The group of six are usually so lively; laughing, and joking, and carrying on. But there’s an unusual quietness among them as they walk to the community center. Ra Ra and Dizzee lead the pack, Napoleon and Boo are in step behind them, and Shao and Zeke hang back from the rest of the group, their steps slowed by Shaolin’s apprehension. He isn’t in a hurry to get there, not when this meeting would decide his fate. And the shit is looking pretty bleak. Shao has a hundred scenarios in his head, and none of them end well. He thinks about Annie retaliating for trying to leave her; he thinks about his reputation preceding him, making the community members turn him away; he thinks about Napoleon ending up in a group home and never seeing him again; he thinks about what it means if they can’t find a solution. And on top of all of that, he wonders how he can prove he’s worth saving.
When Zeke looks over at Shao, he’s in deep thought with worry lines aging his face. He goes to hold his hand, but stops himself. Instead, he slyly runs his fingertips along the inside of his wrist.
Even with that slight touch, Shaolin knows what Dizzee meant about lightning revitalizing him. He glances up from their barely-touching hands to Zeke’s face. He’s giving him that signature close-lipped Ezekiel Figuero smile, the one that makes Shao fall deeper every time he flashes one his way. Oh, there’s no questioning it now, Shao’s definitely in love.
“What you smiling at?” he asks, his smile growing bigger and exposing his gap.
“What you smiling at?” he counters, a wide grin spreading across his face as well.
Shaolin’s whole body heats up, embers kindle in the pit of his stomach, and a glow of a smile casts shadows into his cheeks where dimples appear. Hopelessly, Shao tries to cool his body that is flushed with warm adrenaline by biting back his smile, but the flustered young man can only let out a breathless chuckle.
Zeke watches Shao in amusement. “Looks like you like the sound of that.”
He looks up at him, his smile still burning bright. “Yeah,” he pauses to take in Zeke’s surprise, “I can definitely get used to it.” He could also get used to feeling like this. Feeling open and free with the bounds of insecurities loosening their grip.
“Sounds like you ready for pet names, too. How you like My Kung Fu King?”
“Fuck outta here with that bullshit,” Shao dismisses as he pushes him.
He laughs as he stumbles to regain balance. “Okay, okay. I’ma stop messin’ with you.” Once he falls back in step with Shao, he looks up to see that they were just down the street from their destination. The sight of the it takes Zeke back to when him and Mylene were taking this same walk a month ago. Nerves rattled him then, afraid of the powerful, no-nonsense man that is Papa Fuerte, but now, Zeke was nervous for Shao. He glances at him to see him deep in his own thoughts again.
“Wanna tell me what’s on your mind?”
With the weight of the world seemingly resting on his shoulders, Shaolin heaves a sigh. “Shit, man, everything,” he answers before meeting Zeke’s gaze. And as he wrestles with revealing the depth of his feelings, he turns away until the words finally tumble out. “I...I’m scared, Zeke. This is supposed to be my step towards freedom, but I feel like I’m headed to my execution.”
He wants to hold his hand, give him the physical comfort Mylene gave him all those weeks back, but he can’t. He has seen the violence people face for being free, for being a man and daring to show love for another man. So, instead, Zeke stops Shao by grabbing onto his shoulder then turns their bodies until the were facing one another. Then he rubs the pad of his thumb into his shoulder, hoping his boyfriend can find the comfort he needs from that.
“Look at me,” his gravelly voice commands with a gentleness that makes Shao want to look forever. “You ain’t headed nowhere but towards your future, Shaolin. Towards our future.”
Imagining a future with his wordsmith right by his side, a future where they’re the biggest thing in the whole world, calms Shao. It makes him determined to do whatever necessary to see that vision come into fruition. He grabs hold of the hand on his shoulder and soothes circles into the side of Zeke’s wrist with his thumb. Shaolin gives him a smile that brightens up his whole face and Zeke basks in its radiance. “Thank you,” he says as tender as the strokes of his thumb.
Zeke’s smile widens as he gives Shao’s shoulder a soft squeeze. “Anything for My Kung Fu King.”
And just like that, all the seriousness and stress melts away and Shao’s all laughs as he tries to take Zeke into a headlock. The lanky teen is no match for the swift hands of Shaolin Fantastic, and he finds his cheek pressed against Shao’s chest.
“What I tell you about that lame ass shit, B?”
“Get off me,“ he shouts through laughter, barely struggling because he likes being this close to his man.
“You gon’ stop calling me Kung Fu King?”
“I’ll call you whatever I damn well please!”
Then Shao’s breath is blowing warmth against his ear as he huffs lightly, nearly making his knees buckle. “Oh, is that right?” The growl in his voice nearly draws a moan from the back of Zeke’s throat, but the deep guttural sound doesn’t leave him unaffected. It registers in the pit of his stomach and on the surface of his skin as his body heats.
He fights back now, nerves making him desperate to get away from the heat radiating from Shaolin and onto him. He can’t take the way his skin burns underneath Shao’s touch, can’t handle the intensity of the feelings that stir up with Shao breathing down his neck like that, can’t endure the lightheadedness when he takes in the scent wafting off of Shaolin.
“Okay, okay,” he shouts, trying his damnedest to get out of Shaolin’s hold. “I quit.”
“Giving in already, Books?” he chortles. “I expected more from you, man.”
“Nah,” he simply says, still dazed from being intoxicated by Shaolin. And Shao’s dazzling smile doesn’t help. His face is beaming like he just won a heavyweight title, and all Zeke wants is to kiss him like he’s the world’s champ. What in the world was going on with him? He has no idea and shakes his head of the thought before miraculously throwing together a lie, “I’m just tryna make sure you not late. Papa Fuerte values punctuality.”
“Ooo,” he coos, “my man knows big words to match his big ass head.” Shao snickers, but Zeke coolly brushes off the dig at him.
“Don’t front, Shao. You know you like this big head ass nigga.”
His smile settles into a smirk and his eyes soften. “Yeah, but only cuz your face makes up for it.”
Flustered, Zeke looks away, puts his hands inside his pockets, and resumes their walk. “Sooo,” he drags out, “you tryna say I’m cute?”
“What I’m saying is Shaolin Fantastic don’t hang with ugly niggas, and only the finest will be on my arm.” The tables have turned as Zeke is the one uncontrollably blushing while Shao gloats with a knowing smirk. “Mhm. I guess you can dish it but you can’t take it.”
“I guess I’m getting used to this romantic that you claim to be,” he says, and looks over at Shao to give him a smile, but it falters when he sees Shao’s sullen face. He follows his eyeline to see the entrance of the community center.
And Shaolin is back in reality where boys don’t flirt with each other, and no one leaves the clutches of Annie, and people like him—people who deal drugs, steal, and kill—don’t get saved from their demons because they don’t deserve salvation.
“Shao?” He blinks out of his haze then turns his attention to Zeke. “Are you okay?”
“This shit is pointless, Books. They can’t help me. They don’t know how to help me. And I doubt they wanna help out a fuckin drug dealer!” Worry and fear contort his visage, reminding Zeke of the terror on Shaolin’s face during his panic attacks, and just like the other day, Zeke’s there to talk him down.
Taking hold of Shao’s hand, Zeke tenderly rubs the back of it with his thumb as he guides them to a bench. The ministration instantly calms Shao, easing the tension throughout his body. Never stopping the lazy circles he draws, Zeke repositions himself to face Shao, folding his leg onto the bench before laying their intertwined hands on top of his knee. As he brings his eyes from their hands to Shao’s face, Zeke smiles upon seeing Shao’s calmness.
“I know you’re nervous and scared, but you have nothing to worry about, Shao. If these people didn’t have the resources to help you and Leon, then Ms. Green wouldn’t have suggested we come here.”
Shaolin hears him, can hear the faith and trust Zeke has in Ms. Green, and because Shao also trusts Zeke, he has faith in a woman he has never met. However, his faith and trust in Annie’s need for him outweighs whatever trust he has in Zeke. He has been with Annie far too long. He knows of the lengths she’ll go through to keep him bound to her, unable to escape whatever desires she wants him to fulfill.
“You don’t understand, Books,” he says in a distressed tone of voice that alarms Zeke. Sadness, fear, hopelessness, and worry gripe him, and he feels himself going into that place again, where black wings cloud any possibility of light. “There ain’t no way Annie will just let me walk away.”
“Shaolin.” His voice is strong and unwavering, instantly commanding his attention. Zeke looks Shao directly in the eye, his stare as unwavering as his voice when he says, “I promise you right now, if they can’t find a way to get you away from Annie safely, then that bitch gon have to go through me to get to you. I am not letting you go back to her.”
Shao is breathless, but it’s Zeke’s words and not anxiety that takes his breath away. He probably shouldn’t believe in them, because what in the world would skinny ass Ezekiel Figuero do to ward off Annie and her goons? But Shao has faith that his boyfriend would go down swinging with all the strength he could muster. The thought makes him laugh and makes Zeke raise an eyebrow.
“What’s so funny? I’m being serious.”
He tries to stifle his laughter upon seeing Zeke’s deep frown. “I know you are, but can you imagine tryna take down Annie when you the size of a toothpick?”
Dramatically, he snatches his hand from Shao’s as he sucks his teeth. “Here I am tryna protect my man and you wanna talk about me. Fuck you, Shao.”
“C’mon, now,” he says taking Zeke’s hand back into his, and Zeke’s faux anger melts into a smile. “I know you the only person that’s really down for me and I love you for that.”
The air grows thicker, hotter.
His palms are sweating and he really wants to let go of Zeke’s hand, but he’s frozen.
Unable to do anything but gaze into Zeke’s eyes, and he hates that he can’t read them, nor his straight face (ha!). He must be stuck, too.
Or trying to mask his horror.
“I love you too.”
“No, I wasn’t—wait, what??”
Zeke chuckles as he gives Shao’s hand a light squeeze. “You heard me right; I love you too.”
Before Shao could do anything else besides bask in Zeke’s revelation, someone interrupts them.
Tearing his eyes from Zeke, he sees Flash standing a few feet away. “Grandmaster? What are you doing here?”
“I’m here for you.”
“Well, yesterday your wordsmith told me about your situation and asked if I could help you out.”
Before Flash can even finish his sentence, Shao glares at Zeke who has his head down. “Yo, why you going around telling my business, man? To Flash of all people?”
“Hey, it ain’t no need for alla that,” he discourages and Shao turns to him with a pout that Flash simply chuckles and shakes his head at. “Your wordsmith was just trying to help you. What’s Universal Rule 17, grasshopper?”
“In order to fly a DJ must trust his wings,” he mumbles and tries his hardest to keep his eyes from rolling.
“Is he your wings?”
He looks over at Zeke and thinks about the words they shared on that bench, and a smile slowly appears spreads across his face. “Yeah,” he answers and smiles wider when he sees his man’s wide grin. “Yeah, he is.”
“Then you need to start trusting him or you gonna find yourself without that support. You understand what I’m saying?”
He nods. “Yes, Grandmaster.”
“Good,” he says with a smile. “And another thing: stop being so stubborn and let people help you, Shao. There ain’t no shame in it. I went to my moms for help when ya wordsmith told me what was up, because I knew she had the resources to help. She’s a part of the community initiative for getting kids off the street, and she was the one who told me they had a meeting for you.”
“I hear you, Grandmaster.”
“Alright, kid.” He hangs an arm around his shoulder before gesturing to Zeke. “C’mon, wordsmith.” Within a few strides, Zeke is right beside them and Flash puts his other arm around Zeke’s shoulder as they walk into the building. “Yo, Shao,” he begins then continues when he has his attention, “I just wanna let you know that as much as I do it, I don’t try to lecture you. I know you probably be thinking, ‘here this nigga go again,’” they both laugh, “but as your mentor, it’s my job to guide you in the right direction so you can make the right choices on your own.”
“I know,” Shao says, smiling up at him. “And thank you for always lookin’ out for me.”
He returns the smile before putting him in a headlock to tussle his fro. “That’s what I’m here for.”
“Joesph, leave that boy alone!” Immediately, Flash responds to his mother’s stern tone, holding his hands us as further proof of his compliance.
“No need to apologize to me; apologize to him.”
Shao takes special delight in seeing his mentor be scolded; he doesn’t even bother hiding his snicker. “Sorry, Shao.”
Before he can gloat, Flash’s mother asks, “so you’re the boy my son has ripping and running around the Bronx to get records for him to scratch up?”
He chuckles awkwardly, suddenly nervous and he isn’t sure why. “Yeah, I guess so. I’m Shaolin Fantastic, but everyone calls me Shao.”
“Shaolin Fantastic...well ain’t that a colorful name.” He shrugs shyly at her observation and she chuckles softly. “You happen to know a Boo Boo, Dizzee, and Ra Ra, too?”
“Yes ma’am. They’re my friends.”
“Nuh uh. I’m way too young to be anybody’s ma’am. Just call me Ms. Claudia, Shao,” she says then turns her attention to Zeke. “And you are?”
“Zeke Figuero,” he answers as they shake hands. “I’m Shao’s friend.”
“It’s nice to meet you both. It’s great that you have a support system here with you, Shao. Having that kind of support around you is especially helpful.”
He looks over at Zeke, smiling, and his boyfriend meets his gaze.
I know you the only person that’s really down for me and I love you for that.
His smile widens.
“And I’m incredibly thankful for it.”