Molten amber irises stare at the passing city lights with disinterest. The car is quiet sans the low jazz playing from the music player. There’s a half-full champagne bottle with a price tag of some people’s yearly savings lying forgotten on the leather seat, next to the carelessly laid champagne crystal glass.
The night sky casts a bluish hue in this part of the neighborhood. Alongside the dim streetlights and neon signs flickering on the verge of death, the view creates surrealism that invokes a sense of displaced nostalgia. It is unsettling.
“Must we pass this district? The view isn’t exactly... pleasant,” Zhongli says to his driver, although his eyes are still looking through the glass window.
“With that kind of accident, I highly doubt the highway will be moving in less than a couple hours, Sir. Taking this route would take you home the fastest, as you’d requested,” Beidou replies.
Zhongli glances at his dependable driver and gives a sigh of, “Alright,” before going back to looking outside.
A sudden memory surfaces, of when his age was only one digit and he sat on the back of his parents’ sedan. They were visiting a family across the country, and he remembers his parents allowing him to stay past his bedtime since it was an exciting road trip for their only son. At the time, there was also no light except the full moon, flickering streetlights, and the lights of his parents’ car. The night was illuminated by a soft glow of familial warmth.
There’s a small smile on Zhongli’s lips. He’s fond of such joyful memories. These little moments often show up unannounced, serving to make him realize what a fulfilling life he’s lead.
His trip down memory lane is cut short when he notices an anomaly outside. Before his mind can process it, his mouth is already telling Beidou to stop the car. The woman looks visibly confused but slows it down as per her employer’s order.
Before Beidou can inquire anything else, Zhongli is jumping out of his seat and out to the streets. Beidou wastes no time before she follows suit.
“Sir, what are you doing? It’s dangerous!” She’s damn near screeching—would have screeched, actually, if only the man in front of him weren’t paying her salary.
Zhongli’s still staring at an alley up ahead when he says, “I think I saw someone being cornered by a group of men. It could be...”
Beidou doesn’t need him to continue his sentence to understand. After all, such scenario happening in a red-light district leaves little to the imagination. She already has her phone in hand, ready to call emergency services, when she notices her boss walking towards the alley.
“Sir, please wait!” she yells in the loudest whisper possible. While Beidou masters several martial arts and is fairly confident in her combat ability, picking fights with possible criminals in a sleazy part of town while also being outnumbered doesn’t generate a good prognosis.
Zhongli turns back at Beidou. “Get in the car, call the police, then lock the door. If you sense any danger, drive away,” he instructs.
Beidou’s eyes are about to jump out of their sockets. “Sir, with all due respect, are you insane? Do you have a death wish?”
“Don’t worry, I have a gun. And, Beidou,” Zhongli gives her an uncharacteristic smirk, “if I can beat you in combat, I don’t have anything to worry about.”
He’s already left before Beidou can refute. She worries her lower lip before muttering, “Oh fuck it,” under her breath and stomps back to the car and does as her boss has instructed. She reaches over to the music player with her left hand to change it to her favorite—alternative rock mix—while her right makes an emergency call. “Hello, police? I’d like to report a possible assault—”
Zhongli follows the group, taking advantage of the lack of lighting to hide at the corner and assessing the situation. The way up ahead is a dead end, and there, three men are surrounding someone who looks like a red-haired woman, most likely a prostitute waiting on the sidewalks for a nice joe to treat her for the night.
“Don’t touch me!” she spits out, shaking out the grip on her wrist while also delivering a proper right kick that would’ve bruised badly had it hit. Unfortunately, the men also seem to be rather proficient in fighting, and she’s outsized and outnumbered by a large margin.
Although he’s unscathed, the attempt fuels the man’s rage as he prepares his fist. “Oh, you ask for it, you bitch!”
The woman is ready to dodge, but the swing eventually never hits. The man is instead thrown to an adjacent row of empty drums after Zhongli kicks his back. The other two are as shocked as the woman is to find an uninvited stranger in their fray.
Now that Zhongli’s gotten a closer look, the woman is not a woman at all. It’s a man, a boy even, looking barely legal. His choice of clothing still supports Zhongli’s assumption that he’s a prostitute, though. It’s not Zhongli’s own preference, but he knows old men or cougars who like their sugar in denim short and revealing top.
“Stay the fuck out of it!” screams the man to Zhongli’s right as he throws a punch towards Zhongli’s jugular. The other friend responds as well, sprinting forward to ram against Zhongli.
Zhongli dodges to the right before extending his left leg, sweeping one of the men off his feet and crashing to hard cement. There’s a vicious pop and the man is rolling over, hand over his shoulder, colorful expletives coming out of his mouth.
The last man, the one still standing, looks red in the face. His attacks are coming in faster and with a bigger force. Zhongli carefully calculates the other man’s moves. Driven by emotions, someone’s assault would pack more punch, but they’re progressively getting sloppy. He’s going to tire quickly and show more weak points that Zhongli can take advantage of to take him out in one go.
Zhongli sees his chance and is about to punch back when he hears, “Duck!” from behind him. His instinct works before his brain can process it, sending his body crouching down, thus avoiding pepper spray into his eyes.
The other man, the true target of the pepper spray, is not as lucky. He screams as the chemical abrases his cornea. Zhongli catches words about how his eyes are burning and he’s turning blind, but Zhongli knows the effect is largely temporary. He makes sure the three assailants are not posing any threat before he gently pulls the male prostitute and guides him to a safer distance from those men.
The man’s blue eyes are assessing Zhongli with caution, but he still stiltedly says, “Thank you. I usually could take them out, but I don’t want to draw attention to me.”
Zhongli smiles kindly. “That’s okay, you don’t have to explain yourself to me. More importantly, are you hurt?”
Zhongli eyes the blooming redness on the man’s wrist and forearm that’ll soon turn into ugly bruises. The man follows his gaze and awkwardly grabs his wrist. “It’s okay, it doesn’t hurt that much. It’ll heal on its own.”
Refutation sits on the tip of Zhongli’s tongue, but he swallows it down after seeing the man’s growing discomfort. He tries to sound as appeasing as he can when he tells him, “It’s okay if you don’t want to go to the hospital, but please make sure to treat your wounds well and go to the doctor if they worsen.”
The redhead gives him a hesitant smile. “Thank you, really, you’ve helped me more than most people would. And what about yourself? Are you... hurt?”
Zhongli shakes his head. “I’m unharmed, don’t worry.” He adds as an afterthought, “I’ve told my driver to call the police. They should be here soon.”
Alarm is written all over the other man’s face as soon as he hears that. “Oh no, no, no. I can’t have the police coming here! I, I can’t go to jail!”
Zhongli tries to reach out to the man who looks like he’s two seconds away from bolting, intending to soothe him and tell him he’d help if anything goes awry. But the second he touches him, the redhead jolts like deer in the headlights, the caution in his eyes morphing into fear. Zhongli knows the man’s sympathetic nervous system is kicking in—a fight or flight response—and he knows he would’ve fled if not for the blaring siren closing in on them.
A bulky young officer shines his flashlight on them. Now the redhead looks even more alike to a deer in the headlights.
“We got a call about an assault?” the policeman asks.
Zhongli subconsciously steps closer to the policeman while leading the red-haired stranger to step closer to him. “Yes, officer. Three men tried to attack us. I fought them for self-defense,” he explains carefully.
“Where are they?” he asks again, his eyes clearly assessing Zhongli and his companion.
“In that alley. They were all pretty knocked out so they shouldn’t have gone anywhere.” The policeman raises his eyebrows at that, so Zhongli adds, “I had some martial arts training.”
“Okay,” the policeman says, before telling his partner to check on the alley and see if the men are still there. He’s about to follow said partner himself when he seems to stop in his track when the light of his flashlight illuminates Zhongli’s red-haired companion better.
Zhongli can feel the redhead man stiffen, sensing oncoming trouble. He slides closer to Zhongli, hands grabbing timidly at the hem of Zhongli’s suit.
“Prostitution is illegal. I’m going to have to take you both with me,” the policeman sternly warns.
There’s a small sound that sounds like an aborted whimper coming from the younger man next to him. Zhongli grabs his hand and holds it resolutely, hoping to reassure the man, and quickly says to the police officer, “I think you’re mistaken. This is my friend’s son. He said he was walking home from a party when he got ambushed by the three men. I noticed him from my car, so I rushed to get him to safety.”
Zhongli stares at the police officer, refusing to break eye contact. He relaxes his stance while firmly stating his words as if they’re irrefutable facts. Their quiet showdown lasts for long seconds—too long. The other person still doesn’t look entirely convinced.
How inconvenient, Zhongli thinks as he sighs. He takes out his wallet from his back pocket and hands a card to the officer. “This is my name card. I’m a legal consultant. I’m familiar with the laws, I know how this works. You can ask your superior about me if you’re doubting my credibility, or take me to court, I know the dance. But I—no, we have had a long night. I’d love nothing more than to send him back to his parents safely and go home to get my deserved rest.”
The police officer eyes Zhongli then the name card. He evaluates it front and back, eyes meeting up with Zhongli’s to confirm an understanding. He puts the card in his pocket, both of them pretending not to notice the hundred-dollar bill slipped alongside it.
The other police officer comes back to report that the assailants have all been handcuffed and ready to transport to the police station. Zhongli thinks the hospital is more appropriate, but he’s not going to jeopardize his already precarious position in the law enforcer’s eyes.
“I presume we aren’t needed anymore?” Zhongli queries.
The policeman immediately understands his intention and allows them both to go with an explanation of a possible future contact from the station for administrative reasons, just for formality. Zhongli nods politely, familiar with the process, and leaves as soon as he sees fit. He doesn’t need to spend even one second more than necessary there when he’s wasted enough precious time he should be spending at home, taking a luxury bath to unwind after a hard day at work. And also, the fact that the stranger he’s with looks like he would do anything to leave the place as soon as he can.
As soon as Zhongli approaches his sedan, Beidou readily opens the passenger seat’s door for him. Zhongli turns to the red-haired stranger, whose hand he’s still holding as Zhongli just also realized, and simply tells him, “Get in.”
“W-what?” the man stammers, eyes wide. Beidou looks almost as shocked as he is.
“I didn’t notice until the police shined the light on you, but you’ve got a nasty cut there, near your left clavicle, and it doesn’t look clean. If not treated soon, it would get infected and cause even more problems,” Zhongli says.
“Thank you for pointing it out, and thank you again for the help, but I already said no hospital. I’ll handle it on my own,” he insists.
“No, you can’t. The kind of cut needs to be irrigated with sterile saline then stitched. Are you telling me you have the necessary equipment and ability?”
The man worries his lower lip at Zhongli’s words. His silence paints Zhongli a clear picture of his turmoil. He can barely look at Zhongli in the eyes when he quietly says, “... I can’t afford a trip to the hospital.”
Zhongli gives him a sad smile. “Don’t worry about that. I’ll handle it.”
The red-haired man’s eyes widen again. He fervently shakes his head, spluttering, “I, I can’t let you do that! You’ve done too much for me. I’d... rather not be in your debt any more than I already did.”
A low chuckle escapes Zhongli’s lips. “I already risked getting stabbed myself when I fought those men for you. A couple more dollars would pale in comparison,” he gently says.
The man still looks conflicted, so Zhongli makes a rather exaggerated sigh. “Okay, if it’s caused you so much worry, I’ll let you reimburse me.” The other man perks up slightly at that. “Although, not with money.”
“Then what do you want?” The hesitation comes back. A second later, his eyes widen as realization dawns on him. Zhongli quickly catches his train of thoughts and shakes his head, laughing lightly.
“No, it’s not what you think.” The laugh simmers into a gentle smile. “I just want to know your name.”
“My... name?” the man repeats slowly.
“Yes, your name.”
The redhead stares at Zhongli as if Zhongli’s a strange one. He must admit he might be unconventional a lot of times, or so he’s told by acquaintances, but he figures his request isn’t inappropriate. He even clarifies that even a nickname is okay, in case he worries Zhongli might use his name to find him later, an easy target.
He ends up choosing to trust Zhongli, however, because he tells him his name. “I’m Tartaglia,” he says. He shakes his head a little after that, as if unbelieving that he would do such a thing.
“Tartaglia. It’s a beautiful name,” Zhongli kindly says. “I would’ve admired your name more, but I’ve been rather chilled for quite a while and would love nothing more than to get in the comfort of my car’s heater. So, would you be a dear and enter my car so I can take you to the hospital and we can end this day on a good note, Tartaglia?”
Tartaglia starts and quickly apologizes. He immediately enters the car and sits stiffly. Zhongli enters after him. Beidou doesn’t have to be told twice, having heard the conversation, and steers the car towards a familiar hospital.
A fifteen-minute ride and a half-hour of examination later, Zhongli is standing by Tartaglia’s bed in the ER as a resident finishes suturing the final stitch on the younger man. She puts gauze over the stitch and educates Tartaglia on how to care for the stitches and to come back in a week to take them off. Tartaglia thanks her, and with a polite, “I will be going first, doctor Zhongli,” and a bow, she leaves.
Tartaglia looks at him. “So are you a doctor or a lawyer?”
Zhongli smiles. “I’m a forensic pathologist in this hospital, and I also work as a legal consultant for a law firm,” he explains.
“Two jobs? Impressive,” Tartaglia says with a grin. “Though to be fair, in this economy, you’re not the only one.”
The grin dies down, replaced by a faraway look in his eyes as he looks down on his palms. He only looks up when he notices the bed dips when Zhongli sits next to him. Zhongli doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even look expectant for a story. He simply sits next to him in comforting companionship.
A long sigh, and then.
“My father died two years ago,” Tartaglia starts, voice heavy. “I was nineteen, only a month in as a freshman at a local college. I had to drop out to support my mother and my younger siblings. She would’ve killed herself overworking if I hadn’t stepped up to make money for our family.”
Tartaglia is quiet for a while, fingers fiddling the frayed edge of his shorts. There’s a wet quality to his voice as he continues. “My mom got sick last month. Thankfully it was nothing chronic, but her hospital bills are... I was already working three jobs, but it wasn’t enough. I tried cutting back on living expenses, but my salary still can’t cover everything. I had to find money, fast.”
Tartaglia then looks up at Zhongli, eyes searching for Zhongli’s desperation bleeding into his voice. “I didn’t want to do it. Every time they... touched me, I thought to myself, I would rather die, that it would be a blessing if god were to take my life right now. But I didn’t have a choice. I had to do it. For my family.”
His words trail off into a barely audible whisper. Zhongli pulls Tartaglia gently to let him lean on his shoulder. He caresses the younger man’s forearm in gentle strokes. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that,” he whispers back.
Tartaglia doesn’t cry, not quite, but the way his body quivers at his words tells enough story. Zhongli has only known him for less than two hours, but he knows that he’s embracing the bravest, strongest person he’s known in his life.
“Tartaglia,” he calls out gently. Tartaglia looks at him. Zhongli smiles. “If you’d like, I want to help you. I’m currently looking for a full-time staff for my house, and I would like it if you’d fulfill the position. I’ll take your financial situation into consideration, so you won’t have to worry about your family.”
“Mister Zhongli, I...” Tartaglia is at a loss for words. He stares at Zhongli with his cerulean blue eyes. They glisten with unshed tears that are quickly blinked away. With trembling hands, Tartaglia reaches out to Zhongli’s hand with his own and softly says, “Thank you. I owe everything to you.”
Zhongli grasps Tartaglia’s hand resolutely and gives him a smile. Tartaglia returns it with his own, tentative and watery, but this time a genuine joyful smile. At that moment, he knows that he’s going to be alright.