Roads Taken

XX

Some stared like zombies. Some, like corpses, lay prone against their tables. Even the ones who were looking right at him weren't necessarily paying attention. He knew that from experience.

He looked back to the blackboard and began to write out another example formula, dwindling chunk of chalk in hand, but he wondered why he bothered. A few of them followed along; a few could even be called exceptional students, but even the exceptional ones were prone to zoning out during class and coming through on the homework and tests instead. Maybe he was being too hard on them, though. Maybe he just wasn't cut out for teaching.

"Yo, Mr. White," came a voice from the back.

Walter realized he had paused in the middle of writing his formula. He looked back at his students to find the source of the voice. There he was. In his usual seat, out of the way: Pinkman. It was surprising he had even spoken up without being called on to answer a question. "Yes, Jesse?" he asked, a little tiredly. "What is it?"

"Just tryin' to wake you up, Mr. White."

The class let out a collective titter of amusement before gradually slipping back into a sea of vapid faces. A few of his good students, who always sat at the front, continued to pay attention, but Walter felt like his grip on the class's collective attention was even more tenuous than usual today. Which was saying a lot. Maybe it was because it was such a hot day, or maybe it was just something about the subject matter. Today had been a little lecture-heavy, at least so far.

"Okay," he said. "So we're getting an idea of how these elements aren't as simple as they seem, right? Over and over, we find examples of how context changes everything. Different bonds, different states, different environments, all play a part. An element may have certain properties on its own, but combine it with another element and you have something completely new. Add a neutron and make an isotope and you might end up with something radioactive. Take different allotropes of a chemical element, where the atoms are bonded in different configurations, and you see that they behave completely differently. Diamonds and graphite, for instance. Nobody wants a graphite wedding ring, do they?"

Walter knew the question was a bit lame even before he asked it, and sure enough, his class responded with a sea of blank looks, although one or two students threw out indifferent yawns for variety's sake. Questions were not enough to engage them. He needed a hands-on demonstration as a break from all the talking he had been doing. The best way to learn chemistry was by seeing and doing, after all.

"All of these elements can play a variety of roles. Sometimes they can be useful to us, even essential, and sometimes they can be dangerous. Hydrogen, the most abundant chemical element, is a necessary part of life – water being an obvious example. But hydrogen can displace oxygen in an enclosed environment and cause asphyxiation. Hydrogen flame is almost impossible to see with the naked eye, and it can catch you by surprise and burn you. And, of course, if enough of it collects in an enclosed space, mixed with air, hydrogen can easily ignite and cause an explosion."

"You mean like with the Hindenburg?" offered one student.

"That's correct. And hydrogen is just one example. Take sodium as another."

Walter leaned down beneath his demonstration table and began to take out a few supplies he had prepared earlier. He had been expecting to do this demonstration tomorrow, but there was still enough time left on the clock to make it worth ending the lecture with a bang. As he stood back up, he noticed several of the students perking up, sensing the possibility of something cool about to happen – for a chemistry class, anyway. Walter smiled at their sudden interest. Even Jesse, who was normally kicking back in his little corner of the classroom when he bothered showing up at all, seemed to be paying some attention.

"Sodium is an essential part of the human body's self-regulation," said Walter, "and one familiar place we can find it is combined with chlorine to make our everyday table salt, which is an ionic compound we chemists like to refer to as sodium chloride."

Walter laid the supplies haphazardly on the table so he could turn back to the blackboard and write the letters N,A,C, and L. Then, he turned back and positioned the plastic shield so that it blocked the front of the water tray from his audience. He filled the tray with an already prepared thermos of water and donned a pair of safety goggles and gloves before taking a small block of sodium from its container and holding it up to show the class.

"Take sodium in its raw form, however," he said, "and – just like hydrogen – it can be quite explosive under the right circumstances. Like so many other elements, it wears different masks, different faces, and behaves differently in different contexts. Combine it with chlorine – again, a potentially dangerous element – and you get a safe substance for the family dinner table. Take away what makes it safe and stable, isolate it and leave it on its own, and, well – look out!"

Giving in to an urge for the dramatic, Walter stepped back and actually threw the sodium into the tray of water. A loud bang thundered through the room as a cloud of white vapor rose up. The plastic shielding, which had been near the edge of the table, flew off the table and fell to the floor with a clatter. A few claps and whistles rose up from around the class.

"That was dope," said Jesse.

Walter nodded. It was unusual to get a reaction from Jesse. Dope, indeed.

"Okay," he said as he began to clean things up, "I guess my point is that you start out with these elements, these building blocks, and you discover you can do all kinds of amazing things with them. Chemistry is all about matter and the changes it undergoes, after all. In the past, alchemists were obsessed with turning various base metals into gold. Not only that, but they wanted to find an elixir that could grant immortality to its users.

"The way they approached it was not scientific, and there was a lot of philosophy and spirituality involved- when we look at it now, it seems almost magical. But in a lot of ways, alchemy paved the way for modern chemistry. And, you know, I don't think modern chemistry is any less magical, really. When you think about it, chemists are modern magicians. Beyond the formulas, beyond the methodology and the observation and experimentation, there's something magical in the way that we can change almost anything in chemistry. All you have to do is know the right formula, the right ingredients, the right combinations.

"Human beings are no different – we're just collections of elements, after all. We're fragile, just as easily changed as a piece of sodium in the right circumstances. We're a part of our environment, and we react to it like anything else. And that's why I think chemistry is useful not only to learn about the world around us, but to learn about ourselves."

The bell rang just as Walter finished his little lecture. Maybe he had been getting a little overly dramatic, but the demonstration with the sodium had stirred up his passion for a moment. It was among the most basic demonstrations in a chemistry class, but it was effective. An easy bang for your buck.

His students were getting up to leave, but Walter realized that he had not yet given out their graded quizzes from last week. "Hold on," he said, "let me hand out your quizzes first."

The students groaned and sat back down as Walter, already finished cleaning up the sodium demonstration, grabbed a stack of papers he had put on a back table. He raced among the rows of students, handing out each quiz after checking the name on the top. Jesse looked like he was about to leave anyway. "Jesse, hold on - I'd like to speak to you after class."

Jesse rolled his eyes and returned to his seat. Walter knew there was no quiz for him, as Jesse hadn't even shown up that day, and – despite being made aware of the quiz – did not ask for a retake. Which was basically what Walter wanted to talk to him about.

The rest of the students got their quizzes and filed out of the classroom until, finally, only he and his troublesome student were left. Walter went back behind his demonstration table and sat in his chair, motioning for Jesse to come up and join him. After a few more eye rolls for good measure, Jesse finally got up.

"What's the problem, Mr. White?"

"Well, the quiz, for one thing."

"Right," said Jesse as he pulled a chair forward and sat on the opposite side of the table. "I wasn't there."

"Why weren't you there?"

"I dunno, I had stuff to do. What's it matter?"

"You haven't bothered to retake it, Jesse, and your grade for this semester is not looking good. I'm not interested in failing students just to be mean, but I can't help you if you don't help yourself. I don't understand why you don't apply yourself – you know the counselor would be more than happy to talk to you if you have any problems."

Walter had mentioned the school counselor to Jesse before, and this wasn't the first time he had talked to Jesse about his problems. To be fair, Jesse wasn't the worst student he had ever had, by a long shot. What was so maddening to Walter was the wasted potential. He had dealt with kids before who were violent, disturbed. Maybe they were from broken families, maybe they had drawn the short end of the genetic stick – Walter didn't know. But he knew they were beyond help. That wasn't the case with Jesse.

"I'm not talking to a counselor," said Jesse. "I dunno why you care. It's a stupid quiz."

"You're not listening to me, Jesse. Why do you take such a flippant attitude towards your education? I don't understand why – it's – look, Jesse, I see potential in you. You're not stupid, you know. I've seen you answer questions sometimes, I've seen you talk to the other students in group projects, and you could do just fine if you applied yourself."

"Um, thanks."

"What do you think you're going to achieve by being a bum? Is it just a 'cool' thing?"

"Cool thing?" asked Jesse, arching an eyebrow. "What?"

"Being cool, I mean. Are you just trying to be cool? As if not caring about anything is going to make you popular?"

Jesse let out a snort of laughter. "Jesus, Mr. White."

"What is it, then?"

"Look, I dunno, I just don't care, okay?"

"You're going to care eventually. You don't show up to class half the time, you don't make any effort – what do you think you're going to end up doing in the future? How do you think you're going to get into a good college?"

"Who cares about college."

"You can't do anything nowadays without a college degree, Jesse."

"Christ, you sound like my dad or something."

Hearing Jesse mention his father reminded Walter of a parent-teacher conference he had shared with the boy's parents. Although he didn't remember the details, they did seem concerned about the way things were going with their son. He felt sorry for them. It had to be tough, trying to raise a son like that.

"Yes," he said, "I'm sure your parents are thrilled about your attitude. I've seen kids like you before, Jesse. Willing to throw your future away when you could do so much better. And I've seen you leaving school with a couple of those friends of yours – future drug dealers, from the looks of it."

Jesse's eyes bugged out of his head. Walter knew he had probably stepped over the line; an vague image of his father floated up from memory, along with similar words his father had spoken upon seeing kids whose appearance he didn't like. Walter remembered thinking it was overly judgmental when he was younger. But things had come full circle; he was the father now. The one who was out of touch.

"You know," said Jesse, "being a drug dealer is probably better than being stuck at this high school, teaching a bunch of kids who don't care and watching them move on to better things."

Walter stared blankly as Jesse leaned back and folded his arms in satisfaction, his lips curling into a sardonic grin. The kid knew what he was doing, trying to get under Walter's skin; even worse was the fact that it was working. Walter felt a white-hot flash of anger go through him, just for a moment. He didn't even know why he was bothering. Maybe he was wrong about Jesse, in the end. Just like other students he had dealt with in the past, Jesse didn't want to be helped. Even if there was some spark of intelligence in there, he was too busy wallowing in his own apathy to use it for anything.

"Fine," said Walter. The conversation had ground to a halt anyway. "Do what you like, Jesse."

"Thanks, I will. Peace out, Mr. White."

Jesse got up from the chair with a clatter and left the classroom.

The air was silent, hot, and heavy. Walter sat alone at his teacher's table, looking out over the empty rows where his students had just been listening to his lecture. He knew trying to get through to Jesse wouldn't go anywhere, just as it hadn't worked on the handful of occasions he had talked to the boy in the past, but for some reason, he still felt compelled to try. He knew the conversation had gotten out of his control; his anger and frustration had gotten the better of him. Sometimes he didn't know how to detail with teenagers. Especially ones like that.

Jesse's jab at high school teaching had stung, and Walter didn't know how to react to it without letting his temper flare. Maybe because it was true. He wasn't really here by choice, after all. What he could have been, what he could have done with his talents, was all just a figment of his imagination. His potential had been buried in his past, and his reality was here and now, in this classroom that boxed his passion for chemistry into years of simplistic lecturing aimed at an indifferent audience.

Walter White: crystallography wizard. Married, child on the way. Going places.

And now, a high school teacher who didn't have the patience to teach his students.

He knew it wasn't all that unusual for teachers to dislike their students, or at least have some problems with them, judging by conversations with his coworkers in the break room. Still, the thought amused him just as it left a bitter taste in his mouth. He wondered if his younger self would have spoken to him the way Jesse did. Condescending, dismissive. Suspicious of advice given by a man who obviously wasn't happy with his own place in life.

The younger Walter White wouldn't be caught dead wearing that hoodie, at least.

XX

Winding rap lyrics and a pulsing synth beat traveled through the headphones and into Jesse's ears. He stared up at the ceiling as he lay on his bed, trying to focus on the music. It was a good song. Somehow, though, he had been distracted ever since that afternoon. Hours had passed since he had gotten home, and the sun was beginning to sink down into evening beyond his window blinds, but Mr. White's words still lingered.

The dude had been totally over the top today – that was for sure.

Jesse sat up in his bed, suddenly tired of hearing music, and ripped his headphones away, flinging them next to the music player lying on the sheets. He had been zoning out ever since he got back home. There was homework to do, but he wasn't interested in that. After the way Mr. White had gotten on his nerves, he felt like ignoring it just out of spite. Besides, his friends were coming to pick him up soon. They had called him earlier; no plans in mind, just wanting to cruise around, see what was up. Maybe smoke it up a little. A typical evening, even though his parents had been a little ridiculous about his evenings lately.

Seeing as it was already almost evening, they should have been by already. Jesse got out of his bed and left his room, deciding to see what his little brother was up to. Sure enough, Jake was in his room, doing something productive. As usual. "Hey, little dude," he said, tapping on the door frame to get his brother's attention. "What are you up to?"

"Homework."

"Sweet."

Jesse walked in and grabbed his brother's paper to look it over. Jake looked like he was about to protest, but it wasn't like Jesse was going to rip it up or anything. He was just interested. It was a math assignment, and Jesse had to admit some of it seemed like stuff even he'd have trouble doing. "You in some kind of advanced class?" he finally asked after getting tired of looking at the paper.

"Yes."

"Man, you're getting smarter every day, am I right?"

"I guess so."

Jesse looked over his little brother's room. He had seen it many times before, but it was always interesting to see how a room reflected a person's interests, their likes and dislikes. He and his brother definitely had their differences. There were no awards decorating any of the shelves in his room, for one thing. He picked up a strange apparatus from one of the shelves that he hadn't seen before, and gave his brother an amused look as he held it up.

"Potato clock," said Jake.

"Seriously? You can make clocks from potatoes?"

"The potatoes and the electrodes work as a kind of battery."

"Wow. Crazy. When did you make this?"

"We had some self-directed projects in my science class. I wanted to do that when I read about it in a magazine. Dad helped me a little."

"Still, that's pretty impressive," said Jesse as he returned the potato clock back to its resting place. He looked around a little more and was surprised to see a baseball lying nearby on the shelf. Maybe he hadn't been in his brother's room for a little while. "What's this?" he said.

"Um, seriously? It's a baseball."

"Yeah, right, I got that, dork," laughed Jesse as he ruffled his brother's hair. "Since when did you ever play baseball?"

"I think dad put it there."

Jesse nodded as he looked out the window again. He and his friends never set a time on when they went out, but it seemed like they were getting a little late. Maybe they'd call him. Or maybe they just wouldn't show up; it could be they had totally forgotten about it, which wouldn't be surprising. In the meantime, there wasn't much sunlight left, and he had a little time to kill. "You know what," he told his brother, "maybe we should go out and play some ball."

"I don't have a baseball bat."

"Just catch, I mean."

"I have to do homework."

"Screw that," laughed Jesse. "Dude, all you do is work. Your brain's gonna light on fire with all that thinking you're doing all the time. You gotta kick back a little! You don't wanna turn into Mr. White, do you?"

"Who's that?"

"Forget about it. Come on, seriously, let's go throw the ball around a bit."

Jake hesitated for a moment, but as Jesse edged out of the bedroom and tilted his head in the direction of the front door, he finally managed to get a smile out of his brother, who gave a last look at his homework before closing up a textbook and getting up to join him outside. The two of them went through the living room, where their parents were sitting on the couch and watching television. Jesse's father tilted his head back as the two of them passed by. "Where are you two going?" he asked.

"Just going out to play a little catch."

Although his father looked a little suspicious, he finally nodded. Jesse rolled his eyes and went out the front door with Jake.

It was still hot out. Sticky air hung heavy around them, and past the rooftops of their little suburb, the last vestiges of a heavy sun struggled against the darker blues dropping from above. Jesse smiled at his little brother and motioned for him to go a little farther back before throwing the baseball. It was a little big for Jake, especially without a mitt, and he had to catch it with both hands. "Nice job," he said. "Throw it back."

Jake tried to throw back, but his throw well woefully short. Maybe it was better if he moved a little closer after all, thought Jesse. Still, it wasn't like he played catch much himself, either. He remembered his father trying to play it with him a long time ago, but that hadn't happened in a while. Lately, it was a rare occasion when he talked to his parents at all, unless they were on his case about something.

"Are they angry at you?" asked Jake.

It was like his little brother could read his mind sometimes. His parents had been more of a pain than usual lately, and his dad's attitude just a moment ago definitely suggested they had been talking about him.

"Nah," he said. "I mean, I dunno. Things have been weird with them lately, but don't worry about it. They like you, anyway."

The two of them threw the baseball back and forth for a little longer, lapsing into a pleasant silence. Jesse always enjoyed his brother's company, even if the two of them didn't hang out all that much. As much as he loved his brother, they were different people. Jesse had his own interests, his own friends, and Jake – well, even at his age, Jesse could tell that Jake was going to grow up to be somebody. He definitely had a big brain in that head of his. Ever since Jake had started school, his parents seemed to take a special interest in him. Part of it, he knew, was because of his own failures. His parents had been pretty clear about how they felt when it came to his academic performance, about the way he chose to live his life. Maybe Jake was their second chance at living vicariously through their kid.

The sound of blaring music grew louder, which was enough to let Jesse know who was coming. Nobody in his neighborhood drove around with music that loud. Before long, Badger pulled up in his car, stopping by the end of the driveway. He always played the music loud; Jesse remembered trying to convince him to turn it down when he first got the car, especially when they were in his neighborhood, but he didn't really care anymore. Not like he knew anybody in his neighborhood, anyway. And what was the point of listening to music in your car if you couldn't slam it out?

"Hey, Jesse. 'Sup!"

Badger stopped the car and got out. Skinny Pete and Combo were in the back, and they both got out as well, walking across the lawn towards Jesse as he threw the baseball back to his brother and embraced his friends with a couple of back pats and knuckle bumps thrown in. "So, like, what are we doin'?" asked Skinny Pete. "We ain't hangin' out here, are we?"

"I thought we were gonna drive around," said Jesse.

Badger shrugged. "I dunno, whatever you guys wanna do. Let's get something to eat then, too."

Skinny Pete noticed Jesse's brother and leaned down, giving Jake a playful punch on the arm. "Hey, what's up, little dude? You don't look like the kinda kid that plays baseball, you know. Man," he said as he stood back up and looked at his friends, "when I was in school, it was always the douches that liked that stuff, you know what I'm talkin' about?"

Jesse really wasn't sure exactly what Skinny Pete was talking about, but he nodded anyway. Pete looked like he was about to say something else, but everyone paused and turned back to his house at the sound of the front door opening; Jesse's parents looked out, probably drawn by the sound of the thumping bass that had been coming from Badger's car. They did not look happy to see visitors on their front lawn.

"Jake," his mother said, "come over here, now."

Jake held the baseball closely and left his brother, joining his parents at the door. They gave a reproachful look at Jesse and his friends as they stood in the lawn. "You didn't tell us you had friends coming," said his mother.

"Relax, we're going out."

"What am I supposed to do about dinner?"

Skinny Pete scratched the back of his neck as he peered at Jesse's parents. "You know, we could like, eat with you guys, if that was cool."

"Nah," said Jesse, "I think we should go out to eat."

His parents looked over Skinny Pete like he was some kind of bug. Although their expressions annoyed Jesse a little, he supposed he couldn't blame them. Pete had to look like a total freak to his parents. Even for him, Pete was a little bit on the sketchy side sometimes.

"Just don't be back too late," his father finally said.

Jesse smiled. Apparently his parents had decided that letting him go without a fuss was better than having his friends over to eat. Jake, standing in the doorway with his parents, gave his brother a wave. Jessie returned it just before the front door closed, and then joined his friends as they left the lawn for Badger's car. "Come on," he said. "Let's get pizza or something."

Badger got into the driver's seat while Jesse called shotgun on the front. Skinny Pete and Combo got in the back, and the four of them made their way out of the suburbs and towards the beating heart of Albuquerque. He didn't really care if he got back late or not. They'd eat some pizza, maybe one of his friends was holding a little something, and he'd come home when he came home. It wasn't likely his parents would even speak to him when he got back, anyway, and he was in a bad mood for some reason – probably that stupid chemistry class.

"So what's up?" asked Badger as he turned the music down a little.

"School was a bitch, yo."

"You two should just stop going," said Skinny Pete. "Waste of time!"

Jesse did feel like it was a waste of time, although something about hearing that from Skinny Pete made him wonder if Mr. White had been making a point earlier. Even if his chemistry teacher had made a point, though, he had to make it in the most obnoxious way possible. Jesse hated it when people talked down to him. And even if he didn't always make the best decisions, it wasn't like Walter White was some kind of example of the perfect life. He didn't know where Mr. White got off judging him, seeing as he didn't even know him.

"My chemistry teacher, man - he was giving me all this shit after class, just 'cause I didn't do some quiz."

"Lame," said Badger. "He gonna fail you?"

"I dunno, whatever. Maybe. It's not like that's the only class I'm bombing. All I know is he's gonna be there forever, and after I get out, I'm never gonna see him again." Jessie's thoughts lingered on Mr. White for a moment longer before he decided he wanted to change the subject. "You know, we should totally get the band started up again."

"Definitely. You been practicing on the drums?"

"Um, not so much."

The car wound its way through city streets as the sky's blue tapestry deepened, the sun no longer in view. It was now dark enough to get lost in the town's twinkling lights, coming from street lamps, signs, and windows. Jesse let his head rest on the side of the open window's frame as they drove on, enjoying the air streaking across his face. Things cooled down in the evening, but even when it was sweltering hot, the heat just made the rush of the wind through a rolled-down window feel even better.

Where they were going to eat pizza, he didn't know; neither he nor his friends had mentioned anyplace in particular. Badger would probably drive around aimlessly for half an hour before realizing he had no idea where they were actually trying to go. It had happened before. Jesse enjoyed the breeze for a few more moments before he glanced at Skinny Pete in the back seat, a question abruptly popping into his mind. "So dude," he said, "how do you make money, anyway?"

Combo had been quiet ever since they arrived at Jesse's house, but he gave Jesse a smirk and elbowed Pete on the shoulder. "He borrows it off me, right?"

"Yo, it's not like I do that all the time or nothin'. I dunno, I just get it here and there. Sometimes I sell a little weed or somethin' if I have it around. Do jobs for people."

Jesse thought it was about the vaguest answer he had ever heard. Except for the weed, of course. He was surprised that a guy like Skinny Pete could support himself, seeing as he wasn't in school and never mentioned a job. Jesse really had no idea what Pete did with his time when he wasn't hanging out with them. But he got by somehow. "You know," he said, "I was talking to this guy Emilio the other day, and he kept talking about crystal meth."

"What about it?" asked Combo.

"Just that it was a good deal if you wanted to make money."

Badger gave Jesse a questioning look before returning his attention to the road. "Seriously?" he said. "I mean, smoking it is one thing, but making it – that kinda shit could get you in a lot of trouble."

"Yeah, but dude, get this. He said it wasn't like marijuana or anything, where you have to have a supplier or grow it and stuff like that. You can make meth out of household items, or like, just stuff you buy at the store, so nobody knows what you're doing. Like you can buy some kinda over-the-counter drug, I can't remember the name, pseudo-something, but Emilio was talking about it. You can just get as much as you want and nobody cares. You just have to know how to make the crystal meth out of it."

"What, and you know how?" laughed Combo.

"I could figure it out."

"You saying you're actually interested in this?" asked Badger.

Jesse shrugged. He was mostly just bringing it up, since the topic of drugs had come up when Pete mentioned weed. It would be a way to make easy money, and when it came right down to it, Jesse didn't see a lot going on in his future when it came to academics or careers. He just wasn't the type to go into some office or jump through hoops; even if he wanted to play that game, he didn't have the smarts for it. He could tell his brother would soon be outshining him when it came to that.

He remembered Mr. White making some remark about drug dealing in class that afternoon, but as far as Jesse was concerned, the ones he had seen were pretty well-off. Not Skinny Pete, but he didn't really count. The dude probably barely sold anything in the first place. Jesse thought he could handle it, and from the way Emilio was talking, it sounded like Emilio was already interested. Once he figured out how, it was just a matter of not getting caught. Too bad Mr. White didn't have crystal meth lessons in chemistry. Jesse laughed at the thought of his teacher cooking up a batch.

"What's so funny?"

"Nothing. Anyway, I'm just saying it's an idea. Emilio said it was good money, better than weed."

"Does Emilio make it?"

"No."

Jesse rolled his eyes as Badger gave him another skeptical look. "Jeez, man, there's no cops in the car," he said as he held his hand out the window, making a waving motion while the air traveled over it. "Lighten up a little."

"It just seems, like, kinda weird to me. I mean, if it made so much money, there's probably already people doing it, right? People who know a lot more about it than we do. And the cops would probably pay more attention to it, right? It's probably not something you wanna mess around with."

"Whatever."

It was just an idea. Before long, the idea left Jesse's head as they passed a pizza place and he caught the red neon pizza sign in the corner of his eye. After a small argument, the three of them managed to convince Badger to back up and go into the parking lot. Jesse didn't really mind where they ate, though. One place was as good as any other. He liked being out with his friends. Back at home, things had been going sour with his parents lately, and as much as he cared about his little brother, sometimes it was hard to find ways to relate to Jake. At school, he felt bored. Frustrated, uninspired.

With his friends, though, he felt free. It was easy to talk to them, and although he knew it made him sound a little full of himself, Jesse thought he was smarter than they were. They looked up to him, even if they never said anything like that. He was sort of their ringleader, and he got respect. He liked being respected. He definitely didn't get much of it anywhere else.

XX

An old man stared at Walter from the surface of the pool. Walter stared back into the still water. The sun was starting to go down, but enough afternoon light lingered to let him see the man's features. Sometimes, when Walter looked at his reflection, the man who stared back took him by surprise. Everyone grew old, of course, but he wondered if anyone really got used to it.

He felt a little older than usual today.

Work was over, and Skyler was inside making dinner. Walter had wandered around the house for a little while after coming home, and now he was outside - staring at himself, thinking about his confrontation with Jesse that afternoon. He stepped back from the edge of the water and pulled up a chair, taking a seat and looking idly around at the scenery. It was warm out, but a cool breeze began to blow. He watched as a stray leaf made its way slowly over the surface of the pool, from one end to the other.

When it came down to it, Jesse was right. He wasn't happy with his job. Being a high school chemistry teacher was not what Walter really wanted to do, not where he really wanted to be in life, but he had been around long enough to notice that life had a way of unfolding how it wanted. Maybe he held some part of the blame, but he couldn't help feeling Elliot and Gretchen were a part of it. It rankled him, knowing how Elliot had profited wildly off the company he co-founded. Knowing how he had been left behind with barely a thank you for his contributions.

But the past was past. He was a teacher now, even if he wasn't really suited for the job. He had to provide for his family - especially with his son's condition. He had to do what needed to be done. That was something that kid Jesse didn't understand – for a moment, Walter told himself Jesse would never understand such a thing, that he was too immature and self-centered, but he knew he was being a bit unfair. The kid was young. Maybe he'd turn things around and learn a little responsibility before it was too late.

Now that he had some distance from his failed attempt to get through to Jesse, now that he was home, he began to regret his comment about Jesse being a drug dealer. Of course, now that he thought about it, he hadn't called Jesse a drug dealer – just that Jesse's friends looked the part, from the few glimpses he had seen of them. It was an assumption on his part, and it could certainly be true – but even if it was, tearing Jesse down was not the way to reach out to him, and Walter wished he hadn't said anything.

Besides, thought Walter as a wry grin spread across his face, maybe Jesse is on to something.

He had to wonder. Every rational impulse in his brain told him otherwise, but something about Jesse's flippant attitude still appealed to him, in some way. Sometimes he felt crushed by the rules and obligations that came with a regular job, with going through life. Sometimes he wondered if there was some other way to do things. He had done everything right, and he didn't feel successful. Walter had always been stubborn, competitive, maybe a little too prideful, and he hadn't felt like he had been able to call the shots in a while. It was like he had been swindled on a cosmic level. That was a huge exaggeration, of course – it wasn't like he had cancer or anything, after all – but his verbal scuffle with Jesse had put him in a bad mood, and Walter was indulging himself a little.

Maybe drug dealing really is more exciting than being a high school chemistry teacher, he wondered. Do what you want, call the shots, be your own man. Just as long as you don't get caught.

Walter knew it was ridiculous even as he thought about it. Maybe he felt weighed down by life, by its responsibilities and monotony, but he knew the life of a drug dealer would be even worse. They had to have less freedom than he did, especially if they actually made any money. More obligations, more worries and troubles, especially once they inevitably got caught.

Of course, he had tried being a high school teacher. One thing he hadn't tried...

"Honey?"

Walter had been staring into the pool's deepening blue depths, lost in thought, when he heard his wife calling to him. He looked up to see her standing outside on the patio with her hands on her hips.

"Hey, Skyler. How's it going?"

"Dinner's ready. You looked like you were about to fall right off the chair and into the pool."

"Did I?" he asked, laughing. "Guess I got distracted."

The two of them went inside. His son had already taken a seat at the dinner table, and Walter gave him a pat on the back before sitting down himself while Skyler went to get the food from the kitchen. Something smelled good. "What'd you make?" he asked, even though she was already approaching the table with a plate in her hands.

"Quesadillas."

"Smells good, mom."

Walter grabbed his piece while his wife and son grabbed their own. A little salsa in one corner, a little guacamole in another, and a little sour cream on top of the quesadilla itself; Walter liked to keep his food looking neat and orderly, at least before he started cutting it apart. He took a bite: very hot. As he was fanning his mouth, Walter Junior looked up from his meal.

"Are you... doing okay, pop?"

Walter shot his son a quizzical look.

"I guess so – what do you mean?"

"Well, it just... seemed like you were... a little distracted, when you got back from work."

"Oh. Just a long day, I suppose. But thanks for asking."

Walter wondered if he was that transparent. He noticed his wife giving their son a smile before glancing at him. Although she didn't ask, he knew she was wondering the same thing; he gave her a reassuring nod before taking another bite of his quesadilla, making sure to blow on it a little this time. He and Skyler went through rough patches now and then, but he was immensely thankful he had her around on days like this.

His family's concern was touching; it reminded him that his wife and son were two things that he could be thankful for. They were the reason he had taken the teaching job, after all, and they were what kept him going even on his worst days. He worked not for himself, but for them. Times had been tough lately, and sometimes Walter got a sick feeling in his stomach when he looked over their latest bills, but family was one thing that had definitely gone right in his life. They were a responsibility. But more than that, they were a gift.

He remembered when Walt Jr. had been born. When he had first been diagnosed with cerebral palsy. After all these years, just the memory of hearing that diagnosis still brought back a faint echo of that crushing, terrifying feeling. The expensive treatments and therapies had taken their toll, but much worse than that had been the uncertainty over his son's future. And sometimes - Walter was ashamed to remember times where he had felt disappointed, even frustrated. As if his son's condition was a burden on his own life.

But those feelings were mere moments, and they were long past. His son had grown; he and Skyler had learned that cerebral palsy was not the end of the world. While Walter's career had proved to be a disappointment over time, watching his son grow up was the opposite. Sometimes he wished he spent more time with him, but Walt Jr. was a joy to be around. Smarter, friendlier, and a more well-rounded young man than most Walter's students. He was proud of his son, and unlike like Jesse, Walter was certain that Walt Jr. had a bright future ahead of him.

Maybe that was why people like Jesse acted the way they did, after all. Jesse couldn't count on family the way Walter could. His wife and son were his world. Walter knew it was best not to dwell on things, not to feel too entitled to things he couldn't have, or get too frustrated with the way life went. Everyone's life had its ups and downs, after all. Family was most important in the end. No matter where life took him, he knew he had to keep them close.

XX


Hope you guys liked this story. I appreciate any reviews, as this is my first Breaking Bad fic, and I'm interested in hearing what people think. Of course, I don't know how many people on are reading fan fiction for this show in the first place, judging by the amount of stories up, hehe.

Anyway, Breaking Bad is easily one of my favorite shows - I'm waiting impatiently for season 4 to start. The writing on the show is so good that it made me a little apprehensive about attempting a fan fic for it, but I couldn't resist. I had the idea of a little classroom interaction between Walter and Jesse prior to the events of the show that I could use to explore their characters, and hopefully provide an interesting contrast with where they are in the show now. Hopefully it worked alright. I haven't seen season 1 in a while and had to refresh my memory a bit by reading info online, so hopefully nothing clashes with canon.

Thanks again for reading.