Nergal has found himself a perch on the rocks, not too far from the group he does not feel he belongs to. He's been told not to leave, though, that they would be dragged back if they tried it, and while he is sure there are more exalted threats over there and that few are the people paying any attention to him personally, he still doesn't feel like bringing attention back to him by leaving and getting found out.
He doesn't know where he'd go, anyway.
The sun is setting, immense sky going fuchsia and rust. The sea is a purpling, depthless mass of languid whispers; he wants to wade in, see how far he can go. (He doesn't know how to swim.) It would be cowardly, and disrespecting the order -- the request -- of the one man he cannot say no to.
He wonders how old they live to, those strange thin-skinned new beings to which he now belongs, how the sweeps of his own life translate.
"Good evening, my good sir," says a man Nergal does not know, touching the edge of a strange hat in salute. The russet cast of his skin makes things clear; he is neither the Demoness nor the Sufferer, nor either of their Descendants, therefore he is one of the aliens. Ex-aliens. Nergal wouldn't have known him either way. "Hope you don't mind if I take over this rock over here."
Nergal gives a small shrug. He cannot stop him. The man sits.
He's the only one here not in God cloths. His shirt has buttons and a flipped collar and in lieu of a hood there is that hat. There's a weirdly curved, polished stick hanging from his mouth.
"One starts to feel a little old after a while," the man says with a quiet chuckle, as he looks over at the squabbling, chattering groups there around the fire, playing in the sand, splashing around in the surf. Out of politeness Nergal offers a quiet acknowledging huff, not quite a chuckle of his own.
The man's face is lined at the corners of his eyes, of his mouth, the way Nergal's is -- not the same patterns, though, the grooves between his own eyebrows are so much deeper. Biologically speaking they must be the two oldest, or perhaps the man and the Disciple are on equal footing. (Chronologically speaking of course it is the Condesce, but her body is in its prime and probably will always be.)
"Indeed," he says, quietly. Suicide would have been cheating, the cowardly way out of his due punishment, but he was so looking forward to the final, inescapable end of his lifespan.
"But we haven't introduced ourselves." A hand is offered; Nergal hesitates to take it. He hasn't touched anyone in so long. "Paul Cro -- ah."
Nergal frowns, looks up at the man's face. His eyes are hidden but his mouth twists strangely at the corner.
"...Crocker-Egbert, I suppose, now. Jane and -- John's father."
"I am known as the Expatriate Darkleer," Nergal replies gravely, and politely ignores the man's brief moment of confusion. "You may address me as either Expatriate, which is my title, or as Darkleer, which is my personal appellation."
He doesn't feel up to entertaining company, but more because it has been so long since he went without than because he is feeling all that personally hostile toward the man. He hasn't been too bothersome so far.
"If I may ask, what is a 'father'?"
"It designates either a biological progenitor or a child's custodian, oftentimes both together. I gather your own society didn't do things that way."
He shakes his head slowly. It didn't, no. It might never again. Who knows what they all are now? It won't matter to him either way, he is through worrying about quadrants, concupiscent or not, and the future of a species that he hasn't belonged to three days out of his centuries of life doesn't impact him as something he ought to concern himself with.
The conversation ends there; Crocker-Egbert turns in his seat to face the sea more fully and they watch the sun set in silence. It's... tolerable, he would say. Companionable, even. Mostly alone, but not. After a while the man lights a little fire in the hollow end of his curved stick; smoke with a strange scent rises, merging with the sea and the small, hardy clusters of flowers clinging to the cliff at their back.
The first moon rises gold and rust-splattered, a ring of palest sea-green circling its equator.
The group over there goes quiet to behold it, but soon enough they have started talking again, some even more excitedly, delighted; it seems even louder that way. He sighs, closes his eyes.
When he opens them a woman stands before him, ghost-quiet, hacked-off hair fluttering in the sea breeze and spiraled horns cutting an unmistakable silhouette. For the first second he stiffens all over, on instinct.
How silly. She hasn't come to take his soul, and even if she had, wouldn't he rather thank her? "Demoness," he greets soberly, and bows. She might have rust in her veins but she is so much more than that.
There. This is good. They both know exactly what the other one is, the root of them. Crocker-Egbert watches them from the side, blowing out thoughtful little puffs of smoke, still a mystery.
The Demoness turns to him, so Nergal introduces him. "This is Paul Crocker-Egbert, custodian of Jane and John." He thinks he repeated all the strange sounds right. The man doesn't correct him at any rate, just touches the edge of his hat in salute.
"Miss. Pleasure to make your acquaintance."
The Demoness stares at him another second or three before she answers; he thought she wasn't going to. "Progenitor of Life and Breath."
Crocker-Egbert smiles, polite, eyes invisible. "Just so."
She stares at him, expressionless, no hint of the thoughts running through her head on her face, in the set of her shoulders, the loose curl of her hands. There's no real warning before she blinks and turns back to Nergal, the other man dismissed.
"Do you remember your wiggler name?"
It's Nergal's turn to blink. "Ah -- yes?" Her smooth forehead crunches in faint displeasure; Nergal wonders what he said wrong, what she was truly asking that he couldn't give her.
"Do you remember mine?"
He's baffled. "I -- did I ever know it?"
"Yes. In your previous life." A pause, another faint frown. "The Sufferer does. Remember my wiggler name."
"I heard say he never did forget his previous life," Crocker-Egbert contributes. "Perhaps he kept reminding himself."
"It was thousands of sweeps ago."
Nergal is about to correct her -- the Sufferer died well before his thirtieth sweep, and in the previous incarnation he'd died at six the same everyone else did -- and then he gets it.
She doesn't mean it was thousands of sweeps ago for the Sufferer, she means it was so for herself. "Ah. I see. Lady... I still use my name, if only to myself. If I had discarded it entirely when I styled myself Darkleer, it has been enough time by now that I would have forgotten it. Other bluebloods sometimes do, as do most Indigoes." Those who die of old age, at any rate. Even accounting for the global rarity of such a high caste, there aren't many.
"May I ask... have you forgotten yours?"
"I was never told what it was," she says, and she shrugs, like it doesn't matter, but the thing is if it didn't matter she wouldn't bother saying so, even just with her body, he can already tell and they've been interacting less than ten minutes. "Not in this life." A thoughtful pause. "It was long. The previous one..."
"Six sweeps old was so long ago," Nergal answers quietly. She looks different to him somehow. Not young; merely physically unweathered, but inside she's like him, timeworn and just about ready to let go. "So very long ago. It's all like mist to me, like wiggler memories, I hear their stories and they seem familiar but..."
Without a word, Crocker shuffles to the side, sweeps his hand at the rock between them. The Demoness stares at him with her red, empty eyes for a long time before she moves.
She sits. Nergal did not expect that.
They watch the sea. The sky is getting dark; there are stars everywhere.
"Did that Sufferer young man tell you what it was?" the ex-alien asks, voice a perfect balance of unthreatening lack of insistence and quiet interest.
"No. I left."
"Do you want to know?"
She doesn't answer straight away. Perhaps she is actually hesitating, for all that it looks she merely thinks the question too stupid to bother with.
"I'm not her."
"Of course not," Nergal says. Who is still the same as their childhood self after so long? Excepting from the Condesce, of course, but this owes more to her overwhelming selfishness than to anything else.
A puff of breath, embers flaring in the dim light. "Hm. Is there any harm to knowing for knowledge's sake, though? Nothing forces you to use that name if you do not choose to."
The way she stares at him Nergal can tell exactly how little she was ever encouraged to be curious simply for the pleasure of knowing. It... it aches, a little bit. Even when he had nothing else he still had that drive to figure out how things worked and improve them.
She still looks lost. He frowns. "Forgive me the presumption, but I am not sure you can truly understand the issues at play."
"Ah, but I am in possession of quite the serviceable imagination," the man replies around a chuckle. He has sobered up before Nergal can take offense. "I don't remember my previous life either." A pause; Nergal flinches with the dignity barely covering that sadness. "I... don't remember being John's father."
"Should you?" the Demoness inquires, head tilting just barely.
"Adding up my two lives... I would be quite old, but yes. I should, even if the earlier years should be quite misty. But I don't. I fear it's... I wasn't supposed to come back out, I wasn't a player, my daught--my children merely... insisted."
"Your data was overwritten," Nergal finishes before he can think better of it, before he can think how perhaps the man does not want confirmation.
"I fear so," he says, and it doesn't manage to sound half as light as it was trying for. "Ah, no matter, from what I hear my lives were for the most part quite similar! Not much was lost."
Save for those two children, who can't have been that identical growing up if they weren't each other's otherselves. Nergal wonders if the John child has realized yet.
Nergal closes his eyes, rolls into his mind those notes of quiet desolation, does not know why it aches.
Does not know why it aches, too, when he looks at the woman between the two of them and she is sitting straight-backed like a doll on display, staring at the ocean the way one would stare at the inside of a cell.
He hasn't pitied anyone in so long. He never wanted to pity anyone else ever again.
He looks to the side at the little cluster of trolls by the fire, so many bodies but he finds the one immediately. The memory of that grief, of that devastation will never leave him, but here and now the Disciple sprawls across the Helmsman and the Sufferer's laps, the Dolorosa's hand patiently combing her tangled hair, and she is happy enough to light up a sun, and it was none of his doing; none of her happiness will ever be of his doing, she would never take that from him. Her platonic hate has cooled into dislike with time, and now that she has them back she doesn't even care that much anymore, never will again.
He's had centuries punishing himself for causing her so much pain, having his felings reciprocated was never even in the cards.
Having it reciprocated by either of those two people is an utterly ridiculous notion, is what it is, it's preposterous and arrogant and much too early to even spare one thought for; this random twinge of commiseration will have passed tomorrow. He is a bare rock standing in a wasteland, he does not have it in him to be anything else. He's been alone too long if the first people he has any real interaction with who aren't Mindfang immediately trigger this ... this silliness.
He will expire soon anyway, he hopes, and then it will be moot.
They just watch the water and the sky, and they don't share another word, and he doesn't, doesn't, doesn't think that it might almost be tolerable to wait for old age to catch up in this kind of company.