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Books is right, Shao decides. He isnt magic of any kind, nor was he ever. No, Shao is a broken clock— only useful until someone realizes that the time is not right, that it is two hours behind or four minutes too fast. Shao is something tainted and dysfunctional, masked by a false and blazing red aura of something mighty and heroic. He is not like Mylene, who commands the sun and makes the earth spin, who is beautiful in both the daylight and the moonlight.

(He is—
and never will be—
beautiful in either.)
_______

He never knew how much he’d miss Curtis until Books was throwing the name back in his face— until it was dead and forgotten again and “Shaolin Fantastic” became another name lain to rest under six feet of dirt and shit.

 

Here lies Shaolin Fantastic,
the eulogy will say,
ugly and unloved— be gone and never stink upon this earth again.

But he still stands upon the grave of the buried boy, who knew what flying and love was and lapped it up until there was nothing left.

Here lies Shaolin Fantastic,
be forgotten and rot.

 

Annie owns his mind
body and
soul, but does she really when all three have already decayed and wasted away? No soul left to give, already signed over to a god who did not love him as much as he thought he did, who threw it away and said it’s too broken. No body either, for Curtis and Shaolin Fantastic lay dead under soil and earth. He doesn’t know who stands above the grave anymore, whose body he’s in. He hasn’t come up with a name yet— another one to cover up the past just like Shaolin buried Curtis (who went down kicking and screaming and clawing until there was nothing left but memories. But even those were eventually pressed back.)

His mind— he doesn’t know about that one. He doesn’t know where his mind is these days, it wandered off and never came back. Maybe it fell in Shaolin and Curtis’s grave, maybe it ran away to follow Books where its body could not follow. Or perhaps it floats as a mere ghost, lost but wanting nothing more than to fly.

He doesn’t spin anymore. He finds that it makes the thought of dying more bearable.

Makes him yearn.
_______
Annie keeps close tabs on him, and he stops going outside so she’s more free to use him up. But if he closes his eyes and thinks real hard, he can almost imagine that it’s real love, that he wanted this. He can almost imagine that Shaolin Fantastic is still alive and not a burnt corpse, set on fire by dreams that reared back and exploded in his face. He can almost imagine a living, breathing Curtis, who dug himself out of his grave only to be pushed back in and finished off with a final blow to the heart.

Instead, this thing replaces both. It is used and used until there’s nothing left, until it can only lay there and stay quiet. This thing he calls himself is still and despairing and just as broken as it was told it was.
________
He meets a boy. Another boy under Annie, who’s new and inexperienced and beautiful.

He has a stutter and dark brown skin, and these oily eyes that seem to bleed into his own whenever they talk. Annie makes him show him the ropes, and he falls for this boy hard— whose laugh sounds like hope and whose hands like to hold his under the darkness of sweaty nights.

Shaolin Fantastic kisses him, and his mouth tastes like raw honey. They fall into a gentle love and Shao promises him that they’ll find a way out, that they’ll escape and live happily ever after and never have to worry about Annie again. He holds his hands and this boy, this creature of daylight, reignites the fire he thought he’d put out. They fuck, but it feels like they’re making love— like they’re inventing an entirely new version of it, creating it from scratch like a spun record or a whispered poem— like they’re exchanging their hearts and promising to keep them safe.

“I love you.” Shaolin Fantastic says, dirty and bruised from having escaped his grave. His nails are short and bloody, and his knuckles are busted from breaking from his coffin.

“I love you too.” The boy replies, and kisses him till they’re both dizzy and seeing stars. The boy tells him that he is the most beautiful thing he has ever set eyes on, and Shaolin almost believes him.

Annie finds out.

“Fucking faggot,” she calls him, makes him pull the trigger. He says

I’m so sorry,

and the boy says

I love you,

then there’s a loud bang and the boy’s body collapses and bleeds and bleeds. It’s the same color as his jacket, and he numbly runs his fingers through the blood and smears it across his face.

He cradles the body in his arms, smoothing the boy’s hair back and wetting his shirt with tears. Annie makes him get rid of the body, and he burns it up with the leftover blaze that the boy had conjured up in his chest. He still has the boy’s heart, and as he goes up in flames— he promises to take good care of it while he’s gone.

He never stops grieving, and each day hurts worse than before. Uttering his very name is like a sin on God’s lips.
_______
Annie eventually does tire of him, and it makes dread crawl up his stomach. It makes him feel ashamed, but he doesn’t want her to leave like everyone else. Even if she did take everything away from him, he finds that she’s the only thing he can latch on to keep himself alive.

She makes him go outside, makes him step foot onto an earth that never loved him, whose roots crawl up his feet and wish to drag him down with Shaolin and Curtis.

So he walks.

And walks.

And walks.

His feet hurt, but he walks.

Freedom does not taste the same this time around. No, it tastes unwanted and bitter.

(Kings don’t run. Kings walk.)

He runs.
________
He goes out more, if only so Annie doesn’t tire of him.

The air tastes like acid, and every breath he takes burns his nostrils with a hot, seething depression. There is never any music anymore, no— he lost the right to music when he fucked up. He goes back to his old temple and stares at his turntables, tries them out.

They don’t bring any joy anymore.

He throws a sheet over the stand and lays down in the middle of the floor till nightfall. He lies there until the sun comes up and sits perfectly in the sky. It reminds him of a boy he killed, and he feels the phantom stickiness of blood in between his fingers.

He wonders what it’d be like to be destroyed by the sun. To be set on fire and burned to a crisp till there’s nothing left of his body but something hideous and unrecognizable. Something covered in black and red scabs.

It’d be an awful way to die— but isn’t that what he was destined for? A boy who only ever burned like a fire being killed in one?

 

It was fitting.

 

He thinks about setting the temple on fire and taking everything with him. Gone is the boy and gone is his dreams. Gone is everything he built and and everything that will miss him.

Would they weep and spin poetry the same way they spun words about a butterscotch queen who caused earthquakes and sung like a thing sent from the clouds?

(The answer is no. No one would miss him. But that’s ok, at least he’s not leaving anything behind.)
________
When Annie isn’t fucking into him and he’s not running the streets, Shao likes to sit somewhere private. Maybe a bathroom at Les Inferno or in a hidden crook at the temple that only he knows about. He likes to sit somewhere dark, maybe turn off all the lights and hold a lighter up to his fingers. He’s so numb most of the time that he can barely feel the pain, and it’s interesting to watch flames dance across his hands and wash away the flesh there. He likes to imagine himself being burned into a crisp, ash floating into the air as a faint nothingness washes over the remains of what use to be Shaolin Fantastic and scared little Curtis.

He wishes he burned their bodies before he buried them, because they keep crawling up and grabbing his ankles— trying to heave themselves up from a death they won’t accept.

But instead they’re just
pulling
him
down
with
them.

And this must have been how Books felt, always burdened by a corpse that should’ve stayed dead— dragged down by a reanimated Shaolin who
limped and
groaned and
clawed and
consumed.

(He thinks he was always dead. He thinks he might have died in the fire that killed his mom.)

_________
Spring break comes around eventually, and it’s a day like any other when he sees Books. Well, Books and the Kipling brothers. He surprised to see Boo with them, and it makes something horrible twist in his gut. Something that tells him he didn’t deserve this awful despair after all.

(But doesn’t he? What good has he brought to any of their lives? They’d never needed him, not like he needed them.)

He tries to turn around before they catch sight of him, but Books chooses that time to look up and spot him.

“Hey Shao!” He calls, and it makes him cringe. He forgot about that boy, that name. He stops in his tracks and turns around, and Books is running up to catch up with him. It makes his heart do that familiar flutter, the one he hates so much because these days it makes him want to vomit more than anything.

“Hey.” He says simply, preparing to turn right back around and be on his way. He doesn’t want Books to see him like this, worn out and tired— not anything like Shaolin, who burnt up but didn’t rise from the ashes. Who died and never came back.

(He doesn’t want Shaolin to come back, because when he comes back everything is tainted and tragedy follows in his wake.)

“Look, I don’t know if you could ever forgive me.” Books starts. “But I’m so sorry... I said we were family and I haven’t been acting like it.”

And like that, Shaolin Fantastic falls all over again. He hates himself for it, but he gives Books a watery smile and nods. “It’s cool. You was right anyway. It doesn’t take a genius to know I ain’t shit.” He says, self-loathing oozing out of his mouth like blood.

“Shao...” Books tries, sadness tinging his words. “Curtis...” he finishes, like he got it right this time.

And it makes Shaolin- Curtis blink.

Curtis Curtis Curtis.

The boy he’d buried. Who is Curtis? Who is that anymore? Perhaps a shadow, or the one that Shaolin protects. Curtis is a boy who cries and cries and Shaolin is the boy that wipes his tears. Curtis is the ghost that follows the walking zombie that is Shaolin.

“Don’t call me that.” He hisses, then makes to walk away until Books latches onto his arm.

“Please,” Zeke says, his eyes boring into his own and it reminds him of a boy he loved and kissed and fucked and killed.

Grief hits him right then, and his tongue goes thick, as if something is holding it in place and keeping it from moving. He can only nod, and let Books lead him over to the other Kiplings. Boo and Dizzee smile at him, but Ra looks at him with a cold indifference.

“Where are you staying?” Books asked, and Shao doesn’t wanna admit it, doesn’t want his once-best friend to know that he’s still pushing the drugs he hates so much.

(That he’s back with Annie, who they’d tried so hard to get him away from.)

“The temple,” he lies, and it burns his mouth the way he says it so smoothly.

“We miss you.” Boo says, and suddenly the younger boy is encasing him in a hug so tight it reminds him of a love he once had. Then Books and Dizzee join in— and with enough encouragement Ra does too.

He buries his face in Boo’s shoulder, and weeps for this thing he’d yearned so long for. “I missed you too.” He whispers, and he’d hug them back but his arms are trapped against his chest.
________
His brothers encourage him to start spinning again, but his fingers are so numb from months of burning away skin that he’s clumsy and awkward. But he does it for them. The Get Down flows back through his veins and his brothers dance and spit and laugh and sing. Smiling doesn’t feel like a chore anymore, and grief doesn’t sting his eyes as bad as it use to.

They don’t ask about the burns that dance along his hands, the ones that spread across his arms and leave certain patches of skin permanently hairless. Books wants to, he can tell— and isn’t that so characteristic of him? To give a fuck about a ghost who could only repeat the same sequence of events that led to its death?

Curtis is a ghost conjured, but a ghost is still gone even when summoned.
________
He finds that fire is fascinating. Not the metaphorical type, but the literal living, breathing type that burns up a building and swallows skin.

He lights candles, or sometimes he’ll light his fingertips. Some days he burns things to ash— a pair of pants that he outgrew, or perhaps a shirt he was fucked in (reminds himself that it’s not his fault as he burns away red fabric). Sometimes the fires get out of control, and it’ll take him a moment to process that it’s spreading and spreading and catching onto something he’s wearing. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it doesn’t. It all depends.

Books does eventually ask one day.

They’re sitting on his couch and Books holds up one of his hands, asks “What happened here?” Because his skin is pink and hairless and scabbed over from too many nights of holding a lighter up to his skin. Sometimes a match.

Shao swallows, says, “I get cold sometimes.” And Books gets this look of pity on his face like he didn’t know.

Then his hands are encasing his, and Books looks at him like he is everything, says “I’ll warm you up.”

And he cries, because it reminds him of a boy with oil paint eyes and whose skin shined blue under full moons. He cries and cries and Books embraces him in a gentle warmth that he realizes with a start that he’d missed with an ugly fervor.

“I’m back with Annie,” Shao- no Curtis starts. “I had no choice.” He admits.

He expects hate or violence, but Books only hugs him tighter.

“I’ll get you out of there as many times as I have to.” Books says, leaning his forehead against his. “I promise. We’ll be kings again, just like we use to.” He whispers, kisses him and breathes poetry into his mouth.

Shao thinks of a boy he made the same promise to.

And as Books presses him down onto the couch, Shao closes his eyes and lets himself heal.