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We'll Rule The World If You Set Me Free

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Zeke should be used to waking up alone.

He’s been doing it his whole life. Sleeping in a tiny bed, in a tiny ass room, by himself. The light that floods his barely-open eyes isn’t anything new. The empty space--the coldness--next to him should be commonplace.

But Shaolin Fantastic, no man more magic. He changed that for Zeke. Lying next to Shaolin felt right, like it should happen every day and every night. The space in his bed is for Shaolin, not cold air.

He comes home every night, but still isn’t used to not sleeping next to Shaolin.

It should be a problem. Really, it should. But Zeke could care less.

Shaolin Fantastic , the word travels through Zeke’s brain on a constant loop, Shaolin Fantastic. No man more magic. No man . . .

“Aye, yo, Zeke! Wake yo’ ass up!”

Leon’s voice cuts through Zeke’s thoughts. Fucking Leon, Zeke’s personal alarm clock.

Zeke rolls his eyes and groans before sitting straight up and throwing the curtain back.

“I wasn’t sleeping, Leon,” Zeke grumbles as he stands up from his makeshift bed.

“You wasn’t moving , either,” Leon shots back with his ever-present attitude. “But now you are. Problem solved! Now get yourself together, boy. You got school!”

“I know, I know,” Zeke mumbles, gathering his clothes to run into the bathroom before Wanda can.

“Don’t ‘I know’ me, Ezekiel! You the one been hanging around that dropout all the damn time!”

“Hey!” Zeke yells, turning around so fast he surprises himself. He points his finger in Leon’s shocked face. “I told you to watch what you say about Shaolin!”

Leon jerks his head back and gives Zeke the up-and-down.

“The fuck you pointing at?!” Leon demands. “I look like one of yo’ little bum-ass friends?!”

“My friends ain’t no bums!” Zeke yells. “And you need to watch yo’ mouth!”

This time, Wanda rushes out of her and Leon’s room, her face twisted in surprise and concern.

“What’s going on?” Wanda cries, looking between Zeke and Leon.

“Yo’ sobrino needs to calm his ass down, that’s what!” Leon shouts, staring a hole into Zeke’s face.

Zeke, chest heaving like he just ran from the cops, sticks his chin up and grits his teeth. But he doesn’t say anything.

Wanda steps around Zeke to look him in his face. Zeke flinches when he sees the confusion and fear in Wanda’s expression.

“You getting yourself together, mijo?” Wanda asks, her voice more worried than disciplinary.

Hearing the tone of her voice, Zeke softens and nods quietly.

“Okay,” Wanda says with finality. She shoots a nervous glance at Leon then jerks her head to the bathroom. “Now go get cleaned up. It’s Monday. You got school.”

“Yes ma’am,” Zeke answers softly.

As he turns to go to the bathroom, he hears Leon snort.

“He actin’ like I talked about his girl or something,” Leon mumbles to Wanda.

Zeke fights the rising anger and closes the door softly.

He immediately locks the bathroom door,  turns the shower on and leans against the sink.

“Get ya shit together, man,” Zeke whispers to himself.

He can’t go flipping out on Leon over Shaolin. At least not while he’s still living with them. He’s got to stop letting Leon get to him. Leon’s an asshole, but he’s his tía’s man. It’s not like she’ll choose Zeke over him. Zeke knows that.

He wouldn’t choose anyone over Shaolin. Zeke knows that too.

Shit, that’s actually part of the problem.

Zeke undresses, steps into the shower and thinks of Shaolin. But when is he not thinking of Shaolin? It’s like his mind can’t go anywhere else. Zeke can think of the farthest stars, the deepest parts of the ocean, the darkest parts of the sky.

But it’s always Shaolin. His mind always goes back to Shaolin.

Zeke laughs quietly to himself. Shaolin might ruin him one day.

Zeke laughs as the warm water runs down his back; eyes closed, he imagines Shaolin dancing wildly and smiles.

Shaolin Fantastic, no man more magic/Never break yo’ heart/Never make it tragic.

***

“You all did very well on your rhetorical analyses,” Mrs. Green says cheerfully as she hands back papers.

It’s the last class of the day and Zeke is crawling out of his skin.  He loves Mrs. Green, but he can’t sit in this damn seat another minute longer.

He made a mistake in sitting up front. Zeke keeps trying to force himself to look forward: at the board, at Mrs. Green, somewhere up front.

He could’ve just taken his usual seat near a window, where he can just stare out and allow himself to remember the feeling of spitting and spinning.

But Zeke caught himself trying to be a good student or whatever, and took a seat up front.

And no matter how hard he focuses, his mind still wanders.

“Ezekiel?” Mrs. Green calls with hope in her voice.

Mrs. Green effectively pulls Zeke out of his reverie and he sits up straight.

“Ma’am?”

“You made a very good point in your rhetorical analysis of Langston Hughes’s ‘Dream.’ You used a personal story to demonstrate how you understood one of the lines. I was hoping you’d be willing to explain that to the class,” Mrs. Green explains.

“Oh, okay,” Zeke says with a nod.

He stands up, takes the paper Mrs. Green is handing back to him, and faces his class mates. Zeke’s eyes immediately go to Ra-Ra, sitting in the middle of class with an eyebrow raised.

“Okay, so, I read one of the lines and pretty much instantly thought of something someone close to me shared with me,” Zeke begins.

“ ‘Life is like a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly,’” Zeke recites. “When I first read that line, I thought it was just a plain old simile.

Zeke looks over at Mrs. Green, who is smiling and looking at Zeke in a way he’s never seen before. From his seat, Ra-Ra is looking at Zeke like he’s never heard Zeke speak before.

“But then I thought of the first time my closest friend showed me his bird coop,” Zeke continues, trying to make himself focus on his classmates and not on the way Shaolin’s hands felt when he was showing how to hold a bird.

“You see, he’d built this bird coop and had nursed some birds back to health,” Zeke continues. “He showed me how to hold them and everything. When I read that line again , I remembered a conversation I had with that friend while we were watching his birds. We talked about flying, and what it meant to be destined to fly.

“So, when Hughes emphasizes that fact that the bird cannot fly, he means that the bird can’t reach his destiny. When you let your dreams die, you can’t reach your destiny. And if you can’t reach your destiny . . . what’s the point of life, at all?”

Zeke feels like he just talked for an hour and takes a deep breath when he’s finally done. Without warning, his classmates start to clap, all of them looking a mixture of surprised and impressed. Ra Ra throws Zeke two thumbs up and Zeke fights to stop blushing.

As he’s nodding to his classmates, the bell finally rings.

As Zeke reaches down to get his backpack, Mrs. Green taps him softly on the shoulder.

“Ezekiel,” she says.

“Ma’am?” Zeke stands up tall, wondering if he said something wrong in his explanation.

But Mrs. Green smiles broadly. “I just want you to know that I’m extremely proud of you. Not too long ago, you wouldn’t have gotten up there and explained your writing.”

“Yeah,” Ra-Ra says, appearing behind Zeke. “You said all of that like a real-deal teacher.”

“Thanks, Ra,” Zeke says, rolling his eyes good-naturedly.

“That internship has really done you well,” Mrs. Green says.

Not the internship, Zeke thinks with a small laugh. He looks back at Ra, who is smiling at Zeke like a proud dad.

“Thanks, Mrs. Green.”

Before he ends up having another life-altering conversation with Mrs. Green, he and Ra slip out of the classroom.

And Ra-Ra is talking about the merits of including lines from Marvel comics in his rhymes and how it should be cool because Dizzie is always including his cosmic shit.

But Shaolin. That’s where Zeke is right now as he rushes through the halls and out of the school. Shaolin Fantastic, no man more magic.

Zeke’s is always with Shaolin.

**

Shaolin has done everything he could to stay out of the temple today.

He left at 6 a.m. He checked out some of Dizzee’s new paint. He watched some other boys try to imitate the art of the Shaolin style and didn’t even laugh when they failed.

Shao even called up Leon and ended up helping Leon touch up a storefront without having to be asked. Leon had a little bit of an attitude with him for some reason, but they worked fast and Shaolin got some extra cash!

He did all of this just to buy his time until 2:30, when Zeke gets out of school.

Now, he’s back where he started: sitting up in the temple, trying to pretend he had other things to do.

Shaolin depends on Zeke too much; he knows it.

If he’s being completely honest, Shao barely remembers what his life was like before Zeke came crashing into it. Shao barely remembers what he was like before he saw Zeke from over that ledge.

Shao doesn’t think you’re supposed to let people have that much of you. It feels like asking for trouble. Shaolin had always kept people at least an arm’s length away. He kept his own mother away, especially when she got real bad addicted.

And when he started working for Annie? Having someone close to you became downright dangerous. Everyone knew that Annie would not hesitate to use someone you cared about against you.

But Zeke don’t do drugs and Annie is dead. And Shaolin, his guard mostly down and actually looking forward to something for once, has just flung himself into Zeke.

It’s scary , man. Zeke’s got all of Shao’s heart and at least half of his brain at any given time. That’s not cool! Especially not since Zeke--

Shaolin abruptly stops himself mid-thought; his leg starts to shake so badly it feels like the entire temple floor is shaking. Shaolin groans and leans his head back.

“Ain’t trying to go there,” Shaolin mutters to himself.

Shaolin should go there, but he keeps stopping himself. For all of his talk and lack of impulse control, Shaolin still likes to try to be a little bit prepared for whatever comes. It don’t always work out, but at least he tries!

But, right now, Shaolin isn’t even trying to prepare himself for when Zeke finally leaves the Bronx. And Shaolin.

Shaolin grips his couch cushions, closes his eyes and takes a slow, deep breath the way he’s seen Dizzee do.

It’s the only bit of that mediation shit Yolanda and Dizzee keep trying to teach him that Shaolin doesn’t think is weird. You’re supposed to take deep “cleansing” breaths whenever you got real bad stressed or riled up.

And Shaolin’s damn near always riled up.

It’s a little better now, but still.

Deep, cleansing breaths.

By the time Shaolin opens his eyes again, his hands hurt from gripping the couch so hard.

Shaolin looks down at this sore fingers and smiles a little: sometimes his fingers hurt after spinning for a long time. It don’t always happen, but it does, Shao doesn’t notice until a little while after. He’s too in-tune with the sound, with his wings. With Books.

Then Shao frowns and closes his hands.

The fall is passing. Soon it’ll be winter, then spring, then summer, then fall again. And Zeke will be heading to somebody’s college.

It’s just . . . Shaolin can’t help but wonder: who is Shaolin gonna be in tune with when Books is gone?

**

“Yo, Shaaaaaoo!”

Shao jumps. Books’s voice pulls Shao out of his terrifying thoughts. Shao relaxes his entire body, and he smiles.

Soon, Zeke’s thin frame and huge afro are taking up all of Shao’s sight.

Zeke gives Shao his lopsided grin and sprawls all over Shao before Shao can even try to get off the couch.

“You in a good mood,” Shao chuckles, moving so that he and Zeke are sitting next to each other.

Zeke shrugs and rubs Shaolin’s thigh. “Had a good day.”

“Yeah?” Shaolin asks, trying very hard to not let Zeke’s touchiness distract him. Or, at least not to let Zeke see that Zeke’s touchiness is distracting him.

But of course, Zeke studies Shaolin’s face and laughs: he knows.

“I actually read something I wrote in class. Mrs. Green was impressed. I don’t have to go to work and I’m with you,” Zeke says with his dopey grin. “So I’m good. You good?”

Zeke slings an arm around Shaolin and Shaolin presses up against Zeke. They’re turning into one of those gross couples and Shaolin wishes he cared more.

“I’m fantastic,” Shao drawls, and he knows he’s being corny but the laugh that comes from Books makes him not care. “But nah, I’m good. Checked out some of Dizzee’s new stuff.”

“He did some stuff  with Thor?”

“Don’t he do everything with Thor?” Shaolin asks with a laugh, leaning his head against Zeke’s shoulder.

(And yes, Shao does take a moment to remember that he and Zeke have no room to talk.)

Shao’s eyes flutter close again and he smiles peacefully. “I even made some money with Leon today.”

Suddenly, Zeke goes tense underneath Shao. Shao opens his eyes to see Zeke suddenly frowning, looking irritated at the very mention of Leon.

“He say some shit to you?” Zeke asks, his voice suddenly hard.

“Nah, we just painted a store front,” Shao answers cautiously. “I mean, he kinda had an attitude--”

“An attitude ?!”

“But it wasn’t a big deal, damn man,” Shao rushes out, completely taken back by Zeke’s reaction. “Shit, I thought I was the one who needed to chill out.”

Zeke blinks quickly, then sighs. He untangles himself from Shaolin and rubs his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Zeke says. “It’s just that . . . me and Leon got into it this morning.”

Shaolin looks at the tension in Zeke’s back and frowns.

“Over what?”

Zeke thinks back to Leon calling them out of their names and gets mad all over again. Then he shakes his head.

“Nothing that major. I was just mad at something he said,” Zeke lies. “Problem was, mi tía didn’t say nothing to him. Just let him talk shit. Then she got mad at me .”

“Don’t let him get to you,” Shao says, rubbing Zeke’s back. “He just mad because you fly as shit and he got a comb over.”

Zeke looks up at Shao and bursts into laughter.

“You a fool,” he says, his body shaking.

“It’s true! How’s he supposed to feel when he gotta see someone who looks so much better than him everyday?”

Zeke doubles over with laughter, feeling so much lighter. He flings his arm around Shaolin and kisses him softly.

“But for real, though, don’t worry about Leon,” Shao says softly. “I don’t think he’s worth all that.”

Shao squeezes Zeke’s shoulder and Zeke hums contentedly.

Then he grins mischievously and pulls Zeke off of the couch.

“What you need to worry about is this club me and you gone shut down,” Shaolin says deviously.

Zeke snorts and laces their fingers together. “You’re starting to sound like Ra. You still talking about Pakoussa?”

“Of course, man,” Shaolin says. “Pakoussa’s big. He the reason Mylene is damn near a superstar right now, right? I figure he can do some good things for us, too!”

“Us,” Zeke echoes, looking down at their hands. But then he bites his lips and looks up again. “You know me and you are probably the only ones going to be let in, right?”

“They’d let Dizzee in,” Shaolin reasons with a shrug. Then he pulls a face. “But, nah, Ra and Boo-Boo can’t go.”

Zeke nods thoughtfully, but then he suddenly looks sheepish.

“I don’t mean to sound rude or nothing, but I’d like it better if it’s just me and you,” Zeke says quietly.

Shaolin smiles softly and pulls Zeke as close as possible.

“You reading my mind.”

**

The ride home is never fun. Every time Zeke has to leave the temple and go back to his little ass apartment, he feels miserable and tired and old . Like a part of him has started to age rapidly and there’s nothing he can do to stop it.

Zeke can’t remember if he always felt like that; if he always felt like he was going to die whenever he stepped foot into his house. As if he needed someone else to help him be completely alive.

The subway lurches to a stop and Zeke grips the subway railing more tightly before realizing he has to get off.

Shit. Maybe he’s giving too much of his heart away. But, with Shaolin, how would that be even possible? Shaolin is his heart.

Zeke thinks about it more as he drags himself down the street and even more as he drags himself into his apartment complex.

That’s unhealthy, Zeke decides. For someone to be your everything.

Leon is Wanda’s everything and he’s trash. His father was his mother’s everything, and he was even worse. For a good chunk of his life, Zeke swore up and down that Mylene was his everything--and truly believed it, too. But he ended up being the one to let them go.

But then again, that was only because he’d found a new “everything.”

Words could be Zeke’s everything. The flow, the rhythm, the feeling just putting pen to paper gave him feels safe. Like it isn’t going anywhere.

But a person? A person can’t be your everything. People are too unreliable, too shaky. Too fragile.

People can betray you. People can hurt you. People can die.

Zeke’s mind lingers on death too long, and he starts to go very, very still as he stands in front of the door. Zeke doesn’t know if he’s not afraid of death at all or if he’s so scared that he’s become numb to the fear.

He just knows he can’t afford to hurt Shaolin and he definitely can’t afford to lose him. Because, whether it’s good or bad, Shaolin’s where his heart is. Shaolin’s home.

**

When Zeke finally opens the front door, he sees Wanda sitting there pretending not to be waiting for him.

“Hey, tía,”  Zeke says quietly.

Wanda looks up at Zeke with her eyebrows raised. She smiles, but that doesn’t make the tension on her face--and in the room--go away.

“Hey, Zeke,” Wanda says softly. Then she stands up, gives Zeke a hug and kisses him on the cheek.

Zeke, a little surprised by the hug, hugs her back tightly. When she lets him go, Wanda walks by him and heads into their kitchen to wash dishes.

She’s making Zeke nervous. Wanda fidgets as she turns the water on and Zeke knows that they’re about to have a “serious talk.”

“I was wondering when you’d get home,” Wanda says as she scrubs at a piece of old food on a plate. “I thought you’d be home earlier since you didn’t have the internship today.”

“I was . . .” Zeke trails off, distracted by the hard line of Wanda’s back. “I was hanging out with my friend.”

“Your friend Shao?” She asks, and the change in the pitch of her voice when she says Shao’s name is all Zeke needs to prepare himself for the hell he’s about to catch.

“Yes ma’am, my friend Shaolin,” Zeke says carefully.

“You been hanging out with him more than anybody,” Wanda responds, shoving her hands back into the hot, soapy water.

Zeke flinches, knowing how hot water should burn. “Shao’s my best friend.”

“Really?” Wanda’s accent thickens the tiniest bit as she replies.

Before Zeke knows it, Wanda’s done with the dishes and is facing him again.

“I thought Ra-Ra was your best friend,” Wanda says, crossing her arms over her chest.

Zeke’s face suddenly burns and his stomach drops.

“I mean, lately Shao’s been,” Zeke says feebly.

Wanda nods and sucks her teeth. Zeke, letting his hot-headed self show, suddenly feels defensive.

“But I take it you don’t like Shaolin.”

Wanda raises an eyebrow and gives Zeke a look that lets him know he’s fucking up.

“Like him? I don’t know him,” Wanda shoots back. Wanda shrugs and sets her jaw. “I ain’t never met him. You don’t ever bring him over or anything. I don’t know anything about this boy other than the fact that he has my child--”

“I’m not your child though,” Zeke mutters under his breath. Unfortunately for him, the soft muttering was enough to interrupt Wanda.

Wanda’s eyes widen and her face hardens. Without saying a word, Wanda slowly walks over to Zeke. Zeke swears that he shrinks a few inches.

“He’s got my child out all the time,” Wanda continues in a hard voice. “He’s also got him getting an attitude and talking back to the people that provide for him.”

Zeke ducks his head, staring at intently at the floor.

“I’m sorry,” he says, his voice rumbling deep in his chest.

Wanda sighs, but she softens. She puts her hand on Zeke’s face and he looks up at her.

“Zeke, I need you to be completely  honest with me about him,” Wanda starts.

Zeke instantly feels scared. He silently begs his tía to end this conversation, but he nods at her anyway.

“Who exactly is Shaolin to you?” Wanda asks.

Zeke freezes: this isn’t a conversation he ever even thought about having with her.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Wanda huffs and drops her hand, looking around the room as if it will bring them both clarity, “I mean, is he more than a friend ? Because, Zeke, I’ve never seen you react the way you reacted to Leon this morning.”

Shit. Shit, shit, shit. Zeke hangs his head again and rubs the back of his neck.

“I’m sorry about how I was this morning with Leon. I just wasn’t feeling well,” Zeke tries.

And he fails, because Wanda instantly knows he’s lying.

“Don’t try to talk around this,” Wanda says, her voice sounding tired. Wanda lowers her voice. “Look, Zeke, I’m not trying to judge you or anything like that. I just . . . I want what’s best for you. I want you to be safe, and I want you to be happy.”

Zeke doesn’t respond, his mind still caught up in the question his aunt is asking. He feels himself starting to panic. He sees images of Wanda crossing herself, of the old rosaries she still keeps in her dresser drawer.

His heart slams in his chest. Wanda went to Mass all the time before her sister died. Lingering sermons play in Zeke’s mind. Sin and hellfire. Judgement and banishment.

His throat starts to tighten and he feels weak.

But, okay.

Dizzee’s done it. Yolanda’s done it. Shit, even Mylene has done it.

“Ezekiel, you have to know that I love you,” Wanda says, not noticing the storm in Zeke’s eyes. “I just need to know--”

“Shaolin’s my boyfriend,” Zeke declares.

The room goes quiet. Zeke makes himself stand up straight and look Wanda in her eyes.

Wanda looks right back at Zeke, her eyes wide, her mouth slightly open. She and Zeke just look at one another, like they’ve never seen each other before.

Near tears and feeling like he might fall over at any second, Zeke gathers the rest of his bravery and keeps talking.

“We been official for a few months,” he says.

“Months?” The word is a squeak, barely escaping Wanda’s throat. It’s like she suddenly lost her voice.

Zeke nods stiffly.

“You weren’t ever gonna tell me?” She asks, sounding betrayed.

“I didn’t know how,” Zeke tells her with a small shrug, hoping the movement does something to ease the tears he feels coming.. “Didn’t know how you’d respond. If you’d still want me around or anything.”

“Zeke,” Wanda says urgently, putting both of her hands on Zeke’s shoulders, “you are my child . You been my child since I found out your mother was pregnant with you. I love you . . . no matter who you love.”

The last phrase is said hesitantly, but it’s said.

“Really?” The word barely comes out though the rush of tears.

Yes . I love you, Ezekiel!”

Without another word, Wanda pulls Zeke into a fierce hug. And Zeke, more tired and relieved and sick than he’s been in a while, lets himself sink into it. His eyes flutter close and, for a moment, he remembers that people can surprise you, too.

“I love you, too.”

**

It’s a little chilly in the temple.

The wind blows through one of the busted windows on the floor above Shaolin’s and finds its way to Shaolin’s body.

Normally, cold air would keep Shao awake. (Not that keeping Shao awake is a particularly hard thing to do.) But he’s tired tonight. His body is too loose; he doesn’t have enough energy to to be super alert.

All Shaolin has energy to do is wrap himself up with the expensive pillow and blankets he stole and lay himself down on the thick mattress he haggled for.

The thin, cold air dances over Shaolin’s skin as his heavy eyelids begin to slide shut. When Shaolin gets money--real money--he’s getting a real place. It could be small. It could be raggedy. It just had to be real .

And have a heater. And non-stolen electricity and water.

Decoration ideas pass groggily through Shaolin’s brain. He’d make it up like the old temple use to be: lights, tapestries, red everywhere.

And his records. Not just records he owns, but ones he’s made. Golden plagues on the walls with the names of the Get Down Brothers etched into them forever. His name, Dizzee’s name, Boo-Boo and Ra-Ra’s names.

And Zeke’s name. Ezekiel “Books” Figuero. His wordsmith.

Shaolin . . . he wonders what Zeke’s doing right now. Zeke’s not really one for sleeping: too many words travel through his mind. Beautiful, world-changing words. Everyone should hear Zeke’s words, Shaolin thinks. Everyone.

He might be writing. Or thinking about writing. Is he thinking about Shaolin? About colleges? About neither?

Shaolin feels a sudden warmth as he thinks about Zeke must be thinking about. Zeke takes up too much of his brain.

His . . . slow, foggy brain. Not like Books’s brain. Books is sharp, fast. Book-smart.

Tonight’s certainly not the first time thoughts of Zeke are Shao’s lullabies. They’re more soothing than any song; they warm him up more than any blanket. Even the cold wind that finds its way to Shao can’t compete.

Shao finally drifts away into sleep. He sighs and sinks into his makeshift bed, letting sleep carry him away.

**

Shaolin may drift off to sleep a little easier, but that does not mean he sleeps any harder.

Shaolin will still wake up at the slightest sound, change of light, or if he feels like someone’s in the room with him. He’ll still jump out of bed and grab the first weapon-like thing (nowadays it’s his big-ass katana that Mylene keeps telling him to get rid of) and start swinging it.

Old habits die hard and hard-formed habits never die at all. It’s just how he is.

So when Shaolin hears the slightest creak of the floor and feels someone coming into the room, his eyes immediately fly open and he sits straight up.

“Easy, grasshopper, it’s just me.”

Grandmaster Flash’s voice instantly relaxes Shao. Shao stops reaching for his katana and goes to get out of bed.

“You don’t have to get up or anything,” Grandmaster says with a laugh. “It’s late. I’m in your space while you were sleeping. I don’t expect you to be mobile or anything.”

“What’s going on, Grandmaster?” Shao asks. “You don’t show up at night like this.”

Grandmaster walks over to Shao’s couch and takes a seat. He sits directly in the bright beam of moonlight that has come through the window Shaolin could’ve sworn he’d stacked a bunch of stuff in front of. The light reflects off of Grandmaster’s smile. He literally looks like magic.

Shit, when am I gonna reach this magic ass level ? Shaolin thinks before shaking his head and focusing on Grandmaster again.

Grandmaster chuckles again. “The night seems to be the only way to catch you nowadays, grasshopper. I haven’t laid eyes on you in daylight in a while.”

“Oh,” Shaolin says, suddenly feeling embarrassed for some reason. “I’ve, uh, been busy. With the Get Down.”

“Oh, I know; your sound is spreading,” Grandmaster says proudly. “The Get Down Brothers are contagious. And truly amazing.”

Shaolin smiles, draping his elbows over his knees.

“Thanks, Grandmaster,” he says gratefully. Then he feels confused again. “Is there something you need me to do?”

Grandmaster smiles softly and shakes his head. “Not do. But I do want to talk about your future.”

Shaolin frowns, feeling tense at the mention of anything past right now.

“What do you mean ‘my future?’”

“I mean, how far do you plan on going with your brothers? And your wordsmith?”

Books. Shaolin deflates and his stomach hits the floor.

“You want to know what I’m going to do when he goes to college,” Shaolin states flatly. “Well, I don’t know. I can’t give you an answer.”

Grandmaster looks at Shaolin thoughtfully. “You’ve discussed this with yourself many times before.”

“Yeah, I have,” Shaolin responds, staring off into space, replying the thoughts in his head.

“But you refuse to discuss it with your wordsmith,” Grandmaster supplies.

Shaolin closes his eyes and nods. He starts to rock back and forth, feeling the anxiety rise in him.

“Shaolin,” Grandmaster says soothingly.

“I know,” Shaolin interrupts, his voice weakening. “I know.”

Grandmaster slides off of the couch and puts his arm around Shaolin. Shaolin tenses for a moment, still having to make himself be comfortable with touch. Then he relaxes, allowing himself to be held by Grandmaster.

“I know you’re in love with him,” Grandmaster says.

Shaolin snorts and ducks his head in embarrassment.

“I never told you that,” Shaolin grumbles.  

Grandmaster rolls his eyes at Shaolin. “And you never had to tell me, Shaolin. You know that by now. I knew you were gone for that boy the first time I saw you two together.”

“You didn’t say anything back then,” Shaolin says meekly, looking up at Grandmaster. “The only time you even sorta mentioned it was when we had the conversation a while back. About me telling the crew.”

Grandmaster looks at Shaolin in bemusement and squeezes his shoulder.

“I’ve . . . been there before,” Grandmaster tells him quietly.

Shaolin looks at Grandmaster, more than a little shocked by what that statement sounds like. Grandmaster looks at Shaolin and, for the first time since Shao’s known him, looks a little shy.

“It’s something we aren’t really free to talk about that much,” Grandmaster says.

“Pakoussa’s pretty free,” Shaolin mutters, picturing the flamboyant DJ.

“And he still pays dearly for that freedom,” Grandmaster retorts. “He won’t never let anyone know how much, but he does.”

Shaolin sighs and starts to shrink in on himself. He thinks about all times someone’s called him out of his name just because they picked up on something Shao didn’t even know yet. Worse yet, he thinks about all the time he’s called someone else out of their name just because it made him feel some type of way.

And that word. It comes up all the time in people’s rhymes. Never in Zeke’s rhymes. But the Notorious 3 say it all the time. And even though they paid for it the last time they directed it towards Shao, it didn’t leave his mind.

And God knows Cadillac called him it so much Shao sometimes wondered if he was saying because he couldn’t remember Shaolin’s actual name.

“I know,” Shaolin says softly. “I know he does.”

Grandmaster pulls Shaolin closer to him while Shaolin stares at the floor. Shaolin keeps wondering how his life ended up like this --keeps questioning what made him destined to end up here--but there’s only one answer for his questions.

“I didn’t really have nothing before I met Zeke,” Shaolin tells Grandmaster.  “No crew, no new sound. No nothing. I was all alone, you know?”

Shaolin looks up at Grandmaster, who smiles at him sympathetically.

“Oh, I know. I know all too well.”

“I mean, I thought that I got used to being alone, and that I’d be okay no matter what,” Shaolin continues.

Shaolin feels his anxiety begin to rise at the very mention of being alone again. His muscles tighten: he’s bracing himself for the hit Shao’s sure will come. The hit that’s always coming.

“I thought I’d be good,” Shaolin says, having the push the words out of his tight throat. He thinks of his Brothers, and his throat tightens even more. “But now . . .”

But now Shaolin can’t speak: he bites the inside of his cheek and starts to squeeze the life out of himself. Shaolin starts to twitch; his loneliness is heavy. No one’s even left yet, but Shaolin’s loneliness is still heavy.

Maybe that’s because it never quite left. Maybe it’s because, as used to having this family as Shaolin’s gotten, there’s still a part of him that knows he’ll always be alone.

Shaolin can have the music. He can have Zeke. He can have Ra, Dizz, Boo, Mylene. He can even have Yolanda and Regina. But he’ll still be alone.

Shaolin starts to tremble, feeling like he might break under the weight of all this.

And Grandmaster Flash, solid, calm and almost surreally-kind to Shao, holds onto to him, trying his best to steady the boy in his arms.

“I have faith in you, Shao,” Grandmaster’s deep voice lifts some of the weight from Shao’s back. “You’ll be okay. I know it.”

Of course Grandmaster knows that. Shaolin just wishes he knew it, too.

**

Zeke didn’t sleep. Didn’t even close his eyes.

After he and Wanda’s little conversation, Zeke put on his pajamas and curled up on his bed with his eyes wide open. Zeke just . . . lied there, all night long.

He thought of his mother. And even now, with the sun slowly crawling up, he’s still thinking of his mother. What she would’ve said about him and Shaolin.

He can’t imagine her not saying almost the exact same thing. What didn’t you tell me? I want you to be happy. I love you.

Zeke knows what his father would’ve said. You can’t have no boyfriend. Shut the fuck up. I didn’t raise a fag.

Zeke will never understand how his mother ended up with that man. Just like he’ll never understand how his tía ended up with--

Yo, Zeke!  ¡Levántate!”

That man .

Before Leon can even think about yelling his name again, Zeke snatches the curtain back and hops up from his bed.

Leon jumps, surprised to see Zeke up so soon and startled by how quickly Zeke jumped up. Then he squints at Zeke and pulls a face.

“You look like Hell, boy,” Leon comments.

“Good morning to you, too, Leon,” Zeke says flatly, exhaustion painting his voice.

“At least you in a better mood this morning,” Leon says, looking at Zeke as if he’d grown another head.

Zeke nods and the movement almost makes his fatigued ass fall over.

“I’m sorry about yesterday morning. I was disrespectful.”

“Oh, you ain’t gotta apologize to me. You just better have apologized to your aunt for coming in late-- again,” Leon retorts, tossing the words over his shoulder as he walks over to the kitchen.

“She told you I came in late last night?” Panic starts to rise in Zeke, but he works to calm himself down. Because if Wanda had told Leon anything else about last night, Leon would not be talking to Zeke like this.

“Of course she did,” Leon says as he buries his head in the fridge, “what?” Leon stands up holding the carton of eggs in his hands, “You didn’t think she’d keep it a secret or something, did you?”

Zeke blinks at Leon very slowly, still processing the fact that Wanda really didn’t tell Leon anything about Shaolin.

Leon frowns at Zeke and takes a couple of steps back from him, as if Zeke has a contagious disease.

“You must didn’t get no sleep at all ?” Leon asks skeptically. “Because . . . you ain’t acting like yourself.”

“Nah, none at all,” Zeke says, shaking his head and rubbing his eyes.

“Why not?”

Zeke hears the suspicion dripping from Leon’s voice and can only shrug.

“Just . . . a lot going through my head.”

“Okay,” Leon’s voice trails as he turns his back to Zeke and starts taking out pots and pans.

Zeke watches Leon for a moment, then turns around to grab some clothes for school. All of sudden, Leon whips around and grabs Zeke’s shoulder, spinning him back around to face him.

“Aight, don’t lie to me--you on drugs?” Leon demands hastily, shooting his eyes down the hall, looking for Wanda.

“Huh?” Zeke asks, his mind too bogged-down to fully process this early morning madness.

“You heard me. Are you on drugs?”

Before Zeke can answer, Leon pulls him closer and practically sticks his whole ass nose in Zeke’s fro.

“What the hell are you doing?!” Zeke cries, trying to pull away from Leon.

“You don’t smell like nothing,” Leon mutters to himself, ignoring Zeke’s protests. “But that don’t mean you ain’t on nothing.”

While Leon is busying trying to figure out what drugs Zeke might be doing, Zeke sees his opportunity: he snatches his arm away so hard that Leon stumbles forward.

“What the fuck is your problem?” Leon has the nerve to ask.

“My problem is you , man!” Zeke yells in frustration. “Why you thinking I’m on drugs?!”

“Because I knew yo’ daddy!” Leon shoots back. “And you startin’ to act like him!”

The words make Zeke go statute-still. The headache he was developing turns into a hard pounding in his head and he starts to feel hot all over.

“That’s right! You acting like him!” Leon continues, noticing the look on Zeke’s face. “Hanging around some kid we don’t know. Coming in late. Not coming at all! And when you are here, you not sleeping and acting a damn fool all the time!”

Zeke closes his eyes and flares his nostrils. He tries to take deep breathes to calm himself down, but it’s not working. The fury that’s been building at the pit of his stomach starts to spread upwards. Zeke feels like he’s burning.

“I’m not like my dad,” Zeke growls, his jaw set and his eyes burning. “And I’d greatly appreciate if you backed off and didn’t say that again.”

Leon raised an eyebrow at Zeke and scoffs.

“I don’t why you keep forgetting you ain’t no man in this house, but you don’t tell me what to say.”

“Leon . . .” Zeke’s trying to hold it together, but he feels himself beginning to crack. Zeke wants to get away from Leon, to go anywhere else, or to at least go to sleep.

But Leon just won’t leave him alone.

“Who the fuck you trying to get tough with?” Leon presses. “You don’t call no shots around here.”

Zeke is literally biting his tongue when Leon takes a step towards him and gets in his face.

“You need to calm yo’ lil ass down,” Leon says threatening. And he pokes Zeke hard in the chest.

And Zeke loses it.

“I SAID BACK OFF, LEON,” Zeke barks, his deep voice echoing through the whole apartment. “GET OUT MY FACE!”

The shouting startles Leon, but Leon still doesn’t back down. HIs eyes go wide and he looks at Zeke as if Zeke is a wild dog.

“Leon,” Zeke snarls, feeling his hands starting to shake. The corner Leon’s boxed Zeke into is getting smaller and smaller.

And, right on cue, Wanda rushes out of her room, looking angry and shocked.

“Is this going to be every morning with you two?!” Wanda shouts, flailing her jacket around.

Before either of them can answer, Wanda is standing in-between them.

“Because if it is, one of you is going to have to go ,” Wanda yells, stunning both Zeke and Leon into stunning. “Because I’m not dealing with this bullshit every morning. You two aren’t going to keep coming at each other like that! You either get along or get out!

Zeke flinches at Wanda’s words and looks over her shoulder at Leon. Leon’s just as struck and intimidated, but he’s trying to still look tough.

That is, until Wanda turns and looks at him with a hard gaze.

“You aren’t going to keep coming at him like that, Leon,” Wanda says, her voice soft, but threatening. “You got it?”

As much as he tries to hide it, Leon’s shock is still clear on his face. Leon nods stiffly. Wanda turns her head back to Zeke; Zeke nods, too, still shaking ever-so-slightly.

Without another word, Wanda snatches her purse and keys off of the table.

“Where you goin’?” Leon asks, dumbfounded by how fast she’s moving.

“To work,” she grumbles, and before either of them can respond, Wanda leaves, slamming the door behind her.

In the stillness she leaves behind, Zeke and Leon can’t do anything but look at each other awkwardly. Then Zeke, who honestly feels like he might suffocate at any moment, grabs his stuff and rushes into the bathroom, locking the door behind him.

The moment that Zeke’s alone, everything Leon said starts kicking him in the chest. Zeke thinks of how his father was whenever he was on drugs. He’d be angry, jumpy, and paranoid. His father’s favorite thing to do while he was high was make Zeke’s mother cry. When Zeke closes his eyes, he can still see the pain in her eyes.

Zeke hated him for that.

Zeke doesn’t even try to stop himself from crying: he lets the sobs tear through him. He presses his back against the door, leans his head back, and lets the sobs tear through him.

Zeke couldn’t tell you if he’s crying because of Leon, because of Wanda, or because he’s still crying from last night. He can’t quite place where all these tears--all this pain--began. But Zeke lets it out, lets the tears force themselves out of him. He’s too tired to stop them, anyway.

**

“Yo, Shaolin! You awake?”

Shaolin jolts awake, his body tense, at the sound of loud knocking on the door. He hears someone call his name and slowly inches towards his katana.

“Don’t be grabbing no weapon!” the voice calls.

Shaolin freezes in his tracks, glaring at the door as if his worst enemy is about to come bursting through.

“Who is it?!”

“It’s just us--Mylene, Yolanda and Regina!”

Shaolin realizes that the voice is, in fact, Mylene. He hops out of bed and pulls on some clothes. Shaolin’s not quite sure what time it is, but he knows that it’s not time for school to be out yet.

Shaolin opens the door and Mylene, Yolanda and Regina prance in like they own the place.

“You hiding Zeke in here?” Regina immediately asks, looking around like a detective.

“Zeke?” Shaolin asks, immediately worried. “Nah. He’s not at school? Where you are supposed to be?”

“Nope,” Yolanda says, flopping down on Shao’s couch. “We were waiting for him and he never came.” Yolanda nods towards Mylene and raises an eyebrow. “Mylene here figured you’d dragged him here instead.”

“I did not say that!” Mylene says in embarrassment, shooting Yolanda a look. “I said that Zeke may’ve come over here instead. I said nothing about Shao dragging him.”

Yolanda sticks her tongue out at Mylene and Mylene blushes. Shaolin shakes his head and wonders about his life.

“First of all, you definitely said that,” Shaolin says to Mylene’s chagrin. “Second of all, Zeke hasn’t been by here today. At all.”

Shaolin’s stomach starts to twist as he realizes what he just said. Zeke’s not here and he’s not at school. Shaolin’s seen too much shit go down to not instantly be anxious.

“Huh, that’s weird. Thought he’d be here,” Mylene mumbles, pulling a face.

She looks over to Yolanda, who looks just as confused.

“Where else does he go? You think he’d still be at home?” Yolanda asks, staring off into space with a pensive look on her face.

“No, he gets out of there as fast as possible these days,” Shao mumbles, his mind starting to race. “Especially not with Leon around.”

Mylene scrunches her nose up. “I almost forgot about Leon. Yeah, Zeke wouldn’t stay at home if Leon is still there.”

“Where you think he at, Shao?” Regina’s voice calls, pulling Shao out of his thoughts.

Shaolin turns around, ready to respond, when he realizes that Regina isn’t in the room with them. In fact, he has no idea where Regina’s voice is coming from.

“Girl, where you at?” Shaolin calls.

“In this other room, with all these record wrappings!” Regina yells. “Where you got ‘Shaolin Figuero’ written on all these papers.”

“Get outta there!” Shaolin yells. He spins in the direct of Regina’s voice, so deeply embarrassed that being dead probably wouldn’t fix it.

Regina comes out of the room, but she’s carrying the scribblings with her.

“What? These are cute! You got nice handwriting,” she comments. “But why don’t you ever put ‘Zeke Fantastic?’”

“That’s not what Zeke’s name would be if he and Shao got married, though,” Yolanda adds. “It’d have to be whatever Shaolin’s real last name is.”

“Oh my Gooooood,” Shaolin groans, rubbing his temples.

“Yeah--what is your last name?” Mylene asks, scrunching her eyebrows together. “Matter of fact, what’s your real first name? It can’t be ‘Shaolin.’”

“Oh, is it ‘Shaun?’ Or ‘Shane?’” Yolanda asks brightly, perking up if as they were playing a game.

“Or does it not start with a ‘S’ at all?” Regina asks, giggling at the absolute distress on Shao’s face.

“Did you come over to ask me all these damn questions or were you looking for Zeke?!” Shaolin  shouts, feeling like he might sink through the floor at any second.

“Both,” Yolanda says, winking at Shao as she stretches out on his couch.

“Nah, ma, you are not about to come over here, make me panic about not knowing where Zeke is, make fun of me, and then stretch out on my couch!” Shao exclaims, starting to feel a little dizzy.

“Oh, don’t worry about Zeke,” Regina says casually. “He’s a big boy. He can handle himself.”

Shaolin tries to burn a hole in the side of Regina’s head, but she doesn’t seem to care.

“He might be with my uncle,” Mylene muses.

Shaolin frowns and looks over at Mylene.

“Why would he be with Francisco now though?” Shaolin mumbles.

Mylene shrugs, but Shaolin catches her glance at Yolanda real quick.

“I mean, they may just be talking about internship stuff,” Mylene says. “Especially since Zeke wasn’t feeling school today.”

“Or college stuff,” Yolanda volunteers from the couch.

Shao catches Yolanda shooting a look towards Mylene and starts to feel on-edge.

College stuff . The words freak Shao out. What if that is where Zeke is? What if he’s sitting around somewhere with Mylene’s slick politician of an uncle, planning suit-and-tie future? What if he’s already told Mylene and that’s why she brought it up??

Shaolin glares at them and sticks his chin up.

“You sure about that, Lene?” he asks.

Mylene rolls her eyes and laughs softly.

“Chill out, Shao. I’m sure Zeke is fine,” Mylene says reassuringly.

“Yep,” Regina adds, draping her arm on Shao’s shoulder, “just fine.”

Shao sees that Regina’s still looking at his scribblings and snarls at her. Regina looks at him, pouts, and tosses the papers onto the floor.

“So anyway,” Mylene says in her meeting-with-white-folks voice, “I was actually going to come by here after school because I wanted to give you and Zeke something.”

Shaolin looks at all three of them in turns and groans.

“What is it?” he mutters with distrust.

Yolanda and Regina laugh and Mylene pulls out a half-sheet of paper.

“The first thing is my new address,” she says proudly.

“New address?” Shaolin echoes, reading the paper Mylene hands him.

Mylene grins. “We finally got a bigger place that does not have my father’s name anywhere on it.”

“That record label money good for something,” Shaolin mutters. He’s been by the apartment complex Mylene and her mama are living in: it’s way nicer than where they were before.

“And the second,” Mylene says, pulling out a flyer, “is an invite.”

Shaolin takes the bright purple flyer and his eyes widen. It’s a flyer for Mylene and the Soul Madonnas’s performance at Pakoussa’s.

We were planning on hitting up Pakoussa,” Shaolin says.

“Really?” Yolanda asks, her eyes lighting up, sitting up on the couch.

“Yeah. We saw what he did for you guys and figured me and Books would come through,” Shaolin replies, looking at the glossy picture of the girls on the flyer.

“You think Pakoussa’s people would let you in?” Regina asks. “They don’t usually let dudes like you two in.”

“I mean, they should ,” Shaolin stammers, “since me and Books are . . . you know . . .”

“I mean, yeah, but you guys don’t really dress like everyone else there,” Regina says.

Shaolin blushes and starts to fidget. The way he and Zeke dress has crossed his mind. But he doesn’t think he could dress like some of the other people in Pakoussa’s place. If Shao’s being honest, he’s afraid that he’d look ugly. Zeke’s probably pretty enough for some of those clothes. But Shao’s not so sure about himself.

“Why would that matter?” Shao asks defensively. “It’s not like you guys are walking around in drag makeup all the time.”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t really matter with us. As long as we can make ‘em move, they don’t care,” Regina replies, wiggling her hips at Shao.

“Why’d you bring her over here?” Shao asks Mylene in distress.

“Oh, just ignore Regina,” Yolanda says, hopping up from the couch and booty-bumping Regina away from Shaolin. “She was raised by wolves.”

“You got that right, sugar,” Regina mutters, flipping her hair and giving them a wicked smile.

Mylene rolls her eyes at her friends and laughs. “So, you gonna come? Maybe see how the crowd is for when you and Zeke come through?”

“Yeah, if he’s alive and all that,” Shao grumbles.

“Zeke is just fine, Shaolin,” Mylene says with faux-exasperation. “Relax.”

“Says you,” Shaolin mumbles as gives him a hug.

The girls start for the door, leaving Shaolin standing there with a disgruntled look on his face.

“You just make sure neither of you forget about us!” Mylene calls back brightly. “And stop worrying about Zeke!”

“Yeah, whatever,” Shaolin says, glaring at them.

Byyyyeeee, Shao,” Regina calls back.

“Get out of my house , Regina!”

The girls laugh, and Yolanda blows him a kiss as they leave.

And Shaolin’s just standing there, holding the flyer, wondering how in the hell those three manage to turn his whole day upside down at 10:30 in the morning.

Zeke .

Shaolin grabs his hat and jacket, stuffs the flyer in his pocket, and heads out.

“ ‘Don’t worry about Zeke’ my ass.”

**

Zeke was planning on going to school today. He really was.

After he (finally) stopped fucking crying, Zeke had thrown his clothes on, washed his face, brushed his teeth, and was out of the apartment before Leon could even look at him good. Zeke walked to school with the full intent of walking in.

It’s just that when he actually stood in front of the school, Zeke decided to walk right past it.

Tía’s gonna kick his ass when Mrs. Green calls her and says that Zeke didn’t show up. Zeke might actually up on the streets for this. But he’s having a hard time making himself care right now.

Zeke was not feeling school. He was not feeling class, no homework assignments, no nothing. Zeke just wanted to go somewhere to clear his mind.

As if on autopilot, Zeke’s feet had started carrying him in the direction of the temple. But then he stopped himself. It wasn’t even 8:00 at the time.

So he walked to the park, sat on the rocks, and stared off into space. And, because he couldn’t help himself, he replayed the argument over and over again.

Some kid we don’t know . . . that drop out . . . Leon’s words hold Zeke in place and Zeke feels rage all over again.

Leon doesn’t know Shaolin. He doesn’t know the first fucking thing about Shaolin. Leon doesn’t know shit about Zeke either. Leon has no idea. He just thinks Zeke is some kid he got stuck with. He doesn’t care about Zeke and he damn sure doesn’t care about Zeke’s friends.

Shaolin . Behind his closed eyes, Shaolin smiles serenely at Zeke. The thought soothes him, but soon Leon’s words start rearing their ugly heads again.

I knew yo’ daddy . Leon has no business even mentioning Zeke’s dad. Ever. But you know what? Zeke’s kind of glad Leon did. Now he knows just how Leon sees him: as a bum, someone who’s not worthwhile at all.

But that’s nothing new: Zeke can count on two hands the number of people who have seen something in him, who didn’t just write him off as a rat slinking around in the slums. Zeke didn’t even see something in himself for a long time.

But now he knows who he is: he’s a king. He’ll always be a king. And he’ll rule as a king. Alongside his king.

Zeke shoves his hands into his jacket pockets and tries to stop himself from shaking. He closes his eyes and his mind immediately goes to Shaolin again.  

Even if Zeke won’t physically be with Shaolin, he’s always there mentally. And that’s probably good and bad, considering the fact that he has no idea what’s gonna happen to him and Shaolin soon. As much as Zeke likes to think about ruling the world with his one and only, real life keeps interrupting him. And real life doesn’t ever let Zeke have good things for too long.

A gust of wind hits Zeke and he shivers: left-over cold from last night. Zeke’s eyes flutter open and he looks down at his watch. 10:45 a.m. He’s been sitting at this park for three damn hours.

Zeke’s not trying to spend his whole day in the park and he refuses to go back home. Zeke starts to feel jittery. He hops off of the rocks feeling like his soul is quivering.

Ra has always made fun of Zeke for being super sensitive, and Zeke feels that now: his emotions start to pull him again and threaten to drag him under.

So he keeps walking. He has no idea where he’s walking, but he keeps pushing. He wants to outpace the anger, and the sadness, and the fear. He wants to run, but Zeke knows better than to take off running in the middle of the Bronx.

But he’s got to go . Zeke’s got to get out of here. He’s just . . . he’s gotta go. Zeke’s gotta get free.

**

“Ezekiel?”

The familiar voice stops him dead in his track, and he turns around to face it.

“Papa Fuerte?” Zeke asks.

Sure enough, there is Francisco, coming out of a store with a bag.

“What are you doing here?” Francisco asks. “You should be in school.”

Zeke’s eyes drop to the bag in Francisco’s hand, and he looks at it quizzically.

“What are you doing here? You should be at the office,” Zeke responds.

Francisco looks down at this bag and smiles sheepishly.

“They sell my favorite churros,” he says with a shrug.

Zeke looks at Francisco for a moment, and then starts to laugh. The movement loosens his tense body; he can breathe again.

Francisco beckons to him, nodding his head towards a table out in front of the store.

“Sit down with me, mijo,” Francisco says, smiling warmly.

Zeke sits, allowing his body to relax in the seat. Francisco sits across from him and looks him in his eyes.

“What’s wrong? Did something happen this morning?”

Zeke sighs and nods. “I got into a bad fight with mí tia’s  boyfriend. He . . . just doesn’t like me.”

Francisco frowns. “Well, I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t like you. You’re a very smart, strong young man. What was the fight about?”

“Well, he said he thought I was on drugs.”

“Are you on drugs?”

“No sir,” Zeke shakes his head, then starts to deflate. “My dad was on drugs. I . . . don’t wanna ever be like that.”

Francisco nods, giving Zeke a contemplative look.

“I know what you mean,” he says. “Drugs ruin lives. Turn whole worlds upside down.”

“They do,” Zeke agrees softly. “Plus, I don’t think it was really about that.”

“What was it about, then?”

Zeke thinks about last night and feels his face burn bright red.

“My friends,” Zeke answers. “Especially my best friend. Leon thinks he’s no good.”

“Ah,” Francisco replies. “I understand that. Your best friend is your whole world at this age.”

Francisco looks up at Zeke and sees that Zeke’s eyes are far away from here.

“Yeah,” Zeke murmurs. “He is.”  Then, louder: “He thinks I’m going to end up doing the wrong thing with my life.”

“You don’t seem like it to me,” Francisco notes. “You’re doing well in the internship. You have the music you’re working on. You’re doing well in school--even though you’re not there today.”

Zeke laughs and ducks his head. “Thank you, sir.”

“And you’re heading off to college next fall. You’re getting away from here.”

College. Away from the Bronx. Away from The Get Down and away from Shao.

“I know,” Zeke says, his shoulders slumping. “All the schools Mrs. Green have had me do applications for are either upstate or out of the state completely.”

Which . . . is something Zeke has yet to tell Shaolin. Or anyone for that matter. And it’s definitely something that’s been yanking at Zeke’s spirit.

At the beginning of the year, Mrs. Green came in with a stack of brochures of schools for Zeke to look into. He didn’t have the heart to tell her that his interest in college was rapidly dwindling, so he looked into them.

The thing is, Zeke actually found himself wanting to apply to a couple.

But maybe Zeke shouldn’t have told Mrs. Green that, because she got a little bit overly excited and somehow convinced Zeke to turn in applications for schools that were nowhere near the Bronx. NYU, Columbia. This artistic school called Juilliard. The University of motherfucking Pennsylvania . Zeke was overwhelmed and not feeling it.

There’s only one school on Mrs. Green’s list that didn’t scare Zeke. It’s a school called Fordham and, amazingly, it’s actually not that far from the Bronx Zoo. Zeke could actually go there and not have to leave the crew.

But it’s also expensive as fuck . The only Zeke is getting there is if either he gets a shit-load of money to go or suddenly becomes rich between September and next August.

Francisco tilts his head at Zeke. “You don’t seem to excited about that,” he comments, pulling Zeke out of his thoughts.

“I mean, I just don’t want to go too far away,” Zeke explains. “I still want to be able to see Shaolin. And the crew,” he adds, hoping that Francisco didn’t notice the way he singled out Shao.

(Francisco does notice, but he’s not in the business of interrogating people about things like that. That’s his brother’s department.)

“Well, you know moving forward usually means having to make some sacrifices,” Francisco says carefully, not wanting to dismiss Zeke’s feelings.

Zeke sighs and drags a hand down his face. “I know. Shaolin’s gonna be that sacrifice, right?” Zeke flinches: he did it again .

Francisco notices again, too, but still: “Maybe. But, I think, with a bond as strong as the one you two seem to have, you won’t lose anything by going away to college.”

Zeke looks at Francisco skeptically. “You think so? You aren’t just saying that?”

“Yes,” Francisco assures him, his voice sincere. “I think so. You guys are close; I don’t think any distance can really do you harm.”

The words sound like the sweetest promise, but Zeke is hesitant to truly believe them. He glances down at the table and his hand starts to twitch.

Francisco sees the uncertainty in Zeke and leans towards him.

“Ezekiel, I believe that when you care for someone--really, truly care for someone--you work it out. It may take some time, but you work it out,” Francisco says.

Zeke looks up at Francisco. Zeke can see that this isn’t just about him and Shaolin, but he’s starting to think that maybe that isn’t so bad. Because if Francisco and Lydia could find a way to come back together after all that time and all that bullshit, he might know what he’s talking about.

Zeke thinks about what he’d do to be with Shaolin, what he’s already done to be with Shaolin. They’ve been through so much; they been close to death. And the only way they got through it was by getting through it together.

If none of that tore them apart, maybe college wouldn’t either.

Zeke smiles softly and stands up from the table.

“Thanks, Papa Fuerte,” Zeke says, reaching his hand out to Francisco.

Francisco smiles and grips Zeke’s hand firmly.

“Any time, mijo.”

**

Anyone who sees Shaolin right now probably thinks he’s lost his mind.

Shaolin’s grumbling to himself; he has been since he walked out of the temple. He goes between cursing out Mylene, Yolanda and especially Regina to wondering aloud where Zeke is to wondering aloud if Shaolin just needs to go back home and take his ass to sleep.

Shaolin, hands shoved deep into his pockets and body tense, pushes through the surprisingly cold wind, muttering to himself about his so-called friends and how they’re ruining his life.

It’s just . . . Mylene was super chill about the fact she didn’t know where Zeke was. And she was super chill about the fact that Zeke was maybe with Francisco to talk about the “future.”

Shaolin doesn’t even know why Mylene bring up her uncle like that: Francisco’s been a weird topic for Mylene for a while, what with him turning their whole family upside-down. But, Mylene was the one who talked Zeke into taking the internship with her uncle in the first place. So, it does make sense if Mylene and Francisco were still talking about Zeke’s future without Shao’s (or even Zeke’s) input.

And this whole thing about college . Yolanda brought it up and gave Mylene that weird look.

Shao smells a rat--an overly-bookish rat that lives miles and miles away and doesn’t ever check-in with his brothers. This whole thing rubs Shao the wrong way.

Shaolin would keep stomping and grumbling if Dizzee voice doesn’t stop him in his tracks.

“Hey, Shao!” Dizzee calls, sounding chipper.

Shaolin spins around on his heels, confused and slightly annoyed.

“What are you doing here?!”

Dizzee smiles serenely and holds up wrapped-up food. “This place has good churros.”

Shao rolls his eyes, feeling anxious and itchy. “I mean, what are you doing out? It’s early, man. Shouldn’t you be . . . somewhere?”

Dizzee shrugs. “I like being out early. The cosmic energies are strongest both in the morning and late at night, you know what I mean?”

“I rarely know what you mean, Diz,” Shao says, his voice starting to shake. Shao tenses as another gust of cold air hits him. The seasons are changing too fast.

Dizzee, who seems to not even feel the wind, frowns and tilts his head at Shao.

“What’s wrong? You seem so nervous and uneasy,” Dizzee observes, looking at Shao with genuine concern.

Shaolin bites the inside of his jaw: he doesn’t want to end up spilling his guts to Dizzee this early on a Tuesday morning while standing on the sidewalk in front of some ma-and-pop churro joint. But there’s something about Dizzee that makes it hard to keep stuff from him, especially with Shaolin being so stressed.

Shao sighs. “Mylene came over to the temple looking for Zeke because Zeke apparently didn’t go to school. And I’m worried because you know how shit goes in the Bronx.”

Dizzee nods wisely. “I know. And I bet you still think about all the stuff you guys went through a couple of months ago. At Les Inferno.”

Shaolin’s stomach twists into a knot just thinking about all of that, but he nods at Dizzee anyway.

“I just need to know where he is,” Shaolin says, trying to keep his voice as even as possible.

But Dizzee sees through him. “You’re upset about something else, though. I can see it.”

“Diz, I’ve told you about that ‘seeing auras’ shit you keep trying push on me!” Shaolin snaps. “It’s fucking weird, man.”

Maybe Shaolin’s losing the ability to sound harsh, because Dizzee actually laughs.

“It’s not just your aura--which is a little off, I might add--but just your overall appearance,” Dizzee comments.

Shaolin grits his teeth, determined to not let Dizzee pull his soul out of him.

“It’s nothing, man. It’s just . . . all this college talk and all that,” Shaolin admits, waving his hand as if it’s no big deal.

Dizzee gives Shaolin a look that lets Shaolin know that he knows that it is a very big deal.

“It’s normal for you to be scared about Zeke leaving, you know,” Dizzee says.

Shaolin stammers so hard that he forgets what he’s about to say to Dizzee. Dizzee looks at him and smiles warmly.

“In fact, it’s good that you’re thinking about this now, while you and Zeke still have time to work some stuff out,” Dizzee continues. “It’s still pretty early.”

“I’m not--I mean, Zeke hasn’t even said anything about going anywhere,” Shaolin says, trying to sound convincing. “All that college talk has been coming from Mylene and Francisco. That’s it.”

“But you know that he’s pretty good at his internship and might be thinking going in that direction,” Dizzee argues. Then he shrugs. “I’m not saying he’s gonna quit the Get Down. But you know that college is a possibility and it makes you uneasy.”

Shaolin wants to knock Dizzee’s afro off. How dare this hippy ass nigga read Shaolin like an open book?

“Shao, I don’t think you have that much to worry about. You and Zeke are on a wavelength all on your own. I don’t think any force can even touch it,” Dizzee says,

Shaolin tries to shrug the statement off, trying to keep his feelings to himself.

“I ever tell you you get on my last nerve?” Shaolin asks, glaring at Dizzee.

Dizzee smiles and nods. “Yup. And you still love me.”

Shao groans and tries his best to make his face look as unpleasant as possible. Dizzee just snorts at him and leans back in his chair.

“The Get Down is a beautiful thing and it’s transformed all of us. It’s okay to want to hold onto something like this. But that doesn’t mean we have to be afraid of our futures,” Dizzee says sagely.

“ ‘Our futures’,” Shao echoes in doubt, casting his eyes to the ground.

Dizzee nods and stands up from his table, churros in hand.

“All I’m saying is, forward is the only way we should move. Don’t let fear try to push you backwards,” Dizzee says. Then he winks at Shao and walks away. “See ya, conductor!”

“See ya,” Shao calls to Dizzee’s retreating form. But Shao’s not all the way here.

Future.

Shao’s eyes slip out of his focus at the word. Everyone seems insistent on bringing up “the future” lately. Last night was bad enough. Now Shao feels like the words won’t ever stop chasing him.

What the hell is a future anyway? His mother didn’t have one. Until Shao met Zeke and the Kiplings, he wasn’t sure he had one.  

The thing is, Shao sometimes still doesn’t think he has one. It’s too hard of a thing to envision.

Shaolin’s got dreams . Dreams of traveling, spreading his sound as far as he can. Dreams of spending the rest of his life spinning, of becoming a King whose kingdom reaches coast to coast. Dreams of spending the rest of his days with his king, his one and only . . .

Shao has dreams, but for whatever reason, he can’t grab hold of them. They always seem to be floating right in front of his fingertips, but still too far away for Shao to reach out and take them.

Shaolin can only see the dream and what looks like a faint, shadowy figure of a future. It’s like ghost: there, but not there. Real, but unreal.

Dead, but undead still.

Zeke’s future is real: solid, heavy, alive . Something he can put his hands on. Zeke can feel his future, and so can everyone else around him.

But Shao . . . can’t. He just can’t.

Grandmaster and Dizzee say that Zeke and Shao are strong enough to withstand it. Shao wants so badly to believe that, to buy into the hippy-dippy love stuff that Dizzee and even Grandmaster so deeply believe in.

But a ghost can’t be with a something that’s living and breathing. That’s impossible. And no amount of hoping, wishing and loving could make it possible.

Shao’s body suddenly feels heavy: he’s tired, and he’s up and running around sooner than he needs to be. Without the rush of anxiety he felt earlier, he feels exhausted, like he might fall over at any second.

He drags himself away from the store, but he has no idea where he’s walking to. His feet move him, pushing him forward without actually telling him where he’s going.

No direction, no plan. Just movement. Walking, walking, walking.

**

When Shao’s feet finally stop him, he’s standing in front of the ashes of Les Inferno.

Shao’s stomach twists into knots.

The place is gone , and Shao still feels that same sense of dread. If Shao looks too hard, his mind fills in all the holes and recreates the building. He sees Annie’s wicked smile and hear Cadillac’s loud laugh.

Rage, sadness and hopelessness fill Shao all over again.

He remembers the night he was freed.

Mylene pulling his arm as they ran. Them hoping onto Zeke for dear life when they found him. He, Zeke and Mylene, lying on rocks in the park. The three of them celebrating his release from Les Inferno.

That night, it didn’t matter if Shaolin could see a future: he didn’t need to see anything past that moment.

Shao looks at the rocks at his feet, kicking one of them with the tip of his shoe.

Shao doesn’t have a future like Zeke’s because Shao didn’t have a past like Zeke’s. And, no matter how they try to swing it, he doesn’t have a present like Zeke’s, either.   

Shao loves Zeke: he never knew love at all until he knew Zeke. And he knows that he’s always going to love Zeke. Shao knows that he’s future is always going to include Zeke.

Shao also knows that Zeke’s future probably won’t include him. And that, one way or another, they’re both going to have to accept that.

Shaolin closes his eyes and leans his head back. He remembers the feeling of spinning,. Shao thinks about the flying Zeke’s rhymes give him. He thinks about Zeke’s lips touching his. Shaolin smiles, but just barely.

Alright, fine. Fine.

They’re gonna end up separated. Zeke may become a famous politician and forget about Shao. Zeke may become a famous MC and forget about Shao. Zeke may just decide to move as far away from the Bronx as possible and forget about Shao. But Shao will never forget about Zeke.

Shaolin opens his eyes, and tries to roll the stress off of his back. Then he turns around and walks back to the temple.

**

Zeke damn near sprints  to the temple.

Shao should be awake by now: it’s past eleven. Zeke imagines Shaolin’s sleepy face and grins to himself, knowing that he probably looks a little off to the people in the street.

He doesn’t really care though: Zeke can’t wait to see Shaolin. He can never wait to see Shao, but with Francisco’s reassurance bouncing around his head, Zeke’s feeling good. Zeke just wants to snuggle up to Shao, blast some music and let themselves get carried away.

Zeke gets into the temple, he hears a Marvin Gaye record scratching and grins to himself: his man’s awake, alright.

Zeke swings the door open, and sure enough, Shaolin is there, spinning the record as if it were the most natural thing in the world to him.

Zeke gives Shaolin that dopey grin. But when Shaolin looks up from the record and sees Zeke, the look on his face startles Zeke. Shaolin looks . . . well, a little sad.

Shaolin stops spinning and takes his headphones off, looking at Zeke with a small smile.

“Hey,” Zeke says, nervousness tinting his voice.

Zeke walks over to the turntable, prepared to walk around and hug Shao. But before he can, Shao surprises Zeke by leaning over the table and kissing him hard. Now pleasantly surprised, Zeke kisses Shao back with just as much intensity.

They’d probably stay like that all day if it isn’t for Zeke leaning a tad bit too hard against the turntable and knocking the air out of himself.

The two break apart, Shao laughing at Zeke’s breathlessness.

“You good, Books?” Shaolin asks, smiling at him.

Zeke, more than a little embarrassed, bites his lip and nods.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m good,” he rushes out, looking down at the floor. Zeke looks back up at Shao and still sees that sadness in his eyes. “Are you good?”

Shaolin nods, knowing full well that if he tried to answer aloud, Zeke would immediately know he’s lying. Shaolin takes off his hat and turns to toss it onto the couch.

Zeke looks Shaolin up and down, realizing that Shao has his jacket on.

“Where you been?” Zeke asks.

“Huh?” Shaolin startles a little at the question.

Zeke frowns. “I asked where you’ve been. You’ve got your jacket and hat on.”

“Oh, I just went for a walk,” Shaolin lies, yanking his jacket off of his back. Shaolin turns his back to Zeke and throws his jacket over the stool, hoping the movement helps him get himself together a little better.

“Really? What time? Ten something?”

Shao nods at Zeke and rolls his eyes at Zeke’s surprised face.

“I ain’t that lazy. I wasn’t trying to sleep all day,” Shaolin says, turning his back to Zeke to slip the record back in it’s wrapping. It’s another unnecessary movement.  “Especially not after your best friend left,” Shaolin adds.

Shaolin slams his mouth shut and closes his eyes. Shit. He did not mean to say that out loud.

“My ‘best friend?’” Zeke echoes in confusion.

Shaolin turns back around, trying to look as normal as possible.

“Mylene came by looking for you,” Shaolin says, trying to keep his voice even. “Since you didn’t clearly didn’t go to school today.” Shaolin flinches at the way the last part comes out: he sounds like a parent.

Zeke blushes. “Oh. I wasn’t really feeling school today.”

“Why not?”

Zeke sighs and fidgets. “I got into it with Leon. Again.”

The words--and the way Zeke says them--pull at Shao’s stomach.

“About what?” Shaolin asks with worry. “And don’t say ‘nothing’ this time, either.”

Zeke thinks back to his shitty morning that feels like it happened three days ago. Zeke rolls eyes and snorts.

“Leon thinks I’m on drugs,” Zeke says, looking annoyed at the very thought.

Excuse me ?” Shaolin demands, instantly irritated at the idea that anyone would say that about Zeke. “Why the fuck would he say that?!”  

“He has this conspiracy theory that me coming home late and hanging out with you means that I’m on drugs and I’m turning into my dad,” Zeke says flatly, trying not to allow himself to get angry again. Zeke shrugs. “I was tripping off of it earlier, but I’m cool now.”

But Shaolin keeps frowning, looking at Zeke through narrowed eyes.

“How could you be cool with it now? It just happened a couple of hours ago and that’s some foul shit,” Shao says, getting mad on Zeke’s behalf. “Plus, it led you to not going to school, so it’s not something you got over that fast.”

Zeke sighs, wishing that Shaolin didn’t get so riled up because of some foolishness against Zeke. But Zeke’s gotta admit: he’s more than a little flattered. Zeke takes a big step forward and puts his arms around Shao’s waist.

“I promise I’m okay. I know I’m not like my father,” Zeke says, hoping to cool Shao down a little bit.

It seems to work. Zeke can feel Shao relax in his arms.

“Besides, I talked to Francisco about it. He helped me out,” Zeke adds.

And Shaolin almost instantly tenses up again. His fingers start to tap Zeke’s wrist at the mention of Francisco. Zeke almost forgot that Francisco still gets under Shaolin’s skin.

“Mylene mentioned you might talk to him,” Shaolin says quietly, keeping his gaze steady. “About the internship and stuff.”

Zeke flinches when Shaolin mentions the internship. He has to work tonight and the last thing he feels like doing is sitting in that white ass office, with only Francisco as his refuge.

“I mean, yeah, but it was mostly about Leon,” Zeke says, his voice flattening as thoughts of the internship come. “He really helped me out.”

Shaolin twitches. “That man is a piece of work. I see why you can’t stay around him too long.”

Shaolin sits down heavily on the couch. Zeke notices that Shaolin doesn’t gesture for him to sit and starts to feel very scared.

But then Shaolin tilts his head at the awkward Zeke and smirks.

“You not gone sit, Books?”

Zeke smiles in relief and plops down next to Shaolin.

“I was waiting for you to ask me, man,” Zeke says, feeling a little lightheaded. Zeke feels like too much is going on and yet nothing is going on.

Shaolin rolls his eyes. “Damn, man, I gotta ask you to sit next to me, now?” Shaolin laughs and Zeke feels the knot in his stomach start to untwist a little.

“Just checking,” Zeke says softly. “So . . . what did Mylene want?”

“Oh! Uh, hold on,” Shao twists around and digs the papers out of his jacket pockets. “Okay, first thing was she wanted to give us her new address.”

Shao hands Mylene’s address over to Zeke, whose eyebrows hit his hairline.

“That’s a fancy ass complex,” Zeke mutters.

Shaolin shrugs and smiles at Zeke. “Record deal good for something.”

“I’ll say,” Zeke mumbles. He lifts his eyes back to Shao. “What else?”

This time, Shaolin gives Zeke the miniature version of the sly grin he’s used to.

“She wanted to invite us to a performance she, Yolanda and Regina are doing at Pakoussa’s,” Shaolin says.

Zeke’s eyes light up. “For real?”

Shaolin nods and sees that he and Zeke are on the same wavelength.

“She really wants us to come,” Shaolin adds. He leans on Zeke and bats his eyes for special effects and Zeke laughs, relishing the feeling of Shao’s body on his.

“This weekend?”

“This Friday.”

“And . . . just us?” Zeke drapes his arm onto Shaolin’s chest and Shaolin sighs contentedly.

“Just us.”

Zeke grins and the sight sets Shaolin on fire. Shaolin for real cannot think of a better sight than Zeke’s dopey ass grin. Shaolin stares at Zeke, wanting to remember him.

Zeke ain’t gone yet , Shaolin thinks to himself. He has to admit that he’s starting to feel a little goofy for being so dramatic. But still, Shao can’t really help it.

Zeke’s smile begins to fade and he starts to rub Shao’s chest softly. She almost purrs from the feeling, letting his eyes flutter shut.

“Shao, what’s wrong? You’re acting funny,” Zeke says.

You’re gonna be leaving soon and you might not ever look back.

“I just . . . been thinking too much today,” Shao answers, his eyes still closed.

Zeke watches the line of Shao’s back harden. “About what?”

You . “About . . . I mean--” Shao opens his eyes and tries to figure out if he’s going to tell Zeke the truth.

Shao looks back up at Zeke, biting his lip. What would Zeke even say ? He’d probably tell him that everything will be okay, that he’s not worried about their future together, and that he’ll never leave him. And it’d all be a lie.

So Shao settles on something relatively small.

“I went to Les Inferno today,” Shao says.

Zeke frowns, his own body tensing now. “Why? What for?”

So much for small: now Zeke’s the one all worked up.

Shao shrugs. “I don’t really know. I just . . . walked there. I didn’t think about it or nothing. I just went. It wasn’t a big deal.”

Shao misses being a good liar. Once upon a time, not long ago, he could’ve said it wasn’t a big deal and made it sound convincing. But now, Zeke immediately knows he’s lying.

Zeke tries to pull Shao closer to him and ends up a awkward jumble of limbs.  Shao laughs at the mess. Then they both shift so that both of Zeke’s legs on stretched out on the couch. Shao’s pretty much on top of Zeke now, his back to Zeke’s chest.

Zeke puts his face in the crook of Shao’s neck, and Zeke’s warmth and gentleness almost makes Shaolin cry.

Then Zeke gently kisses Shao’s neck and Shao, out of nowhere, actually does start to cry.

Damn it , Shao thinks to himself as tears roll down his face. The more Shao tries to stop himself, the more he begins to cry. His body starts to quiver.   Damn it, damn it, damn it.

Zeke peers down in alarm, his heart starting to pound in his chest.

“Shao?! What’s wrong?!”

Instead of answering, Shao decides to make matters worse: he scrambles his way out of Zeke’s arms and stands in the middle of the room, his head down and his arms crossed in front of his stomach. Zeke jumps off of the couch as if it’s on fire, his mind racing with all the things that could be hurting Shao.

“Did something happen at Les Inferno?” Zeke demands desperately.

“No!” Shao sniffs, wiping at his eyes. He begs himself to just get his shit together please.

“Did Mylene say something to you? Or Regina’s mean self?”

“Zeke--”

“Shao,” Zeke cuts him off, walking up real close to him and touching Shao’s shoulder, “did I say something?”

Shao groans in frustration, throwing his head back and turning to look at Zeke in annoyance.

“Nigga, can’t I just be emotional today? You emotional all the time and I don’t grill you,” Shao tearfully  yells.

“Now you know damn well if I just started crying like this you’d be all over me!” Zeke retorts, his deep voice causing a rumbling in Shao’s chest. “ Especially if you thought it was something you’d did!”

“Well, it’s nothing you did, okay? I’m just . . . I’m fucked up about some stuff right now,” Shao stammers, trying to find his way out of this. Shao wants to just close whatever hole Zeke’s managed to open in him so that he doesn’t have to deal with the aftermath of this.

But Zeke won’t let up. “What stuff? Let me help you, Shao.”

Shao sets his jaw, crosses his arm, and starts to look everywhere except Zeke’s eyes. Shao’s silence and body language are killing Zeke, and Zeke starts to feel like he’s ruining something between them without knowing it.

“Shao, please,” Zeke pleads. “Just tell me.”

Shao looks at Zeke’s sad eyes and feels himself start to soften. And just as Shaolin starts to think that he maybe he should just get all his fears and anxieties out in the open (so that, at the very least, he doesn’t start to randomly cry again), a very loud voice stop him.

“Yo, Shaolin!” Boo-Boo’s voice calls. “You there?!”

Man, ” Zeke groans.

As if that’s not bad enough, Ra-Ra’s voice also comes bouncing off of the walls.

“You and Zeke ain’t up here . . . doing stuff are you?” Ra says.

Zeke blushes and Shaolin feels himself fly into irritation. Without waiting for an answer, Boo and Ra push through the door, looking at Zeke and Shaolin expectantly.

“Don’t any of you niggas go to school, now?!” Shaolin asks in frustration. His question stops the brothers dead in their tracks.

As quickly as he can, Shao reaches around Zeke and snatches his jacket off of the stool. Then he turns around and rushes out of the temple.

“Turning into some damn dropouts,” Shao mutters angrily.

Shaolin! ” Zeke calls, throwing his hands up.

“Leave me alone, Books!”

And with that, Shaolin slams the door.

**

“Trouble in paradise?” Ra-Ra asks.

Zeke hears the smart-assness in Ra’s voice and burns a hole in Ra’s face. Ra’s little smirk instantly falls when he sees the look on Zeke’s face.

“I’m just asking,” Ra says defensively. “You and Shao are always sucking each other faces off.”

Zeke rolls his eyes. “What do you two want, man?”

“Don’t get mad at us because Shao’s mad at you ,” Boo-Boo cries, crossing his arms and turning his nose up at Zeke. “We didn’t do nothing to you.”

Zeke huffs, rubbing the side of his neck. “What are you doing here? Ain’t it lunch time?”

“You weren’t at school,” Ra says sternly, raising an eyebrow at Zeke. “We figured you were over here. And we were right.”

“We want to talk about the Get Down,” Boo adds, looking way more serious than Zeke is used to.

“And you couldn’t wait until after school or something?”

Ra and Boo look at each other and they both nod.

“I told you he’d be like this,” Boo says, raising both eyebrows at his brother.

“Be like what ?” Zeke demands. He feels the heat of embarrassment and irritation rising in him and his nostrils flare.

“Be like this ,” Ra says. “Too wrapped up in the boyfriend stuff with Shaolin and not focused enough on the music stuff with Shaolin.”

Zeke bites the inside of his jaw and glares at Ra. He hates to admit that Ra is right, but it’s not like Ra is wrong either.

“Look, we think the Get Down is going to be the next great American genre of music,” Ra begins, sounding too much like those blancitos Zeke works with, “and the Get Down Brothers are poised to be in the forefront.”

Zeke looks at Ra blankly, hoping to indicate just how over it he is right now.

Ra huffs as if Zeke is stealing all of his energy. “We can’t be in the forefront if we don’t perform . If we don’t hit the parties and show out.”

“We have been performing. We performed this past Friday!” Zeke says. “Besides, you were the one who didn’t even want to talk to Shao for damn near two weeks.”

“That’s because he just casually told us that he almost got you and Mylene killed!” Ra says, the stored-away emotions from several months ago poking their ugly heads. “Not long after you two casually decided to tell us that you’re dating, by the way.”

Boo nudges his brother hard and gives him a look .

“We moving past all that, remember?” Boo says in an annoyingly pleasant voice. “We’re focusing on our friendship and the music.”

“We’re trying to,” Ra amends, unable to stop himself. He looks at Zeke like a disappointed father and it takes all of Zeke’s energy to not cuss him out.

“Did ya’ll really come over here just to talk crazy to me?” Zeke demands.

“We need to get you and Shao back focused again,” Ra says, making his voice sound professional. “Because big sister and her girls are on their way to being superstars, and I feel like we could be the same way.”

“If we all get our shit together,” Boo adds.

“And we have to get all we can right now . Especially since you’re going to be running off to college next fall,” Ra continues.

“Man, why is everybody bringing up--?” And then he stops himself.

College . Francisco, Mylene and college.

Shit, that’s why Shao’s so damn upset today. Zeke slams his eyes shut, mentally slapping himself upside his head.  Zeke leaving doesn’t just terrify Zeke. Hell, with the way everyone in Shao’s life has dipped, it probably terrifies Shaolin even more.

Zeke mentally slaps himself again. How the hell did he not realize this earlier? He must have his head up his ass.

“Brooo,” Zeke groans, dragging his hand down his face.

Without another word to Ra or Boo, Zeke turns around and runs out of the temple.

“So you just gonna run away while I’m talking to you?!” Ra yells after him, throwing his arms into the air.

Boo peers after Zeke’s retreating form and raises both eyebrows. Then he looks over at his stewing older brother.

“This ‘love’ shit is weird.”

**

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck .

Shao stands on the sidewalk, pissed off and distressed. He wipes at wayward tears and resists the urge to punch the brick wall beside him.

Why is he being like this? Why can’t Shao just be normal today? He accepted that Zeke’s leaving, didn’t he? Everyone in Shao’s life leaves at some point. Good people, bad people, they all go away. Shaolin knows that, was literally just talking about it last fucking night. Everyone leaves--it’s what they do. Shaolin should be used to it.

Fresh tears find their way to Shao’s eyes. Shao curses the part of him that remembers how to cry in the middle of the street.

It’s just . . . Shao’s being pulled up and down, back and forth. He struggles between the truth as he’s always known it and the truth Zeke keeps trying to tell him.

It doesn’t help that Dizzee and Grandmaster came along trying to get Shao’s hopes up. Or that Shao actually started to get them up. This whole fucking Get Down thing got Shao’s hopes dangerously high. He looked at this group and saw a forever.

But they’re a bunch of fucking kids and, when they grow up, they’ll go their separate ways. Sure, they may’ve let themselves believe there’s a such thing as a forever. But Shao knew better. At least, Shao should’ve known better.

Shit. Where’s the Grandmaster when you need him? He’s the only person Shaolin feels right talking to now. He always manages to find Shaolin, but right now, Shaolin has no idea where he is.

Shaolin doesn’t even know how Grandmaster pops up in the fucking shadows. It’s like he just teleports to wherever Shaolin is without Shaolin’s knowledge or permission. Like Grandmaster just thinks of Shaolin and makes himself appear.

Wait . . . hold on a second. Maybe that is what Grandmaster does.

Shaolin shoves his hands in his pockets and closes his eyes. He ignores the fact that he looks weird as hell standing here. He ignores the thoughts nagging at him, the ones floating around the edge of his mind. All Shaolin focuses on is Grandmaster Flash.

“Aye, is that you Gay-lin Fantastic?” somebody calls out to him.

Homeboy’s friend starts to laugh. “Yep, that’s that fag-ass nigga. All that red on. You can’t spin worth shit , Shaolin!”

“Aye, would you two bum-ass niggas shut the fuck up for a second?” Shaolin snaps, annoyed at the interruption. “I’m trying to focus and you motherfuckers are messing with my concentration and I ain’t got time to fucking around with ya’ll! Trash ass niggas.”

The two men, stunned by Shaolin’s reaction, fall silent and watch him.

“What’s he doing?” One whispers curiously to the other.

The other man shrugs. “I don’t know, but it looks like some of that hippy psychic shit.”

Shao blocks out the two men out and focuses on the Grandmaster. He thinks of Grandmaster’s home: empty. He thinks of the diner off of Crosby: empty.

Where you at? Shaolin concentrates harder. And, suddenly, he finds him: pizza joint. Off of Westchester.

Shaolin blinks his eyes open, impressed and a little bit shook up by what just happened.

Maybe he will reach that magic ass level.

**

Shaolin may have secretly reached the magic level already.

Because when he breezes through the entrance of the pizza joint, Grandmaster himself is just getting there.

“Shaolin!” Grandmaster says, rare surprise in his voice.

“I found you!” Shaolin says excitedly. He’s so excited that he nearly forgets that he was upset. “I actually did that shit!”  

“That you did,” Grandmaster says with a laugh. Then he gets a good look at Shaolin and sees stress in his eyes. “What’s up?”

Shaolin takes a deep breath. “It’s Zeke, Grandmaster. I freaked out on him just now.”

“Why?” Grandmaster asks, gesturing for Shaolin to sit. His brow furrows with concern and he tilts his head at Shaolin.

“I just . . .” Shao suddenly feels breathless, like his body just realized he ran several blocks. “I just . . . I thought I was dealing with the fact that he’s leaving soon, but I can’t, and I don’t see why I have to try and act like I am and--”

Shao ,” Grandmaster says gently. Grandmaster takes hold of Shaolin’s hand and Shao tries not to blush.

Shaolin looks around: there are men in the store. They look over at Grandmaster and Shao with raised eyebrows. Shao thinks about the two fools that tried to start something with him. But Grandmaster doesn’t seem to care.

Shaolin grips Grandmaster’s hand and sighs sadly.

“I just don’t see why I have to try when I know how it’s all gonna end,” Shaolin admits, casting his eyes to the table.

Grandmaster leans over and lifts Shao’s chin.

“Shao, I hate to break it to you, but you don’t know anything,” Grandmaster says. “You’re just convinced you do.”

Shaolin frowns in confusion. “Grandmaster . . . I don’t understand.”

Grandmaster looks Shaolin in the eye. “You don’t know how this is going to end. And, you know what? Neither does Zeke. I understand that you’ve had too many people leave your life. I understand that you feel alone. But you don’t know that Zeke is going to be one of those people.”

Shaolin bites his lip, feeling anxiety rise in his chest. Grandmaster gives Shao’s hand a squeeze.

“Shaolin, you have to let go of your past,” Grandmaster says urgently. “It’s holding you hostage.”

Shaolin thinks of Les Inferno, Annie, Cadillac, his mother, grandmother. He thinks of fires--too many fires. He thinks of the first time he watched a kung-fu movie, the first time he saw Grandmaster’s face. Shaolin thinks of faces he’d forgotten and hands he doesn’t want to remember.

Tears come forward and Shaolin starts to shake his head.

“I know it seems impossible, but it’s not. You have to do it,” Grandmaster urges. “You have a future, Shaolin--a real future. You not gonna get to it by running away and clinging to the wrong lessons from your past.”

Shaolin thinks of his brothers. He thinks of the first time Zeke picked up a mic and started to rhyme. He thinks of the look on Boo’s face when Boo saw Kool Herc. He thinks of the moment Ra learned to double-time, of the look in Dizzee’s eyes when he finished a piece.

Shaolin thinks of Mylene, holding his hand, cussing out the Notorious 3. Her and Yolanda and Regina singing with gold light surrounding them.

“Man, when am I gonna stop crying so damn much?” Shaolin mumbles through the tears.

Grandmaster chuckles and holds his other hand out. Without hesitation, Shaolin puts his hand in Grandmaster’s and smiles through the tears.

“You remember when I told you to give your wordsmith a chance? To give yourself a chance?”

Shaolin nods, smiling as he remembers the embarrassment he felt that day.

“That’s what you gotta do, Shao,” Grandmaster states. “Give. Yourself. A chance . Let yourself have a future. Let yourself have some love. Don’t suffocate it with fear.”

Shaolin nods, allowing the tears to flow down his face.

“Thank you, Grand Master,” Shaolin says earnestly.

“One of these days you gonna learn you don’t have to thank me,” Grandmaster says with a chuckle.

Shaolin smiles and nods. “I guess I better pull myself together and go talk to Zeke.”

“Shao?”

Speak of the devil, and he shall be standing in the doorway.

**

“Books!” Shaolin exclaims. “How you find me here?”

Zeke doesn’t answer: he stands in the doorway of the pizza joint, giving Shaolin a look of surprise and worry.  Shaolin stares at him and then realizes that he and Grandmaster are still holding hands. Shaolin pulls his hands back like Grandmaster’s are on fire and blushes. Grandmaster chuckles and leans back in his chair.

“Um, these two dudes told me they say you headed this way. Said they figured you were going to this place,” Zeke says slowly, his eyes still on the spot where Shao and Grandmaster’s hands were intertwined.

Grandmaster holds up both his hands and gets up from the table.

“You two have some talking to do,” he says pointedly, looking at Shaolin.

Shaolin nods and smiles. Grandmaster winks at Zeke and walks out of the store. Zeke, still flustered by the sight of Grandmaster and Shao holding hands, can’t help be feel just a little bit threatened.

Shaolin holds back a laugh: he’s so used to being the one that gets jealous that it’s funny to see Zeke getting jealous for once.

Shaolin nods to the space in front of him. “You not gonna sit, Books?”

Zeke slides into the booth and looks Shaolin in the eyes. For a moment they just look at each other, both nervous and uncertain, but glad to actually look each other in the eye.

“I haven’t been up front about the college stuff,” Zeke begins, his fingers lightly drumming the table.

Shaolin braces himself. “You wanna go.” It’s a statement, not a question.

“I don’t want to go anywhere where you aren’t,” Zeke says fiercely.

“But . . .”

Zeke sighs. “But I’ve applied to a lot of places. I saw a couple of schools I’m kinda feeling.”

Shaolin’s stomach sinks, but he nods anyway. “I figured you would,” Shaolin twists his mouth and thinks of the look on Zeke’s face when he discovered his superpower. “You weren’t ever meant to stay here.”

“Maybe not, but I was meant to be with you,” Zeke retorts, staring at Shaolin as if Shaolin was the secret to life itself.

Shaolin tries not to squirm: months later, and he’s still not used to that much admiration. But a chance--he’s gotta give himself a chance.

“You have a future, Zeke,” Shaolin starts. “And maybe I have one, too. But we don’t know if our futures are going to be tied together.”

Zeke frowns deeply, his fingers starting to twitch. Shaolin takes his hand and rubs it. The men in the store still stare.

“I can’t imagine a live without you, Zeke,” Shaolin continues, looking down at their hands. “And I’d rather not. But I’m not about to let you throw away your dreams just because of me.”

Zeke stares down at Shaolin’s hand, feeling the air go out of his chest. He truly doesn’t remember who he was before he held this boy’s hand in his own.

“That’s the thing, Shao,” Zeke says, his voice gravelly. “You are my dreams.”

The words stun Shaolin: he looks up at Zeke as if he was seeing him for the very first time.

“What’d you just say?” Shaolin demands. He feels himself start to pant, like the word is spinning too fast and he’s running to catch up.

“You’re my dreams, Shaolin,” Zeke says, his voice growing stronger. “For real, man,” he adds when he sees the disbelief on Shao’s’ face. “I’ve never wanted anything more. You’re what I want to fight for. Everything else is just extra.”

Shao blinks at Zeke slowly. He opens his mouth and closes it again. Shaolin stares at this big-headed fool and is barely able to keep himself upright.

“You just gonna keep making this hard, huh?” Shaolin asks.

Zeke jerks his head back in surprise and squints at Shaolin. Shaolin drops Zeke’s hand and stares at the ceiling.

“I mean, I’m sitting here thinking I’m getting ready to tell you that I accept your decision to go away, and that I want you to follow your dreams and live your life and embrace whatever future you want and here you go,” Shaolin’s head flops back down and he stares at Zeke. “Here you go deciding to tell me that I’m your dreams!”

Zeke nods. He feels like he might need someone to guide him along, because he doesn’t think he’s keeping up with where Shaolin’s going right now.

Shaolin throws his hands up and lets them smack the table. Zeke watches him with a raised eyebrow.

“Nigga!” Shaolin cries. “You making life real hard right now.”

“How?” Zeke asks, desperately confused. “You were upset because you thought I was leaving, right? So I’m letting you know that I don’t want to go anywhere where you aren’t.”

“What do you want to be?” Shaolin suddenly asks.

The question strikes Zeke: Mylene asked him that a long time ago, right before she broke up with him.

“A MC. Your MC, ” Zeke stammers.

And the words are perfect. They’re exactly what Shao wants to hear. But still . . .

“That’s it?” Shaolin presses.

“What you mean ‘that’s it?’”

“I mean, being my MC isn’t going to hold you back? It isn’t going to stop you from doing what you really want to do? You not going to sit around and wonder about what would’ve happened if you’d decided to go to one of those colleges you applied to?” Shao asks the questions so quickly he has to catch his breath afterwards.

Zeke goes to answer, but then stops himself. Because yes, what he wants to be Shao’s MC. Yes, he wants to spin and spit with Shaolin for the rest of his life.

But also, yes, he wants to know what college is like. Yes, he still wants to go beyond Bronx.

Shaolin points at Zeke’s thoughtful face.

That’s what I’m scared about,” Shaolin says, getting Zeke’s attention. “You should see the look on your face, how you questioning yourself. You may be able to go where I go, but I can’t go everywhere you go. I can’t take you anywhere.”

“You already have taken me places, Shao!”

“No place good!”

“How you gonna say that when you’re the reason I can do half of the shit I’m doing?” Zeke demands. “You’re the reason I felt confident enough to even have the internship! You’re the reason I’m able to speak in front of my class now! Nigga, you’re the reason I am who I am now!”

“ . . . I am?” Shaolin’s voice comes out as a squeak and he’ll be embarrassed by that later.

“Yes, man!” Zeke says in exasperation. “Do you think you haven’t done anything for me?”

Shaolin looks down at the table.

“I thought I was bringing you down. It feels like it. I mean, with all my street shit, the stuff that happened at Les Inferno. The fact your family is arguing because of me. I just don’t think I’m going to be helpful for you, anymore.”

The words must’ve weighed 1000 pounds, because Shaolin suddenly feels light as air. As scary and depressing as the thoughts are, getting them out feels like digging the rot out of Shao’s soul.

“Shaolin,” Zeke says imploringly, “you gotta know that I’m happier with you than I’ve ever been in my life. That I see clearer because you’ve changed my sight..”

Shao looks up at Zeke. Zeke grins that dopey ass grin.

“You put wind in my sails and guide me through strife. At the end of every tunnel, you’re my light.”

“You just saying that because you like kissing and stuff,” Shaolin mumbles childishly, his face burning. He’ll be embarrassed about it later.

Zeke shrugs, his face bright. “I mean, maybe. You do have some nice ass lips.”

Shaolin and Zeke look at each other, and they both burst into laughter, the movement shaking their bodies loose.

“Bro, why did we have to have this intense ass conversation today?” Shaolin groans, dragging a hand down his face. “It’s only Tuesday.”

“Well, you’re the one that started crying out nowhere!” Zeke points out playfully.

“Well, you’re gonna have to forgive me, aight? I’m all scared and shit, okay? I’m not good with emotions,” Shaolin says, waving his hand around at the words. “I just want to know that you’re my man and that we’ll at least try to keep it that way. No matter where you are!”

Zeke tangles his fingers with Shaolin’s and kisses Shao’s hand.

“All good things in life come with a fight, right?” Zeke says. “And there’s nothing I’d fight for harder than you.”

Shaolin grins at Zeke, his heart fluttering.

“Same here, Books.”

Across the aisle, the nosy men have just watched the most confusingly romantic thing they’ve ever seen, and none of them know what to do with it.

**

Zeke keeps thinking of Shaolin.

When he goes home to change clothes for work, he thinks of Shaolin. When he’s actually at working, smiling at white folks and help writing scripts and speeches, he thinks of Shaolin.

When Francisco teasingly asks him what he’s thinking about, he lies and says nothing, but is definitely thinking of Shaolin.

And, on the entire subway ride home, Zeke thinks of Shaolin while scribbling corny ass poems in his notebook.

Zeke’s constant thoughts of Shaolin only end when they’re rudely interrupted by the sound of Leon and Wanda arguing.

Like, really arguing. Arguing so loudly that Zeke can hear them as he gets off of the elevator to his floor.

“Shit,” Zeke murmurs, standing in front of the door.

When he listens to what is actually being said, Zeke realizes that they’re arguing about him.   As if today hasn’t been hard enough.

“Fuck, man!” Zeke yells, his voice masked by the sound of Wanda and Leon shouting. Zeke takes a deep breath, steels himself and pushes through the door.

Wanda and Leon instantly stop shouting and they both look over at Zeke with wide eyes.

“I heard my name,” Zeke says dryly, eyeing Leon.

“Where you been?” Leon demands.

“Work. I had to work tonight. You both knew that.” Zeke’s tone is bad; he knows it is. But he can’t find it in him to care.

“So if I call Francisco right now, he gonna say you were at work?” Wanda asks, staring at Zeke very hard.

“Yes ma’am.”

Wanda looks at Zeke a moment. Then she nods. Leon looks between Wanda and Zeke, a bewildered look on his face.

“You just believe him? Just like that?” Leon yells.

“Yes, I believe my nephew, Leon! Why is that so hard for you to believe?!” Wanda shouts in frustration.

The sound sends Zeke into defense mode: his entire body tightens and he glares at Leon.

“You believe him?” Leon echoes. “Are you fucking stupid?!”

“AYE!” Zeke crosses the room and is in Leon’s face in a second. “Watch how you talk to my tía, man!”

Wanda steps in between them, putting one of her hands on Zeke’s chest and the other on Leon’s.

“Zeke!” Wanda warns. “Back off!”

“He needs to watch his mouth! He can’t talk you to like that!”

Wanda looks at Zeke gratefully, but still pushes him back.

“Where you be going, Zeke?” Leon yells over Wanda’s shoulder. “What you being doing?”

Zeke sets his jaw, determined to not give Leon the satisfaction of answer. But then Wanda looks at Zeke with sadness in her eyes.

“Zeke, what is going on with you lately? What’s up?” Wanda asks.

Zeke immediately softens, disheartened by the exhaustion radiating from Wanda.

“I’m a MC,” Zeke says. “I make music with my friends.”

Wanda and Leon both pull faces of surprise and exchange a look.

“Music?” Wanda asks curiously.

“Yes,” Zeke asserts, feeling a strange confidence. “I write rhymes and perform them with Shaolin, Ra-Ra, Boo-Boo and Dizzee.”

Leon leans back and looks at Zeke skeptically. Wanda gives Zeke a small smile.

“What do you ‘rhyme’ about?”

“Life,” Zeke answers immediately. “The Bronx, school, our families. Each other. It’s real stuff and it’s what I love.”

Wanda blinks slowly, her eyes getting a faraway look.

“Your ma was really into music, too,” she mutters.

Zeke feels a warmth in his chest when Wanda mentions his mother. Wanda looks up at Zeke, the same small smile on her face.

“And you do this with Shaolin? Is that how you two met?”

Zeke nods, feeling himself blush as he thinks of Shaolin.

“He’s who got me into it. He showed me what I can do,” Zeke says reverently. Then he clears his throat and looks Wanda in the eyes. “And I know I be out late and I know I haven’t been acting the way I used to. I promise that I’m truly sorry about that.

“But this music--this thing I do with Shaolin--I love it. It’s want I really want, tía,” Zeke’s voice starts to shake; he feels the rush of spitting and spinning even as he says it.

Wanda looks at him the same way she looked at him last night: like she’s seeing him for the first time. Then, once again, she smiles slowly.

“I can’t say this is something I expected from you, Ezekiel,” Wanda says quietly. “Or that I even fully understand.”

“I know,” Zeke says, his rough voice trembling as he looks at Wanda. “But this is something I really want. It’s something I need to do.”

“Like hell it is!” Leon’s loud words cut through the atmosphere. Zeke had almost forgotten that Leon was even there.

“Leon!” Wanda cries, whipping her around to face her boyfriend.

“Nah, Wanda, don’t go sticking up for him! This music bullshit is just that-- bullshit . It’s some trash this no-good Shaolin cat has put in his head!”

“It’s not trash and Shaolin’s not no-good!” Zeke says defensively. “It’s something I love and am good at. And Shaolin’s my best friend!”

Why do you gotta react that every time I say something about yo’ lil friend?” Leon asks exasperatedly. “You know that shit ain’t normal, right? Why do you trip so hard over this fucking punk?”

And maybe Zeke shouldn’t say what he says next. Maybe Zeke should just try to keep the peace, be quiet, and try to move on.

But see, the way his feelings for Shaolin and the day he’s had are set up . . . well, Zeke isn’t using the best judgement.

Which is why Zeke doesn’t quite realize what he’s yelling until after he yells it at the top of his lungs.

“BECAUSE SHAOLIN’S MY FUCKING BOYFRIEND!”

The whole world has probably stopped spinning at this exact moment. That’s the only reasonable explanation for the suffocating silence that descends after Zeke’s confession.

Leon--ever-speaking Leon--has no words: he just stares at Zeke with his mouth wide open. Wanda stares at Zeke with a very strange mixture of shock, nervousness and pride on her face.

And Zeke just stares back at them, wondering how it’s still only fucking Tuesday night.

Finally, Leon speaks.

“Did you hear what this boy just said?” he asks Wanda quietly.

Wanda looks back at Leon and nods slowly.

“Yes, Leon, I did,” she says as if she is speaking to a two year-old.

“Don’t talk to me like that,” Leon growls. “Your fucking sobrino just sat up here and said he has a goddamn boyfriend and you talking to me like I’m slow or some shit.”

Wanda looks back at the shaking Zeke and then at her boyfriend.

“Ezekiel told me last night. While you were knocked out,” Wanda says.

Leon’s eyes go comically wide and if Zeke weren’t so stressed, he’d probably start laughing.

“He told you this shit last night and you didn’t say anything?!”

“Yep,” Wanda answers with a shrug. Her jaw is set and her stare is hard. “Figured it wasn’t your business, Leon.”

Leon gapes like a dying fish and looks up at Zeke again. Zeke lifts his chin, refusing to look away from Leon.

Not my business?! ” Leon thunders. “I’m not living in no house with no faggot!”

The words punch Zeke in the chest and he struggles to not let it show.

Because, really, didn’t he know some shit like this would happen?

“Well, you ain’t got to,” Zeke growls, glaring at Leon.

“I’m not going to! You ain’t staying here with that shit!” Leon shoots back. “Wanda! Wanda?!”

Wanda, who had gone still as stone at Leon’s declaration, turns slowly towards Leon. Wanda’s face turns bright red and her eyes go a different color.

Zeke’s seen his tía get angry, but he’s never seen her like this before. He can just feel the rage pouring from her body.

“Leon,” Wanda says, her voice barely concealing a quiet storm, “I don’t appreciate what you just said to my nephew.”

Leon looks down at Wanda in confusion. “ I don’t appreciate not being told about--”

“Did I say I wanted you to talk right now?” Wanda’s voice sends chills down Zeke’s spine and Leon flushes.

“See, I’m a little confused about a couple of things, Leon,” Wanda says. “I’m confused as to why you think you can just talk to my child any type of way.”

Leon opens his mouth, but slams it shut when Wanda holds a finger up at him.

“I’m also confused as to exactly who told you that this was your house to begin with,” Wanda says. “And who told you that you get to decide whether or not my child stays here.”

Leon looks back at Zeke, this type as a way to not have to look at Wanda. Zeke stares back at Leon, this time because he wants to see the look on Leon’s face.

“Now, if you really have that big of a problem with Zeke having a boyfriend, you’re welcome to leave this house and not come back,” Wanda says.

Leon’s jaw drops and the world stops spinning again.

“Wh-what?” Leon stutters, looking at Wanda as if he’d never seen her before.

And Wanda, her voice dark, stares him down.

“You heard me,” she says. “Leave this house. Don’t come back.”

Leon gives Zeke one last look, and then turns to leave.

“Get ya shit while we’re not here,” Wanda tells Leon’s back.

Leon looks back at her, casts his eyes to the floor, and slams the door behind him.

Wanda turns back to Zeke, her face somewhat normal again.

“I’m sorry, tía,” Zeke says through the tears he didn’t know where flowing.

Wanda, her face red with her own tears, pulls him into a tight hug.

**

Zeke doesn’t sleep. Doesn’t even shut his eyes.

He and Wanda stay up talking. Talking about the Get Down, about Shaolin, about Leon, about Zeke’s mother.  Zeke tells Wanda about college, about wanting to leave and wanting to stay, about loving others before he even thought of loving himself.

In return, Wanda tells him about his mother’s childhood; about the way she danced, the way she could make up a song in English and Spanish from the top of her head. How she loved his father even when it was too hard, how she stayed because she loved Zeke more than she could love air.

Zeke and Wanda are both dead on their feet by the time the sun’s come up.

Zeke drags through Wednesday, bleary, but happy. He forces himself upright during Mrs. Green’s class and snickers at the look on Ra’s face.

“Brother, are you alright? You look like you died twice,” Ra whispers.

Zeke just smiles at him, his head too heavy for his neck.

Mylene pretty much asks the same question: “Zeke, what happened last night? You look like you haven’t slept in days!”

Zeke just shrugs and tries to keep himself steady.

He pretends to be fully awake during work. And he isn’t even mad about having to go straight home afterwards.

**

Shaolin’s proud of himself on Thursday: he managed to not see Zeke the day before and isn’t walking around pouting.

In fact, on Thursday, Shaolin decides to actually take a walk, a real one.

He walks the Bronx and actually looks at his neighborhood. Shao’s spent so much time running--running drugs, running merchandise, running for his life--that he’s never actually looked.

There’s a lot more kids out. They play like nothing can hurt them. Hip-scotch, double dutch, hand games. They sing and dance and Shaolin, for the first time, sees new life in the streets.

It’s not a fairytale: it’s the Bronx. But maybe the Bronx isn’t so dead after all.

Shaolin briefly thinks of he and his mother, playing silly hand games on the steps of a brownstone. He had to have been five or six during that memory: way too young to be afraid. And his mother had smiled, soft, sweet and sober.

Shaolin has good memories of her. Not a lot of them, but still some good ones.

**

“Look at you not wearing disco clothes!”

Zeke looks down at his outfit and rolls his eyes at Shao.

“Shut man,” Zeke says with a chuckle. “I told you I got rid of them forever ago.”

Shao shrugs, decked out in his signature red and black. He wraps his arms around Zeke’s neck and grins slyly at his boyfriend.

“I know you’re kinda attached to ‘em, though,” Shaolin says teasingly. “But you look good in this, too.”

Zeke smirks and kisses Shaolin. “You look good, too. I guess.”

Shaolin makes a face at Zeke and makes a big show of pulling away from him and walking towards the door.

“Don’t be lollygagging. Mylene’ll kill us if we don’t get there soon!” Shaolin says dramatically.

Zeke stares at Shaolin’s back, snorts, and follows him outside.

**

Ra-Ra’s right: Mylene, Yolanda and Regina are gonna be superstars.

Zeke and Shaolin take notes, because they wanna move a crowd the way the girls do. They command the stage, dazzling in bright red dresses, and work a crowd better than anyone at Les Inferno ever could.

Take my heart! It’s yours to have! Take it, girl! I don’t want it back!” Mylene’s voice cuts through the confusion, piercing straight through the crowd.

Yolanda and Regina’s harmonies move the world, turning the crowd upside down.

Someone crashes into Shaolin, causing Shaolin to crash into Zeke.

“Damn, man!” Shaolin cries with a loud laugh, landing solidly against Zeke.

Zeke wraps his arm around Shaolin’s waist and stares down at his face.

“Damn, indeed,” he says just loud enough for Shaolin to hear.

Shaolin peers up into Zeke’s big brown eyes and tries not to turn into a puddle on the floor.

Take me boy! Spin me ‘round! Cus you the king! You wear the crown!” Regina sings and her voice and the feeling of Zeke’s hand sends jolts up Shaolin’s spine.

Shaolin pushes himself even closer to Zeke and laughs for no real reason. Zeke leans his forehead against Shaolin’s. His king, his man. His one and only.

Yolanda cozies up to the girl she loves and her warm voices drives the crowd.

Because you’re my forever! No shame, no doubt! You’re my forever! What I’m all about!”

Forever. Shaolin and Zeke kisses under the rainbow lights of Pakoussa’s club. The world fades away as they sink into each other, their bodies merging into one.

Tomorrow’s gonna come. And so will the next day, and the next day. There’s the Get Down, and performances, and record deals, and college. There’s fear and anxiety and sadness and joy. There’s the great unknown, one that lingers in the back of the boys’ minds. It’s all still there.

But Zeke has Shaolin, and Shaolin has Zeke. And as they both go tangling themselves into one being, they know they’ll always have each other.

It’s the only thing they know. But hey, it’s what matters most.