Jesse about their inner workings whenever the boy saw fit to stop around for a chat. Whether the decorated professional had decided to fall in with the biker lifestyle because of a lack of suitable employment, or merely due to a strange, vaguely wild midlife crisis, Jesse supposed he might never know – but even so, he admired the man, not only for his kindness, but also for his numerous achievements outside the Gang. Jesse found, quietly, that he could not help but take some small, selfish satisfaction in the idea that, if even a man as intelligent as Finch could be tempted into this roughshod existence, perhaps there was a glimmer of hope for someone like him as well – some small possibility that even Jesse McCree might be able to achieve something with his life someday, if he ever decided it was time for him to move on from the ranks of the Deadlock Gang.
Ashe looked confused at the proposition, her pretty brow furrowing into a frown. "Why?" she finally asked, tilting her head slightly, as if trying to catch a glimpse of the doctor as well. "I already put him on backup. He works well there, Jesse – he's an old man."
"Yeah, but… he's a doctor," Jesse returned, a bit surprised by her resistance. "Don't you think he should stay here at the warehouse, just in case someone gets hurt during the mission? One less man on the field won't make a difference, but one more doctor back at base is worth a lot."
Ashe hesitated at the argument, staring at him for a long moment, before squinting her eyes, as if trying to decide whether he was being serious or not. "Finch has a doctorate in physics, Jesse," she finally told him, speaking again as if to a slow child. "He wouldn't be helpin' anybody stayin' back here. He's better off where he is. Everyone is. I put everyone where they are for a reason."
Jesse swallowed at the shutdown, fidgeting at the material of his jeans as he tried to think of something clever to say, anything that would keep her from walking away on the final note of thinking him a witless fool. "So, who… who is it, then?" he asked, anxiously, scratching absentmindedly at the back of his ear as he struggled to keep the conversation going. His sweat-matted hair had managed to dry out while Ashe and Silas had been talking, and his scalp now itched uncomfortably, but he had been trying hard to ignore the sensation, telling himself that he would reward himself with a nice hose shower once the mission was over. Showering was a dangerous proposition in the Gang, but he knew he could not go another day without scrubbing the aftermath of a week's worth of benders from his body – he already felt like something that had crawled up from the recesses of a swamp, and letting it go another few days would only make that worse.
"The convoy," he clarified, tilting his head a bit as he continued to scratch, only half-aware that he was doing anything with his hands. He had the sensation that the itching of his scalp was only half the reason for his anxious itching and fidgeting, but the other reason was one he wanted to keep from thinking about for as long as he could trick himself into refusing to acknowledge it. He had been awake for hours now with no stimulant to his system, and his body was beginning to object, but he forced himself to ignore the sensation, focusing instead on the itching of his scalp as the reason for his nervous reaction. "Silas says you're keeping it close to the chest, but I figure it couldn't hurt to give me at least a few more details, if you have 'em," he added, frankly. "Did your contact tell you who it was who would be comin' through the gorge? 'Cause if they did, that seems like important informa—"
"What makes you think I'd keep that kind of information from you if I had it?" Ashe snapped, turning her cutting burgundy eyes up to look at him from under the crisp brim of her hat. Her long hair bobbed irately over her shoulder as she jerked her attention up to him, and he bit his lip, unable to help being distracted by the thought of how soft it had to be. He had had fantasies about Ashe's hair before, thoughts of running his fingers through its soft, well-maintained locks while he kissed her against one of her parents' fancy chairs, getting her ruby lipstick all over his scruffy face – but he quickly shook the thought from his head again, reminding himself that she had no interest in him, returning instead to the present and her irritated scowl. "I told you everything I know, Jesse," Ashe assured him, seeming insulted that he would insinuate otherwise. "Even more than I told Silas. You heard him say it himself – I kept some things from him. But not you. You know everything."
"I didn't know about the thing with the rival gangs," Jesse pointed out, forcing himself to stop scratching, shoving his hand in his pocket to keep the temptation at bay. "That was something Silas knew that I didn't. I thought you told me before that you were workin' somethin' out with that. That they weren't really interested in us right now. That we were under their radar for the time being."
"The rival gangs thing is just a thought," Ashe returned, indifferently, her gaze drifting as she said it, seeming oddly distracted. "They haven't been causin' us trouble, which is what has me worried. Peace and quiet always makes me nervous. You know that better than anyone." Pausing a moment, she sucked her lip, causing Jesse's gaze to flick to the plush, polished surface as she chewed idly at it, not even seeming to notice how tempting it was to the young man in front of her. "You know they've always been a problem for us, and they've always been better equipped than we were," she continued after a moment, bringing him back to reality, a bit embarrassed at having been so easily distracted again. "When this opportunity came along, I figured it was my best bet to get everybody what they wanted."
Staring over Jesse's shoulder another moment, Ashe pondered this comment, seeming deep in thought, before suddenly realizing something and turning her attention quickly back to his face. "I mean – our best bet," she corrected herself. "The Gang. You know what I meant, of course."
"Yeah," Jesse agreed, a bit more unsettled than he might have hoped. "Of course."
Ashe set her lips at the response, staring up into his face for a moment, as if trying to decide whether he truly believed her or not. Then, letting out a short 'hmph' of breath, she reached out instead with a friendly hand, patting him on the arm, causing him to look down at the intimate but strangely awkward gesture. "Good luck out there, Jesse," she told him, giving an assuring bob of her head. "You're gonna do great."
"Thanks," Jesse returned, just as stiffly, unable to help being a bit disappointed at the woodenness of the exchange. He had hoped she might have something encouraging to say to him, something inspiring, something to indicate that she thought of him as slightly more important or special than any other member of the Deadlock Gang – but it seemed she had something else on her mind that was weighing too heavily to adjust for that, distracting her from expressing any such thoughts, if she had them. Turning away from Ashe, Jesse started to make his way across to the other side of the stacked-crate stage, adjusting the sling-bag against his hip and wondering if anyone had thought to put on a pot of the bitter black coffee the Gang had stockpiled from the army-rations transport they had overturned a few months back. He could feel his stomach grumble and twist at the thought of something to put in it, and he realized with a bit of concern that he had still not eaten anything since waking up that morning.
"Jesse—wait, just… hold on a second."
The unexpected sound of Ashe's voice calling him back caused Jesse to stop in his tracks, turning to watch her start to move across the crates in his direction. It was unlike Ashe to ask for a follow-up – she was generally punctual on the first go with most things, and in the event that she ever did manage to forget something, she usually preferred to pretend it never existed than admit she had made a mistake. Reaching him on the stage, Ashe lifted her hands, bringing them to rest on his sturdy shoulders, before taking a deep breath and holding it in, her angled cheeks puffing out for a split second as her brows furrowed in stony concentration.
She looked, to Jesse, as if she were trying to swallow something the size of a horseshoe – and, had he not known her better, he might have guessed she was fighting her conscience, trying to decide whether or not to tell him something she had been holding back on up to that point. Fortunately for him, he did know her better, and he knew well enough that she never held anything back for anyone's sake. If she had something to say, she would always come out and say it, regardless of who it might offend. The thought that she might be biting her tongue on something important, especially right before such an enormous bust, was ridiculous at best, and he felt immediately guilty for assuming she might be holding out on him in some way.
It seemed his suspicions about her had been right, as, barely a moment later, she exhaled her breath in a long, tired sigh, before letting go of his shoulders to clap him on the arm again, the motion noticeably stiffer and more awkward this time. Jesse glanced down at his arm, and then up again, wondering if he had missed something subliminal in her gesture, but she only smiled back at him, her smile oddly strained and wan, as if she could hardly convince herself to finish it. "I just want you to know… I wanted you on this job 'cause you're the best," Ashe told him, looking him in the eye, sincerity trained in her every feature. "You're better than all these clowns, every last one of 'em. And I know I can trust you to do this right. You're the best damn lookout in all of New Mexico – hell, probably the whole world, far as I know. And—"
Reaching out again, she took hold of his leather-clad shoulders once more, her grip tight, forcing him to look down at her in surprise. "Hey," she said, sharply. "Listen to me. You're my best friend, alright? You know that, right? You're the best friend I ever had." Jesse felt a soft warmth start to rise to his cheeks at these words, but he kept silent, retaining eye contact, not daring to respond or barely even breathe until she was finished speaking. Ashe was not a sentimental person – she had been raised with the high-society idealism of lifting one's chin and never letting her persecutor see her cry – so the few and far-between moments he got where she spoke to him like this were the closest he supposed he might ever get to her expressing something akin to affection. He was not about to spoil a moment so rare by opening his big mouth and ruining it, but he could still not help staring at her like a lovelorn puppy as she spoke, something he was sure she took notice of, though she had grown excellent at pretending to ignore it.
"I've never had anybody who cared about me like you do," Ashe continued, staring up into his big brown eyes, making sure he knew she was talking to him, and him alone. "And you know I care about you too. You know that, right? I wouldn't put you on a mission like this if I didn't think you'd be comin' back safe and sound." Her gaze was steady as she said this, her manner assured, but despite her best efforts, Jesse could still detect a small, hesitant waver to her voice that made the uncertainty he had expressed earlier that morning start to come forward again, despite his infatuated semi-trance. The fact that this worry came up as she told him how important he was to her did little to soothe his preexisting doubts, and he frowned, chewing the inside of his lip, wishing desperately he had a cigarette to chew on instead.
His mind went immediately to the single, unsmoked cigar in his vest pocket, wondering if he could manage to slip it out and chew on it so he did not ravage his lip, but his train of thought was pulled away again by Ashe taking her hands from his arms, only for her to instead move one hand to rest intimately on his face. Cupping her half-gloved palm against the edge of his jaw, she stared up at him with half-squinted eyes, as if trying one last time to memorize his face before he left to go on the dangerous mission. It was strange, he thought, the way she treated him – knowing exactly how to keep him in love with her like this – but he found he could hardly mind it as he felt the soft brush of her pristine fingers against the rough, freckled scruff of his cheek. It was a tender moment, one he wished could last forever, but one he knew would likely be over soon, and would probably never happen again.
Just as he suspected, the moment was cut short barely an instant later as Ashe pulled her hand away from his face, only to instead use it to give him a quick, genial pat on the cheek. The gesture was a bit harder than he might have anticipated, more of a soft slap than a solid pat, but from Ashe, affection often came at a price, and he figured this was a small one to pay. "You be careful out there, you got me?" Ashe told him, her love-tap shaking him back to reality, whether he wanted to return or not. "Don't do nothin' stupid, okay? You're gonna do great. I know you. You got this, Jesse McCree." Then, leaning forward on the toes of her boots, she pressed a soft, lipsticked kiss to the side of his face, making any lingering doubts he might have had wash away quickly as he felt his cheeks and ears burn bright with the unexpected gesture.
Smirking up at him, Ashe chuckled softly at his mute, dumbfounded expression, before turning away to begin making her way across the stage to where B.O.B. still stood, waiting to help her down. The sounds of the warehouse around him were muffled in Jesse's ears as he watched her go, starting to raise a hand to his cheek, before letting it fall back to his side again, not daring to wipe her lip-mark away. He could feel blood rushing through him, warming him to every extremity, but he found he could barely move as he watched Ashe disappear over the edge of the stage, his expression frozen in a wistful half-smirk at the cheek of the Deadlock leader's show of affection. He knew how ridiculous he had to look, standing there staring after her like a lovestruck pup, but he found he could hardly care, not even bothering to look up as he suddenly found himself being gripped unceremoniously by the arm again, turned by a gruff hand to face someone he had not seen climbing up on the crates to speak to him.
"Take this," Washer insisted, jerking a plastic baggie against the boy's chest. "And wipe that lipstick off your face. You look like an underage john."
Jesse fumbled with the baggie, nearly dropping it as he accepted it from Washer's ruddy grasp, before looking up at the man again, blinking a few times in an effort to pretend he had not just been a thousand miles away. "Y… you think I'm gonna have to shoot somebody?" he asked, disconcerted at the possibility. He had hoped they could run the interception with minimal collateral damage – with the amount of men they had working to clear the tunnels and cripple the vehicle, it seemed unlikely that anyone in the convoy would be reckless enough to pull a weapon on the Gang. Still, he knew better than to express such hopeful thoughts out loud, as he was sure Washer was more knowledgeable about these things than an optimistic kid like him.
"Can't rule out the possibility," Washer answered, matter-of-factly, turning his head to spit off the crates and onto the dusty ground. "Even just for lookout, ain't no secret your eyes are better when you're pumped full a' that shit. Not to mention boss's got you on fuses. Gonna need your best aim for that." Taking a drag of his lit cigarette, he pushed up the back of his well-worn hat, scratching idly at his wild hair as he sniffed, staring intently at the ground. "Ain't never seen nobody hit a target like when you do that… thing, you do," he added, mumbling. "And everybody knows you can only do that high as hell. So… go 'head then. Ain't got time to stand around talkin'." Turning his gaze to the far wall of the warehouse, he squinted his yellowed eyes at a dirty-faced clock mounted above the door Jesse knew led to the Gang's recreation room.
"Almost nine AM as it is," Washer added, idly flicking ashes from the bent end of his cigarette. "Convoy's s'posed to be comin' round at eleven. Gotta get out to the diner before then, make sure we spot 'em comin'."
"When did Ashe say the convoy was comin' at eleven?" Jesse asked, tapping the baggie against his palm, making sure the powder had collected towards the bottom before attempting to open it at the top.
"Right at the start," Washer returned, turning to watch now as Jesse began to tap white powder onto his curled index finger, preparing to snort it. "While you were off doin' whatever you were doin'. Always off lollygaggin' the way you do— ain't no surprise Silas is gunnin' for second-in-command."
"I wasn't—lollygaggin'," Jesse retorted, blinking a few times at the sharp sensation, before going back in for another round. "Silas left me n' B.O.B. to bar the door. I had to do it, otherwise it would've been left unlocked. I didn't want Ashe to get mad at me for leavin' it – what else was I s'posed to do?"
"Couldn't'a asked the robot to do it?" Washer frowned, his voice deadpan at the obvious solution.
Finishing the last trace of content from the bag, Jesse inhaled deeply, choosing not to answer, before closing his eyes and letting out his breath again in a short, sharp huff. Then, holding his hands out to his sides, he began to shake them out, ridding himself of any lingering anxiety, before starting to bounce energetically on the balls of his feet, mentally preparing himself for the mission ahead. "You got this, Jesse," he repeated Ashe's sentiment, barely loud enough for Washer to hear. "You're gonna do great. Just don't do nothin' stupid. I know you. You got this. You're gonna do great." Having finished his mental preparation, he opened his eyes again, looking up at Washer once more, only to find that the older man had screwed up his face as he stared at the boy, a stack of ash collecting at the end of his cigarette as he held it at chest level, half-forgotten in his disdain.
"You are one weird fuckin' kid," Washer told him, frankly, shaking his head. Then, licking his thumb, he reached across to Jesse's face, wiping the lipstick mark from his cheek, causing Jesse to flinch, too late to stop the older man from rubbing away his good-luck charm. Satisfied with his work, Washer grunted, taking another drag of his cigarette, before flicking the ashes in Jesse's direction, making him have to step back to avoid being singed. "See you at the lookout point," he told the boy, his voice flat. "I got a couple more a' those things in case that one wears off before the convoy comes through." Seeming to notice something then, he glanced down, before scoffing loudly, making no effort to hide his disgust. "For fuck's sake, kid," he said, looking up at Jesse again. "Fix that shit, will ya? Fuckin' teenagers. One little kiss on the cheek from a pretty girl and you're fixin' to wreck the Titanic. Christ."
Jesse looked down quickly to see what he was talking about, before rushing to pull the sling-bag over the front of his jeans, blushing bright red at the unexpected reaction he had not realized he had had to Ashe's kiss goodbye. "I-I didn't even notice," he admitted, mortified. "It wasn't intentional. I swear."
"Just fix it, will ya?" Washer huffed, taking another drag on his nearly-spent cigarette. "Ain't about to sit around on lookout with a kid wavin' half-mast in my face. Go take it to the outhouse and rub it out or somethin'. Ain't nobody wants to see that shit." Flicking out his tongue to wet his lips, he wrinkled his nose, exhaling an agitated stream of smoke, before tossing his cigarette to the ground and grinding it out with the toe of his worn leather cowboy boot. Then, snorting, he looked up at Jesse again, cutting his stormy eyes at the boy from under the brim of his weathered hat. "Just try not to make me wait too long this time before comin' out," he told him, letting out a long, stern breath as he said it. "I know you ain't got no concept a' time, but… this is important. So don't fuck around. Just do what you gotta do, then… come meet me at the diner. We got us a job to do. You got it?"
"Got it," Jesse answered, quietly, clutching the strap of the shock-bomb satchel to his chest.