Chu Shuzhi has used strings all his life. He knows how strong they can be, through their countless possible configurations and colours, even when they're as thin as sewing thread. His family members are some of the only people he ever heard of being able to see them, and even fewer of them could have any control.
Chu Shuzhi does. He severed all his own ties himself back when his brother died, and ever since he’s ripped out any new ones, yanking up the blue threads before they can take root, keeping his page blank.
The only time he allows any connection to take hold is when Hei Pao Shi extends his hand to him, black filaments like tendrils spinning off the tips of his fingers, reaching out and winding around his throat and liver. His own cords of azure unroll in answer, pooling at his Lordship’s feet and hands. His offer to be guided by his Lord’s will, to be his puppet if his Lord asked.
(He never asks. He treats Chu Shuzhi as an equal. A gentleman.)
From the very first time Xiao Guo touches him, Chu Shuzhi sees the red strings stretching between them. It’s inevitable, sticky people like Guo Changcheng glue their affections to everyone and anyone, leaving tracks like prints on a carpet. These are fine, tiny filaments, invisible and intangible to anyone else, but Chu Shuzhi knows they're there, like cobwebs. It's terrifying. He shoves Xiao Guo away, snapping the threads.
Xiao Guo keeps touching him. When he's scared, he grabs onto Chu Shuzhi. When he's nervous, he clutches his sleeve like a child with a favorite security blanket. When he sees a puppy, he tugs Chu Shuzhi’s sleeve and points. He calls him Chu-ge, the name gliding from his mouth to Chu Shuzhi’s heart along a vermilion trail. No matter how many times Chu Shuzhi pushes Xiao Guo back, he keeps returning.
The strings get tangled, become sturdier.
It gets harder to remember to push Xiao Guo away.
These two things are connected, Chu Shuzhi thinks. It is hard to remove a coat that’s keeping one warm, after all.
There are so many kinds of thread; some are strings, some are wires. Chu Shuzhi’s are straight and strong, bright cerulean bands meant to control, then snap free. Xiao Guo’s are scarlet and silkworm fine; natural, thin, deceptively sticky. At first, Chu Shuzhi dreams of being careless, of getting caught in their trap and becoming helpless.
But lately, he’s started to dream of being completely covered in them, a reassuring cocoon for a plucked moth.
In the dream - the fabricated nightmare - the strings trail away, swaying in loose, proper, orderly fashion, not quite attached to Xiao Guo. It's that, as much as his strange behavior, that gives the Nightmare Master away.
The most terrifying part of Guo Changcheng almost dying is watching the strings between them slacken and fade. One by one, they turn white and faint like wisps of fog or the twisting smoke of a blown-out candle. The threads Chu Shuzhi had once torn away impatiently, now he clings to, cradling them gently, drawing them toward himself. He wants to wrap himself in them completely, like a blanket. Like a shroud. He wants to feed his own blood through them somehow, let it drip along the strands, stain them back to crimson and make them strong again.
His own life energy…
When Professor Shen and Chief Zhao had used the Sundial, it had created a new thread between them, a kind Chu Shuzhi had never seen before, shimmering with dark and light entwined.
The thread between Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan has always been oddly thick, so much so that at first Chu Shuzhi couldn’t even recognize it as a bond - certainly not anything normal between two people who should have been strangers. Each strand looped around another, weaving over the next, and has only knitted itself larger by now, to the point where the tapestry connecting them sometimes seems to swallow everything else, a black and green canopy creating worlds of their own. Nonetheless, the bond created by the Sundial stands out sharp and clear through that mass like silver thread, a dangerous thin snake crackling with two kinds of energy.
Chu Shuzhi doesn’t hesitate. He reaches for the Sundial.
Chu Shuzhi interlaces his fingers with Xiao Guo's over the Sundial, and closes his eyes. He pictures every bond he broke with Xiao Guo, through mean words and impatient hand waves. He uses the Sundial's glow to illuminate the holes it left in their relationship. He reshapes these in his mind, turns them to missed possibilities, and hammers hope into each groove like a nail. Soon, the yawning, empty space between them is filled with dozens of the smallest pillars, promises to do better, try again, if he's given more time.
The loose threads catch on these, and like plants taking roots seen at accelerated speed, regrow fast and strong from these seedlings.
Chu Shuzhi's eyes fly open and he watches the vibrant latticework between them strum alive when Xiao Guo takes his first breath. He cradles Xiao Guo's face and lets himself go weak with relief, knowing there's a net to catch him.
Later, after they've talked themselves raw and once they've healed, Xiao Guo sometimes asks about it. Chu Shuzhi has never been good with words, and can't really explain it. He mutters things about colours and textures, even makes a rather poor attempt at art, but he knows Xiao Guo is still curious.
One day, the SID gathers around a full meal splayed on the table. Both Chief Zhao and Da Qing sit on the table itself, like beasts, while Zhu Hong and Wang Zang battle for the last drink, and the others place unsporting bets. Chu Shuzhi and Xiao Guo have retreated to the side with their snacks, avoiding the raucous group.
It is a disorderly, perfect scene, and Chu Shuzhi opens his senses to Look, unafraid. He's shocked but not surprised at the complicated network of vibrant threads linking all of them together, a living, breathing mass of twists and connections, a family portrait embroidered between all of them when he wasn't looking. It is overwhelming.
He must make a noise, because Xiao Guo asks, "What's wrong?"
"Our strings. They're... elaborate," he says, but Xiao Guo still looks adorably clueless.
"May I?" Shen Wei asks from nearby, making Xiao Guo jump and almost drop his meat skewer. Chu Shuzhi smirks at him, then inclines his head at Shen Wei.
"If it wouldn't be too much trouble."
"None at all," Shen Wei gives them the faintest smile. He puts one of his hands on Xiao Guo's shoulder, the other on Chu Shuzhi's.
Nothing changes for Chu Shuzhi as he looks forward, but Xiao Guo squeaks in utter glee, actually clapping his hands, and sending the remaining bite of meat flying off his stick.
Chu Shuzhi turns to him, feeling his eyes soften and his mouth stretch into an impossibly fond smile, just as Xiao Guo turns toward him with his large puppy grin, and then Xiao Guo gasps.
He paws at the air between them, where several of their strings are tied into a complicated snarl that, today, almost looks like flowers. The strangeness of knowing Xiao Guo can see it right then makes Chu Shuzhi reach out. Their hands meet and clasp over one large knot, and automatically some new thread springs out of their veins, red and blue lines coiling around their palms and wrists like a vow.
"It's... it's beautiful," Xiao Guo says, and gives Chu Shuzhi a nervous but beatific smile. Chu Shuzhi, for once, lets himself squeeze back. Not looking away from Xiao Guo's eyes, he rasps out, "Yeah. It is."