Characters: Nine/Jack/Rose Rating: PG-13
Summary: Nothing is so grand that it can't be fragile, too.
Edited: The remarkable dr_whuh
Author's Note: This was written for the remarkable cathica , who provided me (a surprisingly long time ago, I now realize) the one-word prompt "gossamer" as a dam-buster for one of my not-infrequent cases of writer's block. I write far too slowly, but eventually this meditation on eternity's foibles fought its way past the first few paragraphs. The thing holds at least a temporary title as the story of mine with the most whiplash-inducing series of emotional hairpin turns in the smallest number of lines. As always, I do not own these beloved characters. As if I could ... they are the property of the BBC, which graciously closes its all-seeing corporate eyes and lets me pass into the Whoniverse to play.
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"But it looks so ... "
Rose said nothing, just kept looking. Behind her, they'd started up again.
She turned and fixed the two of them with an unblinking stare, but still said nothing.
Jack's shrug and raised hands were elegantly Gallic, until he caught the Doctor's eye and the two of them collapsed into gales of helpless laughter.
"Oh, for– "
Her own half-angry surrender to laughter started as a strangled, and distinctly less than elegant snort before devolving into a full-on guffaw, Jackie Tyler style. A few of the other tourists in the plaza turned from their contemplation of the cliffside to stare at the crazy human trio.
"You sound just like your mother when y'do that, y'know - ow!!"
The Doctor nursed his shoulder, face crumpled in a four-year-old's wounded innocence.
"You. Hush. You, too, Jack, or I'll do you, too. Pissed as lords, the two of you."
"Come on, Rose," the Captain said, moving to her side. "If I don't miss my guess you had just as much of that brandy as we did."
She sniffed. "Not enough to make me act like you two. Barking, that's what you two are." But her tone wasn't nearly as dismissive as she thought it should be. She knew why. She couldn't stay upset long, not at these two, especially not after they'd made her laugh with their not-quite-sober comedy act ... even if it was at her expense. No, she couldn't stay upset.
Nor, she realized, could she stay upright. She really had had one or four glasses too many of the brandy. Well, it wasn't really brandy, she thought, as she abruptly sat down on one of the worn stone steps behind her. It had been hot and very sweet and almost too powerful to swallow, with a bitter aftertaste that made the first sweet explosion bearable.
"That brandy stuff, what was it really called?" she asked the two men, who now loomed rather extraordinarily above her. "Aumenta? Menta meray?"
"Almost," the Doctor said, sitting down on one side of her while Jack did the same on the other. Probably not uncoincidentally, their bodies acted as brackets to her own unsteady self. They were like that, she thought, a bit muzzily, always keeping her steady.
"Almost?" She stifled a belch.
The Doctor nodded, dividing his attention between her and the almost impossibly ornate friezes cut into the rock face. "Yeah. The proper name is aumento da maré–"
"–which has been shortened at this point in Dellat's history to Mento Maré" Jack finished up for him. "The surge of the tide."
"Huh," she said, laying her newly-heavy head on Jack's shoulder. "Pretty name."
"Yeah, well ... First Empire," the Doctor said, tugging gently at her from the other side. "Neo-Portuguese."
"S'why I like it when we come to First Empire worlds," she said, transferring her head to his shoulder. A wave of dizziness overtook her, and she closed her eyes. "Wow ... pretty, but it packs a punch, yeah?"
"Mmm." She could feel his lips on her hair, and it warmed her just like the Mento Maré. She might have drifted off to sleep, wrapped in the warmth and safety of Jack and the Doctor, had she not remembered why the three of them had stumbled into Plaza Te D'aranha in the first place.
"But I still don't understand why they call it Gossamer."
"I think it sounds better when you call it Plaza Te D'aranha," Jack said as he moved slightly, snaking his arm around her waist. There we go, she thought, a nice balance, at least until we try to stand up.
"But that means 'spiderweb' and that's–"
"You apes," the Doctor said with an indulgent headshake. "Entemophobes, the lot of you. Anything with more than four legs ...."
"Not all of us," Jack said. His voice was lazy. "Lots of us adore insects. Especially little boys who drop 'em down girls' blouses."
"Bet you did that," Rose snickered.
"You bet right."
A moment more of silence, then Rose returned to the issue at hand. "One of you had better tell me why it's called Gossamer when it's ... I dunno ... the most immense cliff I've ever seen in my life. Gorgeous ... really gorgeous, I don't think I've ever seen anything like it, absolutely brilliant, but ... it's not gossamer."
"So we have to tell you or what? What are you going to do to us?" Jack's look was just the tiniest bit bleary, but Rose saw a hint of fire in it, too. She shivered.
"I dunno. But I promise you, it'll be something you won't forget."
"Well, then, I guess we'd better tell her, Doc," Jack said with a broad grin.
She looked at the Doctor. He raised that devastating eyebrow of his. "I'm not so sure. Might want to call her bluff." His blue eyes went dark as he said it, and Rose stopped breathing as heat blossomed unexpectedly in the pit of her stomach.
Flame and darkness in two men's eyes ....
And then the Doctor grinned and Jack's smile bubbled into happy laughter, and the moment was gone.
"Right. Gossamer." The Doctor gave Rose's head one last kiss, and jumped to his feet. She nearly fell over, but Jack caught her. The two of them looked up at the Doctor in time to see him take one more steadying step than he might have needed prior to supper, and the Mento Maré. "Up on your feet, you two." He held out his hands, and hauled them to their feet.
The three of them turned away from the city to look at the cliff face.
Gossamer reared above their heads at least a kilometer, its upper reaches soaring beyond sight and wreathed with mists. Winged creatures glided on unseen thermals below the vanishing point, still far above the ground. Their calls and songs were faint, but constant, their dips and swoops occasionally revealing the flash and shine of rainbow wings.
The sun that illuminated the fliers was fading from the heights. Down at Gossamer's base, evening shadows had begun their climb up the wall, only to break like waves into crazed splinters of darkness on the friezes.
Gossamer's friezes were what transmuted its natural power into something wondrous and strange. Not one, but hundreds, thousands, of carvings marched across its expanse; figures of men and beasts, miners and farmers, dancers, warriors, priests, wanderers, dragons and temples and kings, queens and wars and gods and children forced free of the rock by centuries of unknown sculptors.
So great were their talents that the stories they chiseled into the cliffs - love and betrayal, effort and striving and legends made real, transcendent victories, the deaths of legions great and small - were as clear now as they had been when fashioned centuries earlier.
Archaeologists and dazzled xenoculturalists had mapped the fate of Dellat's long-vanished people through the cliffs of Gossamer. And people they were, though they bore only a passing resemblance to the humans who settled the planet in the first wave of First Empire expansion.
"Looks like it's been there forever, doesn't it," the Doctor asked in a distant voice. "But it hasn't.
"The first human scientific team to examine the cliffs completely wanted to call it something appropriately grand. Monumental. Don't blame them - took 'em 32 Earth-standard years just to properly record all the friezes. In fact, that's what gave the rest of the colonists time to move into the remains of the city, make it their own. You apes do that a lot ... monkeys playing in ruined temples-"
"Oi!" Rose wasn't going to let that pass. "A little more history, an' a little less bad-mouthing the humans, OK?" Jack chuckled.
"Didn't say it was wrong, did I? Humans are fearless when they want to be explorers, is all," the Doctor said.
"Little late to try to talk yourself out of a hole," she replied. "Go on, then. They were gonna call it something else, not Gossamer?"
"Yup. Until they deciphered the last of the friezes." He stopped speaking for a moment, and the distance in his voice rose into his eyes.
"They were the final stories of that civilization. It had survived for five millenia, as far as your researchers could tell. It had survived wars and plagues and natural disasters. Then something happened. The stories on the friezes changed. Stopped being about seeking the future, or celebrating the great things in their history in preparation for greater deeds to come.
"You can't see it from here, but the last friezes are up beyond those clouds, and they're nothin' but meditations on entropy. On death. On the meaningless nature of the universe. No more makin' history, no future, just ... death."
Around them, the other tourists chattered in a multitude of tongues, and exclaimed in wonder at what they saw.
"The friezes became smaller, less distinct from the rocks, farther apart. The final ones were little more than roughly chiseled first passes, then almost invisible paint sketches of what was to come, then ... they were gone. And so were their makers."
Rose felt cold, and tucked herself under Jack's arm. The Doctor looked at her, his eyes tired. "That's what your human researchers realized; that the ones who'd been here before had just faded into eternity, along with their stories and their art. They disappeared when they lost something inside 'em. Dissipated, like the mist at the top of the mountain."
"Like gossamer," Jack breathed.
"Oh." Rose remembered a poem from her school days. "Ozymandias ...."
"Nothing's so grand that it can't be fragile, too," the Doctor continued. "Stop caring, and you stop being. You vanish like spiderwebs in wind. Simple as that."
Without warning, he pulled his companions to him. Rose saw Jack close his eyes, she smelled the sweet, sharp drink on the Doctor's breath, and she ached with unwanted understanding.
"We haven't stopped caring," she whispered, low and intense and frightened. "We still care, Doctor."
Jack said nothing, just fished into a pocket of his greatcoat, and brought out the bottle of Mento Maré. He held it out until the Doctor lifted his head and looked at him.
"Buy you a drink?" Jack's eyes were bright, perhaps with unshed tears.
The Doctor's laugh was a bark, but it was laughter. He took the bottle, started to raise it to his lips, but stopped. "You first, Rose."
She felt something heavy inside her break, and realized she was free to smile. "Hand it over, then."
All three turned their backs on Gossamer and headed home to the TARDIS, passing the bottle between them and holding back the night.