Actions

Work Header

One More Second Chance

Work Text:

Les Inferno is still ugly on the inside.

Shaolin could never accuse Annie and Cadillac of having decent taste. The red had grown on him--he kinda liked the color anyway. Liked the brightness, the excitement in it. It had made him feel a little safer when Annie first put it on him when he was 14.   

Everything else that Annie liked--the cheetah print, the gawdy disco ball, the lighted floors--made Shaolin’s eyes hurt.

Shaolin thought the new owners would fix it. Redecorate. They did a little bit: they got rid of that ugly ass cheetah. Everything else stayed the same. The same eyesore. It was cheaper that way. Saved money. Money is always top priority, no matter who you are.

“Curtis? Curtis! Behind the bar is still a little dusty  looking!”

The sound of Mr. Johnson’s voice brings Shaolin out of his reverie. Oh yeah, he was supposed to be cleaning.

Shao nods at Les Inferno’s brand new owner, and the man smiles. Then Shao grabs a broom and moves as quickly as he can behind the bar. Shao turns his back to the new owner, pretending to be very focused on whether or not the thick, glass floor beneath his feet is clean.

Mr. Johnson is nice. For a white man. He’s about as nice as they can get.

He’s a little corny for Shaolin’s taste, though. He makes stupid jokes and tries to talk the way he thinks people Shao’s age talks. He says he wants the “Black community” in the Bronx to come back to Les Inferno, but Shao doesn’t know how he’s going to pull that magic trick in his white shirts, khaki pants, and grey blazers.

But, then again, Shao knows that he could be much worse. Or that he might get much worse. You can never really tell with white people. They’re not upfront. At least Annie was honest about how evil she was.

Shao swipes the floor, trying to make sure he doesn’t directly run into the shelves that would soon hold every type of liquor Mr. Johnson can afford. This will probably be the last time Shao will be allowed back here; Mr. Johnson is strict about Shao needing to be 21 before he can be near the alcohol.

Shao finds that funny: this clean-cut man has no idea how many nights Shao has literally drank himself to sleep. One night, Shao drunk so much that he didn’t even remember going to sleep. He remembered standing up right, and then waking nearly a full day later on the bathroom floor, surrounded by vomit.

Ew, gross. The memory makes Shao feel nauseous again. He really does focus on the cleanliness of the floor now. He swipes harder, training his eye on the floor. The red and orange lighting of the club (something else that always gave him a headache) makes Shao’s reflection distorted and freakish. Like a monster.

“Mark! Kenny!” Mr. Johnson greets two men. Shao recognizes the men’s name: Mark and Ken are the new managers. Shao resists the urge to turn around and look them in the face.

“Tim!” One of them says. Shao hears them hug and pretends to be uniquely focused on grabbing a rag from the bar’s surface and “dusting” the shelves.

Mr. Johnson speaks again. “So, opening night’s this Friday! Terrified yet?”

Mark and Kenny both laugh that same fake-sounding laugh all white men use. Shao scrubs harder. It could be worse . It could always be worse .

“Absolutely!” Mark answers. “But I think we’re ready, right? The neighborhood really seems to love this place.”

“Yeah,” Kenny adds, “and they’ll love it much more now that they know they won’t be shot!”

Shaolin almost turns around at that. He so badly wants to tell them that they can very much still get popped, that their race and money won’t keep them as safe as they’d like to think. Shao’s been around way too long--has given up too much, has had too much shit snatched from him--to not see just how deadly this fucking place is. But the kind of people that will come to the new Les Inferno are delusional. They think they’re untouchable.

Shao’s fucked up for thinking it, but he can’t wait for them to find out that they’re wrong. The Bronx isn’t their playground, and they will learn this the hard way.

But it could be worse--it could always be worse.

**

Annie feels up on Shao when she thinks he’s asleep.

He’s never gotten why--he does her when they’re both awake. Shao has no fucking choice but to do her when she’s awake. She always wants it. Shao doesn’t get why she has to touch him when she thinks he can’t stop her.

Maybe that’s just it. She likes that he can’t stop her. But it’s not like Annie needs Shao to be asleep for that, either. They both know how this goes.

Shao keeps his body still. He should be used to doing that, too, but Shao thinks he’ll never be. It takes all of his focus, takes more concentration than spinning a record. He has to brace himself without going hard or tensing up too much. He has to appear loose and free.

And then afterwards, he’ll have to lie next to her for a couple more hours and then take the coldest shower possible and stop himself from throwing up or hurting himself. And then he’ll have to do it all over again because there really is nothing he can do.

It’s a fucking joke. It’s a fucking joke.

Annie’s hand ghosts over Shao’s stomach, near the top of his underwear. It’s a routine. She’ll put her hand on Shao and he’ll think of the worst things humanly possible so that he doesn’t react. Like always, he’ll settle on the sound of someone who truly hates him, telling him that he was never magic. That he was nothing.

Shao wishes Annie would’ve just shot him. Or that Cadillac had found him the night he beat Annie. Shao should’ve let her kill him back then. He should’ve let her shoot him dead, right in the middle of his temple. Dump his body in a back alley somewhere.  Being dead would’ve much easier than this. Maybe that’s something he could’ve gotten used to.

**

Tim Johnson pulls a magic trick: he gets as many Black people in the brand new Les Inferno as he can possibly fit. Shaolin can’t even pretend to not be impressed.

They’re all wack as hell, though.

Shao recognizes a lot of them: old customers from before, when Annie was still alive. Old druggies still sniffing the ground for a fix. Old drug dealers looking to present themselves as new clientele. It won’t work: Johnson only works with high-end  drug dealers. Ones who sell drugs through escorts who have johns in Manhattan penthouses and Broadway hotels. He has no time for street rats.

Everybody Shao used to work with is suddenly out of business. At least, they are until they crawl over to Nicky Barnes. And then they run the risk of him killing them.

Shao looks over at the stage, at the “MC” (Johnson keeps calling Gary the MC. Shao doesn’t have the patience to explain why he should stop.) Shao’s job is pretty easy now that the club is packed: he just sits, keeps an eye out for trouble, and tries not to show his utter boredom on his face.

Shao’s grateful to be dependent on checks from Johnson. It’s easier this way. Safer.

Anyway, none of these people have ever heard of Grandmaster, Kool Herc, or anyone else that knows what good music is. They all “dance” to the wackness, and some weird, dark-tinted disco mixes. Yeah, they Black, but not the kind of Black that Shao came up around. They’re the kind of Black that try hard to be white; the kind to wear the suits and talk the way their white CEOs.

The kind of Black that Zeke got turned into.

The thought passes Shao’s mind and his stomach starts to hurt. He scans the crowd in front of him for some sort of distraction. A fight, a spilled drink, an unorderly drunk. Anything. He finds nothing. His stomach twists and his mind is forced back to the person Shao’s spent all this time desperately trying to escape. Zeke.

Because, the thing is, Zeke was always going   to be one of these people deep down. Always. His future was always going to involve suits and business and being somebody’s big deal. Shaolin, The Get Down--they were just pit stops. They meant nothing to Zeke. Shao meant nothing to Zeke.

But Zeke meant everything to Shao. Not that Shao was ever good at showing that. Like Zeke had said, all Shao ever did was cause trouble, right?

The pain in Shao’s stomach radiates upwards, spreading across his chest. He struggles to keep a friendly face as he stares at the herd of people in front of him.

If Shao could have one day--one moment--that didn’t lead to him thinking of Ezekiel Figuero, he’d be eternally grateful.

 

**

“I knew that dirty Rican was going to jail.”

Annie cackles loudly at the t.v. screen in front of her. Shao, trying his hardest to pretend to be doing inventory, keeps his eyes on the tan, powdery bricks in front of him. He trains his eyes on the thin rope tied tightly around the packages. A small bow in the middle is the only thing that is keeping the rope from falling: some of the rope is frayed in important spots. Shao’s not trying to have angel dust all up and down his face and chest.

“Shao! Look at this! That fool really thought he had the goods!”

Shao curses to himself and reluctantly lifts his head. Sure enough, a sad mug shot of Papa Fuerte is front and center. He looks like he’s aged about twenty years in the four months that have passed since Shaolin last saw him.

It was a game. Shaolin and Zeke had heard that for themselves. It was always just game. Not that either Francisco or Zeke were willing to believe that.

Or maybe Zeke had believed it, and just didn’t care when it came down to it. Or maybe Zeke never believed anything at all and was just stringing Shaolin along the entire time.

That’s the conclusion Shao often comes to. It makes him feel a little better about what Zeke did. And what Shaolin did.

Annie looks over at Shaolin with a slick grin and a raised eyebrow.

“That, uh, was your little rice and beans boyfriend’s boss, right?”

Shaolin steels himself.

“We weren’t boyfriends,” Shaolin replies automatically. He almost sounds like broken record with how much he has to say that. “But yeah, that’s who got him that job.”

Annie rolls her eyes and snorts. “That job that took him all the way to that faggot school, huh? You did all that for that boy and got nothing.”

Shao bites his tongue--literally. He focuses his eyes on the t.v., on the video of Papa Fuerte marching into a courtroom.

Annie turns around and gives Shao an invasive stare. Then she bursts into loud laughter.

“That boy couldn’t give you nothing, anyway. Could he?”

Shao bites down on his tongue so hard that he draws blood. Then he nods.

**

Mylene Cruz comes stumbling into Les Inferno at 2 a.m., and Shao is having a waking nightmare.

He keeps shutting his eyes and opening them again, but Mylene never disappears. People start clapping and whooping and hollering her name. Shao sees her give a smile he’s pretty sure every disco duck has to be trained to give.

But this has to be a dream or some terrible hallucination. There’s no way this is happening to him. Shaolin had always suspected that whoever is up there hated him: Mylene Cruz strolling into Les Inferno like she owns the fucking place is proof.

Shao grinds his teeth so hard they hurt. Every muscle in his body has gone rigid. The small headache he was getting from thinking of Zeke grows: his head starts to pound.

Tonight is not his fucking night at all.

Shao hops up from his seat, careful to keep his eyes on Mylene’s figure a short distance away. When he thinks she’s gone far enough to not see him, Shao pushes his way through the crowd, ignoring the feeling of drunk people stomping on his feet and elbowing his sides. He pushes his way to the bar, seemingly hundreds and hundreds of feet away.

Derek the bartender grins at Shao as Shao damn near collapses against the bar. His gold glitters and his dark-brown skin lights up as Shao struggles to compose himself.

“You good, Curtis?” Derek asks good-naturedly. “Crowds not your thing?”

Shao shakes his head and realizes that he’s shaking all over. That got damn Butterscotch Queen is making him sick from all the way across the club.

“I need a drink,” Shao huffs out.

Derek laughs. “Hey, Tim said no alcohol if the customer ain’t 21. That includes you, Curtis! You got a year left, last I checked.”

Shao gives Derek the slickest smile he can muster.

“Ah, come on, D,” Shao says smoothly. “Just a shot or two. To calm my nerves, you know?”

“A shot or two, huh?” Derek raises an eyebrow, but laughs. Derek grabs two shot glasses from underneath the bar, and puts them in front of he and Shao. He bends back down and re-emerges with a bottle of bourbon.

“This good with you?”

Shao nods gratefully and Derek laughs again. He pours bourbon into both shot glasses. Shao is a little embarrassed at how quickly he takes the first shot:  he’s finished it before Derek got done pouring the second.

“Whoa, what’s got you so wound up?” Derek asks, looking more than a little impressed.

Shao downs the second shot and gives Derek a thumbs up before backing away from the bar.

“Thanks, man!” he says.

Shao can hear Derek laughing at him again even as he retreats. Shao starts to cut through the crowd again, hoping to get to his post without any trouble.

And he nearly makes it, too, but things never go Shaolin’s way. Because when he’s only a few feet from his destination, someone crashes into his left side.

“Ow! Watch it!”

Shaolin freezes.

The annoyed face of Mylene Cruz appears from behind a mess of black curls.

And Shaolin--he just looks at her for what feels like forever. Her curly black hair, the heavy eye makeup over big brown eyes, the bits of glitter trailing across the bridge of her nose. For a moment Shao doesn’t remember all the reasons she makes his blood cold. All he sees is a pretty girl.

And then her eyes go wide as she recognizes who she’s bumped into.

“Shaolin?” Mylene’s question sounds hesitant and nearly too soft for Shaolin to properly hear. She looks at him and tilts her head, as if she’s not sure she’s really seeing what she thinks she’s seeing.

It’s disarming. Shao leans away from her, carefully eyeing her.

“Hey, Mylene,” Shao says reluctantly.

The sound of his voice must be what brings Mylene back to reality. Her face falls into an expression that Shaolin is very familiar with: irritation.

“Well, look who's still here,” Mylene says, crossing her arms over her chest.

Shaolin gives Mylene a broad smile. The animosity in her voice almost makes Shaolin feel better.

“Aw, come on, now, is that the way to greet an old friend?” Shaolin asks through gritted teeth. “How long has it been?”

Mylene scoffs. “Not fucking long enough, apparently, if I still have to see you .”

Shaolin, still smiling, grits his teeth even harder. Believe it or not, this is good for Shao. Mylene’s exactly the way she was the last time he spoke to her: rude and snobbish. Shao can deal with this. As long as she gives him what he’s used to, he can have a little control over what happens next.

Well, Mylene’s mostly the same as Shao’s used to. Yeah, she definitely sounds the same and looks at him with the same disdain. But Mylene’s much thinner--almost a little unhealthy-looking. Her hair is darker and more unruly than Shao’s ever seen it. And she’s wearing way less than she used to: a sequined silver dress that barely makes it past the middle of her thighs and shows more cleavage than Shao thought Mylene had.

Mylene smirks at him. “Where’s Annie? She let you off your leash tonight? Or is Cadillac a few feet behind you?”

Shaolin prides himself on not flinching or immediately cussing Mylene out.

“Actually,” Shaolin answers, “Les Inferno has got some new management.”

Shao nods his head towards the stage, where, from the corner of his eye, he can see Mr. Johnson and Kenny floating around.

Mylene follows his line of sight and raises an eyebrow at the two men.

“And you’re still here, huh?” Mylene says, not looking back to face Shaolin.

Shaolin doesn’t answer her, preferring to stare at her suddenly-too-apparent collarbone. Hollywood starlets must not eat much.

Mylene takes Shao’s silence as an answer and peers back over at him. She has a look in her eye that can only mean trouble.

“All that rhyming stuff didn’t work out?” Mylene asks mockingly.

Shao drops his smile. He can feel his gaze on Mylene hardening.

“How could it?” Shaolin asks, his voice gone darker than even he’s prepared for. “You helped make sure of that, didn’t you?”

If he’s being honest, Shao doesn’t really blame Mylene. Not anymore. He blames himself, and, on days he can find it in him, he blames Ezekiel. But now’s not the moment for Shaolin to be honest. Now’s the moment for him to get as far underneath Mylene Cruz’s skin as he can.

Mylene gives Shaolin her version of a fake grin.

“You still have a hard-on for my boyfriend. After all this time,” Mylene says with faux-amazement. “I thought you’d know better by now, Shaolin.”

Shaolin snorts loudly, filled with the urge to be cruel. “And you still think that Zeke was only your boyfriend . Wow. I thought you ’d know better after you’re little Hollywood adventure. But...” Shaolin shrugs for added effect.

Mylene’s face falls.

“What does that mean?” she demands, her eyes narrowed and her voice rough.

Shaolin grins. “Whatever you think it means, Mylene.”

Fully satisfied, Shaolin steps around Mylene to leave her to her confusion. But before he can even get a few feet away from her, Mylene grabs his wrist with astounding strength and yanks him back around to face her.

“Shaolin,” Mylene growls, “what does that mean ?”

“Excuse me,” Shaolin grits out, trying to keep his rising panic in check, “I need you to back the fuck up. I have a job to do tonight.”

Shaolin snatches his wrist back so hard that they both stumble. Before Mylene can get any ideas, Shaolin storms away from her. He’s shaking all over again, and he can feel her eyes on his back.

Shaolin keeps moving forward towards the stage, wanting to get as far away from that bitch as he possibly can. He spots Gary on the stage, taking requests for records to play next.

Shaolin walks over to him as fast as he can.

“Hey, hey! Gary!” Shao cries when he’s within earshot.

Gary leans down at Shao, looking at him suspiciously.

“Curtis,” Gary starts, “why you look like you up to something?”

Shaolin smiles.

“I got a song request.”

**

“Do you want a job here?”

Shao looks at this bland looking white man and almost laughs in his face. He decides to do the next best thing: play dumb.

“Sir?”

The man shrugs. “I mean, you were working here when the previous owner died, yeah? I figured you should stay on, help us transition.”

It’s real ironic, being offered a job at Les Inferno. Ironic, and kinda fucked up. Even with Annie gone, Shao can’t get away from this fucking place, can go no where other than here .

But winter is coming, and Shao remembers what it’s like to be homeless.

He grins broadly at the new owner.

“I’d be happy to.”

**

Shaolin knew Mylene would be mad. That’s what he was going for. He did not know that Mylene would make a scene .

He can hear her from all the way in the back , near the front door, where the rest of her glitter posse is posted up. Mylene’s cussing more than he’s ever heard her cuss before. Shao would find it funny as hell if it weren’t also alarming as hell.

“Um, Curtis?” Mr. Johnson appears from nowhere beside Shaolin. “Should we . . .?”

Shaolin looks over at him and nods stiffly.

The crowds seems to part for them, making space so that they can remove the loudmouthed disco duck.

When Shaolin is standing near Mylene again, she’s screaming her head off at her frightened groupies about how much she fucking hates Misty Holloway. Hilarious.

“Yo, Mylene!” Shao calls. “You gotta go!”

Mylene whips around to face Shaolin. Without warning, she smacks him across the face.

The audience that’s formed around them gasps loudly.

“Well, at least people saw you do it this time,” Shaolin mutters, stopping himself from rubbing his sore face.

“Okay, no, you’re outta here!” Mr. Johnson yells.

Mr. Johnson grabs Mylene’s arm only for her to snatch it back.

“Don’t touch me!” Mylene shouts. “I can escort myself out, thank you!”

“Please do,” Shao grumbles.

“Oh, you shut the hell up!” Mylene snaps. She turns her gaze back to Mr. Johnson. “You know you hired a criminal, right? You better watch him! He stole from the last lady who owned this place!”

Mylene stomps her way out of Les Inferno like a little kid having a temper tantrum.

And Shao should let her go. He should watch her leave and pray to God that he’s lucky enough to never see her again.

But he can’t. She said that word.

By the time Shaolin pushes through the door, Mylene’s already nearing the corner, her anger making her move fast even in those stupid high heels.

Shaolin walks just far enough for this to not be the bouncer’s business.

“I can’t believe you still think you’re any better than me!” Shao yells at Mylene’s retreating form. “Not when you’re in my club dressed like a broke-down drag queen!”

Mylene freezes, her back hard. She clenches her fists and turns back around to stomp towards Shaolin.

Shao has a moment where he realizes that this might not be the best idea he’s ever had.

“First of all,” Mylene says, her voice low and dangerous, “this isn’t your club. It wasn’t when Annie was running it and it isn’t not that some white men are running it. Second of all, I’m actually doing what I want to do with my life. “

“Oh, so you want to look like one of Pakoussa’s rejects?”

“I’d rather look like Pakoussa’s rejects than one of one of Annie’s! What happened to her, anyway, Shao? Did she finally start looking for more capable employees?”

“Actually, she did me a huge favor and dropped dead.”

Mylene jerks her head back, and Shao grins at the fact that he managed to catch her off guard.

Shao continues, “And Cadillac moved on to Chicago, and, if I’m lucky, I’ll never see him again. Now, I was hoping to be that lucky with you, but I guess luck just wasn’t on my side this time around.”

Mylene rolls her eyes and puts both hands on  her hips. “Oh please. I’m not the one that seems to specialize in ruining people’s lives. You talk to Boo lately? How about Ra-Ra?”

Mylene’s words knock Shaolin’s out of his throat. He feels himself go cold all over, which should be impossible in the Bronx’s May heat.

Mylene glares at him. “All you ever did was ruin things. If Zeke hadn’t gotten away from you when he did, you probably would’ve gotten him sent to jail, too.”

Shaolin feels tears spring into his eyes, but he’ll be damned if he cries in front Mylene fucking Cruz. He shoves his fists into his pants pocket and stares at Mylene as hard as he can .

“I mean, I’m not the only one who got a knack for fucking up, though,” Shao says. “How’s your uncle doing, by the way? How’s jail treating him?

“Shut up,” Mylene’s voice sounds like storm clouds. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I don’t?” Shaolin challenges. “Because I could’ve sworn I saw him on the news, getting sent to jail for burning down houses for chump change. Pretty sure everyone saw him, actually.”

“Shao . . .”

“Pretty sure your uncle helped every major criminal  in this fucking city in some way, what with all that money he stole. But I guess crime is different since he’s Papa Fuerte, and I’m just some street rat?”

“I said shut up!

“You know you’ve always been a fucking hypocrite, right?”

Shao’s voice starts to shake. He should stop while he’s ahead.

But Shao’s never been one to do that. He’s always pushed and pushed, even when it would only lead to things ending badly for him. Shao’s never known any other way. And this night--this argument in the middle of the street--should be no different.

“All that shit you talked about me,” Shaolin continues, years-old hurt creeping into his voice, “and yet your family was doing worse! At least I worked for Annie because I had to!”

“You had to?!” Mylene’s incredulous voice bounces off of the buildings surrounding them. “You can’t actually think I believe that! What, like you had no choice?!”

“YES! I HAD NO FUCKING CHOICE!”

The whole city probably heard Shao just now. He doesn’t care. Mylene’s stunned silence opens a door Shao thought he’d nailed shut.

“I had no choice! ” Shao shouts. “Because Annie would’ve killed Zeke if I didn’t go back to working for her!”

Mylene’s eyes bug and she looks absolutely horrified. Shao has no time to take comfort in her terror, to find any solace in the fact that Mylene finally seems to be listening to someone other than herself.

“All that shit I ever did? I did it to survive! And to make sure everybody else survived, too! But you don’t care about that, do you? None of that matters because it doesn’t fit whatever the fuck you’ve always thought of me!”

Mylene’s gaze hits the ground. Shao can see that she’s biting the inside of her cheek. Shao swallows back tears that keep threatening to spill over.

“And you know what? You’re right about me,” Shao says. Mylene looks up in confusion, but Shao continues. “You’re right that I fucked up. That I ruined everything. Zeke told me that before he left, so I don’t need you coming back to remind me! But at least I was trying to do I what I thought would help him!”

“But so was I ,” Mylene interrupts, her voice strained. “But you hated me for that. Because you thought I was going to take you away from him or something. You acted like I was hurting him when all I ever did was try to love him.”

“Oh, please!” Shaolin yells. “You know that’s not true! You didn’t always love him! Not really! You picked up him and put him down whenever you wanted!”

“And you didn’t?” Mylene demands. “You didn’t flip out whenever he chose me over you? Face it, Shao, we were both selfish as fuck over a boy who didn’t even know what he wanted to be when he grew up!”

Didn’t know what he wanted to be? The phrase strikes Shao, making him deeply uncomfortable. Because, as far as he knew, Zeke wanted to be an MC. His MC.

Mylene reads Shaolin’s mind.

“He told you he wanted to your MC, right? That’s what he always said?” Mylene asks.

Shaolin nods silently, feeling his stomach start to sink.

“Okay, he’d say that to you, but tell me that he wanted the internship, that he wanted to go to college! He’d bounce between me and you all the time!”

Mylene throws her hands up in the air, frustration overtaking her.

“Zeke didn’t know a damn thing about himself, Shao! And he still doesn’t! He wrote me the entire time I was in California filming this stupid movie, and, Shao, I swear every one of his letters sounded like it was written by a different person.”

Shao wants to not care about what she’s telling him. But he can’t help it: her words are making him rethink . . . well, everything. His entire relationship looks different now. Zeke looks different now.

It’s been a year since Zeke left Shao standing in an alley with tears streaming down his face. Shao had pushed the best thing he’d ever experienced away, and he knew he’d never get it back. Shao knew that had been his fault.

But what if Zeke was going to walk away, anyhow? If Boo never sold drugs and got taken away to juvie, would there have been another reason for Zeke to leave Shao behind? To run off to chase a dream he thought he was supposed to be chasing? Was Zeke just meant to eventually choose something else?

Shao looks up at Mylene and sees the pain and sadness clear on her face.

“But you still with him,” Shao says, more confused and tired than anything else. “You were always with him, even whenever ya’ll were on breaks.”

Mylene fidgets and ungracefully crosses her arms over her chest.

“Because I needed him,” Mylene’s voice cracks. She starts to cry.

And Shao . . . Shao deflates. He’s never been okay with people crying, even people he didn’t like. Seeing people cry always takes something out of Shaolin.

Seeing Mylene’s tears is even more taxing. He’s spent so long thinking that he hated her, that there’s was nothing that could redeem her. And he knows that Mylene’s thought that about him. And yet, here they are, standing outside of Les Inferno at nearly 3 a.m.

“I always thought,” Shao mumbles. He feels like the ground beneath his feet has been moved. “I don’t know. I just always thought you had everything I didn’t. Zeke, music, a family--”

Mylene laughs harshly and the sound startles Shao.

“A fucking family! ” Mylene says with derision. “I never had that shit! How could I ever have a family when I didn’t even know that my ‘uncle’ was actually my damn father!”

“Wait, what?!

Shaolin thinks that Mylene could actually knock Shaolin over with a damn feather at this point.

“Yep!” Mylene cries. Another round of terrifying laughter escapes her throat. “My uncle’s my father, my father was my uncle, and they were both fucking criminals! Just like you said! And all I ever wanted to do was fucking sing ! And even when I got that I didn’t really get it! I have to wear these tight clothes and painful shoes! And listen to people tell me that I’m a ripoff of Misty Holloway all the damn time!”

Shaolin flinches, thinking about what he did earlier.

Mylene starts to cry again. “I didn’t want any of this! I just wanted to fucking sing! And for the people who say they give a fuck about me to actually give a fuck about me! That’s all!”

Before Shao can respond, Mylene turns and starts rush down the sidewalk again.

“Mylene, wait! Hold up!”

Shao gets it. He can’t believe that he gets it. But he gets it.

Mylene runs surprisingly fast, turning the corner and passing several buildings before Shao is able to catch up to her.

Mylene abruptly stops, keeping her back to Shao. Shao gently touches her arm and turns her around.

“Mylene--shit!”

Blood coats Mylene’s fingers as she desperately tries to stop a nosebleed.

“I don’t know,” Mylene mumbles, cringing when blood drips into her mouth.

“Shit! Just--come with me, okay? It’ll be okay!”

Shao drapes his arm around Mylene shoulders. Then he rushes them down the street.

**

“SHAOLIN! GET YOUR ASS OVER HERE!”

Annie’s anger is louder than Al Green’s “Love & Happiness.” That’s saying something, too: she got it playing at full volume.

Shaolin ducks behind a wall and listens to the horns in Al Green’s bridge.

This is stupid. This is insane. He just tried to go outside.

But she’s about to kill for it.

And any other day, Shao would just take whatever punishment Annie would give him.

Not today. Shao just wants to go outside.

“Shao-lin! Where are you?! I heard you come up the stairs!”

Annie stomps near him, and Shao jerks back from the wall like it’s electrocuted him. He’s not that far from the staircase. He can just go back down it and--where the fuck does he think he’s going to go after that?!

“SHAOLIN!”

Shit.

Shaolin pushes himself off of the wall and heads for the staircase. If she’s going to kill him, he might as well be moving.

Annie grabs the back of his shirt, and he nearly falls. In fact, it’s her grip on his back that keeps him upright.

Annie’s grip somehow tightens, and Shao grabs the banister. The bottom of the staircase looks closer and closer.

“Sh-Shao!”

Annie pulls him back.

Then she gasps. Loudly.

She lets go.

Shaolin slips forward and grabs the banister with his other hand. He freezes to the spot, not sure what’s about to happen next.

Annie makes another gasping sound. This is one is smaller, desperate. Like she’s choking.

And then Shao hears a loud thud.

**

“Aren’t you going to ask?”

Shao peers at Mylene from around his bottle of Scotch. Her nose stopped bleeding, but not before it got all over the front of her dress. Ice had gotten most of it up, but expensive dresses need expensive dry cleaning.

Mylene is practically swimming in the sweatshirt and sweatpants Shao gave her. Makeup-less and curled up on his couch, Mylene looks completely harmless. It’d be funny if she wasn’t turning Shao’s entire life upside down tonight.

“Ask what?” Shao’s playing dumb. He looks at Mylene while taking another swig of his liquor.

Mylene snorts. “Don’t be so gracious, Shao. About the nose bleed. I’m pretty sure you know why I got it.”

Shao puts the bottle down and shrugs, trying to keep it cool. He wishes he weren’t so alarmed, but there’s no need to show Mylene that.

“I mean, you’ll tell me if you want to, right? You told me everything else.”

Mylene stares at him, skeptical at first. Then she sighs.

“It started at the Rubycon, the night I basically auditioned for the movie,” Mylene confesses quietly.

Shaolin frowns. “That long?”

“Yep,” Mylene’s shoulders slump and she lays her head on her knees. “I’ve stopped before. Stopped for a couple of months, but . . .”

Mylene falls silent. She stares at up at the Christmas lights Shaolin has strung up on his wall; the red and gold lights color Mylene’s face. It’s the one thing Shao kept from the Temple. Everything else was lost.

“Do Yolanda and Regina know?” Shao asks carefully.

Yes ,” Mylene fiercely. “They know. And they’re stressed out about it. Especially Regina. I actually cause my friends to stress out.”

Shaolin can’t bear the look of sadness on Mylene’s face. He hesitantly closes the space between them and gently touches her wrist.

“At least you know they give a fuck about you,” Shaolin says softly.

Mylene looks up at with teary eyes. Then she smiles.

**

“Make that ass bounce harder when you walking!”

It takes every fiber of Mylene’s being to stop turn around and slap the shit out of the PA that just shouted that to her.

Movie sets are hell, Mylene’s decided. Jackie had told her it would be, but she didn’t listen to him. She guesses she was too caught up in how excited she was. How new everything would be. How far away she’d be from that horrible place she left behind. The people she left behind.

So , no, Mylene didn’t really listen when Jackie told her that movies are hell, and that men on movie sets are disgusting and that no one does anything about it. Jackie’s been around the block several times. He’s seen some shit, has let shit happen to women. Has had shit happened to him. Mylene should’ve listened to him.

Jackie had also told her she’d need to depend on her girls more than ever. She really should’ve listened to that. Maybe it would’ve stopped Regina and Mylene from arguing again. It’s harder to get along with Regina now that she and Yolanda have let Mylene in on the fact that they’re in love. They’re in love, and Mylene thinks they don't’ really need her anymore. Mylene can’t help it: she just keeps thinking that one day, when this movie is over, Yolanda and Regina will go off and be happy with their newfound success. Maybe they’ll go sing on their own.

But they’ll be gone. And Mylene will be alone with dirty men.

Mylene slams the door of her trailer, pressing her back against the door. It’s at that very moment that Mylene realizes that Shaolin Fantastic had once said almost the exact same thing to Mylene.

Shaolin Fantastic, that fucking street rat that made a mess of her life. God, things would’ve been so much better had Zeke never met that trash. Shaolin was like a deadly disease that was super contagious. Everyone around him caught it and died. And there was no cure.

Mylene plops down on her couch, the memory of Shaolin clawing at her mind. She just wants everything to stop .

Mylene looks around her trailer, searching as if the walls or the table will give her an answer. Her eyes drop to a small tube on her table. Mylene snatches it up, staring at the white powder inside. Her answer.

**

Shaolin’s phone is louder than any alarm.

The loud ringing causes him to jolt upright from his couch. He untangles himself from the blankets he’d used to make himself comfortable and stumbles over the phone on the kitchen wall.

“Hello?”

“. . . Shaolin?”

Yolanda’s voice somehow warm Shao up and almost chills him to the bone. It’s like he’s hearing a ghost on the other end of his phone.

“I--yeah,” Shaolin stammers. Shit. What is going on ? “Yolanda? What’s up?”

“Who’s ‘Curtis Anderson’?” Yolanda’s utterly baffled voice brings Shaolin back to reality.

“That’s me , Yolanda. That’s my name. My actual name,” Shao says, leaning against his wall. “Who gave you this number?”

“A man called Tim Johnson, said he’s owner of Les Inferno?” Yolanda answers. “When did Les Inferno get a new owner?”

“Long story. Long, fucked up story.”

Yolanda chuckles softly. “Oh, okay. Anyway, me and Regina called Les Inferno because we were looking for Mylene. She said she was going there last night, but she didn’t come back to our place. And when we called he gave us this number saying ‘Curtis Anderson’ saw her last . . .?”

“Oh, uh, yeah.” The pain and trauma of a few hours ago come rushing back to him. “Yeah, I, um, ran into her last night?”

What the fuck is going on?!” Shaolin hears Regina yell.

“Yeah, Shao, what’s up? We heard she got kicked out of Les Inferno last night. And that she was freaking out on somebody outside.”

Before Shaolin can begin to explain, Mylene comes padding out of Shao’s bathroom, holding a small cup and his mouthwash.

“What’s wrong?” she mouths.

Shao looks at her and puts the phone to his chest.

“It’s Yolanda and Regina,” he says dryly.

Mylene’s eyes go ridiculously wide. Without a word, she takes the phone from Shao.

“ . . . Hey,” Mylene says meekly.

Shao assumes that Yolanda and Regina attack her with a never-ending list of questions, because Mylene’s voice noticeably changes.

“Yeah. Yeah, that happened! I just flipped out! I know, I know! I’m sorry! Yeah, I learned that last night. Shao and I ended up talking and--NO! REGINA! Oh my God , Regina! Just--okay! Yes, I know. I know. His building’s on Rhinelander and Haight. I’ll be downstairs. Probably. NO, Regina! I swear!”

By the time Mylene’s hung up, Shaolin’s gathered Mylene’s wallet, shoes, and semi-ruined dress.

“They’ll be here in like 15 minutes?” Shao asks.

Mylene nods sheepishly and takes her clothes from Shao’s hands.

**

Shao hears his voice. In his dreams, his nightmares. On the wind that breezes through the cracked windows in Annie’s apartments. Shao always hears Zeke’s voice.

Shao wonders when Zeke stopped being a person and became a virus; when did Zeke infect him? Why can’t Shao get him outta his system?

The icy water pierces Shao’s skin. Shao scrubs at his neck and chest like he can feel Zeke there. He kinda can, actually.

Shao knows why Zeke won’t leave him alone. He’s just never wanted to say it.

Shao guesses it’s safe to admit that he actually does know something about love: it’s useless. It’ll get you killed. You’ll give your life away for someone who’ll walk out on you and not look back. You’ll rot and die all because you gave every bit of your life to the person who you want to have it the most. The person you love.

That’s love. And Shao hates it.

**

Neither of them know what possesses Mylene to kiss Shao. Or for neither one of them to not freak out and run away afterwards.

But she does: chastely presses her lips to his. Shao tenses at first, then relaxes.

And then Mylene disappears into a cab with her girls. And Shao is alone again.

**

“Just put it right there, Curtis. Thanks!”

Mr. Johnson bought a new DJ booth. Shao still don’t know what for since nobody’s actually djing shit. But whatever, Shao’s not gonna knock it. He knows Johnson mostly just bought it because he feels safe to do so now. He’d wanted to get it before the club opened, but didn’t know how the first few nights would go.

Well, it’s been two weeks since the grand opening and it’s been full every night. Johnson made the investment.

Shao sets the mic up right here Johnson asks him to. Shao fiddles with the wires and, for the one millionth time, thinks of the insanity that was the grand opening. No matter how often Johnson and the others mention the disco singer that had the melt down on opening night, Shaolin still feels like it hadn’t actually happened, that it was a painful, confusing fever dream.

Shao keeps trying to put it out of his mind.

Shao’s decided that he’ll be better off if he pretends the night didn’t exist. The argument on the street, the soft conversation on his couch, Yolanda and Regina over the phone. Mylene’s kiss. Shao needs to wipe it all away. To reset his brain to before that night.

Because that night, as twisted and disarming as it was, sparked something in Shao. Hearing what Mylene had to say, having her listen to what he had to say. Sitting next to her and feeling that he had a friend again. All these things reached deep within Shao and lit a small flame in his core, one that had been long snuffed out. And the longer he thinks about it, the more that flame grows. If he’s not careful, it’ll become a fire stronger than the one that burned when he first met Zeke.

He doesn’t want to take that chance. Not again.

It’s been two weeks since he last saw Mylene. If Shao’s lucky, another two weeks will pass, and two after that, and two after that. Shao can go back to whatever version of “normal” he’s in right now.

It’ll be okay. If Shao can just move on, then it’ll be okay.

**

God don’t like Shaolin. He can’t, not with the way he does him.

This ridiculous rainstorm is just further evidence of God’s apparent disdain for Shaolin.  

It’s what Shao gets for going outside with no umbrella. Or for leaving his fucking apartment at all. Shao didn’t need to go to the bodega. And he especially didn’t need to go outside when it’s cloudy and it’s May and the Bronx has never been good at picking what kind of weather it wanted to have. He could’ve just managed.

Rain pours down on Shao right after he steps after his building.

He runs down the street, mad as hell and soaking wet, just trying to get into the store and out again. He just wants to get his supplies, wait for the rain to pass and go back to his place. That’s all Shao wants.

Instead, he goes into the bodega and runs directly into Ezekiel Figuero.

Shao wants so badly to rationalize Zeke away. Maybe it’s just some light-skinned man that looks like him. He doesn’t even look that much like him: this man has a curly beard, and his afro is curly, as well. He’s wearing a boring long-sleeved, light green shirt that Zeke would’ve never put on. It can’t be.

But his eyes. His gigantic, brown, absolutely beautiful eyes. They turn bright with recognition, then excitement.

Then pain. Then fear.

They stare at one another.

“Shaolin . . .” Zeke’s voice, rough and gravelly as ever, breaks over Shao’s name.

Shao turns around and runs back out into the rain.

**

This boy that he almost stabbed tonight is standing super close to him.

Shao should mind. He should do more than mind. He should tell him to back the fuck off.

The big-haired punk’s back is pressed up against his chest. The top of Zeke’s afro--this nigga really needs to cut his hair--keeps tickling Shao’s bottom lip.

 Shao’s never had another dude this close up on him before this Zeke kid.

Shao should mind. But he doesn’t.

He makes it worse, actually: starts to share a blunt with the kid. Passes it back and forth as Zeke watches the get down with super-wide eyes. And while Zeke watches the get down, Shao watches Zeke.

Zeke’s . . . he’s more fun to watch, Shao thinks. He just looks so amazed , like he’s seeing another planet for the first time. He’s got passion and excitement radiating off of him. It makes Shao a little light-headed. Shao sees Zeke smile, and he feels a fluttering in his stomach. Zeke passes the blunt back to him, and Shao’s fingers tremble as he takes it.

Shao just met this fucking kid. Honestly wanted to kill him earlier tonight. But now, he has to stop himself from throwing his arm around the kid’s neck, from grinning too wide in his face.

Shao doesn’t know what’s happening to him, but he knows that it’s bad.

**

Shao’s barely back in his apartment before his phone starts ringing.

Shao sheds his soaking wet shirt and trips out of his shoes before striding across the room and answering it.

“Hello?”

“Shao? It’s Mylene.”

Shao almost collapses. In fact, he has to use his free hand to grip the edge of the countertop. So much for being lucky.

Shao, breathless and shaking, finds his voice.

“If you're calling to tell me that your boyfriend is back in town, you're about 5 minutes too late.”

“You saw him?! Just now?!” Shao imagines Mylene’s eyes going wide with shock, and it’s almost funny to him.

“Yes, I did,” Shao answers. “I saw him in a got damn bodega, Mylene.”

“Shit!” Mylene cries. “He just got back last night. I was hoping I could catch you before you ran into him.”

“So you knew I’d run into him?” Shao’s shock starts to morph into irritation.

“I didn’t know know, but the Bronx is small! Plus, I knew he’d want to see you at some point.”

Shao laughs harshly. “ Want to see me? Girl, did you forget what happened the last time he and I spoke to each other?”

That ’s why he’d want to see you, asshole. To patch things up,” Mylene’s annoyed voice is oddly comforting to Shao.

Shao lets go of the countertop, only to find that he needs to lean up against the wall behind him.

“He must’ve told you that,” Shao says, "when you saw him last night?”

Mylene sighs, the noise creating the briefest moment of static over the phone lines.

“Yeah, he did. He told me a lot things, actually. Zeke’s . . . I don’t think Yale did him any good.”

Shao really wishes he could find some pleasure in those words. He wants to be able to say “I told you so.” Instead, he just feels sad for Zeke. No matter how much he thought Zeke hated him, Shao still wanted him to be happy.

“Well, I mean,” Shao starts hesitantly, “he’s home for awhile now. And you’re here. He’s always better whenever ya’ll are together, so . . .”

Mylene chuckles lightly. “Now see, I always thought about you and him. That he seemed better when you two are together.”

A heat rises in Shao, and he feels himself blush.

“It’s like you said, right? He always bounced between us?” Shao asks, almost afraid of what how she’ll respond when she’s not high in the dead of night.

But her voice is warm as she agrees. “Pretty much.”

Shao sighs, starting to feel himself relax a little. But then he thinks of something.

“Mylene, did you tell Zeke about what happened a couple of weeks ago?”

Shao can hear the look of guilt on Mylene’s face.

“Uh . . . not really?”

Mylene! ” Shaolin swears the ground beneath his feet moves.

“I didn’t really say much, Shao! I mostly just listened to him talk!” Mylene says. “The only thing I really talked about was the movie and how much we missed each other.”

“Great,” Shao says flatly. “So when I see him again, I gotta apologize for nearly wrecking his life and kissing his girlfriend.”

“ . . . Actually, I kissed you.”

Hearing Mylene say it aloud doesn’t make it feel any less surreal. And since she brought it up--and Shaolin could never forget it anyway--he might as well ask.

“Yeah, you did. Why did you do that, exactly?”

Mylene laughs nervously.

“I don’t know exactly?” she says with uncertainty. “I think it’s just been so long since I actually felt . . . close to somebody. And after the stuff we told each other, how you helped me even after I caused a scene at Les Inferno . . . it felt right. Besides, you were super sweet on me when we got back to your place. You can't deny that.”

“That’s because you were bleeding and hurting! What was I supposed to do? Be mean?”

Mylene laughs, her voice full of humor this time around.

“I don’t know! I just wasn’t expecting it! I wasn't expecting anything that happened that night.”

“Neither was I.”

They fall into a silence that should be awkward over the phone, but it is weirdly comfortable. Then Mylene sighs again.

“Just . . . look, I’ll talk to Zeke again. Tell him everything. Can you promise me that you’ll talk to him the next time you see him?”

Shao snorts. He really wants to reach back to the part of himself that would never promise Mylene Cruz anything. But he can’t find it.

“Yeah, yeah. I promise.”

“Thank you,” relief paints Mylene’s voice.

Shao looks over at his Christmas lights and feels anxiety rise in him.

“Anytime.”

**

“The next time” comes when Shao is least prepared.

Because Zeke doesn’t play fair. He never has. Because he could call Shaolin and plan a time for them to meet. He could have Mylene call Shao to set something up.

But, no. He doesn’t do that. That’s not his style, apparently. Zeke would much rather just show up in front of Les Inferno at 3 a.m., when Shao’s tired and defenseless.

Shaolin really doesn’t want to have another long ass conversation outside of this damn club.

Shao walks until he’s nearly toe to toe with Zeke. Zeke opens his mouth, probably ready to launch into some long speech.

Shao holds up a finger. His nerves are ragged enough.

“We gotta go to my place. Okay?”

Zeke, eyes as big as dinner plates, nods.

**

Zeke is 100% certain that no one at Yale knows who Grandmaster Flash is.

Zeke could be wrong. It’s not like he’s surveyed every student about the ins-and-outs of a burgeoning new music. In the back of his mind, Zeke thinks that somebody here could surprise him.

But, if Zeke is being real, he knows he’s right. Why would these white kids know anything about Grandmaster Flash, or Kool Herc, or the Zulu Nation? Why would those mean anything to these kids? Shit, the few Black kids who are here act like they don’t mean anything to them.

Zeke kind of thinks they shouldn’t mean anything to him anymore, either. He’d said that he’d forget about all of that when he started school. Zeke figured he could put it out of his mind, pretend it was all some horrible dream.

That’s what the other Black kids in his position did. He’d gone to the little informational meeting hosted specifically for the very few Black kids at Yale. They were able to talk about their past lives easily, like they truly understood that it was the past. But Zeke couldn’t. Even as he tried to mingle around the room, his past felt tattooed on his skin, branded on him in a language only he could understand.

Then again, that’s not really surprising. Zeke doesn’t think anyone could truly ever understand what he left behind.

How could they understand the girl of his dreams living out her dreams all the way across the country? How could they understand the feeling of despair he feels whenever he thinks too hard about how far apart they are?

How could they understand the music--the glorious, chaotic music--that both saved and destroyed Zeke’s life? Worse yet, how could they understand the man that both saved and destroyed Zeke’s life? The man that gave him wings, and taught him to take flight? The man who knocks Zeke out of the same sky he put Zeke in?

Zeke himself could never understand that. Even when it was happening--when he was tearing himself apart to hold on to these two people--he never understood why he couldn’t just let go? Why did Zeke insist on pulling both Mylene and Shao as close to him as he possibly could, even when it hurt all three of them?

Zeke does this all the time: he lies in bed, staring up at this ceiling, skipping class to go back and forth with himself. It was Mylene: she was too careful, too calculated, too selective with her love. No, it was Shao: he was too reckless, too dangerous, too wild. He was not something Zeke had seen before or had seen since. Zeke always wants to believe that they simply wanted too much.

But Zeke always loses this argument with himself.

Because he knows what the common denominator is. Zeke could never choose because he never made choices. He could never commit. He could never sit still. Zeke will never understand how he could be so loyal yet flighty.

Zeke loved them both so much. But, in the end, that love wasn’t enough. They needed more, and Zeke couldn’t deliver.

How could his classmates ever understand that?

**

“I thought ‘your place’ would be the temple.”

Zeke sounds nervous, which is weirdly calming for Shao. It’s probably because he was expecting Zeke to sound angry.

It’s not calming enough, though: Shao’s short laugh is riddled with nerves.

“The temple kinda burned down, actually.”

“Oh.”

Zeke’s voice sound so disheartened that it’s shocking. Shao, determined to not look Zeke in the face until he’s ready, walks directly into his kitchen. From the corner of his eyes, he can see Zeke standing awkwardly in the living room.

“Sit down, Books,” Shao say with a wave of his hand. He’s grateful for the fact that he can’t see how Zeke reacts to his old nickname. “I’mma get us a drink.”

Zeke promptly sits on the couch. Shao can feel him watching Shao walk through the kitchen. Shao tries to focus on getting out the bottle of bourbon he conned some cat on the street into buying for him.

When Shao re-emerges with the bottle and two separate glasses, he sees a flash of disappointment in Zeke’s eyes. Neither of them can remember the last time they didn’t share a bottle.

Shao sits down the couch, putting the glasses and bottle on the table in front of them. It’s funny: Zeke’s sitting in the same spot Mylene sat in. Zeke takes up more space, though; elbows on his spread knees, his head lowered. A look of worry on his face.

He’s entirely too quiet for Shao’s liking.

“So . . .” Shao starts, realizing just how awkward he sounds.

“Oh! Um,” Zeke bites his lip, bashfully looking up to fully face Shaolin.

Shao can’t believe it: the natural wordsmith is struggling to speak. Damn. Have they really changed that much? Shao looks Zeke over again. Mylene was right: that school didn’t do him any good. Zeke looks tired , worn-down even. And he looks . . . well, lost. Lost but still determined.  It’s sad.

But, oddly familiar? Now that Shao thinks about it, it kinda reminds him of the very first night they met, when Zeke was getting booed at that party. He’d needed Shao to step in then. And after Shao did it, Zeke took off.

“Okay,” Shao tries, inspired by this revelation, “if you’re here, that means you’ve talked to Mylene. Right?”

It works. Zeke looks at Shao with surprise, blinking fast. And then he snorts loudly.

“Oh yeah, I definitely talked to her,” Zeke says. “If I’m being real, I can’t believe you talked to her. She told me some stuff and .  . . well, shit.”

Zeke bites his lip again, and his eyes quickly dart to the ground. Shao’s losing him.

Thinking fast, Shao opens the bourbon and pours them both a glass before setting the bottle on the table.

“How about this? You tell me something Mylene said, and I’ll clarify it for you. Okay?”

Zeke levels Shao with a skeptical look. But before Shao can feel like he has to convince him, Zeke grabs his glass of bourbon and downs it. Then he twists around to face Shao better.

“Mylene said she kissed you.”

Shaolin laughs bitterly: of course that’s the first thing Zeke wants to address.

“I told her you’d be mad about that,” Shao says. “But yeah, she did.”

Zeke’s eyes bug out and Shaolin rolls his.

“Don’t worry, it’s not because she’s in love with me or anything,” Shao says. “We just had a long night.”

“Oh, she told me that, too. Shao, is Annie really dead?”

Shao briefly remembers how dizzy he felt when he watched her body be taken by the coroner. He downs his glass and pours them both more.

“Yeah, she is. Had a heart attack.”

“And you were working for her . . . to protect me?”

It’s Shao’s turn to look at the floor. His mind’s eye replays that moment. But, unlike the thousands of times before this, it doesn’t hurt anymore.

“Yeah, I was,” Shao says. “Because she said she’d kill all of ya’ll, starting with you.”

He looks over at Zeke, and the sadness in Zeke’s eyes nearly kills him.

“Don’t apologize, okay, Books? That was my choice, remember?”

Zeke jerks like Shao’s hit him or something.

“A choice you made for me . After I cussed you out and left you in a fucking alley?”

Zeke’s suddenly very agitated; it throws Shaolin off.

“I mean, it’s not like you knew or anything,” Shaolin says softly. “I never really told you how bad it was . . .”

“Because I didn’t fucking ask!” Zeke shouts. He sees Shao flinch and immediately regrets raising his voice.

“I never asked how bad it was with you,” Zeke continues, his voice much more tempered.
“Just like I never asked how bad it was with Mylene, either. I just kinda . . . I mean, I just kinda went along with everything, didn’t I?”

Shao shrugs. “You did what you thought was right, didn’t you?”

Zeke scoffs and shakily takes another drink. “I did what felt good , not what I thought was right. I knew it wasn’t right to talk to you that way, but I did it anyway because I was mad. There’s so much shit I did that had nothing to do with being ‘right.’”

“But that was shit that I brought you into, remember? You wouldn’t have ever been involved with any of the drug stuff had you not met me?”

Zeke rolls his eyes at Shao. “You didn’t make me do anything, Shao! Everything I did, I did on my own.”

Shao can’t help the annoyance he feels. He’s been beating himself up for more than a year over this man and Zeke has chosen this very moment to take the responsibility off of him?

“Well, that’s different than what you said back then!”

“I was wrong back then, Shao. And I’m sorry.”

Shao almost wishes he could not believe Zeke. But no one this pitiful looking is lying. It’s just impossible.

But still, Shao really wishes he could not believe Zeke. He’s too tired to hope against hope that Books is actually willing to work things out. That the man he loves--that Shaolin was stupid enough to fall in love with--has come back to him.

Shao downs another drink. He should really stop, because he feels his hand starting to shake. But Shao knows that he probably won’t get through this without the aid of liquor.

“You know,” Shao says, “I had assumed you and I would never speak to each other again. That you’d go off to school and make yourself forget I existed.”

Zeke hangs his head guiltily. “I tried to,” he confesses. “It just didn’t work.”

Shao chuckles lowly. “I was actually hoping you’d forget about me. To be honest, I kinda just wanted you and Mylene to go on about your merry way.”

Zeke goes quiet and still as a statute. Great, now Shao’s offended him. He’s going to get up and walk away and actually do what it is that Shao thought he wanted. Shao’s managed to undo whatever progress they were about to make. He’s--

Zeke reaches out and puts his hand on Shao’s knee.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Zeke nearly whispers. “At least, not without you.”

This . . . isn’t happening. Not the way Shao thinks it is. It can’t be, right?

As Shao turns around to see just show Zeke just how confused he is, he realizes that Zeke is suddenly way closer than he was before. Shao can all of the lashes on his bottom eyelash line.

“Books . . .”

Whatever protests Shao’s about to make catches in his throat. Before he can fully process what’s happening, Zeke’s leaning in.

This kiss isn’t like the one Mylene gave him, soft and chaste. No, Zeke’s kiss is hungry , like he plans to devour Shaolin. Zeke wraps his arm around Shao’s waist, and maybe he is planning on completely taking Shao over. Shao puts a hand on the back of Zeke’s neck and kisses back just as hungrily.

Then reality hits him.

Shao squirms until Zeke is off of him. Then he stands up, every part of his body vibrating with anxiety, lust, and frustration.

Why do you two insist on kissing me?” Shao grumbles as he starts to pace the room.

Zeke tries to fix his face so he doesn’t look so devastated.

“Well, we can’t be too confident about Mylene’s reasons,” Zeke says, forcing his voice to steady, “but I did it because I’m in love with you.”

No , you’re not!”

“Yes, I am, Shao. I love you!”

Shao doesn’t want to yell. He doesn’t want to fight this at all. Dear God, Shao doesn’t want to fight this. He wants to sink as far into this as he possibly can. But Shao knows better.

“You can’t love me, remember?” Shao demands. “ That was the problem last time! That you couldn’t choose between me and Mylene, and you couldn’t handle us both! That’s a big part of why everything got so fucked up!”

“I know, I know,” Zeke says. He stands up, taking a couple of steps towards Shao.

“You ain’t acting like you know! What makes you think it’ll be different this time?”

“Well, for one, you two don’t hate each other this time around,” Zeke answers. “As a matter of fact, you seem to actually care about each other. We all want the same things this time around.”

“It looks that way now ,” Shao says. “But what about later on? When you go back to school? Or when she books another job? Or you two remember you were just fine without me?”

“Shao, that’s not going to happen! Shao--”

Zeke reaches out and grabs Shao’s hands, his thumb running over the back of the right one.

“Shao, me and Mylene talked about it last night. We had a really long , kinda crazy talk. We think we could work this time. All three of us. Please.”

Shao stares up at Zeke. He sees that earnestness, that tenderheartedness that made him fall for Zeke in the first place. Shao remembers the feeling he got when Mylene smiled at him, how easy it felt to wait for Regina and Yolanda with her.

Zeke squeezes his hands, eyes filling with tears.

Shao looks at their hands and closes his eyes. Then he snatches his back.

“You should go, Books.”

He doesn’t open his eyes to see how Books reacts. Shao feels foolish, standing here with his eyes shut as if it’ll erase all of the potential pain and abandonment. But he’s too tired to care.

Zeke makes a sad noise. Then he leaves Shao’s apartment.

**

Mylene opens her apartment door to Zeke’s sad, slightly drunk face. Without saying a single word, he tells her what happened.

Mylene sighs and pulls him inside.

They’re going to have to do this together.

**

“Yo, Cur-tis!”

Gary’s singsong voice jolts Shao out of his absent-minded cleaning. His chestnut-colored face turns into one huge smile when he’s gotten Shao’s attention.

“You got two guests looking for you!”

Shao’s stomach drops. It can’t be.

Gary nods his head, indicating Mylene and Zeke, standing near the front door.

These motherfuckers.

Shaolin strides towards them, utterly stunned at how determined they are to ruin his life.

“I’m getting you niggas banned from here--!”

They each grab an arm and pull Shaolin out of the club and onto the sidewalk with them. It’s 1 p.m., and the sun is shining down harshly on them. Shaolin feels utterly exposed as he glares at Zeke and Mylene.

“Look,” Shao tries (and fails) to harden his voice, “I already told you--”

“You’re being a coward,” Mylene announces. “That’s all there is to it. You’re afraid.”

Shaolin gapes at Mylene before slamming his mouth shut and turning an indignant gaze onto Zeke. Zeke looks back at him with both eyebrows raised.

“I think you are, too, Shao.”

Shao could argue. He could bring up every hurtful thing the three of them have ever said to one another. He could bring up each and every time they’ve let each other down. There are a million and one reasons why they can’t work.

But none of that would make what Mylene just said wrong.

Fine, then. Shao finally drops his defenses. His entire body suddenly feels loose as he looks at them both.

“You know what? Yes, I am!” Shao says. “I’m very afraid! I keep thinking of before and . . .”

Zeke and Mylene almost look relieved to hear Shao say that.

“But we’re not like before, Shao,” Mylene says. “You can tell that right now, can’t you?”

Shao looks at Mylene and feels a warmth that has nothing to do with the sun.

“Yeah, I can.”

Zeke’s face breaks into that dopey grin. Shao’s never wanted to kiss him more than he does in this moment.

Mylene reaches out and grabs Shao’s hand.

“Look, we’re not doing this for shits and giggles, okay?” Mylene says, a smile show up on her own face. “We’re not doing this to use you or whatever. And I know it sounds crazy as all hell. But, we wanna try. Can we try?”

Shao looks at the two overdramatic fools in front of him. He takes a moment to realize what exactly they’re asking him. It should be impossible. It should totally and completely impossible.

But maybe it’s not.

Shao looks at the way his fingers fit with Mylene’s. He smiles.

“Yeah.”