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Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

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Shen San’s rolling up a stick of weed when Da Qing slinks back into their cell after running errands for the guards. Shen San raises an eyebrow at him.wrinkling his nose at the stink of dried fish emanating from the crumpled plastic bag in Da Qing’s hands.

“What do you want, fatass?” Shen San asks, placing the joint on the small pile he had – worth a hundred times its weight in gold, here -  safely hidden under a loosened brick behind his bed, courtesy of his cell’s former occupant.

“The old man wants to see you after lunch.” Da Qing says. He tries to bum one off Shen San, but Shen San smacks the back of his head.

“Did Kun Lun say why?” Shen San asks sharply. Getting Kun Lun’s attention could mean either one of two things: either the guy was gonna reward you or drag you in for a beating. Sometimes the latter, not as a personal punishment but to prove a point to someone else.  Usually he did it to the newbies, but the ones who’d achieved some level of seniority were ripe for pickings, if Kun Lun decided they were getting too uppity. 

Da Qing shrugs, nabs the joint too fast for Shen San to stop him. “No fucking idea. But I got it on good authority that he’s meeting up with one of Dixing’s bosses today,” Shen San goes still, eyes sharp as Da Qing carefully puts the joint in his pocket and resumed eating his fish. “So better freshen up. They might be considering you for a post outside.” He lowers his voice. “I heard they’re having trouble.”

“They’ve been having trouble for ages.” Shen San grunts. He rolls up the last joint, sticks them back under the brick and glares at Da Qing. “If any of these go missing, I’m skinning you alive.” Da Qing just gives him a lazy salute.

The hours crawl by. Shen San sticks a joint down the pocket of his favourite warden, manages to get a shower stall to himself where he scrubs the ripe stench of humanity off of himself and trims his beard – just enough not to look so scruffy, but not clean-shaven enough to look like a kid. He  decides to forego the crush of people during lunch, dressing himself in his cleanest pair of jeans, his only decent shirt. He inspects himself critically on the small shard of mirror that Da Qing had somehow smuggled into their cell (that doubled as a shiv), then after a moment of thought, carefully rolls his sleeves up to reveal the tiger stripe tattoos covering the length of his arms.

On anyone else they would look pathetic. A wiry young kid trying too hard to look tough. But Shen San has the scars – and the experience – to match each and every single stripe. 

He’s waiting, Da Qing glaring at him when he confiscates his dried fish and cigarettes to keep him from stinking Yunlan up along with the rest of their cell – and then the Chief Corrections Officer comes in to unlock the door, grabbing Shen San none-too gently and snapping cuffs onto his wrists.

“Your boss wants to see you.” He says, hauling Shen San out. Shen San glares at him but doesn’t complain. The last guy who did ended up being shackled ankle and wrist for a little over two weeks, his pitying cellmate sneaking him food from the mess hall so he didn’t starve to death.

“What did I fuck up. This time?” Shen San drawls. The Chief smacks him across the shoulderblades hard enough to make him stumble.

“There’s a VIP with him, so you’d better behave.” Shen San doesn’t miss how nervous the Chief seems to be. “Don’t fuck this up. This guy can get all your pending charges against you dropped.”  Shen San’s eyebrows shoot up.

“What would a big boss like that want from little old me?” That earns him another smack.

“Fuck if I know.” The Chief’s voice is heavy with resentment. “But I’m warning you, outside with Dixing is way more dangerous than it is here.”

The Chief falls quiet when they reach Kun Lun’s cell – actually a repurposed office  building that was more like a suite, when Shen San enters it. It’s fully airconditioned, the furniture fine leather and gilt. There’s classical music playing on the loudspeakers, but for once the air isn’t choked with the smoke of Kun Lun’s overpriced cigars. Kun Lun himself is seated on one of his fine leather armchairs, his weathered face serious, deep in conversation with what must be the VIP everyone was fussing about.

Kun Lun’s visitor looks up, and Zhao Yunlan loses his breath.

Ivory skin, wide black eyes, hair that was just as dark and appeared silken to the touch. An impassive expression that Zhao Yunlan desperately wants to wreck. The beautiful stranger’s eyes – gorgeous, familiar, everything Zhao Yunlan ever wanted – are coolly assessing as he regards the young footsoldier before him. Shen San collects himself, flashes tall-dark-and-gorgeous a lopsided smile just this side of sleazy. The smile of a man that would do anything to get ahead.

Laoban,” Kun Lun grunts around an unlit cigar. “This is Shen San. The boy I was telling you about. Shen San- ” Kun Lun puffs out a breath that would otherwise be a cloud of smoke.  Shen San glances at the stranger, wondering what sort of Laoban this would be that Kun Lun himself doesn’t dare indulge in his favourite vice around him. Or even dare introduce him by name. 

The stranger’s eyes don’t leave his. His grip is firm, his skin cool in a familiar way that has Zhao Yunlan stifling the urge to tug him forwards with a teasing grin. A memory bubbling up of a firm body against his, flashing black eyes and a bared grin that was almost animal in its ferocity -

Get a grip on yourself, you idiot. Shen San keeps his eyes on his face, letting himself smirk when the stranger’s touch lingers just a little too long.

“A pleasure to meet such a great beauty as you,” Shen San can’t help but purr.  Those beautiful eyes widen, and for his audacity Shen San gets a cuff on the ear by a scowling Kun Lun. 

“Forgive him. He can be an audacious, mouthy twit, but he’s the best I have” Kun Lun says gruffly. “He’s also headstrong and ambitious, but that can only be a good thing, with what’s happening in Dragon City.” The stranger tugs his hand free from Shen San’s, speaks.

“What’s important is you deem him trustworthy and loyal.” He has a pleasant, deep and mellow voice. There is absolutely nothing behind his eyes, but there’s a faint – very faint, Yunlan likely wouldn’t have noticed it if he hadn’t already been standing so close - stain of color along the tips of his ears. Which is. Interesting. Shen San cocks an eyebrow at him.

“With all due respect, Laoban, but it’s pretty rich for you to peg how trustworthy I am when I have absolutely no idea who you are.” True for Shen San. For Zhao Yunlan, not quite. Kun Lun nearly hits him again for that, but the stranger just holds up a hand, and he stops. Which alone tells Shen San how high up the hierarchy this guy is.

“You’ll find out soon enough.” The stranger says. His gaze remains on Shen San, even as he addresses Kun Lun. “He has a pending case for drug dealing, doesn’t he?”

“Several,” Kun Lun grunts. “He was a runner for a pretty major dealer of ours three years ago. The guy ended up with the police on his tail, threw his network under the bus, got them all arrested. Shen San’s the one who clawed his way up the highest.” There’s the faintest note of pride in his voice. Zhao Yunlan doesn’t know what he feels about that.  

“I remember him,” The stranger says. “He’s been dealt with.” There’s next to no inflection in the way he says it, and Zhao Yunlan suppresses a shiver. Shen San doesn’t drop his smile, holds the stranger’s cold, cold gaze.

“You disappoint me, Laoban. I was planning on giving him hell for every year of life my friends and I spent here, thanks to him.” He says viciously. The stranger’s eyes narrow, just as Kun Lun’s heavy hand lands on his shoulder, and only then does Zhao Yunlan realize he’s actually taken a step forwards.

Kun Lun remains silent, tense. The stranger is studying his face.

 “You’ll need to learn to restrain your thirst for vengeance. Not if it might compromise the rest of the organization.” His voice remains quiet, but there’s no mistaking the warning in it. Kun Lun gives Shen San’s shoulder a bruising squeeze, and  he  backs down like a chastised dog, steps shuffling as the stranger watches him, barely blinking.

“How old are you?” The stranger asks. Shen San shrugs, a little surprised at the question.

“Twenty-four.”  And then,  a flash of emotion. Shen San blinks, a bit startled. It was too fast to tell quite what it wasm but for a moment Yunlan could almost have called it sympathy.

“So you were barely a child when you came here,” He murmurs, almost half to himself. “You spoke of others, what happened to them?” Now, Shen San really does feel more than a little surprise.

“Dead,” Shen San makes an effort to drawl it out as carelessly as he can, even as Zhao Yunlan feels his chest twinge. “There were three other runners that the police caught. None of them lasted.” One had committed suicide right after he was sentenced, the other had died in a brawl six months into his stint in prison, the other kid had had a lighter sentence but got himself shot in the streets less than three months after his release. When Zhao Yunlan sleeps, their deaths are burned into his brain, even though he can barely remember their faces.  

“How did you survive, then?” The stranger asks. Shen San stares hard at his face, but can’t tell whatever the hell he might be thinking. He just shrugs, leers.  

“I do anything to get ahead.” He holds up his arms, and the stranger’s eyes narrow at the healed-over knife wounds bisecting the tiger stripes, Shen San’s scarred knuckles and crooked nose.

“Including kill?” The stranger does not look very impressed.  Shen San almost gives pause. Almost.

“If I have to.” Shen San says. “You’re asking as if I haven’t done it.” A  sharpened toothbrush buried against the side of an older inmate, a blood-curdling scream. No one had tried to mess with Shen San, after that. It still gave Zhao Yunlan nightmares.

That answer seems to satisfy the stranger, because he gives Kun Lun a glance. “I will send Atty. Zhang to handle Shen San’s case. Expect a message within two days.” He glances at Shen San briefly. “Expect to be released in a month, or less.” But Shen San has his own question.

“What’s the catch?”  He asks. “There’s always a catch, with guys like you.” Shen San’s grin widens. “Like us.” The stranger’s eyes glint.

“The catch is I need your absolute loyalty.” He replies, voice cold enough to send shivers dancing up and down Yunlan’s spine.  “Whatever it is I tell you, you must do. No matter your qualms, or your doubts.”

“So you’re buying my freedom, by buying me.” Shen San drawls. There it is again, the stranger’s  eyes flashing dark.

“If you refuse, then I’ll hire someone else.” He does not say and I’ll leave you here to rot out loud. “If you do anything to betray me, or work against me, then I’ll simply dispose of you.” Shen San actually shivers at that. The stranger’s eyes are empty and cold as two black pits, and Zhao Yunlan has the strangest feeling if he continues staring into them, he’ll be left wandering forever, unable to find his way out.

“Shen San,” Kun Lun snaps before Zhao Yunlan can think of a response. “Just shut up and take it.” You’re not gonna get another chance to get out of this dump.

It’s not like Shen San was going to do otherwise, anyway.  

“Fine.” Shen San says. “You have yourselves a deal, Hei Pao Shi,” Kun Lun grunts in shock and Shen San’s  grin widens at the surprise that flits across the stranger’s face. “Hei Lao-ge.”

It's probably unwise to show his hand like this, but Shen San has never been anyone who never took a risk and winged it for all he was worth. To his credit, Hei Pao Shi doesn’t drop his proffered hand. He meets the sly challenge in Shen San’s gaze with a quiet intensity that would have a lesser man trembling.

“You will rise high, Shen San.” Hei Pao Shi, Dixing’s dragonhead and the most powerful man in Dragon City, clasps Shen San’s hand with his own. “So long as you do everything I tell you.” His grip is like steel, and so are his eyes.

“I know where my place will be, Hei Lao-ge.” Shen San purrs, dipping his head and smiling coyly. He feels the echo of Hei Pao Shi’s touch long after the meeting ends, and he’s sent out.

----------

True enough, Shen San’s case ends up fast-tracked through court by a generous helping of cash for the judge to line his pockets with. In less than a week, Shen San’s packing. Da Qing is whining all throughout, ans Shen San tosses him the rest of his stash to make him feel better.

“Quit whining, you’ll be released two months after me anyway.” His charge, one count of petty theft that he ironically hadn’t even committed, he’d just been at the wrong place and the wrong time for the police to grab – had been considerably lighter than Shen San’s.

“Promise me you’ll reserve me a spot in Dixing.” Da Qing demands. Shen San scowls at him.

“You’re already a member of Dixing. Unofficially, anyway. And  don’t you want to pick up your life instead of trailing after me?” Da Qing snorts. He’s stuck a joint between his lips, and Yunlan lights it for him.

“With a criminal record, no one’s gonna want to hire me, and I’m gonna end up stealing again. And again.” He slants an eyebrow at Shen San. Kicks his side lightly. “And remember: you owe me for saving your stupid, mouthy ass.” Shen San groans.

“Fine. Come out in one piece, and I’ll see what I can do.” Da Qing leans back, satisfied. Zhao Yunlan stifles the guilt churning in his chest by stealing the lit joint between Da Qing’s lips, earning a yell and a wrestling match that has the annoyed warden banging  baton against the bars of his cell.

But there’s still something he needs to finish, before he gets out. On his second to the last night, Shen San finds himself summoned by his favourite warden.

“They need you to sign some papers before you can begin to be processed for release.” The warden grunts, skirting past the Chief’s glower, Shen San ducking his head.

“Couldn’t they do this tomorrow? I’m in the middle of packing.” Not that he had much to pack, but the back of his neck prickles. The warden prods him into the administration building, and as they walk down the hall, he prods Yunlan down the wing that had been condemned, that no one ever went to and was rumoured to be haunted as fuck.

They stop outside a closed door. “You have thirty minutes.” The warden mutters. “Give Zhao Xinci my regards when you get out.”  Zhao Yunlan tips his chin in mute acknowledgment, slips inside. He refrains from mentioning he hasn't seen hide nor hair of his father in the five years he'd been in the field.

The room is dusty, dark, and hot. The window has been boarded shut, and the single bit of ventilation came from the gap under the door, and a couple of narrow vents. There’s barely enough light to see, but it’s still Zhao Yunlan’s favourite room in the whole prison complex. If only for the lithe figure leaning against the wall, watching Zhao Yunlan as he locks the door behind him.

Zhao Yunlan takes a step forwards, his eyes greedily taking in the beautiful face in front of him. The features a mirror of the one he’d seen earlier, but even colder. But Zhao Yunlan can detect the precise moment of thaw, when Ye Zun pushes himself off the wall, his chin tilted upwards almost imperiously as Zhao Yunlan grins at him.

“Well?” His voice would be as mellifluous as his brother’s, if his syllables weren’t quiet, pitched low so no one can hear their conversation. Always a risk, between a mole and his handler.  “Warden Lu says you have news for SID.”  Zhao Yunlan licks his lips. He doesn’t miss how Ye Zun glances down at them.

“I’ve met your brother.” Zhao Yunlan says seriously. “Hei Pao Shi. Kun Lun’s vetted me to work for him. He’s getting me out, and they say I’ll be in close quarters with Dixing’s elders, if I do it right.” Ye Zun’s pale face grows even paler, even under the dim light.

Good,” He says viciously. “It means we can start taking down Dixing permanently.” Zhao Yunlan reaches up. His arms settle on Ye Zun’s slender shoulders.

“It means this operation will be over soon.” Ye Zun’s expression softens at the quiet relief in Zhao Yunlan’s voice, just a fraction.

“Don’t speak too soon. You have no idea what Dixing's going to do to you,” he retorts, before he’s tugging Zhao Yunlan close and surging up. And as Zhao Yunlan returns one hungry kiss after another, pinning Ye Zun against the wall, he does his damnedest to chase away the feeling that the end is drawing close, and they’re running out of time.