“...filthy Dixingren, laying waste to our city—they should all be—”
There were enough sedatives to spare. Cheng Xinyan slipped the needle smoothly into the old man’s arm, just above the elbow; he sighed into his rant and his eyes slid shut. “It’s better for his heart,” she explained smoothly to the weary-looking woman hovering by them. “Why don’t you lie down beside him, to keep him warm. He should be fine when he wakes, but if not you can contact the hospital, or else someone will come by.” She wasn’t the only medic walking the streets of Dragon City today.
The old man’s wife thanked her, with a look of generalized misery, and they made their escape. On to the next.
“You don’t hate them, do you?” Cong Pao said, into the momentary silence between main streets. Her elegant short haircut was hopelessly disarranged, and there was soot on her forehead and a burn on one cheek that she hadn’t let Cheng Xinyan deal with. Both the knees of her jeans were burst.
“Do you ever stop investigating?” Cheng Xinyan remade her ponytail for what felt like the fiftieth time. Loose strands immediately slipped free again, clinging to the mess of sweat and dirt on her face. “My brother was Dixingren, not that it’s any business of yours. So is my best friend.” She didn’t know where Shen Wei was but he was going to come back. He was.
“Works for me.”
Cheng Xinyan fished out her pack of antiseptic wipes and cleaned her hands, again, passing a sheet to Cong Pao. “What about you? Do you hate them?”
“Dixingren? Why should I? They’ve never done anything to me.” Cong Pao waved a hand around them, at the damaged buildings and the damaged people. “I mean, sure, all this. That just shows they’re people, same like Haixingren. People are terrible.” She sounded absurdly jaunty.
“Like Chief Zhao said, they’re people,” Cheng Xinyan echoed. “—It was you who set up that livestream, wasn’t it?”
Cong Pao looked away. “That doesn’t matter.”
“Afraid of having been caught doing a good thing?” Cheng Xinyan teased. She might be a little punch-drunk by this point.
Cong Pao frowned at her, wincing absently as the burn on her face pulled. “I’m a journalist, a muckraker. Nothing wrong with doing good. But you can’t be naive in my line of work.”
“I don’t think Chief Zhao is naive. Nor is Shen Wei.” Cheng Xinyan swallowed, pushing back a wave of regrets—if she hadn’t tried to be so delicate, so thoughtful, if she’d made Shen Wei talk to her, yesterday, last month, ten years ago—
Well, it probably wouldn’t have helped. Shen Wei had always been that way, modest and reserved, even a little shy when they were younger, but unshakable, ever, when he had made up his mind to something.
Keep on telling yourself that, Xinyan. She shook her head. They rounded the corner into Xingbi-lu and found a little clutch of people huddled in the smashed mess of what had probably been a stationery store at some point, starry splashes of ink and cheery pink sticky notes amid the disorder. “Is anyone injured? Is anyone missing?” she asked automatically, slipping back into the routine.
It took them almost two hours to work their way down Xingbi-lu, where the damage was bad. Cheng Xinyan kept working on automatic, calling on the emergency medicine training she hadn’t used since her student days; Cong Pao stayed at her shoulder, an extra voice and pair of steady hands as needed.
Someone at the Nandong-qiao intersection was handing out bottled water and steamed buns. “I’ll eat later,” Cheng Xinyan started. Xingbi-lu was just the tip of the iceberg.
“How about now?” Cong Pao suggested pleasantly, with the sharp-edged grin that was a tool of her trade, her version of the warm smile, half-cultivated half-natural, that constituted Xinyan’s bedside manner. “Ow, fuck.” She went to press her sore cheek, realized her hands were full of water bottles and buns for both of them, and rolled her eyes.
Cheng Xinyan let out her breath. “If you let me see to that burn first, I’ll sit down somewhere and eat.”
“Lady, you’ve got yourself a deal.”
They turned into the nearest side street and found an untenanted stoop. Cong Pao groaned uninhibitedly as she sat down on the top step, pressing her hands into the small of her back and stretching out her neck. “Ugh, aiyo, whose good idea was all this.”
“That remains to be seen.” Cheng Xinyan squatted in front of her, bracing one knee on the next step for balance. “Stay still so I can look at your face.”
“That’s what all the girls say to me—ow! Fuck off!”
“Stay still,” Cheng Xinyan repeated, gritting her teeth. It wasn’t a bad burn, but the accumulated grime of the day had done it no favors. If Cong Pao had just let her clean and bandage it when they started out—She braced one hand under Cong Pao’s chin to keep her head still, and got to work with the other.
Cong Pao was nobody’s idea of a good patient, flinching and cursing and trying to jerk her head away, but Cheng Xinyan had dealt with worse that day, and before. It was a relief to be able to abandon artificial gentleness and dig her fingers into the tendons under Cong Pao’s jaw.
“There,” she said finally, making sure the tape holding the gauze over the burn was secure. “You’ll want to make sure to change the dressing before going to bed tonight.”
“You going to do it for me?” Cong Pao drawled. The treatment had obviously hurt—the clean half of her face was paler than it should have been—but her eyes were bright.
Cheng Xinyan kept her hand under Cong Pao’s chin, feeling the pulse beating, fast and steady, and Cong Pao’s throat working as she swallowed once. “Are you asking for what you want, Cong-xiaojie, or is this just another piece of investigation?”
“Everything is an investigation, Dr. Cheng,” Cong Pao said evenly, leaning forward a little to increase the pressure of Cheng Xinyan’s hand, “same like everything for you is an act of care, and if you don’t start kissing me better now I’m going to—”
Cheng Xinyan didn’t let her finish the sentence. Cong Pao’s mouth tasted of soot and blood and brick dust and the haw flakes given to them three hours ago by a grateful patient, owner of a half-destroyed corner sweetshop. The kiss was not gentle by any imaginable standards, fresh blood on Xinyan’s lips by the time she had to pull away to breathe.
“I take it back,” Cong Pao said, likewise breathless. “Kissing is a waste of all the other places you could be putting your mouth, do you think anybody would notice if we--?” She waved graphically at the narrow street.
Cheng Xinyan breathed very carefully and tried not to let her imagination get the best of her. “I think somebody might,” she said precisely, “and if you don’t have a professional reputation to maintain I do, and also we kind of did set out to get something else done today—” nodding at the first-aid kit she had set down beside them.
“Mm. Reputations are my business, but—okay, look. The whole city’s an emergency right now, we do our aid thing, however long it takes. Thirty seconds after you decide you’re off duty, though, I want your head between my thighs. Deal?”
“Deal,” Cheng Xinyan said, before she thought, and then reconsidered. Cong Pao’s tan shirt buttoned down the front; it did not take long to get three of the buttons open.
“What do you think you’re—” Cong Pao began, and then gave a really satisfying gasp as Cheng Xinyan extracted one neat small breast and put her mouth over the nipple.
Once the marks were visible—red-purple and gorgeous where the skin was thinnest—she raised her head and said "Promissory note," not even trying not to sound smug.
Cong Pao was wide-eyed, mouth a little open, her forehead damp. Cheng Xinyan found a clean edge of her own scarf and dabbed away the drops of sweat before they could trickle down to sting the burned cheek.
“...There’s water,” Cong Pao remembered, sounding only a little unsteady as she buttoned her shirt. They were both thirsty. Cong Pao inhaled a pork bun in about ten seconds and frowned at Cheng Xinyan, who was still sipping water. “You need to eat.”
“...I want to keep on tasting you,” Cheng Xinyan confessed, feeling like a blushing virgin for the first time that afternoon.
“We can work with that. Eat your nice bun first. Oh, and turn around.”
“What are you going to--?”
“Don’t get excited, I just want to fix your hair. Your ponytail’s giving up the ghost.”
It was; Cheng Xinyan’s hair was clinging to the sweat and dirt on her neck and falling into her eyes and mouth. She picked up a steamed bun, reluctantly, and turned her back.
Cong Pao’s thin fingers, keyboard-clever, pulled together the disordered hair and French-braided it, pulling Xinyan’s scarf undone to tie the ends off with. “There. That should stay. Are you finished eating or what?”
Cheng Xinyan crammed the last piece of bun into her mouth. “I am now,” she said thickly, swallowing.
Cong Pao drew her to her feet, spun her around and bent her head to suck a dazzling bruise into Xinyan’s collarbone, exposed now that her scarf was in her hair instead of around her neck. “Delicious,” she said into Xinyan’s throat, sounding dreamy. “I could eat you for a week and not ever lose my appetite.”
“My turn,” Cheng Xinyan managed, trying not to let her legs give way. She found purchase for her lips against Cong Pao’s cheekbone on the sore side of her face, using all her specialized knowledge to make sure it would hurt without actually worsening the injury.
Finally they stood silent for a moment, each holding the other’s wrists, just too far away to kiss.
“Dragon City still needs us,” Cheng Xinyan said finally. “We’ve had long enough to rest.”
“A girl needs to eat,” Cong Pao drawled. Unexpectedly, her voice dropped suddenly into vulnerability. “Will we have a chance to seal our deal? Will the city be safe?”
“I believe it will.” Cheng Xinyan took a deep breath, slid one hand free to pick up her medical kit. “Shen Wei will do something. Chief Zhao and his team are working too. The city will make it, Xiao Pao, and so will we.”
“Then let’s go make it happen,” Cong Pao said, back on sure ground, and they made for the avenue once again, still hand in hand.