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Spinning & Grinning

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“Yo, Shao, where you at?” His deep rasp of a voice startles the calm in Shaolin’s soul. This isn’t the first time, but he’s always caught off guard when those feelings stir. The ones he can’t quite place, because it was something he has never experienced before. It’s something like belonging, but he also recognizes happiness. Although a fleeting emotion for him, he’s felt it before, many of those time being with Zeke and the rest of their Get Down crew, and this is it too. Along with right-ness. Maybe perfection is a better word? All he knows is, it just is, and it felt right. Natural like. Yeah…natural. 

“Shao, nigga, I know you hear me.” The added base in his voice rumbles in Shaolin’s chest as well.

“I’m in the library, Books,” the lady-killing romantic tries to sound like his usual cool and casual self, but his voice sounds breathless. He feels it as well. Lately, being around Zeke consumed Shaolin with nerves. He had avoided him the past week just so he wouldn’t feel what he’s feeling now: needles poking at his lungs; his heart roaring against his ribcage. But that sense of belonging and happiness resurfaces the Calm. Like a tidal wave, it soothes over him, just as the cause comes closer. Only Zeke could set him ablaze then put out the fire just as quickly, whether it be with his presence or his words. The thought of the eloquent words of his wordsmith and best friend puts a toothy grin on Shaolin’s face.

“What you grinning for?” Now Zeke is staring down at him while he splays across the beaten up couch. He had watched the grin appear so gracefully and wondered what had delighted the DJ.

“Ain’t nobody grinning, nigga.” Shao smoothly leaps up from his lying position in the way only Shaolin Fantastic can, and lunges at Zeke.

Smiles and laughs now come out of Ezekiel’s face as he dodges the swift hands of Shaolin Fantastic. For a brief second he thinks about how magical the hands are whenever they touch a turntable. His boy can spin just as good as his words can form into rhymes so effortlessly. He’s a bad mothafucka, alright. And with Zeke’s guard down and his mind distracted, Shao lands a punch a little too hard.

“Fuck!” “Oh shit.” The two simultaneously cursed as blood spurts from Ezekiel’s nose. Once the initial shock wore off, Shaolin goes into action, closing the gap between them and grabs the bridge of Zeke’s wide nose.

“Tilt ya head back,” Shao softly commands and Zeke follows. Shao’s touch and their closeness sends a rush through him, reminding him of the night they’d promised to take over the world…and just like that, the pain is forgotten. Shaolin wasn’t exempt from that rush either. In fact, he couldn’t keep his lips from spreading, showcasing the grin that got them here in the first place. “I’m sorry, Books, I ain’t mean to hit you so hard.”

“You good, man, it was an accident,” he voices quickly, hoping to absolve his friend from any feelings of guilt. Shao watches the movement of Zeke’s lips, briefly entranced, before traveling up to his eyes. Silence befalls the two and their eyes meet, even with their height difference and Zeke’s head tilted back. The rush intensifies, coursing through their veins and lingering in their extremities. Their hearts thump so loudly they swear the other can hear it. Zeke finds himself lowering his head, drawn in by Shaolin’s dark brown orbs. Words appear in his mind, a rhyme materializing right before his eyes.

Lookin’ at you got my heart

beatin’ so fast, it’s sweatin’

The fuck is goin’ on

in my head, I’m trippin’

This feelin’ is sumthin’

familiar and new

But how can they be for another dude?

But you not some ordinary nigga

You Shaolin, my main man, my best friend

and when I met you,

I knew I’d never be the same again

Who would imagine that

this is what that meant?

So much adrenaline,

I needa run somewhere

Fuck it’s so hot,

is the sun in here?

Now my mind’s on that sunrise

and I envision the world

as our enterprise

with you, my heart’s conductor,

right by my side.

The words in Zeke’s head hang heavy over him, not quite clear of their implications. He just stares at Shao, the words becoming a continuous beat as if Shaolin were conducting it himself. The older teen is the first one to break their stare down as his eyes catch blood spilling from Zeke’s nose again and heading towards his full lips.

“I, uh, let—” he stumbles over his words before swallowing hard. Zeke watches his Adam’s apple jump in his throat then Shao’s voice brings him back to his face. “Lemme get you some tissue, iight?” As soon as Shao takes away his touch and creates space between them, the pain comes back and his nose throbs in agony.

“Shit,” he hisses, slumping down on the couch behind him. The words of his poem are still on a continuous loop, his brain thoughtlessly adding more lines, and further adding to his headache.

Shao comes back with a cold rag instead of tissues. “Here,” he offers, sitting next to Zeke. He grumbles a thanks, rests his head on the back of the couch, applies the rag, then shuts his eyes.

The DJ watches his friend, hoping to find answers to the questions firing in his brain. Instead, he finds himself taking in his side profile. He never realized how long his eyelashes were. His sideburns makes Shao wonder what it would be like to run a finger against the patch of hair. Would it be soft or rough? Then he lands on the beauty mark on the right-side corner of his top lip. The mole truly marked its beauty. He wanted to frown at the thought that seemed to come to him naturally, but his mind seems to lose the fight with his heart and the corners of his mouth turn upwards anyway. Rather than question the action or the sentiment behind it, he asks Zeke a question. “What you doin’ here, Books?”

Zeke turns his head to look at Shaolin, and was slightly surprised by how close he was. He didn’t move away, though. “What, I can’t chill with my boy now?” His tone is harsher than he means it to be, but Shao doesn’t seem to take offense to it.

“I ain’t say that. I just thought you’d be spendin’ the day with Mylene since she’s about to be off to Manhattan.” He hopes Zeke doesn’t hear the annoyance in his voice because he knows he’ll get upset. Zeke scolds him for treating Mylene rudely and disrespectfully, but Shao can’t help how she gets under his skin. Mylene was always taking Zeke away from their fun and from his destiny. When Shaolin first heard his poetic sentences, he knew Zeke was destined for greatness way beyond the Bronx; the two of them would have their own kingdom together. Mylene distracted Zeke, though. Plus she painted Shaolin as a lowlife who wanted to keep Zeke down in the belly of the beast. Although the pair often found themselves in compromising situations, Shao would never intentionally involve Zeke into his bullshit. Their adventures were always spontaneous and Zeke was always down, enjoying their escapades but also keeping Shao levelheaded before he could divulge into any recklessness.

Shao thinks about the night of the fire, when his mind was boggled by past memories, present pain, and future struggle. Books affirmed he had his back, showing a true loyalty and compassion no one else ever had, not even his own parents. Mylene threatened that; she made him fickle. He was always ready to drop everything for that girl. What if he decides to travel after her once she made it big? What would happen to them? He felt the resemblance of jealousy boiling inside him, but he wouldn’t dare admit it aloud or even acknowledge it to himself.

“Nah, she left last night,” Zeke answers, causing Shaolin to frown deeply.

“Yo, if you only here so I can entertain you while ya precious Butterscotch Queen is gone, then you can go back to wherever the fuck you was at.”

Zeke sits up, scooting to the edge of his seat, and gives Shao a look of disbelief. His best friend has his arms crossed over his chest and a mug rests on his face. Rolling his eyes, Zeke sucks his teeth. “Shao, I know you still not on that shit, B.” He doesn’t respond, just huffs and turns his head, looking at nothing, but needing to avoid Zeke’s eyes. “I ain’t never chose her over you. But I’m always breaking my promises to her so I can rip and run witchu and the rest of The Get Down Brothers.” Shao’s still paying him no mind, but he notices the way the DJ’s nostrils flare angrily. Zeke heaves a sigh. “Shao, c’mon, look at me.” A few short seconds past before he does as he’s instructed. Shao can see the plea in his friend’s eyes and his face softens. “I got so much goin’ on: our music, Mylene, that internship…” Zeke pauses, shaking his head. Even the thought of his many responsibilities overwhelm him. “I just need you to cut me some slack, iight? Mylene’s my girl, shit, you knew that when you first met me. She ain’t goin’ nowhere no time soon, but you ain’t goin’ nowhere either, Shao. I may not be able to hang witchu as much, but you still my best friend, and you’ll never not be important to me. Ya dig?”

“Yeah, I dig it,” he says as his teeth and gums do everything but hide. As if contagious, Zeke soon has the same goofy look on his face.

“So we good?”

“Yeah.” Once again, no sounds exchange between them as they stare at one another. Suddenly, Shao pulls a joint from his pocket like he always does when he gets nervous around Zeke. He’s afraid of what he might say or do so he keeps himself occupied with the smoking and passing of the joint, and if all else fails, he knows he can blame whatever actions on the weed. Like that time he felt the urge to kiss him on the rooftop of his dojo, and on the hood of the Cadillac, and in the back of the OJ. 

What the fuck is these feelings? Shaolin mothafuckin’ Fantastic don’t do feelings. Certainly not for another man. He’s convinced this is simply raging teenage hormones. I just needa find a bitch to fuck. Before he could even end the thought he dismisses it with a deep scold. If he’s honest with himself, the thought of sex left him feeling queasy. Oftentimes it was simply a means to an end. It was always mechanical and emotionless.

That isn’t him and Zeke, though. Everything Zeke does is deep and passionate. Every step he takes, every word he utters, is delivered with intensity, meaning, and purpose. What Books makes him feel is nothing like sex. It’s light and sweet…like cotton candy. Shaolin smiles at the analogy. And once again, Books is lost, left wondering what keeps making his friend smile so goofily. Was that how he was with Mylene?

“Damn, Shao,” he begins with a soft laugh. “What girl got ya nose open?”

“What you talkin’ ‘bout, Books?”

“Man, you been grinnin’ to yaself all day like you in love or sumthin.”

He sucks his teeth. “Go on somewhere with that love bullshit, B.”

“Well, what else got you so giddy?”

“Damn, I can’t just be happy?”

He wants to tell him there’s a difference between being happy and being giddy, but he doesn’t press the issue. “Well, I’m happy that you happy.” There’s a pause as the two look at one another grinning, their faces so close, they were nearly inhaling each other’s carbon dioxide.

Once nervousness takes over him again, Shao remembers the joint in his hand. He turns away from Zeke, fishing through his front pocket for a lighter. He pulls it out then lights up the stress reliever wrapped in white rolling papers before taking a deep pull. A thick cloud of smoke bellows from Shao’s thick lips and Zeke is seduced by the sight. His friend can make just about anything look cool, but this is the first time he made something look sexy. Eyes wide, he gulps as he sits back, acknowledgement hitting him like a ton of bricks. What he thought was friendship and adoration could possibly be something more.

I think I like Shaolin Fantastic.

He briefly thinks of buying a new notebook to fill with poetry inspired by his newfound muse before he shakes the thought from his head. He’s not sure what to do with the newly discovered information, so he takes the joint from Shaolin’s outstretched hand without a word.

Chapter Text

Their silent smoke session ended in a marijuana-induced nap that Zeke is the first to wake up from. Coming into consciousness, he feels weight on his legs and looks down to see them entangled with Shao’s. His heartbeat quickens and butterflies flutter in the pit of his stomach. He blushes at his body‘s response to being so close to Shao. Is this what it’ll be like now, he wonders. He couldn’t fathom his skin always burning bright red whenever the acrobatic teen felt the need to touch him (which was often). It was then that Zeke realizes he has to find a way to control himself around his new possible love interest. He doesn’t want to mess up the dynamics of their friendship or of their group.

Sighing, he slowly sits up, careful not to wake the peacefully sleeping boy on the opposite end of the couch. With his back against the armrest, he can’t help but to take in Shao’s sleeping form. Suddenly, bright sun rays peak in from the open window, lightening up the whole room and casting Shaolin’s beautiful, dark brown skin in a soft glow. The gold S on his chest sparkles as well, and now Zeke’s gaze is fixed there. His chest rises and falls slowly, and the scoop neck of the red tank top he’s wearing exposes the beads of sweat collecting on his skin. Zeke observes a light sheen of sweat on his neck, upper lip, and forehead also, no doubt due to the high humidity and ninety-degree weather. Soft snores interrupt the silence causing Zeke to snicker. He couldn’t wait to tease him about that. A seemingly never-ending smile displays on the young wordsmith’s face as he continues watching his friend. Struck by inspiration, he reaches for his notebook and pencil in his back pocket.

 

I could watch you sleep all day

Already it’s become my favorite pastime

Right next to you DJin and me spittin rhymes

I just like seein you in peace

Knowin you ain’t runnin these streets

I s that where you been?

Doin dumb shit for Fat Ann?

You so much better than that shit.

Hell, I even see potential when you flip.

You say this the Bronx, this shit ain’t no fairytale

But what happens when ya story cuts short

and all that’s left of you is my memories?

I need much more than some teenaged dreams

We posed to last a lifetime, you and me

Books and Shaolin Fantastic

Could this ever be romantic?

These feelings is hard to understand

What would they say if we held hands?

Moms would say I gotta big heart

Big enough to love the whole world

Is that what happened?

You came in and my heart had love to lend?

 

“Noooooooo!” Shaolin’s scream startles Zeke, making him drop his pad and pencil to look at his friend in bewilderment.

Shao’s eyes are wide as he looks around wildly in his upright position. He tries to steady his breathing, but he can’t; oxygen only comes to him in short bursts. Needles prick the skin on his arm, up his spin, then dig into his heart and lungs. He’s paralyzed by terror, even fighting for air is becoming too much for him. Everything within him attempts to pull in oxygen, but the grip on his throat is stronger. He swears his heart is about to erupt inside his ribcage. Panic engulfs him all while the threat of death looms over him like angels. With their black, large wings, angels of death fly overhead, and he can hear the whooshing sound their wings leave behind in the wind. Their ebony feathers block out light as darkness closes in on him until all he can see are endless tears.

Zeke is briefly stunned at the sight before him: Shao shaking, sweating profusely, and sobbing. However, this sight is also familiar to him, and he takes Shaolin’s hand into his. “Shao, I’m here. It’s gonna be okay, just breathe. Take a deep breath, Shao,” the younger teen soothes just as his thumb does to the back of Shaolin’s soft hand.

Shao can see Books now, even though his vision is blurry. He notices his friend’s lips are moving, yet he can’t make out the words. As he concentrates harder, the whooshing sounds stop, and Zeke’s deep, soft voice enters his ears like the sweetest Get Down beat he’s ever heard.

“I won’t let nothin’ get you, Shao, okay? You gon’ be okay, just breathe, iight? Just take a deep breath in ya nose and out ya mouth.”

A calm starts to wash over Shaolin. It takes away the heat that seems to burn into every pour, the needle pricks give way and become settled stardust, then at least, the grip on his throat loosens. Deep breaths. Oxygen expands his lungs so intensely, it dizzies him, like getting up too fast. He keeps drawing breathes, though, thankful that he’s no longer suffocating.

“Yeah, man, just like that. You doin’ good, Shao.” Any other time he would’ve cheesed at whatever compliment Zeke gave him, but he barely has the energy to keep his eyelids open. The usually agile teen feels languid and his body aches all over. “That feelin’ will go away soon, and you’a be okay.” The encouraging smile on Zeke’s face makes Shao believe anything was possible. That, coupled with his soothing voice, has him feeling like he didn’t just look death in the face. “This happened to me on the night of my moms funeral,” Books confesses softly, his eyes leaving Shao’s to gaze at their hands. The younger teen is still rubbing the soft skin, providing a comfort for the both of them.

“I’m sorry about your moms,” Shaolin speaks for the first time since he awakened to a nightmare, his voice sounding like an untuned string instrument from his raw throat. Ezekiel brings his view back to Shao’s face. He wears a soft expression and his eyes read understanding and empathy. Shao represses the need to ask what happened to his mother while Zeke wonders where his parents were. Instead he gives his friend an appreciative smile before thanking him and continuing on with the story. ”My tía was so scared she called the ambulance, but of course it took them forever. So, she just keep telling me to breathe and that everything would be alright. By the time they got there, she had already calmed me down, but my chest was hurting so we went to the hospital anyways. The doctor said it was just a bad nightmare, but my tía thought it was something more. The next day she goes to the library and found out it was probably anxiety—”

“Anxiety?” His hoarse voice is laced with disapproval and it’s written all over his face. “I ain’t fuckin’ crazy, Zeke.”

“I ain’t say you was, Shao. Anxiety doesn’t make you crazy, it’s just the body’s response to distress. You know, like how you get a fever cuz ya body’s fightin’ off a cold.”

His scold turns to confusion. “What’s distress?”

“It means you goin’ through sumthin’ emotional or you like buggin’ out about some shit. I was dealin’ with my moms; what you dealin’ with?” Now it’s Shao’s turn to look away from his friend. “Is it Fat Annie?” he asks timidly.

That feeling begins to creep back as the image of Wolf’s lifeless eyes haunt him. Zeke sees the physical manifestation of his friend’s trauma when he begins to tremble again. He leans over to hug him to his chest, rubbing his back in an attempt to soothe him. “She ain’t here, Shao. She can’t hurt you; I won’t let her hurt you. You safe, you hear me?” He doesn’t respond, just continues to sob on his shoulder and that’s enough for Zeke. He’ll tell him when the time was right. “It’s gon’ be okay.”

Shao tries to form thoughts or words, but all his body has the energy to do is mourn, mourn for the official lose of his innocence. Nothing would ever be the same, and it was just now dawning on him.

After the excitement of their victory over the Notorious Three died down, Shaolin had felt nauseous whenever he wasn’t sleeping in or doing something for Annie; he forgot to eat and drink unless Annie made him, and when he did, it was tasteless; weed wasn’t as strong; and the sky was never as pristine and blue as it had been a week before.

Don’t let her steal your soul. The dead man’s parting words haunts him. He had to tell Zeke, get it off his chest, but he still can’t form the words. No, I can’t tell him. He would never be able to look at me the same. I can barely stomach myself. God, I can’t lose Zeke.

Zeke felt Shao tighten his grip and he continues holding him, whispering words of comfort in his ear. What the fuck did Annie make him do? His heart aches for his friend, and he wishes he could do something to ease whatever pain he’s going through. Maybe this is enough right now, he reasons.

After another twenty minutes of comforting words and back rubs, Shaolin’s tears turn into sniffles. Pulling out of their embrace, the younger friend asks, “you good?” The older one nods then sniffs before wiping his whole face with the bottom half of his shirt. One side of Zeke’s mouth curves upward, finding the child-like action to be cute. He watches his broken friend return to his end of the couch, looking like an abandoned puppy. His smile falters and his heart is crying for him again. He doesn’t know what else to do but take care of him the best way he knows how.

He gets up, heading a quest for some nourishments. “I’ll be back—”

”Don’t leave.”

“I’m just gettin’ you some food and water.”

“I’m fine, Books, just don’t leave me.”

“Okay, I won’t, but you need sumthin’ to drink. Is the water still runnin’ in here?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ma be right back, iight?” He nods then watches until Zeke’s out of sight. Shao takes deep breaths and tries to think about good thoughts like Zeke instructed earlier. Well, he was the good thoughts that came to mind, blurring the image of death and bringing the Calm.

Books a real one for making sure I’m okay. He’s the only person that’s ever really did that. Nobody’s ever taken care of me, or even cared about me, really. But Books does, and it doesn’t feel fake.

Zeke is tender-hearted in a way that he admired and envied, but also truly loved about him. Love wasn’t a word he ever used, but he really loved all the qualities of a great friend that Books possessed. When Zeke comes back into the room, Shao has a grin on his face that fills him with joy. It was a great improvement from how he left him.

“You feeling better?”

“Yeah, a li’l bit. That good thoughts thing helped.”

“I’m glad,” he says, smiling, and Shao can see and hear his sincerity. “Here you go.” Zeke extends the cup to his friend who graciously takes it while uttering a thanks. “No problem,” he replies and takes a seat next to him. Shao gulps down the water, not realizing how parched he was, before placing the empty cup on the coffee table. “You need anything else? You hungry? I can—”

“Nah, I’m good, Books, but thank you.” Shao pauses briefly, hesitant to disclose his next sentence. “I’m tired, but I’m afraid to go to sleep.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. After the first one, I made my tía hold me til I fell asleep for like three nights straight.”

“Could you hold me?” The soft words come out before he could even stop them. “I was—”

“Yeah.”

“What?”

Zeke shrugs. “If that’ll help you feel better then I don’t mind.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

The two boys look at one another apprehensively, not sure how to coordinate what they had just planned. Zeke takes the initiative, scooting closer to Shao before lying his lanky frame across the rest of the couch. He then adjusts the dusty throw pillow and his body to make himself more comfortable. “C’mere.” Zeke’s deep, gruff voice belies his age and makes the instruction seem more like a demand. Shao isn’t intimidated by this. In fact, the sight and the sweetness in Zeke’s tone makes the offer more inviting. Without any further hesitation, the boy lies with the other one and they fit together perfectly like a puzzle piece. His heart starts to sped up, but this feels nothing like suffocating. This feels like freedom, like things were falling right into place. Zeke drapes his arm across Shao’s side and lazily cradles his midsection. For a second they both stop breathing. Once their hearts calm down, they settle into each other like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Zeke blindly reaches for Shao’s hand then begins to caress his new favorite spot with his thumb. Shao sighs, content and truly at peace for the first time in a week. And although the idea of sleep terrifies him, emotional and physical exhaustion weight his eyelids down, and Shaolin falls into a peaceful slumber, knowing his best friend got his back.

Chapter Text

Shaolin’s the first to wake this time. His eyes flutter open and he’s immediately met with sunlight and a pounding headache. He groans, closing his eyes back. He feels horrible: his eyes are swollen, his throat is sore, and his chest hurts. His pain is a battle scar reminding him of the night before, and it comes to him in brief flashes. He isn’t exactly sure what he had experienced, but he knows it petrified him, shook him to his very core. Thankfully, he didn’t go through it alone. Zeke was there to care for and comfort him. The thought of his friend fills him with gratitude and joy, leaving him tingly all over. And the feeling of Zeke still holding him adds to that sensation.


I could lay here all day. However, his bladder is pressing him to get up. He maneuvers his way out of Zeke’s grasp, and already misses the other boy’s warmth. He makes his way through the maze of the abandoned mansion, arriving at the bathroom to relieve himself. When he gets back to the room, Zeke is sitting up, rubbing sleep from his eyes.

“Hey,” Shaolin’s hoarse voice softly interrupts the silence.

Before he can even look up good enough, Zeke is already blushing red. All he can think about when he looks at Shao is how good it felt to have him in his arms, or the fact that the skin on the backside of Shao’s hand was infinitely soft. Shaolin’s cheeks are red too, accompanied by a bright smile that shines in his eyes.

“Hey,” Zeke says finally, his voice deeper and raspier with morning, and Shao slightly shivers at this. “Did you sleep okay?”

“Yeah. You?”

“I gotta crook in my neck,” he answered with a chuckle, “but, other than that I slept good. How you feelin’?”

His wide smile slightly falters as he thinks back to the night before. “A lot better than I did last night.” He chuckles humorlessly before awkwardly scratching at the back of his neck. “So, um, I just wanted to thank you, you know, for everything. I, uh…I really appreciate it.”

Zeke wants to tell him he’d go to the ends of the Earth to never see him in such pain again. Instead, he gives him a smile, and says, “Yeah, no doubt, man. That’s what friends are for, right?”

“Yeah,” he agrees, but he doesn’t really know. Shaolin’s never really had friends before Zeke and the rest of the crew came along. He never had a stable enough home or school life to make any. At 11 years old, his mother, Tina, had dropped him off with his uncle, but he was kicked out three years later when his uncle accused Shao of helping his mother steal from him. He’s been running the streets alone ever since, never having time to make friends, because he was too busy trying to plan his next meal or find shelter, and never trusting anyone enough to bestow that title. He could only count on himself.

Life hasn’t always been like that. Tina was almost always happy and singing. She loved her some Aretha Franklin, and on early Saturday mornings, he’d wake up to her singing along loudly. She made the best breakfast on those mornings, too, and even let him eat in front of the TV so he wouldn’t miss his cartoons. She usually let him get away with things like that, because she couldn’t help spoiling her only child. Nevertheless, Shaolin’s childhood came to an abrupt end when he was around 9 years old. His father started randomly dropping in and he noticed a change in his mother. Tina had started delving into drugs, and thus began a slippery slope. The first thing he noticed was her absence, then there was hardly ever food, then the lights were always off, then, finally, they were evicted and moving from relative to friend to boyfriend until she eventually left him, abandoned and alone.

Zeke notices the sadness on his best friend’s face and feels it as well. He walks closer to him and puts a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Hey, Shao, you know you can talk to me about anything, right?”

The shorter teen pulls his focus away from the void of memories to his friend. “Mhm?”

“Don’t be afraid to tell me stuff. If you need to get some shit off ya chest then I’m here to listen. Without judgement.” This had been his mission for coming over the afternoon before; Zeke was trying to figure out why Shao had been MIA for a whole week.

Shaolin knows what Zeke’s trying to do, but he still can’t bring himself to reveal the truth. He can imagine the look of horror and disappointment, and he wasn’t sure he could handle it. How can he expect Zeke to stand by him when he could hardly stomach himself? He can remember not being able to meet his reflection in Annie’s bathroom mirror. He remembers scrubbing his skin raw, and the sting of salty tears on the tender flesh, and his sobs sounding like the trigger being pulled again and again and again. That wasn’t power like Annie had promised; it was insanity; it was brokenness. He is broken. And damaged. And bloodstained. And a long list of other things that, honestly, didn’t deserve a friend like Ezekiel. In the long run, he would only darken Zeke’s light and hinder his potential. That’s all he has ever been: a burden and a fuck up to be easily tossed aside. Disposable.

Zeke is taken aback by the tears welling up in Shao’s eyes as he stares into that void again. He calls his name, but he doesn’t respond. Zeke gently takes his face into both hands, and Shaolin blinks, coming out of his daze, and the pooled tears spill over. Zeke wants to chase each one with a kiss, gobble up the pain that caused them to surface. Instead, he wipes at them with the pads of his thumbs before taking him into his arms for a hug. That seemed to help last time, he reasons. And like last night, the comfort, and the sense of serenity that Zeke seems to bring naturally, opens up the floodgates. Even as his weeping relieves a great amount of stress, he’s furious at himself for crying. Tears are for the weak, and that is not Shaolin Fantastic. He always has to be strong and resilient—he can’t afford not to be—for the very sake of his survival.

In a fury of anger, Shao pushes Zeke away. “Fuck off me, man!”

“Whoa—”

“Just leave, Zeke,” he says with a voice that intends to be strong and commanding, but is actually defeated and broken. He turns away from the confused look on Zeke’s face, ashamed. “I’m no good to be around, Books. I just ruin everybody and everything that comes in my path. 

Zeke watches the young boy’s shoulders hunch over like a man who’s seen the beginning, middle, and end of the Earth, like a child who has witnessed the harsh reality of life far too soon. He knows what that feels like too. “Shaolin.”

“What?!” He explodes as he turns to him again. “I can’t do this witchu; all this soft shit. That ain’t me! I’m hard body, remember? I don’t cry, bitch, and moan. I fuck shit up, I lie, steal, deal, and now I kill. So what the fuck do you want from me?!!” Like always, Shao reacts without thought, and the inescapable truth comes out.

Disbelief fights with anxiousness as Zeke looks at Shaolin. The older teen is breathing harshly, spit at the corner of his mouth, and his visage a contortion of emotions. “What you mean you kill? Who’d you…” his voice trails off, not able to say the words. “What you do, Shao?” He’s afraid to ask the question and his heart reacts to the apprehension by beating wildly.

The anger melts, leaving a broken boy barely standing. “I shot ’im, Zeke. I—I killed Wolf.” The tears come back and his voice cracks as the words of his conscience come clean. “I swear, I didn’t want to. I swear, I didn’t, Zeke, I swear. But Annie, she—” His bottom lip is trembling and the images keep violently flashing in his mind, as if he’s reliving the moment. “She put the gun in my hand, and she keep, she keep tellin’ me—she was all in my ear, tellin’ me to do it, to ta-take charge. Sh-she told me be a man, and the gun—fuck, man—it-it felt so hot and and and heavy in my hand. Then she w-was—she started counting, Books. And on three, I just, I-i-i—FUCK!” He throws his arms in a way that looks like someone going to hold their heaving stomach, his fists balled against his stomach. Then his he slowly undos his fists, and places them on his head like his head would explode if he didn’t keep them there. His eyes are wide and full of disbelief as he stares off. “I pulled the trigger. I just…pulled the fuckin’ trigger.” He states it like a fact, but an incredulous one. And the fact is slow to register and process. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” 

Similarly, Zeke’s not really processing the information either. It’s just in the air, filling every corner of the room, just hanging, just there. Nothing is really registering with him, either, but Zeke can hear the Boom! then Crash!, can feel the confusion, can smell the dinner in the oven, can see his mother, and can taste the salty tears…but he can’t separate his memories from the experience Shaolin recounts.

Like he predicted, Shao sees the look of horror on Zeke’s face. This is it. This is the moment that will leave him alone again. And he braces himself, physically—tenses his muscles, tilts his head down—and mentally prepared for the worse. “I gotta go,” Zeke finally says. “I can’t be here right now. I gotta—” All he keeps seeing is his mother and knowing that Shao took someone else’s father, or brother, or uncle, or son away just doesn’t sit right with him. So without another word, he leaves to keep himself from saying or doing something he’ll regret. And with each retreating step Zeke takes, Shao feels an emptiness growing inside him.

Chapter Text

The hustle and bustle of life continues around him as Zeke walks absentmindedly through the streets of South Bronx. Children play in water cascading from the fire hydrant, groups of people laugh loud and talk louder, but none of this fazes the natural wordsmith. His mind is consumed by the senseless killings he has witnessed in his lifetime: his mother, his father, the shootout at Les Inferno, and the body they dumped… Death seems to follow him like the grim reaper himself is waiting on him to be next. But that’s just how it was in the Bronx; lethal, cut-throat, and unforgiving. If you put people in these kinds of conditions, what do you expect them to do? They work with what they got…and sometimes they make something beautiful. Like DJing and rhyming.

God, he feels so full up on a stage. Full of life, joy, passion, amazement, and love. He truly loves rhyming, the way the lyrics pump through his veins then flow so easily from his mouth. Each word is a heartbeat, every sentence is a breath of fresh air. For Ezekiel, rhyming is to live, to breathe, to give purpose.

He has Shaolin to thank for that. But now, with Shao’s confession and all, he isn’t sure where they stood. He does know that the confession brings up a world of doubt in him. He questions God because he can’t imagine Shaolin doing something like that, or even having the ability to. How can he be friends with a killer? What kind of sick, twist-of-fate bullshit is this? What would his mother think of him being friends with a murder who’s also heavily involved in street life?

Shao isn’t just some criminal, though. One thing’s for sure, he’s talented on the turntables, dance floor, and any unconventional canvas he can find. He’s a natural everything, Zeke thinks with a smile. He’s also kind. Like the way he took Napoleon under his wing or gave Dizzee tips on graffitiing. And sweet too. That pigeon coop was one of the most purest things I’ve ever seen someone invest their time in. The pigeons also make Zeke think about the young DJ’s wise words. His philosophy on flying, being a player, and street life shows a wisdom beyond his years. Shaolin is smarter than he gives himself credit for. Why doesn’t he see his own potential? Ironically, Mylene’s earlier frustrations with him become understandable. And that’s exactly how he feels: frustrated and angry. At Shaolin, at the Bronx for putting them in such fucked situations, at the world. He has to blame outside forces for contributing to these series of unfortunate events, because there’s no way Shao is capable of such extreme violence. Then he thinks on the times Shao used and threatened violence against him for the sake of what he thought was right. Zeke had experienced and witnessed how terrifying and out of control Shao could be. That kind of hypervigilance is a quality of Shaolin’s that Zeke doesn’t care for, but he understands it. He isn’t trying to excuse his violence, but he knows Shao is a product of his environment. The Bronx-born blighted DJ has to be hardened and on-guard in order to survive in their unforgiving city.

This ain’t Disneyland this shit’s the fuckin’ Bronx! Either you be strong, or you be gone. All I find, all I keep. Either you beat the world, or you get beat.

He was speaking truth, but they had different paths of enduring, and climbing out of, the belly of the beast. Zeke has the opportunity to internship and possibly go to college, while Shao only has DJing as his legitimate way out and he has to scrap for that shit. Every time he used, or threatened to use violence, he was fighting for the very thing that keeps him alive. By any means necessary, he had to get Flash that record, he had to get new equipment and records, he had to get reinstated after his ban. Zeke can understand that, but he’s still angry and disappointed. Not only in Shaolin, but the circumstances that force people to turn to brutality as a method of success and survival.

See, up in the Bronx, that which is wrong can seem right, and right seem wrong. All them principles and codes is an ever-evolving concept of morality. Just so you don’t prematurely meet your mortality. I done seen this place swallow hope, then push dope, and give us guns to cope with the decay, poverty, and crime they so slickly impose. Take away fire departments then burn down our ghettos. Y’all don’t wanna invest, y’all want us to die. Planned shrinkage is urban genocide. So excuse me, Papa Fuerte, but my friends ain’t some crabs in a barrel loading bullets in the barrel in the belly of the beast. They just tryna escape a place with no justice, no peace.

Although he knew these circumstances that could lead Shaolin to killing Wolf, Zeke has to grapple with how much responsibility he’s willing to place on him. He did pull the trigger, after all.

I just pulled the fuckin’ trigger.

How do you just pull a trigger? How could he do something so sinister for a woman who exploited him?

Shao needs to get the fuck away from that bitch before she got him into some shit he can’t get out off.

 

<>

Back at the temple, Shaolin thinks the same thing, but he’s also worried about the consequences. Annie placed new responsibilities on him that day, told him that he was “in it all the way”. What would she do to him if he asked for a way out…again? He can imagine her feelings of betrayal, and can hear her rattling off all the things she’d done for him.

I’ve invested in you, I’ve groomed you. I gave you food, roof overhead, protection, and this is how you repay me?

And it was true, she had given him access and opportunities to live as comfortably as a homeless, jobless, orphaned teen could live. But at what cost? She had taken much more from him than she had given: his dignity, his confidence in himself and his talents, his peace of mind, his innocence, his power to say no. Was it all worth it? What other resources did he have to take care of himself? He needs access to hot water and food, and 9 times out of 10, Annie provided that. He could find a legit hustle, though. Couldn’t he?

Before he can even think on the possibilities, he has to figure out if Annie would even let him leave her family. She has also taken his body autonomy, telling him when and where to be, and what to do.


Don’t be fuckin’ up my money, boy, she often warned if he didn’t do things on her exact terms.

Him leaving would ultimately be him fucking with her money, right? She’d never let that shit fly. What if she dangles another half of a hundred dollar bill in front of him, reminding him of his failures and that he will always need her? His dependence on her sickens him and makes him feel worthless.

You overestimate yourself. Another ghetto clown think he’s Miles Davis.

Annie’s words slap him back into reality.

Nobody gives a fuck ’bouta nigga from South Bronx tryna DJ. Nearly half of these niggas are doing it. What makes me so special?

The fear of setbacks and hard times is also there, taunting him. Life constantly knocking him down, with no foreseeable end in sight, is one thing he could always rely on. Sometimes that lack of control makes the seeds of helplessness and hopelessness grow wildly. According to Annie, hustling was the only hope they had to combat those feelings, and he believed that until he was put on to the Get Down. When he first seen Grandmaster Flash orchestrate rhythms so smoothly and freely, he was enchanted.

Music is the only reason. It’ll move you forward and open up doors that everyone says are shut, Shao. It’ll give you the whole fuckin’ world for free if you just love it and hold back nothing.

Without a doubt, that’s exactly what music does for him. It feels like secrets unlocking, like reaching things he thought were beyond his grasp. But music let’s him take hold of the unreachable, treasure it and marvel at the magic. It’s an experience he can only explain as mystical. It’s like…when he first steps up to the DJ booth, he’s stepping onto the ledge of the world’s tallest building, then as soon as he drops that first record, he’s leaping off into an atmosphere of adrenaline, uncertainty, curiosity, and joy. And just when he thinks he’s about to hit the ground, his wings expand, and miraculously, he’s soaring and breathless and unable to contain his excitement.

Each and every time it feels like that…like being fully alive.

The beat becomes one with his heart, the bass rattles his soul, the rhythm gives his blood a song to dance to while it courses through his veins.

I know there’s no faking that hell-born fire. That shit beats your heart for you. You hear it?

As if on queue, his heartbeat drums loudly in his ears as the Grandmaster’s words come to mind. I can’t lose that feeling…but the longer I work for Annie, the quicker that feeling dies.

“Fuck,” he curses aloud in frustration.

Why did I pull the trigger? Wolf fucked her over, and Annie shoulda gave whatever punishment she seemed fit. Not me. Now I have blood on my hands when they should be on hers. Why did I kill him?

He couldn’t even believe he was able to actually do it, on the count of him shaking so much. Annie held his hand steady, though, making it nearly impossible for him to refuse her demand. How could he say no to a woman he feels indebted to?

I’ve paid enough, a voice answers from deep within him. I’ve killed for her and all she does is uses me for her dirty deeds. I killed someone… I took his life…

Even though he’s lying on the couch, he’s dizzy and his stomach is in knots. A sickly sensation tingles the back of his throat, and just as Shaolin sits up to expel his remorse and guilt, Zeke appears by his side like a knight in shining armor. His armor is a tin wastebasket that Shao throws up in, and he couldn’t be more grateful for his chivalry. One of Zeke’s hands rub Shaolin’s back in slow circles, while the other is using a thumb to caress the spot on the back of his hand. With one last heave, Shao wipes his mouth with his free hand, then leans up from the wastebasket, panting and exhausted. The tender-hearted teen, his hand still holding and rubbing the other teen’s, wipes at Shao’s face with a napkin. “You okay?”

His eyes flutter open, without even realizing they were closed in the first place, to meet Ezekiel’s knitted eyebrows and peering concern. He gives him a weak smile to ward off his worry, wishing he could do more, but he’s still so tired. His fatigue upon waking is even worse now. “Mmhmm.”

Zeke gives him a once-over, and Shao’s not sure what he’s looking for, but he apparently finds it and gives him a small smile. “I’ma get you some water, okay?”

He simply nods before closing his eyes again. Even amid the chaos of his mind, body, and soul, his thoughts adorn Zeke with praises.

My Calm, always showing up to save me from myself…

He’s reminded of his anxiety before the DJ battle. He was unnerved by the events that had taken place the night before, and by the performance that would determine his fate. He was really bugging out, and Zeke, the only one who could settle his nerves, was nowhere in sight. He’s usually unfazed by people letting him down, but when Books didn’t show, it messed with him and his performance. But like always, when he least expected it and needed him most, Books arrived like some kind of superhero. Standing there with his chest all puffed out, that stupid, beautiful, dizzying smile on his face. God, Shaolin could still feel how his heart leapt from his chest to his throat and damn near exploded seconds before Ezekiel’s heroic arrival. But when he seen his wordsmith, the organ that was once in his throat plunged to his stomach, and he was experiencing a whole ’nother kind of feeling. He didn’t have time to think on it then, with the battle of his life hanging in the balance and all, but he’d been trying to analyze that shit since. However, the overbearing emotions that his horrid action stirred up, left his feelings unexplored.

Man, I wish my mind would shut off and forget. For once, the teenager wants to feel like a teenager, worrying about superficial things like freaking out over a pimple. For once, he wishes to disregard the responsibilities that came with being an abandoned child. For once, he simply wants to catch his breath. That’s what Books feels like. Like fresh air. Or like that space-time continuum bullshit Ra and Diz always talked about (it was the one of the few conversations the two brothers could have and understand one another). With Zeke, time ceased to exist and his next breath wasn’t trying to suffocate him. Zeke was the calm that settled and slowed things down; he grounded Shaolin.

“Hey, you up?” When he opens his eyes Zeke is sitting on the coffee table in front of him. The small smile is still on his face like it never left. “Sit up and drink this.”

Sitting up on his elbow, Shao takes the cup from Zeke. He takes a sip before sloshing the water around in his mouth, then spits out the remaining taste of bile into the wastebasket. He sits up fully, taking another sip. Zeke watches him silently.

There’s tension in the air. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, which is so unnatural for the pair. Shao simply looks down at the cup in his hands. He’s afraid to say anything and afraid to hear what Zeke has to say. Being the natural wordsmith he is, Zeke’s the first to speak, but it’s a simple statement rather than an expected condemnation. “I uh, I got your favorite donuts from down at the bodega.” He rummages through the bag beside him then holds up the the six pack of donuts with a wide grin. “The chocolate ones, right?”

The DJ breaks into a smile, surprised, but also touched that he remembers. “Yeah, B.” Zeke tosses them to him before reaching back into the brown paper bag.

“I got the powdered joints for myself, and you can choose from chocolate milk or orange juice.”

“Milk, please.” He thanks him once he tosses the carton then they fall into silence as they eat and drink. Well, Zeke is eating. Shao lost his appetite after the first donut. He’s nervously waiting for his friend to express his contempt. He’s waiting for the end of their friendship to be announced. He’s waiting to be abandoned like always.

“What, you don’t like chocolate donuts no more?”

“Zeke, man, quit beatin’ around the bush. Just say what you gotta say.”

His mouth opens then closes. “I don’t know what to say, Shao. What you ’posed to say when somebody tells you they killed somebody?” The older teen hangs his head in shame. Zeke heaves a sigh. Words came so easy for him, but in this moment he’s truly speechless. “I just…when you told me what you did, I just kept seeing my moms, man.” He takes out his notebook, and opens up the leather binding. Taped on the inside is a black and white photo. “This is my momma.”

Shao looks up, his eyes meeting Zeke’s before landing on the picture staring at him. “She’s beautiful. You look just like her, Books.” A smirk plays at his lips as he looks from the picture to his friend. “You have her smile.”

“Yeah,” he says, that smile showcasing itself across his face. “Everybody says that.” He places the notebook beside him then his face swallows the smile as he swallows the lump in his throat. “I was in the living room when she came out the kitchen to tell me to wash my hands for dinner…then these bullets came outta nowhere. I dived to the floor, scared shitless. But—” Zeke’s deep voice sounds like a roll of thunder as it breaks. His pain is still fresh and tender, it’s a pain that no child ever gets over. “They shot her right in the head, Shao. There was so much blood…” Tears fall like rain now. There’s no holding back the ache in his own chest.

Without any thought, Shao sits beside him, wrapping an arm around his torso and Zeke naturally sinks into him, laying his head on his chest. He rests his chin atop the cloud of soft hair and let’s his friend cry like he had done for him. “I’m so sorry, Books. I didn’t mean to bring up those memories.”

The vibrations from Shaolin’s vocal cords resonate through him, bringing a comfort to his spirit. Afterwhile the ache begins to dull and the tears turn to sniffles. “You know,” he starts quietly, “that driveby was meant for my pops, but I guess whatever shit he was mixed up in caught up to him, cuz six months later he was shot and killed, too.” He lifts his head to look his friend in the eyes. “I don’t want that to be you, Shaolin. I can’t lose you too.”

He’s stunned, but also moved by Ezekiel’s words. No one has ever had his best interest at heart. No one has ever taken the time out to say, or show, I care if you live or die. For Zeke to admit that…it opens something up inside of him.

“I know we haven’t known each other that long, but it feels like I’ve known you forever. Like we were inseparable in a past life. And I can’t trust the dice, and risk letting chance take you from my life. I can’t imagine never seeing your face or your joyful smile. Do you mind stayin’ a while? So we can explore our destinies and see what we’re meant to be?” Zeke’s poetic flow says more than he means to, but when speaking from the heart, honesty is bound to overflow.

Shaolin sits there dumbly and totally smitten. Heat seems to radiate from his skin like he’s burning from the inside out. “Fuck, Books,” he begins, breathlessly. “You can create world peace wit ya words, you know that, right?”

The boy chuckles. “Well, I ain’t worried about the world, I’m worried about you. I’m tryna make sure you at peace, dig?”

“You really mean that?” he has to ask because he’s in such disbelief. Every person who was supposed to care for him never actually cared. Not his father, his mother, his uncle, nor Annie. But here is this sweet boy with a sincerity shining so brightly from his eyes, telling him all the things he has longed to hear.

“You know I say what I mean, mean what I say. Why you sound so surprised?”

He shrugs bashfully, looking down at their touching arms. “I don’t know. I guess it’s cuz I thought you wouldn’t come back, let alone tell me how much you care. It sorta threw me off.”

It isn’t until that moment, with Shaolin openly exposed and vulnerable, that Zeke can see how people (and life) have stolen little pieces of Shaolin, leaving him distrustful and insecure. How could anyone be cruel enough to hurt such a beautiful person? Uncharacteristically, the peaceful wordsmith slowly fills with anger. The urge to hurt whoever hurt Shaolin is taking over him, and the first person on that list is Fat Annie. As he’s thinking of more to add, he realizes that he’s one of them. Him and the crew did get him banned from DJing, and he walked away when Shao was in need of a friend. Sighing, the anger dissipates, then he grabs hold of Shao’s hand to claim his favorite spot.

“Hey.” Shao is slow to look up, because he doesn’t want to stop staring at the tender ministrations of Zeke’s thumb. How did Books know this would be his favorite thing before he even knew it? He reluctantly looks up, but he’s awarded by the sight before him. “I didn’t mean to walk out like that; I just needed to clear my head. Hearing you describe what happened…it, uh, it put me in a bad headspace, man.”

His sight drifts from Shao’s attentive gaze to a random spot on the ground. He still can’t seem to find the right words to explain how he felt in that moment. How the tips of his ears burned; how flames licked the back of his neck; how the ground opened underneath him; how the world began to crumble around him. How could he make Shao realize he wasn’t trying to leave him like everyone else, but he needed to put himself first this time? He sighs before the words pour out.

“Maybe if that never happened to my parents, shit would be different, but I see the world differently because of that. I can’t just overlook this as a flaw or a mistake. And I was questioning myself like ‘didn’t you tell him you had his back? How you leave ya mans like that?’ But this ain’t like the time we robbed Les Inferno or dumped a body. You stole a life. You be around people who do that like they the grim reaper. I had to know if I could live with that. And I figured I needed to know the full story so I could understand better, cuz I know you, but I also know how you get—”

“You know how I get?” Shaolin asks defensively, leaning away from him and pulling his hand from Zeke’s grasp. He was following the rest of his monologue, but that last sentence doesn’t sit well with him. Sometimes Zeke could be condescending, making him seem like a horrible person, when in reality, he was just trying to persevere the best way he knew how. “The fuck you sayin’, Books?”

He smacks his lips, annoyed at his friend for jumping to conclusions and not letting him finish. That was another bad habit of his. “All I’m sayin’ is you can be careless, hotheaded, and violent sometimes. That’s just the reality of it. You don’t be thinkin’ before you do shit, you just react.”

Feeling attacked, Shao gets the urge to stand and acts in it. Shame, embarrassment, and anger leaves him vulnerable. He isn’t sure what to do with himself or his emotions, so he relies on the one thing he can count on: defending and distancing himself. “Well, why the fuck did you come back since I’m so violent? Don’t you see the destruction I’m capable of? Didn’t I tell you to stay away from me? Why you back when you planned on leavin’ any-fuckin’-way?”

Zeke stands in his anger as well, lips tight and nostrils flaring. “Fuck that, Shao! You don’t get to be angry at me, nigga, cuz everything I said was valid. Don’t act like you ain’t put a knife to my fuckin’ throat! Then you pulled a sword out on my ass. A mufuckin’ sword, B!”

Like a light switch, perspective dawns on him. His knitted brows relax, the corner of his lips unloosen, his eyes gloss over, and he bows his head. “You know I’d never actually do that, right?”

Seeing this change from anger to sadness and shame, Zeke’s features soften as well. “I ain’t know that when we first met, Shao. Even still, you can’t just threaten me to try to get me to do what you want. That ain’t cool, B.”

“You’re right, and I’m sorry, Books.” Despite his guilt, he looks him in the eyes. He wants Zeke to know he’ truly means it. He also wants to explain how sometimes he’s so focused on getting what he wants, that he doesn’t think of the consequences or the people he hurts along the way. “I do things without thinking and I end up hurting people, and even myself. That is something I need to work on, but I need you to know that I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“I know. That’s why I’m still here. I know you don’t have a malicious bone in your body. I know you not just offin’ niggas for the hell of it. Cuz, yeah, you hard rock, but you gentle too.”

“Gentle?” It isn’t an adjective he ever thought someone would use to describe him.

“Yeah, gentle. Like the softest breeze, like ocean water lappin’ at ya feet. And you warm like the sun’s heat. Now, I ain’t never been, but you what I imagine a warm day at the beach is. That’s how it feels when it’s just you and me or the crew. You let your guard down and you be gentle.” Shaolin is flattered by his wordsmith, his fluttering heart and cheeky grin proves it. Zeke is also moved by the sight in front of him. Man, he’s so beautiful.

Shao tries to shy away from Zeke’s open affection by retrieving his unfinished donuts. He needs something to distract him, to take his mind off his heart. His friend follows his lead, grabbing his remaining donuts from the table then sitting right next to him, their arms and legs touching. “So,” he starts, looking over at Zeke, “we good?”

He licks powdered sugar from his lips before smiling. “It’s DJ Shaolin Fantastic and MC Books all day, B. That shit ain’t never gonna change.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. We still gotta conquer the world, right?”

“Yeah, you right. They ain’t gonna be ready for us, Books.” His mind vaguely paints a picture-perfect future of the Get Down crew.

“You gotta get the fuck away from Fat Annie, though.” And just like that, the mood switches. It’s like not timing the Get Down perfectly and the wackness starts playing.

Shao sucks his teeth. “Don’t—”

“Nah, fuck whatever you was bouta say. She uses you, makes you do whatever sick shit she wants, and I don’t get why you would do those things for her. Why won’t you leave all that shit behind? Hasn’t it damaged you enough?”

“You know why Annie made me kill Wolf? Cuz he set up that shootout at Les Inferno that night. And, yeah, I regret pullin’ that trigger, but that’s just the game, Books. There are codes and rules you gotta live by or you’ll die by the hands of street justice. That’s my reality. So I don’t need none of ya self-righteous bullshit, iight?“

“I understand what you sayin’, but there’s gotta be another way out. You can’t let her be your demise.”

A dark chuckle rumbles from the depths of his diaphragm, chilling Zeke. “Nah, you don’t understand. You make it seem like I wanna be there? You think I wanna kill people? You think I wanna sell the same shit that made my mother abandon me and ended up killing her? You think I want that nasty bitch touching me?” His voice had been dark and monotonous, and his face had been blank, until that last sentence. His tight lips stressed each syllable, his face contorted in disgust. “Every single time my fuckin’ skin crawls. It takes everything in me not to cry, not to vomit whenever she touches me. I always wanna explode into a million pieces when she makes me go in that room. I woulda never went in there in the first place if I knew all the things I would have to do for her. But I ain’t know better. I was just happy that someone had chosen me. She wanted to take care of me.”

But you gotta take care of Miss Annie, too, sugar. Her sickening words cause a tidal wave of emotions. His throat aches before a muffled sob pours out from him unexpectedly. Zeke is startled by the sound and the onslaught of tears.

“I didn’t know. I didn’t know,” he repeats as his words crack like lightning. “I was just fourteen and hungry and tired and lonely. I didn’t know all the things she would make me do. And now I can’t leave. I can’t—I don’t know what she—I won’t have anything or anybody.” His words turn into rapid breaths.

Oh God, not again. With his mind drifting to his previous attack, the inability to breath gets worse and increases his anxiety.

Zeke is caught off guard as he’s still trying to process Shao’s words. Once the confusion wears off, he tries to calm his friend with the same techniques as the afternoon before. Despite his efforts, Shaolin still has difficulty breathing. Wide-eyed, Zeke racks his brain for any other information he could use to help his friend, and oddly enough, he thinks of something from a book that incites him to grab the brown paper bag from the table. “Here, breath into this,” he instructs, out of breath himself from the adrenaline rushing through his body. “Slow, deep breaths.” Shao abides, and soon, oxygen stops feeling like a fire burning his chest. “You okay?” This is the second time his words induced Shao’s episodes of anxiety, and guilt eats at him. Fat Annie is obviously a topic to never bring up again, but how could he ignore the things he said about her? What things did she make him do in that room?

Shao nods in response as he lies his head back against the couch. Exhaustion kicks his ass once again, and he’s fed up with the feeling of his body being wrecked by emotions that seemed to be beyond his control. “Does th—” he stops his croaking voice before swallowing, hoping to ease his slightly sore throat. “Does that anxiety shit stop? Or do I have to deal with that shit happening outta nowhere?”

Zeke chuckles bitterly in understanding. “It’s usually triggered by something. In your case, I think it’s Fat Annie.”

“What makes you think that?”

“You go into your anxiety episode right after I mention her.”

“So I’ll feel like I’m suffocating every time I’m around her?” How could he get through one of those episodes without Zeke? He can imagine Cadillac’s coked-out ass calling him crazy or a pussy, or both. He can’t afford to have those labels attached to him. Even with everything he had done and had done to him, he never lets it get to him. He puts on a brave mask so the world wouldn’t see how broken and weak he truly is.

“Iono, Shao, but I won’t bring her up again.” He never wants to utter her name again, however, he’s still concerned for Shaolin’s safety. He can’t simple disregard all that he’s learned today. “Look,” he begins with a sigh. “I needa know that you’re not in any serious danger, and the only way I’ll know that is if you stop fuckin’ with her. So,” he pauses and suddenly breaks out into a grin. “Will you stay at my house for a while? Just for a week or so.”

Before he gets his hopes up, because the idea was appealing to him, Shao has a few questions. “What happens after a week, Books? Will ya auntie even let me stay there?”

Ever the optimist, Zeke responds, “We’ll worry about that when we get there.”

“What about Leon? I can’t just leave him here.”

He goes to answer Shao’s rebuttal, but stops himself. He hadn’t seen the new member of the Get Down Brothers since he arrived yesterday afternoon. “Where is Napoleon?”

“He’s on his side of the temple. He stopped by while you were gone.”

“Okay, well, he can come too. C’mon, Shao, it’ll be fun. You can help me with my rhymes and you can help with my dance moves. Please, Shao, do it for me?” Zeke had on that dopey grin, and for that reason alone he’d do anything for him.

Shao breaks out into a cheeky smile as well, and it expands further upon seeing Zeke’s face light up even more. He’s so damn cute. For some reason, those kinds of thoughts don’t scare him anymore.

“Iight, I’ll stay witchu. Only cuz ya clumsy ass can’t dance for shit.”

“Fuck you, nigga,” Zeke shouts playfully as he lunges at his friend. Shaolin laughs loudly as he dodges the punch. The power behind his un-landed punch propels Zeke forward, and his upper body topples over Shao’s. One of Zeke’s arm is trapped under Shao’s head while the other traps Shao’s arms over his chest. Their laughter dies down to shallow breaths, their faces are flush and any sudden movements will cause their lips to touch. Nothing can explain the overwhelming feelings that leave their skin tingling all over. It speeds up their heartbeats and slows down time. They can’t move or take their eyes off one another. They don’t want to either. Zeke finds himself staring at Shao’s lips. Full and parted, they look inviting, and the compulsive need to feel them overwhelms him. And Shao…the poor boy doesn’t know where to keep his gaze. Zeke’s dark brown eyes are as captivating as the mouth that had spoken so many wonderful words about him. He wants to show the soft lips how appreciative he is for those words.

Just do it. Before Shao’s thoughts can communicate with his nerves, a voice startles them.

“Um, am I interrupting something?”

Chapter Text

The boys rush to untangle themselves from one another, causing Zeke to fall off the couch and on his ass. Filled with nerves and adrenaline, Shaolin jumps up, and is quick to deny Dizzee’s implications. “We was just wrestlin’, man. That’s all. Right, Zeke?”

Zeke, who’s still dazed by what almost transpired, breaths out a half-hearted “yeah” before lifting himself from the floor. Shao goes to help his friend, but he stops himself. He can’t touch him. Not with Dizz there already questioning.

“Look, guys—” Dizzee’s cut off by his rambunctious younger brother busting into the room, swatting his belt around like nunchucks.

“Miss Wanda gon’ light that ass up, boy! Wa pow!

“Aye, watch where you swing that shit,” Ra-Ra warns as he walks into the room right behind his brother.

Confused, Zeke looks at the preteen. “Hold up, what you talkin’ ‘bout, Boo Boo?”

“Well,” Ra Ra starts with an apprehensive look. “We stopped by ya crib, you know, cuz we haven’t seen you in a few days—”

“We figured you was probably up in the house cryin’ over ya Butterscotch Queen,” Boo interrupts his brother, and Ra mugs the back of his head.

“Anyways, we go by ya place and ya auntie said you was supposed to be with us. So we sorta kinda got you in trouble.”

“Damn…was she really angry?”

“She ain’t seem too happy, man,” Boo replies and Zeke grumbles a fuck.

“She was concerned, too,” Dizzee adds. “Ya know, she was worried that something bad coulda happened.”

“Yeah, but we told her you’d probably be here, and she said—”

“Tell him to bring his Black Puerto Rican ass home,” Boo weakly imitates Wanda.

“Fuuuck,” he groans. He doesn’t want to spend his last few weeks of summer cooped up in the house. Plus, he worries that she won’t let Shao stay with them.

“Why didn’t you just tell us you were gonna be here? We woulda covered for you, Z.” Like always, Ra feels slighted and left out by the two. Not that he minds Shao being one of Zeke’s new best friends, but their vibe was different than his and Zeke’s. The DJ and wordsmith seem to have such a special connection that it makes Ra a tad bit insecure, despite Zeke assuring him of his irreplaceability. Like the way the two clicked so immediately and naturally. Or how they were always up under each other. Or how Zeke dropped everything for Shao, even the girl he loved since forever. If Shao was getting more attention than Mylene, where did that leave him?

“I really was going to hang with y’all, but I wanted to check on Shao first, and I ended up fallin’ asleep here.”

“You betta hope Miss Wanda buy that bullshit, or ya ass is grass. Matter fact, I gotta witness this ass whoopin’ myself.”

“Shut up, Boo!” Zeke shouts as he lowkey freaks out internally. He had never done anything to break his aunt’s trust before, and he isn’t sure what the punishment would be. “This is the first time I’ve gotten into big trouble, it won’t be that bad, right?” He looks among his friends for reassurance. They all have bleak faces except for Shao who’s grinning. “The fuck is so funny, nigga?”

“Nothin’, man,” he responds, the grin still playing across his features while his imagination plays through his mind. He can envision Zeke being Mr. Goody Two Shoes as a kid. How he would persuade his friends not to do anything too troublesome. For a fleeting moment, he remembers a time when he tried to be on his best behavior to get his mother to stay home for once. With a shake of his head, the memory is gone just as soon as it appeared. “I was just imagining you being the kid who always kept his nose clean. I mean, you still are that kid.”

Dizzee, who had been closely watching them since his unwelcomed arrival, has a small smile on his face. This confirms things for him. Shao admitting to daydreaming about Zeke’s life before him was similar to his thoughts of Thor right before he fell asleep.

Yeah, I have to keep an eye on those two.

“You ain’t lyin’, Shao. Zeke and Ra Ra’s pussy asses is always too scared of gettin’ caught to do anything fun.”

“Fuck you, I ain’t no pussy,” Zeke defends while Ra gives his brother an annoyed eye roll.

“Boo, if we let your bad ass do whatever you wanted we’d all be in jail by now.” There’s a pause in the room as they contemplate Ra’s words before they all breakout into laughter.

Upon hearing the commotion, Napoleon leaves the comfort of his room to head towards the noise. “Hey, what’s up y’all?” he greets from the doorway as the group’s laughter subsides.

“Ayyyye, Leon!” Boo Boo manages to be the loudest among the chorus of hellos, mainly because he’s excited to see him. The two boys had grown closer in the past week, becoming instant friends. Wherever Boo Boo was, Napoleon was right beside him, and vice versa. As they do their complicated handshake, the rest of the crew smiles at the sight. They were happy to see Napoleon coming out of his shell.

“Are we about to practice?” The young boy looks from his friend to the rest of the group.

“Nah, we just came by to get Zeke. Then we heading to his place to see him get a whoopin’.”

Napoleon chuckles unsurely. “What you mean?”

“Ignore him,” Zeke says as he takes Boo’s neck into a headlock. “We’re actually gonna go to my place to see if my tía will let you and Shao stay with us.” Boo Boo struggles against him, but Zeke isn’t letting up. “Keep on talkin’ shit, li’l munchkin.” He lets him go with a slight push, but the fighter in Boo makes him get the last lick, which Zeke laughs off.

“Why are we leavin’?”

“We gotta stay low for a li’l while, Leon,” Shao vaguely explains upon the young boy looking to him for answers. Napoleon is content with the answer and simply nods in understanding.

“Why you gotta stay low? What’s going on?” Ra Ra asks, worry and confusion distorting his face.

Shaolin sighs. Today has been rough for him. He’s sick and tired of sharing, explaining, feeling and crying. All he wants is a peace of mind, and to pretend like the last week didn’t happen. But it did, and here were his brothers, expressing concern for his wellbeing. He owes them a peace of mind too. He heaves a heavy sigh before answering. “I’m sorta kinda in some shit with Fat Annie.”

“What kind of shit, Shao?” Dizzee asks before Ra Ra could. He’s heard about the kind of stuff Fat Annie’s into from around the way.

He looks away from Dizz, contemplating how much he wants to reveal. Zeke realizes this and decides to answer for him. “Well,” he starts, hitting his fist against his palm. “Me and Shao was thinkin’ he should quit hustling, and I suggested he could stay at my place so we could come up with a plan.”

“Well, we all down for the cause, right?” Ra looks around at his brothers for confirmation.

Dizzee nods affirmatively. “Yeah, of course we’re down.”

Boo nods as well before giving his spiel of support. “If one brother needs help, we all gon’ help.”

It’s rare moments like these, the ones that fill him with belonging and love, that keeps him going when life doesn’t feel like it’s worth living. “I ‘preciate y’all, I really do, but I can’t just stop. I need the money.” His mind is already thinking ten steps ahead; he couldn’t afford to be caught off guard.

Zeke grabs a hold of his shoulder, straining his neck until they were eye-level. “Hey, we gotta take this one step at a time, iight?” In that moment, with Zeke touching him and staring at him with those soft eyes of his, everything else falls away. It’s just him and his boy, and the future isn’t as frightening with all of its uncertainty.

Dizzee notices this interaction, too, and is reminded of the intimate moments he’d witness between the pair.

Do they know they’re on the cusp of a revolution? He wants to point this out to them, encourage them, and be a witness to how freeing it all is…but it isn’t his place. It’s a lot more beautiful when you discover it on your own, anyways, he reasons.

The older teen watches Shao nod before he and Zeke spread their lips into smiles that nearly take up their whole face.

“Iight, let’s go before my tía really does beat my ass.”

 

<>

“Ezekiel Jamal Figuero! You better have a damn good reason for not being where you said you was gonna be,” Zeke and the brothers are immediately met with Wanda’s anger as she stands from her chair with her arms folded over her chest.

“He-eeey, tía,” he says in a voice that is slightly shaken by fear, but attempting to pass as sweet.

“Do not play with me, Ezekiel. Where the hell have you been?”

“Well, uh—” he stops himself to swallow the dry lump in his throat. “I did intend on going to the Kiplings, but I sorta got sidetracked. See, I went to my friend’s place.” He turns to grab Shao by the wrist, bringing him to his side. “This,” he begins and pats the back of his shoulder, “is my friend, Shaolin. I was at his place.”

She arches an eyebrow and that’s enough to have Zeke’s throat dry again. “So this is the Shaolin Fantastic you’ve told me so much about?”

Zeke blushes in embarrassment while Shao smirks at the thought of Books gushing about him. “Yeah, this him.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Miss…” Shao trails off, complete blanking on her name.

“Wanda. Call me Miss Wanda.”

“Miss Wanda,” he repeats with a smile, turning on his charm and outstretching his hand. Her unamused visage breaks to form a smile as she takes his hand. “It’s nice to meet you. I’m Shaolin, but you can call me Shao.”

“So you’re the reason my nephew lied to me, Shao?”

Shaolin’s eyes grow big and he shakes his head. “No ma’am. I—”

“Nah, tía, it wasn’t Shao’s fault, it was mine,” he admits putting a hand over his chest for emphasis. “I was chillin’ with him and we ended up falling asleep. I didn’t mean to lie to you, it was truly an accident, I promise.”

Wanda gives him a long look, searching his face for anything other than the truth. Ezekiel had always been a sweet, obedient kid. He didn’t go looking for trouble and it never found him, he didn’t lie or steal, and all his teachers loved him. However, she has to acknowledge that he’s a teenager now. My little Zekee’s all grown up, she thinks as her face softens into a sad smile. “I believe you.”

His eyes grow big and he lets out a sigh of relief. “Whoo,” he breaths out with a hand over his wildly beating heart. “I just knew you was about to beat my ass.”

“Hey,” she warns with a stern look.

“My bad, tía.”

She nods, accepting the apology. Then she sighs softly as she takes a few steps forward and cups Zeke’s cheek into her hand. “Look, Zeke, you’re sixteen now. You’re old enough to make the right decisions, to be honest and respectful. I trust you to be those things, cuz I can’t always be there to know and watch your every move, but that’s also who me and your mother raised you to be. So don’t let this happen again, okay?”

“Okay,” he agrees with a nod.

She smiles as she rubs the soft skin underneath her thumb. “Well, I’m glad you’re safe. I was worried sick about my Zekee.”

“Tía!”

“Awwww, Zekee’s blushin’, y’all,” Boo Boo teases causing the group to laugh.

Wanda attempts to hold back her chuckles. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you, Zeke. Or do you go by something different these days?”

“Nah, Zeke is fine, but sometimes I go by Books.”

“Books?” she questions with intrigue on her face as she folds her arms.

“Yeah,” Shao starts with a smile as he looks from Wanda to Zeke before wrapping an arm around the taller boy’s neck. “Cuz he’s book-smart,” he explains, proud of the nickname he bestowed on his wordsmith.

There they go again! Dizzee thinks incredulously at the way they so openly adore one another. He can see galaxies sparkling through their eyes whenever they exchange looks. He wonders if he’s the only witness to such magic. I thought me and Thor were sickening, but jeez…these two take the cake.

Wanda sees this too. The way Zeke’s new friend stares at him with such…affection? The sight is so pure and refreshing, like fresh earth after rain, that she isn’t sure how to feel. All her life she was taught it wasn’t right for two guys or girls to like each other, but the innocent boys were making her think otherwise. Their puppy love is just as right, just as natural, just as sweet as Zeke’s and Mylene’s. And if her nephew is happy and in love, who is she to feel any way about the person who causes that happiness and love?

“Well, Books,” she begins with a tease in her voice, ”I gotta get ready for work. There’s some leftovers in the fridge if y’all hungry.”

“Hey, tía, can I talk to you for a minute?”

She looks at him skeptically as he looks between her and Shaolin. “Yeah, what’s goin’ on, Zeke?”

“We were wondering,” he points between himself and his friend, “if Shao and Napoleon can crash here for a bit.”

“Napoleon?”

“Hi, Miss,” Napoleon speaks softly, stepping from behind Ra Ra and giving a small wave.

“Hey, baby,” she gives the young boy a big smile. “You’re Napoleon?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Alright, well, Napoleon, Shao, you all are welcomed to stay, but I need to know I ain’t harborin’ no fugitives. Ain’t no tellin’ in this neighborhood.” Wanda’s half joking and half serious, but the looks on all of their faces troubles her. “Ay, bendito, what kinda shit you abouta get me in, Ezekiel?”

Shao sighs as he steps forward. After all Zeke has done for him, it’s his turn to advocate for himself. “Miss Wanda, I’m not a fugitive, I’m not runnin’ from the law, but I have done some illegal things. Some things I’m not proud of.” His gaze shifts from the floor to her concerned eyes. “You see, I work for this lady and I sell drugs for her.”

“Oh Dios mío, they have kids as young as Napoleon slangin’ dope?”

“He doesn’t work for Fat Annie,” Zeke explains, seeing Shao have a difficult time disclosing this kind of information. “He used to be with the Savage—”

“The Savage Warlords?! Jesus, you ain’t nothin’ but a baby, Napoleon. Zeke, Ra, Boo Boo, Dizzee, are y’all involved in any of this shit? Do I need to call your parents?”

“No ma’am,” they all shout harmoniously.

“Do your parents know what y’all been up to? How did y’all even get involved in this mess?”

“My mother is dead, and I never really knew my pops.”

She sighs in mourning for the orphaned child, squeezing his shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Shaolin. And what about you, Napoleon? You got any family?” She’s weary of the answer, and knows it’s something tragic. No boy his age gets into gangs for the hell of it, she reasons.

“My brother was takin’ care of us until they killed him.” Her heart breaks as the young boy bursts into tears. The heartache and trauma is still so fresh and present. Some nights he’d have nightmarish reenactments, and some mornings, he’d wake up expecting to hear his brothers. The morning were a lot worse than the nights, because it was a lot harder to wake up with hope then be reminded of devastation.

“Sweet Jesus.” She hugs the boy to her stomach. Boo Boo also feels moved to comfort Napoleon, so he wraps his arounds around him as well. Then one by one, each Brother offers their support with a hand or arm until they’re gathered around Wanda in a group embrace. The sight may evoke thoughts of cheesiness, but there’s something spiritual happening among them. Their souls fight to be cleansed of the heaviness permeating the room, and tears are the byproduct of comfort easing the distressing emotions.

“It’ll be okay. Someway, somehow, babies, it’ll all work out,” she coos while praying to God for guidance. She doesn’t consider herself a religious person, but when things were beyond her control, she had to give it to God.

Dear Lord, I don’t know what to do or how to help these kids. I can’t have no gangstas shooting up my home. Ezekiel can’t go through that again. Protect these kids, Lord. Please. Cuz ain’t nobody else looking out for them the way they need to be looked after out here in these streets. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.

Chapter Text

Thankfully, Wanda was able to get a friend to cover her work shift. She didn’t want to leave the kids alone after such an emotional and vulnerable moment. So like her mother would do after she had a bad day, she made a nice comforting meal to lift their spirits and ease their soul. After dinner, Wanda sent the boys out with a couple of dollars so they could buy some candy and treats. She figures they need something sweet to make their day feel a little better.

As she clears off the table, her mind cannot stop worrying about what her eyes had been opened to. She’s aware of the drugs and violence surrounding her community, but seeing the effects of that up close put things in perspective for her. She can see how these two sweet, innocent boys got swept up in all the madness. Shaolin and Napoleon are not thugs who thrive on committing crime like the news made them out to be. They were just two children trying to survive with the little bit of resources they had. If she wasn’t there to take Ezekiel in, she can imagine that he would be on the same path as his friends. But what could she do to help them? She could hardly support the three people living in her household.

“Here’s my number,” Ms. Green says after handing her the piece of paper she just wrote on. “If Ezekiel needs help with scholarships or applications, or if you need help with anything or just need to talk, don’t hesitate to call.”

The conversation between her and Zeke’s teacher comes to mind, and she begins searching the kitchen for the scrap of paper. “Where did I put that thing?” she mumbles while rummaging through a kitchen drawer. She pauses, putting her hands on her hip, then looks around the small kitchen. Her eyes land on the piece of paper hanging on the fridge with a magnet. She shakes her head then grabs the paper from the refrigerator door. “Lord, I’m losing my mind.” Wanda picks up the phone from the receiver before dialing the number. As the phone rings, apprehension rises. I can’t get her involved in this. Before she can hang up, Ms. Green answers.

“Hi, Ms. Green. This is Wanda, Ezekiel’s aunt.”

“Oh, hey, Wanda, and please call me Alicia.”

“Well, Alicia,” she starts, trying to find the nerve to ask for help. “I didn’t know who else to call about this, and—you know, what? Never mind. I don’t want you to get mixed up in any of this. I’m sorry—”

“Hey, you obviously called me for a reason and if I can help in anyway, I want to.”

She sighs as she fiddles with the pale yellow phone cord. “Zeke has a couple of friends who need help. They’re into all that drug and gang business, and—”

“Ezekiel isn’t caught up in that mess, is he?”

“No, no, no,” she denies, shaking her head. “He told me he wasn’t and I trust him to tell me the truth.”

Alicia sighs in relief. She’s reminded of the last day of school when Ezekiel claimed he wouldn’t be there the next school year. She was worried that her star pupil was being pulled into the black hole of gang activity. She had seen it swallow children up so easily, but Wanda put her worrying mind to ease. “Thank God,” she whispers. “So what about his friends? How involved are they?”

She sighs again, her spirit in continuous mourning for the two kids who had already seen the worst of life. “Shaolin, he’s seventeen and he works for that lady Fat Annie. Ya know, the one that owns that Inferno club?” Alicia hums her agreement before Wanda continues. “He said he sells drugs for her. Then there’s Napoleon. He ain’t nothin’ but a baby, twelve years old, and he’s involved with the Savage Warlords.”

“Oh my, Lord,” she gasps. “He’s only twelve and mixed up in all that? Jesus. Where are their parents?”

“See, they don’t have anyone looking out for them. Shao’s mother died, he doesn’t know his father, and Napoleon’s brother was taking care of him, but he was killed during that shootout at Les Inferno a couple months back.”

“So the streets have been raising them, huh.” It’s more of statement than a question. She knows how life is for kids growing up without parental guidance; how they can so easily slip through the cracks and be forgotten.

“Yeah, but they’ve been lookin’ out for each other, too. Shao said he found Napoleon hiding out in his temple, and has basically taken care of him since. And this temple that they stay at is an abandoned building. These kids don’t have any real kind of shelter or food or love, and I don’t mind providing that, but I’m not sure if I can afford to. Now, I’m not askin’ for a hand out, pero I think you know of some resources these kids could use.”

“Yeah, I do. You know, there’s a group at the Francisco Cruz community center I’m involved in. It’s called the Youth Board, and it’s members of the community getting kids outta gangs and preventing kids from joining them. We help channel their energies to more productive activities. And there are also people who can donate food and stuff, but lemme make some calls and ask around, then I’ll get back to you, okay?”

“Okay,” she responds with a smile that Alicia could hear from her end of the receiver. Not only is she grateful to her, but she is also inspired by Alicia’s involvement. “Muchas gracias, hermana. Para todo. For everything.”

“No, thank you for giving a damn when so many people look the other way. We all gotta look out for one another.”

“Yeah, I hear you. I wish I could be more involved like you and volunteer at the center, but I’m always workin’.”

“Don’t say that, Wanda. What you’re doing for these kids is more than enough.”

“I guess you’re right.”

“I know I am,” she corrects and they share a brief laugh.

“I’ma let you go so you can make your calls.”

“Alright. I’ll speak to you soon, Wanda.”

“Adiós, Alicia.”

 

<>

Zeke looks over at Shao who has been quieter and more reserved than usual. He’s not cracking up at Ra Ra and Boo Boo’s jokes, or doing a front flip off the curve, or randomly hopping over air. He can understand why, considering the past two days. Now with the two of them lagging behind the rest of the group, Zeke feels like they have enough privacy for him to check on his friend.

“Hey,” he calls out softly, nudging him with an elbow. “How you feeling?”

Shaolin looks up at Zeke to meet the softest, most kindest eyes, which he temporarily gets lost in. They were so warm and inviting, a comfort to a weary soul like his. Zeke grows nervous under his stare, and diverts his eyes. “So,” he clears his throat, “you gonna answer my question?”

Shaolin looks down shyly with a small smile on his face. He’s embarrassed to admit that he forgot what Zeke asked. You gotta get a grip, man, he chastises himself while shaking his head. “What was the question again?”

“I wanna know how you feeling, y’know, after everything that happened yesterday and today.”

He sighs as he puts his hands in his pockets. “I don’t know, man. I just know I’m tired of crying, though. I’ll be fine if I never shed a single tear again.”

Dizzee, who is just a few steps ahead of them but still far away from the rest of the group, overhears their conversation. “Not crying is unhealthy, Shao,” he interjects as he faces them while walking backwards. “Crying is like taking your soul through a laundromat; it’s cleansing.”

Shao scuffs. “Say that to my swollen eyes and pounding headache.”

“Now, I didn’t say there wouldn’t be physical pain. Sometimes our spirit is so distraught that it manifests into physical pain in order to tell the body it needs healing.”

Shaolin and Zeke exchange looks of confusion before side-eyeing Dizzee. “What the fuck are you talkin’ about, Dizz?”

He shakes his head with a sigh. Sometimes it annoys him that his brothers didn’t try to better understand him, especially when all he was trying to do was help and give good advice. Despite this, he explains himself in hopes of being more clearer. “You must listen to your spiritual needs or you’ll be in pain more often than you care to be. What is your spirit telling you, Shao? What’s troubling your spirit? Once you, at the very least, acknowledge it, you’ll start to feel better.”

“Hmm,” Shao hums, pondering Dizzee’s words. Within the past week he’s felt this internal tension knotting and pulling at his soul. He had felt a storm brewing inside him, the winds picking up speed, and the clouds swelling with water. Yesterday and today, his tears felt like the rain finally falling. For a moment it did cleanse him, but once the storm clouds passed, he was left with the destruction it caused. When Zeke’s around, though, the destruction never seems as bad as it is. He will forever be grateful to Ezekiel for being a beam of sunshine during his most troubling times.

Dizz looks over at Shao who seems to be mulling over his advice. He grins, glad that someone is listening to him for a change, rather than shutting down whatever comes out of his mouth. Seeing or thinking things differently becomes difficult and discouraging when everyone invalidates those thoughts and feelings. That’s why freedom is so important to him. Being unconstrained by expectations and norms will allow you to open up, unlock, discover things that’ll have you soaring.

Suddenly, Dizzee crashes into Boo Boo, then turns to apologize, but he stops himself. The cause of their collision stand a few feet away with smug faces. The Notorious Three.

“Well, well, well,” their DJ began in a taunting tone. “If it ain’t the fake ass, wack ass, raggedy ass brothers.”

“Yo, y’all must be ready for another ass whoopin’,” Boo declares, never one to back down and always ready to fight. Dizz and Ra Ra grab their younger brother’s shoulder.

“Yo, chill, Boo,” Dizzee says.

“The fuck y’all doin’ around here? Y’all lost? Cuz this sho’ ain’t Sedgwick, mothafuckas,” Shao questions, mean mugging each member of the group individually.

“Y’all really think y’all m hot shit cuz y’all won,” MC Luke says, mean mugging the group as well.

Ra Ra steps in, hoping to disfuse the situation before anything serious pops off. “Why the hostility, man? We beat y’all fair and square.”

“Yeah, even with y’all loud ass sound system,” Boo Boo adds, and Ra shakes his head because he knows how provocative his brother could be. “Is that why y’all mad? Is that why y’all came all the way over here? To start some shit?”

DJ Big Planet stares Shao down as he answers. “Nah, but we bouta end some shit, though. Cuz peep, that li’l performance y’all did was not a DJ battle.”

Shao smacks his teeth and waves off the comment with his hand. “Man, get the fuck on somewhere. I utilized my MCs the best way I saw fit, and if you hurt over that, that’s not our fuckin’ problem. Maybe you should be a better leader.”

The DJ steps forward, and so does Shao. Ain’t nobody gonna punk me on my own turf, he thinks as he balls up his fists.

“How about we settle the score. One-on-one. Just you and me battlin’.”

Shaolin chuckles darkly, alerting Zeke. He sees the way his fists are balled up to his side and the rest of his defensive body language. He steps around Ra and Napoleon to stand next to Shao, ready to calm him or fight for him at a moment’s notice.

“You fail to understand that hip-hop is more than just the Get Down beat or the DJ. It involves the MCs and the B-boys, and we all make magic together. So how about y’all step y’all game up, ya know, be innovative for once instead of jockin’ Kool Herc, then come holla at us.” He ends with a wide, sarcastic smile that sets the other DJ off. He throws the first punch which misses Shaolin’s face, but The Get Down Brothers jump into action anyways.

“Aye, aye, aye, break it up, y’all,” a voice yells out, then two bodies separate the kids. The fight lasted less than sixty seconds and a scrape or two is the only proof of a squabble, but their breaths were labored as they grill each other.

“Shao, what the hell you doin’ out here bein’ reckless and shit? I don’t know how many times I’ve told you about pickin’ and choosin’ ya battles, Grasshopper,” Grandmaster Flash criticizes his protégée who has his head down. He then turns to the group of kids beside him and immediately recognizes them. “What’s all this about? Herc know y’all down here causing drama?”

“These bitch ass mufuckas,” Boo jumps at them and Cowboy holds him back by the shoulder. “Wanna jump stupid cuz they mad they got beat last week.”

“Ain’t nobody mad, nigga,” Luke says.

“We just know cheaters when we see ‘em,” the other MC, Baron, adds.

“We ain’t no cheaters! That’s not how me and my crew get down.”

“Yeah, we worked our asses off and came out on top,” Ra expands on Shao’s point. “That’s not cheating, that’s hard work and dedication.”

“That’s hard work and dedication,” Baron imitates and his crew laughs at the teasing.

“Hard work my ass,” the DJ sneers after his laughter tapers off. “If I’m not mistaken, didn’t y’all fake the funk with ya mans tape? Cheatin’ seems to be a common theme among The Fake Down Brothers.”

Shao lunges at the other crew’s DJ; the teen had obviously struck a nerve. Before Cowboy could stop him, Zeke reaches over Shao’s shoulder and secures his arm across his chest.

“Nah, DJ, I got these fools / We see right through y’all clown ass dudes / Go step ya game up, go get ya weight up / Come back when ya lyrics flow so fluidly, stealthily, the kind to leave you breathlessly / Cuz when you step to me / it’s career suicide, B / you never wanna show ya face in South Bronx again / when my words make ya cerebellum explode/then Shaolin Fantastic got the beat to make ya nervous system implode / He be scratchin’ wax with Grandmaster’s quick-mix theory / competitors I advise you to please be weary / Notorious Three, learn some new tricks / get off that old spit / evolve cuz these Brothers are just too slick / with the rhymes and the rhythm / y’all not our competition, just our next victim.”

Zeke has incited a small crowd who join the rest of the Get Down crew in celebrating the way their wordsmith effortlessly took down the Notorious Three. They were all awed; the crew at Zeke’s talent, and the crowd at the discovery of something new and entertaining.

“Well, Notorious Three,” Grandmaster Flash starts with a smirk, “it looks like we got ourselves another battle. In two weeks time, we’ll see you at the same place and same time as the last battle.”

The embarrassment on their faces is too prominent for their scowls to take effect. It didn’t matter, because the Brothers weren’t paying attention to the other crew. They were too high off of the braggadocious feelings that Zeke’s freestyle evoked.

“Ooooh shit, Books,” Shao exclaims with a fist over his mouth as he turns to the taller teen. “Nigga, you just—man.” He’s so flustered and in awe of what just went down he doesn’t know what to say. “You a natural wordsmith, for sure, Books.”

Zeke is all smiles at Shaolin’s adoration. “Yeah, but you showed me my gift. I owe all that to you.”

Shaolin blushes then shakes his head. He gives me too much credit.

“Hot damn, wordsmith,” Cowboy says, bursting the invisible bubble the two friends were sharing. “That was all off the top of the dome?”

Zeke shrugs in a modest and arrogant way that makes Shaolin grin. “Yeah.”

“You gonna go places, son. And don’t let no wack mufuckas like that distract you, understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“That goes for all y’all too,” Flash says, looking around at each group member. “When we do what we do at those parties, we create new and captivating shit. For a moment we create joy and people forget about how fucked up this place we call home is. So don’t waste your gifts and talents on nonsense. Don’t let anything or anybody keep you from administering joy, because it’s a special thing that only a select few can do. Keep ya mind on the prize, iight?” They give him a chorus of affirmations and he nods with a smile. “Iight. And one more thing, don’t forget to practice. Ya wordsmith just gave them boys a hundred reasons to demolish y’all, so don’t think you got the battle in the bag. You gotta be hungrier than everybody else out here to be on top, ya dig?” Another round of affirmation pass between them. “Iight, now. Y’all kids be easy. Osu.”

“Osu, Grandmaster,” they respond simultaneously. As they walk away, Zeke can’t shake the words of the wise DJ.

He taps Shao on his upper arm with the backside of his hand. “Hey, I’ll met y’all at the bodega.”

“Where you going?” Without me is close to slipping from his mouth, but he stops himself.

“To talk to Grandmaster.”

“Oh, I’ll just come with you.”

“Nah, I gotta do this alone.” Shaolin’s features sink into sadness. Zeke feels bad for a second, but he has to do this without Shao. He knows that the DJ would not approve of him disclosing his personal problems with his mentor.

Just like that, he puts up his wall of faux nonchalance as he dismisses Zeke with a simple “cool.”

He is so damn dramatic, Zeke thinks as he watches him exaggeratedly run to catch up with the group. With one last look at his friend, he goes to catch up with Cowboy and Flash. “Wait up, Grandmaster!”

The two friends turn to the jogging teen. “What’s up, wordsmith?”

“I was thinking about what y’all said, y’know, about not having distractions.” Flash nods, signaling Zeke to continue. “Well, we have a pretty huge distraction. You see, Shao…he’s in some trouble with Fat Annie, and…” he trails off, trying to find the nerve. “I was wondering if there’s any way to get him the fuck away from that bitch. That hustlin’ shit ain’t no good for him and it’s a distraction. What can we do to get him away from that?”

Flash looks at the teen as all of Shaolin’s good words about the wordsmith comes to mind. “Look, I appreciate your passion, kid. You got heart. But I’ve already told Shao I’m not gettin’ involved in any of his street shit. He has to deal with the consequences of his choices like man.”

“No offense, Grandmaster,” he puts a hand over his heart, “but you’re wrong. Shao’s just a kid tryna navigate through this fucked up world all by himself. He ain’t got nothing or nobody but the Brothers and this music thing. Don’t be another person to turn your back on him, be the man he looks up to, be the man he aspires to be.”

Both of the friends are impressed by Zeke’s wisdom, and exchange looks of surprise. Flash can’t deny the truth the young brother spoke so fearlessly. Not only did Shao pick a great wordsmith, he picked an even better friend. “You make a valid point, wordsmith,” he announces with a smile. “I’ll do what I can, but I can’t promise you anything. Fat Annie ain’t no joke, dig? Getting out of her family won’t be a walk in the park. Now, I will do whatever I can to make that walk a li’l easier, but I need you to do your part too.” Zeke’s face reads concentration and piqued interest, and Flash feels a strong sense of respect towards him. “I need you to make sure Shao stays focused. Don’t let him get distracted, because that will result in a guaranteed loss, and I won’t have y’all tarnishing my name, dig?”

Zeke shakes his head. “Nah, never that.”

“Shao’s ya boy, right? You know what keeps him relaxed, you know what motivates him, you know what it takes to get him to tap into his potential. Y’all did that shit with the crayon, and this time will be no different. Can I trust you?”

“No doubt,” he responds without hesitation.

“Iight, wordsmith, that’s what I wanna here. Meet me at my place Wednesday. Osu.”

“Osu.” He starts to walk the other direction, but remembers something else. “Hey, Grandmaster, where you stay at?”

“I expect Shao to be at the meeting as well, so he’ll know the way.”

Guess there goes my plans for being secretive.

<>

The kids come through the door loud and rowdy, a stark contrast from how they entered the home hours earlier. Their smiles and laughter are uncontainable as their voices carry throughout the narrow entrance. Wiping her hands of sudsy dishwasher, she watches them pile into the small kitchen and her face mirrors their joy.

“Y’all must’ve ate all that candy on the way back.”

“Nope, it’s right here,” Napoleon says, holding up the brown paper bag.

“Hmm, well what are y’all so hyper about?”

“Man, you had to be there, Ms. Wanda,” Boo Boo answers.

“Oh, yeah? What I miss, niños?”

“Just my boy, Books, here, scaring off the competition with his rhymes,” Shao says, draping an arm around Zeke’s shoulder, who’s all smiles at the praise from the DJ.

“Nah, he did more than scare them, Shao. That’s like saying the Flash jogged across Central City, when he’s, in fact, the fastest man alive. See, Books annihilated the Notorious Crybabies. Then come Saturday after next, we’ll be like Justice League, y’know? We’re gonna join forces to take them down; they won’t stand a chance against us.” Before Ra Ra can get too excitable, Wanda asks a question.

“Are y’all talkin’ about that nursery rhyming stuff?”

“It’s not nursery rhyming, tía. What we do is like,” he pauses to think of an explanation she can understand.

“It’s like a performance, Ms. Wanda.” Zeke’s face lights up at Dizzee’s articulation. “We go on stage and administer joy. Just like the Jackson 5, or any other performer.”

“Right on, Dizz! Shaolin’s the DJ, we’re the MCs, and together, we put on a show that makes people feel good and wanna dance.”

“What’s this MC thing? I thought you—what did you call it—rhythm-ed?”

Like kids snickering at an inside joke, they laugh at her unfamiliarity with the Get Down. “I rhyme, tía. Me, Ra, Dizz, and Boo rhyme because that’s what MCs do. We’re the Masters of Ceremonies who keeps the crowd hype while our DJ spins,” he wraps an arm around Shaolin’s torso and gives his side a slight squeeze. “You just gotta see it to really understand it. You and Leon should come to our battle so y’all can finally see what I do and why I love it.”

“I’d love to watch you perform, Zekee,” she says with a smile. Boo snickers and Zeke hits him upside the head.

“I’m telling you now, Ms. Wanda, prepare yourself to be amazed by our wordsmith.”

“Well, from what Zeke tells me, I should be amazed by the DJ too.” Shaolin blushes, more so at the thought of Zeke talking about him in such high regards, than at the compliment. Or maybe the blush should be accredited to Zeke still holding his waist. Heat seems to radiate from the touch, making his whole body red hot. But that warmth is comforting; it feels good.

“Yeah, Shao be messin’ it up on the turntables,” Napoleon exclaims, then begins imitating his movements. “His hands move so fast when he scratching records.”

“I’m mean, I’m iigh, but not nearly as good as Grandmaster Flash.”

“Man, stop being so modest. You got lightening-quick hands, so flaunt it. If I annihilate, then you demolish. If I’m the best, then you flawless. You—”

“Yo, chill, Dr. Seuss,” Shao interrupts before Zeke can continue his monologue of compliments. Sometimes it was too much for him when Zeke expressed his flattery through rhymes. Shao couldn’t handle the barrage of feelings his wordsmith would evoke. It’s been that way since he first heard Zeke immaculately and effortlessly weave words together in a way that personified beauty.

“Oh my, God, I really am a ghetto Dr. Seuss,” Zeke says, causing the room to erupt in laughter. The telephone rings through the room and Wanda walks towards it as she wipes at her tears of laughter.

Zeke directs his friends to carry their laughter and jokes to the living room, leaving his aunt to hold her conversation without their ruckus. He clicks on the television then shuffles through the channels before they decide on watching Good Times. He plops down on the already-crowded couch, squeezing between Shao and Ra Ra.

“All that room on the floor and you wanted to squeeze yourself on this li’l bitty couch.”

“I’m nothing but this big, Ra,” he holds up his hand with his pointer finger and thumb inches apart.

“Okay, but you’re still squishing me.”

He smacks his lips then turns to Shao. “Am I squishing you?”

“Nah, I’m good.”

“Welp, it looks like you need to get comfortable or you can go sit on the floor.”

“One, your logic is flawed, and two, of course Shao isn’t bothered by you being all in his space.”

Shao leans forward to look at Ra Ra. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“All I’m saying is that you and Zeke are always, y’know, touchy-feely.”

Shao cringes at the adjective, or maybe it was the way he said it. He said it like he had a bad taste in his mouth. Touchy-feely. He doesn’t try to be that way with Zeke. In fact, there were plenty of times he stopped himself from wrapping an arm around him, or standing too close to him, or touching his fingers when he passed a joint. Then there were other times when he couldn’t stop the way he seemed to be so naturally drawn to Zeke. During those times, the urge to touch any part of Zeke silenced the inner voices telling him that boys didn’t have those kinds of thoughts or feelings about other boys. However, it’s times like these that resurface and reinforce those voices. It’s the prying eyes and the raised eyebrows that make him ashamed of the feelings that feel so right.

Does he think—he stops his thoughts from formulating the words that make him uneasy. But I’m not. I’m not like that. Suddenly, he storms off and the sound of the front door closing follows soon after.

Zeke’s face contorts to anger as he scolds Ra Ra. “Yo, what the hell was that, Ra? What you buggin’ for?” His voice is hushed, so as not to alert his aunt, but there is no denying the anger.

He holds his hands up, slightly afraid. The only other time he’s seen Zeke so pissed off was the night of the blackout. “I didn’t mean anything by it. Honestly.”

“Don’t play me for no fool, B. You was definitely tryna imply something.”

“I wasn’t implying anything, Zeke; I was just stating the obvious. I mean, we all know how weirdly close y’all are.” He looks around the room for support, but Dizzee is shaking his head and the youngest two are pretending to be interested in the television.

He chuckles darkly. “Well, since we being all obvious and transparent and shit, me and Shao is none of your damn business. You don’t get to comment on how weirdly close we are, whatever the fuck that even means.”

“I didn’t mean it in a bad way or anything, but it is different.”

He goes to respond, but stops himself with a shake of his head. He doesn’t want to say anything he’ll regret. “Whatever, man. I’m gonna go check on Shao.”

Ra Ra sighs while watching Zeke’s retreating form, then looks around the room. “You guys know what I’m talking about, why didn’t you back me up? Now their overdramatic asses think I’m tryna attack them or something.”

“You did attack them,” Dizzee says with emphasis, “and their response was completely valid. Maybe you didn’t mean any harm, but your whole tone and delivery made you sound malicious and judgmental.”

“What? C’mon, Dizz, you know I’m neither of those things.”

“We know that, Ra,” Boo Boo says, “but you obviously feelin’ some type of way to say something outta character.”

He smacks his lips while shaking his head. “Man, I can’t believe all y’all are blowing this out of epic proportion. I was just sayin’ what everybody thinks.”

“Just cuz we might know what’s going on, doesn’t mean we have to call ’em out about it,” Boo Boo counters.

Dizz nods in agreement. “Exactly. You can’t force anyone to talk about what they don’t want to discuss. That’s not what a friend does. And honestly, you might wanna check your jealousy before you lose a friend.”

He sits quietly, trying to work through the hard truths his brothers brought to light. Dizzee can see the guilt appearing on Ra Ra’s face while he’s deep in introspective thought.

Now I feel bad, Dizz thinks as he sighs. As the eldest, it’s his place to balance out lecturing and offering support. He walks over to his brothers and places a hand on his shoulder.

“Look, Ra, you’re not a horrible person for feeling jealous about Zeke having a new best friend. It’s a healthy and normal reaction to feeling left out or forgotten. You just have to channel that energy into a productive conversation, not an attack. Okay?” He looks up at his older brother and nods. “Good. And another thing—this goes for all y’all, too,” he pauses, making sure to eye everyone, “Zeke and Shao are not weird. They’re just two boys tryna be free in a world that cages them. That’s not weird, it’s revolutionary.” With that, Dizzee follows the same path as Shao and Zeke, when he spots them sitting on the stairwell.

“Shao, man, don’t worry about Ra Ra. We don’t have to explain ourselves to anybody when we barely know what we got going on. I mean—there is something going on, right? I’m not trippin’, am I? Cuz I feel a lot of the same things I feel for Mylene, for you. Does that mean I’m cheating on her? I can’t help—”

“Zeke, shut the fuck up,” his voice cracks as he cuts off his rambling. Shit, he curses to himself at the oncoming tears he can no longer choke back. He had been trying so hard to keep them at bay: he squeezed his eyes shut, embedded his nails into the skin of his palms, and bit down on the inside of his check until he tasted blood. And of course he’d only lose his resolve when Books came around. He didn’t want to cry over this. Crying over this would be admitting to the feelings he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

Zeke takes him in his arms, and Shaolin rests his head on his friend’s shoulder in spite of the voices of hatred, self doubt, and fear screaming at him. He’s tired of fighting with himself. I give up. This feels too good to fight it anymore.

“I’m sorry,” Zeke says, tenderly wiping at Shaolin’s cheeks with the pad of his thumb. “Seems like all I’ve been doing is making you cry.”

He sniffs then sighs. “Nah, you the only person who can make me feel better.” Shao’s words tug at his heart and the corners of his lips as butterflies flutter in the pit of his stomach.

Dizzee watches the scene in front of him, touched by how gentle they are with one another. The only word that comes to mind is freedom.

“Hey,” Dizz calls out, walking towards them. They two friends break apart, and Dizzee takes a seat in the space they’ve created. “I just want y’all to know that I understand.” His words are soft, cooing a lullaby to the ears seeking the comfort of validation and understanding. “I get what it’s like. Those feelings.” He looks off, his mind going to the resent past, and even the present. Those feelings are still there, just as present as ever.

He heaves a sigh then looks down at his paint-stained fingers pulling on each other. “It’s confusion, it’s madness. You’re basically questioning everything you’ve been told. What’s right, what’s wrong.” He gives each of them a long stare. “There is nothing wrong with the two of you being so close. There’s nothing weird about the emotions you may or may not feel. People like who they like, and love who they love. Love is about freedom, about flying, not about all those cages the world tries to lock us in. Don’t ever be afraid of that freedom.” Every word resonates within them; he settles their doubts and anxieties. “If y’all ever need to talk, you can always talk to me, iight?”

They smile and nod at him. “Thanks, Dizz. Hearing that means a lot.”

“Yeah, thanks, man,” Zeke consigns.

“Guys?” They turn to see the rest of the crew. “I wanna apologize.” Ra sighs before continuing. “I was wrong for what I said. It’s just…me and Zeke, we’ve been best friends since kindergarten. Then here you come, Shao, and y’all spending all this time together, and I guess I’ve been feeling left out…and kinda jealous. I’m sorry.”

Shao gets up, approaching his friend with a smile. “We good, man.” Ra smiles as well, slapping Shao’s outstretched hand then leaning into their handshake.

Zeke walks over to them, wrapping an arm around their shoulders. “I’ll tell you what I told Shao yesterday when he was being all jealous of Mylene—”

“I ain’t jealous of that disco duck.” They all look at him as if saying “lie again,” and he sucks his teeth and rolls his eyes.

“Anyways, I was telling him that I don’t value or prioritize anyone over anybody; I just got a lot going on in my life right now. I’m tryna find a balance between work and play, know what I mean? So until I figure that out, can y’all cut me some slack? I know I’m special and all—”

“Yeah, especially corny,” Shao says and they all double over.

“Fuck you,” Zeke laughs and takes him into a headlock. Wanda walks out to see all the ruckus.

“I was wondering where y’all ran off to. What y’all doing out here?”

They all look at one another before Napoleon offers a shrug. “It’s a long story, Ms. Wanda.”

She chuckles, accepting the answer. “Well, that was Ms. Green on the phone. She wants to meet us at the community center tomorrow so we can figure out how to best help Shao and Napoleon.”

“Thank you again for taking us into your home and helping us.”

“Hush, child,” she says, waving off Shao. “I’m not providing you a service, so there’s no need to thank me. I’m giving you a home, and every child deserves a home.”

And for the first time in a long time he feels like a kid being taken care of instead taken advantage of. He wants to thank her for that, but he just nods his head and smiles. She’ll never know how grateful I am. Maybe he can show her rather than tell her. By keeping his nose clean, he’ll show her that all of her efforts and support won’t be in vain.

“Y’all coming back inside?” They all answer in the affirmative before filing inside the apartment one by one.

 

<>

Hours later—after they consumed all their candy; after they excitedly discuss some of their plans to crush the Notorious Three; after they get inspired by the new episode of Soul Train; after Leon came in from work joking about his name not being Mike Brady; after they snuck and watched The Richard Pryor Show while cackling as quietly as they could—the teens are finally fast asleep in the living room. Everyone besides Zeke, that is. On the floor with his back against the couch and his knees pulled into his chest, the wordsmith is busy writing on the notepad resting against his knee.

Despite his sleepiness, Zeke could not shut his mind off long enough to fall into a peaceful slumber. It seemed like each time his eyes closed, the intimate moments he shared with Shaolin would play like a movie behind his eyelids and fill him with nerves. How could you fall asleep with butterflies flapping around in your stomach? He figured that maybe jotting down his feelings would help, but his words are not flowing. Everything is jumbled, and now he’s on his fifth trash ass poem.

He’s so trapped in his own mind that he doesn’t feel Shaolin stirring awake beside him. Blinking a few times to adjust to the light from the lamp, Shao silently watches Zeke. The boy’s eyebrows are knitted together in concentration as his lips move, whispering words Shao can’t quite make out. Suddenly, he stops writing, looking off in front of him like he’s searching for something. And apparently he finds it, because his face lights up with that dopey smile, and he nods as he starts writing again. Shaolin smiles as well, in awe of Zeke’s expressiveness and passion. Then the wordsmith stops his pencil, and instead of looking off into space, he looks beside him and is startled by Shaolin staring back at him.

“Shit, man, you scared me,” he says, holding his chest.

“My bad,” he says with a chuckles as he pulls himself up to sit right next to his friend.

“Did I wake you?”

“Nah, sometimes it’s hard for me to sleep through the night.”

“Oh.”

Silence befalls them as they openly stare and smile at one another. An outsider looking in would wonder what the two found so funny, but this isn’t an inside joke. They’re just two boys filled with giddiness. Just looking at each other produces an uncontainable joy that they don’t know what to do with, so they helplessly smile and giggle. And it doesn’t help that the skin on their arms are touching. Touch adds a whole different dimension to the endorphins, nerves, and sensations that come with being around one another. Sometimes that intensity can be too much, so feeling overwhelmed, Shao finally breaks their trance.

He shyly peaks at the notepad in Zeke’s lap before bringing his eyes to his friend again. “What were you writing?”

Zeke sighs, picking up the small notebook and running his thumb against the pages. “Nothing good.” He chuckles humorlessly causing Shao to frown.

“I don’t believe that; everything you touch is gold.”

Yo…he has to stop doing that shit. My cheeks hurt too much. “Thank you, but right now my words ain’t flowing. Everything I’ve been writing sucks.”

“Lemme hear it, maybe I can help.”

“Nah, man,” he denies, shaking his head. He didn’t mind reading off snippets he wrote for their music, but this time the poems were a bit more personal.

“C’mon, Books, it can’t be that bad.”

“Well, it’s not perfect, and you deserve perfection.” Fuck.

Confusion and flattery weirdly distort Shaolin’s face. “Huh?”

Zeke sighs, looking down at the pencil he’s messing with. “The poems are about you.”

Hearing that makes him feel like gravity no longer exists. This has to be what freedom feels like. Feeling uninhibited, he reaches out for Zeke’s hand, cupping it between his own. “Well, I’m honored that you wrote about me, and I’d be grateful if you recited it for me. Please?”

“Okay,” he gives in, “only because you asked so nicely.” They exchange smiles before Zeke picks up the notebook. He thumbs through the pages, finding the first poem of the night. “Just so you know, these poems don’t do you, or my feelings for you, any justice.”

Or my feelings for you. He’s weightless and defying gravity again until Zeke’s words anchor him.

“This one is called Mysterious Sensation,” he says before clearing his throat.

“I wear my heart on my sleeve,
so it’s weird not knowing what I feel.
With you, everything is unclear
and I don’t know how to deal.

I’m terrified of the uncertainty you bring,
but comforted by the way you make my heart sing.
So, I may not know what tomorrow holds,
and I may not see the answers unfold,
but I can’t deny the emotions I can’t control.
Now lemme tell you all the feelings that have been untold.

My fingertips yearn to feel the soft silk of your rich, beautiful brown skin.
My eyes will never stop seeking the joy of your wide grin.
My idle mind imagines the course hair around your mouth tickling my neck.
My mouth waters for a taste it has never known, can I just get a peck?
My ears echo the life of your laughter, sounding like the ocean in a seashell.
These feelings come in waves that swell
and baptize me in our scent of freedom.

You’re such a sensation to me.”

Upon finishing the poem, Zeke looks over at his friend who’s staring at him wide-eyed with awe. Shao is speechless, stunned, and overwhelmed, but Zeke takes his silence as discontent.

“I know it was bad, but was it really that bad? At least say—”

Instead of saying something like Zeke was trying to suggest, Shaolin takes action. He places the softest, sweetest kiss on Zeke’s cheek, now leaving 1him speechless and wide-eyed. They stare at one another, their wildly beating hearts and shallow breaths become the only sounds and moves they make for a while. A million things explode inside them, and they can’t get a coherent thought to string together into a sentence or action; they’re stuck. Finally embolden by the feelings of freedom, Shaolin makes another move.

“Can I just get a peck?” he recites, making Zeke giggle.

“I’d like that.”

Their eyelids lower as their faces draw closer and closer until their lips touch. The first thing they notice is how soft the other’s lips are, and how perfect they fit together. And then there’s the explosion. Electricity seems to tingle throughout their bodies, leading to fingertips itching for touch, and they find it in each other’s soft skin. Zeke is caressing Shao’s upper arm while Shao is clinging onto the back of Zeke’s neck. He feels like if he doesn’t hold on tight enough, he’ll fly away. Everything is light and heavy, dizzying and sobering. Their kiss is the personification of the confusion and confliction in Zeke’s poem.

However, as they pull apart and their eyes flutter open and they try to catch their breaths, things become tangible for them.

“You’re such a sensation to me, too.”

Chapter Text

They wake up the next morning with wide smiles as last night comes back to them in flashes.

“What does this mean?” Zeke asks as they stare at one another, their faces still inches apart.

“I don’t know, but,” Shao looks down shyly, “I know I wanna kiss you again.”

A grin splays across his face. “Ain’t nothin’ stoppin’ you.”

“Then bring ya cute ass here.”

Zeke chortles as Shao gently pulls him closer by the shirt until their mouths are touching again. They spend the next few hours lying on their sides, with their heads propped up on their elbows, talking and laughing and happy. As Zeke recites the poems he wrote earlier—at Shao’s request—and throws in a few freestyles about their newfound love, Shao is totally smitten. Because the seventeen-year-old doesn’t know how to take such adoration and affection, he alternates between teasing Ezekiel about his corniness, and giving him soft, appreciative kisses and compliments. Zeke, just as smitten, blushes at the sweet pecks that Shaolin decorates his face in, and beams at Shao’s sweet words and obvious joy. They both revel in their newfound love until sleepiness weigh down their eyelids. The image of the other happy and smiling, become the last thing they see.

As each wonderful memory resurfaces, they exchange shy, knowing glances or sweet smiles or brief giggles, unable to contain their euphoria. Everyone can see their happiness bubbling over, and it’s so infectious that it spreads around the kitchen while they eat breakfast. After everyone finishes eating, the Kiplings and Napoleon head out to open up the shop, and Wanda and Leon leave for work, leaving Shao and Zeke alone to clean up. At the sink, Zeke washes while Shao rinses and and dries. They’re comfortably quiet until Shao breaks the silence.

“Wanna go down to the temple with me? I got these new records we can work on together.”

“You know I’d be down, but I gotta go to my internship soon.”

“Oh, yeah.” He doesn’t mean to sound so sad and pathetic, and once he realizes it, he tries to hide it with a smile, but Zeke sees past his facade.

He smacks his lips. “Man, c’mon, Shao. I thought you were gonna try to be more understanding.”

“I know, I know. My bad. I’m wasn’t tryna guilt you or nothin’.”

“That damn job already does that enough,” he mumbles and Shaolin catches it.

He looks over at him, waiting for Zeke to explain, but he pretends to be occupied with the dish he’s washing. Shao wipes his hands on the towel he’d been using to dry dishes, then turns to Zeke with the side of his hip leaning against the sink. “What you mean?”

Sighing, he drops the dish into the soapy water before he pivots to face his friend. “I always feel guilty about being there, Shao. It don’t feel right. I feel like I’m selling myself, but at what cost, know what I mean?”

He surveys Zeke, knowing full well he’s hiding behind his words. “You beating around the bush, Books. What you gettin’ at? You worried about not gettin’ paid for your work?”

He shakes his head in response. “That’s fucked up by itself, but nah, that’s not it. It’s the whole fiscal control committee that I feel uncomfortable working for. They’re the devil in disguise, man. They the reason buildings is burning down all around us and no fire fighters to put them out. They the mufuckas responsible for cutting off all our services and shit just so they can save money.”

“Wooow,” is all he can say at the revelation. He shakes his head as crosses his arms over his chest then leans his lower back against the counter top. He’s not exactly surprised, but he’s still astonished by the apathy that goes into intentionally and specifically harming brown and black folks. The people who were supposed to be responsible for up-keeping their neighborhoods didn’t care about the people living in them, so they had no problem turning a blind eye to the decay and destruction while they racked up money.

“White folks really don’t give a fuck about us,” Shao concludes after being deep in thought. It’s the only conceivable explanation he can come up with. “How can they just do that? They just neglect us and toss us aside so easily. Like we don’t mean nothin’. Like we not human.”

“Like we not human,” Zeke echoes slowly, staring off in front of him as revelation dawns on him as well. “That’s exactly why I be feelin’ guilty. I know if I wasn’t working for Mr. Gunns, or serving whatever political agenda he has, he wouldn’t see me as a human being. I’d just be another nameless nigga him and the rest of the committee see as a hinderance. Just another nigga that ain’t worth saving.”

Shao glances at him. “If you know all of this, then why keep workin’ for them crooked mufuckas?”

“Because,” he pauses then shrugs. “I really don’t know, man. That’s the million-dollar question I keep asking myself.” He honestly isn’t sure how he can consciously work for people that devalue his community. Mr. Gunns tried to paint it as necessary steps towards progression and leadership, but that blanquito didn’t care about how many people would be impacted.

“I guess it’s cuz I feel like maybe I can change things by working there, know what I mean?” He glances over at Shao who isn’t quite grasping what he’s trying to say. “I actually wanna see how politics and shit work so I can really make some changes, and possibly lead my city out the ashes. Change things from within, ya dig?”

“Politics?” His face twists up like he just had the taste of the sourest lemon. “I don’t know if I see you doing that, Books. You’re way too creative to be doing all that boring shit. Don’t they be in meetings all day and lie about making changes?”

Zeke laughs at Shaolin’s description of the men he works for. “You ain’t lyin’, but you shoulda seen me on that podium last week, man. I had this whole speech ready, but last minute, I just riffed it, and the words flowed so naturally. It felt good to inspire people, and give hope when everything seems hopeless. That feeling is why I still go downtown every weekday and smile in them blanquitos faces, even though I know they wouldn’t spit on me if I was on fire.” He humorlessly chuckles at that fact as he shakes his head. “I don’t know, maybe it is fucked up for me to keep working there, but I wanna change shit for us, Shao. Give the Bronx some kinda hope.”

“If anyone can do that, I know you can. You gotta real way with words, and they can inspire anybody. I know they always set my soul on fire. Shit, sometimes you even make me wanna write poetry.”

“Get the fuck outta here!”

“I’m serious, man. You had me writing something one day.”

Zeke beams and giggles all at once. “Really?” His voice is so ecstatic that Shao would recite it right now, but the embarrassment would surely kill him.

“Don’t worry about it, Books. Now, back to what I was saying,” he tries to switch the topic, and Zeke lets him but makes a mental note to bring it up another time. “I believe your words can change the world. So if you wanna do that by being a politician, then that’s cool. You’ll be the sincerest politician I’ve ever known. All them corrupt mufuckas want is power, money, or both.”

“True,” he says quietly as he looks down. Despite Shao’s encouragement, he’s still unsure about taking a path littered with corruption. And what about their dreams of having their own kingdom, of being musical legends? Shaolin’s thinking the same thing, but keeps quiet. He doesn’t want to come off as selfish or unsupportive, so he encourages his friend to aspire to whatever greatness he knows is destined for him. …Even if that means not being apart of the Get Down anymore. Even if that means his wordsmith would be going off to college and being all great and shit without him.

But then, when Zeke looks at him with eyes filled with hope and possibility, Shaolin stops caring about his own feelings and all he wants is for Zeke’s dreams to come true.

“You really think I could change lives and shit? You think I can be a leader for the Bronx?”

“I don’t see why not. You smart, you care about people, and you got charisma. Y’know, like Martin Luther King? You a leader like that. You righteous. And that’s somebody people wanna stand behind and follow. You know I’d follow you anywhere and make sure everybody else is on board.” He pauses briefly then chuckles at the thought that comes to mind. “Hell, I’ll even campaign for you.”

He chortles with a fist over his mouth. “Shut the fuck up.”

Shao laughs along with him. “Nah, for real, B. You can even get the Shao 007 special on a train.” He runs his hands across the air like he’s displaying a banner. “Zeke Figuero: a leader that’s one of us.”

“Oh, so you’d go back to writing graffiti for me? I’m honored,” he jokes, but means each word.

“I’d do anything for you, Books, all you gotta do is ask.” And he looks over at him, ready and willing to give Ezekiel the whole wide world upon his request. The sincerity in his voice and eyes make Zeke’s dopey grin take over his face. Shao tries to coax himself to look away from the beauty that will surely be his demise. That smile of Zeke’s is too beautiful and explosive. Too dangerous. That smile will make me rob a bank without thinking twice.

Zeke’s grin expands even more than he thought was humanly possible. “Really?”

“Damn, I said that out loud?”

“Yeah, nigga. And you got the nerve to call me corny.” They chuckle as Zeke smoothly moves to place his hands on the counter behind Shao, trapping him between his arms. “That was real sweet, though.”

He looks down bashfully, seeking solace from Zeke’s intense stare and the emotions it stirs up. It was all too much attention for Shao; he’s not used to the doting and piercing stares. Zeke softly chuckles at Shaolin’s shyness. For a guy who’s always so bold—with his music, his art, his moves—it tickles Zeke to know he has the ability to make Shaolin bashful. Like the way he got all shy and flustered when Zeke called him a natural everything, or when he spit those rhymes about being the Huck Finn to his Tom Sawyer, or when he recited any rhyme, really.

His lips spread as he continues to take in Shao’s side profile. “Your face is like perfectly chiseled stone. God took time when he crafted your cheekbones.” He ducks his head to place soft kisses along the curvature of his cheek that’s gathered into a smile. “Lemme see your whole face, it’s perfect and beautiful. You so fine, it should be unconstitutional.”

Shao bursts into laughter, Zeke soon following after. “Why are you so corny?”

“You know you like it,” Zeke declares as he leans his forehead against the other boy’s. He then takes his hands from the counter and wraps his arms around Shaolin’s waist, pulling him closer.

The DJ is a bundle of nerves now. They’ve never been this close. Not even last night when they kissed for the first time. His breathing is shallow and he doesn’t know what to do with his hands. Should I hold him back? What if he kisses me again and it’s not good like the last time?

Zeke suddenly backs away. “Am I too close? Was that too much?”

Shao reaches out to him, pulling him back. “No, no, no. It’s not that. It’s just—I be second-guessin’ myself when it comes to you.” He looks down at Zeke’s hand in his then gently brushes his thumb across his knuckles. “But one thing I do know,” he trails off as he interlocks their fingers and looks up at him, “I like us being close. That always makes me feel good.”

The usually smooth talker has nothing to say. He’s all smiles, relishing in the fact that Shao likes being close as much as he does. He’s not in this thing alone. He brings their interlocked hands to his lips, placing a peck on the back of Shao’s hand. His eyes never leaving his man’s, Zeke untangle their hands to guide Shao’s open palm over his heart. He then places his own hand over Shao’s and lingers there for a bit.

“You feel that?” he asks softly, referring to his wildly beating heart. “That’s all you, Shao. You always make my chest feel like it’s bouta explode, but I don’t mind. It’s terrifying and beautiful all at the same time.” Zeke’s words are gentle like a feather caressing Shaolin’s soul. He feels light like one too when Zeke kisses him. His hand, still pressed against the other boy’s chest, can feel the thumps of his heart increase. The fast rhythm guides the pace of their lips. There’s also a frantic energy that makes their lips seek one another in haste. It’s not as soft and enduring as the others, but exploring and discovering. Teeth clumsily and softly nicking at lips, tongues tasting tender skin, fingertips roaming curiously over abdomens, backs, arms, until their lungs demand oxygen.

“Damn,” they tumble out breathlessly. The pair softly giggle at their simultaneous reactions as they try to regulate their breaths. Once they calm down, their minds become less hazy and Zeke sighs when he’s reminded of his internship.

Shao knits his brows together, surveying Zeke’s sudden change in demeanor. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” he dismisses his worry with a small smile. “I just remembered I gotta go to my internship instead of spending the whole day with you.” The way he delivers the upsetting reminder doesn’t make the thought of it seem so bad. 

“What time you get off?” Shao asks, already anticipating his return.

Zeke’s amused by his eagerness. “Five o’clock. What you gon’ do without me all day?”

“I seemed to manage just fine without you all last week.”

Zeke chuckles at his snide comeback. “So what you got planned?”

“Probably head to the temple and work on the new records I bought the other day.”

“What are these new records you keep talkin’ about?”

“They the serious joint, B. I even like the wack part.”

“Oh word? I gotta hear this shit.”

“Yeah, no doubt. Maybe you can listen to it tomorrow since we gotta go to the center today.”

“Or,” he begins with mischief gleaming in his eyes, “maybe we can sneak out late tonight.”

“I don’t know about that, Books. I’m not tryna get in trouble with ya tía.”

“We won’t get caught if we’re quiet.”

Honestly, he couldn’t say no to the excited face. “Okay.”

“Well, it’s a date then.” He seals the arrangement with a peck at the corner of Shaolin’s mouth, and his deep brown face is flush with heat. “I gotta get ready, you mind finishing up the few dishes left?”

“Yeah, no problem.”

“Thank you.” He gives him another peck, but this time on his lips, before he disappears into the hallway.

Shao stands there for a minute, his lips still tingling and his insides abuzz with excitement. These feelings were all so new to him, but he reveals in them, enjoys the happiness they bring. He enjoys it so much that he doesn’t think twice about saying yes to whatever Zeke asked of him. He’d sneak out into the night with him; he’d steal the night for him if he wanted, and everlasting daylight would become the evidence of his love.

Love. There’s that word again. Taunting and teasing him about the stark contrast between the guy who epitomized the word and the one who couldn’t conceive of it. But Books made him want to understand it.


The ringing phone pulls him from his thoughts, but he doesn’t answer it since it’s not his house. However, when it rings again soon after, Shao figures it must be urgent. Drying his hands, he picks up the receiver.

“Hello?”

“Hi, is Ezekiel there?”

There was no mistaking the candied voice on the other end. He doesn’t recognize the feeling at first, but guilt registers and settles in the pit of his stomach. Maybe it was the guilt that made him approach her without his usual animosity. “Mylene, hey. How’s Manhattan treating you?”

“Shao? What are—you know what? It doesn’t even matter. Put Zeke on the phone.” Mylene on the other hand, wasn’t trying to hide her disdain. Not only did she not like him, but she had told Zeke to steer clear of Shao because of his illegal activities.

Her tone causes his attitude towards her to return. “He’s in the shower,” he states in a flat, disinterested tone.

“Ugh. Well, can you tell him that I called? It’s important. Please?”

The please threw him off; he’d never thought Mylene would be polite to him. And there was also a change in her tone. “Yeah, no doubt.” He pauses for a brief moment before asking, “are you okay?”

Mylene sighs heavily, belying the answer she gives. “Yeah, why do you ask?”

He shrugs his shoulders as if she could see him. “I don’t know. I mean, you said it was important, and I just thought that maybe—,” he cuts himself off. “I don’t know, never mind. Just forget I said anything.” Why did he want to know about her feelings in the first place? Maybe it was the guilt again, or his promise to Zeke to cut him some slack? Maybe he was genuinely concerned because he could identify with what sounded like sadness?

“Wow,” she says. “I can’t believe Shaolin Fantastic is being nice to me.”

He chuckles. “Hey, don’t act like you’re Mother Teresa when it come to me.”

She sucks her teeth and Shao can see the eye roll through the phone. “Only because you get my boyfriend involved in dumb illegal shit.”

Shaolin laughs in a humorless, passive aggressive way. “Oh, so he’s your boyfriend this week?”

“Just like that you’re an asshole again.”

“So you can call me a criminal and I can’t respond to that?”

“You are a criminal!” Mylene exclaims and Shaolin feels sick to his stomach as images of Wolf flash before him. “I know all about Malibu’s car and what y’all did on the night of the blackout. Ezekiel is going places and you’re only gonna bring him down.”

Before he can stop and think, malice summersaults off his tongue. “Being caught up over a bitch is what’s gonna bring him down, not me.”

“Who the fuck you calling a bitch?”

“Who’s calling you a bitch?” “Gimme the phone, Mylene.” Shaolin can hear angered voices in the background, but their potential threats don’t phase him. He’s just as angry, and thinks he’s as justified in his name calling as Mylene.

“Regina, Yolanda, I got this,” she says trying to calm her friends even if she’s shaking with anger. From her father to random ass men on the street, she has been called out of her name and disrespected for daring to exist and believing she had the right to exist and be respected. Conjuring up each time she’d been called a whore, a bitch, a stuck-up bitch, and anything else but a child of God, she gave Shaolin an ethereal tongue-lashing.

“I don’t know who the fuck you think you are, but you got some nerve calling me a bitch. You must think you bad, huh? You think you can speak to me any kinda way cuz I’ma girl? Calling me outta my name makes you feel big, right? It makes your bruised, little ego feel better, right?”

He could hear the anger, feel it radiating through the phone. It was so intense, he forgot his own anger until she brought up his bruised, little ego. Was that the source of his hate towards her? His sense of self was bruised and abused. Fragile. And at the times when he was most insecure and vulnerable—when he risked not getting Grandmaster Flash the Misty Holloway record, when he couldn’t arrive and depart on time, when he was trying to find the bootlegger—his frustrations and anger were often directed at Mylene.

“You better thank God that I don’t have the ability to come through this phone and beat your ass. If you ever fix your lips to call me a bitch again, you’ll regret the day you were born Shaolin Fantastic.”

Before she can slam down the receiver, Shao calls out her name. “Mylene, wait!”

“What, pendejo?”

“I, uh, I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I said some hateful things about you that you didn’t deserve.” It’s quiet on Mylene’s end for a moment too long. “You still there?”

“Yeah. I’m just…speechless to hear you apologize.”

He is too. That had to be Zeke’s doing, he reasons. Shaolin didn’t apologize. He was brash, in your face, and you either take it or leave it, and he didn’t give a second thought to those who couldn’t handle him. Books was making him softer, kinder, caring, considerate. These weren’t bad things, but they left him more vulnerable than he cares to be.

Mylene’s voice is unusually timid as she hesitates to ask, “but why would you say all those hateful things about me?” It’s also a question she wants to ask her father, ask Cadillac, and the other men who’ve said and did mean and vulgar things to her.

Shaolin goes to respond, but closes his mouth as the question circulates through his thoughts. Why did he say those things? Maybe it was his fragile ego, but he also knows his jealousy was another factor. Then there were her snide remarks about his criminality, reminding him of all the things he hated about himself, reminding him that he’d never be deserving of Zeke’s friendship and love.

But even before he knew Mylene—before she commented on his illegal behavior and before he thought she was trying to pull Zeke away from him and rhyming—he referred to her derogatorily, insisting she was a common whore and a simple bitch. She was just a girl getting served up by a gangster. She was conniving, deceitful, stuck up, and trying to deter Zeke from his true potential. He thought all of these things before he even knew Mylene’s name, and those preconceived notions were unjustly reinforced once he got to know her. To Shaolin, Mylene was a generalization before she was a person. Some of those generalizations stemmed from personal experience, while most others were taught and formed without any real logic.

“I don’t know why I said those things. The reasons behind my words don’t really make sense, Mylene. It’s like I can’t really pinpoint it, ya know?” He sighs, frustrated that he can’t answer her question. “I don’t know, I guess what I’m tryna say is that it’s not just one reason, it’s a lotta reasons.”

“Well, what are those reasons? Cuz I don’t see how you can just say those things about me without actually knowing me.”

“But you’ve called me a criminal without knowing me!”

“Because you’ve committed crimes! What have I done for you to justify calling me out of my name or whatever other horrible shit you’ve said behind my back?”

He sighs heavily as he leans against the wall. He doesn’t know how to respond, but he does know that she deserves an explanation for his demeaning and unjustified remarks. “I guess I’ll start at the beginning,” he says, absently playing with the telephone cord. “At first, I wrote you off as just some girl who wasn’t worth fighting over. Cuz when me and Books met, I was tryna get that Misty Holloway record from him and he was not giving it up. We actually fought over that shit, but he was determined to get into Les Inferno and play that record for you. And I didn’t understand why he’d do that for a girl that was tryna get down with Cadillac.”

“I was not tryna get down with Cadillac,” she immediately denies, offended by the mere thought. “That dude makes my fuckin’ skin crawl. Why would you even assume that?”

“Cuz all chicks at Les Inferno try to either win the dance off with him or fuck him.”

“I’m not like that. I was only tryna get my record to DJ Malibu, but I would never…you know…do that with Cadillac.”

“Even if you didn’t fuck him, to me you were still tryna use him. Plus I seen how you was playin’ Books—”

“I didn’t play Ezekiel. Just because I didn’t wanna be his girl, didn’t mean I couldn’t ask a friend for a favor.”

“You don’t see how selfish you was? You was always tryna get Books to do whatever you wanted, and didn’t give a damn about taking him away from me and our music.” As he tries to control his uneven breaths, he’s not sure why he’s so loud and agitated.

“You’re calling me selfish?! Every time I asked Zeke for help or support, here you come actin’ like the world was gonna end if he wasn’t by your side. And every single time he went runnin’ after you. He was spending all his time with you like you’re his girlfriend.”

He remembers Zeke telling him how he always dropped everything for him, and he’s starting to think he’s the selfish one. But it didn’t feel like that. He was constantly vying for Zeke’s attention because it seemed like he could never spend enough time with him. He wasn’t intentionally being selfish. “You’re right,” he admits, his voice soft as he looks down in shame. “I have been selfish. I was demanding him to choose and that wasn’t right,” he pauses and takes a deep breath. “It’s just that—,” Shao pauses again, dismissing the forming string of thoughts.

That would be saying way too much, he reasons.

“No, tell me,” Mylene presses, and similar to Shaolin’s earlier thoughts, she isn’t sure why she wants to know. But she knows what it sounds like when you try to muffle the sadness in your voice. “Say what you were gonna say.” Her voice is timid yet prying, demanding as much as it is comforting, and Shao’s oddly encouraged to tell at least some of the truth.

“I, uh, I’ve never really had any friends before Books and the crew came along. I’ve never been close to anyone really—well besides Grandmaster. But that, that’s not the same. He’s more like a mentor than a friend,” he pauses before he can go off a tangent and lose his point. “Anyways…me and Books connected at Inferno that night. It was his words, man,” he says with a sweet smile.

“Yeah,” Mylene interjects all dreamy-like, and Shao’s embarrassed that he can relate so well. “I definitely get it.”

“He just says ‘em like it’s as easy as breathing.”

“Right?!” she exclaims, almost like Yolanda or Regina was on the other end and not her arch nemesis. “And it’s so hard not to get caught up in ‘em. It’s like I can’t think straight when he speaks poetry to me.”

“Yeah,” he says, his voice dripping with that same dreaminess. “I knew then that he was supposed to be my wordsmith. We was meant to be spinnin’ and grinnin’ together.” He chuckles softly. “I don’t know if you get it, but me and Books gotta special bond because of that, and after not having a friend for so long, all I wanted to do was spend time with him and work on our music together. Because when we’re together it feels like magic, and that’s something I’ll never grow tired of.”


“Mhm,” she hums, taking in his words. They were almost too familiar. “I get it, Shao, but sometimes I need his help making magic too.”

“Yeah, I know. Sometimes I forget that Books is too gifted to be magical at just one thing.” He silently makes a note to tell him that. Actually, there was a lot from their conversation that he wants to share with Zeke. He feels like an apology should accompany it too.

“You’re right about that. That’s why I know he’s going places.” In Shaolin’s mind, he’s praying that he’ll be right there next to him, but Mylene takes the silence as offense. “Hey, Shao, you know I didn’t mean it like that, right? I know what I said earlier, but I don’t think you’re holding him back. I…I kinda think you’ve let him see his potential.”

“Really?” Zeke had told him the same thing yesterday, but he still doesn’t see it.

“Yeah. Ever since you’ve came around he’s grown, ya know? He’s more daring when he used to not be so courageous. So, thanks for bringing out the potential I’ve always seen in Ezekiel and introducing him to rhyming. I don’t quite get what you all do when you scratch the records or whatever,” they both share a chuckle before she continues. “But I know that he really loves it and he’s really good at it.”

“We gotta battle comin’ up two weeks from now. If you have time, you should come see us.”

“I don’t know if I’ll be busy then, but me and the girls will definitely be there if we’re free.” Shao can feel her smile radiating through the line, and he can see how Zeke loves her so much. She’s radiant.

“So—,” he stops himself because Mylene starts talking at the same time. “Go ahead,” he invites her to speak first.

“I was saying that I’m sorry for calling you a criminal and stuff. Now that I’ve gotten to know you, I don’t really see you like that anymore.”

“I may commit crime, but that’s not who I am, it’s just what I do to get by. I don’t have parents buying me clothes and food and shit. I gotta get that on my own.”

“Wow,” is all she can say. Mylene’s speechless at the revelation, and can’t imagine what it’s like to not have parents to take care of you. Even as flawed as her parents were. How long had been taking care of himself? Where were his parents? She wants to pry, but they’re not there yet. Mylene imagines that they’ll be in the near future.

“Yeah, it’s whatever,” Shao dismisses.

“It’s not whatever, Shao. Every kid should have someone taking care of them. You shouldn’t have to jeopardize your safety.”

He shrugs. “I guess. I mean, Ms. Wanda is letting me stay here for a bit so she’s helping. And we’re going by the community center today to see if they can help me break ties with Fat Annie.”

“Really? I’ll call my tío and put in a good word for you. Maybe he can be more of a help.”

“You don’t have to do that Mylene.”

“Don’t worry about it, Shao. Friends are supposed to help out friends.”

“We’re friends now?”

“Yeah, we’re friends.”

“Well I’m glad we sorted things out. You not too bad, church girl.”

She giggles. “You’re not too bad either, Shaolin Fantastic.”

“I guess I should let you get back to the wackness.”

“I think you’re just jealous cuz you can’t sing.”

That’s definitely not what I’m jealous of, he thinks with a chuckle. “If you say so.” There’s an awkward pause and Shao wonders if he should just hung up, but then he remembers how they got here in the first place. “Hey, you never told me what was wrong with you earlier. You sounded sad.”

“Don’t worry about it, Shao. I’ll be fine.”

“C’mon now. I basically revealed my soul to you, so I can listen to your problems. Besides, ain’t that what friends do?”

She giggles, putting a smile on his face. “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” she starts and ends with a sigh. “It’s Jackie. He’s on that stuff again, and he’s not producing quality work for us. Set Me Free was amazing, but I don’t know how many more miraculous number-one hits he can make from thin air.”

“You’ve gotta bullshiter on your hands, Mylene. Most addicts are like that; unreliable and inconsistent.” His voice is distant as he speaks from memories rather than stating facts.

“Yup, you perfectly described Jackie.” Mylene huffs and Shao that she has to deal with this too. “What am I supposed to do? I refuse to let him fuck yo my career.”

“Make your own music or find a new producer.”

“I don’t know anyone in the business yet, and I don’t know how to write or all that other stuff.”

“You know disco, don’t you? You know the hottest disco records out there, you know the beat and lyrics that make you wanna dance, so draw from that and make your own hit.”

“You make it sound so easy,” she says softly, even though she’s already entertaining the idea.

“Maybe start on one thing. Start with the lyrics first, and worry about the rest later.”

“Mhm,” she hums as she mulls over his words. “You’ve ever wrote a song before?”

He smiles as he thinks of the poem he wrote for Zeke. “Sorta, but it wasn’t that good.”

“Way to be encouraging.”

Shao laughs. “You don’t have to do it alone. Yolanda and Regina can pitch in, and Books will be more than happy to help you.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

“I’m always right.”

“Don’t flatter yourself, Shaolin,” she says and he imagines an eye roll isn’t too far behind. He chuckles at the thought.

“Mylene, c’mon! Jackie’s finally here and he says he gotta record,” he hears Yolanda and Mylene huffs soon after.

“I gotta go see what bullshit he’s come up with now. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Later.”

Chapter Text

“Hey, who was that?” Zeke asks as soon as Shao hangs ups the phone.

“Mylene.”

“What?!” Zeke goes to pick up the phone to press redial, but Shao presses down on the receiver. His face twisted in anger, he slaps his hand away. “What you do that for?”

“Chill out, B,” Shao’s tone is harsh as he glares back. “She had to get back to recording.”

His face softens. “Oh. My bad, Shao.” He scratches the back of his neck, then shifts his weight to the other foot. “Uhh, what did she want?”

“She called to talk to you, obviously, but somehow we managed to have a full ass conversation and sorta kinda ended whatever beef we had.”

Zeke feels like he stepped out of the shower and into an alternate universe. “Hold up…what?!”

Shao rolls his eyes at Zeke’s dramatics. “Don’t sound so surprised.”

“I’m not. I’m actually really fuckin’ happy.” He grabs Shao into a hug as if his smile isn’t evidence enough.

“Aight, I get it, man. Chill out.” Shao shrugs himself out of Zeke’s hold, and Zeke eyes him as he creates even more space between them.

“I’m just glad y’all cool,” he says, trying to brush off Shao’s rejection. “Y’all was causing me too much drama. Especially your disrespectful ass.”

“I apologized for being an asshole to her.” Zeke’s surprise is a direct contrast to Shaolin’s shame. “And now I gotta apologize for kissing her boyfriend.”

Now Zeke’s face takes on the same shame as he remembers the lingering stares, tender touches, comforting caresses, uncontainable smiles, and exploratory kisses shared between the two. Even though there was no intent to hurt Mylene, Zeke knows she’ll be hurt. She won’t understand. He can imagine her speaking down on him in a disgusted tone, one that resembles her father’s during his sermons on homosexuals and sin. But him and Shao aren’t sin. They’re like thunder and lightning inside him; they’re like fireflies and butterflies fighting in his stomach, and that’s gotta be God’s doing, because who else controls nature? The way he feels for Shao has gotta be God, because who else can make him experience the divine feeling of being calm from loving? That’s all God, or divinity, or whatever spiritual shit that’s out there in the universe. And so are his feelings for Mylene. They’re just as magical and otherworldly as his feelings for Shaolin, and he doesn’t value one over the other.

Damn…there’s no way Mylene will understand. Hell, I don’t even understand it all.

“Books,” Shao calls out, for a second time bringing Zeke from his thoughts. “Where’s ya head at, man?”

“I can’t tell her, Shao. Me and Mylene just got together and she—she won’t get it. She won’t get us. We don’t even know what we are. I can’t expect her to understand.”

What are we? He wants to ask, but it’s not the time. Especially when Zeke has to leave at any moment.

“Hey,” he begins as he grabs Zeke’s hand, softly rubbing a thumb against his knuckles, and the other boy’s frantic expression softens. Shao gives him a small smile that makes him smile as well. “It’s okay if we’re still tryna figure us out. But at the end of the day, Mylene deserves the truth, Books. It ain’t right to keep her in the dark.”

Zeke sighs, nodding as well. “You’re right. You’re right.”

Shao gives him a teasing grin. “When ain’t I?”

“Yeah, whatever, nigga,” he dismisses Shao with a chuckle, then looks over at the clock. “Guess I gotta get goin’ now.”

“Yup…guess so,” he says in the same sad tone that speaks to them never wanting to be apart for too long.

“Five hours’ll fly by before you know it.”

“Nigga, don’t front like you not gonna miss me too.”

“I guess so,” he mimics Shao.

“You got jokes, huh?”

Zeke snickers. “You know a minute without you feels like a lifetime, but we’ll see each other again in due time.”

He looks down, the pressure of the words making him shy away. Shao’s still getting used to his wordsmith sprouting those kinds of rhymes. The meanings and emotions behind them aren’t the same anymore; they’re much heavier now. Something he can’t easily dismiss or run from, but he tries to anyway. “Don’t you have a train to catch?”

He smirks, shaking his head. He can easily spot Shao’s deflections now. “Here,” he fishes through his front pocket before handing him a key. “Lock up when you leave, a’ight? Oh, I left you some clothes and towels and stuff in the bathroom if you wanna shower.”

“Thank you,” he says in a tone that warms and breaks Zeke’s heart. “Thank you for everything. I don’t know where I’d be without you.”

Zeke frowns slightly. He doesn’t want to think about that, because Shao is still in real danger; they’re not out of the woods yet. Even if they found some way to extract Fat Annie from his life, how could they be sure that the law wouldn’t catch up to him? Shao can see Zeke’s worry, and his own mind reflects the same troubling thoughts.

Zeke takes Shao’s cheek into his hand, rubbing tenderness into the soft skin underneath his thumb. “You’d be fightin’ cuz you a fighter, Shao. Don’t underestimate your own resilience.”

Once again, Shao is blown away by the condensed yet powerful words of his wordsmith, and how they always seem to highlight the good within him. And the way he’s looking at him and touching him with such softness, make the words much more deeper.

“But I ain’t saying you gotta carry the load alone, cuz no matter what I’m here for you. Plus, you got the brothers, my tía, and hopefully, after this meeting, the community will be behind you, too, and help ease the load.”

Already, Zeke’s comforting words were helping him breathe a little easier. And for the first time in a while, Shao feels somewhat safe; he has some substantial proof of things getting better. Leaning into Zeke’s touch, he lets out a deep breath. Zeke wraps an arm around his waist and pulls them closer together, and Shao rests his head on his shoulder.

“It’s gonna be alright, Shaolin. I promise.”

Shao sighs again, trying to fight the cry rising in his chest. He isn’t sure if it’s the comfort that overwhelms in waves or the fact that his freedom is so near. He assumes it’s a combination of both, then decides that he doesn’t want Zeke to see the complicated emotions take over him. So with another shaky deep breath, he pulls away from their embrace, even as his body aches for the warmth of his wordsmith.

“You better get going, Books.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” He isn’t mocking Shao this time; he actually feels the unpleasantness of their separation. “Where you wanna meet up at before we head to the center?”

“We can meet at the barbershop.”

“Aight,” he agrees with a nod. “I’ll catch you later then.” Instinctively, he leans in for a kiss, but stops himself, resting his forehead against Shao’s. For a moment, Shao is confused and hurt from not receiving the expectant kiss, until Zeke explains himself. “I think we should wait to do that sorta thing, y’know, until I talk to Mylene.”

He takes a few steps back, sniffs then rubs his nose. “Yeah no doubt.”

Zeke tries to ignore the sadness when Shao moved away from him, and gives him a small smile. “Thanks for understanding. If shit was different you know I—”

“I get it, Books. Now go before you really be late.”

Even now he wants to decorate his face with kisses of appreciation, but since it’s been brought to his attention, he knows he needs to respect Mylene and their relationship, no matter how far away she is. Reluctantly walking to the door, he turns and gives Shao a weak wave. “See you soon.”

Shao gives him the best smile he can muster and Zeke can easily tell it doesn’t reach his eyes. “See ya, Books.”

 


Two hours later, after a hot shower and a quick nap, Shao walks into the Kipling’s barbershop expecting to see his crew. Instead, he’s greeted by Mr. Kipling sweeping up hair. When the bell dings, indicating Shao’s arrival, the father of four looks up with a bright smile that Shao had seen within each Kipling sibling, and that widens his own smile.

“Shaolin! How’s it goin’, young brotha?”

“Hey, Mr. Kip,” he greets as they dap each other up. “I’m good. How are you?”

“Can’t complain, can’t complain. You lookin’ for the boys or you down here to get that head shaped up?”

“My hairline ain’t that busted, Mr. Kip,” he replies as they laugh, “but I am lookin’ for the crew. They around?”

“Dizz is in the back. The rest went down to the bodega.”

“Oh, okay. Is it cool if I go to back there and wait for ‘em?”

“Now, Shao,” he starts with his hands on his hips, “you know you don’t have to ask no nonsense like that. You’re always welcomed in my home and my business.”

It’s true. Since he formally met the rest of the Kipling family, they had been nothing but kind and hospitable, never suggesting that he wasn’t a part of their big, loving family. That love and acceptance is something Shao takes a great comfort in, yet still skeptical of. He knows love comes with conditions, and how fickle it can be. There’s always the fear that love will leave, so he has learned to never grow attached, to distance himself, and to not expect much. However, Zeke, his family, and the Kiplings were weakening his resolve; they were disrupting years and years of self-preservation, and he isn’t sure how he’ll repair himself if they were to leave his life. He tries so hard to suppress those fears of being abandoned because the thoughts are maddening. So, he ignores the internal voices instead of jumping down that rabbit hole.

“Yeah, I know,” Shao answers, his lips slightly curved. “It just takes some gettin’ used to.”

“Well, I’m always here to remind you, son,” he says with a smile, patting Shao’s shoulder.

Son warms him more than he cares to admit, and he tries to fight the joy from reaching his face. He has a constant battle with vulnerability now that he has such amazing people in his life. How much is he willing to feel and show, is a question he contemplates often. This time, though, he can’t seem to contain his emotions, and he loses the battle with the apathy he’s forced to carry around as his lips spread into a bright, gracious smile.

“I—,” he ends where he begins. There’s so much to say, so many unspoken reasons and clarifications, so many thank you’s, so much gratitude, that it is all too overwhelming for the teen.

Winston gives Shaolin a soft smile then softly squeezes the boy’s shoulder. “It’s okay, Shao, I understand.” Shao’s shoulders give way to relief, glad that he doesn’t have to exhaust his way through confusion and trust issues. Winston then gestures his head to the door in the back corner. “Gon’ head on back there; I’m sure Dizz could use the company.” With one last pat on the shoulder, he walks past Shao to go sweep up more hair, and Shao follows his order.

When he walks through the door of the cramped room, Dizzee is hunched over working diligently on a page in his notebook of art. A colorful set of markers and pencils are splayed across the weathered wood table as well, waiting to be used on the paper that is halfway colored in, and halfway outlined. Looking over Dizzee’s shoulder, Shao eyes the piece. In the center of the paper, Rumi the Alien is in the midst of a lightning storm, with a few of those lightning bolts spelling out “THOR”. The violet and indigo of the rainbow spectrum surrounds the alien, then the other colors branch out from the dark ones. The other side of the paper with the storm, isn’t colored in, except for THOR in a beaming yellow.

“Wooow,” Shao voices, startling Dizz. “Sorry, man, I didn’t mean to sneak up on you, but that piece is crazy. It’s soooo dope, Dizz. You mind if I get a good look at it?”

Dizzee is beaming as he fumbles to hand his artwork to Shao. “Yeah, sure, here,” he rushes out, unable to contain his excitement. Thee Shaolin Fantastic—the urban legend with the pristine, red Pumas (which he currently has on), with samurai sword for hands, with the big, bright, explosive pieces—told him that his artwork is dope. Thee Shaolin Fantastic, the very reason he started tagging, loves his artwork. He’s just Shao to Dizzee now, but to have one of his biggest inspirations affirm his art, delights him beyond words.

“What inspired you?” Shao asks, looking at his talented friend and handing back the paper after carefully examining the details.

“I don’t know,” Dizzee answers with a shrug, his gaze falling to the page. Shao notices the sadness around his eyes. “Sometimes, when it’s hard for me to work through my thoughts and feelings, I talk to Yolanda. She uncomplicates things for me, and everything ain’t so jumbled. Now that she’s not here, I sorta had to use my art to work through those feelings.”

“Well, what are those feelings?” Shao asks as he sits down next to Dizzee. He looks to the artist with eyes softly pleading for his friend to confide in him. “Because despite all the colorfulness, it still feels dark. Where’s that coming from?” It’s a question he can also ask himself. Caring about others and expressing emotion is new for Shaolin, and without a doubt, he has his friends to thank for that. They show him how to be more compassionate and open.

“Look, I know I’m not Yolanda, but I’m hear to listen. If I learned anything from you guys, is that I don’t have to go through all my bullshit alone, and you shouldn’t either.”

Dizzee’s lips slightly curve upward, appreciative of Shao’s prying. With Yolanda gone, it’s been difficult for him to discuss his feelings, but yesterday confirmed that he can talk to Zeke and Shao too.

“You remember what I said last night? You know, when we were out in the stairway?” Shao nods in response, and Dizzee swallows the lump in his throat before continuing. “Well, I guess there’s no point in trying to dance around it anymore,” he mumbles to himself, then takes a deep breathe before blurting out, “I think I like guys.”

Afraid he’ll lose his nerve, he doesn’t look up to read Shao’s face. Instead, he stares at his drawing as he interprets the piece to answer his question. “Well, I know I like this guy, Thor.” Happiness lights his whole face, and Shao basks in the glow. He gets it, knows it, feels it deep in his soul whenever he looks at Zeke.

Then Dizz giggles, shaking his head like he just thought of the silliest thing. “I know I say this a lot, but,” he giggles again, “he…he makes me feel free, you know? And when he kissed me…” he sighs, his breath smelling like puppy love, and then as his fingertips trace the name stuck to the roof of his mouth, he licks his lips, chasing the taste of endless summer. “It was like lightning revitalized me.“

Dizzee finally brings his gaze back to his friend, slightly surprised to see Shao blushing. “I knew it! You’ve kissed Zeke before!”

He tries to seek solace in the palms of his hands, giggling all the while, and his stomach seems to shake along with giddiness. “How’d you know?” he asks once the tingling settles.

“Dude, you were blushing,” he exclaims. “When did this happen?”

“Just last night…and this morning.” He laughs at Dizzee’s jaw dropping. “But last night was the first time.”

“How was it?”

“Intense,” his voice is soft and distant, like recalling a dream. “And warm,” he adds, remembering how it felt to have the sun rooted in his stomach.

Dizzee beams, ecstatic by his two favorite things—love and freedom. “Is Zeke the first guy you kissed?”

He’s bashful when he nods. “Is Thor the first guy you kissed?”

“Yeah,” he pauses, showing the same bashfulness as Shao. “He’s the first guy I think I’m falling in love with, too…” he pauses again, gnawing on his bottom lip before looking up at Shao, “although, I knew I wasn’t totally straight since I had a crush on you.” He sighs, happy to get it off his chest, but apprehensive about Shao’s response. 

Shaolin blushes and shies away from Dizzee’s gaze, not knowing how to take the compliment. He’s still struggling with knowing that he could be liked, that he deserved kindness and affection. Then he wonders if there had been any signs for him. Who did he crush on? There was Anthony, a guy he met a few months after his uncle kicked him out. Shao had some kind of feelings for him, but he couldn’t pinpoint what they were exactly. For the most part, he attributed those feelings to Anthony’s kindness.

Anthony introduced him to Fat Annie. The young boy looked out for Shao even though he didn’t have to, and he took Shao under his wing like they were years apart and not the same age. Anthony taught him the ins-and-outs of hustling and how to navigate himself in Fat Annie’s organization. This was all short lived when Anthony was forced to take the fall for Fat Annie’s bullshit and got sent to prison. When that happened, the absence of his presence hurt like Shao felt something more than just fondness and appreciation. It hurt so much, he closed himself off so he wouldn’t hurt like that again. Indirectly, Anthony taught him there was no point in feeling when it only lead to disappointment; so he built up an impenetrable wall, unwilling to risk vulnerability. But there were a few exceptions—Grandmaster, DJing, art, The Get Down Brothers, Zeke—and one huge mistake.

He shudders, stops his mind before it can go there, and focuses his eyes on Dizzee. The other teen watches his friend skeptically, wondering where Shaolin’s mind had just wandered off to.

“So how did you know it was a crush and not something else?” he finally asks, as if he didn’t just blank out on him for a minute, but Dizzee ignores that too. “How did you know you had feelings for other dudes? When did you know?”

Sighing softly, Dizzee meditates on the complexity and heaviness of the questions. He realizes there is no one answer, no way to linearly articulate the slow awareness of his feelings. “I don’t know, man,” he answers, shaking his head. “Like, it was never totally clear, or at least I didn’t want it to be. It was hard accepting I was even more different, y’know? People call me weird like they gotta bad taste in their mouths. I didn’t wanna deal with more of that.” His eyes move from Shao to the small window across the room, a distant look on his face.

Shao’s face softens, sadness and shame teasing the corner of his eyes. “I’m sorry, Dizz.”

“It’s cool. I get—”

“No it ain’t,” Shao interrupts. “Nobody should be made to feel that way. It ain’t right.” He shakes his head diligently to make his point. “I felt like shit when Ra called me out like that last night; like I was dirty or something. I get it, Dizz, and I’m sorry for making you feel that way.”

Dizzee’s warm smile takes over his face. He appreciates the sincerity and the acknowledgement of his feelings. Even as loving as his family is, they sometimes ostracize him even as they try to see past his differences rather than fully embracing them. He slightly frowns at the revelation, but tucks it into the back of his mind to bring up at another time, then gives Shao another smile.

“Thank you, Shao,” he reaches out and lightly squeezes his hand, “It means a lot to me, because, I guess,” he pauses, searching for the right word. “I guess I don’t feel so alone, y’know? Being different was lonely for a long time until I realized there was nothing wrong with what I felt, even if it went against what was ‘normal,’” he air quotes, justifiable skepticism displaying across his features, “whatever the hell that means. Who decides what’s normal, anyways?”

“Right!” Shao chimes in, identifying with the truth Dizzee’s spitting.

“Exactly, man,” Dizzee exclaims, slamming his fist into an open palm, excited that someone else understands him. “Normal is overrated bullshit. And I know that firsthand, because the more I tried to be normal, the more I felt trapped, and that’s a feeling I never wanna feel again.” He gets that far off look again, another thing Shao can easily identify with. The free-spirited artist sighs, the brings his attention back to his friend before softly disclosing, “that’s why I’m all about freedom, man. Life is too short to be worried about the rest of the world when you can be doing and loving whatever, or whoever, you want.”

“Mhmm,” Shao hums, mulling over the insightful wisdom. “Freedom is like flying.” His own lips spread wide like the wings of an eagle, Ezekiel’s handsome face easily coming to mind. He can vividly see Zeke’s bright, bold smile blinding him as he held Penny with such care and tenderness. The smitten DJ is sure that’s when he knew there was something there, something tugging at his heart, something filling him with nerves as he linked their freedoms together and forever linking them together. In that moment, just a day after meeting this kid, he knew Zeke was the flight to his wings—even when he tried to run away from it and towards normalcy—he knew they were aligning with destiny. He just didn’t know how deeply intertwined they were meant to be. Even now he isn’t sure, and the uncertainty terrifies and excites him.

“Yeah, man,” he agrees, nodding slowly. “Flying is the freedom to do what you wanna do.”

“And fly above all the bullshit.”

“There ain’t no box to contain you when you got the whole sky.

“Yeah,” he agrees softly and they’re both in that far off place, thinking of life and lovers. With his own lover in mind, Shao begins, “earlier you said you think you’re falling for, um…” he trails off, blanking on the name.

“Thor,” Dizzee answers with a smile. And Shao notices how he says the name with such care. It reminds him of all the times he would randomly call out Books’ name, not really want anything, but having the urge to say it. He likes the way it feels rolling off his tongue and falling off his lips; he likes the taste of it, likes how it sounds when filling a room with just the two of them.

Realizing the snappiness of his thoughts, he figures he already answered his question, but continues anyway. “How did you know you were falling in love?” Shao asks, his voice strained by the shame of not knowing anything about love. But he wants to know it again, wants to feel it with Zeke, wants Books to teach him with all his poetry, tenderheartedness, breathtaking smiles and dizzying kisses.

Dizzee sighs, fronting like it’s taxing to talk about his boyfriend, like he isn’t already smiling. “Well…you get a certain kinda feeling whenever you’re around them; it’s unique compared to what you feel for others. And it’s the little things, y’know? Their laugh, their smile, their touch, the way they bite their lip when they’re concentrating, or the way they try their hardest to cheer you up.” Immediately, Shao thinks about how caring Zeke had been with him this past weekend; he comforted him with such tenderness. He filled him with a warmth he didn’t know he was craving.

“So, like, the way I feel for Thor is totally different than what I felt for you,” Dizzee’s words bring him back from his recent memories. “I mean,” he quickly includes to defend his words, “not in a bad way, though. That came out a little harsh.”

Shao chuckles at his sheepish grin and shakes his head. “Chill out, man; I get it.”

Dizzee finds himself chuckling as well. He never would’ve thought he’d be here: talking to Shaolin Fantastic! about his crush on him and his love for a guy. “What I’m trying to say is,” he looks him straight in the eye, “you’ll know the difference. With you, it was all superficial. I’ve always loved your artwork ever since I came across it for the first time. You inspired me to paint the whole world beautiful.” They share quiet smiles before Dizzee continues. “Then when I met you, you stopped being this urban legend and became this really cool and really cute guy who shared a lot of the same interests as me. But with Thor,” Dizz bows his head to eye his drawing, a love-stricken grin on his face, totally gushing, “it was like he opened my eyes and everything looked different, better, more beautiful. He opened my heart too, cuz everything feels different, more intense. We’re like on the same wavelength, man. Or maybe,” he looks up at nothing as the sudden thought comes to his mind. “Or maybe we’re on different wavelengths, but they compliment each other so well it pushes us to be greater together.” He mulls over the idea while Shao gets lost along the way to the young philosopher’s enlightenment.

“Anyways,” he dismisses with a shake of his head. “I’m saying our wavelengths are compatible. He’s one of the only people that really understands me. I don’t have to explain stuff, he just gets it. I don’t have to ask, because his hand is already outstretched waiting for me to take hold of it in the darkness.” And Shaolin understands, the goosebumps on his arms and the weightlessness in his stomach confirms it. Dizzee’s fingertips drag across his drawing, and the glittery purple polish on his nails compliment it so well, he takes note to add some glitter to the piece later.

“That’s what this piece means, man.” His voice is soft, almost a whisper from his tongue being weighed down by vulnerability. “Finding light, finding color, in the darkness,” he pauses then sighs, “struggling through the darkness—y’know, all that internal shit that keeps you awake at night—so you can get to the sunshine and rainbows and freedom.”

Shao hums in understanding. His art helps him struggle through the darkness. It took him on a journey, allowing him to explore and express the thoughts and emotions wound up so tight and buried so deep inside of him. DJing is that outlet now, but he misses the colorful art form.

“You know, I miss my fingers being all kinds of colors, and the smell of Krylon, and the rush I get after stepping back and looking at my work. I miss all that,” he confesses with a sigh. “I got the Get Down now, and my heart lies with both of ‘em, but it’s not the same.”

“Look, I know you said you was retiring and all that, ” Dizzee starts, looking him in the eyes. “And I know you’re tryna focus on DJing, but don’t limit yourself, Shao. We’re creative beings; we’re meant to express ourselves in numerous ways. Don’t neglect one craft while perfecting the other, because sometimes you crumble when you focus so intensely on one thing. You gotta give yourself room to explore your creative outlets, dig?”

Shao sits with the advice for a minute before coming to the conclusion that Dizzee’s right. He's tired of fighting the creativity that Books inspires; he should express it in whatever medium he's moved to. “Yeah,” he finally says as he nods with a smile, “you right.”

“I know I am.” His lips spread into a sly grin and Shao playfully pushes him.

“Oh, shut up.”

“But for real,” he starts after their light laughter dies, “you too talented to be a one-trick pony. You’re destined for a lot more, man.”

We gonna be bigger than the world.

And just like the slow sunrise months ago, serenity and warmth washes over as he envisions a dynamic future with Books right by his side.

“Yeah,” he glances at his friend with a small smile, “you right again, Dizz.”

 

Chapter Text

As soon as Zeke steps foot outside of the office building, the unnerving anxiety and impatience he’s felt all day becomes excited energy. He walks with an extra pep in his step, orchestrated by a beat no one else can hear, as he makes his way to the Kipling’s barbershop. It’s damn-near a skip, really—or more accurately, the result of restraining his urge to sprint due to the excitement coursing through him. He doesn’t want to look or feel foolish for running home to the guy he’s missed all day. It takes everything in him to control that excitement, and he distracts himself by taking in his surroundings. His excitement must be messing with his vision, because everything seems to be much brighter. He blinks a couple of times, but nothing can deny the liveliness he sees. Life is buzzing with vibrancy all around him, and red seems to stick out like a sore thumb. Storefront signs, fire hydrants, nail polish, the Puerto Rican flag, cars, and even the weathered paint on the Radio Flyer wagon looks like it matches the bright red roses laying inside of it. Zeke smiles, the roses reminding him of red Pumas, fitted shirts, and ball caps.

“Young brotha!” the hustler, who couldn’t be older than 40, calls out to Zeke. Zeke immediately recognizes him as one of the many Vietnam war veterans who had no jobs or homes to return to, who shattered their families from untreated trauma and heroin addiction, who ended up hustling or begging to survive. He sees his father in this man, although they look nothing alike; this man isn’t as far gone. His brown skin isn’t ashy and dirtied with neglect, the coils on his head aren’t dry and matted, and his lips aren’t blistered and cracked.

“C’mon over and get something sweet for ya lover!”

The exclamation drags him from spiraling into a place he hadn’t been in a while. Slowly processing, he looks at the man and struggles to give him a polite smile, sadness and grief weighing it down. His mood seems to bring down the man’s enthusiasm as well.

He tilts his head to the side, signaling Zeke to walk towards him. “C’mere, youngblood.” Zeke eyes him and the man rolls his eyes. “I ain’t gon’ bite. Come take a seat.” Zeke shifts his gaze to the two stacked milk crates before obliging. “What’s your name?” he asks as he takes a pack of cigarettes out of his shirt pocket.

“Zeke.”

The older man nods as he lights the cigarette dangling from his lips. “Well, Zeke,” he starts, blowing the blue-grey smoke into the air. “I’m Willie. It’s nice to meet you.”

He’s skeptical as he takes the stranger’s outstretched hand. “Yeah, you too.”

Willie holds out the cigarette, but Zeke declines with a shake of his head, and he takes another drag. Smoke bellows from his nose this time before he bends over to retrieve a candy bar that he tosses to Zeke. “My momma would always give me a piece of candy when I was feeling down,” he pauses to take another drag. “My favorite kind is salt water taffy. She always made a big batch for Easter,” he chuckles softly at the fond memory and Zeke joins in as he thinks of his own family’s Easter traditions. His mother would run around in rollers and a robe as she fussed over his outfit and checked on the food they would be eating after Sunday service.

“My moms would make the best coconut pudding on Easter, man. I would just keep sneaking some no matter how many times she smacked my hand.” They share another chuckle, and Willie doesn’t ask questions about his use of past tense like most folks. Zeke appreciates that more than Willie will ever know.

He licks his lips, taking a quick look at his surroundings, in need of a distraction, before opening up the Hershey’s bar. “Thanks for this,” he says, breaking off a piece. “How much I owe you?”

Willie waves him off. “Don’t worry about it, Zeke, it’s on the house.” The teen gives him a close-lipped grin as he swallows and the older man flicks his cigarette towards the street.

“So, what lady was you thinking about when you seen my sign? Cuz it sure seem like you had a mind to get her something.” He chuckles as he gives Zeke a onceover. “Yeah, I bet you got all kinds of girls following after you.” Blood rushes to Zeke’s cheeks as he tries to hide his smile. “Yeah, I know a playa when I see one, youngblood. Game recognize game, ya dig?” Zeke chortles, amused and intrigued. “Now if you buy something, I’ll teach you a thing or two. So you’ll be getting three for the price of one, dig? You can’t pass up on no deal like that!”

Zeke can’t lie, Willie was hella smooth with how he slid his sales pitch into the conversation, but he ain’t tripping. He knows that moment between them was genuine, something he’ll treasure forever.

Smiling widely, he replies, “nah, I can’t.”

“Alright, now,” he exclaims as he claps his hands together. “You about to get some exclusive schooling from the Love Guru himself.” He licks the tip of his middle finger and swipes it across his brow. “This face should be proof enough, so you know I ain’t jivin’,” he provides his “credentials” then laughs.

“Now, the reason I can juggle 3, 4 honnies at a time is cuz I know how to play the game. See, youngblood, women are simple; they just want two things: your attention and nice gifts. That’s only if you stroking it right,” Willie lets out a hearty laugh as he elbows Zeke. “Know what I’m saying, playa? Cuz if the sex ain’t good, she’s gonna require a lot more outta ya.”

Zeke smiles uncomfortably and tries to cough up a dry chuckle. “Yeah, man.”

“Now the trick is to put forth as little effort as possible. You can’t give your all to more than one honey or you gon stretch yourself thin, you following, youngblood?

He nods even though he doesn’t agree with his philosophy. Zeke isn’t disingenuous; he feels and cares deeply and it showed through his actions. He didn’t have to pretend or trick anyone. He didn’t want to either.

“…but all you really need to keep a woman satisfied,” Willie’s voice fades back in after tuning him out, “is little tokens of appreciation, like these here flowers,” he picks up a vibrant bouquet of various flowers. “Women like when you do little things like that; it makes ‘em feel special. Then when you add other little small things, like a card or some chocolate or some smell good—” he stops himself to say, “and I got all that by the way—it makes you seem even more thoughtful. And just like that,” he snaps his fingers, “they fall in love cuz they think you giving all this affection and attention when you ain’t really giving ‘em much at all. Just enough to get in them drawers. And that’s the game, youngblood. So what you getting for ya ol’ lady, or do you got more than one?” Willie elbows his side again, wiggling his eyebrows up and down.

Zeke blushes for the second time during their short interaction, looking away from the hustler’s questioning eyes. He wants to tell him that his “more than one” isn’t a lady at all. Then he wants to ask does his advice apply to guys too, and does he have any advice on dating two people without all the deception. However, he knows most of what Willie said was bullshit—like his belief that women are simple, or that dishonesty and manipulation is the way to “get in them drawers”—and whatever advice he gives should be taken with a grain of salt.

He was right about one thing, though, he thinks. Everyone wants to feel special and loved, but you shouldn’t have to play games to do that.

“Players always get played at the end.” He remembers his man saying on a perfect day.

Zeke doesn’t want to play or manipulate anyone. He wants to make Mylene and Shao feel special because they are special to him. They deserve gifts that showcased that. No strings attached and no hidden agendas. …But there are things he’s hiding.

Exasperated, he sighs. Shao’s right. I can’t keep her in the dark no matter how terrified I am of losing her.

“What’s on your mind now, youngblood?”

Sighing again, he looks up at him, squinting to keep the sun from his eyes, and weighs out his options. He figures it won’t hurt to get more advice from him; he’s been somewhat of a help so far.

“Say if,” he pauses, trying to find the right words and ambiguity. “Say you was goin’ steady with one girl, but while y’all together you catch feelings for someone else. Now, you love your girl, you’d die before hurting her, but you just can’t leave the other person alone. You really like ‘em and they make you really happy.” Before he even realizes his actions, his lips are already spreading, lighting up his whole face. “And you can’t stand being apart for too long,” then, abruptly, his smile falters, “…but I feel the same way about Mylene.”

The hypothetical breaks, and Willie can fully see the torment the young man is going through. But he also sees something else in Zeke: a beautiful, sincere, and loving spirit.

“I still love her even though I wasn’t worried about her feelings when we kissed and the world seemed to stop.” He half smiles, continuing to stare off into space, and then his words spill out as absentmindedly as his gaze. “I know I gotta tell her the truth, and I know she’s gonna be hurt even though that wasn’t my intention. I don’t know how to tell her the truth and spare her feelings.”

He heaves a sigh then brings his attention to Willie’s towering frame. “I know you probably think I’m weird,” he chuckles and scratched at the nape of his neck. “Confessing all this to a stranger and—”

“Sometimes the best confidants are people who don’t know the specifics,” he interrupts. “They can give you an unbiased perspective.”

“Mhm,” Zeke hums in thought. “So what’s your unbiased perspective?”

“I think you being too hard on yourself. Love is a human emotion that we can’t control sometimes; love and life is complicated like that. But you can control how you handle the situation, and it seems like you plan on making the right and responsible decision, Zeke.”

 


<>


Eyebrows knitted in concentration, Shaolin smudges the graphite with his finger, adding texture to the afro he wants to perfect. After talking with Dizzee, he felt inspired and asked for a piece of paper and a pencil. From there, his fingers moved on their own accord, and before he knew it, he was drawing one of his favorite memories of Zeke; the day he met Penny. He was just as tender with her as Shao was, and that let him know Books could be tender with him too.

Suddenly, commotion from the opening door causes him to look up and a wide toothy grin takes over his whole face.

“Shut the fuck up, Boo,” Zeke yells out before closing the door behind him, and shutting out their hooting and hollering. Turning around, Ezekiel lights up when his eyes land on Shao. “Hey, you,” he coos, walking towards him with his hands behind his back. But Shao doesn’t notice that detail, he’s too focused on the handsome face he’s been missing all day.

“Hey.” He stops himself from getting up and easing his need to touch him. After this morning, it was clear that there were boundaries they needed to address.

Zeke stands there awkwardly, also aware of that fact, and also nervous about presenting his gift. Before the boys, mainly Boo Boo, started teasing him, he thought the gift he bought from Willie was nice; now it seems childish and unimpressive. Someone as bold as Shaolin deserved to be gifted with something as bright and colorful.

“What they doing making all that noise out there?”

He blushes. “Nothing. Boo Boo just being an asshole is all.”

Chuckling, he knows that can mean anything. “What he say?”

“It don’t matter,” he dismisses as he peaks over Shao’s shoulder. “What you doing?”

Feeling self conscious, Shao covers up the paper with his hand. “Nothing, just working on a piece.”

Zeke raises an eyebrow. “I thought you was done with drawing.”

“Yeah, I know, me too, man. But, uh,” a smirk slowly spreads across his face as he gets an idea. “This brother I seen today was too fine not to capture his beauty on some kind of paper.” Shao busts out laughing at Zeke’s deep frown. “Yo, I’m kidding, B, it’s you. You should see your face right now, man. Jealousy ain’t a good look on you.”

Zeke glares at him then rolls his eyes. “You ain’t got no business talking when you be ready to blow a damn blood vessel every time Mylene comes around.”

Shao’s laughter abruptly stops and Zeke smirks. “Keep on talking and I won’t bless you with this exclusive Shao 007 piece.”

“Guess I won’t bless you with my gift either.”

“You got me a gift?” Shao asks as his face twists in confusion, then settles to intrigue once he realizes Zeke’s hands behind his back.

“Yup,” Zeke nods with a sweet smile, “but I’ll only give it to you if you give me mine.

”Aight, aight,” he agrees hurriedly. Anxious to see what Zeke’s hiding behind his back, and his response to his drawing, Shao holds out his artwork. “Here you go.”

In turn, Zeke reveals two red roses from behind his back. “And these are for you,” he hands Shao the roses with a smile that gives way to awe once he takes in the work of art. The drawing is so freakishly accurate: from the coils of his fro, to the gap in his smile, to the details on his shirt. The phrase, “With Ur Words I Fly,” hangs above him and Penny in extravagant block letters, an obvious indication of the writer.

His smile is damn-near identical to the one Shao drew as he shouts his praises. “Yo, this is so fuckin’ nice, Shao! This a serious joint, for real!” When he doesn’t get a customary thank you, Zeke tears his eyes away from the paper to Shao.

The teen is stunned to silence. Amid the confusion, excitement sits at the edge of his chest, waiting to plummet to his belly, waiting for a reason to jump, to swoon. He swallows the lump in his throat, then drags his eyes from the roses to Zeke’s kind eyes. They’re full of hope along with something else he can’t quite name, but he feels it. And that feeling gives him comfort as much as it overwhelms him. He blinks a couple times—slowly…processing—then licks his lips before whispering, “thank you.” He looks down at the flowers again, and tears begin blurring the red and green colors.

Zeke’s smile falters and the sparkle of hope dulls. He hates it. “Look, I know it ain’t much, and you probably think it’s mad corny, but—”

He’s cut off by Shao nearly knocking him over as he wraps his arms around his neck and lands a wet kiss on his lips. Once he quickly gets over his shock, Zeke steadies them by grabbing on to his man’s waist. Pulling away, Shao has the dopiest grin on his face. “I love it,” he says softly, looking Zeke in the eyes.

“Really?” His face personifies an exclamation point and the sight warms Shao’s heart.

“Really.“ Sighing in bliss, Zeke rests his forehead against Shao’s. “You like the piece?”

“I love it,” he answers and the two share a soft giggle. “You crazy talented, man.”

“Thanks. I been outta commission for a minute so I didn’t think it would come out good.”

Zeke jerks his head back and smack his lips. “What? You a genius when it comes to art, don’t ever doubt that. Now, I,” he stresses, “should be embarrassed cuz my gift ain’t shit compared to yours.”

“Cut it out, B,” he says with a playful eye roll. “I love anything you give me cuz it comes from you.”

Ezekiel is all red and warmth, teeth and gums, at Shao’s sweet words. “You real smooth, Shaolin Fantastic, the lady-killing romantic.” He tilts his head back, cackling, but Shao finds nothing funny.

The unamused teen sucks his teeth and pushes away from him. “It ain’t that damn funny, nigga.”

Still laughing, Zeke tries to get out his words. “Where did that come from anyways?” He wipes at his tears as his laughter dies. “You not much into ladies and I don’t peg you as a romantic.”

“How would you know?” He tosses over his shoulder before sitting back down in his chair and setting the flowers on the table. “We ain’t never gone steady.”

“True,” he retorts, a slick grin spreading across his lips. “So you not opposed to the idea?”

Shao’s stomach flips, and he looks down, blushing for what feels like the hundredth time today. All because of Zeke. With his words, his touch, his smiles, his kisses, his kindness, his gifts, Zeke made him experience emotions he hadn’t felt in nearly a decade. For so long, all Shao knew was pain and the emotions that came along with it—the sadness; the anger; the fear; the numbness… But ever since a rare disco record fell from the sky, he became familiar with joy again, with the warmth and beauty it brings.

Ezekiel watches a bashful Shaolin; his head cast down, but a toothy grin still visible from where he stands. The smile makes him smile too. “It’s so cute when you get all shy like that.”

Shao immediately covers his face to hide his blushing cheeks, and mutters out an exasperated “oh my god” into his hands.

Zeke snickers as he sets his drawing on the table then pulls a chair closer. Sitting down with his legs in between Shao’s, he gently pulls down on his wrists until he reveals his smiling face. To avoid his piercing stare, Shao looks down at their hands resting on Zeke’s thighs then begins absently tracing Zeke’s palm lines. The wordsmith giggles and Shao looks up at him with amusement sparking in his dark brown orbs.

“That tickles?”

“I’m laughing ain’t I?”

Shao smirks, looking at Zeke through long lashes. “You gotta slick ass mouth.”

Zeke meets his gaze, his own smirk playing on his lips. “You don’t seem to mind it when I’m kissin’ you, though.”

His face heats up again as he looks down at their entangled fingers. Ezekiel gently takes Shao’s chin between his forefinger and thumb, raising his head to reveal a sheepish grin.

“You know you ain’t gotta be all shy around me, right?” he asks, his deep voice a whisper of intimacy, before he lets his hand fall back to his lap. “You ain’t gotta hide your emotions from me; there ain’t no judgement over here, man.”

Shaolin smiles softly as he absentmindedly plays with Zeke’s fingers. “I know, Books.” He glances up at him, then darts his eyes across the room once his explanation gets stuck in his throat. It’s hard for him to explain this, to explain why he folds into himself sometimes, to explain why he keeps his guard up around Zeke. Even though the wordsmith has helped him peel back so many layers, Shao still can’t take Zeke’s words and looks and touches without questioning them, without disbelieving them. Without feeling…

His jaw clenches. He doesn’t know what the feeling is, but he hates it. It nags at him, weights him down, keeps him from really floating whenever Zeke has him on cloud nine. This incognizance only frustrates him more. He clinches his jaw again as if he’s trying to bite back screams. Screaming seems to be the only way he can articulate the frustration of not understanding his own thoughts, feelings, and actions. And maybe that’s where the problem lies. Shaolin has built up so many walls within himself—walls that can’t be broken down without everything crumbling. And if he can’t be vulnerable with himself, how can he be open and unguarded with Zeke?

Sighing, he looks back to Zeke’s soft, open eyes, and the dark brown orbs comfort him, giving him the encouragement he needs.

“I, uh, I don’t…” he pauses and lets out a shaky breath. “It don’t really make sense to me, so I can’t really explain it, but it’s hard for me to let you in sometimes.” Shao stops himself again to gage his reaction, and Zeke still looks understanding and attentive. “You just…you make me feel a lotta things, Books, and sometimes it—it’s too much. Especially you and them fuckin’ words, man.” He shakes his head, chuckling. “It’s like you be reading off scriptures and I’m the sinner who can’t hear the love and salvation; I can only hear the shame and guilt.”

Puzzled, Zeke raises an eyebrow. “I don’t think I get what you saying, Shao.”

“What I mean is…when you be sayin’ ya words the way you do sometimes…” he hesitates, once again looking away to find his words and courage. “I don’t feel worthy, y’know? It’s like you waisting ya words on me cuz I’ma lost cause. You needa be using ‘em on somebody who can let you in, who can be saved; y’know, somebody like Mylene. A good church girl like her, who ain’t gotta bunch a baggage and shit, should get them pretty poetry words. Not…” the broken boy hesitates once more and finally looks up at Zeke, his lips struggling to curve into a smile, his mouth struggling with the words coming out and the ones in his heart. “Not me. I don’t deserve ’em.”

Ezekiel frowns deeply, the weight of Shaolin’s words hitting him at once and making his heart ache. “Don’t say that, Shao.” He cringes at the generic ass line, but before he can elaborate, Shao responds.

“Why? It’s true, Books,” he says with a bitter chuckle. “I ain’t shit; I’m just some nigga running the streets. People like that don’t get roses; they get used and they get left once people are done using me. So why you being so nice to me and buying me gifts and shit? You must want something. Just tell me wassup so we can stop playing these games.”

“I ain’t playing no stupid ass game Shaolin,” Zeke exclaims, and Shao jumps back, startled. “Everything I say to you, everything I do for you, comes straight from my fuckin’ heart. And after this morning, hell, after last night, I don’t see how you can sit up here and say that shit to me.” Shao’s face falls, resembling that of a scolded child, and Zeke’s anger dissipates.

“Fuck,” he whispers under his breath before taking Shao’s hand into his, but Shaolin takes his hand out of Zeke’s grip and hangs his head.

I wanna punch myself in the fucking face, he chastises himself for letting his anger get the best of him and making Shaolin fearful. He doesn’t want to be on that list with Fat Annie. The thought makes him sick to his stomach.

After letting out a jagged breath, Zeke apologizes, his voice soft and heavy with shame and regret. “I’m so sorry, Shao. I shouldn’t have blown up like that.”

Shaolin finally raises his head, showing a smile that is both forceful and effortless and never reaches his eyes. “It’s okay, Books.”

“No,” he asserts, shaking his head. “No, it’s not okay, because what I said, and how I said it, hurt you, and you don’t deserve that. You don’t deserve all the hurt other people have put you through, either.”

Shao hears him, and has heard him before. Last night Zeke told him he deserves perfection, but he still can’t see how someone like him deserves someone like Zeke. He wants to ask him, but he doesn’t want Books to look at him with pity again. Like he’s a sad, pathetic boy who doesn’t know anything about love.

“But you do deserve folks treating you right and buying you flowers.” Zeke smiles at Shao before picking up the two roses and handing them to him. Shaolin smiles as well, looking down at the bright red roses and what feels like petals falling and fluttering in his belly takes over him.

They seem to be back where they were just minutes ago as Zeke raises Shao’s chin. The wordsmith want Shao to see the sincerity in his words. “I didn’t buy those to manipulate you, Shao, I bought ‘em cuz they reminded me of you. Not because red’s ya favorite color, but because you are red. You passion and fire. Bold and vibrant. You love, Shao. You got the heart and soul of love and you got the softness and warmth of it too. Me getting you them flowers is just me showing you all that instead of saying it like I usually do. It’s just another token of my appreciation for you. And you know what? You deserve that, Shao. You deserve poetry, and gifts, and hugs, and kisses. You deserve the whole fuckin world, man. And you know what else?” Zeke cradles Shao’s cheek into his hand, caressing the soft skin underneath his thumb, while Shao hangs on to every word, his eyes fully focused on Zeke’s. “I’ma be here to always remind you.” He seals the promise with a chaste kiss and the two are all smiles again.

“Well, you gotta be patient with me,” Shao tells him, “cuz I’m still new to all these compliments and gifts and shit. I mean, it’s not that I don’t appreciate it, but I’m still learning how to accept ‘em. So, yeah, just be patient with me.”

“Okay,” he begins, then takes the flowers from Shao and takes his hands into his own. “I can do that.”

There’s a pause of silence as they smile at one another, before Shao hesitantly inquires, “Can I ask you something?”

“Yeah,” Zeke nods, “wassup?”

“What you want this—us,” he corrects, pointing between the two of them, “to be?”

“What do you want it to be?”

“I don’t know,” he shrugs, looking down. “All this shit is new to me, Books. I don’t know nothin’ about love or romance and shit.”

“Well, this is sorta new for me, too. I mean, I ain’t never been wit a dude before, so we can learn together, and we can take things as slow as we need.”

He lets out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. “I’d like that,” he says with a smile that quickly turns to a frown. “But what about Mylene?” He hates how easily he forgets Mylene and Zeke’s relationship. But with that dopey smile, and the beautiful words that come from it, Shao forgets about everything but the two of them and whatever they’re doing together. But when he remembers, it feels like happiness is being snatched right from under him, and he goes tumbling to the ground.

“About that…” Zeke trails off, scratching the back of his neck. “That’s sorta my dilemma, because,” he looks up, giving Shao that dazzling smile that makes him forget, “I like you, Shao. I like you a lot. And I don’t wanna be just friends; I wanna explore this thing we got. I wanna do the whole dating thing, y’know? I wanna kiss you and buy you gifts and go on dates and stuff like that.” The thought of doing all that with Zeke has Shaolin weightless and breathless, but he soon comes crashing down with the wind knocked out of him. “But I wanna do all that with Mylene too. Now hear me out be—”

“There ain’t shit to hear, Books,” Shao interrupts, anger, hurt, and uneasiness settling in his stomach from the unexpected turn in their conversation. “It sounds like you already made your choice, and I’m not—”

“That’s the thing, Shao,” Zeke cuts him off, “I don’t wanna choose between y’all, I wanna choose both of y’all.” Exasperation contorts his visage while Shao’s expression grows pensive. Zeke’s words jog his memory, his mind immediately going to his conversation with Mylene. “Does that make me selfish?”

He coughs up a dry chuckle. “It’s funny you ask that,” he starts, shaking his head, “cuz when we was on the phone earlier, me and Mylene was talking about how selfish we was being with you. So, I don’t know, I guess we all being a li’l selfish.”

“I guess,” Zeke shrugs. “But I like the way I feel when I’m around y’all. Hell, even when I’m just thinking about the two of you, I feel like I’m flying. I’m at my happiest and my highest. And…” he pauses, gnawing on his bottom lip. “It don’t really feel right to limit my happiness, ya know?”

“Mhm,” Shao hums, thinking on Ezekiel’s words. “We sorta talked about that too. When we with you, it’s always magic. And I’ll tell you what I told Mylene: you too gifted to be magical at just one thing. I mean, I was talking about your talent then, but I guess it applies to this too.”

He smiles brightly, at Shao’s compliment, and at the thought of actually flying and creating magic with both of them. “Would you be okay with me dating you and Mylene? I understand if you’re not down.”

That makes him smile, and gives him all the more reason to trust Zeke with his heart. But because it’s such a fragile thing, because it’s been broken many times before, he doesn’t immediately say yes. He wonders what their relationship would look like. Would he be going on dates with Zeke and Mylene, trying not to gag as they kissed? Or even worse. “Would I have to kiss Mylene?”

“Nah, man,” he answers through a chuckle. “You ain’t gotta do nothing you don’t wanna do. Plus, I was thinking it would be like me and Mylene do our own thing, and me and you do our own thing, y’know? I don’t expect us to be a group thing.”

“So, basically what we do now?”

“Yeah, but without all the secrecy.”

He stares off into space, deep in thought. The past few days with Zeke flash before him, and Shao concludes that he doesn’t mind spending a whole lifetime with Zeke reading him poetry, kissing him, or smiling at him. He doesn’t mind at all. And he doesn’t mind sharing that with Mylene, because she deserves to feel what Zeke makes him feel. And who is he to tell Zeke he can’t have that feeling two times over?

Shaolin brings his focus back to Zeke, his lips slowly spreading into a smile and Zeke’s face lights up. “So, what you say? Can I take your hand in mine?” He reaches out for Shao’s hand, his eyes never leaving his dark brown orbs. “Can you help me fly? And reach heights I never dreamed before? The sky is ours to explore. So, what’s it gonna be, Shaolin? Will you be my man?”

He feels like he’s flying already; the sun warming his face; the wind taking his breath away; and he’s weightless. “Yeah,” he answers breathlessly, spinning and grinning. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

 

Chapter Text

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.

“My boyfriend.”

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.”

Time stops.

The air grows thicker, hotter.

His palms are sweating and he really wants to let go of Zeke’s hand, but he’s frozen.

Stuck.

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.

Oh, god.

“Zeke, I—”

“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.

“Grasshopper.”

Tearing his eyes from Zeke, he sees Flash standing a few feet away. “Grandmaster? What are you doing here?”

“I’m here for you.”

“Huh?”

“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.

“Sorry, ma.”

“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.”