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Pulling the String

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Not every member of the Chu family possessed this special gift. And no one on Dixing knew about this particular power. After all, they were known as puppeteers and it was frankly enough as an occupation. So no one knew that the Chu family, known to create strings and control things, were more than that. Some of them could see what was called the String of Fate.

 His brother couldn’t. Their dad could though, and when he realized that Shuzhi could see them too, he decided to explain them as simply as possible to Shuzhi.

“The red string links two people together. These two persons are meant to be together. It can be platonic or romantic, but they only feel whole when together.”

His brother once expressed envy wishing he could see it too, so he could help people finding their fated one. Shuzhi thought it was stupid and honestly didn’t like this power. He found it useless. He would have gladly given it to his brother if such things were possible.

His disinterest could be summed up for one reason: Shuzhi didn’t have a string of his own. His dear brother had one – of course, he did. But Shuzhi didn’t. Maybe this fact didn’t help calm his character: so few people didn’t have a string as far as he could gather, so what did it mean about him that he hadn’t one? That there was no one made for him, who would love him unconditionally?

(Later he would think that his brother would have loved him no matter what. His brother could have been this person. But by then it was too late already.)

**

He heard about the new recruit and just decided that he wouldn’t care. As far as he had understood the boy was sent to them because of a special relation –his uncle- so Shuzhi wasn’t super invested in knowing someone who couldn’t get a job by himself. He imagined the guy to be some lazy asshole type who would last maybe two minutes when faced with Zhu Hong.

Guo was not at all like that. He was worse. He was a coward fainting at any moment, shaking so hard the first time they met that he couldn’t stand upright. Shuzhi gave him ten hours before the poor kid quit; he was way above his head.

Somehow, though, Guo stayed. (To be fair Guo probably thought that he wouldn’t make the cut after his first month trial, and Shuzhi on his first days privately thought the same.)

Because apparently the guy was here for at least a month, Shuzhi decided to look, to see if there was any soulmate for this poor miserable soul.

It was a good thing that he looked when he was in the library and Guo was downstairs because otherwise, he might have punched him at the sudden and violent outburst of emotion that took him when he realized that Guo Changcheng, new SID member, frightened puppy, was his soulmate.

**

Of course, this couldn’t be true. Shuzhi couldn’t accept this. This was really a joke he thought to himself. Anyway, he just had to distance himself, make sure he barely talked to the guy and maybe the… The string would disappear into nothing. He didn’t know if it was possible but he would try.

But since the universe seemed to hate him, he found himself in charge of babysitting Guo. He even complained to his colleagues who just seemed to find the whole thing really funny. Really, why him? He was a ground agent, sent to beat the criminals up, there was absolutely no reason whatsoever for him being in charge of Guo. The kid should stay in the office and take care of the paperwork with Whang Zeng.

But nooo , apparently their Chief seemed to think that Guo could be sent on the groundwork too. (And deep down Shuzhi could understand the reasoning, YunLan and he were the only ground agents with real training, Da Quing could do it but was easily distracted by food and Zhu Hong would be really powerful once she came into her power. As it was she was just a woman with a really strong character. They needed more people able to go outside and do stuff. And Guo was their only option.)

So Shuzhi was forced to spend time with the boy. It was somewhat annoying to have Guo trailing everywhere behind him especially since apparently the boy was scared of him. (Okay, Shuzhi could be scary he knew, but they were coworkers , why did Guo seem to think that Chu would just kill him if he made a sudden move?)

Somehow it was a relief to suddenly have the holy tools appearing and the number of new cases increasing: more work meant less time to think about Guo and the Red String. Which honestly? Was just perfect in Shuzhi’s books.

**

The appearance of the Holy tools was not, of course, the only thing that caught his attention. Neither was Guo’s recruitment. Suddenly Professor Shen of Dragon City University kept being dragged into each of their cases.

It was suspicious and Shuzhi was of the mind to somehow… You know, get rid of the professor. (Not necessarily kill him, obviously, but maybe make him leave the city at least.)

Of course he realized his plan had absolutely no way of coming true once he decided –in the hope that if the other half was far away it would give the professor incentive to leave- to check his Red String.

He was then left staring at Shenwei’s red string of Fate linked back to their Chief Yunlan.

This was possibly the worst scenario ever and Shuzhi could have never come up with something this wild even in the weirdest moment.

But the proof was there before his eyes: a nice red string. Which, now that he noticed it, was quite already thick.

Oh my god! He though Yunlan is already falling for him . He looked with horror as Professor Shenwei was smiling quite calmly even though Yunlan was trying to make it sound like –once again- Professor Shen looked like the ideal culprit.

Was it… Was it their kind of foreplay? Shuzhi started thinking. Was it their way of flirting with each other? He needed to stay away from those idiots as much as possible. When he turned around of course Guo was standing there, holding his notebook, almost hiding behind it –what an idiot- and looking frightened of everything.

Shuzhi just scowled harder and the younger man flinched.

Maybe his power had gone haywire. Maybe all those years of torture had done it and now his power was completely messed up. Showing him fake links. It would explain so much if this was true.

**

When Chu arrived in SID and met his new colleagues and got to know them a bit he checked if they had any fated people somewhere waiting for them.

They all had. However, Zhu Hong wasn’t linked to Yunlan and once Chu realized the crush the snake girl was harboring he wondered how to tell her that it was impossible. Or well, they could , but someone better was waiting for both of them somewhere. And it was bound to lead to heartbreak.

The most bizarre one though was Whang Zeng. She was a ghost; she was dead, and yet: she had a faint, if not almost transparent string, pulsing lightly, tied to her pinkie. Chu had no idea what to make of that.

His knowledge of his own power was very poor and he couldn’t imagine that this link could lead to someone alive, but the string was also very thick which was generally a sign that the persons linked had met and share deep feelings of love (platonic or romantic) toward each other.

Or Whang Zeng had been cooped up in the office forever. She simply couldn’t have met someone while working for SID. This means it was someone from before –maybe when she was alive- but the poor girl barely remembered anything if not her name, so telling her that she had a soulmate that was somewhat still among them was, even for Chu, too cruel.

He couldn’t help though sometimes to look at this translucent string and to wonder what it really meant.

**

They were looking after Xiao Bai, and Guo proposed to take them somewhere to hopefully get the man to lighten up a bit, and then he talked about wishes and Shuzhi felt like something stabbed him in the heart.

“If everyone is happy then I’m happy too!” Guo said, so innocently, meaning every word and Shuzhi suddenly wondered if it was really a mistake their matching. Maybe… Maybe it wasn’t so bad. If he became like a brother to him if he could replace-

He stopped there, too horrified at what he almost thought about. No. Guo was maybe pure-hearted and willing to do well (after all he was still here, still working) it didn’t mean anything.

They should stop at being coworkers. That was good enough. After all, Chu had no intention to listen and do what a stupid string would tell him to.

**

It wasn’t unfortunately the only time Guo said something that sounded suspiciously like his brother. Shuzhi started to wonder if Guo wasn’t a spy planted there and had been taught about Shuzhi’s life.

Except that no, every line he said that resonated in Shuzhi’s memory were lines his brother had said when they were alone.

He just wanted everyone to be happy. He just wanted to live in peace.

And every time Guo uttered those lines with the same expression that said that he meant that and he believed those words and he wanted them to be true.

It was so hard, Shuzhi thought, to hate someone that reminded him of the person he loved the most in the world.

**

Guo somehow survived his first month and was accepted as a true SID member. Chu had started to try to train him since Lin Jing, their resident nerd, had created a weapon especially for Guo. Shuzhi privately still thought that groundwork was still not Guo’s place. Even if –he had to admit- the kid was good at connecting with people. He seemed to only see the best in them and always managed to make them open up more.

But this kind of thing could be done in the security of the office and not necessarily outside. But he was not SID’s chief and thus was just stuck overseeing Guo. Truth be told Shuzhi was starting to maybe grow a sweet spot for the boy. Even though he tried as hard as he could to not let it show. He wouldn’t let the red string decide his life for him.

Besides if Fate though that Shen Wei and YunLan seemed like a good match then clearly the Fate was crazy and should not be trusted.

However, the celebration of Guo’s one month was eclipsed by the recovery of the awl of Mountains and River and most importantly by their meeting of Whang Zeng’s fated one: Sang Zan. He was also a ghost but trapped in the stone.

The moment however when they managed to get him out, when he was able to hold Whang Zeng’s hand their red string which had been transparent before turned a beautiful bright strong red.

Ha , Shuzhi thought, it wasn’t reflective of the fact that they are ghosts. It was a reflection of him being trapped in the Awl.

His brother would have loved that. This kind of love that defied even death. The kind of love he would have deserved and would have got if it wasn’t for Shuzhi; if it wasn’t…

He stopped his thoughts and looked at their strange group: two ghosts, the Black Cloak envoy, YunLan, Guo and himself.

Once the villain was defeated –or at least sent away though they still knew nothing of him and they had the strange feeling that he would be back- YunLan immediately started teasing the Black Cloak Envoy.

Insinuating that the Envoy had someone he liked. Which obviously he had, Shuzhi already knew that but he didn’t like that Yunlan was so familiar with him.

(He was tempted for a fraction of a second to take a look again at the Black Cloak Envoy to see if the string had grown thicker or if any changes were noticeable, but in the end he decided against it because it felt like an insult.)

The Black Cloak however kept his cool, ignored Yunlan as usual and they all went back to their lodging where the rest of their group and Shenwei’s were waiting for them.

(This guy really had a knack for always being at the wrong time at the wrong place.)

**

When the Black Cloak Envoy finally freed him –after a hundred years of torture and punishment – Chu’s first instinct was not, in fact, to try to look for a red string on the cloaked figure. He could after all barely stand up and was in need of some healing.

The idea did come to him once the Black Cloak brought him to earth and introduced him to the SID. He decided to just look quickly see if there was any fated person for this all too powerful being.

There was. And on any other occasion Chu would have mused about who could be worthy enough of his new master. But something else caught his eyes.

He had a string. A red string was tied to his pinkie and was going and going and going…. Shuzhi could suddenly hardly breathe. He had a fated one? He had a soulmate? He, a criminal? He, who was responsible for his brother’s death?

Who? Who could possibly be his other-half? Someone evil probably, someone terrible, after all that what was he deserved. Nothing could have prepared him for Guo Changcheng that was for certain.

**

Chu heard about it after the fact but apparently Guo’s uncle was not responsible for his transfer to SID, since the man had tried to have his nephew transferred. He didn’t know for sure how Guo managed to have his uncle changed his mind but he couldn’t help being a bit grumpy about the whole thing.

Who Changcheng –and yes now it was Changcheng, Shuzhi tried not to think too hard about it- who did Changcheng’s uncle think he was to ask his nephew to just leave SID just after the kid got promoted to full agent?

(He should have been glad, shouldn’t he? If Changcheng left then they wouldn’t have met anymore and then the string maybe would have disappeared. It was what he wanted, wasn’t it? Except Shuzhi reflected, looking at the kid’s smiling face as he managed to stand his ground against Shuzhi in training, that he quite liked having him around, smiling brightly and following Shuzhi everywhere.)

**

As if Shuzhi’s life wasn’t hard enough, between Shenwei becoming a consultant meaning he had to watch YunLan and him flirting, Guo who still needed training and was starting to warm up to him unexpectedly, and honestly having to witness the rest of SID’s members who were all nutcases in retrospect; Shuzhi found himself face to face with Dixing’s Regent and felt an all too familiar rage take control of him for a split second.

He hated him with every fiber of his being. The fact that Changcheng seemed to think that he was an old man that needed help was absurd.

And then there was the announcement that they were to be inspected by a Daixing Office of Supervision’s agent. There were days, Shuzhi recognized, when sleeping and not getting out sounded very appealing. Sadly his life did not permit this kind of thing and instead always promised him headaches.

Like for example despite the announcement of the inspection Chief Zhao and Professor Shen fucking off to Dixing and letting them try to deal with the nonsense that was sure to happen.

They at least tried to make it work by “disguising” Changcheng and hoping he could pass as the Chief. But their efforts were quickly cut off when it was discovered that the man was not a random inspector but YunLan’s dad. Well. They tried.

However, he couldn’t help but notice that Changcheng’s was very much … distraught after his one on one with Yunlan’s dad. He knew that there was no way on this earth that Changcheng would ever ever betray them or Yunlan –the kid was loyal to a fault- but the director clearly must have said something as he looked deep in thought after the interview.

When Shuzhi investigated, asking him in a brusque manner “what’s going on?” Changcheng smiled and then said “nothing.” Like Shuzhi was going to believe that in a million years. However there was a case to be closed, people to arrest, the SID to save from a Dixingian and then having to deal with a corpse in front of the building.

In all of this he kind of forgot about Changcheng’s pensive state, or at least decided to address this much later. (Something that would never happened since cases, accidents or others seemed to keep piling up and up, leaving them barely time to just breathe.)

Finally, once they had managed to save the building, Yunlan was brought back by Shenwei, unconscious, but not gravely hurt and most of the office huddled closer waiting for him to wake up.

Shuzhi for his part took the chance to finally sit and relax as much as he could in those circumstances. It’s really starting to get tiring all this, he thought.

Yunlan woke up, dumbfounded, and Shuzhi couldn’t help but look at the relieved and joyful expression on Changcheng’s face.

Changcheng who then turned toward him and beamed .

Well , Shuzhi thought, fuck me .

**

There was a new case and one Shuzhi was slightly interested in –more than other cases- as he had to go to an underground fighting ring to investigate and that sounded like fun.

Of course, Changcheng was with him and that worried him a bit especially since the moment they arrived he bumped into someone and Shuzhi had to save his ass. And then there was this asshole, strutting up to them, looking at Shuzhi, and daring to imply that Changcheng was going to get hurt. Not on my watch.

“I will protect him, and that’s enough.”

Maybe a few weeks ago he wouldn’t have let his affection show, but he had given up didn’t he? He cared about Guo Changcheng, red string or not, and he couldn’t stand the idea of someone, something hurting him.

Besides he had to admit that Changcheng was just way too cute since they had entered the club. Clutching at Chu’s clothes, looking all worried like a puppy about the possibility of Shuzhi getting hurt.

(Shuzhi squashed down the urge to hug him, or to ruffle his hair to soothe him. He settled for a manly pat on the shoulder.)

He fought in the ring, won against that Dixingian with fire power but then lost him as the crowd went wild and found himself miffed to be saved by Chief Zhao and Professor Shen.

There was a lot of running around searching for the fire guy but, at least, they did manage to arrest him, though he was finally let free because of his good actions. Chu wished the Black Cloak was here because he was not sure they were making the right decision.

There was a hand on his shoulder and then Fire boy told him, serious:

“I envy you; you have such a wonderful life here.”

I do , he thought, he had a job he liked, colleagues that accepted him, and Changcheng. No matter their relationship, he had him.

Which was why they got attacked, hurt and then locked in a laboratory room that would slowly kill them.

If at first Chu was trying to be rational, the moment Guo started to slip into unconsciousness, Shuzhi lost it. Completely and utterly lost it.

The idea of having to look at a black string for the rest of his life was unbearable. Having no string was terrible but having a black one because your other half was dead was miserable. Especially in his case, it would remind him forever of how he had failed to protect the one person he cared about.

Shuzhi couldn’t accept it. And as he embraced Changcheng trying to keep him alive a thought finally found a way in the forefront of his mind:

I love him .”

Swiftly followed by

I can’t lose him .”

So he clung tighter and prayed to every deity out there to save them, or at least save Changcheng.

**

They were saved. Zhujiu was captured. They had a reunion party. Everything was going smoothly.

Zhujiu escaped. Shenwei and Yunlan were called by their superior. A new more powerful villain appeared. YunLan went blind. Things went downhill from here really.

And yet he looked at Changcheng and felt comfort at knowing that it didn’t matter what trouble they would face: they had each other.

**

There was a lot that could happen in one day he supposed. Like for example learning that Professor Shen was the Black Cloak Envoy. He actually at first refused to believe it but then he realized that things made much more sense now. Also the ill-fated match that he thought was YunLan and Shenwei now seemed even more ill-fated but not for the same reasons. Though at least it made much more sense. Maybe. After all the Black Cloak had been helping them for so long somehow he might have seen some good sides of Yunlan. If the man even had one.

He didn’t know if he was thankful or not for being invited to dine at Changcheng’s house. On one hand, it seemed lovely and he wanted to meet the woman and man that raised Changcheng into the man he was today, and besides it meant more time with Changcheng.

But he was still reeling from the Black Cloak revelation. He wanted to be distracted about it and he also wanted to spend the rest of the day thinking about it and wondering how he could have missed the clues. (He entertained the thought that if he had looked at the string while being in the presence of the Black Cloak Envoy and Yunlan he would have understood. But even he had to admit that this was a blatant lie. He would have been just confused and not understanding why YunLan had TWO soulmates and ONE string before even suggesting the idea that Shen Wei was his master the Black Cloak Envoy.

And that one hurt didn’t it? That the Black Cloak Envoy asked him for report and yet refused to tell him that he had a hidden identity already n place. Why would he not trust me? He thought but did not dare to voice it aloud, not wanting anyone to know how it hurt .)

Changcheng’s family and he played mahjong and while Shuzhi was not sure he could get along with Changcheng’s uncle –after the transfer thing, now he had tried to touch Shuzhi’s doll- he however appreciated Changcheng’s aunt who was as caring as her nephew and Shuzhi supposed that he must have taken after her and was grateful for it.

They bid their goodbyes and they walked back toward their office together but Chu was still thinking of the time he just spent. While he wouldn’t call the situation tense he still seemed that maybe it wasn’t as entirely comfortable as it could have been. It must be me .

“Just now did I say something wrong?” he asked because he loved Changcheng and he had secretly wanted to impress his family, make them realize that he was a good man, a man good enough for their nephew perhaps.

“It’s nothing” Changcheng was all shy smiles “my uncle even complimented you, they are not just polite remarks.” And he seemed remarkably proud of that even though…

“What are polite remarks?”

Guo made an embarrassed sound before turning around “nothing much” he muttered and then stopped as he noticed that the usual fruit stand was not here and that the shopkeeper was nowhere to be seen. Chu had worked two years at SID and barely knew the man’s face. Guo had been here for a little more than a month and was apparently friends with him.

This man is ridiculous he thought fondly, unable to keep the faint smile out of his face. Changcheng had made him soft, but honestly he couldn’t find in him the energy to care.

**

Because people working at SID were assholes if nothing else, they all made sure to stand in silence and say at the same time “Good day Black Cloak Envoy!” and watch as Shenwei become slightly flustered.

He still needed to make sure that despite the Envoy maybe not trusting him, he still did trust the Envoy:

“Regardless of what you do, I will support you unconditionally.”

The small smile gracing the features of his master was the only answer he needed and he couldn’t help but roll his eyes at YunLan acting like a jealous lover, while trying to pretend that he was hurt because he was Shuzhi’s boss. (What a load of bullshit).

**

The fact that Yunlan had gone blind was still a major problem and something that they still had to try to fix somehow. (Of course the fact that he was blind because he abused the power of the Holy Tools escaped no one, but still, they needed their leader to be at his peak.)

It was Changcheng who brought them the flyer about this miracle doctor that could heal everything. It could be a trap but it also could be a solution –and also if this was true this could be a case for them- so they all went to meet the guy.

The guy –Dr. Feng- at first refused to heal their boss but had a change of heart at Shenwei‘s insistence, and agreed, albeit reluctantly.

A new case occupied the rest of the SID and he and Changcheng were sent to interview people. (He was glad to hear  “These two are becoming a better and better team” as Yunlan commented to Shenwei. It was true. He and Chengcheng were really becoming good at this whole teamwork thing, and complementing each other.)

The new case was about people aging suddenly and while usually they only had to rely on after-the-fact reactions they got to assist to one. It was instantaneous: in a split second the young man they were talking to turned into an old man.

This was seriously creepy but more importantly, Shuzhi couldn’t sense any Dixingians’ energy in their proximity while it happened or even saw someone suspect. It was just he, Changcheng and the now-victim.

But after careful examination of the cases, of where they happened and when, they came to the conclusion that it was Dr. Feng’s doing. They doubted the man was aware of the repercussions of his gift so Shenwei and Yunlan went to meet him alone.

When they came back they said that the case was closed, and Yunlan was blind again. Which was the reason why the following happened: using the sundial and Shenwei‘s power to heal Yunlan.

As the magic happened, as Shuzhi could feel the incredible power of the sundial being released, his power came unbidden to him and he started seeing the string again. The string between his master and Yunlan was thick and red and strong. But then it turned. It became golden: shining and glittering.

Even when they replaced the sundial in its place, even after they had checked that Yunlan was fine their string didn’t go back to normal. The golden hue was still there.

Shuzhi mourned for his father suddenly. His father knew things about the string and maybe he would have been able to tell him what this meant. Could this change mean it was dangerous? Was it a sign of saving their fated one’s life? What did this mean?

But Shuzhi was the last of the Chu clan, the last puppeteer and as far as he knew the last person on this earth able to see the strings of Fate.

**

Once again Shenwei and Yunlan ran away to Dixing but this time Da Qing was with them. The cat had been strange and cold toward Shenwei and Shuzhi had been tempted to teach him a lesson but no can do.

(Besides when they came back –with information about the New King of Dixing and about Yezun, Da Qing seemed to have come back to normal. Shuzhi was relieved to notice he wouldn’t have to beat the cat-boy up after all.)

He ended paired up with Linjing for an investigation in the Ministry Office and he couldn’t help but grouse at that. He knew that Changcheng was busy doing his own thing – and he was proud of him for being able to do stuff on his own- but Linjing was a terrible partner. The scientist always complained and complained and made jokes and was just annoying. Shuzhi had very little patience and being with Linjing was seriously testing his limits.

And then the day after that Changcheng was nowhere to be seen in the office. At first, he thought that the boy was still taking care of the aftermath of their last case but Da Qing stopped him when he tried to go rejoin him:

“He asked for a day off to go see his parents’ grave. How could I say no? He did feel bad in a time like that but honoring one’s parents is very important. Don’t worry I’m sure he is fine.” The deputy told him, smiling.

Chu didn’t feel like smiling. Honoring one’s parent was important but Shuzhi didn’t have a tomb for him to cry on, and even if he did it would be in Dixing and Shuzhi was not in any hurry to go back to his home place.

He also wished he could have gone with Changcheng to be introduced to the boy’s parents. He felt that as Changcheng’s soulmate it was only proper after all. He felt miffed to not have been warned of this at all.

Well, there was always next year, he told himself, trying to hold faith in this statement.

He still had his own mission to do after he left Linjing at the office and spent the day getting information about Mr. Tan for their new case. He got a call from Yunlan and relayed his information. Then his chief being the obnoxious bastard that he was told him:

“Oh yes, Xiao Guo mentioned that he was going to sweep the graves at the cemetery, if you bump into him, then bring him back with you.”

There were a number of things that he wanted to say. First of all, would be that he knew about the cemetery thing but it did seem an irrelevant point to be angry at and no doubt would be used as a tool to tease. Instead what he replied was:

“Easy for you to say, I can’t bump into him as and when you say it.”

This was, of course, the reason the moment he hung up, Changcheng emerged from one side-street and bumped into him. Before giving him one of his bright smiles and sounding elated to have found him.

Chu just ignored everything about it and how adorable he sounded and just dragged him back to the SID office.

**

This new case, the hospital case, left a sour taste to Shuzhi’s mouth when it was all done. Mostly because he didn’t remember a thing but was told by Yunlan that they were mind-controlled by a freaking kid and that, even more horrifying, Yunlan beat the four of them – Zhu Hong, Da Qing, Changcheng and he- in one swoop. It was humiliating. Especially since they got some “nicknames” and that his was “Coffin Face”.

Changcheng got a cuter one “Little White Rabbit” and Shuzhi tried very hard to not picture Changcheng with little rabbit’s ear and tail because he couldn’t afford to be distracted. Especially since he needed to train harder.

Beaten in one swoop by Yunlan. What an unbelievable thing.

**

Shuzhi would deny that it was a thing, because it would show how much he cared, but the moment they started training together was also the moment they started eating together. Specifically getting out eating together. Shuzhi considered it as a recompense for the hard work Changcheng put into it.

And then even when they weren’t training they would from time to time ended up eating at small restaurants that Changcheng had a knack to discover all around the city.

Changcheng usually never said no to such an outing, in fact, he was most often the one proposing to test a new place he had found or heard about. That’s why when, for once, Shuzhi asked and the younger boy looked distinctly guilty and refused, the Dixingian became suspicious.

“Why? Do you have other plans?” do you have plans with someone’s else? He thought sourly.

“Wh-what? No, of course not-“

“Then why don’t you want to?”

“I just… I thought maybe I should try to save money this month…”

“Save money? What for?”

“You know… stuff…”

“Come on Changcheng! The small noodle place is hardly expensive!” when the boy still looked uncomfortable Shuzhi added as a joke:

“Or what, did you already spend all your paid?”

And then was horrified –and slightly curious- when he noticed how Chancheng became pale. He was right.

“Your whole salary? Of this month? What did you buy? Did… Were you mugged?” Shuzhi asked then ready to go to war.

“Hmm, no it’s a … See I went to my parents’ tomb the other day, right? And then I noticed how some of the tombs of people we know from our cases were left alone so hum… I may have bought food for them too. And I may have done that for a couple of days now?”

Shuzhi’s eyebrows climbed up. Of course. Only Changcheng would ruin himself buying offerings to pay his respects to a bunch of spirits he hardly knew.

The Dixingian was weary but also well-decided to still spend some time with Changcheng:

“Then come eat at my place.” He proposed. He almost regretted it for the surprised look he could see of Zhu Hong’s face who had listened –not so secretly- in their conversation.

Changcheng however beamed at him: “Really? You are inviting me? “

“Yeah.” He acknowledged and tried to still remain impassive in the face of Changcheng’s blatant enthusiasm. Lord, the boy looked like Shuzhi had offered him the moon. Changcheng quickly grabbed his stuff, said goodbye to everyone and followed Shuzhi like a puppy. He was sure if he looked closely enough he could see a tail wagging.

What an idiot , he thought but couldn’t stop the smile tugging at his lips. He liked the idea of inviting Changcheng at home. Of spending an evening just the two of them at Shuzhi’s place. It was… Domestic. And he found that he had missed that ever since he lost it when his brother died. He was almost tempted to grab Changcheng’s hand but couldn’t at the end muster the courage to do such a move.

Later he told himself. He would do it later.

**

When they came back from the hospital Shuzhi couldn’t, in fact, start an intensive training regime as he would have liked because they were almost immediately swept in another case. A taxi driver who had suddenly become very aggressive and abrasive when before he was a nice person.

Shuzhi longed for the days their cases were simple and didn’t affect them directly. Whatever it was it took hold on his dear Changcheng and suddenly the meek, silent and shy boy turned into some kind of thug and rejected Shuzhi touch. Which… why? Couldn’t Changcheng see how much Shuzhi loved him? Couldn’t he see his bleeding heart, open and ready for him? Couldn’t he understand that they were fated? Destined to be together? Should he tell Changcheng about the red string? No. He couldn’t. This was taboo.

Shuzhi wanted to cry at the idea of his Changcheng hating him. Lord, what if the boy found him annoying? How was he supposed to do?

“Zhu Hong sister? What should I do?” He asked imploring to the only person who could understand his feelings here.

“Maybe he doesn’t like you because you’re too tall.” The snake girl said, voice low, looking demure.

“But I can’t change my size” he cried, desperate.

He just needed to make sure Changcheng liked him. He had to be the best person for Changcheng ever. That was all. He just needed to make sure that Changcheng could eat the best food, and could sleep when too tired and that no one would annoy him. Yes, he could do that, and then surely, surely Changcheng would love him back? Or would at least look at him and maybe… even offer him a smile?

His heart quickened at the thought, and he felt a blush rising. Changcheng smiling at him. What a dream.

Yes, he thought, resolve strengthened, he would become whatever Changcheng needed him to be!

**

Once they actually went back to normal and Shuzhi’s thought process stopped being the same as a teenage girl in love, he was seriously tempted to ask for some days off. This had been humiliating. Granted almost everyone had been touched so everyone was keeping silent and refused to think or talk about it but…

He had cried. In front of the Black Cloak Envoy. Shuzhi, who had withstood almost a hundred years of torture, broke down in tears in front of his master because he was worried about Changcheng. How was he ever supposed to look his master in the eyes after this?

Of course, they all had their own thing to be sorry for. Changcheng was avoiding him too. Shuzhi wasn’t sure if it was because the boy felt bad at how Shuzhi acted, or if he thought he had done something truly bad when under the change himself.

No word or action he could remember from the young boy shocking him, or hurting him so he wasn’t sure why the boy was looking at him like a deer caught in headlights all day long.

So he decided that he should do the logical thing and ask:

“Changcheng are you still upset with the last case?”

The poor boy jumped out of his skin as Shuzhi had approached him as silently as possible as he was searching for a book.

“Ch-chu Ge! Hmm...” he stammered, his eyes wide.

“What is it?” he nudged, wanting to help Changcheng move on from this awful episode.

“I feel bad… For what I said to you…”

“Which part precisely?” again he couldn’t remember a particular moment that should make Changcheng felt guilty.

“I said… I said that you should quit the SID! How could I say that Chu Ge!” the boy seemed on the verge of tears. Shuzhi immediately patted his head and tried to comfort him to the best of his ability.

“I don’t care, I’m not hurt. You weren’t you when you said that so I don’t care. Besides you weren’t wrong. I wasn’t being a very good agent at that time.”

“That’s not true! I was just… too arrogant to see! You will always be a good agent Chu Ge!” Why did the boy have to look this determined as he was saying this? Really what a pain in the ass.

“Like I said: it’s okay. I’m not mad.” He patted Changcheng’s head one last time, hoping that the boy would stop living in constant fear of retribution. It did seem to do the trick and Changcheng seemed calmer for the rest of the day. To make sure to let the boy know that they were on good terms he even invited him, once again, to eat at his pace.

 He sincerely hoped they could have a few days to get back into work after everything had been tangled up but of course, villains never slept and so new case it was.

**

When Shuzhi described his co-workers as assholes, he didn’t do it because he wanted to be mean. He said so because it was true. For example, the moment they learned that Linjing had met a girl they teased him mercilessly.

Well fine, it was mostly Zhu Hong and Da Qing that teased the scientist about his crush. Changcheng was actually getting more and more distraught over his friend the shopkeeper, who had disappeared from the surface of the Earth, also he seemed to be in a pensive mood, looking at a necklace that he got recently.

Shuzhi desperately wanted to know who was it from but Changcheng wasn’t really looking at it with a loving, dreamy expression. It was more like he was questioning everything he knew as he looked at it like it held the secret of the world. Shuzhi thought that it might have been some relic from his parents that his aunt had given him now. And if it was so he didn’t want to be insensitive and ask and make Changcheng sad.

(He still kept an eye on the boy when he was looking at it, ready to burst in and grab him to go somewhere else to distract him if the boy’s mood seemed to go down.)

**

Since apparently, Love was in the air (if even Linjing had been able to find someone, clearly there was something in the atmosphere) their next case involved a new love interest for their cat resident. The case had been really weird when it was discovered that the guy had killed his wife (he poisoned her and then killed her with his bare hands when it wasn’t enough) and it turned out that his wife was another member of the cat tribe.

Well, maybe the only other member of the cat tribe. Shuzhi hadn’t even been aware that there was more than Da Qing. Yashou members were few and seemed to actively seek the comfort of their brethren so he had assumed, since Da Qing was alone, that he was the sole representative of his tribe.

But apparently no. Besides the girl clearly knew him –even if the poor cat with his severe amnesia clearly didn’t- and they seemed to have been a thing before.

However, when Chu looked he couldn’t really believe it. She was linked to Daqing, yes, but she had eight other red strings. One was blackened meaning that the other person was dead. But the others were still red and real.

Shuzhi had seen before people with maybe two or even once three strings, but nine? That seemed seriously farfetched. Wait there was something with cat and the number nine, right? Well if there was it was weird. As Daqing was looking at them accusingly as they had just spied on him he finally retreated with still the vision of the nine strings covering this girl’s pinkie.

Of course, because it had been very sweet it instantly turned dramatic, and soon they heard cries and then discovered than upon seeing old Li the cat lady became crazy, tried to attack him and ended up dragging an unconscious Da Qing away.

What the hell was wrong with people these days? Shuzhi wondered. He knew that he was the first one to advocate for violence but couldn’t they try to give them at least two days with nothing crazy happening?

Of course not. So there they went searching for Daqing and Daji through the city.

**

The cat lady’s matter was finally resolved when Da Qing recovered his full memory –including the fact that apparently old man Li had tried to kill him, talk about awkward- and explained to Daji that he needed to stay here to understand his reason for being alive so long. And he also tried to convince the Black Cloak Envoy to not kill her.

Which of course he didn’t since the girl had never hurt anyone and had instead kept being killed. She wasn’t a culprit and since she accepted to saying goodbye to Da Qing –thought she would probably come back Shuzhi supposed- everything was finished.

**

The other thing that this case had brought them was the answer they had been searching for quite a long time now: who was the owner of the Merit Brush.

First Changcheng and Shuzhi discovered while talking to an ice-cream vendor that the shopkeeper’s wife had an accident while she was trying to catch a cab to go to the hospital. It was then discovered that in most of their last cases the victims could have been seen as the reason for the woman to die.

Changcheng then even remembered holding the merit brush in his own hand. Any other moment and Shuzhi would have made fun of him for being oblivious but, seeing as Changcheng was distraught and lost to realize that Wang Xiang Yang was an enemy, he kept his comments to himself. He had no idea how he was supposed to comfort the boy.

Changcheng who still believed in his friend, and when the whole SID faced him tried again to make him see reason and to abandon his project only to be thoroughly ignored.

“If we cared more about the people around us, the situation might not have come to this” he said to Chu as they were walking home together after shopping.

“Hatred can’t be the reason for vengeance” was all he found to say. Then they stumbled upon a girl with a nice fashion sense –in Shuzhi opinion- pushing Changcheng’s aunt and uncle around. Chu, of course, used his power but the girl shot electric sparks and he was overpowered. Since she ran off he supposed it was fine.

His first priority was of course to protect Changcheng and he was clearly ill-matched against that kind of power.

**

The girl was Shaya: Linjing’s girlfriend and if it didn’t announce some kind of sad romance, then the fact that weren’t meant to be was another impending sign of their doom.

Besides when Shuzhi found them Linjing was unconscious, and she was holding him in her arms and was probably responsible for his state: it just convinced the man that love was really too complicated and human foolish creatures running full speed toward their death.

(It did keep him awake at night sometimes the fact that he was so much more powerful than Changcheng, the fact that he had power, that he would live so much longer. The fact that he was an alien when everything was said and done and that Chancheng was a soft and fragile human, who will die and leave Shuzhi all alone on this earth.)

They managed to arrest Shaya and detained her. They even found for her another Dixingian Hua Yuzhu. However, because Linjing was soft and still very much in love they lost Shaya again.

And then, of course, the minister, Chief Zhao and their driver got kidnapped and they were now stuck in a game of cat and mouse as they were trying to decipher the riddle left by the shopkeeper before the deadline. Because of course, the madman would give them a deadline.

The only one who seemed to realize the links between the locations was Changcheng. It was apparently all related to Xiang Yang’s marriage. It became simpler once they understood that and they were able to prevent Chief Zhao’s death. They even, at the end of everything, managed to open Xiang yang’s eyes and make him see the error of believing Ye Zun. However, they were too late to stop the effect of the brush and the plan the enemy had been working on.

And of course it didn’t stop Changcheng from brooding:

“Brother Xiang Yang was such a nice person; he could not have gone down that road if only one of the events didn’t happen that way. Xiang Yang and his wife could have lived a happy life. What caused their death?” he complained as all the members of the SID were gathered around the table trying to understand what the merit brush caused and if it was a key, as they feared, what door did it open.

Zhu Hong straightened herself and then replied to Changcheng question:

“It’s enough kiddo, this is life, disaster and suffering can come at any time, anyone or everyone could be a victim. But the key point is: you have to make through the pain and suffering and continue taking the righteous good path.”

Their chief –who liked having his moment to show his wisdom –and maybe trying to act like an actual boss sometimes – added:

“To make people come back to the righteous path that is the purpose of the SID.”

It didn’t seem to really comfort Changcheng any, but at least Shuzhi could say they tried and he concentrated on petting the boy’s head, wishing he could be more demonstrative and even attempt a hug. Of course, his train of thought was stopped abruptly when a sudden quick earthquake shook the city.

They had a terrible feeling that it had a link with the merit brush. And boy, they were right.

**

Shen Wei immediately decided it was time for him to go back to Dixing –besides he still had Shaya to deliver as she was definitely a criminal- YunLan was to stay behind and it was not hard to see that their boss hated this.

Which was the only explanation that Shuzhi could find for what happened: Linjing was apparently working for the Haixing Department of Supervision and was promptly sent back by Yunlan who had no patience for traitor on a good day but even less now. Changcheng immediately tried to defend the scientist:

“I think it’s good the Haixing Department of Supervision sends us talented people. Also, Lin Jing Ge has never done anything bad to us here.” In any other case Shuzhi would be proud of Changcheng for daring to speak up, to tell what was on his mind but then YunLan shouted back at him:

“Regarding seniority you have no right to talk!”

Anger blinded Shuzhi for a second and he got up feeling his power thrumming in his hand. YunLan was screaming at his soulmate, his soulmate was stepping back, scared and Shuzhi couldn’t stand for this.

“I agree with Changcheng” he said defying their Chief. It encouraged the others and soon all of them were trying to argue for Linjing to stay.

The Chief didn’t budge and even Linjing told them it was better this way as he gathered his stuff and walked out of the door.

This announced a particularly bad week. It got worse from then.

Soon all the information about the SID –his agents, his missions, his purpose- was released on the internet and the people in the city were apparently panicking when they learned that monsters were real and already among them.

Shuzhi got frustrated about this and was ready to go and kick some ass, find some answers but he was stopped first by Changcheng, then by the Deputy chief and Zhuhong who remarked idly that people were scared of Dixingians and Shuzhi was from Dixing. He was just asking for problems and should stay put.

Shuzhi hated it with a passion. He hated staying put, when there was a criminal roaming free after a crime. He just wanted to do something. Anything.

And it was not the only thing on his mind. He had received a missive from the Black Cloak Envoy asking him to come back to Dixing to help guard the palace.

Whoever sent this was a poor forger as Shuzhi immediately realized that this was not the Black Cloak Envoy’s writing.

When he showed it to Changcheng explaining to him that he was worried about what was going on in Dixing even he could tell it was a fake. He tried to repress it but he was so proud of him at that moment. Look at him he was now a full-fledged agent able to tell that a letter was forged. Who would have thought this would happen when Changcheng arrived at the SID?

When he told Changcheng that he needed to go to Dixing to make sure his master was fine Changcheng however disagreed:

“LinJing Ge just left… If you left too I don’t know how Chief Zhao will react… I don’t think he will handle it right.” The younger boy whispered. Of course, Changcheng would be worried for the Chief. But he could tell that the boy was also worried for the Black Cloak Envoy and was conflicted about his emotions.

He relented anyway and dragged them both back to the office. For now it was the only thing he could do.

**

They stayed in the office later than usual just the two of them –well the ghost couple was there too but probably they were enjoying some calm just the two of them- when YunLan burst through the door with an unconscious ZhuHong. The Yashou girl didn’t seem to be hurt too heavily – a few scrapes on her shoulders- but the fact that the Crow leader had attacked them upfront but then left almost immediately was worrying.

As he watched Changcheng taking care of the wound Shuzhi tried to make sense of it. Did she leave because she hurt a fellow Yashou tribesman or did she accomplish whatever it was that she wanted?

It got even more worrying when the day after Zhu hong still didn’t wake up. He went to alert Yunlan and had to squash the irrational jealousy as he found Guo grabbing the Chief by the waist to keep him from leaving.

“Zhu Hong won’t wake up” he announced and relaxed when Guo let their chief go. Still feeling sore about it though he didn’t stop himself and pushed Yunlan on top of ZhuHong. When the boss glared at him and murmured about cutting salary he just pointed at Zhuhong’s hand that had grasped the lapels of Yunlan’s jacket.

With a “We rely on you.” he grabbed Changcheng and let the Chief some dignity as he tried to wake up the snake girl.

A kiss should do it, he thought, even if the heart wasn’t in it. They were not made for each other and maybe Chu felt slightly guilty. He should have told Zhu Hong. It would have prevented so much drama he thought. He waited.

**

YunLan was an idiot and actually joined Zhu Hong in her dream making it now dangerous for them to wake up. And then old man Li arrived, frightened as Haixing department had sent people to close them down.

It was really, really not his week.

Changcheng looked on the verge of panicking so Shuzhi assumed command “if they don’t wake up in five minutes drink that” he said handling a little bottle of Dixingian Liquor to Changcheng. Not only the alcohol in it was strong but it had also magical properties. With any luck, it might save their boss.

And then he himself walked to the door and started a staring contest with the two boys – and they were boys, young as they were- that were trying to enter the building. “Good luck with that.” He thought privately. And mustered all his menacing aura to make them squirm.

He didn’t have to wait too long before YunLan came out, full of swagger and telling the boys to fuck off. So it had worked out. And indeed when he followed inside Zhu Hong was awake, though still on the couch and looking rather confused at the whole thing.

But Yunlan called Shuzhi in his office and then started getting angry because his puppet (that he gave to Changcheng to protect him) could have hurt Zhu Hong. He couldn’t see what the problem was really:

“I think you might have grown rusty.”

“And I think you have grown soft. Sometimes you need to be heartless or you might miss the big picture and regret it forever. The puppet will take action if you are in danger, as for Zhu Hong if something happened then she would have deserved it.”

“Old Chu, are you out of your mind? Can’t you tell the difference between friends or foes?”

“I just want to solve the problem!”

“If you don’t want to work here, get o-“

Yunlan was thankfully cut off – Shuzhi at least considered it thankful because the man might have regretted it later- by Da Qing barging into the office without a care –as usual-.

The weird sleep of Zhu Hong thought made them wary and they suspected a Dixingian was the cause and so they decided to stay at the office and to try to not sleep if possible. To avoid any more problems.

The situation was not getting better – the information couldn’t be removed from the internet- and the Black Cloak Envoy still hadn’t sent any message which left them all pretty worried.

Shuzhi volunteered to go to Dixing but Yunlan refused. It was hard to tell if he refused because of their argument or if he genuinely thought they were better off with Shuzhi here.

And then an article was published about the SID harboring a murderer: Chu Shuzhi.

He hated the article mostly because he wished he could have told Changcheng privately, the whole story, about his brother, about his stupidity. Surely Changcheng would have understood, after all, they were linked by the Red String, which meant that whatever flaws or misdeeds they carried the other would understand and accept them anyway.

But the article robbed him of this chance. Besides, he noticed now how Changcheng seemed a little jumpy around him. The cause didn’t seem to be the article –he had started a bit before- but he didn’t like the idea of Changcheng going back to being scared of Shuzhi.

Because of the article though the mood in the office dropped dramatically and Yunlan was trying to cheer them up:

“Look at you guys! No sleep for a night, you saw a rumor and now you’re frustrated!” this last comment was addressed more to Da Qing who was planning brutal murder apparently “Pull yourself together!”

There was still no message from the Black Envoy; it was getting really worrying, so Shuzhi started again:

“Let me go to Dixing!”

“No.” Yunlan was not changing his mind.

“I accepted my punishment a hundred years ago but now? Look at what they wrote? They insulted my family?” And really he had tried to keep a lid on his emotions but insulting his family, his dear brother? How dare they? If he stayed he was going to track them and kill them.

“You are very sensitive about this topic.” Was the idle remark and Chu wanted to make Yunlan understand, but the man kept on “You still only know violence when you’re worried, you’re playing right into their hands.”

Still, Shuzhi thought he had one last card to play:

“Trust me, Chief Zhao, I will bring the Black Cloak Envoy back for you.”

He could see the hesitation then plain as day. Yunlan had been staring longingly at the communication device since professor Shen had left. But then his expression hardened and Yunlan answered a firm “No.”

Shuzhi left the office angry and decided “fuck it” he was going to Dixing no matter what. Changcheng was following behind, probably ordered to and Shuzhi didn’t really mind him being there, him coming to Dixing with him. Maybe he could show him around where he grew up, his homeland.

It was surprisingly an exciting thought.

Still, when they arrived they went directly to the palace since apparently that was where people wanted him so he ordered “Follow me and say nothing.” and then marched up to the regent standing guard in front of the King as he seemed to always have been.

“Why are you here? There are still several days until your release. Be patient!” and of course the old man would immediately bring his sentence up.

“I am here on behalf of SID.”

“Three years ago the Black Cloak Envoy transferred you to SID, last time when I was in Dragon City I thought you had adapted to the job.” And this habit of talking in circles! Shuzhi had forgotten how annoying the man was.

“Where is the Black Cloak Envoy?”

“Sir Envoy is in high position, how can I know his whereabouts? Isn’t your Chief Zhao his good friend? Doesn’t he know?” he wanted to snap back something but he also respected his master too much to divulged secret of his love affair so instead, he kept on prodding:

“If you don’t know just say it. No need to trap me with your questions as well… Take out your contact tool to the Black Cloak Envoy.”

They looked at each other measuring each other.

“Wait for me.” The regent said and walked up the stairs. Shuzhi used his power and snatched the incense and waited.

“The Black Cloak Envoy said he is fine.”

“Really?” He chuckled “You are brilliant! A broken tool can contact the Envoy?” and revealed the incense in his hand. There was a flare of annoyance on the Regent face.

“How dare you use your puppet to break my tool?”

“If not, how can I tear up the mask off your face? You full of lies despicable person! Yezun had broken out; you must have laid at his feet!”

“Chu Shuzhi, calm down! A hundred years of punishment is almost over! Don’t fall short of getting free!”

“I wear the shackle freely! Why do you think you can lock me with that?”

“Just keep cool. I will tell you everything.”

“Is the Black cloak Envoy still in Dixing?” Finally, he thought, they were getting somewhere.

“He should be”

“Where is he?” he asked taking a step closer, slightly threatening

“This… I really don’t know.”

The regent seemed at least sincere in that so Shuzhi walked away Changcheng following in his trail.

“What should we do?” he asked grasping at his bag in worry. “Are we still looking for professor Shen? “

“Let’s go back to the SID and tell Chief Zhao about what happened” Shuzhi decided. Changcheng nodded, seeming relieved to leave this place – and how Shuzhi understood him- and watched as the young boy departed, before turning toward him curious:

“You’re not coming with me?”

“I need to take something first.” he said. He still remembered where he had buried it. Finally, he thought, finally he could get his brother back. Or whatever of him had survived. He felt slightly giddy as he dug; under the watchful eyes of Changcheng, and then his heart was speeding up as he held the metal case in his hands. Before stopping abruptly as fear, rage and unbelievable hurt submerged him when he opened it and the case was empty. Someone had taken his brother away from him.

He raced back to the Castle, ready to hurt, to kill, to do anything so that they gave it back. But the regent didn’t show himself only his voice carrying over the cold stones:

“Shuzhi was jailed for manslaughter… Do you want to do it all over again?”

“Three years ago I wasn’t allowed to take it with me, you despicable man had no right to judge me! You will use it to threaten me?” there was only a mean laugh as an answer and Chu, though angry, couldn’t stand another hundred years of punishment. Especially now that he knew Changcheng existed and would be out there living without him.

But Changcheng was right here with him and that was actually a problem. He wanted to go confront YeZun –the man must have planned this- but he couldn’t bring Changcheng with him. The boy was powerless here. However, Changcheng would never leave him if he asked nicely. He would stubbornly stay with him.

He was enough in an agitated state that a terrible idea came to him. So he turned toward the boy when they were halfway to Yezun pillar and more importantly close to the portal.

“Little boy, you still want to follow me? Don’t you know who I am?” he asked stepping into Changcheng’s personal space, watching him swallowing, his eyes widening. “I am a murderer… But I just don’t kill people, I eat them” he said in a burst of inspiration, watching as Changcheng started to tremble and oh! He hated this! He hated hurting him like this but he had no choice! He had to protect Changcheng no matter what.

“I’m an evil cannibal.” he said as he glued himself to Changcheng back, nosed up his neck, enjoyed the proximity and tried to forget that the way Changcheng was trembling against him was because of fear and not desire.

Changcheng still kept following him. Brave, stupid Changcheng:

“The Chief told me to follow you no matter what.” And he knew that Changcheng would follow, do as he was told so he did something that would probably haunt his nightmare forever: he wrapped his hand against Changcheng neck – could feel his heartbeat fluttered in absolute panic – as he squeezed and dragged him back. He let his anger controlled him and threw Changcheng on the ground and then explained:

“How dare they disturb him? Nianzhi is already dead. He is dead. That is the only thing I can do for him.“ He crouched down, looked at Changcheng “Tell YunLan I am nobody. No courage, nor ability. I am just Nobody. Anyone can trample me. But now I am going to get back what belongs to me. After everything is done, I’ll go back and apologize.” What he didn’t say but burned his throat was “And I hope you can forgive me everything, I love you.” He rose and stalked up toward the pillar.

The Black Cloak Envoy was here too, chained up to the Pillar, looking pale and weak, power drained, immediately Shuzhi tried to free him,  what had happened ?

YeZun appeared as a cloud of dark and evil power rising between him and his master:

“You want to save him? Why don’t you save yourself?” the cloud turned and Nianzhi, his brother stood before him, angelic smile as always gracing his feature.

“Hello, brother!”

“Is that you? Is that really you?”

“Of course it’s me!” and he grinned, young and free and alive. He went to hug him and the illusion dissipated. Pain stabbed him in the heart “YeZun please” he begged “give it back to me!” he then at the “I have no idea what you’re talking about” tried to use force, only for the cloud to once again turn back into his brother. He knew it was an illusion. But how could he be sure when YeZun was holding the puppet?

“The puppet is the last connection with him, if you still want your brother “and there was the noise of someone running coming closer and his heart sunk and he could not, he could not, and he knew before he turned, he knew . Changcheng stood there, out of breath. Changcheng had followed him.

“Kill him” YeZun said.

Fate is cruel he thought in a brief moment. To gain his brother back he must lose his soulmate. I cannot have both.

He couldn’t. “No” he said weary and scared, an emotion he rarely had felt but it inhabited his whole body now, made cold sweat run on his back, made his throat go tight. 

“Or should I help you?” YeZun said and time stopped as a ball of energy emerged from the Pillar and hit Changcheng.

He fell to the ground, lifeless.

Shuzhi screamed, fell to his knees, tears suddenly pouring as his heart died right here, right there in front of his eyes.

He didn’t hear YeZun chuckling with delight and the “I will reward you.”

**

Shuzhi woke up at his desk, Chief Zhao went to him asked him about Dixing, about professor Shen still chained. He was floating sort of there and not. When did he go back?

“Changcheng was tired so I told him to go home…I’m also going home” he said, unsure suddenly. Was it a dream?

“Stay here today,” the Chief said and there was something in his eyes but Shuzhi didn’t understand it. He nodded the motion strange to his body and he went up to the library, let himself fall on the couch. He had his brother puppet in his hand. What? He thought but let sleep take him, emotions in total disorder and making him feel sick.

He woke up to a hand on his arm and when he opened his eyes Changcheng’s smiling face was greeting him.

“You are fine?“ He asked, stunned “But… You fell at the pillar ” I saw you, I was there he wanted to say but choked up on his words.

“I was playing dead? To escape Yezun” the boy answered, still smiling. There is something strange he thought, there is something I should do but his mind drew a blank.

“Aren’t you happy that I am fine? Do you think it’s a dream” he said playful and raised his hand “do you want me to slap you?... Though I don’t think I could hurt you” Shuzhi pinched himself. He felt mostly numb and it didn’t tell him anything. He looked at his hand. Something is missing . But what?

“I won’t blame you,” Changcheng said and nodded toward the puppet still cradled in Shuzhi’s hand “I know what that means to you.”

He smiled then because he knew that Changcheng would understand him. But why was I so convinced about that?

**

His dreams were memories. He was asked to work for the palace. His brother was a trouble maker, not listening to their parents as he should. He was the dutiful brother. He wanted to serve Dixing. He could do it. But his brother got caught doing a mistake, Shuzhi tried to cover for him. Am I forgetting something?

He would do anything for his brother.

He was tortured, but his brother was here, alive wasn’t it?

He gasped awake, covered in sweat. He was still holding the puppet.

“He is still dead.” he thought mournfully.

He couldn’t stay in the office and left, walking aimlessly on the street, going toward the river, where it was more peaceful. Changcheng was there, sleeping on a bench, had been looking for him all around the city.

“I worry about you. The Deputy Chief told me you were around, then I was tired. I took a nap.” He rubbed his neck awkwardly.” I dreamed that you were trying to kill me, you know” Changcheng added as Shuzhi didn’t say anything. I’m forgetting something . “But in reality you let me go!” he then started declaiming things about reality and dreams that Shuzhi half-listened to.

“If I told you that I want reality to be like my dream, would you believe me?”

“Yes of course,” Changcheng said. Shuzhi leaned on the railing watching the river below. Let his head hang low. Something is nagging at my mind.

Then Changcheng stammered “If you are willing…I-I’ll call you brother for Nianzhi!” and Shuzhi’s heart soared, he turned toward him “Really?” a nod.

He took a step and hugged Changcheng. There is something missing . He squeezed harder. “Let’s go back to Dixing and live together.”

Doesn’t Changcheng have a family? A voice in his head asked, there is something wrong. But it was silenced and ignored in favor of looking at Changcheng and saying yes, always yes to him, no matter what.

They left and stepped once again into Dixing.

Something is wrong.

**

They talked about everything and anything. Changcheng knew too much. He felt wrong about that but a smile of the boy and his worry flew away.

“Can I see Nianzhi?” Changcheng asked, shy as always, but getting more confident in himself.

“Why?” Shuzhi felt panic seized him and Changcheng was quick to calm him, settled him.

“What If I can revive him?” he asked and the voice in his mind got louder THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG while at the same time he let himself for the first time in years hope .

“The power of the Hallows could make him revive.” Changcheng said and of course, it could. The Hallows: there was nothing more powerful than them. Surely if something could be done; it would be with them.

They went back to SID. Where is everyone? He wondered. He didn’t remember seeing anyone else now that he thought about it. There were in Dixing, now they were standing in front of the SID. How did we arrive here? Changcheng was a little frantic when he told him to destroy the shield. Again the voice came back, and this time, Shuzhi listened.

He doubted. “We should go eat together after that.” He proposed, Changcheng agreed but he was distracted “we should go to the spicy place.” He laid his trap.

“The spicier the better” fake Changcheng said and Shuzhi rounded on him “Changcheng would not forget that I hate spicy stuff.” And used his power against whomever it was.

He couldn’t grasp him and the man kept evading him, laughing at his face, at how powerless he was in this dimension.

And before he woke up a last taunt:

“In your dream there is who you love, what you care about… Why leave?”

**

An adjustment to his memories:

Nianzhi worked for the palace. Shuzhi was the bad brother. He fought in a bar. Hurt someone. That same person killed Nianzhi thinking he was Shuzhi.

He murdered the man, and the guards inept at their work. He got caught. He was sentenced. He was tortured. There was a lash cutting him, a fire burning away his skin. He screamed but it didn’t stop.

Nianzhi was dead and it was his very own fault.

**

He woke up on the couch in the library. He still had his brother puppet in his hand. He turned his head. Chef Zhao was standing by him, sitting in one the armchair, lollipop in his mouth. He looked normal, except for his eyes.

“How’s Changcheng? Where is Changcheng ?” Shuzhi asked feeling dread pooling in his blood.

“Old Chu” YunLan started and Shuzhi wanted him to tell him to stop but couldn’t. “You were dreaming.”

“You mean Changcheng… Changcheng had never come back? You are saying that to get my brother’s remains from Yezun” a pause as the words finally caught up to his brain “I caused his death?”

YunLan didn’t answer. He didn’t need to. The pain, the pain was insufferable. He got up “I’m going to bring him back,” he said, his legs barely holding him up. He stumbled, caught himself on one of the furniture. His hand. He needed to look at his hand. There the string: grey and on the verge of turning black for eternity.

He choked up on a breath and fell to the floor. Changcheng… Changcheng, his mind repeated incessantly.

“In my dream we were going to live together in Dixing. In another dream me and Nianzhi we exchanged bodies: I was the reasonable one .” I was finally worthy of Changcheng he thought. That was what he desired more than anything: to be worthy of Changcheng’s love.

His body couldn’t support him, so he let himself slip to the ground, curled on himself, still crying. Something was put in his hand. It was his brother’s puppet.

Changcheng was dead and it was his very own fault.

**

He stayed in the office unable to move, unable to think, unable to do anything really. Da Qing helped him move to the couch and that was all. Food was put in front of him but the idea of eating –the idea of living- disgusted him.

He kept staring at his hand, at his string.

His string which suddenly burned red. No, he thought. But suddenly he felt life coming back to him. No, surely not? But the string was there red, still weak but there. Am I hallucinating? He wondered.

Soon there was the sound of the door opening and he went downstairs. YunLan, the Black Cloak Envoy. And there unconscious on Yunlan’s back: Changcheng.

His body moved on his own as he reached out and pleaded. YunLan let him go and Shuzhi carried Changcheng bridal style up to the lab where he delicately put him on the table, brought a stool closer and decided to stay right here until Changcheng woke up.

No one could move him. Ye Zun could enter the door and take the Hallows and Shuzhi would not move an inch away from Changcheng.

(It was Da Qing who told him “The Black Cloak Envoy saved him, used the last of his power to send him to safety.”

Again he owned a debt to his master. How could he repay that?)

**

He used the Sundial of Longevity to heal and wake Changcheng up. He knew that he had been told not to but he didn’t care. It hurt him and only him, he would live less than planned and that was perfect for him. He couldn’t even fathom living in a world where Changcheng was not anymore anyway.

Those past few hours, the hours were he thought he had lost him? The worst hours of his life. The only thing that could compare was learning of his brother’s death.

He couldn’t lose anyone he loved so dearly.

He couldn’t.

**

While he held vigil at Changcheng’s side he told him his story. He told him about his brother, about what happened, about what he did. In his dream, he had told fake Changcheng the fake story. Here, now, in the real world, he wanted to right the wrong. So he told him.

And of course Changcheng woke up at his moment, he could barely keep his eyes opened but he smiled and said, with as much conviction as he could muster: “Chu Ge… You’re a good person. You’re not scary at all.”

And of course, his Changcheng would think that. After all they were made for each other, weren’t they?

He laughed, and held his hand, letting himself felt happy, truly happy.

He had earned the right he thought.

**

The SID office on the orders of the Dixing Office of Supervision was closed. Guo was whisked away by his uncle, while Shuzhi –still considered a murderer- rejoined the Fire guy and stayed hidden with him.

He couldn’t move around a lot anyway as people were still keyed up about the SID and the reality of the Dixingians.

He was not however used to do nothing and after a few days, he started going a little bit stir-crazy until YunLan sent his Live message to all Dragon City, reassuring the citizens and mostly mobilizing his team, letting them know that he was fine and that it was time.

Shuzhi was just glad to know the time for action had come. Besides he had started to miss Changcheng and while the boy managed to send him a few messages here and there – his uncle had brought him with him at the DOS and he had been nervous- it still wasn’t the same. He needed to see the boy with his own eyes.

After everything that happened, he was understandably worried.

He and Fire guy started doing patrols and mostly checking on the streets close to the entry point from Dixing.

As he stood in front of the door of his homeland he reflected that he had been a while since he truly felt as a Dixingian. There was a saying his mom liked to say: “Home is where lay the heart”.

I used to be a Dixingian , he thought. He wasn’t sure what he was now, but he just knew that he belonged with Changcheng and that was more than enough for him.

As he patrolled around he suddenly stumbled upon a scene that froze his blood. Director Zhao was pointing a gun at Guo, who stood there not moving.

Not again he thought and let his strings came alive, grabbing the gun making it fly before gripping Changcheng and tugging him back to him, in the safety of his arms.

He then ran away and hid. Director Zhao left after one phone call.

Shuzhi felt like he could at last breathe. Changcheng was there in his arms, under his protection, far away from Yezun –though maybe too close to his army making his way to Haixing- .

“You’re okay?” he asked and Changcheng nodded, holding the briefcase against his chest. “I got the Hallows back.” He explained and Shuzhi didn’t even try to hide the smile full of pride. Good Boy.

“Well then, time to join the others!”

**

On his way to the SID though they ended up face to face with Dreamy –as Chu had decided to call him- he was joined by some other obscure Dixingians.

“Stay here, stay safe.” he said to Chancheng and went –heart full of vengeance toward this man- to fight.

He was soon joined by Da Qing and Zhu Hong but those idiots immediately fell under his sleeping spell and Shuzhi was seconds away from falling asleep again when someone – Changcheng, who else really? – pushed him from behind.

It distracted Dreamy enough that Shuzhi was able to wrap a string around his neck and then YunLan arrived with the gun and shot him. Dreamy felt to the ground, his menace over.

The three other Dixingians, however, had managed to escape. But at least, the whole SID was now reunited and they were all ready to kick some asses and save the world.

And then Changcheng had a sort of attack and Shuzhi thought that his life was a succession of tragedy after tragedy. “I was injected with the serum.” he said feebly, swaying on his feet.

Shuzhi knew the bare minimum about the serum concocted by the lab of the Office of Supervision. It was supposed to help normal human gain powers like the Dixingians. It didn’t really promise anything good for Changcheng if he was injected with it, and fear settled deep in Shuzhi’s bones.

The Black Cloak Envoy immediately used his power to read Changcheng’s body and then said voice tight:

“Guo… From your symptoms, you have already experienced the mutation. Do you feel any power in your body?”

He did not, despite trying very hard and making a fool of himself. Thank God the only other witnesses were the SID members.

**

When they arrived in the SID office and found Old Li on the ground, hurt, and seconds away from dying Shuzhi wondered if it was a sign from the Fate to tell them what awaited them if they continued on this path.

Not that they would stop, they had to stop YeZun, but still.

Changcheng touched the old man’s hand and then gasped.

“I saw his memories,” he said, wonder in his voice “he wanted to make one last plate of fish for Deputy.” Da Qing fell over the body crying at that while The Envoy studied Changcheng with attention.

“It seems to me you can know the dyings’s will by touching them.”

Changcheng seemed upset at the idea –and of course soft-hearted as he was this would no doubt hurt him learning about their wishes but unable to physically help them, heal them. Shuzhi tried to make him see the good side:

“Changcheng, now that you have the ability, you can help more deceased recording their unfinished will. Isn’t it a good thing?”

“Alright,” he conceded “I’ll do this.” And once again Shuzhi was proud of his soulmate for being who he was.

**

To say that finding the last Hallows in one of their boxes in their office, stacked up in a corner was a letdown wouldn’t be a lie. It was very anticlimactic but at least they got the four Hallows.

And then they received Linjing’s will. Shuzhi couldn’t imagine worse death than being swallowed by YeZun. Truly this man was getting worse and worse every time he learned more about him.

To think he and the Black Cloak Envoy were related, were twins. He knew that he and his brother –also twins- had been different in character, but YeZun and Shen Wei defied all expectations really.

Could he be creepier? Probably not.

Because they supposed that the wick was in Dixing, they divided themselves. Changcheng, however, asked to stay here to help the dying people. Chu immediately volunteered to protect him and aid him in his endeavor.

Before the others left Changcheng approached Zhu Hong and gave her the necklace Shuzhi had been wondering about.

“Ya Qing give it to me and told me I could ask for a favor… Use it to negotiate with her.”

That…Surprised Shuzhi. When on earth Changcheng did meet the crow woman and more importantly how did he manage to wrangle a favor from her? That was a pretty trick but what did he give in exchange for it? Still, there was no time to ask those questions as they were heading to their different missions.

The streets of Dragon city were filled with people hurt and broken buildings. Changcheng and he slowly made their way through the sea of dyings and one by one Changcheng touched them using his ability to know their dying wish and wrote it down in his notebook.

“Sorry, although I can’t heal you, I can hear your voice.” He muttered to almost all the helpless victims.

However Changcheng had no stamina for this thing and so he started getting weaker and weaker, stumbling when he walked, using Shuzhi as a human crutch most of the time. His power was depleting him of his energy. And yet he braved on, kept doing it, knowing that it was the only thing he could do for these people.

They regrouped after a while with Cong Bo, the whistleblower ready to fight despite his lack of training.

“Actually you could help us,” Shuzhi said and took a look at Changcheng, exhausted, sitting on a bench, legs still shaking. The boy needed to rest but they also needed to do something.

“You were the one helping YunLan making the live message right?”

“Yeah, I was”

“Could you do it again?”

“You… You want to do a live video?” Gong Bo asked clearly taken aback and looking Shuzhi up and down as if he was discovering him for the first time.

“Not me.” He nodded toward Changcheng “He is.”

“What?” Both the human asked.

“You got their will and recorded it. I think you should let people know.”

Changcheng thought of it for a moment and slowly nodded. Gong Bo for his part was just like “What? Their will?” but finally complied and start setting them up.

Changcheng was clearly nervous about speaking to an entire city, especially to announce to a great number of its inhabitants that their close ones had died.

“You got this.” Shuzhi said, hand on his shoulder. Changcheng just hugged his notebook closer, cleared his throat and then once Go Bong gave him the signal start his own live stream.

**

Once the stream was done, once they could actually notice that the people were calmer and that they were organizing themselves to help each other; Shuzhi and Changcheng made their way to the Yashou tribe’s forest hoping to catch up with the rest of the team.

They arrived just before YunLan was to enter Dixing. His father, the director, was here too and they were arguing as to who should accompany him.

To Shuzhi’s surprise, Changcheng proposed himself. When the others told him that it was too dangerous Director Zhao used some form of magic and Changcheng was suddenly wearing a halo of white light.

Shuzhi had never felt or seen anything like that.

“It’s pure white magic. The complete opposite of the magic used in Dixing. In Dixing only Blackness exists. He is full of white magic. He can be used as the wick for the Guardian Lantern.”

Changcheng was squirming, embarrassed at all the attention he was receiving, but Shuzhi couldn’t even explain his emotion.

He was a being made of darkness and here, his soulmate stood, made of pure white energy.

Two opposites made for each other. There was a certain poetry to it, wasn’t it?

Still, to make sure to put his mind at ease he gave Changcheng his puppet.

“Chu Ge, I can’t accept this.”

“It will keep you safe.” He said and used his eyes to implore Changcheng, who agreed and seemed to understand the special treatment he was receiving.

When everything is over we will talk about it , Shuzhi thought.

**

They were back in the city, back trying to help any survivors when a vision appeared in the sky. It was YeZun taking a lot of joy in showing them how he tortured their chef, trying to make him beg for mercy. YunLan was of course of the stronger sort and the vision was cut before their Chief could yield but it was still alarming.

The Black Cloak Envoy was nowhere to be seen and same for Changcheng. The only people visible where YeZun and Chief Zhao.

Surely if Changcheng had been captured he would torture him too? Or…Did Changcheng die? Was he killed?

He was the wick necessary for the Guardian Lantern but did YeZun even know that? Could he tell? If he killed Changcheng then no one could light up the lantern, right? Or was it still possible?

Where was Changcheng, damn it! On top of that he couldn’t feel his puppet anymore and his string had gone back to grey. But it had done so the moment Changcheng passed the portal and at that time his puppet told him that he was fine.

He was starting to figure that Dixing and Haixing not being on the same plane affected the string and turned them grey. As if they were in pause or something. It wasn’t, however, an indicator of the other person’s health.

Which right now would have been pretty useful.

Zhu Hong approached him as he was –as Da Qing said- brooding-:

“I know our important ones are in Dixing, but there are thousands and millions of people behind us, relying on us.”

Shuzhi grunted to let her know he heard her. It was doing nothing to soothe the panic in his chest at the idea that something had happened to Changcheng and, once again, he was completely powerless to stop it. YeZun had almost killed him once when he was still partially trapped in the damn pillar. Now he was free, magic unbounded and Shuzhi like an idiot let Changcheng walked right in his arms.

YunLan had been captured quite fast even though he was their best and brightest.

They were fighting a God and they weren’t powerful enough to stop him.

What would even happen to them now?

Da Qing left them to do a patrol further in. When he came back he was down and when asked about it just muttered a “Daji is gone.” And Shuzhi remembered the strange cat girl and her numerous strings. Seven other people had lost their mate today and none of them even knew, he thought.

“We need to go help them.” Zhu Hong said, full of authority. The role of leader of the Yashou Tribe fit her, didn’t it?

They went back to the forest. The director was here with them and gave Da Qing a serum that could multiply his power. Shuzhi looked at it with envy but apparently, he only trusted the cat-boy with it and just gave Zhu Hong and him an encouraging smile.

Well, that was bullshit.

He took a deep breath before going through. Here they went back to Dixing on their way to fighting a literal God.

**

In Dixing the revolution was brewing, one man was walking around playing a recording of YeZun admitting that he couldn’t care less about the Dixingians so that people could hear it, trying to push the people to storm and take the castle by force. Most of the people listening to him weren’t fighters though, and most of them looked frightened, unsure of what they could do against YeZun.

At least Dixingians had brains.

Then a column of white light and a column of dark light emerged from the palace, piercing the sky and Chu had only seen once such a pure light and knew immediately who was responsible. He let a shaky “Changcheng” escaped him as he started racing toward the palace, Da Qing and Zhu Hong hot on his heels.

His heart was hammering in his ribcage. Changcheng was alive. He must be to emit that kind of power. However, it wasn’t a very good sign. Changcheng had been so exhausted by using his power all day long. It was impossible to tell how long he could hold on as his power was driven out of him by force. As his energy, his soul, his being was pulled out of him.

Still, Shuzhi ran and ran, with the energy of despair knowing that he had already failed Changcheng once, he would not fail him a second time.

**

When they arrived in the palace both Changcheng and Chief Zhao were on the ground helpless, the Hallows in the air above them but the Guardian Lantern – and what a relief- was still out.

Changcheng had resisted whatever it was that happened.

The three of them lunged at YeZun and started fighting him. Da Qing was thrown on the floor next to their chief and when he pulled the serum ready to inject himself, YunLan stole the needle and pushed it into his own chest. He glowed gold –like his string Shuzhi thought belatedly- for a hot minute before it stopped but his eyes still glowed with some kind of power. He managed to raise himself up, and Shuzhi threw him the Awl of River and Mountain.

Yunlan stabbed it in the red mark on YeZun’s forehead. He screamed in agony as the power left him.

The King, the Regent, and Linjing were all… thrown out of Yezun (Shuzhi couldn’t find a better word) and as YeZun disappeared Yunlan asked a confused LinJing:

“Shenwei?”

The look of despair and slight guilt on the scientist’s face said it all.

Shuzhi for his part let his chief grieve in peace and rushed to Changcheng, helping him sit up more comfortably. The boy was still shaking but he was alive, and back in Shuzhi’s arm.

For once he let himself take and hugged him, breathing in his scent, letting himself feel that he was there, he was whole, he was safe.

They had to make their way back to Haixing though, but YunLan was in no shape nor condition to walk so Shuzhi carried him. The man was breathing his last breaths, and they were huddling closer to him, sensing it.

For the last time, Shuzhi used his power on his boss…And widened his eyes.

Shen Wei was dead, he had been swallowed by YeZun –as Linjing told them- with an icicle planted in his heart, it didn’t matter that he was the Black Cloak Envoy, his chances of survival were null.

And yet: the red string of fate linking him to Yunlan was still glowing golden, strong and steady.

Shuzhi ignored a lot of things about his power, when he was young he wasn’t interested in learning about it, and in retrospect was pretty sure that even his family didn’t know everything about it. So for once Shuzhi decided to believe and asked for everyone’s attention:

“Do you believe me?” he asked the most important question for now.

“Yes!” the four of his co-workers answered as one, steel in their eyes.

“I think I can keep YunLan alive…And maybe bring the Black Cloak Envoy. I need your help though.” They all gasped and nodded and rushed forward. Shuzhi didn’t think, he let his instinct tell him what to do.

He let the other four surround him and Yunlan and he let himself see all of their strings: Da Qing’s black now that Daji was gone; Zhu Hong and Linjing, red and weak as they hadn’t yet met their soulmate; Changcheng red, strong, powerful even, making its way to his own pinky; Yunlan, golden and very thick and humming with energy, almost crackling with it.

He grabbed them and he heard the gasp as if the others could feel it –and heard the “what the?” from Linjing- but ignored it.

“Stay focused guys, I’m going down” and he let the power of the Red String of Fate take him where he was needed.

**

He was in a room filled with looms and spinning wheels of all sizes and colors, all of them stacked with hundreds of strings.

An elderly being stood in front of one of the looms, working on it. From what Shuzhi could see the tapestry was full of color and it seems to represent some sort of festival with lanterns high in the sky.

The elder was humming a melody that Shuzhi thought he recognized even if he couldn’t tell from where.

“You took your time coming here,” They said to him. They still didn’t look at him. Shuzhi suddenly realize that they were the Fate. And all those strings were theirs.

“My friends” he began and they raised a hand to stop him. And then pointed to a spinning wheel. A familiar thick golden string was on it.

“You do it, I’m busy here.” they said and kept on weaving. And Shuzhi moved to sit in front of the spinning wheel.

He had never done this in his entire life and yet, he put his feet on the pedal and started working.

He saw snippets of life, of YunLan and Shenwei’s life. Shared smiles, deep discussions, silly teasings from Yunlan and shy blushes from Shenwei. And he worked, he spun and spun until the glow of the string was almost blinding him.

A hand on his shoulder stopped him. The Fate took the string in their hand, looked at it closely:

“Yes, very good.”

“Will they?”

They chuckled “Of course. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here.” And they gave the string back. He closed his eyes and listened. Followed the string’s course to both ends and tugged, hard. There was some resistance but he kept tugging until it gave. He gasped. He could feel that he had done something huge. Power coursing in his body more than he ever had.

“Atta boy,” the fate said and clapped him on his back.

“Now you have to go back” they showed their odd workshop with their hand “I’m very busy here, I don’t have all day.” There was a twinkle in their eyes. “And don’t worry I also took care of the others.”

Shuzhi just had to time to say “Thank –“ and then he opened his eyes, back in Dixing.

Yunlan was still in his arms, and Shen Wei was lying just next to him, both of them alive. Both of them fine.

He still could see everyone’s strings. Da Qing was back to red and Shuzhi laughed, a happy one, not even remembering the last time he had felt that happy.

He looked up to Changcheng whose eyes were shining full of wonder.

“Chu Ge,” he said “You saved them!” before he could respond though Da Qing tackled him and Zhu Hong launched herself at Yunlan crying heavily into his shoulder and Linjing and Changcheng were helping Shenwei sat up, trying to wake him up.

He wasn’t exactly sure of what happened but he did it. He saved the people he cared about. Finally, he paid for his crime. He had taken life but now he had given those lives back.

For him, it was enough.

**

They hadn’t had the time to speak of anything with all the crazy happenings but now it was over, they were safe, the Chief was alive –had made it barely- Shen Wei was back too and their SID family was okay.

Even Wang Zhang and Sang Zan were back when they were thought to have disappeared, forever destroyed by YeZun’s power. Another gift from the Fate probably.

So it was now time to have a conversation with Changcheng. After all, last time Chu had checked, their red string was thick and vibrant, and Shuzhi after nearly losing his soulmate so many times had decided that he deserved to be happy.

He also needed to tell Changcheng everything about his power feeling that this was the kind of thing that the young boy would love.

This was why he was pissed off when Changcheng explained to him that he couldn’t work this afternoon and maybe wouldn’t be able to eat dinner with him because he had a blind date:

“It’s not like I wanted one, but my uncle thinks it’s time I settled and start a family. Maybe.” He muttered and Shuzhi growled.

“Fine, but I’m coming with you.”

“Wait…what? Now, Chu Ge…” but Shuzhi wouldn’t step down, and so Changcheng went to his blind date, Shuzhi trailing behind him, a terrible and looming shadow.

The girl on the date was a vapid little thing, good at cajoling but lying through her teeth and then she asked “Are you sure you want to keep working in this field?” saying that she would be worried, Shuzhi stood up – he had at least tried to give them privacy, if only so that Changcheng’s uncle could be told that the date did happen- grabbed Changcheng’s arm, glared at her:

“Yes, he is sure” and dragged him out of the café.

Once upon a time, Changcheng would have cowered in front of him, now though when he let him go and started stalking to his apartment, Changcheng followed him, smiling –even giggling- and Shuzhi felt warmth in his chest.

Happiness was so strange. But it was welcomed.

He sent the chief a text saying that he and Changcheng would not be coming back –it was still early they could have, but Shuzhi wanted to enjoy having Changcheng just for him- and got a trail of emojis as an answer including an eggplant which just made him squint. What could it mean?

Changcheng and he went grocery shopping and they settled on some sweet and sour pork and fried rice. (Well Changcheng said that he wanted to eat that and Shuzhi was willing to cook him anything he asked so it worked.)

After dinner, after having cleaned the dishes, when the feeling of domesticity settled deep into his bones, Shuzhi grabbed Changcheng and dragged him to the couch and sat him down.

“We need to talk,” he said. Changcheng said nothing, looked merely curious but not worried. Good.

Where to start? He thought. His power of course.

“The Chu of Dixing are known for their puppetry as you know but it’s not our only power. Some of us inherit another power, another gift...Do you know of the Red String of Fate?”

At Changcheng’s nod he kept on:

“I can see them, those strings; I can tell when two persons are meant to be together. I can also tell when a couple is ill-matched or won’t last.”

He took a deep breath, took Changcheng’s hand in his owns:

“Changcheng… We are linked. You are my soulmate. You are the other end of my red string.”

Shuzhi had expected a lot of reactions: a smile, a laugh, questions maybe. But Changcheng started to cry and Shuzhi immediately panicked:

“Changcheng?” Surely the boy at least liked him, was it such a shock to be irrevocably linked to Shuzhi for life?

“I’m so happy” the boy stammered out and threw himself at Shuzhi in an awkward kiss, their teeth clicking against each other. Putting a hand on Changcheng jaw he tilted his head and kissed him but this time sweeter and better.

Changcheng hummed, pleased, looping his arm around Shuzhi’s neck.

They kissed and kissed again finally stopping when Changcheng kept giggling and Shuzhi too, happiness too strong to be contained. They rested their foreheads against each other.

Changcheng linked their hand together. Changcheng’s right and Shuzhi’s left.

“Are these the right hands?” he asked and Shuzhi surprisingly said “yes, it is…How?”

“When you did whatever it is that you did to bring back Chief Zhao and Professor Shen we were able to see them. Da Qing’s one was weird by the way it was black but become red suddenly” he mused before adding “but I saw ours. I saw we were linked. And I remember the hands. And I remembered it correctly.” He grinned at Shuzhi proud and happy and Shuzhi was too and pulled him closer, kissed him again, because he could.

Before walking him back home – Changcheng’s aunt would worry if he slept over without warning her in advance- Shuzhi said:

“We do need to talk to your uncle about those blind dates though. You’re mine, I’m not sharing.”

“Well, you can always ask him for my hand.” He said a slight teasing lilt to his voice.

Shuzhi looked at their hands entwined the red string short, strong and thick a vivid red linking them together.

“Why ask when I already have it anyway?”

THE END