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“Yo, I’m not tryna go to no club tonight,” Zeke firmly states, even though his brothers are trying to convince him otherwise. “That’s like me going in on my day off. Nah, son, I’m good. I just wanna chill with my brothers.”

Boo Boo huffs as he rolls his eyes. “Well, I’m not tryna sit up in this boring ass hotel room, lookin’ you ugly mothafuckas in the face all night.”

“Plus,” Ra Ra begins before Zeke can tell Boo he’s welcome to leave. “When’s the last time we all been together? And what’s the chance that you have a day off the same day Dizzee decides to fly in from god knows where?”

“We were in Morocco, actually,” Dizzee says from across the room, looking up from drawing on Thor’s arm. As long as his man’s around, he’ll always have a canvas. “But Ra’s right. We don’t hardly see each other no more and now that we’re all together, we should do it up.”

Then Boo hops up from the foot of the bed and begins singing the 1995 Montell Jordan hit. “This is how we do it, it’s Friday night and I feel alright, baby.” He perfectly executes the dance moves from the music video as he continues singing. “I’m kinda buzzed and that’s all because—

THIS IS HOW WE DO IT!” Boo and Ra shout in unison, and Dizz joins his brothers by making the beat on the table.

South Bronx does it like nobody does,” the youngest brother continues to croon.


To all my neighbors, you got much flavor.


By now, Zeke is dancing and singing right next to his brothers. Then nostalgia fills him, hitting him with memories of their performances from back in the day, and word start flying from the mouth of the wordsmith.

This is how we do it, there ain’t nothing to it. / When I step up to the mic, I’m kinda ruthless. / Tryna keep up with this wordsmith is looking pretty hopeless. / I been known to rock the mic since nineteen seven-seven. I spit bars like bullets and send ya straight to heaven. / Please go find a reverend or maybe count ya blessings. / I don’t really give a fuck cuz I ain’t stressing. / Got my brothers with me and we bouta go clubbing / then touching and rubbing and maybe some fuckin. / Who’s the lucky man or woman / comin’ home with me tonight cuz I’m feelin’ real nice / but you gotta leave before the daylight.

“That’s what the fuck I’m talkin’ bout, B,” Boo exclaims as he daps up Zeke. “I knew we could get you outta whatever prude ass shell you been living in.”

“Fuck you,” he teases as Ra Ra daps him up next.

“That was really dope, Books.”

“Thanks, Ra.”

“It still amazes me how it all comes from the top of your head,” Thor says and before he can respond, Boo Boo wraps an arm around his neck and responds for him.

“Cuz my boy’s good with words like that. He the wordsmith.”

“Yeah, I can’t really explain it. The words just come to me. I don’t think it can be explained.”

But he does know Shaolin lit the match, and ignited the flames that allows him to spit fire.

I can still recall that fateful hour. Leaders lead and cowards cower. Shaolin Fantastic, no man braver. He showed me my superpower.


He blinks several times, coming back to the present. “Huh?”

“You ain’t hear what I said?”

“My bad, Boo. You know how I blank out sometimes.” He chuckles, but the looks on everyone’s faces lets him know they can see right through him.

“I asked do you even know how to spit game to anybody but Mylene? You can’t be goin’ around callin’ people ya butterscotch queen and shit, witcha corny ass.”

The rest of the room erupts into laughter as Zeke throws a pillow at him. “Shut the fuck up.”

“For real, though,” Boo begins through his giggles, “I never thought I’d see the day you and Mylene wouldn’t be together. And I never thought my sister woulda bagged Mylene and Regina.”

“Well, it seem like lil sis got more game then both of y’all,” Dizz interjects.

“Anyways,” Boo dismisses, “I’m bouta head out. Y’all know perfection takes time.”

“Nah, you just ugly as shit, fam.” He flips Ra Ra off before slamming the behind him, and the older brother chuckles. “I’ma be out, too, Zeke. I gotta check on Tanya and the kids.”

“A’ight, man.” They dap each other up. “Tell Tanya I said hi and tell my nieces I love ’em.”

“Send them our love, too,” Dizz says, still diligently working on his artwork.

“Bet,” he agrees. “See y’all in a minute.”

“See ya, Ra,” Thor calls out.

The door closes and he leaves behind silence.

Zeke looks over at his remaining guests expectantly. “So, y’all just gonna stay—” he cuts himself off with a shake of his head, “of course y’all would.”

“I’m still working,” Dizzee answers anyway, then takes a quick glance at him. “But, uh, maybe you wanna use this time to tell me why you blanked out earlier?”

He huffs. I shoulda known this was coming.

“I don’t know, Dizz, I just did.”

“Who you tryna convince? Me or yourself?”

“I’m sure you’re about to tell me anyways.”

“No need to get snappy with me,” he says cutting his eyes, “but I know this is a sensitive subject for you.”

And Zeke knows that’s a dig at him that went below the belt, and Dizzee immediately feels bad. “That was a little harsh, Zeke, and I’m sorry, but it doesn’t negate the truth. You were thinking about Shaolin because you felt him missing in the room tonight. Sure, I can make a beat for you to rhyme to, but it ain’t the same. I’m not Shaolin Fantastic. I’m not your DJ.”

I’m Shao’s wordsmith, and he’s my conductor…

Guilt churns his stomach. It’s the same exact feeling when he’s on the stage reciting love letters to an audience that it isn’t meant for. But it’s easier to tell his truth to strangers than to look Shaolin in the eyes.

“How,” he hesitates to continue. He chews his bottom lip as he contemplates asking the question. He isn’t sure he wants to know. “How is he?”

“He’ know Shao, man. He’s a survivor. He’s been through worst shit.”

His stomach drops and his face heats like he just took one to the gut and a slap across his face.

Now I struggle with thoughts like did I betray you? You taught me values, Shaolin. I could never play you.

I shoulda forgave you.
I shoulda saved you.


Shaolin saved himself, though. Or rather, he sacrificed his freedom again.

When Fat Annie gave him no other choice, he accepted his fate gracefully. He danced to her every word as she held his weakness in her hand, waiting to pull the trigger.

He danced like his life depended on it. He danced because his life depended on it. He danced for Books. His words guided his movements. He copied their grace, and his moves mimicked the curves and lines of each letter.

He danced for Books.

He danced on needles and crack pipes.

He danced in sheets that left his skin raw and his insides numb.

He danced with fists and he danced with guns.

He danced all alone.

But you can only dance for so long.

His feet were tired, his body sore, his limbs not as graceful, not as obedient as they had been before.

Finally, after years of tap dancing on his own grave, he danced with bottles on a rooftop and danced too close to the edge...

But something kept him tethered to the earth even when he had nothing left. It was the wind whispering “you got me” in his ear. It coaxed him off the ledge just like it coaxed the knife from Zeke’s neck. The words grounded him as much as they gave him flight.

He missed that: flying with his wordsmith. Spinning and grinning.

That’s what tethered him; the thought of giving his wordsmith a beat one last time.

But he couldn’t dance for Fat Annie again. His body, mind, and soul couldn’t survive it.

So, he danced one last time. It was an extravagant, carefully orchestrated grande finale. The kind they write raving reviews about. And they did.





Shaolin sacrificed his freedom again, but he no longer woke up next to his nightmare. Or rather, he chose a lesser evil.

His freedom was tied to the state, but he wasn’t completely isolated from his family. Unlike with his abuser, Shaolin could communicate with his family. They visited when they could and always accepted his calls. He could get hand-drawn comics from Dizzee and Thor, Marvel and DC comics from Ra Ra, pictures from Boo Boo’s life as one of Janet Jackson’s choreographers, cassette tapes of Napoleon’s live performances, and letters and books from Yolanda, who has become a close friend and a sister. In Fat Annie’s hell, she was his only family and used threats of death to keep it that way. In prison, however, he was reunited with his real loved ones.


Everyone except Books.

His old friend did send him letters and poems from time to time, he even heard his songs on the radio, but Zeke never visited or accepted his calls.

That broke Shao’s heart, too. It invalidated every word Books wrote or said to him. He couldn’t truly mean those things if he couldn’t say it to his face.

“Leaders lead and cowards cower,” he recites softly to himself as he stuffs the letters in the bag with the rest of his belongings, then shakes his head in disappointment. “The fuck you worried about a nigga who ain’t concerned about you, Shao? Fuck Ezekiel Figuero.”

“One last ‘Fuck Books’ speech before you get up outta here?” Rashawn, his cellmate, teased from the top bunk.

“Shut the fuck up,” Shao responds, his voice containing the same playfulness.

He snickers. “But in all seriousness, you needa talk to your boy and dead whatever beef y’all got. Life’s too short to be holding grudges and shit.”

“Thanks for the advice, Oprah.”

“I’m serious, Shao. From everything you told me about him, y’all had something most folks never find: a real friendship and a deep connection.”

When Shao introduced himself to Rashawn the day the young man moved into his cell a year ago, he immediately asked if he knew Mr. Books. “There ain’t no way two Shaolin Fantastic’s are roaming this earth,” he had declared. Shao chuckled and told him how Zeke got his nickname, and soon he was telling this stranger everything about him and Zeke’s relationship. Once he got to know him better, once he knew he could trust him, he also disclosed his feelings for his friend that still hadn’t gone away.

“The two of y’all got some soulmate shit, for real. I just wouldn’t want you to loose that, Shao. So, promise me you’ll talk to him.”

Shao knows he’s right, but there’s just one thing stopping him from agreeing to his promise. “What if he doesn’t wanna talk to me?” He’s terrified of Zeke’s rejection again.

Rashawn knows this, too. “I don’t see that happening, but if that’s the case, then fuck Ezekiel Figuero. He’s gonna be the one missing out on an amazing person.”

Shao blushes, looking down at the concrete ground.

God, I can’t wait to get fuck outta here, the thought briefly crosses his mind before he looks back up at his friend.

“You know, for a young nigga you got a lotta wisdom.”

He laughs. “When you raised by your grandparents, it kinda rubs off on you.”

Opening gate D.

“Welp,” Shao sighs, “I guess that’s me.”

Rashawn gives him a small from. “Guess so.” He hops down from the bed, daps him up, then pulls him into a hug. “You be safe out there, Shao.”

“You be safe in here, man. And don’t be gettin’ into no shit; I won’t be here to save you.”

“Whatever, old man, I can handle my own.”

Suddenly, Shao gets anxious when he hears the keys jangling from the CO’s belt. He looks towards the bars of his cell, waiting.

“Smith, against the wall, hands behind your head,” one of the officers order. Rashawn huffs, but complies. “You got all your belongings, James?”

“Yeah, everything’s all here. I’m ready to get the fuck out this shithole.”

“Opening cell 24,” he calls out and Shao rolls his eyes.

After this, I ain’t never gotta worry about people dictating what I do.

“Ayo, Shao.”

He tries to stifle his frown. It don’t feel right to see him through the bars of their cell. They both try not to flinch when the second officer locks the door.

“Don’t forget about a nigga, a’ight? I want letters, and artwork, and ya mixtapes and shit. And I wanna know what happens with you and Books.”

“No doubt, fam. You’ll hear from me soon.”

“Bet,” he says with a smile. “See ya, Shao.”

“Later, Ray,” he departs with a smile that widens with each step towards the booking area.

He was finally free.





Chapter Text

These chains on me won’t let me be. You got the keys, come rescue me. Come set me free.

He’s crying.

Come set me free.

He wills the tears to stop, but they continue to flow freely.

Come set me free.

His knees buckle.

These chains on me won’t let me be.

He’s sobbing now.

You got the keys, come rescue me.

He doesn’t have to will himself to breathe anymore.

Come set me free.

He wants to breathe now. He wants to live.

Come set me free.

For the first time in forever, Shaolin Fantastic wants to live.

Come set me free.

Not survive. Not exist. Live.

These chains on me won’t let me be.

He survived his chains. He survived his parents. He survived group homes. He survived Annie. He survived drug dealing. He survived prison. He survived all the chains that refused to let go.

Come set me free.

He sacrificed his freedom, his peace of mind, his body, his heart.

His name.

You got the keys, come rescue me. Come set me free.

And he freed himself.

For the first time ever, Shaolin belonged to himself.

He sobs louder, fully collapsing into Boo Boo’s arms; exhausted from the weight of his autonomy. This is new to him. He didn’t expect it to be so heavy. He thought it would be like flying.

Then he thinks of Penny and his pigeons. When their wings were damaged, it took them a while to fly again; they had to heal first. And even after they healed, it took a few tries to get it right.

He’s free, but it’ll take some healing, some time, to fly.

But he made it.

He’s here.




“Yo, Shao, you good?” Is the first thing he hears once a peace begins to settle within him.

Through snot and tears, he looks up at his brother with a bright smile. “I’m free, Boo. I’m finally free.”

He smiles too, then turns back to the guards. “Nah, you don’t need to call nobody. We good.”

“I’m free,” he repeats, a little louder this time, and he hiccups a laugh that rumbles deep in his belly and shakes him with joy.

Boo Boo pulls away from him a bit, giving him space but also briefly concerned at the sudden switch in emotions. Then he realizes that Shaolin’s mourning turned into tears of joy. Of freedom.

Boo understands. To be caged then set free. But he knows that what Shao is experiencing is deeper than that. It’s a conversation that Dizzee would be more equip for.

“Yeah, you free, Shao. Now let’s get you home.” Just as Boo Boo lifts them up from the ground, Shao doubles over in laughter again.

“I ain’t got no home to go to.”

“Boy, stop,” he responds as he looks Shao upside his head. “As long as I gotta place to stay at, then you gotta home, too.”

You got me.

He cringes. He wants to be free of that voice now, too. However, as fate would have it, as soon as Boo Boo starts the car Books’ voice blasts through the speakers.

All the time I invested in school is now in question / Shao prone to violence / like a dog returns to his own vomit / a fool for chaos / takin’ what we could salvage / hustlin’ is an art / I’m just tryna be smart / strung out bodies found in the park / Shaolin was my heart / we stood for loyalty / all we had was each other’s backs

He hasn’t heard this song, but it ain’t the first time Ezekiel dogged him out.

He scuffs, shaking his head. All them words in those letters were bullshit, too, huh?

He switches the radio station.

“I’m throwing it waaaay back,” the radio personality shouts out through the airwaves. “You youngins don’t know nothin’ about this. This was the joint that introduced me to hip hop. Bout That Bank by The Get Down Brothers.”

His scratches play through the speakers. Nostalgia instantly hits him as he remembers a time when everything was as perfect as it could get for somebody like him. A time before everything went to shit.

“Shout out to my mans DJ Shaolin Fantastic,” he announces over the song’s intro. “He’s out of the pin today after doing a fifteen-year bid. If you listening, welcome home, man. And his brothers are throwing him a welcome home party, so stop through Club Roxy and show our mans some love tonight. Only on Hot 97.”

He cuts the radio off, silence falling over them. He cuts his eyes at Boo who pretends to be overly occupied with watching the road. “What was that about?”

He chuckles nervously as he glances at him. “Oh, uh, surprise?”

“Y’all know I hate surprises,” he grumbles.

Boo roughly swallows the lump in his throat. “We know, but this is a celebration, Shao. It’s supposed to be something light and fun. But after what happened back in the parking lot, or if you ain’t up for it, then we can call it off. Or maybe we can have a small get together at my place instead.”

He hums in response, then turns his head towards his window to watch New York breeze by as he contemplates Boo’s proposal. That scene, that breakthrough, took a lot out of him, but it didn’t leave him boggled down with depressing emotions. He was freed, and he believes that should be celebrated.

“You right, Boo,” he finally says. “This is cause for celebration, but I only want it to be a small get together. SMALL, Miles.”

He shoots Shao a side-eye as he smacks his lips. “I heard you the first time, nigga. You ain’t have to shout out my government, son. You know the Feds stay watchin’.”

“Miles Lamont Kipling, if I find out you doin’ anything that would have the Feds buggin’ you, I’ll fuck ya lil ass up.”

Boo Boo chuckles and Shao snickers along with him. “I’m too old to believe in ya fake karate shit, Shaolin.”

“Yeah, keep on playin’ and you gon’ see wassup.”

He waves him off, a playful smirk on his lips. “Fuck outta here.”

“You must’ve for—” he pauses, eyeing the device in Boo’s hand. “The fuck is that?!”

“The fuck is what?” he asks, looking around the highway frantically.

“In your hand!”

He looks down at his Motorola flip phone he just retrieved from the armrest compartment, then bursts into laughter. “Yo, chill, Shao. It’s a mobile phone. I was just about to call Dizz on it.”

“Oh,” he says simply as his heart rate slows. “For a second there, I thought it was like a small gun or some shit.”

He gives Shao a questioning glare from the corner of his eye. “Why would I pull a gun out on you? You straight trippin’, son.”

He chuckles, shaking his head, and returns his gaze out of the window. “I know it sounds silly, but a weapon was my first instinct. And I know you’d never do no shit like that, but after you been locked away in a place where a nigga don’t give a fuck about your life cuz he ain’t got nothin’ else to live for, your brain gets rewired or some shit, man.”

“It’s like you think differently. You think everything could be a threat. But, shit,” Shao begins, chuckling humorlessly and shaking his head once more, “that’s how it’s always been for me, really. I’ve had to watch my own back my whole life.”

I got your back.

Bitterness taints his chuckle this time. “In some ways being out on the street was more unpredictable. With Annie, I never knew when shit would come my way. I never knew what shit would come my way...” he trails off, looking down at his twiddling fingers that are itching for a cigarette to be held between them. “And on the other hand, Rikers was more unpredictable. Especially them fucked up COs. You remember, don’t you?”

“I try not to,” Boo answers softly. “I was only in there nine months. I can’t imagine fifteen years.”

“I was supposed to stay another five years,” he reveals. “Cuz towards the beginning of my sentence, I got into a couple of fights, but these prisons are so packed that they went ahead and paroled me for good behavior.”

“Hold up, hold up. When did you learn how to fight?”

Shaolin flicks him off as they both chuckle. “About a year before everything went down, I had this old boxer teach me a thing or two. He was a friend of Grandmaster,” he explains. “I been preparing for prison long before I got locked up.”

Boo Boo briefly glances at him, his eyebrow raised in interest. ”Why? You thought you was gonna get caught sooner or later?”

“Nah, Annie was lining too many pockets for me to worry about that.”

“Then why were you preparing for prison?”

“It was more like masterminding an escape plan from Annie.”

He side-eyes him. “So lemme get this straight; you’d rather be in prison than work for Annie? What the fuck she have you doing, Shaolin?”

He looks out of the window, immediately closing up at Boo Boo’s prying and intrusive questions. “It ain’t for you to worry about.”


“Drop it, Miles.”

“Okay, okay,” he rushes out before an awkward silence intrudes upon them.

Once that silence weighs too heavily on Shaolin, he attempts to alleviate it. “I’m sorry, Boo. I didn’t mean to snap on yo like that,” he apologizes, his head hung in shame. “It’s just ... Annie was apart of a dark past that I never wanna remember.”

“It’s okay, Shao. I understand.” Silence falls over them again, but it isn’t as thick and heavy as it was before, and they return to their respective tasks; Boo Boo focusing on the road and Shaolin looking out of the window.

He tries to rebury the memories and nightmares, bury them in the deepest recesses of his mind, alongside his mother and the fire and Books.

This was the hardest part of his trauma; trying to lay the exhumed bodies from his graveyard of pain back to rest.

“Remember, sugar, ain’t no rest for the wicked, and my restless soul will haunt your ungrateful ass as long as you live.” Annie’s last words still feel like ice running through his veins, and her infamous sick grin still burns his retinas.

During times like these—when thoughts of Annie refused to let him rest—he wonders if made the right decision. He wonders if there was another way to gain his freedom, because her ghost could be just as restricting.

“Shaolin!” Boo Boo shouts after several failed attempts at getting his attention. Blinking out of his troubled thoughts, Shaolin looks over at his brother who looks back at him with knitted eyebrows. “You good, man?”

“Yeah, my bad, B. I ain’t mean to blank out, I was just thinking.”

He eyes him skeptically before holding out his cellphone. “Here, Dizz wants to talk to you.”

Shao also eyes the phone with skepticism before taking it from him. “I just put this shit up to my ear, right?” he asks, making Boo Boo laugh and break the tension between them.

“Yeah, goofy.”

“Hello,” he answers as he chuckles.

“Shao! It’s so good to hear your voice, man.”

“Hey, Shao!”

“Shut up before he hears us, Thor!”

“You’re being loud too, Dizz,” he spits back.

The quick and sudden exchange between boyfriends slightly confuses Shao. He doesn’t know why or how their greetings turned into bickering.

“You’re right,” Dizzee suddenly says, ending their bickering and confusing Shao further. “You know I get nervous about this kind of thing. I don’t even know why they thought I—”

“Hey, just calm down, Dizz,” Thor cuts him off before he can accidentally reveal anything. Shao hears Dizzee take a few deep breaths, followed by soft lip smacking and the faint sound of a running shower.

“I know y’all niggas are not about to have shower sex while I’m still on the phone.”

They’re snickering now, causing Shao to playfully roll his eyes. “No, we’re not. That would be hot, though, but Ze—Ow! Why the—oh! Dammit I did it again.”

Shao pulls the phone away from him, and looks at it as if he were looking upside Dizzee’s head. “What the hell is going on with y’all?”

“Sorry, Shao, but—”

“I’m horny, now let’s do it,” Thor cuts him off by singing his own rendition of the chorus to Ginuwine’s hit single. “Ride it, my pony. My saddle’s waitin’, come and jump on it.”

“Oh my god, Theodore,” Dizzee shouts and Shaolin doubles over in laughter.

“Yo, what you call me for if you and ya man tryna get down?”

I didn’t call anyone. Boo Boo called me, and told me about the change of plans,” he corrects. “I just wanted to talk to you to see if you were up for a party at all, y’know?”

Dizzee was having second thoughts about the whole surprise him, his boyfriend and brothers planned. They wanted the former friends to work through their issues, but now, their well-intended idea seems more like an ambush than a surprise. Dizzee knows the pain Zeke has caused Shao; he read it in letters, heard it through phone calls, and seen it during visits. He also knows of Zeke’s resentfulness and guilt that prevents him from properly apologizing, and continues Shao’s pain. Given Zeke and Shao’s sensitive history, Dizzee wonders if this will cause more harm than good. Are they ready for this?

“Why do you say that?” Shao asks after briefly mulling over Dizzee’s question.

“Well, because I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed. We don’t have to do the loud music and booze, we can just have a movie night or something light like that. Or, if you don’t wanna be bothered with us at all, then that’s okay too, Shao. Just let me know what you wanna do.”

He smiles, appreciative of his concern. “Thanks for lookin’ out for me, Dizz, but I’m not tryna be alone tonight. I wanna chill with my boys.”

He sighs, still a bit weary of what’s to come. “Alright, Shao. Guess I’ll see you in a few hours.”

“See ya, Dizz.” He pulls the phone away from his ear and inspects it. “How does it turn off?”

“Hit the button that says end,” Boo Boo answers, trying not to giggle at Shao’s unfamiliarity with the new piece of technology. “And you can just drop it in the cupholder.”

He marvels at the phone once more before doing as instructed. “I missed a lotta shit in fifteen years.”

Tossing him a smile, Boo Boo counters, “ain’t nothin’ you can’t learn, though.”


♪ ♫ ♪

“Welcome home, Shao,” Boo says, clapping Shaolin on the back while he walks through the threshold.

Lips spreading into a huge smile, he takes in the spacious living room in the two-bedroom apartment. “I see Janet’s paying you well,” he says, referring to his job as the singer’s choreographer.

“Miss Jackson if you nasty.” Boo winks and Shao laughs.

“I don’t think your boyfriend would be too fond of you sleeping with your boss.”

“It’s Janet Jackson, though; Napoleon would understand.”

Then realization dawns on him as he rushes to take out his cellphone. “He’s probably setting up for the club.” He quickly types in Napoleon’s number then holds the ringing phone up to his ear. “Damn, he shoulda been the first person I called about the change in plans.”

“I mean, if y’all gotta go through all this trouble then it’s fine for us to just go to the club.”

“Nah, it’s fine, Shao. How about—” His boyfriend’s chipper hello cuts him off and makes him smile. “Hey, hold on for a sec, baby,” he tells Napoleon before directing his attention back to Shao who’s looking at him knowingly, which makes him smile harder.

“Heeeeey, Leon,” Shao singsongs loud enough for Napoleon to hear the teasing in his voice.

“Hey, Shao,” he shouts, equally loud.

“How you been, man?”

“I be—”

“Anyways,” Boo interrupts.

“Damn, rudeness.”

“Why you being rude, B?”

“We under time constrains, yo. Y’all can catch up later. Now like I was saying,” he stops to take a deep breath, “you should take a quick nap while I set up. That way you’ll be well-rested for a long night.”

“Take a nap? Nigga, I ain’t a toddler.”

“Don’t act like you wasn’t nodding off in the car, son.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” he waves off. “What room am I staying in?”

“Once you go up the stairs, it’s the first door on your left, and the bathroom is right across from it.”

“A’ight, cool,” he says with a nod of his head. “Thanks for everything, Boo.”

“No problem,” he says, returning Shao’s smile. “I’ll wake you up in about an hour so I can shape up that dusty ass ’fro.” He chortles when Shao flashes him the finger. “No thanks. I’ll leave that to my man.”

Joining in his laughter, Shao shakes his head. “You and your brother are some freak hos.”

“Guess it runs in the family.”

He goes to make a witty comeback, but huffs when nothing comes to mind. “Whatever,” he says as he turns, walking towards the stairs.

“Still gotta have the last word, huh?”

“Yup,” he shouts back, a smirk on his face that drops when he opens up the door to his new room.

“I can’t believe them,” he whispers, nearly choking on the cry forming in the back of his throat.

One wall contains a galaxy exploding with rich purples, pinks, and blues, littered with stars, planets, moons, and Rumi the Alien. “Only From Exile Can You Come Home” stretches across the wall in elaborate block letters. The piece easily transitions to the adjacent wall with the cool colors of the Bronx’s nighttime skyline as the backdrop. A yellow brick road stretches across the wall and “Let Our Candle Light the Way” is written in cursive with a neon pink paint underneath it. Several flickers of flame surround a character—obviously Dizzee’s cartoon version of him—walking the paved road. “Unfold Your Own Myth” hangs above the skyline and lastly, at the end of the yellow brick is a sunset with “Imagine What You’ll Become” hanging above it. The other two walls are a stark contrast, simply painted an off white, one of which has a sticky note stuck to it that piques Shao’s interest.

Here are two blank canvases to document your bright future, or to just go crazy free. 

— your brothers

He doesn’t realize he’s crying until he tastes the saltwater tears on his tongue. “God, I can’t believe they did all this for me,” he says, marveling the artwork.

Even after all these years, Shaolin still has difficulty believing that he has a family who loves and cares for him so much, that they would take him into their home, then put their love on the walls of a room so he could feel at home.

Then it hits him.

He’s never really had a room.

Or a home, or a family.

Just temporary, unstable, and unsafe environments where he constantly had to look over his shoulder. But he doesn’t have to worry about that. He has his brothers. They aren’t fleeting; they’re fixed, grounded by their love for him.

He’s crying harder now, the weight of realization and acceptance heavy on his heart again. For the second time today, he had to face devastating truths about the ways his humanity has been stolen from him. Exhausting truths.

He trudges toward the bed, the nap Boo Boo suggested sounding more appealing than ever, and places his bag of belongings on the floor before stretching across the mattress. He puts the heel of his hands over his eyes as he blows out a shaky breath, willing the tears to stop.

Stop fucking crying, Shaolin, he chastises himself.

He knows no other way to stop the tears and the massive headache he feels returning. Crying is like a blue moon for Shaolin; it comes every once in a while, and the rarity of it leaves him ill-equipped to handle the intense emotions that surface.

Annoyed and frustrated at his own tears, he huffs as he turns on his side, ready to cry himself to sleep. However, just when his eyes are about to close, a picture on the night stand catches his attention. He leans over to grab it and immediately regrets it.

It’s an old picture of The Get Down Brothers posted up at a booth in Club 1051, but all he sees are the two of them. His arm hanging loosely around his wordsmith’s shoulder, looking at him with a fondness he didn’t understand then, but now knows as love.

And knowing that, knowing that he loved and is still in love with Ezekiel Figuero, breaks his heart and another dam of tears.

Because he knows that even after Zeke broke his heart 17 years ago, he would still look at him with that same fondness and awe if he were in front of him now. He knows that the anger and hurt he has carried with him for so long, would give way to the longing and aching in his hear. He doesn’t want that, though, because Books shouldn’t be let off that easily. And it terrifies him knowing that his heart would ignore what his brain was screaming at him. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“Yo, Caldwell,” an officer called out, making Shao cringe.

“Wassup?” The CO handed him an envelope and he grumbled a thanks. As he walked back to his cell from the cafeteria, he looked over the envelope and the name in the upper left-hand corner made his heart skip a beat.

Ezekiel Figuero.

He put a pep in his step, rushing to get back to his cell so he can read the letter in peace. And thankfully, his cellmate wasn’t there either, giving him the privacy he needed.


January 11, 1982

I’m sorry, Shaolin.

Guilt has been consuming me for two years, and it almost swallowed me whole when I heard that reporter on the news say there was a shootout at Les Inferno. My whole world stopped, Shao, because I thought you were no longer in it. I thought my worst nightmare had come true. And I sat still like my body was asleep. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t catch my next breath. But I felt. I felt the world stop and my heart drop to my stomach. Then I felt the vomit coming up my throat. Then the tears. Then the hand on my shoulder. Then the phone to my ear. Then my world become whole again when my tía said you were alive, but you got arrested. That last part didn’t matter, because you were alive and my world was fine again even though I threw up in my own lap and scared my roommate so bad that he had to call my tía. But that didn’t matter either, because you were alive, Shao, and all I wanted to do was apologize to you. I wanted to say sorry in every language just so you could understand how much I mean it. I am sorry. Lo siento. Je suis désolé. Those are the only three languages I know. Pretty impressive for a half-black Puerto Rican from South Bronx, huh? At least that’s what Leon tells me.

I’m rambling now. I don’t wanna say what I have to, because I’m embarrassed. I’m embarrassed that I hurt someone I call my best friend, someone I love. That night you asked me what happened to family and I don’t know. I was just so angry and hurt and I felt so betrayed that night. You gotta understand that both of my parents died because of drug dealing. I never trusted the streets, but you are the streets. So when you told me what happened with Boo, you weren’t my best friend who I would trust with my life; you were just another victim, another soul, that the streets would not let go. And when you bound by something as vicious as that, you can’t be trusted. I know that firsthand, Shao. I know you love Boo Boo, I know he’s as much of a brother to you as he is to me, but you blinded by that fast life. It made you lie to me and it finally caught up to you.

But even though it’s messed that you got Boo locked up, you still didn’t deserve those words I said. You didn’t deserve me walking out of your life like you never meant nothing to me. And now I struggle with thoughts like, did I betray you? You taught me values, Shaolin, I could never play you. In fact, I can only thank you for what I become. Supposed to have been me, you, the crew taking over the whole world, and now we seem a world apart. I never thought we’d be here, Shaolin, and I take full responsibility. All I ask is that you forgive me.

Your Wordsmith


Ignoring his instincts, ignoring his brain trying to rationalize all the emotions overwhelming his heart, Shao rushed to get to a phone. Waiting impatiently in the short line, he reread the letter, experiencing a range of emotions. When it was finally his turn, anxiousness consumed him as he waited for someone to answer. All the while, something inside him was telling him to hang up, something was trying to protect him from the rejection he felt when his call went unanswered. Once again, he was hurt, but he left a voicemail in hopes of being able to speak to Zeke directly, because it was obvious from the letter that there was some miscommunication that needed to be cleared up.

“Hey, Books. I, uh, I got your letter. It was really good to hear from you. But um, I think we should talk about a few things. You know, clear some things up? You think you can come visit me and let me explain myself? You know I ain’t good with writing and shit, man, and I need you to know exactly what I’m saying. I mean, I could try and give you a call back, but I, um, I’d like to see you, too.” He took a deep breath, glad to get that off his chest and apprehensive about revealing his next thought. “...I miss you, Books. I miss you a lot. And I hope to hear from you soon.”

It was another year before Shaolin received another letter from Zeke.

Chapter Text

When Zeke writes, the jumbled mess of thoughts and feelings get a little more untangled with each word, but when it comes to writing about Shaolin, the mess is more muddled. He has to wade through thick bouts of guilt, shame, and regret, of sorrow and anger.

For years, he let his anger consume him, and for a long time, nothing could ease it. What Shao did was (once) unforgivable. He got Boo caught up in a world he didn’t belong in. Boo Boo was just a kid while Shao was old enough to make his own decisions. In Zeke’s mind, Shao chose to waste his potential. He chose to settle when they were supposed to be bigger than the Bronx. He broke his promises, broke his trust, broke his heart… Zeke was familiar with that heartbreak. His father’s involvement with drugs destroyed his family, then Shaolin destroyed it for a second time. So, in a fit of hurt and anger, Zeke spat venomous words that opened up a pain in Shaolin similar to his own.

That pain nearly killed Shao, while Zeke held onto it and let it morph into rage. That rage blinded him, made him believe that Shaolin was nothing more than a selfish, no-good troublemaker who would bring him down. He truly believed every bad thing Mylene, Papa Furte, his aunt, and Mr. Gunns said about Shao. That was until he heard about the shootout at Les Inferno. Suddenly, all that anger left, leaving him to deal with the harsh reality of the harm he had caused his friend. Everything became so much clearer then. He realized he had broken Curtis. Zeke’s words, as sharp as knives, took away Shaolin’s magic. And just who the fuck was he to shit on everything Shao believed in, the very things that aided his survival? How could he dig so deep and bring Shao’s darkest insecurities into the light?

That’s when the guilt set in. The shame.

So he wrote that first letter, relieving his guilt and confessing his wrongdoings. After the first one, though, as backwards as it was, he avoided Shaolin by leaving letters unopened and phone calls unanswered. He repressed his muddled feelings because it was easier than facing the truth. Then once his music career took off in 1986, it became even easier to keep Shao in the furthest recesses of his mind. But when it was too much, when his conscience weighted him down to the point he couldn’t even face himself, he turned to his pen. He’d start a new letter, apologizing for ignoring him and confessing his screw ups without really doing the work to right them. He’d write and send poems of regret, of intimate memories, of hopes for a possible future together. He’d write because those letters were selfishly therapeutic. They allowed him to work through the thick of his emotions while he disregarded Shaolin’s. Ignoring Shao was easier than actually knowing what he felt. Zeke was terrified of knowing the scars he had left behind. He was terrified of Shao not forgiving him. So much so, he began this cycle. It would start with a nagging conscience that unsettled him until he silenced it by writing away his guilt, then it would return, growing louder the longer he kept Shao’s letters unopened and calls unanswered, until he eased it again by writing more meaningless apologies.

Eventually, he broke the cycle. As his career took off and life got busier, he stopped writing Shao all together and put everything into his music.

In 1988, 11 years after he met Shaolin Fantastic and embarked on an unforgettable journey with his Get Down Brothers, Mr. Books dropped his debut album. This Ain’t No Fairytale chronicled Zeke’s life in South Bronx, reminiscing on being a part of the birth of hip hop with his friends when it was only known as The Get Down. He rapped of their struggles and successes as a group, of their bond and breakup. It detailed some of Zeke’s traumatic experiences and nuanced his relationship with his former DJ. The album didn’t stop with his teenage years; it transitioned to the current state of the South Bronx. A community that was no longer burning, but dealing with the height of crime, drug addiction, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This Ain’t No Fairytale received critical acclaim for its vulnerability, unique sound (courtesy of his producer Napoleon), lyricism, and consciousness, instantly labeling it a classic.

Eight years and four albums later, Mr. Books had reached superstardom. However, the top was lonely without his DJ right beside him.

“Zeke!” Dizz calls out from his open door, dragging Zeke from his memories. “Are you getting out?”

He blinks a few times before climbing out of the backseat. “My bad,” he apologizes, still dazed.

“You were really out of it the whole ride,” Thor says as they walked up the steps. “What’s on your mind?”

He licks his lips, wondering if he should divulge the truth. He shrugs as he grumbles, “I don’t know, man.”

Then, suddenly, the true subject of his thoughts appears right before his eyes, making the world stop as joy overcomes him despite the sea of emotions raging inside of him.


♪ ♫ ♪

It had been 17 long years since he’s seen Zeke in the flesh, but he immediately recognizes his tall, lanky frame, those soft brown eyes, and that sweet, gap-toothed smile that sets his soul ablaze. And he surely can’t forget the fluttering in the pit of his stomach, taking him back to late nights in the dojo spinning and grinning together. He expected to punch Zeke the moment he laid eyes on him, but he didn’t expect this. To be frozen in time, captivated by Zeke’s eyes and all they reveal. It’s like he’s looking down from that ledge again, like he’s hearing Zeke spit that pretty, love poetry for the first time. It’s like a deep connection forming between two souls. Or rather, reforming a connection severed by years of hurt.

“Shao!” Dizzee shouts, jumping on him. He must’ve knocked some sense into him, too, because his haze of nostalgia has lifted, leaving Shao with hurt and resentment. “I can’t believe you’re really here. I can’t believe I can actually touch and hug you.”

“Group hug, everybody,” Boo Boo calls out, seemingly out of nowhere, before Thor, Napoleon, and Ra Ra join Dizzee in squeezing Shao to death.

Zeke stands back, shifting from one foot to the other, and looking at everything but them. He feels like he’s intruding on a private moment as if they haven’t been through some of the most intimate shit together.

It’s glaringly obvious that he doesn’t belong there anymore. They’re giving Shao—their friend, their brother—love and support while Zeke remains cold and distant.

It’s been like this for the past 17 years. Everyone had let Shaolin explain himself and they had forgiven him. But Zeke, so stubborn and ready to believe the worst of Shao because of his ties to drugs, refused to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Zeke’s unwillingness to forgive Shao caused multiple fights between the Brothers. Despite Zeke’s hurt feelings, they knew Shao did not deserve Zeke’s callousness and called him out on the hurtful shit he said and did all the time. And they had all tried to make amends between the two former friends, but all their efforts had failed (mainly because of Zeke’s sudden cancellations) until this very moment. It looks like they would finally be able to pull this off, until Ra Ra realizes Zeke hadn’t joined their hug. He chastises himself for thinking this will be easy, when in fact, it’ll involve a lot of work and (divine) intervention. Ra turns to Zeke with his arms outstretched in question.

“You not tryna get in on this love and affection, Books?” he asks with a tease in his voice and a lightness in his laughter.

Zeke sucks his bottom lip into his mouth and shove his hands in his pockets. The disconnect between them consumes him with hot embarrassment. Under the porch light, his skin visibly reddens as he looks down at his foot kicking gravel that isn’t there. He’ll distract himself with anything as long as he doesn’t have to face him.

However, Shaolin’s through with being ignored. He makes his way through the group to stand in front of Zeke, his anger, his pain, and all his unanswered questions rush through his mind, and before he can catch himself, he asks, “you ready to stop acting like I don’t exist?”

There it was, all out in the open; the truth of what Zeke has made of their relationship. He squandered it into something one-sided, a dumping ground for all his emotional baggage while completely disregarding the load Shao was carrying.

He should’ve prepared himself when he seen the fire in Shao’s eyes, but he couldn’t truly prepare for his shame to stare him straight in the face. “Shao, I...” he stops himself. The eloquent wordsmith is at a loss for words. There aren’t enough apologies to utter, not enough explanation for him to understand how he felt all those years apart. All he knows is that he feels absolutely shitty for the way he has treated Shao all these years.

Now you ain’t got shit to say? After all them bullshit letters and poems and shit you wrote, nothing’s coming to you?” Shao’s holding back nothing. He’s determined to get some answers, because, at the very least, that’s what he deserves. “Well, what the fuck you gotta say for yourself, nigga?”

“That I’m sorry,” he blurts out under the line of fire. “For everything.” He grabs at his hands, but Shao pulls away with the dirtiest look on his face which breaks Zeke. “Fuck, Shao.” His voice cracks as the tears catch in his throat. “I’m so, so fucking sorry, man.”

Shao clinches his jaw tight while standing stoically still and looking off into the night, refusing to give Zeke his attention.

“Shaolin, please, just look at me.”

“You haven’t even had the decency to answer a single one of my fucking phone calls, but have the nerve to demand shit from me!”

“I’m s—”

“And I’m tired of hearing ya weak ass apologies! They don’t mean shit to me.”

Seemingly impossible, the tension grows thicker, making the rest of their friends grow even more uncomfortable.

“Maybe we should, uh, go back inside,” Thor proposes. His interjection makes the air flow again, allowing them all to breath just a tad bit easier. “Let them have their privacy.” They nod and mumble in unison.

Napoleon places a hand on Shao’s shoulder. “If you need us we’ll be right inside, aight?”

Shao nods.

Dizzee wraps his arms around him from behind then whispers in his ear, “your anger is justified, but don’t let it keep you from getting the answers you’re looking for.” Shao’s reminded of Rashawn’s words as well as he takes a deep breath then nods, and Dizz leaves him with a kiss on the cheek. However, Dizzee’s pointed look at Zeke is not as warm or friendly. Content, Dizzee turns and follows his brothers and boyfriend into the brownstone.

“If they fight, my money’s on Shao,” the pair hear Boo Boo right before the door closes.

That made them both laugh, memories of the first day they met coming to mind and momentarily easing the tension.

“You really tried to beat my ass for a Misty Holloway record.”

“And you was really ready to die for it,” he counters, then the remnants of his laughter slowly fall in between a smile and a frown. “But you started spouting all that poetic shit and that’s the night I found my wordsmith.”

“That’s the night we found each other,” Zeke corrects him and they smile at one another until reality dawns on them and the moment becomes bittersweet. Zeke heaves a sigh. “I woulda never thought we’d end up here, Shao.” He stares up at the moon. Oddly, it’s as full and bright as that hot summer night nearly twenty years ago. “I know our falling out is my fault, but I don’t know how we got so far apart when we used to be so in-sync. We knew each other, ya know? We was best friends, man. Now we strangers.”

He lets out a low chuckle, its darkness chilling Zeke more than the brisk fall wind. His eyes are just as cold, piercing Zeke like icicles as Zeke unwillingly meets Shao’s gaze. “That night you treated me like I was just some random nigga. That’s when shit changed and stayed the same. You wasn’t tryna hear me out, you didn’t give me the benefit of the doubt, nothing. You went straight to ‘fuck this nigga’ like you was waiting on me to fuck up. Just waiting on me to confirm all the bad shit you always thought about me.”

“But you did fuck up a lotta times, B, and I always forgave you, but then you went and got Boo caught up in all your shit. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Shao sits there for a moment, disappointment setting over him and nearly bringing tears to his eyes. “You really think that lowly of me, huh? You think I purposely got him involved?” He lets out another chuckle, but there’s no life behind it, only a breathlessness of incredulity. “I tried my damnedest to separate hustlin’ from The Get Down. I never wanted y’all to get caught up in a life that I hated, especially not Boo Boo, but he said he’d go to somebody else if I wouldn’t let him work with me. What the fuck else was I supposed to do, Zeke?”

He sighs. “I know Boo Boo put you in a tight corner—he told me years ago—but you lied to me, Shao. You know you coulda told me what was going on.”

He scuffs. “So you could give me one of your infamous, condescending ass speeches? Yeah, no thanks.”


“Yeah, nigga, condescending,” he repeats, pushing off of the stoop he was leaning against and walking up on him. “It’s cuz you see things one-sided while expecting the worst from me. You rarely tried to see shit from my point of view.”

He sucks his teeth. “Fuck outta my face, Shaolin,” he says, waving him off. “You not about to play me like I wasn’t always following after you and getting into a world full of trouble while doing it. I’m sorry if I couldn’t easily forgive you this one time.”

“Well,” he pauses, making sure he holds Zeke’s gaze, “that’s when I needed your forgiveness the most, Books. Or, at the least, I needed your understanding. But you was so convinced that I was this bad dude, you didn’t even try to understand. It’s been 20 fuckin’ years, and you still holding it against me.” The softness he started out with quickly turns hard. “I don’t need you holding that shit over my head. I have battled with my guilt and my disappointment, and it took me a long time, but I eventually forgave myself, and for a long time, I wanted your forgiveness, too. Your forgiveness meant that you understood I wasn’t the empty mothafucka that didn’t give a shit about nobody else but myself. Because of that, I put up with you ignoring me and writing all that patronizing shit about me. Then eventually, that shit got old, and thank whatever god that I stopped giving a fuck about your forgiveness.”

A weight lifts from Shaolin upon finally having his voice heard. He’s no longer bound by the silence Zeke imposed on him nor the need to be forgiven. The freedom has him ready to leave the shamefaced man alone on the stoop, however, something is keeping him from leaving.

“I do need you to tell me one thing, though,” he pauses, trying to formulate and articulate his question. “Why would you — hell I don’t even know how to explain it. You was hot and cold with me, man. One minute you talking about how important I am to you, then the next you talking down to me like I despised you, or you’d just straight-up ignore me. It made me feel like I was insignificant to you.”

The weight of his words fall on Zeke like bricks, making it hard to breathe through the debris. “Shao, I,” he begins breathlessly, “I never knew.”

“You woulda known if you cared to read my letters. I put—”

“Believe me, I tried to, Shao. I tried to read your letters and answer your calls, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”

Shao wants to interrupt, tell him he‘s full of shit, but he stops himself. Because finally, after years of not understanding Zeke’s contradictory behavior and emotions, he’s getting some kind of an answer.

“I was afraid that your letters or your calls would be a reminder of how much I hurt you, so I just ignored them. But then I’d start to feel guilty for ignoring you, so I’d write another letter about how sorry I was, and it became a cycle. Write a letter, never respond, guilt, write another letter. Writing allowed me to ease my conscience.”

Shao laughs loudly, his eyebrows raised in mock surprise. “And you had the nerve to tell me I didn’t care about nobody but myself.”

Shame washes over Zeke upon hearing his own words thrown back in his face. “You know,” he starts as he picks his head up to look Shao in the eyes. “I’m sorry for the shit I said that night. I didn’t mean none of it. I was just hurt and I wanted you to hurt, too.”

Shao laughs again, annoying Zeke. He doesn’t like his seemingly flippant attitude. “You say you sorry, but you still saying the same fucked up shit about me. Like ‘Shao prone to violence like a dog returning to his own vomit.’ Really, nigga?! Really? Not only is the shit untrue, but it’s fucking demeaning. It makes me wonder if you ever knew me at all, man. It—” he pauses as he shakes his head, then continues with his voice softer. “It makes me wonder why I ever fell in love with you.” With one last look, Shao leaves Zeke and his confession on the stoop.

The last of his words hang in the air like fog; heavy as much as it is weightless. He stands there trying to process it all. Shaolin gave him 20-years worth of varying emotions to process then he dropped the unexpected. It takes the breath out of the stunned man, filling him with a giddiness reminiscent of first loves. However, that feeling of liberation comes to a jarring stop as Shao’s words fully settle, leaving bittersweetness in its wake.

He has no one to blame but himself. He‘s responsible for the tattered state of their relationship and the very real possibility that it could never be fixed. But more importantly, he‘s responsible for hurting Shaolin. Zeke’s words hadn’t seemed so debasing and his selfishness hadn’t seemed so isolating, but no matter how he tried to justify his actions, the damage was done...

And he needs to fix it.


♪ ♫ ♪

Shao’s whole body is hot; from the sweat forming on his fingertips to the fire seeping through the tips of his ears.

The piercing stares from his friends don’t help none, either. 

He speeds up his pace to the kitchen, hoping to get away from their silent questions and to find something to calm his nerves. The liquor he‘s looking for greets him, the bottles haphazardly spread out on the counter. He grabs the bottle closest to him, but before he can put it to his lips, Napoleon interrupts. 

“You good, man?” 

“Yeah,” he says, taking a swig then grimacing as the vodka goes down. “I will be.”

Leon leans against the counter, watching him take another shot. “I guess we probably shoulda rethought this lil surprise, huh?”

He shrugs, not knowing how to respond. Though he feels ambushed, he can’t ignore his relief. It feels like he can breathe again. “I don’t know, man. On one hand, I was expecting to have a good time, not all this deep, heavy, emotional shit. On the other hand, I finally got him to hear me, y’know. He couldn’t run away or act like I didn’t exist. I got to get everything off my chest and he had to listen.”

“Well, are y’all good?”

“I’m not sure cuz there’s still some things that don’t sit right with me. I feel like a lot of what he said was a bunch of bullshit.”

“You may have to make peace with never really understanding,” Napoleon offers with a shrug. “What Zeke did was fucked up and there’s really no explanation for it. He was being selfish and childish—at least that’s how I see it.”

Shao nods thinking it over. “Yeah, I hear you. I just thought I’d get some closure, y’know, but I feel like we’re in this in-between place. Like I don’t know where to go from here.” He pauses for a couple seconds, trying to pinpoint how he felt. “Maybe it’s because I’m expecting things to be like they were, but I’m not sure it could ever be like that again.”

“You need to give yourself time, Shao,” he says as he puts a hand on his shoulder. “It takes time to rebuild what was once there. It takes healing. There’s no need to rush the process.”

He glances up at his little brother with a bright smile, pride swelling in his chest. “Who woulda thought your knucklehead ass would be giving me some sound advice?” 

Leon pushes his shoulder, causing Shao to laugh.  “Oh, shut up.”


♪ ♫ ♪

“What did you say to him?!” Yolanda shouts as soon as Zeke walks through the door, startling him, with Regina and Mylene right beside her, rocking matching mean mugs. 

Yup, even Mylene Cruz is ready to fight Zeke for the distraught look he left on Shao’s face. Despite hating each other in the past, Mylene and Shaolin formed a friendship thanks to Yolanda. 

When Yolanda and Shao became such staunch pen pals, Shao became apart of their lives. Yolanda would casually bring up the things they discussed, or what she planned on sending him, or she’d drop random details about him and his life. It was no different than her talking about her brothers, and that’s who Shao had become. As their bond grew tighter, Mylene’s resolve towards him softened and she began to see him in a different light. She even initiated their friendship, writing a letter to apologize and put their grievances behind them. 

So, yeah, Mylene’s protective of Shao, especially when it comes to Zeke, because she was one of the only people to know the depth of Shao’s feelings for the man she was once in love with. 

“I don’t know how you could say anything other than ‘I’m sorry,’” Mylene adds. 

“Exactly. You should be begging him for forgiveness,” Regina piles on, but Zeke is too busy looking for Shao’s flash of red in the sea of people. 

His eyes bounce around the room as he shifts from one foot to the other. The man is frantic, feeling his last chance to fix things slipping away. For a split second, he imagines another 20 years without Shaolin right by his side, and it lights a fire under his ass.

Zeke’s body moves before his mind could catch up, his slim frame easily sliding past the girlfriends, but Regina grabs onto his forearm before he could get too far. 

“Yo, we wasn’t done talkin’!”

“I gotta get my man,” he retorts, gaining huge smiles from all three of them. 

“Aw, okay,” Regina says, voice sweet as syrup, letting go of her hold. 

“He’s in the kitchen,” Mylene says, all her teeth showing.

As he walks backwards, he pulls his clasped hands over his heart. “Thank you.” 

“You can thank us by making it right,” Yolanda yelled after him.

“I am!” The deceleration comes from deep in his belly, a gut feeling that foretells its destiny. That feeling leads him, his confidence growing with each step. And as he travels his fated path, he imagines where the path is leading him, leading them, and a bliss falls over him, calming him as much as it unnerves him.

What if he can’t make things right? What if he had hurt Shaolin so much that their relationship was beyond repair? And why is he getting carried away with visions of a future together, when he isn’t even sure Shao still shares the same romantic feelings he does? Just because he said he fell in love, doesn’t mean he’s still in love, right?

With each question, his strides slow until he stops right outside of the kitchen’s entryway. He feels the urge to turn around and run, but it leaves as quickly as it comes. He’s been running from Shaolin for nearly twenty years now, and he’s tired. Tired of running from truth and accountability. 

“Shaolin?” His raspy voice wavers with uncertainty. 

The man tenses. Zeke simply saying his name sucks the laughter from his lungs and the lightness from the room. 

Zeke notices his body going rigid. He sighs, but he doesn’t let the creeping feeling of defeat deter him. “Shao, I— I know you don’t wanna talk to me, but I don’t wanna end things like this.” He pauses, tries to read his face, but it’s blank. Again, he won’t let it deter him. He wants to fight for Shao, for any semblance of future together. “I don’t deserve it, but—if it’s okay with you—I want a chance to undo the pain I’ve caused, to rebuild what we never should’ve lost.”

Shaolin wants to say no, because Zeke is right, he didn’t deserve his time. He wants to close that chapter in his life, burn its pages, and a “no” is at the tip of his tongue...but Shao looks into the eyes of his wordsmith. They have a gleam to them that reminds him of the way Zeke use to look at him with eyes so wide and bright with hope. He sucks his teeth, annoyed with himself for giving in, huffs out a “c’mon, man”, even though he’s not all that annoyed, because his face cracks with a smile. Now, that, is what he finds annoying. That feeling of joy Zeke brings. 

Shaolin’s not exactly sure how Zeke draw those emotions out of him so effortlessly, but he thinks it’s the nostalgia—the fondness of the past that’s more hopeful wishes than actual memories—that has him willing to give Zeke another chance, and give himself another chance to chase that feeing. 

“You better not fuck this up, Ezekiel, or I’m fucking you up,” Napoleon yelled after him, making Shao snicker. 

The walk seems to take forever. Or maybe it was dread that weighed Zeke down, an apprehension to opening up wounds that could never be healed. 

When they finally reach the room, Shao holds the door open and Zeke looks at him with knitted brows and pursed lips.  

“I don’t know why I’m being courteous to your ass either,” Shao grumbles at his perplexed face. “Just walk through the door before I change my mind.”

A goofy, close-lipped grin spreads across Zeke’s face, crinkling the corner of his eyes and bringing a sparkle to his dark brown orbs, and Shao finds himself smiling too. It’s the way his eyes sparkle with that boyish delight. It almost makes him giggle as he closes the door once Zeke walks through. 

“Damn, I’ve missed you.” It comes out without him meaning to, and as much as he wants to regret it, he doesn’t. 

Zeke’s face falls into a softer smile, a kinder smile. “I’ve missed you, too.”

They grow quiet, both of them all smiles and giddiness. And in this moment, when the two feel like their floating on clouds, they grow closer. Once it registers that Shaolin can count each freckle on Ezekiel’s face, he wonders if they were already this close or if they were leaning into each other expectantly. Before he can make up his mind, Zeke’s soft lips are on his.  

The kiss is tender and chaste, as if Zeke is testing the waters, asking for permission to go further, and Shaolin leans in, more than happy to oblige. Their lips move languidly, taking the time to get reacquainted with one another; their bodies press closer, Shao wrapping his arms around Zeke’s waist, Zeke cupping Shao’s face like it’s a precious thing to behold, because it is. And in this moment, when they can’t tell where one body ends and the other begins, it’s bliss, it’s fantasies coming true, it’s affirmation.

The kiss ends just as it begins: tenderly and slow, with Zeke giving Shao a few sweet pecks before resting his forehead on Shao’s. The gesture sends Shaolin back in time. Back to one late night when Zeke unexpectedly arrived at the temple, wanting to apologize for a fight they had the night before. “I just wanna keep making music for as long as we can,” he had said before they ended their spat with their handshake, and when they pulled apart, Zeke leaned back in to kiss him, just as sweet as he had done moments ago, just as passionate as the kisses they swapped when they were all alone spinning and grinning, caught up in their electricity, in the magic they made together. And Shao realizes he wants to hold on to those moments, hold on to Books, forever, and the nostalgia he brings, but their recent past looms over him like a dark cloud impeding on his happiness. Ezekiel’s inaction and disregard plants a seed of doubt towards what could be. 

“What’s wrong?” Zeke asks as Shao pulls away. 

“This! You!” he exclaims. “You can’t just kiss me then act like everything is cool. Nah, fuck that, Zeke. I’m not some thing to pick up and put down whenever you want. I been letting you get away with it for too long. You gotta prove that you want this, that I’m something you wanna fight for. If you want any kind of relationship with me, you gotta prioritize me.”  

“I’ll do that and whatever else you want me to do,” Zeke says, closing the distance between them, but Shao steps back, making Zeke frown deeply. “You gotta believe me, Shao, I wanna salvage our relationship, I wanna make us work.”

Shao makes a noise between a scoff and a laugh. “After everything you’ve done, why would I believe you?”

“Because since the day we found each other, we’ve had an undeniable connection. Even after all these years and all the hurt, it’s still there. It was like you attached yourself to my soul, and left an ache in my heart that has never really gone away. I know you feel it too. That ache. I didn’t know what it was then, or maybe I was too scared to know, too afraid to truly explore it, but I know it now. It’s love. I love you, Shaolin. I’m in love with you.”

Shaolin has imagined this moment more often than he’d care to admit. He imagined the time and place, the poetic devices Books would use to woo him, and each scenario ended with them flying into their happily ever after. 

Now, though, even as heady as Zeke’s words make him, Shao’s apprehensive, afraid to believe in his words again. Having faith and finding comfort in his wordsmith’s psalms had led him to despair too many times before.     

“You don’t abandon people you love,” Shao says, his voice uncharacteristically quiet as he steps away from Zeke. His face and body grow weary, the statement dredging up the heaviness of their breakup, and he nearly collapses under the weight. The aftermath of their shattered relationship had been harrowing—the loss of love, of family, of self; the loneliness and sorrow; the anguish; the anger; the grief. 

Zeke can see the grief clearly, the emotional turmoil all over Shao’s face, and his stomach churns with his own sea of emotions. “Fuck, Shao,” he chokes out, nearly in tears. Not only can he see it, but Zeke can feel the trauma he caused Shao, the depth of it reaching him in a way that hadn’t before. There is nothing obstructing Shaolin’s complete vulnerability, no letters to hide behind, no physical distance to make it easier to ignore Shaolin and the wounds he caused. “I—”

“You just left.” Shao’s voice is monotone when he cuts Zeke off. Like his tone, his face is void of emotion. And his eyes, they scare Zeke with their distance; it’s like Shao is staring through him. “You just left like we never meant nothing to each other, like you never promised to have my back. Those words meant everything to me, Zeke, because no one had ever said them before.” Then, suddenly, Shao’s present again, no longer looking through Zeke, but glaring at him. “How could you walk away so easily? How could you stay away? Because for me, being without you was hell. I was distraught. I lost a part of myself.” He wants to stop, embarrassed to let Zeke know how much he had affected him. It reminds him of how he’d write back every single time, no matter what, hoping Zeke would respond. It was pathetic and desperate. 

However, the potential embarrassment doesn’t outweigh his need to fully disclose the complex and varying emotions he has experienced over the past two decades. He thought he had gotten everything out on the stoop, but that only seemed to be a prelude. “You d—you don’t even know the devastation you caused me, the, th—the mess you made of me,” he stammers through a sudden burst of tears. “That night, when you drug all my deepest insecurities out of the dark, my whole world fell apart. The world I tried so hard to create with the bits of broken pieces I could salvage, you just shattered it without ever really looking back. How could you do that?”

In tears, having once again been confronted with Shaolin’s trauma, Zeke attempts an apology, but nothing comes out. He had felt the trauma minutes before, but actually hearing, seeing, and feeling the magnitude of it makes him break down. “I’m sor—I mean, I didn’t—“

“I don’t need anymore of your FUCKIN’ APOLOGIES!” he yells through a sob, startling Zeke. “I need an explanation. I need to understand why you said what you said, why you left me, why you treated me the way you did. You said you wanted to make things right, well this is where you start.” He lets out a long, exasperated breath before taking a few deep ones, trying to calm his sobs. “If we’re really moving forward, I need to make sense of all of this. I need to heal from our past before we can go toward our future, you fee me?“ 

Zeke nods, sniffles, and wipes at his eyes. He understands. It’s the very least he can do given all that’s happened. However, it won’t be an easy task, because it’s hard for him to articulate the truth. There’s a lot of muddledness, nothing that’s really clear and to the point. “You know,” he starts, taking a deep breath and leaning against the dresser right next to the bedroom door, “I’ve stayed up plenty of nights trying to answer all those questions. I wish there was a concise answer I could give you, something nice and neat, but it’s messy. Over the years, my feelings about you and our, I guess, relationship—if that’s what you wanna call it—have been all over the place. There were days where I missed you so much that it physically hurt, there were days when I was consumed by anger, and other days when I had as much guilt as I had frustration towards you.”

He stops to study Shaolin’s face to gauge his reaction. Brown, puffy eyes stare back at him, and his face, warn down from obvious mental exhaustion, haunts him. It haunts him to know he’s the cause, and it’s the reason he has held off on this conversation for so long. 

Zeke struggles to swallow the dryness in his throat before continuing. “Looking back now I realize I was too hard on you, but in the moment, I —“ he stops again, that night coming back to him, and he can vividly see the moonlight that had glistened on Shaolin’s bruised skin all those years ago. “I know I hurt you that night, but I was hurting, too. That night you broke my trust, you broke my heart, you broke our dreams, man, and I was furious.” Stressing the intense emotions also causes him to feel it in the moment, so he pauses and takes a few breathes to collect himself.

“I wanted so much for us, man. Like when I was away at Yale, all I wanted to do was call you and hear the sound of your voice to remind me of home. I wanted us to make music together until all the vinyl in the world was scratched down to nothing, because as long as I had your rhythm, I had breath to rhyme. I wanted to watch you pull back all the layers that you tried to hide from me, and blossom into a beautiful and free man. I wanted to share these past 17 years with you right beside me...”

The picture Zeke paints is so vivid and familiar to Shao; he had dreamt of their future together, too. It always ended with them looking off into the sunrise. 

“...but your lifestyle caught up with you, man, and it destroyed my idea of our future together. Then when I found out you was in prison, I didn’t understand how you got caught up with Fat Annie again when you shoulda stayed away from that bitch in the first place. I was so disappointed in you, Shao, and I resented you for fucking up our happy ending. We was finally free from her and you went right back like you ain’t learn shit.”

Shao takes a deep breath, trying to ease the ill feeling in the pit of his stomach and the fire burning in his chest. “No, no, no,” he says, each “no” more vehement than the last as he shakes his head, “you was finally free.” Then the image of Zeke blurs and his breath quickens. “And you should be grateful that you never had to bear the full burden of her expectations, because I did,” he adds through clenched teeth. “I did whatever she wanted because she took advantage of the fact that I never had shit and didn’t know no better. But when I did know I could make something better of myself, that I could really be free, she took advantage of my love for you and my brothers. She promised that she’d kill all of y’all if I didn’t go back to her.” Shao lets out a shaky breath, somewhat relieved that Zeke now knows some truth about his past with Annie, and he hopes it will help him understand the choices he made. 

In contrast to Shao’s relief, Zeke stands there in shock, mouth agape. Shao lets out a humorless chuckle at the sight. “That’s how it always was with her. I felt like I never had a choice in anything; it was either do what she said or there’d be dire consequences. I’d never willingly do anything for her, especially anything that jeopardized our future, so I wish you’d stop punishing me like everything I did was intentional. I also know that despite my intentions, my actions have hurt you, and I sincerely apologize. Disrupting our dreams have been a personal hell that I’ve had to live with for years, so I can imagine how you feel, but I’m not letting you hold that over my head anymore. I’m done trying to explain shit, trying to get you to understand. You either accept it or you don’t but I’d like to move on from this.”

He blinks a few times, still trying to process it all, especially the wave of intense guilt that overtakes him. “I—I’m...I don’t know what to say,” he stammers.

“There’s nothing to say,” Shao responds. “I did what I did because I love you and I love my brothers, but don’t ever think I wanted to go back or that I willingly did anything for that bitch. I need you to know and understand that.”

Zeke suddenly envelopes Shao in a hug. “I do, I understand,” he whispers in Shao’s ear. “And I’m so sorry. I’m sorry that I wasn’t there for you when you needed me the most. I’m sorry that I let my own feelings get in the way instead of trying to understand how you felt.”

Shao feels such a relief, and leans into the relief, into Zeke, more. He has literally dreamt of this moment, so much so, he’s not entirely sure if it’s reality. So he pressed closer, nestles his face in the crook of Zeke’s neck then takes a deep breath, the warm air he blows out causing them both to shiver. God, this feels so right, being in each other’s arms again.  

Then Zeke interrupts their basking, reluctantly pulling away from Shao’s warmth and softly asks, “so...where do go from here?”

Before he can respond, Boo Boo busts through the door with his hands over his eyes. “I hope y’all niggas got some clothes on.”

Shao throws the nearest thing at him: a bottle of lotion. “Bye, Miles,” he yells while Zeke tries to keep from turning red. 

“Ow!” He glares at Shao, rubbing his arm. “I came up here to get your ungrateful ass for your surprise.”

“Another surprise. Boo, I swear to god, Cadillac better not pop up outta nowhere or a lot more than your arm’s gonna be hurting.”

“Boy, if you don’t get ya swole, just-got-outta-prison ass on somewhere.”

“Nigga, fuck you,” Shao says through a chuckle as he steps out of the room towards whatever “surprise” they have for him. 

Boo Boo’s right behind him, then he glances back at Zeke who’s weirdly staring into space. “Yo, you coming, B?” 

It takes him two seconds too long to respond with a mumbled, “yeah, yeah, I’ll be downstairs. Just...give me a minute, please.” He gives him a once over, eyebrow raised, before following behind Shao.

Alone, Zeke tries to process the last 20 minutes, tries not to be bogged down by the question they left up in the air. 

“So...where do we go from here?”

Is there a place for their relationship to go? If so, what would it look like? What would it feel like? He knows how it felt to be in his arms again, but did Shao feel the same? There was once a time when they were so in tuned with what the other was feeling or thinking, but now...Zeke can’t be too sure, and it’s unnerves him. 

He sighs, knowing he had to work up the courage to ask again, to find out how Shao feels and the infinite places they could go. The haunting possibility of rejection is very real, and it scares him, but he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself knowing he got in the way of his own happiness. Not again. 


♪ ♫ ♪

To Shao’s utter surprise, it wasn’t Cadillac, it was Grandmaster Flash, who’s all teeth and gums, as Shao approaches him. “Grasshopper!” he exclaims, pulling him into a tight hug. “Welcome home, man.” 

Shao just nods, unable to say anything with the sob forming in the back of his throat. This has been such an emotional day for Shao, and seeing his mentor, the man that gave him the gift of music, overwhelms him. He can see the pieces of his life slowly, but surely, coming back together. 

Flash palms the back of his head, pulls him in closer. “I know, Shaolin, I know. And I know you’re gonna be okay. Just take it one step at a time.” 

He nods again, wipes at his face with one of his long sleeves then clears his throat. “Seriously, man, thank you for everything,” he finally says, referring to his support and friendship. It has meant so much to Shao, especially his years in prison.

“You ain’t gotta thank me for that. Now wipe your face and go enjoy your party.”

Finally, now that he and Zeke had eased the tension between them, he could finally relax enough to enjoy himself.


♪ ♫ ♪

For most of the night, Zeke watches Shao enjoying himself, reminding him of their gigs at the playgrounds and rec centers—the ones they did for free—and the utter joy that radiated through Shaolin. And he’s so fucking thankful that he can see that again, then makes a mental note to ask Shao if he’d be willing to share that joy on his next tour.      

“Ayo, wordsmith.”

Zeke looks up at Flash, gives him a small smile and head nod. “Hey, what’s up?” he greets as he daps him up. 

“Shit, man,” he responds. “You good?”

He unconsciously darts his eyes back to the place he last seen Shao, and smiles when he sees him there dancing with Dizz. “Yeah, yeah. I’m good.”

Flash watches Zeke so openly pining after this man and can’t help but chuckle. “I see y’all worked things out.”

He finally cuts his eyes away from Shao to give Grandmaster Flash a raised eyebrow. “What makes you say that?”

He shrugs. “I can just tell.”

He gives him a once over, slightly frightened. Grandmaster Flash was as much of a mystic being as he was a musical genius, and it’s a little frightening and fascinating how in-tuned he is with people and music. “How, though?”

“He’s...” he pauses, “lighter. Emotionally, spiritually, he isn’t carrying as heavy a load. I see it in you as well, wordsmith.” 

“Mhm,” he hums, amusing the thought. He wasn’t wrong. He did feel lighter. “Yo, could you do something for me?”


♪ ♫ ♪ 

The song he and Dizzee were dancing to smoothly transitions to the slower beat of Killing Me Softly with His Song by the Fugees, and he knows that Flash is back on the tables. 

“This the last song of the night,” Flash announces. “We ending things slow for the lovers out there and give the losers a chance to find somebody to take home, ha ha.”

Dizz stops moving his hips, stands up right, and grins wide at whatever was behind them. Before he can follow his eye line, there’s a tap on his shoulder and a presence leaning over him. 

“May I have this dance?” Zeke’s deep, gravelly voice asks in his ear, and heat pulls in his belly. 

Shao takes a deep breath before turning around, his lips spreading, the corners of them nearly meeting the corners of his eyes. “Yeah, I’d love to.”

Zeke’s face mirrors Shao’s as he places his hands on Shao’s waist. His smile widens when Shao steps closer, wrapping his arms around his neck. Shao’s head rolls back a bit; he’s looking up at Zeke with soft, glazed eyes thanks to the shots people kept bringing him. He giggles and Zeke finds himself chuckling too as his hands slide around his waist. “What’s so funny.”

“I don’t know, man, life, or the fact you just so happened to know one of my favorite songs. Which one of them told you?”

His eyebrows raise and his eyes go wide in mock appall. “Why do you think the song choice was my doing?” Shao cocks his head to the side, twists up his lips and squints his eyes at him. Zeke laughs at the face. “Okay, okay, you got me.” His laughter dies on his next breath, his face softens, but his eyes are serious. He licks over his lips then swallows. “You know,” he starts, “it’s one of my favorites too. It, um,” he stops, wondering if his next sentence will sound corny, but says it anyways, “it reminds me of us.”

Shao smiles, sweet as honey, his fingertips caressing the nape of Zeke’s neck. “Yeah, that’s why I love it so much.” Then he starts singing along to the chorus, still caressing his neck, and Zeke is shocked that Shao has a great voice “Killing me softly with his song. Killing me softly with his song. Telling my whole life with his words. Killing me softly...” He trails off as Zeke presses their foreheads together, completely caught off guard and struggles to breathe out the breath that caught in his throat. 

Zeke effortlessly picks up where the chorus fades, freestyling over the smooth vocals of Lauryn Hill. “Strumming his fingers along records / fueling my fire til my hand hurts / I never get tired of his song  it’s the force that drives me along / I marvel at the magic of Shaolin Fantastic / cutting records smother than silk, I’m such a fanatic / of his skill and grace and his fine ass face / taking it back to the days we used to cut up / with one love / masterpieces at the temple we would construct / can we do it again? / you’ve always been my conductor, man / let’s explore the rhythm and ride the beat / I’m still waiting to crown you king / please kill me softly as your fingertips sing.”

Shaolin hangs on to every word, smitten, just like the first time he heard Books’ pretty poetry behind Les Inferno all those years ago. “You gotta real good way with words, man,” he says with a knowing smile that Zeke returns.  

“Oh, yeah?”

“Yeah, Mr. Kool Aid Man.”

He chortles. “So you got jokes now?”

“Something like that,” he says before they slip into a comfortable silence, still swaying along to the Fugees. Then Shao slides his arms from around Zeke’s neck to place his hands on his shoulders, and rests his head on his shoulder. His eyes flutter closed, sighing blissfully, savoring this moment and time with Books. 

Zeke’s bliss turns to anxiety once he hears Wyclef tell L-Boogie to take it to the bridge. He knows the song will soon be over, and the night will be over, and so will the moment, and he feels his opportunity slipping. 

“You still are my heart,” he blurts out, then cringes because it was definitely supposed to come out a lot smoother than that. 

Shao lifts his head to look at Zeke, eyes questioning and hoping all at once. “Huh?”

Zeke takes a breath, trying to organize his thoughts. “Shaolin was my heart, we stood for loyalty, all we had was each other’s backs,” he rambles off his lyrics, takes another breath. “It should be ‘is.’ Shaolin is my heart. We stand for loyalty and I shoulda had his back, but I fucked up. That’s what those lyrics shoulda been. If I had been more honest with you, with myself, we wouldn’t be here in this weird limbo of our relationship, questioning what happens next. But we are here and I need to know where do we go from here? How do you feel about us?”

It’s...a lot for Shao to take in, and he’s not sure where to start first. “You’ve always had my heart, Books, and you always will.” Shao pauses and Zeke waits for a “but” to come. Instead he says, “can I ask you the same: how do you feel and what do you want?”

With the tables turned, Zeke realizes the loaded question is a lot to take in and answer on a whim without deep thought. Gnawing on his bottom lip, he contemplates. “I want you to be happy,” he finally answers.

“Well,” he starts with a sly smirk, “I’m happy now. I’m happy to rebuild our friendship.” Then his smile falters. “But if I’m being honest, I have reservations. How do I know that you won’t treat me the same if I make a mistake or we have a misunderstanding?”

If Zeke is being honest, his stomach drops, ashamed that he’s responsible for Shao’s doubts and distrust. He stops their movements, takes Shao’s hands into his own, and holds them over his heart. “I can’t promise what the future holds, but I can promise that I’m learning to do right by you. I’m learning to love better, to listen better, to communicate better, in hopes of building our friendship on something more solid. I promise to make that commitment.”

He nods in approval, more than satisfied with the answer. “I promise to make that commitment, too, because we’re definitely not the same kids that fell in love with each other.”

“Do you think we’ll ever fall in love again, you know, with who we are now.”

Shaolin gives Zeke a cheeky grin, “I know that would make me very happy.”

“Well, your happiness is my command.”


The End