The problem is that Zhongli doesn't just kick the spear back midair with all the force of a falling meteorite.
He also snatches a metal arrow inches away from Childe's face in one graceful motion. It’s snapped in two with barely a thought, hands opening to reveal nothing left but grains of finely ground dust.
And then, as if just specifically to dispel any remaining doubt about his poorly-kept secret, the very earth itself surges into roiling waves of sharp stone in response to their revered Lord Zhongli's every command.
So no, Zhongli doesn't just kick the spear midair. He goes ahead and absolutely annihilates what's left of Childe's painstakingly maintained suspension of disbelief regarding his identity as Just a Person.
They absolutely do not talk about it on their trek through the winding roads of Jueyun Karst, the divine abode of the Mighty and Illuminated Adepti. Which Zhongli seems to know like the back of his hand. He strolls casually, as if the twisting heights and the desolate stone were nothing more than the familiar and comforting halls of his home.
Which is, you know, technically not wrong. Childe mentally pats himself on the back for his witty humor as he painfully hauls himself up yet another boulder. If he smiles enough maybe he'll actually find it funny.
Zhongli looks at the depressingly foggy landscape with so much fondness brimming in his eyes that Childe feels like he's intruding on a private moment. His intuition, honed after years of being A Very Efficient Fatui Agent, whispers to him that Zhongli is most likely two steps away from humming a cheery tune. Brace yourself, Childe.
(And Zhongli does, under his breath. It's unfamiliar, probably because it too, like Zhongli, hails from a time twenty five million thousand years ago, or whenever it was that the Great and Mighty Zhongli first graciously blessed Liyue with his glorious presence and troves of immeasurable knowledge.)
The entire way to Qingce village, they still absolutely do not talk about it. Because, see, well, the horrifying realization that they can't has latched onto Childe and refuses to let go.
They can't talk about it. Not when Zhongli doesn't know that Childe knows that Zhongli is most definitely Not Just a Person.
And as for why Zhongli doesn't know-
"There's a little-known shortcut this way," Zhongli says as he leads them them into a cave so ancient, so well hidden that their footsteps kick up a storm of dust that flurries away to reveal treasures thought lost to time.
"Best not to arouse her from her slumber," Zhongli says as he turns away from a terribly mundane looking pile of rocks that Childe later realizes were splintered fragments of oversized bones.
"Mind your step," Zhongli says as he absolutely does not mind his step. Without sparing the precariously narrow road a glance, he absentmindedly steps over gnarled tree roots, sudden drops, and protruding crystals alike. Is this an afternoon walk in the gardens? Childe, Eleventh Harbinger of the Fatui, trips at least four times and almost sprains his foot.
So no. They do not talk about it because Zhongli, conquerer of mountains and seas, He who Made Liyue the Land of Gold and Prosperity, the Prime of Adepti whose kingdom is built on the bones of gods He felled- Well.
Politely put, somehow, against all odds, Zhongli doesn't seem to realize that he isn't- That he's not quite- That he's not quite proficient when it comes to-
(Childe looks at Zhongli, who's lost in a solemn discussion with a geo crystalfly. A geo crystalfly. A floating lump of elemental energy. How? Why?)
To be blunt, Zhongli doesn't realize that he has as much subtlety as a flaming meteorite crashing onto Liyue. Which is something he could probably make into reality with less effort than breathing. Which wouldn't matter, if he actually had any thoughts in his head and realized that hey, maybe this isn't something a normal human can do? Maybe I should be more aware of my powers? Maybe I probably shouldn't be doing this in front of a suspicious ‘diplomat’ from Snezhnaya?
Imagine that, Zhongli! Imagine having actual thoughts in your head!
Alas, unfortunately for the good people of Liyue, poor Zhongli is an airhead who thinks he's successfully pretended to be just another pebble sitting inconspicuously by the side of the road. But he's not. He's the most suspicious of the bunch that would make even the most unobservant Fatui double back and go: Hm, I feel like there’s something to see here.
Where are his self preservation skills? Childe fumes the entire journey even as he can't figure out why uncontrollable anger is bubbling up in him. There just is.
What finally breaks Childe is this: a flock of red-crowned cranes that scuttle towards Zhongli as if their lives depended on it, instead of launching themselves into the sky and flying away because their lives really do depend on it, usually.
The gaggle of oversized, feathery dogs nuzzle at Zhongli, clamoring for attention. With a small laugh, Zhongli - Zhongli! - gives in to their nibbles at his sleeves and fingertips.
And suddenly, Zhongli’s pulling off both his gloves to- oh. He's petting the cranes. His bare hands run affectionately over their heads, equally bare fingers gently scratching their feathers. His bare hands. His bare hands! Absolutely scandalous.
Childe is still bravely hanging on to the last shreds of his sanity when Zhongli pulls out a bushel of buckwheat from thin air to feed them. What the fuck. Is this the true consequence of using a Delusion? Nightmarish hallucinations of Liyue's mighty Geo Archon fraternizing with cranes?
"What the fuck." Childe blurts with feeling.
Zhongli does not see the problem with any of this. This is precisely the problem. Zhongli, why is the Harbinger who was sent to [REDACTED] you lecturing you on the importance of self-preservation? Actually, why is he? Childe kicks the thought out of his head, choosing the less complicated act of scowling at Zhongli instead.
"I simply redirected the trajectory of the spear," Zhongli says, confused.
Childe doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. "Zhongli. You made it look like you were just flicking lint off your clothes. As if it was a minor annoyance you deal with daily.”
Zhongli blinks. "It would come to anyone with practice."
The sheer incredulity that rushes up in Childe almost knocks him over. "Not only did it go straight through his heart," With zero margin of error! Uncannily precise! "The force of it shattered the boulder behind the poor guy and uprooted the very ancient and sturdy looking clump of trees behind that."
Zhongli, Geo Archon, first (second, La Signora's voice is shrill in his head) most powerful of the Seven, tilts his head at him like a lost child. "The treasure hoarders did not ambush us with good intentions, let alone to mention the abyss mages and their hilichurls. I simply responded in kind.”
Responded in kind! Childe knows this phrase will haunt him until the day he’s finally released from the nightmare that is living. “Zhongli. The field was barren when we left. There weren't any remains whatsoever, even though there were so many enemies. Too many! Enough to form a mini battalion!"
You'd think there'd be at least some bone fragments left! Or if not that, your usual spoils of war; arrowheads, broken spears, the things the hilichurl pass as masks, ley line branches, scraps of mora. Something, anything, to show that there were living beings there, once.
Zhongli blinks innocently as if he didn’t just level an entire plain.
Childe is in a comedy he didn't sign up for, and his existence is the punchline. "We entered a meadow and left a- You literally returned them to dust, Zhongli." Childe grasps for the words that used to dance off his tongue and is appalled to find none. His head has been rendered empty. The powers of the Geo Archon truly are beyond imagination.
A hint of surprise finally finally blooms on Zhongli's face before it shifts slowly into sheepishness. Praise be, there may be hope for him yet. "I apologize. I do not usually... Instinct rarely overtakes me like that. There will be less dust and more remains next time, I assure you."
Childe opens his mouth. Closes it. ”That’s not the problem," He says slowly with a calm he does not feel.
Zhongli’s expression is so earnest. "But you're safe." As if that explains everything and anything.
A flare of frustration surges up in Childe. “Are we having the same conversation? My health and safety is as irrelevant to this as wine is relevant to Mondstadt-"
"They were aiming for you," Zhongli cuts in, so matter-of-fact.
Childe grits his teeth. "Then let them!"
Zhongli is genuinely taken aback. "Why?" He asks, so puzzled that Childe wants to punch him.
This is the God of War? This is the one who single-handedly shaped Liyue through rivers of divine blood? "Why? Why?" Irritation coats Childe's words in acid. "You of all people know what the Fatui are. How the Fatui are. And yet, in full view of me, for me-” He’s all but snarling at this point. “Zhongli, do you have pebbles for a brain? Is there anything in there at all?"
Bewilderment colors Zhongli's eyes as he completely misses the point, again. "I would never intentionally upset you. Tell me, please, what did I do?"
What did Zhongli do? What did Zhongli do? Childe stabs a finger at himself, then the mask that hangs heavy in his hair, then at Zhongli's eyes that pulse amber, then at Zhongli's cheerfully glowing farce of a vision, then back to himself, and finally ends with an accusing jab at Zhongli's heart.
And yet all Zhongli does is catch his hand gently. "Childe," His voice is too patient, too concerned. "Tartaglia. Why are you so agitated?"
Childe closes his eyes. "...they'll know." He finally says, voice quiet. "Someone will figure it out. They will know."
Zhongli makes a soft sound of acknowledgement, "Perhaps," He agrees easily.
Childe's mouth twists. "Even you have a heart that can stop beating. If you slip up again like today-"
“I didn't," Zhongli tells Childe simply. "I didn't slip up today.” His gaze is pensive when they meet Childe's. "They may know," He muses. "But who is to say that the future is written in stone?”
Childe looks away from his honest smile.
Liyue's faith in their Adepti is unshakable. Their gods have always walked amongst them and always will.
Zhongli squats, completely enraptured by a sad and drooping spring of Jueyun chili. Stray leaves are sprinkled in his hair. His face is streaked with splotches of dirt. They two of them had fallen into a ditch earlier. Childe wisely keeps his mouth shut as resplendent and reverent depictions of Rex Lapis rise one by one to his mind.
"I had no idea variants of the species has propagated all the way to the heights of Jueyun," Zhongli’s muttering, utterly fascinated. “Were you aware that, despite their name, they did not originate from Jueyun?" Childe squeezes his eyes shut, bracing himself. Here it comes again. ”Their current name is something that has only recently come into use four centuries ago-"
Recently. Four centuries. Childe makes a strained sound. He’s terribly sorry, Zhongli, but he does not know any of this. No living being in the vast expanse of the mighty and ancient Liyue knows any of this. This is not what anyone would consider common knowledge.
Zhongli keeps going, oblivious to Childe's inner turmoil over how his Tsaritsa’s enemy is so blatantly unguarded all the time. "You see, this genus is an offshoot of the original family of-" Childe springs downwards and clutches his hands desperately.
"Zhongli," he almost pleads. "Please stop."
He has no self-awareness, Childe thinks gloomily, propping his face up tiredly with his hand. He resigns himself to the fact that Zhongli will be rediscovering his inner botanist for the next half hour. Is this what it's like to be a parent? The weariness runs so deep that even Childe's bone marrow aches. "At this rate, you’d just straight up give your gnosis to the next person who asks, wouldn’t you?" He sighs to himself.
Zhongli's eyes widen slightly in his uncannily innocent way, taken aback. "Childe-?"
Childe's dull-witted mind finally catches up and freezes in its tracks. How tactful of you, Tartaglia. He vehemently hopes his tongue will fall off so he'll never make the mistake of speaking again.
Except Zhongli mouth quirks as if he’s holding back laughter. “To just anyone? Worry not," There’s the faintest touch of amusement in his eyes, as if indulging in a private joke. "Not to just anyone, no.”
And Childe is left baffled and exhausted all over again.
Life carries on in a most distressingly normal way. Zhongli is as Zhongli has always been, standing in the midst of the bustling streets of Liyue as he pulls out his wallet and opens it.
Childe's breath catches in his throat in anticipation. The leather petals unfold tantalizingly slow before finally revealing the sweet nectar hidden inside. Butterflies clamor in Childe's chest, his happiness threatening to overflow until his soul is an unending spring of pure bliss-
Never mind. It is empty. Again.
Childe's heart crashes harder into the ground than that serpent - Chi? - probably did when Zhongli ended its miserable life. He has a sudden urge to worm his way into the dirt until he's as dead and buried as Liyue's old gods.
Zhongli is frowning at his wallet like its an incomprehensible life-form. Childe heaves a sigh, slaps some mora down on the table, angrily grabs the innocent pouch of cor lapis (can mister Geo Archon not just will them into existence?), and bodily hauls a very puzzled Zhongli away.
In a quiet backstreet, Childe whips his head around in an angry swirl of carrot orange hair. His mask nearly topples off his head by the force of his sheer anger. “Your name is literally. It is literally.” He gestures at Zhongli furiously. “How are you so amnesiac about mora when it is literally, your, name?"
Zhongli looks just as perplexed and lost as Childe has been ever since That Day. "What about my name?" He asks curiously.
Childe laughs so hard he wants to cry. "Pardon the disrespect, sir, but. Morax. Mora. Mora. Morax. Named in the honor of the God of Commerce - named in," He half bows in Zhongli's direction. "Your honor?" Incredulity drips from every word.
"Oh." Zhongli has the audacity to look surprised, as if this was some amazing revelation. "You are correct," Wonder is laced around the words. “That is true.”
Even the mask sitting on Childe's hair must be trembling with agitation at this point. "Zhongli, O Imperial Sovereign of Stone-" He digs the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Pray tell me, just how are you always forgetting what mora is, mister Zhongli?"
A part of Childe distantly wonders if he's about to be smote into smithereens for his transgressions today. A larger part of Childe is grappling with the urge to grab Zhongli by his shoulders and just shake until all the rocks fall out from his head.
Zhongli looks down, expression solemn as he considers the question, fingers tapping idly at his chin. He’s doing a perfect imitation of someone engaged in critical thinking. A flare of hope kindles itself in Childe. Is he finally about to receive the answer to one of the universe's most baffling mysteries?
Zhongli's eyes are softly glowing an unnatural amber when he finally lifts his head. Childe is almost shaking with anticipation. Zhongli's mouth opens. Childe holds his breath. "...Why would I bring mora around with me?" Zhongli asks seriously, expression genuinely at a loss.
Childe briefly considers sticking his hand into his own chest instead of Zhongli's. A quick, clean exit from Rex Not-so-Incognito, Volume (I).
Despite himself, the next time Childe walks by Zhongli's - ah... Morax's... no, Rex Lapis' - statue, he stops and finds himself doubling back.
Zhongli. It's Zhongli.
It's Zhongli's stupid lock of hair that falls over his eyes and the stupid curve of his lips. The Zhongli in the statue is glaringly obvious. Childe is simultaneously impressed and concerned by the combined observation skills of the entire nation of Liyue.
It's undeniably Zhongli, and yet. Something uncomfortable flutters to life inside Childe as quiet unease settles around his heart. He frowns, instinct whispering to him that there’s something horribly wrong with this stone imitation of Zhongli.
What is it? Childe stares at the statue for a duration of time that will not be disclosed. He looks and looks until he's memorized the slope of Zhongli's nose, but absolutely nothing else comes to mind except for unbearably irrelevant thoughts.
Here are the (irrelevant) observations that he, Sir Childe of the Fatui, hath made and shallst henceforth attempteth to explaineth:
1. The stone 'Zhongli' (from this point onwards baptized as Stoneli) commands an oppressive presence that Mondstadt's statues of Barbatos do not. Stoneli is disinterested. Demanding. Disdainful. It wears Zhongli's face, but that is the only part of Zhongli it has successfully put on.
2. Stoneli isn’t content with just lounging on its throne. It slouches. Slouches. Languidly sprawled across his perch, it has all the haughty pride of one who knows that the world will scramble to bow at his feet. It is the most unfamiliar thing Childe has ever seen.
3. In Childe’s humble opinion, Stoneli could stand to wear a bit more. Just a bit. It has somehow accomplished the feat of showing too much and yet nothing at all.
See, this is probably why Zhongli piles clothing on himself the way layers of sediment collect on ground over time. His bare chest has been on display to the good people of Liyue for over three thousand and seven hundred years. What if someone sees through his disguise because they recognized the dips and curves of his chest muscles?
Is this why Childe's feels uneasy? Another glaring hole in the tightly (?) wound identity Zhongli had knitted around himself? Whose idea was this? Childe distantly feels like he’s losing it.
He can picture it. Four thousand years and a night ago, those who would become the first Qixing gathered around a stone table. It is only days after the birth of modern day Liyue. Today's order of business? Rex Lapis' statue. There is only one agreed-upon item on the parchment so far: His pectoral muscles. They must be bared so that the entire world recognizes and trembles before His perfection.
Here's what Childe can't picture: Zhongli, eyes cold, looking down on the world from an untouchable throne. Childe tries and tries, but in the end, there is only Rex Lapis sitting high, looking back coolly, gaze indifferent and unfeeling, smile bleeding into sardonic. Zhongli is nowhere to be found in a place such as that.
The statue is of Zhongli, but it is not Zhongli, Childe thinks. The minute Zhongli becomes the statue itself - well, that's not him anymore, right? That's Rex Lapis, frozen in time, cast from unyielding stone. Right?
Childe’s still squinting at the stone imitation of Zhongli. So he's unsettled because Stoneli doesn't feel like Zhongli? A charming voice that sounds suspiciously like the lovely La Signora's is cackling in pealing spirals of shrill laughter. Oh, how wonderful. Congratulations, Tartaglia, you've finally lost it.
It is the twenty-seventh day of the eighth month, so the twenty-seventh day of Liyue's rainy season. For the twenty-seventh time, Zhongli turns up at Childe's door, hair clinging to his flushed cheeks, shirt plastered to his skin, a drowned kitten that looms half a head taller than Childe.
For the twenty seventh time, Childe considers rudely slamming the door in Zhongli's face to pretend none of this is happening. Out of sight, out of mind.
Of course Childe lets him in, towel already in hand. "Zhongli," He says, taking Zhongli's wet coat off his hands and exchanging it for a cup of freshly brewed tea. "I have a radical proposition."
Zhongli’s already sat patiently in a rickety wooden chair, wet feet flat on the ground, hands folded carefully across his lap. Childe, for the twenty-seventh time, unsuccessfully tries to dry Zhongli's hair with all the towels at his home (and some more, filched from Ekaterina. It's still not enough towels.)
“What is it?” Zhongli carefully tilts his head back so to not dislodge Childe’s fingers, blinking away the droplets clinging to his eyelashes. His face is open with curiosity.
Sleazily exploiting the demanding presence and authority his (temporary) height advantage gives him, Childe leans forward until his hair dangles above Zhongli's face. "Mister Zhongli," Childe says, deathly serious, bringing out his patented I am a scary Fatui voice. "Allow me to introduce you to this brilliant concept known as... an umbrella."
He’s learned that when Zhongli laughs, Zhongli’s eyes laugh with him in a terribly earnest way. "I apologize. I seem to still be unaccustomed to the habit of shielding oneself from the elements," Childe runs a hand through Zhongli's soaking hair that has long tumbled loose and, for the twenty-seventh time, gently nudges him off the chair.
"Inconspicuous-" Childe calls after his disappearing figure in the doorway of the bathroom. "-is not a carefully dressed man in his fancy suit, dripping enough water to be Liyue's seventh great waterfall, leisurely conducting his business as if the city isn't being eaten alive by a storm, "
Zhongli makes a muffled noise that hopefully is one of agreement. Not that it really matters anyway. Something tells Childe he'll be back again tomorrow.
(And he is. And the day after that, as well as the day after that.
It is not until the middle days of the ninth month when Zhongli can finally be trusted to consistently remember that most people are subject to nature’s whims on account of not being the land and the elements themselves. He starts bringing an umbrella. And all's well that ends well, until the first flakes of snow drift down onto the streets of Liyue and Childe has to patiently explain the idea of layering up when its cold.)
Zhongli (the live, breathing one with not a single inch of skin showing) is with him, this time, when Childe’s footsteps naturally come to a stop in front of the looming stone vestige of Rex Lapis - Zhongli - Rex Lapis. “How does no one see it?" Childe's voice is slightly pained. This question still stalks his every waking moment and haunts him even in his dreams.
Zhongli looks at him. "What do you see, then?"
Childe considers Zhongli, then the cold unfeeling copy of him. “You. Just you, Zhongli, still no mora to your name." He pauses as the statue with Zhongli's face judges him silently. “Except it's not quite you. It's you, if you were made of stone, you know?"
Warm laughter spills from Zhongli. "Yes, that is what a statue is." He comments, and Childe can't help but grin.
"No. What I mean is-" It's surprisingly hard to find the right words. "It's you, if your beating heart was formed from sharpened steel and serrated stone." Childe's eyes widen impercetibly as the epiphany descends onto him. "But the moment that's true-" He hand subconsciously covers where his own heart lies beating. "-then you cease to be Zhongli, no?”
Zhongli neither agrees or disagrees. "The people see Rex Lapis, because what else have they ever known? But you," There's the faintest traces of a smile as his eyes soften.
But you look at Rex Lapis and sees everything that isn't Zhongli, Childe finishes silently.
At the sands of Sal Terrae, Rex Lapis does more than return a projectile straight through the heart of the man who fired it. It is two thousand and five hundred years ago and this is another of his battlefields of yore. But the Fatui are merely human, a far cry from divine, and when the dust settles, the God of War's solitary figure emerges, impossibly still and lonely in a graveyard of crumbled stone.
Childe carefully steps around a mage's fallen mist pollen and sheathes his weapon, blades of water scattering into the wind. Sal Terrae is cloaked in quiet again, only disturbed by the distant figures of the Qixing as they hunt down the remainders of those who would scheme to harm their land.
Rex Lapis strides out of the carnage towards Childe, pristine being stained by blood unworthy of touching him. His every step is crowned in an ethereal glow that stifles the air around him. Cloaked in an unearthly light, everything about him is foreign. An immortal descending upon the land.
Childe looks up and almost chokes on a laugh. Zhongli's stops mid-step, tilting his head inquisitively, hair falling into his eyes harmlessly. Childe’s grin widens at his puzzled face. "You have," Childe gestures. "Slime, I think. Slime condensate in your hair."
Zhongli's already kneeling downwards, head dipping gracefully, waiting patiently. "I hear slime condensate is actually beneficial to the luster of your hair," Childe bites back a laugh as rummages his fingers through the fluffy brown disaster on Zhongli's head.
"Your sense of humor may be worse than Xiao’s, who has yet to realize that humor is a thing,” Childe feels the need to solemnly inform Zhongli for the good of mankind as he straightens up. "Miss Keqing is already stressed enough about your 'bumbling airheaded lack of subtlety, a head full of clouds, a disgrace to the concept of operating incognito.’ She’s not above stabbing you, you know?"
Zhongli's laugh is warm as he pulls Childe closer, hand cupping Childe’s face to brush off streaks of dirt and blood. "I believe someone once said: considering how I've already pushed the Qixing to the limits of exasperation, how much worse could it get?"
Childe looks up to meet his eyes and arches an eyebrow. “Miss Ningguang will somehow convince Xiao to stage an ‘intervention’ one day. And where will you be then, mister Zhongli?"
Right here, Zhongli doesn’t say. He shakes his head, smile so indulgent as he just looks and looks and looks until Childe unconsciously brings a hand up to his hair.
“Is there something on my head as well?" His fingers search for the familiar weight of a mask but touch nothing.
Zhongli gently brushing aside a few stray strands of hair until his eyes are fully exposed, a brilliant reflection of the vast sky. "Absolutely nothing," Zhongli promises him. “It's just a breathtaking day,” He gaze is drawn towards the sea again and Childe looks with him.
Waves lap idly at Childe's feet, bearing gifts of sparkling sand and gleaming stone. The ocean glimmers with warm hues of amber as the setting sun disappears home into brilliant blue. If he breathes deeply enough, he thinks he can taste glimpses of mountain air tucked tightly around the brine and salt.
He closes his eyes. It is quiet. His heart is finally still.
Zhongli's voice spills softly into the tranquility between them. "Miss Xiangling has happily informed me that she has perfected her fusion of Fontainese and Liyuen cuisine." He then looks at Childe and says very seriously: “It will be my treat."
Childe doesn't want to know what expression he's making as he shakes with the force of biting back amusement. “Your treat? You're paying?" He echoes, wearing the most skeptical expression he can scrounge up.
Zhongli loses the fight to suppress his smile. "My treat. I suppose you have no choice but to suspend your disbelief and trust me," His eyes are bright.
The sea breeze carries Childe’s laughter away. “I guess I’ll just have to trust you, then.” He says, unconsciously mirroring the smile, as if the decision hasn’t already been made for him a long, long time ago.