Doctor Whooves and the House of Daring
Chapter Two: The Awakening
Ditzy Doo-Smith wondered if her husband was broken.
Husbands could be fickle things. Her life was proof that you had to choose them right. Even if you pick the right one for your needs, sometimes the wear and tear apparently made them act in surprising ways.
On the coach trip through Trottingham, he had been mostly "normal" John Doo-Smith. Admittedly, he seemed to drink an awful lot more than usual. She had thought the inn had a quaint charm. He apparently had thought it had tables worth dancing on. It was a night like she hadn't had in years. Luckily enough Sparkler had kept Dinky occupied in their room, otherwise Ditzy would have had to blushingly explain quite a few things about John's somewhat questionable song about hedgehogs.
The trip to the estate had set off some of her alarm bells as well. The girls had gasped in awe as the coach crested the hill, bringing the manor house into view. It stood in the middle of a wide field, the buildings stretched out like a castle laid out sideways. The brick edifice stared back at them through attentive windows. The road meandered through topiary sculptures, dozens of fearsome beasts looming out of the hedge to menace oncoming travelers.
Ditzy had seen many old buildings, and some of them were still standing when she left. She always felt a sense of brooding decay. This one was like a napping lion. She thought it could wake up at any second.
Her wings spread out. "Look at it, John! It's more than I've ever dreamed!"
His answer was a sigh.
"Oh, yeah. Impressive. Look, that's a yeti made out of shrubs next to a rose bush of the Lock Nellie Monster." He yawned. "Yup. Nice use of sticks."
She looked at the children. Dinky was nearly half out of the wagon, listening to Sparkler rattle off names for the more mythological garden elements. Ditzy nodded, pulling closer to John.
"John Doo-Smith, what's wrong with you today? I thought you'd be more excited about this than anypony."
His shoulders briefly tensed. "Don't mind me. I'm tired, Ditzy. I'm just so so tired."
John took a breath, and for a hopeful moment she thought that he would confide in her. That was before Dinky jumped into her lap. Ditzy's surprised squeak at least drew a smile from John.
"Mommy? If Auntie Daring's a pegasus, why does she live on the ground?"
Ditzy pet her daughter's mane as she looked out the window. "She always told me that the sky bored her. You don't find priceless things on top of clouds. They tend to fall right through."
The straight road turned into a circular driveway wrapped around a gigantic fountain statue of Lord Foamrider of the Seaponies. Under the shadow of the trident the cart lurched to a halt.
There is one clear sign of depression in travelers throughout the multiverse, whether on mammoth chariot or quantum drive skimmer. As his family jumped out of the car into a cloud of activity John moved not a muscle, staring onto the floor of the cart.
"We're here, John," a worried voice whispered into his ear.
Nodding, he pulled himself onto the ground. The workhorse leader appear in front of him with a raised hoof, which John stared at in dull incomprehension.
"Tip the stallion, John," the voice continued.
"Of course." He cleared his throat. "When running, always worry about the 'to,' not the 'from'."
The stallion squinted. John shrugged.
"Non-optional economic gratuity, dear," muttered Ditzy.
John rolled his eyes, passing the pony several bits from his saddlebag. Giving John a last distrustful look, the workhorse returned to the cart.
John stamped on the ground. "Ditzy, that was solid advice! He'll go farther in life with my advice than those bits."
Ditzy nodded. "True, dearest. Where he won't go on that advice is here, to pick us up again. Everybody look good? All right, let's knock!"
She approached the jackal-headed door knocker. It was covered in ancient hieroglyphics, most of them pertaining to painful ceremonies involving feathers, scales, and alligators. Ditzy grabbed the knocker.
John would have sworn the jackal showed signs of embarrassment as the door swung open, releasing a smell of dust stronger than the Doo-Smith Workshop floor. The door frame was very nearly blocked by the body of a huge, hunched butler. Dinky took a step back as she took in the bulging muscles underneath the tuxedo. A white and brown face like a bulldog stared at Ditzy with long suffering eyes.
"Ah, Mistress Ditzy, welcome back to the- "
Ditzy launched herself at him, hugging his muscular neck. She clung to the resigned diamond dog, giving an impression somewhat like a baby monkey hanging off it's mother. The butler stood steadfastly as she dangled there, her legs kicking back and forth. "Molly Moo" looked at John for a silent second before addressing the rest of the family.
"Welcome to the Do estate. I am Molossus, and- "
"Molly Moo!" Ditzy snuggled into his neck, her wings flapping hard to keep her from falling.
He sighed as he stepped toward the two stunned and silent children. "Please do not be afraid."
The sisters both returned a offended stare.
"If I am being afraid, you would know and regret it."
"Yeah, and I'm really good at talking and running!"
At Sparkler's amused look, Dinky just shrugged.
Molossus stepped backward with his squealing necklace still in place and gestured inside. "If you would care to follow me, the rest of the family are waiting."
John attempted to make words with his mouth as he watched his wife cuddle nine hooves tall of muscle. He wasn't very successful. As he stepped in front of his children, he shook a hoof in an effort to reclaim his dignity.
"Anything," he managed to say before snorting and pulling his hoof back. The word was supposed to be wrapped inside a sentence of warning, but John sometimes put more stock in emphasis than verbosity. Sometimes.
Ditzy dropped down from her canine climbing wall. "John, that's rude!"
"Is it?" asked Molossus. "I wasn't aware it counted as a complete thought. Well then, Mr. Doo-Smith, I concede the point." He nodded. "Nothing."
John gave a very proud look.
Dinky leaned forward and, with a whisper loud enough that the Equestrian Whisper Club would have suspended her membership, said "You're much better with monsters, Dad."
Ditzy slightly released her grip, energetically stepping back to John as if the Hearth's Warming Night drinks were all gone. "This is Molossus!"
"I gathered that, dear," he said as he nodded for effect.
Ditzy turned and pushed her daughters forward. "You're going to have such a wonderful time with him, girls. He was my favorite babysitter when I was young."
"Yes," Sparkler agreed. "One could being playing hide-and-seek with him or on him."
Molossus cleared his throat. "Anyway, it is a pleasure to see you, young mistresses. Your mother has written so much about you. I'd say it's time you went inside and reconnected with the rest of the clan." He leaned down conspiratorially. "I understand the muffins and pastries have been laid out."
Two young blurs shot past him. As he lumbered inside the door, John turned to Ditzy.
"You write him often, Love?"
John scratched his mane. "Only, I seem to recall that your mother says you never write her."
Ditzy gave a pregnant pause as she walked inside without the previous manic energy.
"John," she softly, "sometimes you can love someone without liking them very much."
A voice like an opera tenor gargling gravel rang out.
"Announcing the appearance of Dismerelda Daring Doo-Smith, and her daughters Dinkestra and Sparkler."
As Molossus held the door for the couple, Ditzy gave him a withering look.
"He told you to do that, didn't he?"
Molossus pointedly moved not an inch.
Ditzy shook her head. "Molly Moo... "
He drew in a deep breath. "And her beloved husband, John Doo-Smith!"
Forget shattering wine glasses, John thought. He could crack the whole stage.
Ditzy nuzzled Molossus as she walked inside. "See, John? He's just a big... "
She stopped when her childhood became real.
Every living being thinks of their childhood as a magical time (with the caveat that not all magic is good). Given time, they'll talk about the huge toy box they could sit inside, the amazing painting of Commander Hurricane on their wall, and the dark gate to the Monster Dimension. They'll stare in disbelief years later when presented with photographic evidence of a rickety box, a poorly traced smudge, and a reasonably sized walk-in closet. Even silicon-based life orbiting dim stars talk about how that magma vent was a much bigger slide and their parents must have had renovations. Childhood memories never turn out to be accurate.
Except for Ditzy Doo's.
She was staggered at the sight of the cavernous entry hall. Along the right wall hung weapons of every country. A minotaur battle-axe balanced over an honorary key to the city of Tartaurus. Nearby were a variety of griffon throwing weapons, including the severed arm of High Eyrie Countess Amalia. The legendary limb was famous for the amount of insurgents it had bludgeoned, and the engraved case bore its owner's well wishes to Daring Do for deeds done.
Across the hall was a frozen menagerie. A life-sized statue of an okapi sage overlooked a stuffed chimera waiting to pounce, nestled amongst other beasts. Sparkler found herself awestruck at soot-encrusted carvings from a legendary city as Dinky spun an ancient copper astronomical globe. Overhead the ceremonial masks of a dozen zebra tribes hung like watchful curators. Walking through the mansion was like taking a tour inside the world's greatest museum, and endless summer games of Hide-And-Go seek returned to Ditzy.
John raised an eyebrow. "Eh, honey?"
Ditzy rubbed her eyes. "Yes, John?"
He pointed to a roaring cave bear on display next to a blue-faced creature with a wry smile and too many limbs. "How can you tell which are real and which are fake?"
"She always said the real ones were divided into two classes: self-donations, and ones who deserved it."
John walked under a stuffed crocodile that hung from the ceiling and bumped into a rearing manticore. It was an elderly male with a history written in scars, and its face snarled out over the entire hall. "Self-donations?" John asked with an unsure voice.
Ditzy stepped beside him, looking at the beast with tears of pride. "Mister Tawny said near the end that he'd always watch over her, even afterwards. That's why he's next to his favorite ball of yarn and scratching post." A wetter sniffle came. "I want my Auntie, John."
The voice boomed out across the trophy room. One had the impression that the voice would be capable of asking someone if they'd cleaned their room across the whole of Canterlot Castle. A frizzled mass of an orange hair bun could be seen poking out over the exhibit tops, rapidly approaching.
John saw his daughters held in the grip of an immutable force. Sparkler and Dinky were casting anticipatory smiles to each other, tapping their hooves on the ground rapidly. He had, over the years, watched each of the four fundamental forces of the universe be manipulated, usurped, controlled, and tied in knots. He had never seen anyone overpower the field of control an imminent visit from a grandmother projects.
"My little Bubbly Bubkes!" Two sandy-colored forelimbs swept the girls into a tight grasp. Topsy rubbed her grandchildren's heads against a blouse so pink it made shades of red embarrassed to be seen near it. The children gazed up at her in adoration, eagerly expecting the next line in the ages-old ritual.
Topsy lifted a hoof to adjust her glasses, eying the swaying tip of Dinky's head with caution. She gently pulled back, and compressed the grandmother field to the point that no other sound could have entered into the girls' ears.
Ditzy stepped to John and gave him a knowing smile. He sighed.
Here we are, thought John. First we get the ambassador, and now the oncoming...
"Storm," Topsy bellowed in a voice that could have worn a horned helmet in the Canterlot Opera. "Storm, bring out the presents for the kids!"
From a few feet away, four hooves slammed down hard on the wooden floor followed by a slightly larger impact. A light blue pegasus pulled a large crate with a tether. The muscles of a stallion half his age rippled beneath his sports jacket. Looking at his face, an observer wouldn't see a single sign of strain. They would also get the feeling that, despite the dark sunglasses, he was boring a hole into John with his stare.
"It's present time for everypony's favorite grandkids! So, who's tough enough to help me pop this baby open?"
A light violet glow surrounded the crated as it spun into the air. Smooth Storm's dark glasses may have hid his eyes, but the eyebrows and open mouth conveyed his feelings as Sparkler disassembled the box in mid-air. An array of smaller presents presently orbited a single large box.
Sparkler's horn flicked as she stacked the small boxes in front of her. She turned to Topsy. "This is quite a lot of cosmetics." She frowned. "Are you trying to tell me something, Grandmama?"
Topsy's brow knit a sweater of confusion. She carefully slipped a forelimb around Sparkler's shoulders. "Dearie, you're well at the age that the boys start noticing you. When I was your age, my favorite toy was make-up. You've a lovely coat and mane, but it's time to accessorize! After all, isn't there a special stallion somewhere in Ponyville?"
Sparkler's scratched her head, saying syllables that made a decent try at making words.
John eyed his father-in-law balefully and turned to his wife. An old-fashioned pony, he he lifted his hook to his mouth in the mistaken belief that it concealed his whispering. "Honestly, your father does very little except running around and shouting at people like he's in charge. Who does he think he is?"
Ditzy just smiled. "Yes, dear."
A respiratory system that could function in near vacuum was suddenly taxed as a blue hoof slammed into John's back.
"Johnny-Boy! How's the repair shop coming?" As the Time Charger coughed, Storm's smile expanded. "I expect the business is picking up. After all, you finished that little expansion you bragged about, right?"
John's mind flickered to the unsorted pile of lumber sitting outside his office. He mused that his father-in-law would do well in numerous royal courts throughout history. Years of playing announcer-boy to the rich and fatuous enabled him to cut a soul with a smile. He was certain Smooth Storm could single-hoofedly eliminate several grand viziers he had met over the years.
John stepped back out of Storm's reached. "You know how it is. Everybody wants to give advice. Nothing more useless than ponies talking without doing. By-the-by, how's the announcer job treating you? Remarked on anyone else's interesting accomplishments lately?"
Storm's shoulders shook as he laughed. "That's a good one, Johnny-Boy! Work out some charisma and you could be a broadcaster."
Ditzy coughed, staring at her father.
John shrugged. "Eh. Dunno how much the intellectual challenge of describing people going in straight lines would be fun."
Ditzy coughed twice, one baleful eye settling on each stallion. A few stuffed monsters away Sparkler raised her head, making at least half eye contact with mother, who smiled and shrugged. Sparkler nodded, returning to the task of unpacking Dinky's crate.
Years of watching backstage celebrity breakdowns and her own family holiday dinners had given Topsy Turvy a keen sense for impending social disaster. She landed between the feuding stallions just as John stepped towards his foe with a snort.
"Look at alla the kids playin' so nicely. Storm, Dinky's about to open her present." She walked over to her husband and rubbed a nuzzle down his neck. He straightened up silently. Topsy turned to John. "Besides, I'm sure we're both happy to see John any day."
"Of course," John said with a raised eyebrow. She had almost sounded like she meant it.
As Ditzy walked to John, she gave him a scowl. "Did I really just see you playing the jock versus nerd card?"
He leaned close and sighed. "I know it's unoriginal, but the two viewpoints just cannot- "
She covered his mouth with a hoof. "Dear, you know the name of every zero-gee football player for three centuries and have an autograph of Jim "Bucking" Speed hidden in your work cabinet."
John pawed the ground while examining it closely. He only lifted his head at Dinky's exaggerated squeals. With one hoof she slowly spun around a telescope taller than she was, anchored to central pole housed on an decorated elaborate base.
"Grandpapa!" Dinky was vibrating with joy. "It's a Celestia Sky Searcher Telescope with Zodiacal Carved Base with a compass and a thing that tells time! Grandpapa, how did you know?"
Storm coughed into his hoof, cantering over to his beaming grandchild. "Easy peasy, kiddo. After all, you talked about it all night on Hearth's Warming Eve. I'm sure good old dad's just been too busy to shop for it. I'm quite certain he noticed, after all."
Ditzy looked at John. He was shaking.
She trotted over to Storm, energetically whispering to him. He shook his head, pointed a hoof at John and the telescope. Storm threw a hoof around her neck, pulling her away from the eyes of John and the girls. It didn't work.
Ditzy sprung several hoof-lengths into the air, grabbing her father's ear with her teeth as she hovered. She dragged Storm to the arched roof of the gigantic room and harsh words came down to John's ear. He felt someone nuzzle his leg.
"Daddy?" Dinky looked up to him with eyes that pricked at his hearts. "Daddy, why is Mommy mad at Grandpapa?"
"Um. Ah." John sniffed. "Ah."
Topsy rolled her eyes. Making pleasant lies to children was, in her eyes, an inevitable responsibility of parenting. She had heard about the principle of honesty to kids, and wondered if their parents ever expected them to stop crying.
"My pointy little Bubbele, your Mom just wanted to save the telescope thing for your birthday." Topsy rubbed a hoof along Dinky's cheek. "Now she's just going to have to get you something else. Let Grammy go give her some suggestions." With a pat on Dinky's head, Topsy flung herself into the air. Soon three pegasi hovered just under the ceiling, maneuvering over and under each other as they pointed and argued.
Sparkler walked over to her father as the aerial conversation continued. She leaned her head against his neck. John sighed.
"Yup, I remember this." He turned to her with a smile. "At least I have you two to talk with. You should have seen me at families dinners while Dinky was a baby. It was just me and good old Mister Mashed Potatoes."
As they stared at the aerodynamic argument, Dinky approached.
"Dad," she said, "does Grandmama think I'm stupid?"
John sighed as he pulled her close. "No, dear. She just assumes you want to hear nice things rather than true things."
She considered this. "That's dumb."
He nodded with pride.
The gesture of a gentle cough into a fist (or hoof, claw, or plasmic manipulator) arises throughout the cosmos wherever you have sentients with a desire for politeness and the approximation of a respiratory system. Something vaguely recognizable as that sound mixed with the deepness of a gong falling down a well echoed throughout the museum floor. When the cough is delivered by a nine-hoof tall bulldog who could tear the Manehattan phone book in half, the effect is somewhat changed.
"A-hem," Molossus gently said. "Mistress Do has awoken. She requests the private presence of Mistress Ditzy and Master John, and will be down shortly after."
Ditzy turned to the pleading puppy dog eyes of her daughters and winced. She gently ruffled Dinky's hair.
"Little Muffins, Mommy will be right back."
"Daring Do's upstairs, Mom. I wanna go meet her."
"Soon," said Ditzy before kissing her forehead. She turned to Sparkler, who fretfully looked back at the ancient heat-scorched carvings.
Sparkler bit her lower lip. "Mother, I will wait. I do wish to be discussing her archeology projects."
Everyone turned at the sound of John's snort.
"The things, she does," he said with a roll of the eyes, "you call that archaeology?"
The assembly stared at him. He shuffled back and forth.
"What? I... um... had to read the books. I am a parent, you know. Always share your kids' interests."
His further protests went unheard as Ditzy's almost gently hoof dragged him up the stairs. Topsy stepped next to Molossus, whispering with imploring eyes as she let Storm distract the Doo-Smith children with aerial flips.
"Mister Molossus, do you think Ditzy can convince her to write the kids into the will?"
His gaze betrayed enough emotion to call a potted plant excited by comparison.
"Not something I'd know, madam."
Her eyes narrowed.
"Well, it's not like she's my great aunt! You know her better than I. I still don't know why she cut off Storm." With a deep breath, Topsy settled on a more comfortable topic. "Did you see the swagger on that stallion, Molly? I swear he's almost made her think he's really the magic doctor she grew up fantasizing about."
His face remained impassive as his gaze turned toward John's ascending back. "Really, Miss?"
Topsy nodded. "Taking advantage of a poor young widow with mental issues. Who does he think he is?
Molossus' poker face would have been legendary in Las Pegasus. "I have no idea, Miss."
Ditzy's hoof hovered over the knob. Thoughts about cats in boxes flew through her head.
"Love?" John stepped forward. "She's waiting for you. She may not have time."
Ditzy's breath caught in her throat.
"Not true, John," she said in a weak voice. "Until I open this door, she's only potentially sick. She's still the aunt I know until then."
A moment passed in silence.
"You know, the aunt you knew had excellent hearing," the voice inside proclaimed.
Ditzy and John stared at each momentarily before opening the door. John lingered in the hallway just a second longer.
Many civilizations entomb their warriors with treasures. Daring Do's room certainly would have satisfied any future archaeologist. The desk held decades of journals and photographs, records of some places thought lost and others rather recently lost through collapsing ceilings, volcanoes, or islands sinking beneath the waves. Sunlight streamed through an open window, casting light on a vase of red and white flowers. Over the bed hung a pair of well-kept and well used wing blades from the Pre-classical period.
Beneath shimmered the gold.
"Gold" was the only thought John Smith could hold in his head as she pushed herself up from the bed. Her movements were quick, eyes eager and unaffected by age. Some wrinkles were visible and feathers were missing, but John could see it wasn't age claiming her body.
And after all her years, her coat still glimmered like gold in the sun.
"Auntie." Ditzy momentarily choked. "Auntie, I'm bubble barrel crenelation fizzywog... "
Daring leaned forward and placed a hoof on DItzy's quivering lips. "Pitter patter fizzle-glob bip blob beep."
Ditzy's eyes widen as Daring smiled.
"Don't worry, Loveling," Daring said. "I can still speak Ditzy. Some of my favorite ponies do. Calm down for a second, ride it out, and give me the words you want."
A sobbing Ditzy collapsed into Daring's forelimbs as her great aunt's wings enfolded around her
Daring rocked her back and forth. "Yes, you did. Every month." Daring turned her glance to John. "So, I think you must be John Smith of Ponyville."
"Well," she said while John felt her stare pierce through him, "I look forward to learning more about the stallion who's responsible for my favorite grand-niece."
He nodded again. Ditzy and Daring spoke, and more tears were shed, but John's mind was elsewhere. If asked he could perfectly restate the conversation, but he'd be hearing it for the first time, as it were. Eventually Daring put her hooves on Ditzy's shoulders and steadied her.
"Ditzy, be a dear and ask your mother where the photo album for the last reunion is. I'd love to show my great-grand nieces their family. It just may be in the library"
John felt a hoof try to pull him away.
"Oh, no. Leave him here, my Muffin. I'd quite like to chat for a moment."
John felt a kiss on his cheek as he heard the door open. Centuries of instinct and discipline melted away as a sparse decade of relearning kicked in. John spun on his wife and through his forelimbs around her wordlessly. Daring watched them for a while with a content smile before Ditzy walked off.
The two ponies stood in silence as they heard hoofbeats retreat downstairs.
Daring's smile widened. "I think we're alone now."
"Yup," agreed John. "Doesn't seem to be anyone around." He swayed back and forth to an imaginary beat, then stopped at her look. "Cheerilee's rubbing off on me. By the way, is the photo album in question the one shoved between the dresser and the wall?"
She nodded. His hearts nearly stopped in anticipation of her next words.
"Well, I'm glad you actually came, Doctor. I bet you almost didn't."
John Smith nodded sheepishly, raising a hoof to his lips. He tiptoed to the door and gently pushed it shut. He locked it. He also aimed a tiny beeping thing from his trenchcoat at it. Satisfied, he spun toward the bed with a beaming smile and open forelimbs.
"Dorothea "Daring" Dinkestra Do! Come over here and hug an old stallion you brilliant thing!"
She sighed as she gingerly returning the embrace. Daring suddenly shuddered with a cough and saw the Doctor freeze. He gently pulled back, staring at her with the eyes of a foal looking at a coffin for the first time.
The aged mare drew a long sigh. "In all the years I knew you, you never did deal with death well, Doctor."
His brows knit. "I seem to remember dealing with it quite a lot."
Daring pulled herself off the bed and began rummaging through several drawers. "Yes, you did. Quick, sudden deaths. Galvanizing, anger-inspiring deaths. You prefer a fait accompli. You were never comfortable with it as an expected appointment." She paused. "You were older, I recall. Mostly."
He waved a hoof in the air. "I was half a millennium younger when we first began gallivanting through time. I just looked older. Fine, I was younger and "older" then."
Daring's search produced a small jewelry box. After a brief click, she passed him a oddly-shaped key that he solemnly pocketed. "Here, I won't need this very longer. Take it back to the bloody old thing, and lock her up tightly." A trembling hoof caressed his chin. "I fondly remember you when you were a little older than that and looked much younger. You were the righteously angry firebrand crusading across the universe."
He sighed. "My dear Daring, angry young stallions quickly become bitter, controlling old stallions." He shrugged. "With umbrellas. Happens with me rather regularly."
Her hoof withdrew as she turned away. "Yes, it didn't last long enough. So many opportunities missed. Is it unusual to be jealous of my grand-niece?"
John smiled. "More ponies would be, if they had any idea how special she was. Ditzy has a mind wired for performance levels far beyond the norm for ponykind."
Years of experience helped Daring recognize John's lecturing tone. She sat back onto the bed and straightened attentively, like an ancient and obedient schoolgirl. He picked up the mockery right away, but even before he was "John Smith," the Doctor never could resist delivering a talk. Her knowing smile just made him ah the more embarrassed.
"Go on, Doctor," she said in a tone that could still make hairs stand up on a stallion a third her age.
He gave in. "She's got at least half again as many neural connections as you do. A normal pony's brain is like an apartment building of ideas. The thoughts have to run down the hall and knock to communicate. Ditzy's cell live in a building made of windows on a never-ending conference call. Her unusually efficient brain comes with a few side effects, I admit, but its a small price to pay for being able to visualize fifth dimensional constructs. Or doing that thing... "
Daring cocked her head in confusion.
"Ah, you know," John said. "That thing, where she... " He blew a breath out in thought, then pinched his nose with both hooves and wiggled it in different directions.
After a few attempts, Daring giggled and laid back down onto the bed. "She's been doing that since she was a foal. Never needed to use her hooves, though." She smiled before coughing into a hoofkerchief long-stained past its original colors. "It's funny. They all failed to kill us. Mfalme, the Commandant, the Serpent King. Yet this gets me in the end. Doctor, you do realize that one day she will be in this bed. Is your marriage, your life together, really fair to her?"
His pupils contracted slightly. Daring sighed, waiting for his response. She remembered the signs that the Doctor was thinking at much more than pony cerebral speed. The last time she had allowed him to think like that for a minute he had a novel to dictate and was incorrigible for days before getting it down.
She let him think for three minutes. Then he sat down.
John Smith gave Daring Do a look that was still partly far away, and then locked eyes with her. She held her breath as long as her ancient lungs would allow, waiting for the answer.
"No," he replied. "It's not fair."
Daring Do blinked.
"It's not fair," he continued as he scratched the back of his mane, "but it's as much time as I can possibly spend with her. A mare like her doesn't deserve to get her heart's desire. She deserves to get it at least four times. Still, making her happy for the rest of her life is the best I can do to make the universe almost fair for a while."
Daring pulled the covers up to her neck and smiled. "I think my grand-niece is luckier than anyone in the universe."
"What?" She blinked.
John Smith cocked his head and looked away. "Um. Around here they say anypony, remember? I get corrected about it a lot."
The giggle of a much younger mare rose out of Daring Do. "I must have picked it up from you. My dear Doctor, I sometimes think traveling with you absolutely ruined me."
She looked to John to see his reaction. Instead of laughing, he was staring at the floor.
Ponies downplay thoughts. Sometimes they're happily married but daily consider the mare down the street. Perhaps they compose in their heads the letter they'd always wish to send to their boss. Ponies generally assume that thoughts can't hurt them.
They couldn't be more wrong.
Thoughts spread outward in waves, much like light particles or all-night take-out restaurants. As the particularly strong thought waves of two ponies (well, one pony and one almost-pony) spread out, something heard a familiar word. Grabbing ahold of a name, something in the basement that wasn't something a moment before woke up.
It started thinking. There was no one down there to hear those thoughts except mice, which promptly dropped dead of aneurysms from the intensity. If there had been something with a more evolutionarily complex cerebral cortex down there, it would have had a thought forced into every corner of its mind.
As two glowing red pinpricks appeared in the eye-holes of a striped wooden mask, it broadcasted one word with enough hate to psychically shred the minds of anyone within several hoofs.
It's truly hard to describe pure thoughts with language. It might be compared to trying to remember how a song smells. The only races in the galaxy who had developed a language suited for the emotional concepts the quickly-existing entity was thinking tended to murder themselves before achieving agriculture.
It thought, simply, "Doctor."
That was enough to let the hate break the world.
As he came downstairs, John saw Ditzy's parents holding her in a comfortable winged hug. Their eyes quickly flew up to meet his. Topsy were angry and accusing. John shrugged; water was also wet. Storm's eyes were concealed, but the face framing it seemed to be less angry and more curious. John filed that away for later as Ditzy broke their hold and ran to him.
Her feathers wrapped around his midsection as she laid her head across his neck. "She's so alive, John."
He snorted. "Is that good? I mean, if she were drooling into her pillows we'd all nod our heads and say, 'Yep, we knew it was coming.' That's not happening. There is a vibrant brain trapped in that body, waiting for... " He gestured uselessly with his hoof.
"A regeneration?" She pulled back, her eyes searching his for clues.
John looked at Ditzy with pride. So many would-be conquerors had underestimated the mind behind those crazy eyes, and he hoped hadn't picked up the habit. "Ditzy, it's not fair."
She nodded, kissing his nose. "We know. We don't blame you, John. You didn't get this old by taking away our years. It's just how they were passed out."
"Old! Why, I'm barely a thousand." He shuffled his feet, watching Daring slowly walk down the stairs with a walk that plainly told all viewers that descending stairs was no great difficulty, thank you very much for asking.
And then he noticed the twinkle.
It was there in Daring's eye, as if it had never left. It was Daring herself, in a way. He'd recognized her once by it when she was shunted into another mare's body. It was the gleam that shown before she snowballed the hat off of the yeti general. It sparkled right before she grabbed the Most Sacred Scepter of Scarman while they were pretending to be altar ponies. He had seen Daring's eyes light up right before a hundred moments where everything became frantic.
Ah, well. John breathed out without noticing that he had been holding his breath. What could she do at a dinner table? Well, aside from that time in the Griffon Revolution...
She stopped in front of the couple and smiled. Daring Do leaned in and whispered before walking off, her wings lifted up in pride. Topsy hadn't noticed, but Storm stared at his aunt quizzically. He wondered what Daring said to make Ditzy turn pale.
He hadn't heard her whisper to John, "You old liar, you've been 'barely a thousand' for at least three hundred years."
As Ditzy stayed frozen, Storm tried to offer a wing underneath Daring's in support. She rolled her eyes.
"Very well, my dear nephew." She visibly relaxed onto the wing with a resigned look, and only Storm felt her weight nearly collapse onto him. "If you insist. I'm perfectly fine, you know." Her eyes both dared and pleaded with him.
"Of course, Auntie," Smooth Storm said softly. "Thanks for humoring me."
Daring nuzzled his cheek before he escorted her to the table, Ditzy whispering forcefully to her husband behind him.
Have you ever had the feeling something was watching you?
You've probably felt an odd presence while you're alone. Most races evolved from prey animals developed a keen sense of aware paranoia. At times, we assume that it goes off for no reason. Most sentients are blissfully unaware of the incorrectness of that comforting statement. They're not reacting to things that aren't there. They're merely developed enough to sense things that are almost there.
If all the world's a stage, you'd better believe there's a backstage. Thing is, it has much nastier things than tangled electrical wiring and crying actresses.
Something was watching you. This is the viewing room.
Call it limbo. Call it the astral plane. Call it E-Space. It acts as the cartilage of the multiverse, keeping bordering universes from scraping against each other. Theoretical physicists thought that it held the secrets of creation. Philosophers assumed perfected mortal concepts floated inside it. Similarly, folks from the country makes remarks about New York City such as "This is is amazing!" and "Look at the buildings!" and "Who are those men at either side of this alley?"
Imagine the unhygienic man sitting in a subway corner, staring at you with dead eyes that regard humanity in the same way a butcher regards pig parts. There are things like that in the astral plane.
They're looking at you right now. Try not to think about it.
Things that shouldn't be sensed the existence of the Daring mansion, and heard the dimensional equivalent of a back door unlocking.
Daring Do carefully lowered herself onto the cushion at the head of the table. Dishes appeared as Molossus moved back and forth from the kitchen at a speed that belied his size. Turning to her left, she saw Dinky's expectant face. A look of pride flicker in the back of Daring Do's eyes.
"Well, I'm probably supposed to say something like 'Hello, little one,' but I always thought that was a bit daft and twee." Fully knowing the answer, Daring couldn't resist asking the question. "What's your name, girl?"
Dinky swallowed. She looked to her mother, and Ditzy turned her attention away from John for a second. She smiled warmly and nodded.
Ditzy coughed as Daring raised her eyebrows.
"Um, Dinky, Ma'am."
Ditzy coughed twice. Dinky saw her father gesturing with his hoof frantically to keep going.
Daring placed her elbow on the table, resting her head on it. She gave Dinky an expectant look. Topsy and Storm were silent, hopeful expressions on their faces.
Dinky breathed in and closed her eyes.
"My name's Dinkestra Dorothy Do." She opened up one eye.
Her great-great aunt was still. "Dinkestra's a silly name, isn't it?"
Ditzy tried to speak before John kicked her under the table. She glared at him, adding another tally to a column that was already overflowing. He placed a hoof in from of his lips. He had seen the gleam.
Dinky sighed. "Yeah."
Daring idly picked up her silverware with her primary feathers. "And Dorothy seems a bit commonplace. Seems like someone named like that would wrack their brain for a nickname."
Dinky nodded, staring at the floor. Sparkler glared at Daring Do.
Daring sighed. "Well, this won't do." She breathed in before calling out. "Molossus, are you in the kitchen?"
A gigantic head with equally gigantic and attentive ears stuck itself out of the kitchen. "Yes, Mistress Dorothea Dinkestra?"
Dinky's heart skipped.
"Could you please bring us some of the peppered sunflower dressing?"
Molossus nodded. "Yes, Mistress Daring."
Dorothea Do nodded. "Thank you." She smiled at Dinky. "I'm glad to see you here. You and your sister. I've heard so much about you."
Dinky turned to her parents and cocked her head. Ditzy nodded as John shrugged.
"You know," Dinky said thoughtfully, "in the books your parents named you Daring."
Daring nodded as she finished a mouthful. "Editorial control is wonderful."
Topsy beamed. "Isn't that nice? Why, she's- "
Smooth Storm tapped his wife on the shoulder with a wingtip. In pegasus marriages, half of all communication was pokes, prods, and caresses. "Don't.
Topsy blinked. "Honey," she whispered forcefully, "if we mention that... "
Storm looked over his shades at his wife. "Tops, I know show business. The script was good. Don't ruin the moment."
Topsy looked down at her plate, her wing-held fork stabbing with slightly more force than usual. "Fine, but we have to work with what we have. It's for their sakes, after all." She called out down the table, her booming voice interrupting Daring and Dinky's soft conversation.
"So, I saw little Sparkler staring at some of your rock carvings! I think we have an art fan!"
Daring sighed. She remembered the day Smooth had told his aunt he was marrying someone who spoke in exclamation points. "What were you looking at, Sparkler?"
Sparkler moved her food around her plate with a glowing fork that showed no intent of making the inevitable mouth journey anytime soon. "I was being interested in the burnt carving. I was wondering what could have done that to worked stone."
Daring reached across the table for the dressing. John and Ditzy exclaimed nervous glances.
"It's from Pombrey," Daring finally said. "The marks are grooves and channels cut out by lava. Rather like the city, I'd expect. I'm surprised anything actually made it out."
Sparkler breathed slowly, both hooves on the table. "I am, too."
Daring stared at her. A very quickly look passed between her and John. He nodded. Her eyes went wide as she leaned forward. He shrugged and nodded again.
Daring put down her utensils, placing her hooves together. She carefully considered her words. Topsy nearly interrupted again, momentarily terrified by the sound of silence at the dinner table.
"So," Daring said just in time. "Are you more interested in the first Pombreyan period or the second one?"
Sparkler blinked. "Second period?"
Daring smiled as she picked up her fork. "Yes, the second one. I understand the only survivors were a single cart of children who managed to somehow jump it over a lava stream and make their way to the docks. Well, the one sailor on the ship they made it to also survived, I suppose."
Silence flowed out of Sparkler, covering the table with it for several seconds.
"What happened to them?"
Daring looked to John and Ditzy incredulously. He shook his head, and Daring gasped. Ditzy smiled nervously. Topsy looked at the three of them in confusion.
Daring Do coughed into her hoof. "Your history teachers have been lax, my dear. I understood that they were taken in by a nearby city. They managed to hold onto part of their culture until years later, when they formed New Pombrey. Never heard of it, Sparkler?" She lifted a glass to her lips.
Sparkler raised glistening eyes. "I did not research the period very closely. They settled back in the old city, then?"
Daring nearly spat out her drink. "Certainly not! They settled in the middle of a large, flat plain. Great place, New Pombrey. Smaller in recent years, but full of history. City motto on the gates reads 'Idiota solitus."
Smooth reached out a hoof to his granddaughter's shoulder. Something important was going on, and he didn't like being sidelined during the big plays. She was quivering as Dinky hugged her tightly.
"Um, Auntie?" He asked with concern. "What does that mean?"
"It's part of an old saying," John said with a snicker. Ditzy elbowed him.
"So, Ditzy," Topsy loudly said as she tried to interrupt.
Sparkler's forehead was on the table. She shook with laughter as her tears fell. "Idiota solitus, regretia mon. Grandpapa, the full thing is 'Fool me once, shame- "
"So, Ditzy," Topsy's voice boomed down the table. "Did you tell John about the operation, yet?"
John slowly turned to his wife. "Dear?"
Ditzy shivered. She recognized that soft, unassuming tone. "There's not going to be any operation, Mother."
Smooth leaned in to his wife. "Tops, maybe this isn't- "
"Smooth, honey, please go fetch me some ketchup!" Her smile was fearsome.
He passed Sparkler a napkin and turned to Topsy. "I'm sure if you just asked Molossus- "
Topsy poked him in the back of his head with a feathertip.
"Yes dear," he agreed.
Everyone at the table was staring at Topsy. Even Sparkler raised her head after blowing her nose into a napkin.
"Mother," she always, "what else are you not telling me?"
"Hurricane fidget because was not was," Ditzy said gruffly as she threw down her cutlery. "Mother, there's not going to be an operation."
Daring studied Ditzy's face. "Dismerelda?"
Topsy smiled as she took control of the conversation. "There's a Doctor in Canterlot who's done some wonderful work with brains. I was thinking that we might be able to go get an estimate."
"My mom is fine," Dinky said quietly as she lowered her fork, her horn still glowing.
Ditzy breathed out slowly. "Mom, there's no money for a high-paid Canterlot surgery even if I had the slightest urge to do it."
"Stop," John said to Topsy. "Please."
Topsy stared at Daring and grinned the way a detective does at a just revealed murderer. "But if we could get the money, do you think we could maybe look into it, Ditzy? You've got three major issues, Bubbeleh."
"Two," Ditzy corrected automatically.
Daring had the best dagger collection in the world. She stared all of them at Topsy.
"I mean," Topsy continued, headless of her audience's wishes. "If he could just check your eyes, and your speech, and the thing with your brain."
Ditzy lifted herself up from her cushion. "The thing with my brain, Mom?"
Topsy breathed in. "You know, the..." She looked at Sparkler and Dinky. "The thoughts about the 'Doctor.' I just want a good life for you, and if we fix- "
A plate shattered against the wall inches away from Topsy's head. Dinky's horn still glowed as she screamed, "There is nothing wrong with my Mommy!" Crying, she ran off into the kitchen.
Seconds past. Topsy shook.
John stood up with a smile. "Oh, look! Storm needs some help in the kitchen! I'll just go have a bonding experience, won't I?" He stared into Topsy's eyes. "I'm sure this whole conversation will be over when I get back."
Ditzy breathed heavily, staring at her mother. Sparkler looked at Topsy and walked to the other side of the table, next to Ditzy. Daring Do contemplated her soup as Topsy started to cry.
None of them saw the darkness start to surround them.
As John rushed after his daughter, he was too concerned to look down the hallway he passed. If he had, it would have changed everything that followed. Stars were twinkling at the end of it.
Inside the kitchen, Storm nursed an opened bottle of cider as Dinky hugged him, crying. Molossus had wisely found some other place to be. Storm looked up at John and smiled, not kindly.
"Hey, Johnny Boy! Welcome to the kitchen! If you're here, I expect everything's solved out there, right?"
John grunted, kneeling down to pet Dinky's mane.
"So, John," Smooth Storm said with a cheerful bent, "what did Ditzy say to you about the doctor?"
The sentence uttered confused John Doo-Smith until he thought of the dinner conversation. He picked up Dinky into his forelegs and pulled her close. "We haven't discussed the," he said with a snort, "doctor, point of fact."
Smooth smiled, putting down his drink. He ruffled the hair of his sniffling granddaughter. "Y'know, I may not think she needs the operation, but I'd want her to make up her own mind. I mean, she'd talk to you if she thought it was a possibility, right?"
John held Dinky and said nothing.
Storm's wing snagged the bottle again, and he took a sip. "So, Johnny Boy. How's your business doing? Have you considered another occupation?"
The universe broke then. It was the only thing that could have prevented John's angry reply. He lifted his head, and as his gaze passed the door John saw the dining room fall away as darkness and sickly starlight filled the archway.
Storm followed his stare. There was a crash as his bottle hit the ground.
John gently lowered Dinky to the ground and walked toward the gaping void. "Hmm. Don't recognize those star patterns." He grabbed a fork and dropped it over the edge. It floated away slowly. He nodded in self-congratulation.
Dinky rubbed her eyes and looked at her father. "Daddy? What is it?"
John Doo-Smith spun on his hooves, staring into into his father-in-law's shades with a look of triumph. "This is it, Smooth Storm! This is my occupation. Now, watch me at work!"
"Doctor," it thought. "Finally."
Elsewhere in the mansion, nothing stirred. In one well-decorated hallway, nothing stirred angrily and visibly. As it pulled itself into reality, it assembled a form appropriate for its job. Two parts of the nothing pulled itself downwards into bipedal legs. A pair of long, lanky arms made of nonexistence stretched out from a spindly torso. The was nothing at the top of its shoulders, and it eagerly scanned the hallway for what was there.
It reached forward a hand. It was was long, and it was nothing. It touched an ancient vase. The vase became nothing. At that moment in time, it had always been nothing.
Molossus entered the opposite end of the hallway. He hesitated as he beheld the thing that wasn't in front of him. For a second, he got the impression that the hallway was a painting, and a somewhat diamond dog shaped tear was staring back at him.
"Oh, dear me." He quickly grabbed a spear off the wall and pointed it in the direction of the intruder. "Stay where you are! Who are you, I say?"
Molossus heard the voice inside his head as three more of the things pulled out of the walls like rats tearing through wallpaper.
NOW... YOU... WON'T.
Molossus back up, spear tip at the ready. "Won't what?"
The first not-thing began to stride down the corridor
The claws reached out for him.
Looking like rips in the film strip of reality, the Nothing Men went to work.
Author's note: Check out the fan-art for this chapter at