It is the first day of October, and that means that Lan Wangji is cleaning the tack. He swipes over the leather, careful and sure in his movements. Behind him, gleaming bridles hang from their hooks. He is yet to start on the saddles.
By the time the sun rises properly, all the leather in the room will be spotless and shining. It is the first day of October, and so the tack will not stay clean for long; no rider on this island makes it through October without bleeding, once, or twice, or out into the salty water and screaming teeth.
It is the first day of October, and that means that when Lan Qiren opens the door, Lan Wangji already knows what he is going to say.
“Wangji,” Lan Qiren says. “You are racing this year, yes?”
Normally, Lan Xichen rides. Lan Wangji sees him off at the start of the race each year, and watches with worry clenching his heart until he pulls up, victorious, at the finish line. But Lan Xichen is injured, this year, his shoulder out of alignment, and he’s currently on the mainland to stay with Meng Yao and see a specialist doctor.
And so Lan Wangji will ride this year, for it would lose them too much face if no Lan were to ride.
Lan Wangji has never had the privilege of being allowed to be afraid of blood, not since a snow-white capall uisce dragged his mother into the surf and turned his coat and the water both red and foaming with it, not since his father gave himself to the sea barely a day later, not since he was four years old and so small.
“Mn,” he says, putting down the last bridle.
Lan Qiren fidgets, just slightly. He has never liked sending his nephews to the killing ground, but he always does it. “You are a strong contender,” he says, like it’s a consolation, like the bets have ever told anything other than who people will scream loudest about when their skin splits open, when they are tugged down into the waves. “Have you decided who you are riding?”
Lan Wangji glances towards the stables. They board mostly normal horses, flesh and blood creatures that show the whites of their eyes as the capaill uisce come near. It is the first day of October, and with the dawn will come the shouts about the first capaill emerging from the waves, frothy-mouthed and unbroken. Lan Wangji will not ride a capall fresh from the waves. He knows better. They are too salt-crazed, then. They would not know him. “Bichen,” he says, instead.
His uncle snorts. Lan Wangji knows why. A grey stallion killed his mother, and by proxy his father, and the first grey stallion to come thrashing out of the waves when Lan Wangji was twelve, he captured for his own. They are not the same horse, likely. Lan Wangji could never tell. Lan Qiren also snorts at the name - who would name a blood-stained, salt-twisted horse dustless? Lan Wangji does not care. The name had felt right with him, with the gentle huff of air from the stallion’s flaring nostrils, with the blood that runs in Lan Wangji’s veins, the same as that of his ancestors, who had raced horses on the Chinese side of the border between Mongolia and China long before anyone had ever caught a capall uisce.
His uncle does not say any of what he must be thinking. Instead, he reminds Lan Wangji to train Bichen down on the sands, for the Lans have a tradition of hiding their water horses from the sea for the better part of the year, lest they forget what solid ground is beneath their hooves and charge, wild with the smell of the sea, into the waves.
Lan Wangji hums, moving onto the racing saddles, checking there are no cracks in the leather from exposure to salt and sea and whipping wind. There’s a persistent stain on the saddle Lan Xichen had used last November. It’s blood, likely. That shoulder injury.
“Keep an eye on your competition, too,” Lan Qiren says. Lan Wangji hums dismissively. He’s been riding capaill uisce for longer than he has real horses, and them for longer than he’s been able to walk in a straight line. He can ride. He can ride, and he knows Bichen, and he knows this island and this beach and the way the blood sheets down the pebbled shore. He knows all the competitors, too, since he was a small four-year-old watching his mother be torn to shreds; since he was a cold six-year-old telling the previous year’s winner that his capall was too keyed up a short hour before said capall uisce threw his rider to the merciless surf; since he was ten years old and watching Lan Xichen finish first, Lan Wangji’s braids still in his capall ’s mane; since he was eighteen years old and icy-faced as islander after islander asked him to train their capaill.
Lan Wangji knows he might die. He is alright with that. He also knows that he is smart, and he is familiar with the territory, and he will be riding a water horse he has known for seven years. He is fairly confident that the chance of him dying is less than fifty percent, and this is much smaller than the odds of death for most other riders.
“Xichen will come home to watch you race,” Lan Qiren says, and that makes Lan Wangji reconsider his attitude towards his mortality. He does not want his brother to watch another family member die. And that means Lan Wangji will survive this race.
Lan Wangji goes down to the shoreline at noon, when the sun is highest in the October sky. The October sea is thrashing and spilling onto the pebbles, a seething white mess that Lan Wangji watches as he stands on the cliff edge, Bichen a trembling mass of horseflesh beneath him. The water horse wants to jump, to run, to splatter himself and Lan Wangji both against the waves.
He will not. The way he presses into Lan Wangji’s palm on the side of his neck is proof enough of that; so is the way he calms noticeably as Lan Wangji’s fingers braid his mane, in quick threes and fives and sevens. He hums as he does it, knows that the shuddering of Bichen’s sides lessens as the notes slip out from between his teeth.
Had he not been born to ride, Lan Wangji thinks he would have become a musician.
They turn their backs to the sea, which is a considerable effort for a capall who has not tasted air this salty in months, and Lan Wangji is strangely proud of Bichen for it. He traces soothing circles onto his shoulder as they make their way down the cliff-side path, down to the beach.
There, it’s easier to see the capaill pulling themselves out of the waves. This early in the year, none of them are fierce enough to pose much more danger than the threat of a few broken limbs, and they aren’t fierce enough to put up a real fight in the races. Lan Wangji ignores them. The only people who pick capaill this early are those who have never raced before, inexperienced and thinking that they can win with a water horse who doesn’t run hot and fierce as the sun itself. They are wrong.
Bichen is as fluid as the ocean itself beneath him as they make their way down the path until his hooves make soft skittering noises in the pebbles. He is the same colour as the ivory stones that dot the beach, just as his brethren are the same roan-blue or brown as the dominant-coloured stones. Bichen is of the island, just as much as Lan Wangji is.
On the first day of October, everybody who hopes to race goes down to see the ocean, to gauge how long it will be before they pick a horse, gauge how wild the surf and competition will be.
No one else is on horseback, not daring to expose water horses they have kept for a year or more to the salt sea on the first of October. Lan Wangji hears the murmurs as he goes past - “Ice prince,” a father says to his daughter, “the second Lan boy.”
It is not true. Lan Wangji is not made of ice, nor is he a prince. He is just - cold. Alone, when he is not with his horses, or when he is not with -
“Lan Zhan!” a voice calls, and Bichen and Lan Wangji both turn, powerless to not. Wei Wuxian is standing there, hands on his hips and his jeans soaked to the knee with brine, hair whipping around his face, eyes sharp and grey as the sky. Lan Wangji is not sure if he is breathing.
“Wei Ying,” he says, both as a greeting and as a continuation of his thought.
Wei Wuxian beams up at him. He’s shivering in his t-shirt, too much skin bare for the October winds. “Already out riding Bichen, Lan Zhan? I would have expected nothing less of you!”
“Hmm,” Lan Wangji says, around the glowing warm thing in his chest. “Why is Wei Ying here?”
Wei Wuxian’s smile determinedly doesn’t fade. “Oh, you know. Just checking out the competition and the capaill uisce.”
The same as everyone else on the beach, yes, but it still puts a heavy stone in Lan Wangji’s gut. “Are you riding this year?”
Wei Wuxian bites his lip. There is a hole in his t-shirt, just near the underarm. Lan Wangji knows he is no longer living with the Jiangs, but he does not know where he is living now. It scares him, a little, to know that Wei Wuxian might not be living comfortably. “Yeah,” he says, eventually. “The money, you know…”
Lan Wangji does not know. He has never needed the money his brother won. He has never needed to know Wei Wuxian is happy more than he does now.
Wei Wuxian reaches out a hand to scratch between Bichen’s nostrils, uncaring of the sharp teeth he reveals as he lifts his upper lip up. “Hey there,” he coos, and Bichen snorts softly.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, grinning brighter still, “I think he likes me!”
Wei Wuxian has met Bichen before, many times. Lan Wangji already knows that Bichen likes him. Lan Wangji likes him too. “Hmm,” he says.
Wei Wuxian moves around to stand by Lan Wangji’s left leg. He reaches up his hands in a clear question. Lan Wangji pointedly looks down at his saddle, which is not designed to fit two people.
“Come on, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian whines, and Lan Wangji sighs. “I won’t fall off,” Wei Wuxian promises, and then uses Lan Wangji’s proffered hand to swing himself up, landing lightly behind Lan Wangji and the saddle. He immediately winds his arms around Lan Wangji’s waist, pressing his chest up against Lan Wangji’s back. He’s cool against Lan Wangji, colder than he should be, and Lan Wangji is pretty sure he can make out individual ribs through the layers of cloth between them.
After a few minutes walking along the edge of the beach, above the high-tide mark, Wei Wuxian props his head up on Lan Wangji’s shoulder. “Can we go faster?”
Wei Wuxian has always loved speed. Lan Wangji nudges Bichen into a light trot, and then a canter. They verge closer to the water, until it’s just the two of them, clinging to each other, and the spray kicked up by Bichen’s hooves. Lan Wangji hums to Bichen, tying the capall uisce to the land and Lan Wangji even as the water licks at his fetlocks. Bichen is Lan Wangji’s, and nothing will take him away.
“I need to be ready by the first of November,” Wei Wuxian says against the fabric of Lan Wangji’s jacket. “So I need to pick a water horse soon.”
He’s switched into Mandarin, meaning that even if any of the people watching them were close enough to hear, few of them would be able to understand. Lan Wangji loves him for it.
“Don’t pick in the first few days,” he warns.
Wei Wuxian sighs. “I know, I know, Lan Zhan. This isn’t my first time doing something like this.”
Lan Wangji knows. Wei Wuxian has never ridden in the races before, but his adoptive siblings always have, and he would train their capaill uisce with them. Well… he had trained their capaill with them until the first of November claimed Jiang Yanli, dragging her, bloody, into the sea.
Since that day eleven months ago, Lan Wangji has not seen Wei Wuxian around the capaill . Not until now, as he rides comfortably on the back of one, his arms around Lan Wangji’s waist.
Lan Wangji is not complaining.
“There’s a storm predicted in two days,” Wei Wuxian says, mouth pressed near Lan Wangji’s ear to make his words clear through the wind that whips around them. “I’ll go out then.”
Lan Wangji resists the urge to shudder. Capaill uisce caught in storms are generally the strongest, fiercest, wildest. They are the most dangerous. The words be careful stick in his mouth. “Let me come with you,” he says, instead.
Wei Wuxian laughs. It sounds hollow even as it’s ripped away by the wind. “I don’t need a minder, Lan Zhan,” he says, sharp around the edges.
That is not what Lan Wangji meant. He takes a deeper breath. “Not a minder,” he says, braiding threes and fives and sevens into Bichen’s mane with his index and middle fingers, more to calm himself than the horse, as Bichen is still steady beneath him. “I would like to help.”
“I don’t need help,” Wei Wuxian says, but he’s still holding tight to Lan Wangji’s waist as Lan Wangji pulls Bichen in a sharp circle at the edge of the beach, the grey stallion snorting and tossing his head as his hooves send up a shower of gravel.
“I know you don’t need help,” Lan Wangji says, as he presses his heels in to convince Bichen into a gallop, hooves thrashing up the shallow water. They are deeper in than any rider should be on any capall uisce, but Bichen is steady beneath them, so Lan Wangji doesn’t worry about it. “I would like to offer it anyway.”
“Hmm,” Wei Wuxian says, considering, but he goes boneless against Lan Wangji’s back as they gallop past the majority of the spectators, Bichen’s hooves still firmly in the waves. Lan Wangji did not mean to reveal quite so much of his control over his water horse this early on, but Wei Wuxian has always made him forget what he should and shouldn’t do. “It’ll be after your curfew,” Wei Wuxian says, and it sounds like a dare.
“I will be at the cliff edge after the storm breaks,” Lan Wangji says, like some kind of compromise. That will be long after his curfew. “I will assist if you need me. I would like to meet your capall uisce, fresh from the waves.”
There is a saying, on the island, that goes somewhat like this: uisce are fiercest fresh from the water and fresh to the race. As untamed as they come from the saltwater is as untamed as they will be when they race on the first of November.
Wei Wuxian nods, the movement clear against Lan Wangji’s shoulder, as he guides Bichen up the cliff path, hands soft on the reins as they always are. Just because capaill uisce have mouths made for tearing flesh doesn’t mean they don’t mind having the bit jerked around. Lan Wangji knows this. He thinks Wei Wuxian does, too. He does not think that most of those who ride in the race have such an understanding.
He takes Bichen back to the barn, and walks him in loose circles until he’s fully calmed, until he’s cool enough for Lan Wangji to rub him down and lead him back to his stall. Wei Wuxian only dismounts when Lan Wangji does, and they untack and rub down the water horse together. It’s calming, to do something like this together. Bichen snorts and snuffles at Lan Wangji’s hair where it sits, wind-tossed, below his shoulders. Lan Wangji lets him. He has nothing to fear from his capall uisce, not this far from the sea, not with his eyes brown and clear, not with the braids lacing his mane and Wei Wuxian singing softly on his other side.
After Bichen is settled in his stall, on one side of Shuoyue and Liebing and in the opposite wing of the stables to most of the land horses, he takes Wei Wuxian to the main house, and they eat the hot and sour noodles Lan Wangji has had in the freezer for a week now. Wei Wuxian talks and laughs, and the air smells of salt. It is almost the first of November, and Lan Wangji cannot remember the last time he was this happy at this time of the year.
Wei Wuxian leaves as Lan Wangji’s uncle comes home, in the setting sun, and Lan Qiren watches him go suspiciously. “Wei Ying is racing this year,” Lan Wangji offers, but Lan Qiren merely grunts, toeing off his boots by the door and setting aside his white coat.
“Be careful, Wangji,” is the only thing he says as he turns to go up the stairs. Lan Wangji is not sure what he means. Lan Wangji is always as careful as he needs to be around the horses, and his heart - well. Lan Wangji was careless with his heart years ago, and he has yet to get it back. There is no point warning him about what has already long since passed.
The promised storm arrives, and Lan Wangji snaps awake in his loft bedroom as the lightning starts to shatter the horizon. He dresses warmly, white coat waterproof, and after a second of hesitation, packs a second waterproof jacket in his bag. He creeps down the stairs, at least an hour after curfew, making sure to time his steps and the subsequent creaks with the booms of thunder.
He debates taking Bichen, but he isn’t sure that he’ll have the requisite attention to control a capall uisce in the roiling atmosphere the mix of fresh and salty water the storm is sure to create, not when he will also be watching Wei Wuxian.
So he walks to the shoreline, glad for his waterproof backpack even as his supposedly waterproof coat dampens under the constant onslaught of water. There hasn’t been a storm this bad in Lan Wangji’s memory. He isn’t sure what that says about the water horse Wei Wuxian is determined to capture.
He encounters a capall uisce on the walk down, tearing into a sheep carcass on the side of the road. Lan Wangji skirts around it, wary if not scared. He hums as he goes, and while the water horse twitches its ears towards him, it doesn't lift its head from its meal.
Lan Wangji makes it to the beach. His shirt beneath the coat is getting wetter by the minute. There’s a group of men carrying one man up the mountain path. “The capaill are too wild tonight, ice prince!” one of them shouts. The man being carried is missing an arm. Lan Wangji looks over the cliff edge. He can see Wei Wuxian, a solitary figure lit only by the flashes of lightning, dancing in and out of the hooves of one particular capall.
With its coat as soaked by the water as it is, Lan Wangji cannot tell what colour it is. But he can tell that it is as large as Bichen and fierce with the thrashing of the waves and its hooves. Wei Wuxian has a halter in his hands, but as Lan Wangji watches, he throws it to the beach and throws himself onto the capall.
Lan Wangji hurries down the path. Wei Wuxian looks to have a strong grip on its mane, and the next lightning strike reveals that he’s frantically knotting threes and fives and sevens with his index fingers, just like they’ve all been taught. Lan Wangji isn’t sure it’ll be enough for this horse.
He makes it to the beach just as the capall rears up one final time, almost dislodging Wei Wuxian, and then jolts back down to swing its head around to take a chunk out of Wei Wuxian’s thigh.
Wei Wuxian stops it before the teeth make contact, though, with one strong palm on the upper half of its jaw. He leans down with his own head, and in the next lightning flash Lan Wangij sees the gleam of Wei Wuxian’s teeth, next to the gleam of the capall uisce ’s.
There is a story on the island. According to the oldest myth-spinners at the November festival, giving one’s blood to a capall is the surest way of binding it to you. It is one of half a dozen myths, those being of making knots of threes and fives and sevens, of certain types of berries that only bloom in October and early November, of chants murmured to calm the water horses. If those were true enough, then this might be too.
“Take my blood, and mine only, you beautiful bastard,” Wei Wuxian says, audible even over the crashing waves. Lan Wangji freezes on the beach.
As Wei Wuxian’s teeth split his own flesh and he offers a cupped hand of blood to the capall, Lan Wangji isn’t sure he believes it. But the capall uisce snorts once, into Wei Wuxian’s palm, and laps up the blood, so perhaps there’s some truth in such a legend.
“Mine only,” Wei Wuxian says again, because he has always been self-sacrificing like that. If this capall will kill anyone on the day of the race, it will be Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji will do anything to prevent that.
The horse snorts. It is calmed, temporarily, which is strange, as Lan Wangji has seen herds of capaill go into a frenzy after scenting the slightest amount of blood in the water.
Perhaps it is that it was freely given.
Wei Wuxian turns, then, one hand still fisted in his new horse’s mane, and sees Lan Wangji. He grins. His teeth are bright in the flashes of light, if blood-stained. “Lan Zhan!”
He is beautiful, like that, drenched in water, seated victorious on a freshly-emerged, storm-born capall uisce. Lan Wangji has seen Wei Wuxian in many lights and found him stunning in all. It should not surprise him, then, to see Wei Wuxian like this, and know he is beautiful. It still does, like a lightning strike to the heart or capall teeth to the chest; not entirely unexpected, but still staggering.
“I didn’t really think you’d come,” Wei Wuxian said, “but I’m glad you did! Can you hand me the halter, Lan Zhan?”
Lan Wangji picks his way across the slippery pebbles of the beach to the halter. It’s soaked beneath his fingers, likely both with fresh and salt water. He briefly questions the use in putting it on a capal, but Wei Wuxian seems to have everything under control. Lan Wangji hands Wei Wuxian the halter, and the capall uisce swings towards him, eyes showing their whites and teeth bared. Wei Wuxian tugs on its mane. “You don’t touch Lan Zhan,” he says, halfway between true anger and teasing. Lan Wangji did not expect to feel so protected, out here on the beach as the lightning flashes around them and the rain pelts down, exposed to the elements but glowing warm with Wei Wuxian’s regard.
With a bit of awkward maneuvering, Wei Wuxian manages to get the halter on. The capall snorts once more, and then Wei Wuxian fishes a lead rope out of the backpack on his back and loops it through the halter, forming makeshift reins.
“I’ll ride back,” he tells Lan Wangji, but Lan Wangji shakes his head.
“Is it not too soon? Your capall is barely broken, and not trained.”
Wei Wuxian considers this for a moment and then looks up at the sky. “And I can barely see through this rain,” he grumbles, but he slides off the horse’s slick back and turns the lead rope back to its original purpose. “Come on then,” he says to the horse, tone soothing, and starts to sing as he guides them away from the water.
The capall goes willingly, and it takes Lan Wangji a moment to recognise that the song Wei Wuxian is singing is the one Lan Wangji uses to calm Bichen. When he does, he joins in, and it’s just their two storm-torn voices on the beach, coaxing the capall uisce, muzzle still stained red, away from the lure of the water.
When they’ve made it to the top of the cliff and the capall doesn’t still look ready to bolt down to the waves, Wei Wuxian relaxes. “Thanks, Lan Zhan,” he says, and leans against him, wet shoulder to wet shoulder.
Lan Wangji considers the probably-dry jacket in his backpack, but it is likely far too late for that.
“Not looking forward to the walk across the island,” Wei Wuxian says, shuddering, and suddenly Lan Wangji remembers the capall uisce he saw, eating that sheep carcass, and he knows that there will be danger on the way.
“Then don’t,” he says, and when Wei Wuxian cocks his head at him, he elaborates; “walk across the island.”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “I have nowhere else to go, Lan Zhan.”
“Come with me,” Lan Wangji says. He’s pretty sure that the rain washes all tones of pleading from his voice before it reaches Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian looks at him then, hair plastered to his skull and eyes shining grey. “Alright,” he says, just loud enough to be heard over the wind. “Won’t your uncle find my horse though?”
Lan Wangji shakes his head. “Uncle doesn’t go near that wing of the stable unless he needs to,” he says, because his uncle has avoided the capaill uisce ever since Lan Wangji’s parents died.
Wei Wuxian shrugs. “There is a spare stall,” Lan Wangji says, the words stumbling over each other, “on the other side of Bichen from Shouyue and Liebing. Your water horse can go there.”
“For a little bit,” Wei Wuxian agrees, and then he puts a hand on his horse’s neck and heads off in the direction of Lan Wangji’s home.
It’s not a long walk, but it is made longer by the rain and the slippery road and the fact that they are leading a capall uisce away from the sea.
Bichen wakes, whinnying as Lan Wangji opens the door of the stall beside him. As Wei Wuxian gets his horse settled, spreading straw on the ground and filling the water trough, Lan Wangji slips into Bichen’s stall. His stallion makes a few snuffling noises, clearly smelling the new horse, both on Lan Wangji and the next stall over, but settles quickly. Lan Wangji cards a hand through his mane, braids in a few more lines just for the sake of it. It’s calming, it has always been calming. He draws small circles on Bichen’s face, just below his eyes, and the capall snorts calmly, lipping at Lan Wangji’s wrist.
Lan Wangji thinks about Wei Wuxian biting his own flesh, and wonders.
Bichen kicks at the barrier between him and the new capall a few times, but with Lan Wangji still rubbing circles and braiding, he calms quickly enough, dropping off to sleep with his heavy head leaning slightly against Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji doesn’t mind. It’s an expression of trust, this, and he is not sure that many riders have the trust of their capaill as explicitly as Lan Wangji has Bichen’s.
He leaves the stall when he hears Wei Wuxian leave the stall next door. Bichen snorts quietly as he pulls away.
“Have you named them yet?” he asks Wei Wuxian quietly, in the dim lighting of the electric lights that had flickered on when they had walked in. There are prints made in water on the concrete leading towards them - two sets of shoeprints, one set of hoofprints.
“Him,” Wei Wuxian corrects, which is… good, Lan Wangji supposes. Mares are always particularly moody, capall uisce mares especially. “And yes. Chenqing.”
It’s a good name, Lan Wangji supposes, even if it has a slightly strange meaning.
“Hmm,” he says, instead of that, and then leads Wei Wuxian to the main house. They strip off most of their clothing in the entryway to reduce the dripping, leaving them shivering in underpants, and Lan Wangji hangs their clothes over the side of the tub in the laundry as Wei Wuxian slips into the bathroom, using the still-raging storm as cover for the shower running. When he emerges, a few minutes later, it’s dressed in Lan Wangji’s soft sleep clothing and with tousled hair hanging down to meet his shoulders. He towels it dry as Lan Wangji makes his own way into the shower, trying not to stare too obviously at the toned expanse of his thighs.
Lan Wangji showers perfunctorily, more for the warmth than for the water, and towels his own long hair dry before emerging from the warm, steamy room.
Wei Wuxian is shivering when he does emerge, and Lan Wangji feels a wave of guilt at that. He guides Wei Wuxian up the stairs, once again making sure to align their movements with the flashes of lightning so that the thunder covers any squeaks, and then points out his uncle’s room with a finger to his lips before urging Wei Wuxian further up.
They make it to his loft bedroom eventually, and Wei Wuxian looks around curiously before breaking into laughter, muffling it somewhat with his hands. Lan Wangji looks askance at him.
“Look,” Wei Wuxian says between snorts, “I didn’t expect my first time sneaking into a boy’s bedroom to be for something as mundane as this.”
Lan Wangji resolutely quenches the heat trying to rise in his blood. “You call taming a capall uisce in the middle of the worst storm we’ve ever seen mundane?”
That, for some reason, makes Wei Wuxian break into fresh giggles. Lan Wangji hopes the sound of the storm covers it. There will be uncomfortable questions asked if his uncle wakes and makes his way to Lan Wangji’s room to find Wei Wuxian, laughing with his hair still damp.
“I, too,” he admits, “did not expect the first time I snuck a boy into my bedroom to be like this.”
Wei Wuxian gapes at him, for just a second, and Lan Wangij feels horribly, awfully exposed, until Wei Wuxian breaks into laughter again. “What a pair we make,” he says between giggles, and Lan Wangji hides his smile by pulling his extra blankets from the cupboard. After a moment of thought, he grabs his small first-aid kit too and tugs Wei Wuxian onto his bed so he can sit beside him and hold his arm loosely, pulling out the alcohol swabs.
“Ah - Lan Zhan, it’s fine,” Wei Wuxian says, sobering. Lan Wangji glares at him, and he subsides. There’s no beach gravel in the bite, which is good; Lan Wangji cleans it as gently as he can with the alcohol wipes and then wraps it neatly in white bandages. When he finishes, Wei Wuxian is staring at him, lips parted slightly. Lan Wangji makes himself stand and put the kit away.
He puts some of the extra blankets on the floor, and Wei Wuxian blinks at him. “Lan Zhan, tell me you aren’t planning on sleeping there.”
Lan Wangji looks at him. “I avoid lying.”
“Nope,” Wei Wuxian says, and then he grabs Lan Wangji and drags him up onto the bed with all the strength that allowed him to cling to a rearing capall uisce , even though Lan Wangji tries to resist. They lie there for a moment, panting, and then Wei Wuxian scrambles off to grab all the blankets on the floor, piling them on the bed. He then wriggles under the blankets he just placed, settling against Lan Wangji’s chest.
The bed is small. They are rather cramped. Wei Wuxian’s hair smells like Lan Wangji’s shampoo.
“Look, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says. “I am cold and just had an adrenaline crash, so unless you have an objection, I’d like to stay right here.”
Wei Wuxian is in his arms. Lan Wangji has no objections.
“Good,” Wei Wuxian says in response to his silence, and burrows even closer.
Lan Wangji wakes to Wei Wuxian sprawled across his chest. At some point during the scant hours they’ve been asleep, they've managed to kick off almost all the blankets, likely as they warmed up. Wei Wuxian is a solid weight against Lan Wangji, warm and hard to move aside. Lan Wangji manages, though, and makes his way downstairs barely five minutes later than he normally does.
He eats breakfast with his uncle and then says that he is going to go feed the capaill uisce. It is not a lie.
He checks on them, first Chenqing, to make sure he hasn’t injured himself during the night - he has not - and then Bichen, who huffs warmly as he enters his stall. After, he feeds all of them, thick slices of red meat delivered by the butcher’s assistant early each morning.
He wonders, briefly, if he should have left Chenqing’s feeding to Wei Wuxian, but he did not want the capall to go hungry, and Wei Wuxian will likely wake after lunch.
He proceeds around the barn, washing his hands first and then distributing hay bales to the land horses in the other wing of the stable - at this time of the year, his uncle rarely lets them outside to graze - then goes to the house and runs a load of washing. He makes his way back to the house just before noon.
Wei Wuxian is almost awake when Lan Wangji ascends the staircase, grey eyes half-open. He stretches on Lan Wangji's bed, and then yawns himself awake. "I'm sore all over, Lan Zhan," he complains, even as the shifting of his skin beneath his t-shirt makes Lan Wangji struggle to think. "No one told me catching a capall was gonna be this hard."
This is hardly the first time Wei Wuxian has helped with the catching of capaill uisce, but it is most likely the first time he did it on his own. Lan Wangji hums, and holds out his hand to steady Wei Wuxian as he clambers to his feet.
They make their way slowly downstairs, and then Lan Wangji cooks congee as Wei Wuxian slumps on their dining room table chairs and talks, throwing his voice to the wind as the light outside goes golden-pink, a reminder of the storm. Lan Wangji thinks he would give almost anything to have this be a constant: him and Wei Wuxian in a kitchen, drenched in sunlight.
He collects their clothing from the laundry, and Wei Wuxian ducks into the bathroom to get changed back into his clothes before coming and settling again at the table, limbs strewn everywhere.
"Uncle went to the mainland today," he says, and Wei Wuxian twists around to look at him, so he elaborates, pinned beneath that silver gaze as he is. "You may school Chenqing here, if you wish. We have the space."
Wei Wuxian gapes at him before upending the Lans' spice jar into his congee and grinning. "You're too good, Lan Zhan," he says around a mouthful of red.
"Will you?" Lan Wangji asks, because he has to know.
"Yeah," Wei Wuxian says. "Are you going down to the beach again today? There are bound to be a few more people out today, after the storm. You should give them another show."
Lan Wangji does not remember it as a show. What he remembers is that Wei Wuxian was wrapped around him and he could not have done anything less with the feeling echoing in his heart.
"I will not take Bichen today," he says, instead of any of that. He does not think Wei Wuxian is ready to hear it. "I will not be gone long; an hour, maybe two."
Wei Wuxian waves him out the door, already sliding the dishes into warm, sudsy water. "I know where everything is," he says. "I'll see you when you get home."
Lan Wangji goes down to the beach with the echo of a smile on his lips. There's no evidence of the way Wei Wuxian fought Chenqing for control there, not anymore. The waves have smoothed the pebbles back to normalcy. There is a bloodstain further up the beach, not that anyone standing there pays it much notice.
It is almost November on Thisby Island, and so blood is a mundane thing.
There are indeed more people on the beach today, watching the few capaill that still churn in the surf. Lan Wangji wonders whether any of them will dare to catch one of these post-storm horses.
Twenty minutes after he arrives, five men jump to surround a single capall uisce , a dark roan a hand shorter than Bichen. He leaves as they drag it out onto the beach. There is screaming and cheering. He does not think it was that spectacular. It was nothing compared to what Wei Wuxian did last night, in the storm-shredded waves.
When he makes it back to the Lan property, the dishes are all washed and put away and Wei Wuxian is not in the house. Lan Wangji goes to the stable. Bichen is there, but Chenqing is gone.
Chenqing and Wei Wuxian are in the arena, he soon finds, Chenqing trotting circles around Wei Wuxian, guided by a lunge line and whip Wei Wuxian has likely taken from the Lan stable's collection of them. The capall uisce moves well. Most capaill move slightly differently to their land horse brethren, their manner more fluid, more sleek, more dangerous. Chenqing is no different. He seems to glide across the sand of the arena floor, legs moving in a way that reminds Lan Wangji of waves dashing against rocks.
Wei Wuxian waves at him, but is otherwise intent on his task. Lan Wangji goes to the land horse wing and checks the left front leg of a horse that has been showing signs of lameness. Dealing with that takes him a while, and the next time he passes through the arena it's to see Wei Wuxian perched on the back of Chenqing.
He had been a drenched, glossy dark in the water, and now, dry in the daylight, he looks the same. He is dark black, the kind of colour that ripples as his muscles do and shimmers in the sun. He will be stunning on the course.
"What race colours will you wear?" Lan Wangji asks when Wei Wuxian waves at him.
"Red," Wei Wuxian says. He grins, shows his teeth. Last night, those teeth had blood in them.
Chenqing tosses his head from side to side, and Wei Wuxian braids threes and fives into his mane. He looks very small, bareback on a capall uisce .
"Do you have a saddle?" Lan Wangji asks, to distract from the worry rising in his chest. Wei Wuxian is more than capable.
Wei Wuxian smiles again. It is sharp and painful. "I have Yanli-jie's," he says.
The mainlanders are often superstitious about islanders who ride in dead people's saddles. It wasn't bad luck, here. If it was, hardly anyone on the island would have saddles to race in. Lan Wangji grew up in his mother's saddle. It is a way of remembering, for him. He thinks it might be the same for Wei Wuxian.
Lan Wangji watches them circle around the ring for a few minutes more, until Wei Wuxian looks out towards the sun and realises it has almost met the horizon. "I should go home," he says.
"Let me come with you."
Wei Wuxian looks at him, consideringly. "You won't want to walk back," he says, and with a flush, Lan Wangji realises Wei Wuxian had thought Lan Wangji meant for them to ride double on Chenqing.
"I'll take Bichen," he says, rather than thinking about that for a moment longer.
Wei Wuxian smiles at him, so he hurries to tack up Bichen, almost skipping the step of walking him around for a few minutes before rechecking the girth. Bichen doesn't normally try to make it loose, but sometimes he does. Lan Wangji is glad he checks. His uncle's be careful rings in his ears when he realises how close he was to simply swinging up into the saddle and racing off.
Once he's certain he's ready, he nods to Wei Wuxian, and they ride out into the setting sun. Wei Wuxian looks down at their capaill and laughs. "One white, one black," he says, and Lan Wangji can't help but smile at him.
Wei Wuxian presses a hand to his chest and gasps, as if Lan Wangji's smile is something precious. Lan Wangji barely understands him, sometimes.
Chenqing is handling being near another capall very well, which is a good indicator of how fazed he will be during the race. Lan Wangji is glad for it.
"We're opposites, even in this," Wei Wuxian muses.
Lan Wangji shakes his head. Some things he cannot let stand. "We are not opposites, Wei Ying."
Wei Wuxian grins at him. His hair is flyaway, even in this mild breeze. Lan Wangji's own hair is plaited, falling in one rope between his shoulder blades. "There were only two people on the beach last night," Lan Wangji says, and Wei Wuxian laughs and it feels like a reward.
"Are you saying we're the only two crazy enough to pull something like that?"
Lan Wangji hums.
"Alright, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says. "I concede. We're not total opposites. But hey! You'll be the shining white knight, like always, and I'll come unknown, a real dark horse."
He laughs at his own joke, loud and uproariously, and that makes Chenqing dance a few steps sideways.
Wei Wuxian places a hand on the side of his neck to calm him, braiding his mane with quick fingers, and starts to sing.
Bichen shifts beneath Lan Wangji like he's changing leads, and Lan Wangji realises he has changed leads; his and Chenqing's hooves are moving in tandem. Wei Wuxian nudges Chenqing into a canter, still singing the song Lan Wangji uses to calm Bichen, and Bichen follows. Lan Wangji is unable to say whether he asked for the change in gait or not. It should concern him more than it does. He just hopes that Wei Wuxian will let them race alongside each other.
"My song," he says, unsure how to phrase his question.
Wei Wuxian looks up, understanding Lan Wangji like he has always had a knack for. "Oh! Yeah, well. It's so good at calming capaill, and I didn't think you'd mind, so I… started using it. You don't mind, right?"
Lan Wangji does not mind, and he says so. Wei Wuxian beams at him, all teeth and curving lips.
It is just the two of them, trotting their horses down the island paths, for a few minutes more, and Lan Wangij exults in it. They are heading to a part of the island he rarely visits, the opposite side to the beach the races are on.
Wei Wuxian pulls Chenqing to a halt outside a dilapidated house, the salt-weathered beams sagging and the metal sheets on the roof rusted. Lan Wangji stops beside him. Bichen champs at the bit, just a little, and Lan Wangji makes sure to hold him steady.
A young woman bursts out the front door. "Wei Wuxian!" she says, and then her eyes widen. Lan Wangji recognises her. She's Wen Qing, the niece of the ruined real estate magnate Wen Ruohan.
"Lan Wangji," she says, ducking her head in an approximation of the bows of old. Lan Wangji looks to Wei Wuxian, who just laughs.
"Qing-jie, stop looking at Lan Zhan like that! He's not here to throw us out or anything."
Wen Qing glares at Wei Wuxian. "What were you thinking? You vanish in the middle of the night during a storm, and then showing up the next afternoon with the ice prince and a capall uisce?"
Wei Wuxian grins sheepishly at her, dismounting to tie Chenqing to a rotting post near the front door. "I didn't mean to be gone for so long," he admits, "but Lan Zhan fed me, so I stayed at his place."
Lan Wangji had never intended to keep Wei Wuxian away from the people who cared for him.
"Well," Wen Qing says, "at least you had the sense to not drag a capall back here in the middle of a storm, for goodness sake. What are you planning on doing with it?"
Wei Wuxian looks sheepishly at Lan Wangji. "I'm going to race," he says, only for Wen Qing to whip around to glare at him again.
"Why? We don't need the money that badly. Don't be stupid, Wei Wuxian. You're going to get killed."
"Qing-jie," Wei Wuxian says, placating. Lan Wangji wonders if he should leave, but Wei Wuxian's palm has come up to settle on Bichen's shoulder. "We do need that money, and I won't die, I promise."
"You can't promise something like that, Wei Wuxian."
Wei Wuxian looks up at Lan Wangji. "What do you think, Lan Zhan? What are my chances of survival?"
Lan Wangji braids Bichen's mane. "High," he says, eventually. "As high as mine, as long as you maintain control of Chenqing. But there is never a guarantee, Wei Ying."
"See?" Wei Wuxian tells Wen Qing brightly. It's a false brightness, like the shine of wet pebbles; leave it for a minute and it will dry to dullness. "Lan Zhan won't die, and I won't either."
"Fine," Wen Qing says, even though Lan Wangji can tell that she doesn't truly believe him. She is thin, and her clothes are as ripped as Wei Wuxian's. "And don't think I've missed that bandage around your arm."
Wei Wuxian winces, and turns a pleading eye to Lan Wangji. He doesn't sigh, dismounting and tying Bichen carefully to a pole on the opposite side of the door, where he shouldn't be able to reach Chenqing. There is no guarantee what two capaill will do left next to each other.
There is no tea to be offered inside, but Wen Qing does send Lan Wangji an apologetic look. He does not mind. He is too absorbed in the sight of the little boy who had come pelting out of the depths of the house and wrapped himself around Wei Wuxian. "Xian-gege!" the child says, and Wei Wuxian smiles.
"Lan Zhan, meet a-Yuan, the youngest of us here."
Lan Wangji nods and crouches down. He is not sure how to act around small children. He has never had to know, before now.
"When I win the race," Wei Wuxian says, "we're going to leave the island."
Lan Wangji's heart stutters, stops. "You are going to leave?"
Wei Wuxian throws his head back and laughs, lifting Wen Yuan up to his hip. He has always been beautiful. He has never been something Lan Wangji is allowed to hold.
"Yeah," he says. "Why would I stay?"
Lan Wangji opens his mouth. He is not sure what he is about to say. Perhaps he will swear. Perhaps he will beg. He is saved from finding out by a noise outside; the grating sound of something being dragged over rough dirt. Lan Wangji is viscerally reminded of dragging trot poles outside, over the rough Thisby soil.
Wei Wuxian doesn't quite drop Wen Yuan, but it's a near thing. They both rush outside.
And then they freeze.
Capaill don't tend to be cannibalistic, but they have been known to tear chunks out of each other, even devouring the smallest and weakest. Lan Wangji had expected something like that, if anything.
The dragging sound was Chenqing pulling the rotted stump behind him, ignoring the weight. The two capaill stand next to each other now, Chenqing scratching Bichen's withers with his teeth, sharp canines through white hair. Bichen runs his own teeth down the line of Chenqing's spine.
There is no blood.
"Oh," Wei Wuxian breathes. He's still visibly shot through with adrenaline. Lan Wangji is too. He is not sure what he would have done, had they come outside to see the two water horses tearing each other apart.
"It seems they get along," Wei Wuxian says through a nervous laugh. It is unusual, if not entirely unknown, for two horses to adjust to each other as quickly as this. Lan Wangji normally allows two weeks for horses to adjust to new horses, but that only stands for land horses. He's never tried to introduce two capaill uisce to each other before; Shuoyue and Liebing were captured at the same time, and Bichen spent months seeing them around the stable before they were in stalls near each other.
"Anyway," Wei Wuxian says. "You should get going, shouldn't you?"
It's a dismissal, as clear as Lan Wangji has ever heard one. He nods, steps forwards to untie Bichen's reins and lead him gently away from Chenqing. Chenqing snorts. "Uncle is going to the mainland again for the weekend," he says. He doesn't plead. He won't let himself. "Will you use our training areas?"
Wei Wuxian looks out to the horizon. There's nowhere around this house that he can train properly for the race, gain the control and understanding of Chenqing he will need for the fight and the blood and the screaming. "Alright," he says. "I'll be down at the beach tomorrow morning too."
Lan Wangji nods. He has a month before Wei Wuxian leaves the island; he is not under the impression Wei Wuxian will do anything but win.
He doesn't say goodbye. He is not sure he could bear it. Instead, he swings easily into Bichen's saddle and urges him into a trot. He doesn't look back, either.
Wei Wuxian watches him go, the golden-pink light of the late sunset reflecting off Bichen and Lan Wangji's jacket alike.
They sit on the edge of the cliff the next day, horses left at their homes, as the dawn shatters the sky. These autumn sunrises are hours after Lan Wangji wakes, but Wei Wuxian keeps yawning. He only rises when he has to.
There are more competitors on the beach now, a week into October. There are three weeks until the race, give or take. Lan Wangji refuses to count down. He knows his uncle is marking off days in red, red ink, but Lan Wangji does not have to look at them.
Wei Wuxian brought food. He pops the last mooncake into his mouth, and then sighs mournfully. Lan Wangji remembers the mid-Autumn festival; all of the Chinese families on Thisby crammed into the one Chinese restaurant, eating and drinking and stringing the main street with lanterns. That mooncake, he realises, suddenly, may be the last one Wei Wuxian will ever eat.
A week ago, Lan Wangji sat cleaning saddles and was fairly certain he would survive.
Now, he is certain of nothing other than that he and Bichen will move as one.
"You know," Wei Wuxian says, "it all feels so far away, doesn't it? In three weeks, we'll be riding for our lives."
Lan Wangji hums. He is nineteen and mortal. He does not know how to reconcile those two facts.
"It's my birthday the day before the races," Wei Wuxian says. Halloween, too. Lan Wangji knows, even as his eyes track the man in the gold jacket throwing rope around a palomino's legs. Wei Wuxian is looking too. He snorts. "Those two colours will clash horribly," he says, interrupting himself, before getting back on track. "I won't even get to celebrate my nineteenth by getting terribly, horribly drunk, Lan Zhan, because I can't be hungover for the race."
Lan Wangji knows.
"If I die on the first of November, I won't ever be able to get drunk again," Wei Wuxian muses.
Lan Wangji dislikes how this conversation makes him feel; strung out, like dragging a knife along his bones, like unknotting the tangle of his intestines. He feels, at once, impossibly old and unbearably young.
"Ha! Lan Zhan, I've started a game with myself to make the waiting easier. Do you want to know?"
Lan Wangji would give anything to reduce the anticipation roiling in his ribcage that will be there for three weeks more. "Mn."
"I say I'll do things after I've won. Like, if I win I'll get drunk. If I win I'll go visit jie's grave. If I win I'll tell Jiang Cheng that I’m sorry. Stuff like that, you know?"
Lan Wangji thinks that some of those things contradict each other. He does not think that being inebriated while speaking to Jiang Cheng is a good idea for Wei Wuxian.
He tells Wei Wuxian this, in fewer words, and Wei Wuxian laughs. "It'll only be a problem if I win, Lan Zhan," he says, and ah.
That's where the appeal is in this 'game'. The appeal is in setting things for the future so you don't feel the stress of them, so they are stuck in a nebulous situation where you might die before you have a chance to do them.
Lan Wangji is not sure what to think. It seems too much like Wei Wuxian might actually not mind if he dies.
"If I win," Wei Wuxian says, "I'll ask Wen Qing if my name can go down as one of a-Yuan's official caretakers. I'll go see Nie Huaisang. I'll buy ice cream on the docks of the mainland."
Or like there are things he's wanted for so long that he has been afraid to put them into words until he knows that they might be ripped away from him.
Wei Wuxian leans against him, then, a warm line against Lan Wangji's side as five men plunge into the surf below and emerge, bloodied slightly, clinging to a dark grey capall. "Go on, Lan Zhan. Try it. You don't even have to tell me."
Lan Wangji looks at him, at the shape of his face; eyes, cheekbone, jawline, mouth, precious, precious, precious. "Go on," Wei Wuxian urges. Lan Wangji might die with him.
He closes his eyes. He thinks, there on that cliff's edge, if we both survive, I will kiss him, and there is no going back.
"Come with me to main street, Lan Zhan?" Wei Wuxian asks an hour later. "I want to buy red ribbons for Chenqing's mane."
They walk to the main street. The shops that line it are full of shouting merchants. It is not long until the tourists will start to arrive. Thisby thrives in the weeks the most blood splatters across its grounds. It almost seems like there is a direct correlation; the more blood spilt, the more money spent.
Wei Wuxian buys his red ribbon, cheap and more plastic than cloth but close to the colour of blood. It is yet another of the things that is meant to tie capaill to the land; blood, literally tying. Lan Wangji thinks of the bite mark on Wei Wuxian's arm, and imagines a future where they are both alive.
They train together, most days. Lan Wangji hones his bond with Bichen, filing down the time it takes for them to reach full gallop. Wei Wuxian braids the red ribbons into Chenqing's mane, the red and black in beautiful, violent contrast. He keeps a length to tie his own hair up. They make a gorgeous pair, Chenqing and Wei Wuxian. The red is not quite strong enough to stand out from Chenqing's mane, but Wei Wuxian shrugs philosophically. "Best I could get," he says.
Their names are all up on the board in the town centre now, Lan Wangji and Bichen in perfectly printed letters, Wei Wuxian and Chenqing in Chinese characters directly below. For better or for worse, they are listed.
Two days before the race, Wei Wuxian arrives at the Lan property with his arms full of flowers. "To remind them we're of the land," he says, and yes, flowers are one of the methods of keeping capaill from throwing their riders that Lan Wangji has never had to use before. Wei Wuxian spends the time Lan Wangji uses to warm up braiding them into Chenqing's mane; the stallion snorts, once, as he starts, and then calms, seeming to enjoy the moment to stand still and be grounded.
Should he decide to throw Wei Wuxian, flowers will not stop him. These likely will not even last to the race day, not if Chenqing rolls or rubs his neck against anything. Lan Wangji does not think Wei Wuxian cares. This is not all about the race. This is about finding joy in the smallest things.
So when Wei Wuxian looks down at the still-large pile of flowers beside him and then raises an eyebrow at Bichen, Lan Wangji goes over, sitting still and quiet in the saddle as Wei Wuxian braids a riot of blue and yellow and green into Bichen's mane. In between the flowers go threes or fives or sevens of little twists. Lan Wangji is calm, just watching the patterns of Wei Wuxian's fingers, never mind that he is sitting on a man-eater with another lipping at Wei Wuxian's sleeve. They are safe.
There are still a few flowers left when Wei Wuxian finishes with Bichen's mane. "Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says, and it sounds like the call of the ocean. Lan Wangji sighs, and then slips from the saddle and turns his head, unlatching and removing his helmet.
Wei Wuxian grins - he can tell, despite his back being turned - and then undoes Lan Wangji's plait, running his fingers through the hair that had been pressed down by the helmet. He starts to braid the flowers in, movements deft, tugs soft and soothing. Lan Wangji thinks he understands, just a bit more, why the rhythmic tugging soothes the water horses.
That is, of course, when Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren walk in.
"This would not be accepted by any competition judges," Lan Qiren says. There is judgement in his voice, as well as something Lan Wangji can't recognise without looking at his face, and Lan Wangji doesn't want to do that.
Wei Wuxian's hands stutter briefly, but he keeps going, picking the second last flower up. "Good thing we're not entering any competitions," he says.
Lan Qiren snorts, then stomps his way out of the arena and towards the main house. Lan Wangji watches him go with only a slight amount of trepidation.
"Hello, Wangji," Lan Xichen says as Wei Wuxian ties in the elastic at the end of the braid.
"Brother," Lan Wangji greets. "How are you?"
"My shoulder is better," Lan Xichen says. "And I am glad to be back on the island. I have missed much, I see. How is Bichen, Wangji?"
"He is well. Ready for the race."
"Shuoyue and Liebing?"
"Well. They are in their stalls." Lan Wangji expects Lan Xichen to head there immediately - he can't imagine being that far from Bichen for as many weeks as Lan Xichen has been gone - but he doesn't.
"I like your hair, Wangji," he says, and then slips away. Lan Wangji flips his hair over his shoulder, and then his ears flush red - it's braided with small red and white flowers. Wei Wuxian's colour, and his.
"I'll take it out," Wei Wuxian says. Lan Wangji does not like hearing him sound like that, uncertain and unsure.
"No," he says, stopping Wei Wuxian's hands. "Leave it in. I like it."
Wei Wuxian flushes. "They'll all have to come out for the race," he says, and Lan Wangji knows. This was not for the race, not really. This was for fun, for seeing the beauty the island that might kill them has to offer.
"Stay a little longer," Lan Wangji says. "It's not yet lunch. Shall we take them for a race along the beach?"
And so they do. Bichen takes the side closest to the water, and Wei Wuxian whoops as Chenqing shows all his speed, and together they rush down the beach, pebbles scattering behind them, flowers flying too. Lan Wangji has never felt any more alive. He looks at Wei Wuxian as they slow down, still bent low over Chenqing's back, and hopes that he will win.
When they return home, Wei Wuxian picks the flowers out of the capaill 's manes. They are too messy to leave in, and Chenqing has already started trying to eat the flowers in Bichen's mane. "You'd think," Wei Wuxian grouses, "that he wouldn't do this, being a carnivore," but the water horse doesn't seem to care.
As Lan Wangji catches Wei Wuxian's hands to stop him from pulling the flowers from Lan Wangji's hair, Lan Xichen walks back through. Lan Wangji drops Wei Wuxian's hands and they take a half step apart, like children caught with sticky fingers on November cakes. Lan Wangji doesn't know why they do it. Lan Xichen laughs at them regardless.
"Who's this?" he says, looking at Chenqing.
Wei Wuxian grins. "Chenqing," he says. "I'm riding him at the races this year."
Lan Xichen raises one eyebrow. "One of the Jiangs'?"
Wei Wuxian laughs. "No, actually. Came in with the waves just a few weeks ago."
That is a vast understatement. "Wei Ying caught him alone during the storm at the start of the month," Lan Wangji tells his brother.
"Lan Zhan!" Wei Wuxian says as Lan Xichen chuckles.
"He's beautiful," Lan Xichen says.
Wei Wuxian preens.
At dinner that night, Lan Qiren looks at Lan Wangji and says "when I told you to keep a close eye on your competitors, this was not what I meant."
Lan Wangji nods. He is not sure he would call Wei Wuxian a competitor. He is sure that he has never been able to take his eyes off Wei Wuxian.
There are still flowers in his hair.
The morning of October the thirty-first, Lan Wangji arrives at the Wen residence with the dawn. He'd walked, and the cuffs of his white pants are speckled with dirt when Wei Wuxian flies out of the Wen Residence and collides with him.
Wie Wuxian is alive in front of him, breathing and living and laughing, and he will remain so for a short while longer, at minimum. Lan Wangji knows this.
It does not stop him from taking Wei Wuxian's hand and holding it at the pulse point. "Wei Ying. Happy birthday."
"We're the same age!" Wei Wuxian beams. "How 'bout that, Lan er-gege?"
Technically, they are not. Lan Wangji knows that Wei Wuxian knows that. "Mn," he says, just to see Wei Wuxian's smile widen.
"Come inside!" Wei Wuxian says, and drags him in. Wen Yuan clings to Wei Wuxian as soon as they enter, and Wei Wuxian lifts him up and passes him to Lan Wangji without even thinking about it.
Lan Wangji shifts the toddler in his grip and feels trusted. They stay inside for a little longer, as the house comes alive around them, various Wen aunties and uncles waking and moving to make breakfast, and then they go outside.
Chenqing is well-groomed, although his mane and tail are as wild as they have always been, longer and fuller than those of the show horses in the Lan stables. Wei Wuxian shrugs. "I like looking half-feral," he says, a gleam in his eyes that Lan Wangji wants to know better. "And pulling his mane would have been so much effort."
Lan Wangji agrees. There's a reason he hasn't pulled Bichen's either.
If anything, there is some hope that the extra hair will make it harder for capaill 's teeth to make contact with Bichen's neck.
They haven't talked about riding side by side yet. Lan Wangji isn't sure that Wei Wuxian wants to. He doesn't know much about what Wei Wuxian wants at all.
That is the reason his hand trembles when he reaches into his coat pocket to pull out the carefully-wrapped gift he brought.
Wei Wuxian's face lights up. "You didn't have to!" he exclaims, taking it, which is true, but Lan Wangji wanted to. Besides, it's not much.
The red ribbon unspools from Wei Wuxian's hands. It's thin and smooth like satin, a deep, bloody red. It's the colour that Wei Wuxian's arm was that night on the beach, the colour of the blood they both may shortly lose.
Wei Wuxian stares at it for long enough for Lan Wangji to wonder if he's done something wrong - perhaps it was too cheap of a gift, but he didn't want to gift something that Wei Wuxian might never get to use and enjoy - and then a smile breaks across his face, like the storm broke across Thisby on the day Wei Wuxian caught Chenqing. "Thank you," he breathes more than says, and then he's at Chenqing's neck, starting to braid it in.
As he drops the majority to swing down as he braids, a smaller piece flutters free. Lan Wangji watches as Wei Wuxian swoops to catch it before it can meet the hoof-trodden dirt, and then as he realises it's for his own hair. "Lan Zhan!" he says, delighted. "You really thought of everything, didn't you?"
Lan Wangji hums. He thinks of Wei Wuxian's 'game' and then tells himself if we both survive, I'll buy him a better birthday present.
"I was going to have to use that cheap plastic ribbon, but, Lan Zhan, this is so much better! Thanks, er-gege."
When Chenqing's mane is shot through with red, Wei Wuxian pulls his own shoulder-length hair up with one of the hair ties permanently on his wrist and slips the ribbon through it, to flutter down his back.
It will stream out behind him as he races. Lan Wangji wants to see it. At the same time he never wants the day to come.
They stand side-by-side in the pre-race ceremony. Wei Wuxian cuts his palm and drips blood on the stones at the heart of the island, taking part in the decades-old tradition, and Lan Wangji thinks of that night, out on the beach. Wei Wuxian could have died then. In less than twenty four hours, one or both of them might be dead. Then, now. Death is all-encompassing, this close to the race.
Lan Wangji closes his eyes and thinks of that promise he made on that cliff, as well as the one he made yesterday. They both feel fragile and too close to reality. He's not sure what he'll do if one of them dies. He's not sure what he'll do if they both live.
He drips his own blood onto the stones, and the pain is brief and meaningless. If the island is meant to take less blood because they've offered it here, he doesn't think it will work. What is one slash across his palm against the rawness in his heart at even the thought that Wei Wuxian might die? Nothing.
The time for the race comes. It is the first of November. Lan Wangji chokes down his congee and lets his brother hug him. He spends a few minutes with Bichen, stroking his long neck and calming himself as well as the capall. Bichen's coat still lies smooth from where Lan Wangji had spent an hour the night before, currying and brushing and wondering if he should get the cornstarch to make it as white as possible before realising that it would be pointless; this is a race, not a show.
He tacks up, the racing saddle light in his hands. He checks the girth three times, walks Bichen in slow circles around the arena. It's as empty as it has been this past month. None of the regular riders will ride their land horses there while Bichen is present.
The saddle pad is white, as is the saddle, the leather supple beneath his fingers. The bridle and reins are ice-white. Lan Wangji is in white, from head to toe. He knows they will arrive like ghosts. He knows that they will arrive like they are ready for a funeral, and that they may soon be drenched in blood.
He does not care. If he is going to ride to his possible death, he will do it with as much drama as he likes.
At the starting line, Chenqing and Wei Wuxian find them. Wei Wuxian's saddle pad is blood red. His saddle is his dead sister's. He and Chenqing have red ribbons adorning them. Lan Wangji might overflow from how much he feels; how can he be so scared, so impatient, so in love?
"Ice prince," Wei Wuxian says, looking him up and down. He doesn't make a joke about funeral clothes; it is too real.
"I'll see you at the end," Wei Wuxian promises as the starting officials take their positions. Lan Wangji smiles, small but there. Wei Wuxian shakes his head. "Ice prince, my ass. Lan Zhan, I'll see you soon."
And then they're off. Somewhere behind him, Lan Wangji is aware of a spray of red, but he's too focused on keeping Bichen headed forwards. They tear out, the pebbles scattering away behind them, and before long they're part of the leading group, the rest falling behind in a screaming, squalling pack. There's five horses here: Bichen, Chenqing, and three others Lan Wangji knows almost as well. Crush kicks with her right hind leg more than her left, Kala is impossible to control once he's deep enough in the water, and Crow swerves each time Bichen shows his canines.
And so Lan Wangji swerves to the left, heading into the waves that still beat up against the beach. He goes in at an angle until the water is up to Bichen's hocks, until his capall is trembling beneath him, nostrils flaring with the salt, until Kala peels away to join them and promptly throws his rider to the sand before disappearing home to the waves. The rider screams as the rest of the horses approach. Lan Wangji doesn't dare look to see if he's alive. He can't. The adrenaline is in his veins now, and he's braiding frantic threes and fives and sevens into Bichen's mane. To his right is singing.
Lan Wangji picks up the tune, singing even as the wind whips away the sound, and Bichen tosses his head once before picking up even more speed. They're even with the rest of the leading mob - the water slows Bichen, yes, but only as much the horses around them slow the others.
Lan Wangji knows that if Chenqing can break out of the knot, his storm-given speed will lead him to the finish line first. He glances to the right now that Bichen is steady, and catches a slash of silver.
Crow's rider has pulled a knife. Lan Wangji watches, heart in throat, as Crow races beside Chenqing, steel still in his rider's hands. Wei Wuxian is shouting something, the words themselves torn away by the wind.
The knife flashes down and across, Chenqing screams, thin and high, and Lan Wangji almost, almost wishes he could close his eyes, because Wei Wuxian's reins have been slashed, old leather giving out beneath the sharp steel.
There's dull darkness seeping down Chenqing's neck when Lan Wangji catches a glimpse; he's been cut as well. He throws his head up, swings it wildly to the side, teeth serrated and bared, eyes rolling in his head, and then Wei Wuxian says something - Lan Wangji realises, in a moment of clarity in the middle of the chaos, that he's said my blood, and only mine - and Chenqing tosses his head the other way and puts on another spurt of speed, drawing ahead.
Crow's rider shouts again, as they head for the one corner of the track, and Wei Wuxian turns his head, a feral grin on his face, teeth bared like his capall 's are, and bends forwards to latch his arms around Chenqing's strong neck for an instant.
The reins are lashing around him with the wind and Lan Wangji feels like he might throw up. Wei Wuxian is steering with his legs. Lan Wangji winces as Wei Wuxian ties the reins together. He worries for no reason; Wei Wuxian fought Chenqing for control on this very beach, in worse conditions, and so he is fine.
Crow shies away when Chenqing bares his teeth again, and falls behind even as his rider curses.
It's just Bichen, Chenqing, and Crush, who gained distance on Chenqing in the time it took Wei Wuxian to fix his reins. Crush, who kicks with her right leg, who is on the left side of Chenqing.
But Wei Wuxian has studied these horses with Lan Wangji, and so he directs Chenqing to the right just as Crush kicks out, and then uses the momentary stutter in her gait to pull ahead. Lan Wangji clenches his jaw against the salt and spray around him. He bends low over Bichen's neck, urges him faster, faster.
They race like the sea wind itself. Lan Wangij remembers riding this exact course with Wei Wuxian's arms wrapped around his waist. He remembers riding this beach with flowers in his hair, lining Bichen's mane. He remembers sitting with Wei Wuxian up on the cliff top now behind him and promising if we both survive, I'll kiss him.
Crush's rider swears, digs spurs in. Lan Wangji shakes his head as Crush twists her head to take a chunk out of her rider. Capall uisce are not to be tamed, not like that.
And then it's just Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, Chenqing and Bichen, neck to neck as they thunder down the beach, the waves crashing on one side and the pebbles flying beneath them, the pounding of a hundred-odd hooves behind them.
Wei Wuxian turns his head from where he's crouched above Chenqing's withers to smile at him, a streak of blood at the edge of his lips from where he must have bitten his lip at some point. "See you at the end," he says, and he and Chenqing start to pull away.
They have raced before. Lan Wangji knows that Chenqing is slightly faster. Slightly.
Bichen shakes his mane. His muscles slide smoothly on his shoulders, around his chest. He is beautiful, in motion. He does not like to lose, either. He is hot for the fight. Lan Wangji can feel him tugging at the reins.
Lan Wangji gives him his head, lets him stretch himself more and more with each stride, lets his long legs eat up the beach. They draw level with Chenqing.
Wei Wuxian laughs, gleeful.
Lan Wangji wonders what the spectators see, in one ridiculous moment. Two capall, nose to nose, neither tearing into each other, neither rider sabotaging the other.
And then his head's back in the race, and he pats Bichen's shoulder. He worries, just a bit, that he's given Bichen his head too early, and that he'll burn out, but Bichen keeps going, faster than Lan Wangji has ever known him to go.
Perhaps it's that he's been racing alongside Chenqing for almost a month now. Perhaps it's that it's the fire of the race. Lan Wangji does not know. He only knows that he loves this capall uisce fiercely.
Some of Chenqing's blood is on Bichen's hindquarters. He's soaked to the breast in seawater, and there's foam around his mouth. Wei Wuxian glances across to them and grins. He's overjoyed. "We're winning, Lan Zhan," he says across the short distance, like he doesn't need to win on his own to save the family he's built himself.
They're approaching the end. The horses behind them are still a heaving mess of limbs and colours. Lan Wangji keeps his eyes fixed ahead. The leather in his hands is biting into his palms. He's not sure he could slow Bichen now, even if he wanted to.
The finish line is a scant distance ahead; twenty strides, perhaps.
Lan Wangji reaches out to Bichen's mane, reins still clenched in his hands, braids three, then five, then seven in the flyaway hair.
Ten strides, perhaps. He lets out a shaky breath that's pulled from his mouth by the air rushing by.
Five, and there's no more time for thoughts or plans.
Three. He turns his head, meets Wei Wuxian's gaze. Whatever happens now -
Bichen rears up. Lan Wangji grabs his mane with both hands, clinging on like how Wei Wuxian had clung to Chenqing the night he emerged from the waves. Chenqing flashes past, a black streak to Lan Wangji's right. After a second of slashing his hooves into the air and digging his back hooves in to reduce his forwards movement to a few, stumbling steps, Bichen drops back down and completes the race.
"Lan Zhan!" Wei Wuxian says, from where he's brought Chenqing down to a trot just ahead. Bichen picks up a ragged trot to be beside him again, even though Lan Wangji's not sure he cued for it.
The rest of the water horses spill past the finish line, riders cursing and a few horses screaming. Wei Wuxian pulls Chenqing to a halt some distance from then end, and dismounts. Soon, someone will come to usher him away and gift him a purse heavy with coin and a golden trophy. Soon, but not quite yet.
Lan Wangji dismounts too. His legs are shaky, but he doesn't think it's noticeable. The adrenaline crash is upon him. Bichen wanders closer to Chenqing, snorting softly. Lan Wangji will cool him down and take his tack off soon. Soon, but not quite yet.
He teeters on the edge of that - soon, but not yet - for a moment, until Wei Wuxian grins at him like he can't quite believe this isn't a dream. "Did you play my game, Lan Zhan? Because I'm sorry to tell you -"
Lan Wangji transfers Bichen's reins to one hand, reaches forwards with the other, winds his fingers into Wei Wuxian's hair, around that red ribbon, and pulls him closer. Wei Wuxian's sentence breaks off into an "oh." In the instant before Lan Wangji closes his eyes he sees Wei Wuxian's flutter shut, and then their lips are meeting.
The kiss tastes like salt and blood, just a little. Lan Wangji pulls away after a second, but Wei Wuxian presses back in, one of his hands now on the nape of Lan Wangji's neck. Every point at which he touches Lan Wangji is a searing heat. His other hand is fisted in Lan Wangji's riding jacket, in the small of his back.
Lan Wangji disconnects them, just to check that Chenqing isn't running free, only to find that Wei Wuxian has tied the reins around his left wrist. "Wei Ying," he says, because that's dangerous.
Wei Wuxian merely rolls his eyes. "I could care less at the moment," he says, and Lan Wangji decides he doesn't care either as Wei Wuxian tugs him into another kiss, this one slicker and filthier, pressing Lan Wangji up against Bichen and his saddle until Bichen snorts and takes a step sideways, and in the resulting stumble they break apart and Wei Wuxian is laughing, laughing, laughing.
A moment later, he's drawn away to be presented with his prize. Lan Wangji spots Wen Qing in the audience, Wen Ning at her side holding a-Yuan. The siblings are crying. Smiling too, because they're safe now, but crying. In a short while, they will have a new home.
Lan Wangji gets presented with silver. The ceremony is a blur, except for the moment he spots his family. Lan Qiren merely looks proud and relieved, which means he didn't see Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji at the end of the race, but Lan Xichen is smirking, which means he did see, which means he's going to be unbearable.
Oh well. Lan Wangji looks at Wei Wuxian, who grins and blows him a kiss, and knows that worse things could have happened.
After the festivities, during which Lan Wangji spots Jiang Wanyin alternating between sobbing into Wei Wuxian's shoulder and punching his other shoulder, Wei Wuxian finds him. He's holding a bottle of Emperor's Smile, but he hasn't cracked it open yet. "Hey," he says, and Lan Wangji turns to him like a capall uisce to the sea. "You didn't do that on purpose, right?"
Lan Wangji considers it. "No," he decides, eventually. "I never trained Bichen to do that."
Wei Wuxian nods, satisfied, and undoes the lid on the bottle. "I'm getting started on those promises I made myself," he tells Lan Wangji.
That nebulous future is more solid now. Lan Wangji smiles at him, small and soft.
"I made… a lot of promises," Wei Wuxian admits. "You?"
"Two," Lan Wangji says.
"Oh?" Wei Wuxian says. "I'm all ears, Lan Zhan."
"Already completed one," Lan Wangji says, just to watch the surprise filter across Wei Wuxian's face and turn into a blush.
"Oh," Wei Wuxian says, and then, louder, " oh."
They sit there for a few minutes, watching the villagers and tourists straggle out of the streets, heading to homes and the lone hotel. Wei Wuxian cradles his bottle, but doesn't drink, not yet. "Are you sure?" Wei Wuxian asks, suddenly. "I mean, that you've completed your promise."
Lan Wangji is pretty certain, yes. He can still feel the phantom of Wei Wuxian's lips on his. And then he catches on.
"Perhaps you should do it again, just to make sure," Wei Wuxian says, breath fanning across Lan Wangji's cheek.
Lan Wangji does. And again, and again, and again.
"I'll be back soon!" Wei Wuxian yells as the ferry starts to pull away. "It's just to help the Wens settle, Lan Zhan!"
Lan Wangji knows. He waves.
"I'll visit every weekend!" Wei Wuxian adds. Lan Wangji knows this too. Chenqing has a stall next to Bichen's. A solid half of Wei Wuxian's (admittedly small) wardrobe is in Lan Wangji's room.
The ferry keeps moving away. Wei Wuxian keeps waving.
A month later, Lan Wangji is woken from his sleep by a hand patting his cheek gently. "-an Zhan," a voice says, a voice he knows well. "Lan Zhan!"
He blinks awake. Wei Wuxian is kneeling beside his bed. "Surprise!" he says, grinning. "I'm back!"
Lan Wangji blinks, slowly.
"Xichen-ge let me in before he left for Meng Yao's. He said your uncle's on the mainland at the moment," Wei Wuxian says, as if that explains anything. "I'm not going away again any time soon," he adds, and that does.
Lan Wangji hums and tugs at his arm, yanking him onto the bed. Wei Wuxian laughs, breathlessly. "Welcome home, Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says, and kisses him.