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Everything buzzes out of hibernation when summer comes and resettles its familiar heat over Lotus Pier. People venture outside with their chores, the sound of hammering and lively conversations echoing from house to house; more boats slide into the river with every passing day, as well-trained hands pick quickly flowering lotuses, or simply drag through the water for small cool reprieve. Further into the city, the marketplace flourishes with renewed energy as crowds hang around a little longer again, eager to thaw out the rest of the lingering chill of spring while they slowly move through the stalls.

The summer season also brings with it a sharp uptick in the number of Jiang Cheng’s daily meetings. Along with the usual land and crop reports, preparations must begin for the smooth transition into the summer training regimen, leaving him once again in constant consultations with his sect command and resident healers often enough that many of their shorter check-ins happen while they’re walking to their next meeting destination.

(Jiang Cheng doesn’t remember his father having nearly as many meetings when it got warmer, even when he was required to sit in on more of them as he got older. Distantly, he wonders if he should be delegating more, but the notion makes his skin itch and he swiftly kicks it aside.)

Today is no different, even with Huaisang’s visit; it’s solidly booked, high noon has come and already gone, with still three more planned appointments before dinner—which, insufferably, is not going to bring him much relief tonight. Not when he’s well aware that he’ll be using the sparse time beforehand to prepare for his conversation with Sect Leader Ouyang regarding Jin Ling’s…marriage prospects.

That thought alone brings his upper lip into a high snarl, out of a long-habitual feeling of protectiveness more than anything else. Huaisang, seeing this, only snorts, but still reaches over to smooth a thumb across his mouth.

“A-Cheng,” he murmurs, voice laughter-soft and sighing. It’s the kind of sound that gloats about not having to worry about things like marrying off his only familial relative, Jiang Cheng glumly thinks, and he responds to the sweet smile with a lukewarm glare. Huaisang simply flicks his fan at his expression, and allows the tepid heat of it to fall cleanly to his feet with another chuckle.

When Jiang Cheng grumbles that he doesn’t have the time in his schedule for this, Huaisang knows he’s just being contrary, even if he also knows it’s true.

Technically, Jiang Cheng’s meant to be in a meeting right now—and Huaisang too, despite his insistence that his trip to Lotus Pier was purely for leisure. But he’s by now learned how to use the humid climate of Yunmeng to his advantage; armed with his sturdiest fans and windowless rooms, Huaisang finds that his traveling Chief Cultivator sessions move much more swiftly during the summer.

So, technically, Huaisang is finished for the day, with full opportunity to breeze by Jiang Cheng’s rooms to inquire about his own schedule, and whether he had “any suggestions at all on how to stay sane in this unbearable weather?”

“It’s too hot to be productive today, Jiang-xiong!” Huaisang had complained, his whine emphasized with a solid drop of his forehead against the other’s clavicle. They had risen with the heat and have yet been able to escape it, and Jiang Cheng found that he couldn’t think of a single argument against Huaisang’s statement, especially when he then felt the barest brush of lips along his bare neck.

At this point in their relationship, Jiang Cheng can admit when Huaisang is right about something (to himself, and not ever to Huaisang’s annoyingly smug face). So he does know that Huaisang has raised a good point, and well—he can only watch the small beads of sweat curl around the other’s temple for so long before he figures he should do something about it.

Which is why he ends up secreting the both of them away from their responsibilities (read: his own) and straight to the stretch of river that runs behind his rooms, a private offshoot of the main river with a perfect amount of shade from all of the surrounding greenery.

Huaisang watches the easy confidence in Jiang Cheng’s stride as he walks right into it as soon as his shoes are off, and his skin prickles in excitement when he hears the other’s sigh of satisfaction at the instant relief of the cool water.

“You grew up here,” he notes, just to say something while he takes in the way Jiang Cheng immediately bends over when the water hits his shins to dunk his hands in. Jiang Cheng swishes them around, ignoring his drenched sleeves, and then lifts his dripping hands to wipe his nape, leaving streaks of wetness there. “Shouldn’t you be used to this kind of heat?”

“I am,” Jiang Cheng hums blissfully, near syrupy in tone. Huaisang’s incredibly amused by the way his entire fiery core seems to just melt into the water. “But I have a much lower tolerance for putting up with people passing out around me because they aren’t.”

His comment is as pointed as the look he shoots back over his shoulder. It’s no secret between them that Huaisang prefers the earthy, balmy humidity of Qinghe over Yunmeng’s more intense climate, which—in the end, really makes his frequent visits to Lotus Pier to see Jiang Cheng all the more sweeter.

But the blessed sting of the cool water has stripped all of the heat out of Jiang Cheng’s look, only serving to make Huaisang grin—quickly but haphazardly concealed by the back of his hand—and he nearly misses his cue to exaggeratedly roll his eyes in response, utterly distracted by the sight of a content Jiang Cheng wading lazily in the river.

“You look like a sunbathing cat, Jiang-xiong.”

Jiang Cheng just spreads his arms over the water, the long hems of his sleeves trailing behind, and lifts a hand to beckon to Huaisang. “Come in already, will you? You’re the one who was complaining about the heat.”

Huaisang doesn’t need to be told twice.

He gasps when he takes a step in, at first at how cold the water is around his foot, and then in stuttering relief when he continues in. Goosebumps overtake the sweat dotting his skin, leaving the hair on his legs all the way up to the crown of his head buzzing in gratitude, and he wades in just a little further so he can feel the water tease at the lower half of his shins.

The stark contrast of the chill enveloping his legs against the heavy heat pressing down on the rest of his body feels surprisingly amazing, and it’s already doing wonders to cool him down. He greedily pushes forward, until the water is just above his knees; the ends of his robe floats behind him, allowing him the freedom to fully appreciate the soothing coolness lapping across his exposed skin, and his eyes slip closed as he involuntarily echoes Jiang Cheng’s earlier happy sigh.

There’s a loud laugh thrown his direction, the sound magnified by the water. “Now who’s the cat?”

Huaisang cracks open an eye, and smiles at the image in front of him. Though he took out his hairpiece, Jiang Cheng kept his hair in its usual bun to be able to sink deeper into the water, and only his head to the top of his chest is visible. With the help of slightly bent knees, he’s not as far out as he would need to be submerged for his height, but every step Huaisang had taken into the river had him stepping backward, so he’s still further out than Huaisang expected.

Jiang Cheng’s gaze is firmly settled on his face, his lips quirked in a smile that Huaisang has been learning is one reserved only for him, and he preens as he continues trailing his hands over the surface of the water. It’s the shy invitation of that smile and the sharp collarbones defined underneath soaked fabric that drives him to push forward. Jiang Cheng’s smile widens, and he continues his slow walk backwards, silently guiding the other in.

Huaisang eventually stops right before the tops of his thighs are submerged, and he stops too, waiting. But when Huaisang seems fine to stand where he is, eyes again closed and face tilted up to the scant sunlight through the trees, Jiang Cheng’s eyebrows scrunch together.

“That’s it? That’s as far as you’re willing to go?”

Even with his face set in mild confusion, the usual daytime scowl is gone from Jiang Cheng’s features, replaced with a smoothness that Huaisang usually only sees in the evening, after they’ve finished their duties and can come together in private. Seeing that look in the open—with a slightly smaller smile than before, but still present—against the backdrop of lush greenery and the reflecting water cutting lines of light across his jawline, has Huaisang opening his other eye to fully admire the view.

He’s long known how attractive Jiang Cheng is; in the years before they finally started dating, he was always happy to ruthlessly declare this statement of fact, just to giddily watch as the other’s face heated in embarrassment. But now that they’re together, and Huaisang is actually allowed to get his fill of looking whenever he wants, he finds himself frequently getting legitimately distracted by Jiang Cheng’s beauty.

(Which he can’t tell is a delightful perk of being a romantic in love, or punishment for all the years of teasing.)

It takes him a moment, until one of Jiang Cheng’s scrunched brows arches and his fingers twitch in invitation, before Huaisang realizes he hasn’t yet responded.

“Mn, yes. Otherwise my hair will get wet, and we still have that appointment with Sect Leader Ouyang tonight.” The silent addition of unfortunately rings clearly enough without him needing to say it, and he chuckles when the scowl reappears on the other’s face at the reminder. “Oh, A-Cheng, don’t be all huffy like that. Either way, even just being this far in is doing more than enough to cool me down.”

Jiang Cheng huffs anyway. “Can’t you just hold it up? You could come out farther that way.”

I want you closer, he means.

It’s Huaisang’s turn to frown. “But my hands are already wet, which defeats the purpose of trying to keep my hair dry! And then I would have to keep holding my hair up, A-Cheng. What’s the point of enjoying the water then, if I’m forced to do all that extra work and end up with tired arms?” He whines, pitch perfect, and breaks into laughter when Jiang Cheng just rolls his eyes at him.

But then he’s cutting a path through the river as he strides toward him, and Huaisang has barely seconds to appreciate how strong Jiang Cheng’s thighs are to so easily walk in the water like that, before he’s standing in front of him.

The soft riverbed emphasizes their already-pronounced height difference, especially since Huaisang has been burying his toes into the soft silt, and he discovers he likes the slightly extra stretch it takes to look up at Jiang Cheng. Now that he’s closer with more of his body exposed, Huaisang also notices how his robe is dark enough to not go translucent when wet—not like Huaisang’s—but it’s wonderfully still light enough to flaunt the outline of Jiang Cheng’s hardened nipples and ripples of muscle on his stomach.

“Oh, hello,” he sings, and indulges in the sudden flash of desire that leaves his groin tingling as he openly ogles his partner’s chest.

Jiang Cheng ignores him. Instead, he quickly wipes his hands on the dry fabric over Huaisang’s chest before reaching up and oh—the firm slide of his thumbs across Huaisang’s collarbones and around his neck to collect his hair makes him shiver more than the cold of the water had managed to do. Huaisang can feel the soft sway of his hair brush against his back as it moves in Jiang Cheng’s hold, and is even more keenly aware of how good the light pull against the base of his head feels, from Jiang Cheng hefting the length up and then twisting it around his fist into a makeshift bun.

It’s nowhere near tight, but his hold is sturdy and high on Huaisang’s head. If he tilts his head just right, Huaisang can force a tension that leaves his scalp tingling enough to make him slightly arch into it, and his eyes nearly slide shut again. When one of Jiang Cheng’s thumbs comes back down to drag across his goosebumped skin to pick up the few flyaways, Huaisang can’t help the small gasp that escapes before he presses his lips together.

It’s only then when Jiang Cheng looks away from his task and back to him. All of the effort Huaisang uses to force his eyes back open and flatten his face into a neutral expression is completely undone when he sees how Jiang Cheng’s eyes darken as he tracks the rising flush on his cheeks.

The fist tightens in his hair, tugging on the strands hard, perfectly in the way that Huaisang was searching for a second ago.

Huaisang chokes on a whine. “A-Cheng—”

“Now you can come out farther.”

Jiang Cheng’s voice has gone a little gravelly, and Huaisang lets out a small exhale of a laugh.

“I suppose I can now, can’t I?” He returns, unsteady.

Then, he swallows and straightens up in an obvious attempt to collect himself. “Though you do realize you’re going to have to hold my hair the whole time, right? It takes too long to dry, and you can’t let any of it get wet if you want me looking presentable tonight.”

Jiang Cheng’s appreciative gaze only sharpens, and he smirks when he gently presses his fist against the back of Huaisang’s skull in a clear signal to start moving. “Don’t worry, A-Sang. My arm can manage just fine.”

Huaisang arches again with a whimper and sways forward into his space, further than necessary to walk in step into the water, but Jiang Cheng simply winds his free arm around Huaisang’s waist to press him flush against the full length of his own body, and starts walking backwards.

Their movement makes the river rouse around them. Every step back is accompanied with a fresh, cold rush of water that slides between the drag of their robes and against their skin—it feels almost as if there’s barely anything between them, and Huaisang uses the soft sand as an advantage to rock his hips harder against Jiang Cheng’s, mewling at the tantalizing feeling of their hardening cocks rubbing against each other.

“Jiang Cheng,” Huaisang whines, “you—ah, you know just how to make me want you, don’t you? Just couldn’t wait to get your hands on me.”

Jiang Cheng groans, and the arm around his waist tightens. “Fuck,” he exhales, “you look good with your hair up like this, Huaisang.”

“It feels so good,” Huaisang instantly shoots back. “Your hand in my hair. You can pull harder, you know.”

Jiang Cheng does, to Huaisang’s immense delight, and he cries out in praise. The hand on his waist moves in a rough slide down, to grab a handful of Huaisang’s ass and work his hips in an angle that has Jiang Cheng’s head dropping against Huaisang’s temple in a harsh exhale, and leaves Huaisang moaning into his chest. His hair is pulled taut, just on the right side of painful, and it’s already making Huaisang embarrassingly desperate.

“I bet you want to fuck me,” Huaisang pants, then gasps at the feeling of fingers pressing along the cleft of his clothed ass, lingering at his entrance through the fabric, and he rocks against Jiang Cheng in excitement. “Yes, you do—I know you want to fill me up and make me come on your cock, don’t you?”

“Huaisang—” whatever was meant to follow is lost when Huaisang’s hands dart up to paw at his robes, and as soon as his chest is revealed, he leans in to lick a long stripe over Jiang Cheng’s collarbone and up the length of his sensitive neck before biting down hard. “Huaisang!

His moan is open and unabashed, and Huaisang thinks he possibly hears it echo. Jiang Cheng stumbles to a stop, forcing a thigh in-between Huaisang’s own at the same time as he throws his head back, presenting more skin to be devoured, and he pants hard when Huaisang sucks at the perfect spot on his neck to leave his knees shaking.

Huaisang pulls away long enough to press his fingers right over where his mouth was and rakes his nails down. The slickness of Jiang Cheng’s chest makes Huaisang bite his nails into his skin harder, to feel how the scant water slides over the pads of his fingers, and he pinches at the hard nipples just so he can hear Jiang Cheng’s voice break against his throat on his next moan. Huaisang feels dizzy; he feels like he’s drowning from the searing heat of Jiang Cheng’s body and mouth, from the oppressive humidity bearing down on his head and shoulders, and even from below, as the water rapidly warms between them—

He wants to make Jiang Cheng come underwater, he realizes. He wants to see whether Jiang Cheng’s release will feel warmer than the river between them, and what it would feel like to come hard enough to make the water splash, to reach the still-dry areas on his body and shock him with its cool touch among so much heat.

A sudden image sears itself into his mind, of Jiang Cheng standing over him, forcing his head down low enough so that the water licks at his lips and brushes under his nose as he fucks deep into Huaisang’s mouth, and Huaisang very nearly dislodges himself from Jiang Cheng’s hold by accident from the sheer force of the desire that crashes into him.

“Oh fuck, Jiang Cheng—"

They’ve barely moved. Just far enough for the water to reach below the swell of Huaisang’s ass—just high enough to obscenely splash from Jiang Cheng’s hand hitting it as he incessantly coaxes Huaisang to hump his thigh, and the rhythmic noise sounds so much like something more that it sets Huaisang’s nerves on fire and causes his body to stutter on the next drag.

“A-ah! A-Cheng,” Huaisang shakes, and takes the initiative to lick at Jiang Cheng’s throat, tasting the river water there, before biting down in desperation. Jiang Cheng jerks, gasps, and makes no further attempt to keep walking as he clings to him. Huaisang swirls his tongue over the small purpling bite before leaning up to run his panting wet lips along the shell of Jiang Cheng’s ear. “Love—A-Cheng, I thought you wanted me further into the water?”

The question seems to be enough to reorient Jiang Cheng, even as Huaisang himself rapidly starts to lose focus, and he manages to pull his head away to look down at him. He looks utterly gone, his pupils completely blown and mouth open and gasping. Huaisang knows he must look similarly, based on the way Jiang Cheng outright whines when their gazes connect, and he rushes forward to finally capture Huaisang’s mouth in a deep kiss.

Carefully, he starts pulling them backwards again.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t let up; he needed to pull his thigh away to walk them, but his hand doesn’t leave the other’s ass to keep them pressed together, making Huaisang rut against the hard jut of his hipbone, while the fist in his hair yanks his head around to move as Jiang Cheng pleases. Every tug unleashes a stream of loud moans into Jiang Cheng’s mouth, broken only by sharp gasps from each firm swipe of his ring and pinky fingers across his nape. When they scratch at his skin, Huaisang violently jerks in Jiang Cheng’s hold and this time he knows his moan echoes.

He’s hard, he’s aching, and the more they sink into the water, the dizzier he gets from the thrilling shock of cool water inching higher up his body before it melts against his overheated skin.

When the water licks at his nipples, Huaisang arches into the feeling with a cry. His hands, once gripping Jiang Cheng’s shoulders like a lifeline, drag down his front to rip his robes open the rest of the way. Huaisang tugs at the fabric that’s trapped between their hips, and then tugs harder at what’s bunched at the elbows, forcing Jiang Cheng to briefly let go of his butt to let the sleeve drop. Huaisang fights against the hand in his hair to look down, to take in the sight of shining, tanned skin before its obscured slightly beneath the water, and he moans—and moans harder when Jiang Cheng yanks his head back and attacks his neck.

Huaisang pulls again on the other sleeve, but Jiang Cheng bites at his jawline.

“Would have to drop your hair—” he distractedly manages, in the middle of pushing the rest of his freed robe to float out of the way before smacking his hand right back on Huaisang’s ass, hard enough to lift him off of the ground a little under the water, and very nearly hard enough to make Huaisang come right there, from both Jiang Cheng’s fingers pushing against his hole and from the brief feeling of disorienting weightlessness.

Huaisang doesn’t even try to touch his feet back to the riverbed, and lets Jiang Cheng be his anchor to keep him from floating away.

“A-Cheng,” he begs. He’s shaking, overwhelmed by Jiang Cheng and the heat and the water around them, and he’s dangerously close to losing his mind in the other’s arms right now. He leans heavily against Jiang Cheng’s chest, and slides their mouths together. “I — you, please—touch me.”

Jiang Cheng instantly rocks to a stop, bends his knees to shove Huaisang back between his legs, and sweeps aside the drifting flap of Huaisang’s robe to reach in and grab him. His hand drags up Huaisang’s hard length in a firm grip that makes his eyes roll back, and then Jiang Cheng’s forcing his head to the side to clamp his mouth high on his neck, just below his ear.

And Huaisang can do nothing but cling to the wet skin of Jiang Cheng’s shoulders and blink unseeingly at the greenery around them as Jiang Cheng works him to completion. He can’t stem the rattling string of moans in response to every tight slide up and down his shaft, whimpering as Jiang Cheng’s hard thrusts against his own thigh forces him to bob in the water. As soon as he registers Jiang Cheng’s low, desperate chanting of his name over the sound of crashing water—

Huaisang blazes, a fiery electricity drenches his skin, and his heartbeat sings as loud as he does as he’s pulled underneath the blinding burn of euphoria.

He shakes apart in Jiang Cheng’s grasp, his nails biting deep into his shoulders, and goes even louder when Jiang Cheng responds by clawing at his back as his own release hits him hard.

The water around them now feels just as warm as the heavy air, but still manages to be soothing.

Jiang Cheng needed to widen his stance to keep them upright, and then widened it a bit more to counterbalance against Huaisang’s boneless weight, but he doesn’t make any further attempt to move otherwise. They stay there, locked in a tight embrace and panting, and Huaisang’s eyes slip closed as his lips fall to Jiang Cheng’s reddened shoulder, leaving small, sweet kisses on his skin. One of his useless arms slides away from Jiang Cheng’s upper back to drop into the water, and Huaisang hums as he swirls his hand underwater.

“Mm, A-Sang,” Jiang Cheng murmurs. He turns his head to brush his nose along Huaisang’s temple and leaves a kiss there. Huaisang can feel his smile just as much as he can feel the sluggish glow of satisfaction radiating off of him. “Very, extremely glad you convinced me to take you out here.”

Huaisang laughs, and nestles his face into his partner’s neck. “Mn, me too. I always do have the best ideas.” He brings his wet hand up to drip cool water across Jiang Cheng’s back, and giggles at the grumbling shiver he receives. “Though I suppose we’ll have to get out soon to—don’t you dare drop my hair!”

“Wait—”

Suddenly, there’s a flurry of commotion—Huaisang stiffens and slams his feet back onto the riverbed, no longer letting Jiang Cheng’s legs hold him up, and the water splashes around them as Jiang Cheng is abruptly forced to readjust and loosen his hold to avoid accidentally dropping them under the waves. “Huaisang!”

“You were going to let go of my hair!” Huaisang glares at him, hands held up on either side of his head, just inches away from cradling his hair that’s still held in a fist, fully prepared to grab it in case Jiang Cheng actually does drop it.

He could feel it, the way Jiang Cheng’s hand had slid down to now rest at the base of his neck—already dangerous territory—and then the slight change in his grip. They’re too far out, with the water at his chest, and if Jiang Cheng were to let go now then basically all of his hair would get wet. “You said your arm wasn’t going to get tired! Jiang Cheng!”

“I wasn’t going to drop it!” Jiang Cheng tries to glare back, but he knows its weak; the heat is lost in his post-orgasm state, so he goes for a peeved eye roll. “You’re seriously—Huaisang, I didn’t think you were going to put me to the test by making me come really hard while I held it!”

The veiled praise makes Huaisang instinctively want to gloat, but he huffs indignantly instead. “Don’t blame me, you put yourself up against your own test! You know I like having my hair pulled!”

Jiang Cheng very obviously tunes Huaisang out in revenge, but his eyes shoot up to trace over Huaisang’s hair when its mentioned. Huaisang can feel his fist move slightly to rub the meat of his palm against the back of his neck, and he slaps Jiang Cheng’s chest to get his attention. “Jiang Cheng, I refuse to be the kind of Chief Cultivator that shows up to anything with matted hair because you decided to manhandle me in the middle of a river!”

At that, Jiang Cheng’s flick around to take in their surroundings in interest. When he looks back to meet a disgruntled Huaisang, he’s looking far too smug and unnervingly challenging.

“We are pretty far out, aren’t we?” He says, casually.

His fist readjusts to tighten its hold again, and then sharply pulls Huaisang’s hair up so it’s tugging hard at his scalp. Huaisang’s eyes widen. “All the way out here, with me having to keep your hair up until we’re back on land?”

Huaisang startles as an arm winds around his waist again, and he shrieks slightly when Jiang Cheng suddenly drops them lower into the water, right up to their necks, and holds them there with a triumphant smirk.

Oh, Jiang Cheng has definitely spent way too much time around him.

“Jiang Cheng—”

“Looks like you’re stuck here until I’m ready to leave, A-Sang.”