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it's so hard to win when there's so much to lose

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First day back he goes the long way up to Pest's flat. Walks down the hall on the first floor and stops in front of the boarded-up hole in the wall. There's a canvas flap behind it, like the workers don't want kids peeking inside as they fix up the place.

"She's okay, fam," Pest says, tries to hop-step forward, keep the weight on his good leg and avoid looking anywhere but down. "My Nan said-- she said--"

The nails keeping the boards up look wobbly. He could maybe smack them a bit, kick once or twice at the stubborn ones. Get inside and have a look.

"She came through, yeah? Nan said she was up there in the waiting room of the station and yelling, you heard her, and--" Pest gets a few steps ahead, stops. He's not used to walking by himself and it shows.

Moses could say something like "Just checking out for blood," or "guess she isn't a snitch no more," or even "I wanted to see if they'd fix a white woman's place faster." He could offer his shoulder to Pest so he can be turned down again as a human crutch.

He could do a lot of things. But what he does do is roll his shoulders and look away from the splintered wood, the thick smell of construction dust, the acrid whiff of bleach somewhere close. Then he gets inside the lift-- only one's working, the other has tape across the doors-- with Pest furiously hobbling after him and hits the button for a damn different floor than the one they're on.

# # #

There were a lot of papers to be signed before they let him out. He didn't get a damn copy of any of them.

"There is an issue about recognisance," the Fed, Tethers or something, tells him on his way out the door. Another Fed is taking off Moses' handcuffs, fussing with the key like it's a bloody puzzle.

"Did fine before. I kept them alive, didn't I?" Moses says.

Tethers has bugged eyes and a felt cap. He's so white he looks like that fish Pest's Nan once brought home from the grocer; she was lauding that the "translucent skin here and here" was Attenborough-speak for fresh, but Tethers doesn't look fresh at all to Moses.

"I don't know, did you?" Tethers asks.

Moses clenches his teeth to keep from curling his lip at the man.

# # #

Pest's room has been redone to accommodate the living situation of another teenage boy. This means brushed steel frame bunk-beds they have to put together before they can go to sleep, and them both ignoring the new furniture in favour of sticking their heads next to the cracked open window so they can quietly smoke pot without the old woman smelling it.

"Not safe to keep this open," Pest mumbles. He's been half sleeping for hours now. Moses is too wide awake to feel anything but resentment about it.

"We're fine," he says, cuts out like a slice.

"Those aliens come back and we won't be. Sometimes I think I see that glow outside, yeah? And I check double-like and nothing's there."

Moses inhales the smoke through clenched teeth. Is all he seems to be doing now, clenching his teeth and feeling the tic of muscles in his jaw.

"They come back and the feds get to deal with it," he says.

Pest has dozed off again so he doesn't answer.

The clock ticks over to three, old analogue in the living room is louder than a scream when the television is turned off. Moses waits, watches Pest breathe, then shuts the window as soft as he can and creeps out of the room, creeps out of the flat.

It's a long walk down to the first floor when he's not running. He staggers his steps so they don't make much noise, and keeps his head down and ears open. Sometimes he sees the blue light too, but mostly it's that noise they made that comes at the weirdest times, like in traffic or sitting numb in a cell.

Sam's flat is exact how they left it. The boards wiggle easy under his grip, like he thought they would. He pulls gently and one side starts a slow drag out of the holes the nails made.

No noise. No light. No sign he's even there.

# # #

Biggz' mum got him a job working the stock in the back room of his uncle's grocery. He wears an apron over a button-down for a work uniform, and his mum picks him up right at the end of his shift, no room to skitter out.

The alley out back of the building is the same rotten type of forgotten place found all over Brixton. Pest has claimed a stack of wood crates as his perch, Biggz leans against the wall next to the door, Moses takes point and rummages through the full-up skip against the other wall.

"College is gonna be rank," Pest says.

Biggz grins at the phone in his hands, types with his thumbs. "It's always rank, bruv."

"But it's gonna be worse."

"Yeah," Biggz says, nods, "Yeah, trust."

Moses finds a few apples that are soft on one side but shiny solid on the other. He wiggles free from the skip lid and hands one to Biggz, two to Pest. His own apple is green and tastes bitter on his tongue, leaves a scratching feeling down the back of his throat.

A group of hoods walk past the mouth of the alley; their heads swivel in their direction as they scope out the place. Moses glares back at them on automatic. He doesn't recognise anyone, but that doesn't mean anything.

"Did you sign papers?" Pest asks Biggz, mouth full of apple and spitting flecks down his front.

Biggz jerks his head around, wide eyes. He checks with Moses, doesn't get anything and looks back down to his phone and barely eaten salvage. "What papers?"

Pest drops off his perch and waves his arms about.

"You're just as bad as Moses, man. They can't lock us all up if we all talk about it!"

Moses takes another bite. "You know they can."

Pest twists his face up the way he does when he's angry and not happy about it. Moses saw that face for the first time back in second year, covered in blood and dirt, and hasn't noticed it much since.

"We talk to the papers," Pest says, "Trust, they can't shut that up."

Moses looks Pest in the eye and waits. It takes a bit, but the twist to Pest's mouth drops and he finally looks down, away.

"Yeah, whatever bruv," he says, then bins the rotten parts of his apples with a lot more force than needed.

# # #

New boards and nails are up over the gaping maw of Sam's door. Moses has a slot-head screwdriver and a ball peen hammer in his pocket so they don't slow him up none.

The workers have put a new coat of paint up in the kitchen. There's still a lot missing as far as wall fixings and flooring goes, and the furniture is broken up something awful. He looks around and realises he has no idea really how much should be here and if anything is missing.

He grabs the picture of Sam with a man who must be her boyfriend off the far shelf and crashes onto the couch. There's enough light through the windows that he can see the outline of the frame, but the contents are pitch black.

A thud down the hall makes him tense. Then Pest curses outside the door and crawls under the canvas keeping prying eyes away, staggers into the flat.

His hair is smashed on one side of his head and he's limping more than earlier. He slumps onto the couch right next to Moses, pulls a bud from his pocket, grimaces and puts it right back.

"College tomorrow. Might not go," Pest says with a rough voice.

Moses tosses the photo, frame and all, onto the coffee table.

"Have to, they say so in the papers."

"Fucking papers, always the papers," Pest grumbles. He kicks the table with his bad leg, makes it go thump. "Why you in here?"

Moses shrugs. "Wanna see if she's been back."

"She's at her parents or somethin'. Nan knows."

Moses closes his eyes. "I just wanted to see. Lay off."

Pest tchs and gets up, goes to the shelves full of pictures. He pokes through the array, then finds one he likes and takes the picture out of the frame right there.

"Put it back," says Moses.

Pest hobbles away from the shelves back to the door. "No."

Pest leaves the flat and Moses gets up to put the one he took back. The empty frame is a stranger, he doesn't know which one Pest took. He grimaces and shoves the empty frame to the back of the shelf, then follows out the door.

# # #

There's concrete dust on his shoes all day at College. He gets stared at in class because of his healing scars, because he keeps his eyes cut down, because when Clint Bract tries to jump him outside the bathrooms in East Hall Moses beats the shit of him without talking smack or yelling or anything.

"You in Feltham or something when you were gone?" Bract asks, still on the floor and reeking of piss. His friends are down the hall and looking at Moses like he's the alien, like he's taking off their friend's head with his teeth.

Moses doesn't answer. He sidesteps the mess and goes the opposite way from Bract's backup. He can go around the back of the building to get to his next class, there's time enough, he'll still probably beat Pest there and everything.

"Heard you got Dennis killed in a gang fight!" Bract shouts after him, then coughs and spits.

The flash bastard's not wrong, so Moses shrugs his shoulders and keeps walking.

# # #

The workers didn't do anything on Sam's flat today. He steps over the same mess and goes into her bedroom for the first time, stops in the glow from the city that pours in through the window.

She's got typical girl furniture, but not roses and daisies like Tia's room, more like that elegant shit you see on Eastenders where the women faint and yell a lot. He drags his fingers along the top of the dresser to feel the texture, then wipes them off on his shirt like that will take away the evidence.

The first drawer in the dresser is full of shirts folded carefully. He checks the back of the thing on automatic, like she'd hide something back there. The next two are jeans and sweats, the kind that white women wear when they do yoga and such, not trackies or nothing.

The bottom drawer has her panties and such. He closes that one without checking the back and takes a step so far back he almost falls onto her bed.

Under the bed are shoe boxes holding shiny boots that don't look worn and a thick photo album covered in quilt-fabric. He holds the album close and sits on the bed, jerks back up and goes to the chair by the window to sit there instead.

He peers out the window to check for teeth and only sees city lights. Scrubs his face with both hands and yawns. Opens the album to the first page and the first photo.

Sam is in it, but so is a boyfriend-type guy. Not the same as the one out in the living room, but she looks younger so this could have been the man she went with before.

Moses closes the book, puts it back where he found it, leaves as fast as he can.

# # #

"Why you got messed up hands?" Gavin pokes at Moses' left hand and flakes off some of the scab there, exposes the not-yet-healed shininess of it.

Pest grandly exhales, offers the bud to Moses. Reginald wrinkles his nose at the smoke and pokes Gavin in the side.

"You know why." To Moses he asks, "Did you win?"

"Depends on what you mean by winning," he answers, flakes off more of the scab himself to investigate the sting.

He doesn't take the blunt and Pest returns it to his own lips with a shrug.

# # #

They get used to going to College again just in time to get let loose for Winter Break, it seems. Moses has pages in his hands that detail the catch-up work he's been assigned to do over Break. Pest has his own stack folded in half and crammed into his jacket pocket.

"And I said to them, yeah? I said that if they want me to do slave labour for their child slavery ring then they'd have to pay me right. Cuz, man, they said that it wasn't slavery if they paid me!"

They get off the lift and head for the door to the flat. Moses shakes his head at Pest, who ignores him.

"They didn't even deny it, bruv, believe! They just picked at it, what's called. Schematics, yeah?"

"Semantics," Moses says.

Pest snorts and opens the door. They go straight for the kitchen and there at the table is Nan with her tea and Sam drinking tea too and--

"Where you been, love?" Pest asks.

Sam takes a calming sip from her mug. She's much more serene than the last time Moses saw her.

"At my parents. They gave me a new flat in the block that I need help moving into."

Pest doesn't say anything, checks Moses. Moses stares at Sam. Pest's Nan huffs and clatters her mug of tea against the tabletop. "For the love of the Lord, boys. Go help her!"

Pest grins. "Just waiting her to ask, Nan."

The woman mutters something about laziness makes the Devil sneeze. Sam gets up with a smile and leads them out the door. Moses barely has the sense to drop his homework and pack by the door on the way out, he's that focused on staring at Sam as she lives and breathes and moves.

At the lift doors Sam finally looks at Moses. He watches her, raises his eyebrows.

"I'm glad you're all right," she says.

"Of course he's all right, he's Moses!" Pest says behind them.

The lift is empty and they get on. Sam hits the button for the first floor. "The construction foreman told me someone broke into the flat. Will you let me know if anything that could be mine shows up to be sold?"

Pest snickers and Moses ignores him.

"Already checked out," he says. "No one stole anything."

# # #

"You won't talk about this to anyone," Tethers the Fed tells him, back in that cell. "You won't say the word aliens to the press or your friends. You will lie about where you got your scars and you will lie about where your deceased friends went."

Tethers doesn't look at him during that meeting or any other, not really. He doodles numbers and lines on a bit of paper if he's sitting, uses a grid pattern and fills it slowly as he talks. Moses wants to spit on the paper but doesn't dare.

"In fact, what you are going to do is proceed as usual. You've been lying about your Uncle, you can add this to it."

Moses clenches his jaw. Keeps his cuffed hands pressed flat to the table top so he doesn't clench those too and get written up on threatening some white man in a suit.

"Are we clear?" Tethers asks. His bald head shines a little under the fluorescents.

Moses lets the air out of his lungs through his nose, sucks another breath back in as slowly as he can force himself to.

"If I say no?"

Tethers flips the page he's working on over and starts on another grid.

"Then you don't get out of here, and we leave all the lying up to your friends who have the sense to cooperate."

# # #

Moses gets a splinter under his thumbnail while taking apart Sam's bedframe. A single drop of blood wells up, then the only sign of it is a line of lighter raised skin down the centre of his fingerprint and a stabbing sting screaming at him.

He drags the headboard out to the hall and towards the lift. The thing dings and opens, lets Tia out. He stops mid-drag and stares at her; it's been a while.

"Came to help," she says, folds her arms. "We all got moved to the same floor."

She looks him in the eye and raises one eyebrow. "You'd know that if you ever called."

Moses doesn't keep her gaze. He looks down at his thumbnail with the splinter under it and breathes out through his nose.

"You ever gonna talk about it?" Tia asks.

"Don't know what you're talking about," Moses says to his hand.

Tia clicks her tongue and takes a step away from him. "After all we done, all we been through, you still do this. Yeah, Moses?"

Sam exits her flat carrying a bundle of blankets and her arms laden with bags. Pest hobbles after her carrying a stack of boxes and the photo album set on top.

His first instinct is to get between Tia and Sam. He doesn't realise this until he's already done it and Tia is looking up at him with her mouth twisted and her eyes as sad as they can get.

"Tia--" he tries.

Tia walks away from him, to Pest. "Gimme that. You help him with the frame."

Pest hands over the boxes without complaint. He shrugs at Moses and tries to drag the frame into the lift on his own, so of course Moses hurries to help. All four end up squeezed into the lift, the girls up front and the boy pressed against the back wall.

"How much more you got?" Tia asks Sam. "Dimples gets out of practise at seven. She'll come help after that."

Sam shakes her head. "Not much more. Most of the furniture I can't take so just clothes and crockery."

Moses tries to stare at his reflection in the doors to tune out the conversation, but Pest meets his eyes and raises his eyebrows so there goes that.

# # #

To catch up on science courses Moses has to take some exams held individually by his teachers. He does the geometry one fine, but they want him to do the pre-Calculus thing and he stares at the paper in horror for an hour before they let him go home.

He gets back to the Block late because of the damn test, almost doesn't notice that he's approaching Sam and Biggz by the post boxes until he's almost on top of them.

The sight of Biggz and Sam being familiar to one another leaves his head buzzing angry and he has no idea why. Sam says hallo to him and tries to say hallo back but fails.

He shakes his head and goes through the doors. Biggz shouts after him, "Hey Moses! My mum's letting me--" and is cut off by the lift doors closing on Moses, the one safe space in all this shit.

# # #

Sam is obviously home tonight, so later when Moses' scars itch to the point where he can't stay still, he goes all the way to the highest floor he can and breaks into his old flat to have a look around.

They've got a new window back in and the carpet is stripped, but the kitchen is still blown all to hell. There's a dark splash against one wall that could be dried blood. The furniture in the living areas are all gone except for the bedrooms.

He crawls into the back of his Uncle's closet looking for the crack in the wall. He peels back the heavy fake plastic wood and finds his bolt-hole, the one he's kept since his Uncle started to leave and then never really came back.

The lockbreaker is scuffed from use but he pockets it anyway. His stash of weed is folded carefully in three baggies, he takes those too.

On his way out of the room he grabs the library book he was assigned to read but never bothered with. He can drop it in the slot tomorrow, and maybe that angry white woman won't glare as much now that she has her Walt Whitman shit back.

# # #

"No, raise the string higher. Yes, like that, there's a love."

Pest stares past Moses towards the bedroom door. He has this distant longing on his face for the pot Moses gave him. Moses secures the fairy lights to his indicated branch then grabs Pest's side before he drops it and she'll want them to adjust again.

The door clicks closed and Sam comes back in carrying the takeout boxes.

"None for me, dear. But those boys are bottomless pits." Pest's Nan gets up from her position of honour on the couch and starts for the kitchen. "I'll make some tea for you to go with the curry, then!"

Pest looks at the bedroom door, then to Moses, then to Sam.

"Don't even think about it," Sam says and hands him two boxes of curry and rice.

Pest scoffs and follows his Nan to the kitchen, thumbs the top box open as he goes so he can start to eat from it.

Moses takes his own box and digs in with the plastic fork. It's decent curry, made local by a family who lives in The Ends themselves, so he doesn't mind it. He tries to not be obvious as he watches Sam's hands fuss with folding her own box's lid just so.

"I'll be out of town for a couple days around Christmas," she says. "The twenty-third through the twenty-sixth."

Moses swallows his food. "Staying over at your parents, then?"

"They're worried about me, worried about the.." She looks at his face then back at her food. "The gas explosion. And all of that."

"You're staying here though. In the block."

She smiles down at her food. "I'm done with moving for a while, yeah. I won't be able to get free help moving boxes if I go somewhere else."

She shoves some of her hair out of her face and that ring of hers catches the light. Moses chews his food slowly and listens to Pest saying something in the kitchen to Nan, who laughs loudly.

"Why do you wear that?" he asks, finally.

Sam looks at him with her brow furrowed, so he taps on her finger with the ring on it. This is the first time he's touched her since the aliens, and it makes his throat feel cold.

She blinks at the ring a couple times, then goes back to her food. "It was my grandmother's."

"But you said it's not worth none."

"Not worth any money, no. But she gave it to me," she says.

Pest comes out of the kitchen with both arms up in Victory. To Sam he says, "Got her to eat a bit!"

Sam perks up. "Are her portions still small?"

Pest shrugs. "Go up and down."

"At least it's being worked on," she says. She smiles kindly at Pest. "You're a good grandson to keep track of her."

Pest strikes pro-wrestling move and winks at her. Moses shovels food into his mouth so he doesn't say anything.

"All right," Sam says, slow, "you're a horrible grandson and I don't know why she puts up with you."

# # #

The lockbreaker is an older thing but it works just fine on Sam's door. He sticks the tines into the lock, twists his wrist, and the door pops open with no fuss. She left a light on in the kitchen but otherwise the flat is dark and quiet.

He can sit on her sofa and rub at the itch on his face and stare at the ceiling without her knowing a damn thing for the next few days.

She put the photos back out on her shelving. He pokes around them before he sits down, looks for the one that had her and her boyfriend looking happy. He can't find it, can't even find the frame, so he settles on a picture of a woman who looks like a much older version of Sam.

The photo is aged yellow and the woman looks at the camera like she's irritated by it. Moses grins a little, because that's Sam. Then his scars pull and he turns away.

He sits on the sofa, drops his head back against the couch, forgets to do anything except breathe.

# # #

Moses is caught out on New Years Day because Pest knocked out early and Sam is supposed to be at work but suddenly isn't and now here he and her stand, in the living room of her new flat, hour past midnight into the year and already he's almost been screamed at once.

"I didn't do nothing," Moses blurts before he can stop himself. His pulse is pounding in his ears like it does in a fight. He wishes he had a weapon to defend himself with.

Sam slowly drops her bag from how she was holding it like an over-hand bludgeon. When she bought a new purse she got this hard-sided thing that she can use as a weapon if needed. Pest adores it, but Moses thinks it looks like an ammo box on straps.

"How did you get in?"

Moses takes one step to the side. Now the sofa is between them. "Broke the lock."

Sam looks behind her at the door, then whips back to glare at Moses.

"Not broke it, just it's a tool--"

Sam's eyebrows go up. She drops her purse on the end table but the sofa is still between them. "Like a hammer?"

"Sort of, yeah," Moses feels the weight of it in his pocket and hopes she doesn't ask to look at it. "But not really."

"This isn't good, you know that right?" Sam shrugs out of her coat and throws it onto the armchair. She steps around the furniture to get to the kitchen and begins to fuss over the kettle, her back to him. "There are boundaries, Moses, and--"

"I know," he quickly says. He keeps the distance between them despite how much he wants to step forward. "I don't know how to-- I know this isn't good."

Sam pulls down two mugs and a box of tea. She looks at Moses over her shoulder.

"So you know nothing was stolen, then."

Moses wants to groan, to rub at his scars, to just walk out the door or walk into the kitchen. He doesn't know what he wants to do. Something other than standing here.

"I thought you were gone. I didn't know you were coming back and." He stops, chews on the words and looks anywhere but her face. "I know this isn't good."

The water isn't boiling yet but Sam steps away from the hob and comes to a stop within arm's reach of him. He stares at her shoulder, the delicate bone structure that leads to her collarbone.

"You don't do this again. Ever," she says.

"I won't," he says.

"Saying you didn't know about something doesn't work as an excuse," she continues. "That's how we got into this mess after all, yeah?"

He chances a glance at her face. She's got one side of her lips quirked up, like she finds something amusing.

"I'm going to go shower. Can you put the water on the teabags when it's boiling?"

He swallows twice before he says "Yeah, sure."

Sam nods and leaves him alone in the living room. He staggers into the kitchen and sits at the table, staring at nothing. His pulse is slowing down, but his breathing is still ragged.

# # #

Tia is on the street outside the Arcade near the park. Gloria and Dimples are with her, they're all laughing over something on their phones and flipping their hair a certain way.

Moses keeps to the other side of the street on his way to the Biggz' Uncle's place. He catches from the corner of his eye Tia catching him in her sights, then shaking her head and turning away.

Dimples is outright staring, but he doesn't meet her gaze. He keeps his head down, keeps going. He has somewhere to be, he doesn't need to be here.

# # #

Moses has this course the Government Assistance Woman signed him up for, where they learn to fix things and it works as pre-certification for an actual Technical course at some worker's university setup. He rolled his eyes about it when he got told where to go, but now he's rather fond of thing. Not many people on the block can fix their own shit when it breaks. It's a useful skill, and he's willing to admit it.

This week's project is fixing a blu-ray player, or "any standing disc stand reader." Moses is the first to finish, and he enjoys the glares and muttering as much as he used to enjoy watching the lesser gangs in the area round the block skitter and scatter away from him and the boys.

His high-mood lasts through dinner with Pest and Nan. Then Pest goes to bed because the pot has his sleep schedule all fucked, Nan settles in front of the television with some knitting.

Moses grabs the lockbreaker from under his mattress and walks carefully up the steps so he can keep an ear out for aliens, then gets off the stairs on Sam's floor.

He knocks carefully with the tool in his other hand held loose. Sam opens the door and steps back to let him in, no questions. After she closes the door behind him she points at the lockbreaker and then holds her hand up.

"Give it."

He hands it over. It's why he came down, after all.

"I fixed a blu-ray today," he says while she looks at the lockbreaker.

Sam raises both eyebrows at him.

He shrugs. "They make sure the poor folk have some skills to fall back on now, yeah?"

Sam puts the lockbreaker on the shelf with all the pictures, then watches him for a moment. Lifts her hand to gently brush at the scars on his face with the tips of her fingers. He tries to stay very very still.

She pulls her hand back quickly and swallows.

"You said they itch?"

He nods. "Like they're healing all the time."

"I'll give you some aloe, just got a jar at the shop," she says, then leaves for her bedroom

She comes back with a jar in one hand and a key in the other. She hands him the jar first, then offers the key.

"Don't abuse this. No pot, no parties, no.. I don't know what you do. But nothing illegal or anything that will get me in trouble."

He takes the key and holds it flat in his open hand. "You let trouble in already, though."

Sam quirks her lips in a half-grin. Moses grins back until the pull on his scars reminds him not to.

"You think you're clever, but you're not," she says.

Moses palms the key and shrugs, sniffs, looks away for a moment. Then he grins at her again, scars be damned.

Sam laughs at him and waves him out the door. He says hallo to Pest's Nan back at the flat and uses the stark bathroom light to apply the aloe, dubious but willing.

His face looks greasy with this strong-smelling stuff on him, but the itching is dulled. Pest grumbles and hides his head when Moses goes into their room looking for a chain to put the key on.

He's not gonna tell anyone anything about why he's wearing a door key around his throat, but it'll make him feel better. He knows that much, at least.

# # #

Biggz has an economics book open in his lap; he chucks his yellow marker at Pest's head and laughs. There's a sliver of sunlight down in the alley today, but it's enough to take the edge off the frost in the air.

"Nah, this is cool stuff. Tells me how they can keep us poor, get me?"

Moses takes a chip out of a bag he actually bought rather than scavenged from a skip. It tastes weird, not as rough to chew as he's used to. Pest refuses to eat any, says they're a waste of money.

"They talk about income difference and shit then?" Pest asks. He looks interested, is actually leaning forward to peer at the pages of the book.

"Yeah, fam. All that."

Footsteps come up behind Moses. He drops the bag of chips carefully to the side and then stands, turns slow with his chin up.

It's that pack of hoods he's seen around before, except they've all got smirks like they're ready to fight this time and he can see how white all of them are now.

"You want something?" Moses asks.

The one in front, some ginger with a sharp nose and sharper chin, grins wide.

"Give us yer cash and we'll call it good, yeah?"

A crack of glass happens, and Moses can see out of the corner of his eye that Pest has a broken bottle now. He's leaning against the wall with the bottle in one hand and his arms crossed. Biggz is directly behind Moses so he can't see him, but he knows he's up and meeting it.

Moses focuses on the leader, nods.

"You heard of us, then?"

"I heard most of you died," the ginger snarls.

"Did you hear about what happened to the ones who killed some of us?" Moses asks. He's not gonna get angry here. He refuses.

The hoods behind their lead stop smirking. The ginger tries to keep it together, as he should.

"Nah, maybe the feds got them."

"Moses blew them up," Pest says. He sounds like he's about to laugh, like he's high and delirious with it. "He blew them the fuck up, believe."

"I'm not into this," Moses says, "But I will if I got to, you get me?"

The hoods are already leaving. One of the backups grabs the lead by the arm and drags him back, but they all leave.

It takes a minute for the blood to stop roaring in Moses' ears, and by then Pest is already sitting back down with a groan and Biggz is throwing the wood he was holding back against the broken crates against the far wall.

"That was fucking new," Pest says as he rubs at his shin.

Biggz laughs. It doesn't sound like he's happy.

"My mum would take my blood if I ruined this uniform, believe."

Pest eyeballs Moses, then shakes his head.

"Yeah, sure. That's why we run 'em off instead of beat 'em down."

# # #

Nan makes a massive fry-up for dinner. Some kind of tradition for her and Pest that Moses has heard about but never seen until now. He looks at the stack of waffles and the rashers of bacon in awe, wonders how Pest is still so skinny and twig-like when he eats like this.

Sam is eyeing the mound of food too, but she just looks tired and about to cry.

"You got something wrong with your eyes," he tells her. Nan is in the kitchen and Pest is toking up in the bedroom really quick, it's safe to say this now.

"My eyes?" Sam blinks slow, unimpressed.

"They're puffy." He reaches out to touch the corner of one eye and she lets him brush against the thin skin there. "You been crying?

"A little." She takes a sip of water from her glass and stabs at a sausage with her fork. "I called my boyfriend and we broke up. It was messy."

He doesn't know what to say, not really, but that doesn't mean he won't try. "He didn't come back after the-- After the gas explosion, yeah?"

Sam sighs. "Yes, and that's why I called him. One of the reasons, anyway."

"Do you need me to--" Moses ducks his head, makes a stabbing gesture.

"Christ, no!" Sam looks horrified now, not about to cry at all. "Stay out of it, it's done and over with."

He raises his eyebrows and tries to grin. "Me and Pest still got contacts, just because some paper says we gotta go straight don't mean--"

Sam covers her face with both hands and groans. "Please. Stop."

Moses exhales through his nose, takes a bite of what feels like his fiftieth waffle. Around his food he mumbles, "Yeah, well. I'm here. Pest too."

# # #

"Where'd you stash it?"

Pest stops poking at his new laptop's word processor to stare at Moses, blank. "Stash what?"

"The pic you took, where is it?"

"What pic? The fuck, I'm not a photographer."

Moses stares at Pest. And stares some more. Pest still doesn't seem to be getting the point.

"The pic you took from Sam's flat."

Pest grins at him. "About time you asked about that thing, bruv."

Moses goes back to staring until Pest rolls his eyes and reaches under his mattress and rummages. He finds a folder of stuff with numbers written all over and some official-looking brochures, then he quickly throws the picture at Moses and hides the stuff back away.

It's a photograph of Sam when she was younger, probably still at school. She's wearing a sundress and looking unimpressed at the camera, and Moses nearly bites his tongue as he looks at it.

"I'm taking this back before she finds out," Moses says. "Don't do this again."

Pest snorts and starts pecking at his laptop with two fingers again.

Sam is off somewhere, work probably, so he uses his key to get in. He shoves the picture into a drawer full of phone chargers and extra hair ties, then decides to leave.

Except Sam has filled a shelf in the kitchen with alcohol bottles, and he notices, and he's curious, and--

He's too angry at Pest, this irritation that sparks into anger sometimes when it comes to his friend. He can't yell at him though, he doesn't belong in that flat and he knows it, so yelling won't work out. So he can stay here for a bit, he has a key after all, and--

He takes a glass from the kitchen that Sam uses for water. He's not sure it's been washed since the last time he saw her sipping from it. He certainly doesn't care.

He tries one cup of this odd-whiskey shit, another of red wine, another of straight vodka. They're small portions not full to the top, he's not stupid, but he feels like he used to when he smoked pot with the others, passing the blunt around the room and laughing. Loose limbs, heavy eyelids, not taking life seriously.

He's still working on the vodka when Sam comes home carrying plastic bags with the Tesco logo printed on them and her had missing.

"What are you doing?" Sam asks. She's borderline yelling.

He tips the glass of vodka at her and drains it.

"Oh bloody-- I should know better than to trust a teenager," she snarls, then stomps to the kitchen to dump the bags.

"You said no trouble. You won't get in trouble here," he says. He's not slurring, it's fine.

"Didn't mean I wanted you to come in here and try out some underage drinking," Sam snaps and digs into the bags, pulls out a block of cheese and jar of something red. "This is highly irresponsible of you."

Moses pours himself another glass of vodka. Once you get past the sharp taste of it, the stuff is almost pleasant. He can see why the Russians who live over by the Deli drink it all the time. "What was I supposed to do then?"

"Sit and contemplate the world?" Sam slams the fridge door. She starts running water over something in the sink. "I don't know, tell me why you were coming in here illegally."

"Nah, man, you tell me," he shouts back. "You're so brave, you tell me!"

Sam stomps to his perch on the couch and takes the glass of vodka from his hand, knocks it back in one swallow. Then she throws the glass at his chest and stomps away as he tries to catch it.

"You say teenagers--" he tries to start, then shuts up when she slices one hand in the air.

"This was a mistake. I don't know what I was thinking," she says. Her voice is shaky. Her hand is shaking too. "Just because I want to know how you're doing doesn't mean I should invite you in like this."

"You didn't invite me!" Moses says. He gets up from the couch and goes towards her. "I broke in, and you gave me a key thinking I was gonna break your bloody door."

"I gave you a key because you needed a place to be on your own!" Sam snaps at him. Now both of her arms are up, like she warding off something. "I thought I was helping, it felt good to help."

"So this is some charity case then?"

"If it was a charity case I would've given Pest a key too!" she yells right into his face.

Her eyes flash like some kind of multi-coloured explosion, all sparks and fire and blinding. He doesn't know why, but that's what stops him from shouting back.

He takes that last step to get right up next to her and kisses her, firm. He kisses her with his eyes closed, and for a moment she kisses him back, hand up on the back of his neck and her mouth open just slightly.

# # #

"I see you're applying yourself," Tethers says. He has his grid-drawn paper in front of him, pencil held loose in his hand, but he's looking Moses in the eye for once. "Any issues keeping the lie in order?"

Moses watches him for a minute.

"What lie?"

Tether's sharp mouth forms a grin. The man really is an ugly sort to look at.

"Good to hear." He puts his pencil down and opens the folder full of academic updates that Moses was told to get from his Councillor and bring to the meeting. "If you keep going on this route, you could be a welder or something else equally as interesting in the future."

Moses doesn't deck him, but it's close.

"Don't see why you care," he says, finally.

Tethers contemplates this by staring at the wall behind Moses' head.

"I suppose the Government wants the Survivors to have a future, rather than descend into some kind of low-class guilt." Tethers looks him in the eye and smiles, slight and thin. "Low-class being a behaviour rather than an economic situation, of course."

Moses allows his lip to curl.

"So because I survived an alien attack, because I didn't die, I have a future now?"

Tethers' face doesn't change. "Yes, that's the gist."

"That's bullshit."

"Why yes, yes it is."

# # #

Sam is at the post boxes when he gets back from his check-in with the Feds. Her shoulders are tense, she's got her mail in hand, but she's flipping through the mailers and tossing them right into the bin where she stands.

He stops behind her, conscious of the distance between them and how easy it would be to never cross it.

"I had a blissful month without this shit," Sam says to him without turning around. She crumples a glossy furniture ad up into a ball and slams it into the bin. "Then they found me again."

"I'm not drunk right now. You?"

Sam turns to him, face blank. "No, of course not."

"And no pot either, not for a week," he tells her.

She nods.

The space between them is covered in two steps, then he's got a hand cupping her elbow and his mouth over hers. There's no romantic movie soundtrack running and there's no shortness of breath, but for that batch of seconds where he kisses her, he doesn't feel like his world is falling apart at the seams.

Then he lets up, pulls away, and swallows like a rock is stuck in his throat, angles his head so he can look her in the eye. "I'd kill for you, yeah?"

Sam looks dazed, but she's holding on to his jacket with both hands. "That's not a comforting thought."

"But you killed for me. I'm just-- I'm just saying that I'd do the same."

Sam closes her eyes and puts her forehead on his shoulder. She hasn't let of of him yet, and that small fact makes it easier for him to swallow.

"I'll be old enough soon, he says, "but it's no good waiting quiet-like, innit?"

"God forbid we're ever quiet about something," she mumbles into his jacket.

Moses smiles, almost laughs, rubs a thumb along the side of her arm from where he's holding her. He says, "I'll kill for you right until the end. No matter what happens."

Sam's grip on his jacket tightens. "This is wrong, you know."

"Say no, then."

Sam raises her head and releases his coat. He lets go of her elbow so she doesn't feel like he's pushing. She looks him right in the eye, that old irritation set to her mouth, and shakes her head.

"You know I'm not going to do that."

He grins and kisses her again, light fingers brushing her side and gentle breath against her mouth.

# # #

The only class Moses and Pest have together is Social Studies over in the West building. The hall is full of other people and they're standing next to a clear bit of wall waiting for the time to go inside.

Pest mutters and flips through a stack of papers in his hands. They've got his cramped handwriting scrawled on them, but also red marker loosely giving numbers like 90 and 94 and check-marks all over.

"They say if I pass the next one I can go up a class and get more credit to have a head start on A-levels or something."

Moses fiddles with the University of London advertisement in his hands and nods. "They doing the same to me with that precalc shit. They got a compulsion, yeah?"

Pest shakes the papers at Moses' head. "What happened to us, man? Why we doing this?"

The advertisement in Moses' hands is for a class being held during next break that he could take if Assistance picks up the fee. It's token skill certification, yeah, but it's also focused on how to make puppets that move with electric motors inside.

The whole thing leaves him wondering if he should laugh or choke. Instead he folds the advertisement in half, unfolds it, folds it a different way.

"Life caught up, is all," he says to Pest.

"But we used to be cool."

Moses checks his phone for the time. They still have three minutes before they're let in. A group of white girls wearing designer shoes and plaid skirts wander past, looking Moses up and down on their way. Pest half-heartedly flexes and Moses outright ignores them.

He shrugs. "We still cool. Now we get to be cool after we graduate too."

"They got to you!" Pest shifts his weight from his good leg to the bad, then back again. "There is no way you'd've thought this was cool back before."

Moses snorts. "Don't front, you wouldn't have put up with it back then either."

Pest looks at his graded papers again and makes a noise of disgust. "I don't want to go to Uni, bruv!"

"Certification stuff isn't Uni, it's just higher pay." Moses' phone lets out a soft ping for an alarm. He and Pest head for the classroom with everyone else.

They get seats at the back wall. If they sit any closer the teacher will try to get them to talk about "Life As The Disenfranchised," and neither of them want to deal with that bullshit. Moses drops the advertisement onto his desk and ignores the teacher's opening dialogue just like everyone else.

If he took the class, he could make puppets that move like otherworldly creatures. Full-on robotics and shit used in movies. He wonders what Tethers would think if Moses made puppets that look like the aliens. It's not exactly talking about it that way, is it?

Moses grins at his desk. Pest catches him at it and socks him in the shoulder.