Offshoot

tagnone

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"You led me out here, so let's cut straight to it- what do you want?"

The corners of the withered old man's mouth bend just the slightest hint. Enough that if you didn't know what he was, if you actually were the meathead Protection mook who your nametag once belonged to, you might think it was a smile. You get the distinct feeling that you've asked exactly the question he wanted to hear.

He's the one who set this up, so of course he's continuing the performative bullshit. Singled you alone out from the basecamp, did the whole theatrical display to get your attention, to get you to chase him out here all by your lonesome- a pretty difficult feat with how many guns they've got trained on the perimter.

Yet even still, he simply sits there, staring into the fire between the two overturned logs he seems to have fashioned as seating, for far longer than you're comfortable with. You're left with only crackles of the flames and the shadows dancing around his dark, sunken eyes for what feels like an eternity - before his cracked lips part, and he begins to speak.

"Do you have children?"

You're skeptical, for a moment- You're genre savvy, well informed, you know he's only going to spring-boarding off the question into whatever he wants to say anyway. You open your mouth to quip at him, some kind of snarky acknowledgement of the dynamic, but he cuts you off before you even begin and the half-formed comeback dies before it ever had a chance to live.

"Of course you wouldn't. Not the type, obviously. But…"

You clamp your mouth shut just as quickly as you opened it, and cross your arms. You're a little bothered that he's robbed you of your agency, and a little more bothered by the mischievous little glint in his eye as he did it. It's clear he thinks he's in control.

He continues on, swashing aside his patchy furred shawl, an act noticeably relishing his juvenile one one-upmanship.

"…To raise a child, you must teach them. Teach respect, responsibility, the ways of the world."

He pauses again, for what you assume to be dramatic effect. He's got an energy about him now, a fluidness to his movements that you hadn't caught before, and you can't help wonder if hiding that was another part of the theatrics. For a moment, you wonder if maybe the old coot is just really getting into this display. Either way, your hand slides down to the holster at your waist. A threat? Or a comfort? You're not even sure yourself at this point.

He sees you, of course, and whatever he interprets the move as makes him frown.

"But. But, as hard as you may try to, you cannot control a child. They must be free to learn not only from you, but from themselves, their mistakes and be given a chance to… correct them. Only then can they grow."

You remove your hand from the holster, slightly more secure in your certainty that whatever mental game he's got going obviously involves the long con- and that's something you can appreciate. When you do, the edges of your vision blur, for just a moment, and you swear the acrid smell of smoke begins to clear. The old man gives you another few uncomfortable moments of silence before standing, content to continue.

"When the world was young, and it's people even younger, there was a clear purpose for the parents of man. To teach them, to create for them, and… I will admit, even to spoil them. To shepherd their wayward sons and daughters."

The edges of your vision once again blur, but this time you feel a… pull? Something there, just outside your view, that wants to be seen. An uncomfortable pressure. You’re too smart to fall for that, though. Your eyes quickly dart to the old man, your brows furrowed, and begin to open your mouth in protest but, yet again, he cuts you off before you can speak, throwing a casual wave of his hand to dismiss your concerns.

"As with all children, however, someday they had to surpass their parents. To learn all there is to learn from them, and move on. Not free of stumbling, of course, of sometimes returning to the warm embrace of familiarity, but each time going back with yet steps towards finality. To a truly empty nest."

He's gesticulating now, but you're having trouble really focusing on it with all this pressure on your eyes. You try to move, try to put up any sort of fight against whatever he’s doing that’s pulling at your seams, but nothing comes of it. You're stuck in place, and by now more than a little panicked. He doesn't seem to notice, not that you're really even checking at this point.

When he opens his mouth next it seems slow, almost thoughtful. His tone softens, just enough to notice.

"What, then, is a parent to do? Enjoy their twilight, fade away satisfied with what they have passed on? Try to claw back control, relevancy, in the lives they helped forge? Or do they instead… Do they return to their own lives once again, love and live like they did once before it all?"

His voice wavers, and his gaze lingers on the strange, gnarled horn affixed to his cane. There’s something off about forlorn about the look he carries as he does so. The moment of contextless emotional vulnerability is not lost on you, but you're far too preoccupied straining against your own paralyzed body to truly appreciate it.

There's a certain indignation in it- you didn't come here, didn't don this suit and slip in amongst the desperate Remnant rabble, just to have some anomaly get the better of you. Not after everything you've already survived.

"All of these are… paths, options taken by those who have faced that crossroads. I do not believe any were right, or wrong, on their own- although, I would suspect you might."

He flashes you a toothy grin that’s hard to look away from, stained yellow teeth illuminated by the fire, accentuated by the dark skin and deep set wringles around it. When your eyes pull away from his withered features- you realize you're no longer sitting where you once were. The pressure on your eyes eases, the demand to be seen met by the scene now consuming your vision, although you still find your body unresponsive.

Stars are all around you now, as if he's ripped the sky from above and tightly wrapped the two of you within its embrace.

The sight takes you off guard completely, and it's not until he returns to his seat that you even register that the old man is still with you. He stares upwards, your own eyes dragged along with him, and the pinpricks of light swirl, taking strange shapes- a pair of antlers, some kind of dog, a cross? You’ve got a vague idea of what each means but you’re in no state to speculate.

Crude images of figures hunting, building, developing- all under the watchful eye of various figures, shapes and forms that keep shifting even as the scenes stay the same, moving before your eyes. Some humanoid, some bestial, some barely even recongizable as alive at all, all following the same sequence of watchful growth over the figures below them as they rise and change.

The images twirl at increasing speed, turning between patterns and symbols at a pace you can't keep up with anymore, a living and shifting tapestry that’s barely even being registered as stars now, just shifting lights twirling and dancing across your vision- literally so, as pictographs and symbols twist in and out of one another, interlocked actors upon the night sky’s stage. It’s breathtaking, and for the first time in a long while, you've got nothing snide to add. Nothing to observe. It's simply beautiful.

The old man exhales a deep and tired sigh, drawing your focus away from the scene pivoting around the campsite. The deep lines under his eyes, the dropping of whatever facade he was holding before, tells you that this is no longer theatrics.

"As for myself? I believe- at least now, of all times, that the job of a parent is never done. That once our children wander into the world, having taken all we can give, we still must be a rock- something solid, immovable for them to hold on to, should their mistakes send them running for safety, or the weight of the world threaten to sweep them away."

You blink, and suddenly the stars, the symbols, the old man- they're all gone.

It's just you, sitting beside the smouldering ashes of a campfire. You slump forwards, finally in control of yourself again and sorely in need of a stretch.

The undergrowth rustles for a moment, and you reach for your sidearm- but the whisper of a low voice halts your hand.

"You will have your rock, Global Director, as all children should."

With another rustle, it's gone. Long before you can even wonder how he'd clocked you for what you were, you see a faint canine outline disappear into the shadows of the night, melding into the darkness.

Then, you're alone.

But not as alone as you used to be.

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