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i burn for you (it is you i cannot sacrifice)

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Waking up, Zhongli immediately frowns at the absence of the duvet covering his body. He shivers in the morning air as he turns to face the spot on the bed Diluc has occupied for the better half of a year. 

“‘Luc?”

There’s a small noise and Zhongli sits up instantly, forcing the sleep out of his eyes to focus on the redhead. Diluc is tangled in the sheets, his eyebrows creased and quiet sounds escaping his mouth. From how close he is, Zhongli can make out the sweat running in rivulets down the pale column of his neck. His shirt is stuck to his skin and the fever practically radiates off his body.

“Diluc, you’re sick,” Zhongli murmurs, swinging his legs off the bed and making his way over to where the redhead’s face is buried in his pillow.

“I’m not, Zhongli.” 

Contrary to his protest, Diluc coughs hoarsely into the pillow. When he turns to face Zhongli, he can barely keep his eyes open and the tip of his nose is tinted red. Zhongli doesn’t bother arguing with him, instead, he tucks his hands under Diluc’s armpits and gently pulls him to sit up.

“We need to get you changed out of that shirt.”

Blinking slowly, Diluc starts to move his legs from out under the sheets. He doesn’t reply to Zhongli, bringing a hand to his face and then frowning.

“I need to shave,” Diluc whispers hoarsely. “Can’t do business with this scruff here.”

An exasperated smile rises on Zhongli’s face; of course Diluc would be sick and still thinking about his business deals. He wants to insist that Diluc take the day off, that he spend a few hours in bed trying to recover. But that conversation is never fruitful and he knows better now than to try and keep the bartender from his business. All he can do is make sure that he’s here where Diluc inevitably stumbles back home in a worse state than he had left in. 

“We’ll get you shaved,” he replies, hands running through Diluc’s hair. “But let's get you changed first, hm?”

Finally, Diluc nods in agreement, stumbling out of the bed and into Zhongli’s expectant arms. Making his way to the wardrobe with a limp Diluc clinging to his side, Zhongli pulls out one of his shirts. 

“Zhongli,” Diluc begins, disapproval colouring his tone.

“I know, I know,” Zhongli soothes, prying Diluc’s sweat-soaked shirt away from his body and over his head. “Just relax in this for a little longer before you need to leave.”

Frowning, Diluc lets Zhongli pull the shirt over his shivering frame. His narrow shoulders don’t quite fit the shirt as well as Zhongli, despite their similar heights. 

“Shave.” Diluc says firmly, crimson eyes flashing at Zhongli.

Zhongli laughs, wrapping his arm around Diluc’s waist. They hobble toward the bathroom as Zhongli grows increasingly worried. It’s only a couple steps, but by the time he’s pushing the door open, Diluc seems to have had all energy sapped from him.

“‘Luc, can you stay here for a second?” Zhongli asks, squeezing Diluc’s hand. “I’ll go get some congee started for you.”

He waits for the slow nod in reply before hurrying off to the kitchen and setting a pot of congee on the stovetop. It’s slowly grown to become one of Diluc’s comfort foods, a staple in their home whenever one of them feels ill or low. Satisfied that it’ll be ready by the time they leave the bathroom, Zhongli strides swiftly back to where Diluc waits.

He sits perched on the marble counter, long red hair flowing out over his shoulders. A couple of strands frame Diluc’s face, highlighting the gaunt white of his cheeks. He looks tired, in every way possible it is to be tired, and Zhongli’s heart aches for him. He doesn’t say a word, simply looks at those burning pools of crimson and feels his heart pound furiously.

“Zhongli?”

The quiet call of his name breaks him out of his thoughts and he sees Diluc’s eyes attempt to focus on him in concern. Shaking his head, Zhongli eyes the razor from where it’s gripped loosely in Diluc’s clammy hands. 

“Okay?”

There’s the slightest of nods from Diluc and Zhongli smiles softly at him. 

Going to stand between Diluc’s legs, Zhongli places his hand on the redhead’s clammy forehead.

“You haven’t cooled down at all,” Zhongli notes, frowning at the way Diluc’s eyes close at the touch. He withdraws his hand and doesn’t miss the way Diluc’s head almost tries to follow it. It’s a testament to how sick Diluc is; he’d never allow himself to be so, dare Zhongli say it, needy in any other circumstance.

Zhongli hums, gently patting Diluc’s upper thighs from where he’s bracketed in them. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”  

Diluc’s response is a simple affirmative noise as he shuts his eyes and tilts his head back so it knocks against the mirror. 

“Hey,” Zhongli scolds lightly, one hand grabbing the bottle of cream under the counter and the other squeezing Diluc’s thigh. “Don’t go falling asleep on me.”

“I wasn’t,” Diluc protests, head tipping forward again so crimson eyes meet amber.

“I’m sure you weren’t,” Zhongli replies, amusement dancing across his face. The bottle clinks against the marble as he sets it down and grabs the towel hanging on the wall. He reaches around Diluc and waits for the water to turn warm before wetting the towel.

Feeling Diluc’s eyes on him, he twists ever so slightly to place a kiss atop Diluc’s exposed shoulder. The faintest hue of pink rises on Diluc’s pale cheeks and Zhongli grins, as Diluc eyes flick away from his.

Carefully, he presses the towel against the stubble that lines Diluc’s jaw. Zhongli takes the opportunity to turn Diluc’s face until his eyes are forced to meet Zhongli’s. The stubborn set of his jaw has fondness rising in Zhongli’s chest, struggling to hold down a grin. He doesn’t say anything, continuing to wet Diluc’s face gently with the towel. 

Under the ministrations, the final hints of tenseness seem to seep out of Diluc’s body. When Zhongli peers into his eyes, all he can see is the utter and complete trust Diluc holds. His defences are down and his body moves in sync with Zhongli’s.

Zhongli holds Diluc’s face tenderly and continues to dab the towel. When he’s satisfied, he wrings the towel out before hanging it up.

“Still good?” 

Diluc nods at his question and Zhongli squeezes his thigh again, before grabbing the bottle of cream. He pumps it into his hand before holding Diluc’s face again. It’s something simple, holding someone’s face in the palm of your hand, yet Zhongli could never possibly take it for granted.

His hands are hardened and rough, with the remnants of blood and war painted in the lines on his palms. Palms that have brought ruin to islands, turned flesh to stone. He thinks of glaze lilies, tomorrows that never came, and dust crumbling in hands that failed to hold.

Zhongli’s hands cup Diluc’s face and he vows to himself, he won’t ever let his mortal hands falter again. 

Carefully, he holds Diluc’s pale face and lathers the cream on, watching him flinch ever so slightly at the cold feeling. Murmuring sorry , Zhongli continues to spread the cream across Diluc’s jaw. 

He follows the familiar lines, strokes down the skin he’s marked as his own. Zhongli thumbs and feels the curve of a face he wouldn’t forget, even if he tried. Diluc sits there, skin naked against the air, and takes it all. 

Rinsing his hands off, Zhongli plucks the razor from Diluc, who doesn’t say a single word. Red eyes simply gaze at him as he brings the blade up to the stubborn jaw he knows all too well. It’s the set jaw of a man who burns despite the duty and pain thrusted on him. 

Zhongli sees them both: the man who blazes in fury and righteousness, and the man who flickers like ember in his arms. 

Gently, he brings the razor down in a single clean stroke. Rinsing it, Zhongli grasps Diluc’s face and tilts it so that he can continue the strokes. The repetitive motion of rinsing and shaving lulls him into a peace he never would have thought possible from something so menial. So human. 

Tipping Diluc’s jaw, Zhongli eyes the bare expanse of neck as he glides the razor across pale skin. Diluc’s collarbones jut out from where Zhongli’s shirt slips past his shoulders. This is Diluc, lay bare and vulnerable, open to whatever Zhongli is willing to give him. The good, the bad, everything in Zhongli’s impossibly long life he’s willing to share.

(Rock crumbles and shatters, but the flame never flickers.)

“Thank you,” Diluc murmurs into the still air, as Zhongli brings the razor down in its final stroke. 

“It was”—he brushes his lips against Diluc’s, and then the tip of his nose—“entirely my pleasure.”