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Of No Consequence

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"Head back inside, Venti. You are too exposed out here."

The short figure was still sitting immobile on that rock, looking up at the sun. The refracted light in the desert air was bright enough to make Zhongli squint, its brilliance bouncing harshly back from the barren hills that surrounded them, glistening from the exposed limestone and gravel that had been bombed to its most naked form. The person sitting there was so still that Zhongli would have mistaken him as a permanent fixture of stone, a memorial etched into a landscape swallowed up by warfare and pain.

"Venti." Zhongli tried again. "Let's get back inside."

The person he was addressing finally turned around, braids of greenish hair flying beneath his cap. A round, almost cherubic face, complete with large green eyes, stared back amidst the desert yellow camouflage outfits they were both wearing. It was a face completely incongruous with the assault rifle that rested next to the other man's legs, the pistol tucked into the man's belt, or the combat knife strapped to the outside of the man's thigh. It was a face unsuited to war.

"Venti…"

"Zhongli." Venti cut him off. The green-haired man was twirling something between his fingers. "I know. Just give me a minute."

Zhongli narrowed his amber eyes against the desert wind blowing harshly against his face.

"You've got a dog tag there." Zhongli didn't ask a question. It was a statement. "Whose is it?"

"Oh? This? It's that person's tag."

That person? Who was Venti referring to? Zhongli frowned and raked his brains for an answer. So many troops from The Vision, the organisation that Zhongli and Venti belonged to, had been lost in this country. Zhongli and Venti had personally known each and every one of those who fell here. Which person was being commemorated here by Venti, the deputy commander of this peace-keeping force? Zhongli couldn't figure it out.

"That person…? Who are you talking about, Venti?"

"Oh. That person. Those people. The hundreds that we lost here in Natlan, of course." Venti replied with a tilt in his voice, a stark contrast to the measured, lowered calibre of Zhongli's carefully subdued tone. "Does it matter? They won't be remembered. Some of them didn't even get graves. That's why I'm remembering them here before we leave this country for good. Letting them know that I at least will remember them, that they didn't sacrifice themselves for nothing."

"Venti. Please. Get yourself some rest. The folks coming from Musk Reef will be picking us up soon. They will manage the affairs of our dead comrades."

"Coming with so few, and so late?" Venti shook his head with a chuckle. "Ahh. What a pity. What were they doing 3 months before, hmm? When we needed the help?"

"Venti…" Zhongli lowered his voice. "I know you're feeling guilty. We all are. You know what was going on before. The Twins were busy negotiating with Snezhnaya and Inazuma, trying to bring them into The Vision. We didn't have enough forces to spare for the long trek here to Natlan."

Venti giggled. His crystal-clear laugh echoing in these abandoned hills devoid of life.

"Ahh. The Twins can go tell that excuse to the souls of the braves when they meet them in Hell, I suppose. No doubt those two cruel taskmasters will give us more things to do when we are back at the Reef, eh?"

"We have been re-stocked by Snezhnaya and Inazuma." Zhongli's voice took on a steelier hint. "Our work here has proven to the world the capacities of The Vision as an independent, international organisation. Once we’re back at the Reef, we will have new troops, and new members joining our two-man squad. It will get better."

"I'm sure!" If Zhongli had not known Venti for years, he would never have picked up on the other man's hint of sarcasm, buried under layers of light-hearted laughter. "I'm sure there will be more innocent little birds falling from heaven, landing right into our cruel, merciless battlefield."

A small beep sounded from the communication device on Zhongli's belt. The device vibrated in a steady manner, waiting for its owner to pick up the message. Zhongli reached down, turned it on, read the screen, then sighed.

"Rather than feeling sorry, I'm feeling proud that more countries in Teyvat are recognising the importance of international warfare regulations." Zhongli stated, his amber eyes narrowing at his comrade. "Come, Venti. We need to get going. The convoy is here to pick us up."

The dog tag disappeared into Venti's sleeve in the blink of an eye. Venti stood up in a smooth action, picking up his assault rifle with practiced ease, and became the very image of a pristine, efficient soldier. A hint of a smile still lingered around his lips, but his eyes suddenly focused, and he scanned his surroundings with renewed vigour, just like the meticulous scout and commander Zhongli had known him to be.

Sometimes, Zhongli simply couldn't tell which half was the real Venti.

 

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The Vision, the first international organisation that made any attempt to regulate the incessant warfare that plagued the continent of Teyvat, was where Zhongli and Venti currently called home.

Teyvat had been immersed in war since the beginning of recorded history. Teeming with various tribes, the land had been fought over many times before being split into territories controlled by 72 warlords, with even those warring amongst each other, being absorbed into larger countries, and splintering back into warring states over the course of time. Right now, there were seven countries in Teyvat, but there had been others in the past. In recent years, as civilisation and technology advanced in great leaps and bounds, there had been more of a desire for some form of independent, humanitarian, and peacekeeping organisation that provided a measure of oversight over the armed conflicts that continued to occur, with the hope of eventually leading Teyvat towards more peaceful times. Such was the purpose of the organisation called 'The Vision', an organisation founded by Mondstadt and Liyue, two of the more peaceful countries in Teyvat.

Even in current times, the people on Teyvat still looked up to the descendants of the lords of the past to lead them in battle, with the families of the old warlords often taking up military careers. Zhongli and Venti were from such families, and were therefore asked by the Liyue and Mondstadt government respectively to join The Vision as a show of faith. Zhongli didn't know how Venti's clan, "Barbatos", was ran, but Zhongli's own clan had given Zhongli little reason to stay in Liyue. The family claiming descent from 'Morax', the mightiest of the Liyue warlords of old, had been a place with little warmth and too much emphasis on the importance of duty. All the male children of the clan had been expected to enter the military, practice martial arts, be the best soldier they could be, and be ranked against their peers for the same generation to decide who will inherit the title of 'Morax'. It was a cold, purposeless existence that Zhongli thought little about. Sure, he wanted to protect and serve Liyue as the 'Morax' of this era - he just felt very little attachment to the clan. So when Liyue's government informed him of its wishes to have 'Morax' be a permanent fixture on Musk Reef to represent Liyue's commitment, Zhongli didn't think too much about leaving his 'family' behind. After all, having spent so many years in the military and having had a childhood education obsessed over duty, he’d had little attachment left to the clan. Instead, he found the arrangement at The Vision much more to his liking.

The Vision as an organisation had been conceived by a group of special envoys deployed by the Council of the Seven Countries, the current highest international body on the continent. Understandably, the direct involvement of Liyue and Mondstadt had caused some weaker countries to have doubts as the true purpose of this organisation, hence the two countries had wanted to make a statement by sending 'Morax' and 'Barbatos' to be permanently stationed there. Zhongli had met Venti before, and was glad to take on the burden of managing and expanding the organisation with him, but their first mission had turned out to be much more difficult than either of them had ever anticipated.

"Archon Morax, I'm so glad you made it back safely."

Zhongli blinked, the new voice breaking him out of his reverie. It had already been three days since he arrived back at Musk Reef, an outlying island cluster within Mondstadt’s territory. Sitting here, in the air-conditioned meeting room with a generous view of the sparkling seas around them, it was hard to believe that barely a few days ago, he had been in the red deserts of Natlan. Zhongli sat up straighter and smoothed the black long-sleeved shirt he was wearing, focusing his eyes on the newcomer at the door, a young woman with a blonde hair and golden eyes in a white summer dress.

"Lumine. It's good to see you again."

Lumine, one of the twins who truly managed this place with the blessing of the Council, was a capable fighter and politician. She and her brother, Aether, ran this place better than the any army Zhongli had served in. He knew the twins had Mondstadt citizenship and had grown up amidst the verdant hills of that country, but they seemed to have great knowledge on the rest of the world as well, and might have travelled throughout the seven countries despite their apparently young age. Zhongli didn’t know a whole lot about them. He supposed, being special envoys directly from the Council, they must have their unique points that he was not privy to knowing.

"I'm sorry for being unable to send support to Natlan sooner, Archon Morax." Lumine lowered her head. "I knew the civil war in Natlan was going to be tough, but no one expected us to suffer such heavy losses… I would never have accepted the suggestion from the Council of Seven Countries had I known about the difficulties on the ground."

"It wasn't your fault." Zhongli said simply. "Also, please do not refer to me that title. That is an old warlord title unsuited to the battlefield, where pulling rank will only put you in harm's way."

"I understand. I just wish… I just wish things turned out differently for you and Venti out there." Lumine shook her head.

"How's Venti?" Zhongli questioned. "He didn't sound too good when we pulled out of Natlan. I don't think he's handling his losses very well."

"I agree, but… as you know, he refused all help this time as well." Lumine sighed dejectedly. "He’s always been an eccentric figure back in Mondstadt, and the Favonius Knights recommended that we just let him be, so I'm going to do that for now. He will probably be fine."

Zhongli made a noncommittal hum. This kind of bad coping mechanism reminded him of some of the soldiers he had known in Liyue. "I hope he will be fine. What about the business you called me here for? What of these new recruits?"

Lumine walked forward then and said down next to Zhongli along the large, gleaming meeting table, then offered him the tablet that she had been holding. He took it and saw a list of photos of people, with names and affiliations written beneath. "We had received Inazuma as the third nation to join our initiative. Snezhnaya has also expressed interest, but they were not fully committed yet, and only sent one operator. Mondstadt and Liyue have also sent a few more permanent squads." She paused, as if thinking of something, then continued. "We also need to assign replacement members to squad that you and Venti are a part of. The Tsaritsa of Snezhnaya had demanded their operator be included in your squad. Is that okay?"

"They'll just have to keep up with Venti and I." Zhongli replied with a small shrug. "I see the list of operators from Inazuma here. They are… all women?"

Lumine pursed her lips. "That is correct. It seems that is how they do things in Inazuma, and many of their Archon families are also inherited and run by women. It's not entirely a bad thing. We could use more female operators in missions involving infiltration and going undercover. Not every request we get is going to involve open battle."

Zhongli rubbed his chin in thought. "You are correct. However, I am afraid they will have to make up their own squad because of this, and it's going to slow down how they integrate and get to know the other operators already stationed here." He scrolled down the screen further. "Which one is the person the Tsaritsa demanded to join me and Venti's squad?"

"This one." Lumine pointed to a youth far down the page. "Ajax Morepesokov, known as 'Tartaglia' or 'Childe' in the Snezhnayan army. The Snezhnayan representative had stated that he was one of the best special force soldiers in their country."

Zhongli looked over the young man's profile and narrowed eyes. "A fairly impressive record, but he seems to excel in solo operation. Does he have any Archon blood?"

"None reported." Lumine answered. "Just an ordinary boy with a talent for warfare, it seems."

"Like I said, I will accept him into our personal squad if he can keep up with Venti and I." Zhongli continued to scroll down. "Ahh, more Liyuen faces indeed. Ganyu and Xiao are both coming. That brings back memories…"

They were both special force members that Zhongli had the pleasure of personally mentoring. Ganyu seemed to have become committed to the sniper path - Zhongli wondered whether she found a new spotter since he had left Liyue - while Xiao was the most promising operator out of the entire generation of Liyue fighters. Sending both here was a further demonstration of Liyue's resolve to support The Vision, and to strengthen -

"I'm sorry, Zhongli. I've gotta take this call."

Zhongli really should do something about his habit of spacing out in his reminiscing when he was living as a civilian. He nodded at Lumine, indicating she was free to answer the phone that was vibrating in her hand.

The young woman stood up and walked to a corner of the meeting room, lowering her voice. However, in barely two seconds, she had uncharacteristically raised her voice, earning a raised eyebrow from Zhongli.

"What? No! Can we get him out of the-"

She then stopped as the person on the other end of the line said something back in lightning speed. Zhongli's attention was entirely caught by Lumine and her conversation now. What was going on? Lumine usually did not lose her composure like this in a professional setting. Had something serious happened?

With a few more "yes" and "please", Lumine hang up the call. When she turned back to Zhongli, she was wearing a big, big frown.

"Zhongli, we have to get to the recruits' welcome debrief in A block right now."

"What? Why?" Zhongli was even more confused now. Why would they need to head to an administrative event, given their status in the Vision?

"Venti is there right now." Lumine shook her head. "And based on what I was just told, he's creating a big scene in front of all the recruits."

"Damn it." Zhongli instantly understood Lumine's fear. He stood up quickly, the tablet tucked under his arm, and he made large strides towards the door. "What was he doing? Drinking? Dancing? Preaching some Mondstadt peace philosophy?"

Actually, if he was doing the latter, that might be good for the newcomers, as it aligned with the aims of The Vision. But please, don't let him be drinking or already drunk…

"Worse." Lumine deadpanned next to Zhongli as they walked past rows of offices, heading towards A block as fast as they could. "He's apparently reciting poetry."

Zhongli swore for the second time.