Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. Dr. Doom, the Fantastic Four, and associated characters are owned by Marvel Comics. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged.
A sequel to Is It Doom Yet? and Daria R
"Gahhh...pprbbstt," Princess Jane Valeria Von Doom burbled as she patted her tiny hands against her mother's face.
Queen Daria kissed the two month-old infant's forehead and said, "Be patient; I only have a little more to do."
Cradling the infant in her arms, she said, "Delete...delete." to the computer at her work desk. The voice-recognition software's attempt to replicate baby talk was removed from the display. Daria carefully spoke, "Therefore, Latveria will provide the requested relief supplies and all necessary transportation. Sincerely, Daria Regina. Save file. Print file. Close program."
"Gaaahhh!" The princess squirmed and mouthed her fingers.
"Okay, okay. I'm done." Daria quickly moved one hand up and touched a hidden button on the side of her glasses to activate a small transmitter in the collar of her blouse. "Janos, my boss is insisting that we're late for lunch. Will you please make sure that the letter I just printed is properly sealed and dispatched by diplomatic courier?"
Over the tiny speakers hidden in the bow of her glasses where they curved over her ear, she heard the ever-patient butler say, "At once, Majesty. And, I'll hold all calls and visitors until after Her Highness has dined."
Franklin Richards held the serving tray on one hand and entered his wife's office. The technological masterpiece was located in the depths of Castle Doom, at the heart of Latveria. His wife of two years had her back to the door as she fed their daughter. Franklin said, "I brought lunch, for when you're finished serving the Mistress."
"Good timing," Daria said. She gently shifted the baby over to allow a free hand to close her blouse. "I know you've seen them before, but having just one hanging out still feels odd."
Franklin set the tray down on the desk and removed the cover. "Your turn." He then picked up a small towel and placed it over his shoulder. "And my turn."
"At least you're good for something around here," Daria said with a slender smile. She held the princess up and let Franklin take her, to lean the baby against his shoulder and start softly patting her back.
Daria began eating and said, "The Serbian Prime Minister called her my 'secret diplomatic weapon' this morning."
"The press would've killed to get images of the Symkarian and Transylvanian negotiators sitting on the floor, playing with her. Two hardened old diplomats turned into doting grandfathers."
"Think she's trying to tell us something?"
After a loud and unladylike burp from Jane Valeria, Franklin stooped down and kissed Daria. "That she's something special, like her mother?"
"Just calling them like I see them."
"Well, you'll have to cancel your date with our daughter for this afternoon. The negotiators insist on having her present whenever possible."
Franklin turned his head to face his child. "Already a charmer. Am I going to have to keep an eye on you when you get older?"
"Even though it looks like her presence will help stop a war, I'm bothered by using her. I probably shouldn't have taken her into the session this morning."
Franklin said, "You wanted to get extra time with your daughter after how much these negotiations have kept you away. Besides, you're a great arbitrator; you probably would've gotten them to talk anyway."
"I wish there had been a way to raise her away from all this. I know he did it out of self-interest of keeping his heirs secure, but I'm glad my father allowed me and Quinn to grow up in something like a normal family." She chuckled, "Though it's odd to think of my family as 'something like normal', but compared to what you had to deal with, it was."
"Growing up in the public spotlight had its drawbacks, but it also had its advantages."
With his plans to spend the afternoon with Jane Valeria cancelled, Franklin descended deep under the castle to the laboratory, a complex of high technology and magic. Around the main room, smaller work and store rooms radiated away, some closed with heavy reinforced metal doors, others with mystical seals.
He started up several computers and began working on his longstanding project, a time/space early warning sensor. The painful memories of several different timelines caused by Kang the Conqueror stirred his efforts. While the particular incarnation that had caused those problems was imprisoned in Limbo, Franklin knew that other incarnations were possible, since Kang's captor was an alternate, future version of Kang, who called himself Immortus.
He put on a virtual reality visor and slid on matching gloves. In a HUD-type display, he could see the nanochip inside the vacuum chamber on his workbench. The image was transparent, allowing him to still see around the lab and to view other computer monitors. Tapping fingers to thumb on each hand simultaneously, the VR gloves connected to the micromanipulators above the chip. Delicately using his fingers to control the various tools, Franklin went back to work on the fine circuit layout.
Lost in concentration, Franklin took several seconds to register the flashing red light on one display and harsh warning tone. He set the microtools aside and tapped fingers against thumbs again to disengage the VR gloves. Franklin looked at the alerting display and said, "What the hell is that?"
Quickly, he took off the visor and gloves and began examining the sensor signal shown. The source of the signal gave Franklin grave doubts and the speed of relative approach even more.
While her daughter peacefully slept in an ornate, wooden crib, Daria listened patiently while the Serbian arbitrator explained yet another alternative border crossing idea. Over the glasses comm system, she heard Franklin saying, "Something is interdimensionally approaching from Hell. It appears to be heading directly for the laboratory and has an ETA of ten minutes. I'm going to suit up and bring in some servo-guards."
She held up her hand to interrupt the discussion. "We may have an intruder attempting to break in. Please stay here. If any trouble develops, Janos will show you emergency transporters that will return you to your home capitals."
Daria picked up Jane Valeria and hurried out. Just outside the door, she updated Janos on the situation.
As Daria proceeded down the corridor, Janos said, "Please be careful, Your Majesty."
"I plan on it."
Daria stopped in a small, heavily fortified room near the command center of Castle Doom. She kissed Jane Valeria and placed her in a softly padded crib. "I'll be back as soon as I can," Daria said and pressed a button on the side, causing a force field to glow around the crib. Taking a couple minutes, Daria put on a set of shining metal armor and a green surcoat. Stepping out of the room, she locked the door, activated a second force field and quietly placed a magic seal on it.
Really not yet satisfied, but knowing she couldn't spend more time, Daria rushed to the lab. Franklin looked up from his workstation and pointed to one of the sealed work/storerooms. "What or whoever it is will be arriving in that room in less than a minute."
Daria gripped the edge of the table. "That's the room my father used when he gated to Hell and charged me to be Queen. It's been sealed ever since."
"Didn't you say that he couldn't return because you broke the Anatolian Key?"
"That's right. It may not be him, but somebody following his path and they probably won't be happy."
Franklin looked over the various parts of his new sensor system. "Daria...what if he obtained the Key from an alternate timeline?"
Daria let the statement sink in. "He probably could return."
"I was afraid you'd say that."
The display in front of Franklin flashed once and then went quiet. Franklin announced, "It's here."
Daria swallowed and turned on the surveillance monitor for the room. She saw that Dr. Doom's armor was battered and scorched, his surcoat was ripped, and his cape almost completely torn away. He turned to the monitor and said, "You have learned your lessons well, daughter. Alert, prepared, and commanding."
Daria opened the comm channel to the old magical workroom. "You were an excellent teacher. Welcome back to Latveria. However, I must warn you that there have been some changes in the years you were gone."
"'Some changes' was an understatement," Dr. Doom said while eying Franklin.
"Father," Daria said, "Franklin is now your son-in-law and father of your granddaughter."
Dr. Doom turned. "Granddaughter?"
"Yes. Her name is Jane Valeria Von Doom."
"Named for your good friend, and Mr. Richards' sister," Dr. Doom answered, with a faint, drifting sadness to the last part of the sentence.
"Correct, and I have not forgotten that Valeria was the name of someone important to you. Franklin's sister, parents and the other members of the Fantastic Four are now some of Latveria's strongest allies."
Daria suggested, "Why don't I take you to one of the guest quarters? I'll order fresh clothes prepared for you and a meal delivered."
"Your hospitality is welcome. We can discuss things then."
"I am in the middle of some careful diplomacy, so I will not be able to see you until after 5 PM. I'm sorry for the delay, but you understand the needs of state."
"Fully. I would be disappointed if you had behaved otherwise."
"It's the same as if you had a bomb waiting to go off inside the castle," Franklin said to Daria as they walked away from the guest suite.
"I know you have no reason to trust him and I don't blame you. I don't entirely trust the situation, either. First, we need to confirm that it is really him. If it's not my father, I'm sure this is a ploy from someone or something down there to strike back at him through me. If it is my father, it looks like he failed at taking control of Hell. However, I'm hoping that thirteen years there will have made an impression. However, I'm not discounting the possibility that he will want to become ruler of Latveria again. As tempting as that may be to give us time with our daughter, for her sake, I can't allow that to happen."
"You've mentioned that you were often nervous or frightened around him."
"He was someone who carried a Mauser pistol to shoot those that were not worthy of being killed by the blasters in his armor."
"A lot of people are going to be nervous and scared that he's back."
"I know. The public announcement is going to be a challenge."
Franklin looked at various scans, results of DNA analysis of samples taken from his armor, and some sorcerous checks of Dr. Doom. All indicated that he was who he claimed he was, Daria's biological father, returning thirteen years after making a supposedly one-way trip to Hell.
Next, he asked Janos to come to the laboratory. When the older butler arrived, Franklin asked, "What's your feeling about him? Is that Dr. Doom?"
Janos nodded. "I believe it is my old master. Though, there seems to be something different about him."
"He's probably experienced things that would give us nightmares for life. I know I saw things that still haunt me during my brief imprisonment in Hell when I was a child."
Janos looked down at his feet. "There are times I am ashamed of the things I supported by serving him."
"Any shame you may feel for those days should be washed away since. We wouldn't know what to do without your help in running the castle."
"Your Highness, be careful. My old master does not tolerate being a follower. He will try to rule Latveria again."
Seated, wearing black slacks and a green sweater along with his armored mask, Dr. Doom said, "One of my spare suits of armor would have been adequate. There was no need to specially prepare these clothes."
Entering the room carrying the princess, Daria said, "There is no need to wear armor on a daily basis any more. Many of your more unscrupulous enemies have been apprehended or died over the years, while the others will respect my sovereignty and not move against you." She crossed the room and squatted down. "Meet your granddaughter, Princess Jane Valeria Von Doom."
"A handsome and healthy child. You must feel more confident, if you are allowing your heir to be publicly known."
Daria patted her stomach with her free hand as she stood. "Unlike for you, the process of producing an heir was a little difficult for me to hide."
"You have maintained your sense of humor. An admirable accomplishment after so many years as Queen."
"It helps me deal." Daria sat down on an adjacent chair. "Now, I must ask you some questions. First, how did you return? I personally destroyed the Anatolian Key."
"Then, I am curious. Mephisto was in possession of it. Perhaps you were not as successful as you thought. Reed Richards and his team had already gotten past you the night I left. Since you seem on good terms with them..."
Daria showed a scar on her right hand. "As I said, I personally destroyed it. The Fantastic Four and I came to better terms after that was done."
"Obviously better terms, if you name your daughter after theirs."
"Valeria, in her way, played an important role in Franklin and me getting together. Rescuing your Valeria was one of your goals; did you succeed?"
"I did. The rescue caused her captor, Haazarath, to lose much favor."
And allowed you to restore some lost honor for her betrayal. Daria then said, "I'm relieved that you succeeded in that goal. Now, back to the subject. Mephisto had the Anatolian Key. Is it possible this was a temporal duplicate? We had a serious dispute with Kang the Conqueror. I could see him trying to bring you into the equation for his plan."
"That is a possibility. Although Kang would normally have preferred me to remain imprisoned, he was never hesitant to use what was necessary to accomplish his goals. Since you are here, I must assume that you successfully dealt with him."
"With Franklin's help. If you used the Key to escape from Hell, I must assume that your plan to rule was unsuccessful."
"Only because of the disloyalty of others. Speaking of which, you should be wary of that young man. Franklin's powers are considerable and dangerous."
"Unlike the rest of his family, Franklin has no superhuman powers. Those that he had, he lost as a child."
"In the past, his powers have returned. They may yet again. And, his sister can be almost as dangerous."
"Father, these were decisions I have no regrets in making. Even though you had serious disputes with the Richardes, they are now friends and allies of Latveria."
Little Jane let out a small exclamation and started to cry. Daria rocked her slowly and softly shushed her, to no avail. Daria stood and said, "Excuse me, I'll be right back."
Several minutes later, Daria returned, saying, "Infants don't have the best sense of timing."
"Tending to your daughter must be a distraction from your duties as queen."
Daria sat back down. "Sometimes, but I have it a lot better than many working mothers."
"There are times that a ruler must pay complete attention to the task at hand. With a child providing distractions..."
Daria firmly said, "No. I will not step aside. You abdicated the throne to pursue other goals, charging me to succeed you. Your return does not change that abdication."
"I am your father."
"But, no longer my king."
Dr. Doom rose quickly and two servo-guards appeared from hidden alcoves, readied weapons aimed at him.
Daria stood up, saying, "You gave me a sense of duty and loyalty to Latveria and its people. I will honor your return and name you Archduke of Doomstaadt, providing for all the rights and privileges of that title. However, I will not tolerate you taking any actions to reclaim the throne. You walked away from Latveria and gave up any claims you may have had."
Unarmed and unarmored, Dr. Doom didn't move. "As you wish."
Gazing out of a window in her private quarters, Daria watched one of the hawks that populated the nearby forest, silently gliding above the lawn between it and the castle. "Good morning. I don't suppose that you've ever had a parent move back into the nest, have you?"
Franklin got dressed with skilled quiet, careful not to disturb his wife's daily practice. Almost meditative, the minutes she spent observing the forest and its inhabitants gave Daria a fresh calm to face the day.
Speaking loud enough for Franklin to hear, Daria said, "This is almost as difficult as my decision to stay." She turned around to face Franklin. "And, the final test of why I chose what I did. To keep the good my father had actually done for Latveria, but move it away from the taint of the evil he committed in the process."
"You've decided not to put restrictions on him."
"I have to follow my own laws. Until he commits a crime, I cannot hold him prisoner or put restrictions on him that don't apply to any other citizens of Latveria. Even though he'll try to reclaim the throne, just like Zorba Fortunov. I could hear it in his voice when I refused to step down to take care of Jane."
"But, he's a lot more dangerous than Zorba."
"I'm the living person he cares the most about, but I also know that won't stop my father from doing what he feels he must do. He probably has ways to enter the castle that we don't know about. Despite how much of the castle's equipment has been replaced over the years, who knows how many sleeper devices he might have hidden, too."
"Definitely. He has a proven record of moving against anyone ruling Latveria in his place."
Wearing her crown and other regalia, Daria entered and calmly walked to her throne. Sitting, she addressed the gathered press corps. "Good morning. Thirteen years ago, my father, King Victor, known to much of the world as Dr. Victor Von Doom, abdicated the throne and passed it on to me. Yesterday, he returned."
Gasps and a general hum rose from the gathered media people.
"Details of his mission remain highly classified. He will now reside in Latveria as the Archduke of Doomstaadt and as an honored elder statesman. I ask the citizens of Latveria to welcome him home and remind him of your hospitality."
One of the reporters asked, "Why his sudden reappearance?"
"His mission was over."
The gathered journalists began to push forward while asking more questions. "What are Dr. Doom's plans?"
"I'm sure he's still thinking about them."
"What are his feelings toward Crown Prince Franklin?"
"He was very surprised."
"Are you going to continue as ruler of Latveria?"
"Do you think Dr. Doom will try to reclaim the throne?"
"He has offered to resume his position as king, but I respectfully declined the offer."
"Do you think he may move against you?"
Daria looked solidly at the press. "My father is...uncomfortable with not being the ruler of Latveria. It is my hope that he will settle into his new role as respected statesman and use his intelligence, skills and experience for the betterment of all."
Daria rose and said, "Now, if you'll pardon me. We hope to conclude the Symkarian-Transylvanian negotiations today, and a certain young lady would like to have my attention before they begin."
Ignoring the shouted questions, Daria exited the room.
Facing her father in the castle courtyard, Daria said, "I've ordered the Summer Retreat prepared as your new residence."
"Putting me out to pasture," Dr. Doom dryly said.
"It is the largest of the royal estates outside of Castle Doom." Daria sighed and said, "I was serious when I said that I hope to be able to call on your skills and advice. You've had a lifetime of struggle and you made Latveria into a strong country for her people. I've been able to build on your success. Please, you've earned a chance to rest and enjoy the prosperity you made possible for your people."
"You know that is something that I cannot do. Daughter, you have done very well, but I fear you have grown lax. I should be in a cell in the dungeon, not on my way to the Summer Residence."
"If you're in the dungeon, you can't meet the people of Latveria. Talk to them. You may change your mind."
"I will talk to them."
"Father...don't think that I've grown lax. I'm giving you a chance for a new future and hope you take advantage of it. You are free to speak, even that you believe that you'd make a better monarch. But, if you take any action against me or Latveria, I won't hesitate to respond."
"Nor should you."
Daria closed the residence door and sank into Franklin's arms. "Done. The border deal is signed, sealed and delivered."
Franklin kissed her forehead and said, "Congratulations, Madame Peacemaker."
"Thanks, but I got the distinct feeling that they were glad to have an agreement. My father's return has all of our neighbors worried."
"Honestly, I don't blame them." Franklin started leading her to a plush sofa. "How about a break from worry? Your family's on the phone and excited about your dad's TV debut."
Lowering her voice, Daria said, "This could've been better timed, considering my father's prior bad experience with her."
Franklin lightly snickered. "Ben and Johnny still like that story."
"I'm sure they do." Daria instinctively glanced at her daughter sleeping in the crib next to the sofa before sitting down.
Facing the sofa were several monitors; on one was an image of Daria's parents and sister gathered in her parents' living room. Concern edging her voice, Helen said, "Daria, how are you?"
Putting her hand on the edge of the crib, Daria said, "Tired. But, I guess you know that feeling."
"Oh, I do."
"Even with everything, that 'new mother' glow still looks good on you, Sis," Quinn said.
"Heya, Kiddo!" Jake said, happy and smiling.
"Thanks, Quinn. Hi, Dad."
A chime sounded and a second monitor glowed, showing "Incoming caller: Lady Jane."
Daria touched a control on the sofa arm and said, "Hi, Jane."
Her old friend from high school appeared on the monitor and said, "Daria, I heard about King Victor. How are you holding up?"
"I was just telling Mom that I'm tired. I'll link you in for a conference call." After tapping in a brief set of commands, Daria said, "There. Look everybody, I know all of you are worried about my father reappearing. That's something for later. Tonight, we have something more appealing to watch."
Jane said, "All right then. Next question, where's my namesake?"
"Asleep beside me. Speaking of offspring, where's Joshua?"
"Little league baseball; Devon's with him. Don't worry, I'm recording so that they can see it."
Jake said, "I'll send you one of my advanced copies!"
Jane laughed. "Thanks, Jake."
"Here it is!" Quinn called out.
The central monitor showed a toned woman wearing a close-fitting jumpsuit, and a conspicuous, furry tail curled up over one shoulder. "Hi there! Squirrel Lady here." She held up one hand, where a grey squirrel was perched on her wrist. "These are my friends. But in our increasingly busy and crowded world, my friends and many good people come into conflict."
The camera view widened to include Jake standing beside her, holding a live capture trap and waving.
Squirrel Lady continued, "But, these conflicts don't have to end badly for anyone involved. Meet my friend, Jake Morgendorffer, who, for years, has organized trap and release for his neighborhood to relocate squirrels that have gotten into things that they shouldn't."
"Hey, they're cute little guys only trying to make a living. No sense in hurting them."
"Thanks, Jake." She faced the camera again. "You can contact your local wildlife agency about trap and release. And remember, it's not just for squirrels."
Laughing, Jake said, "How's that for my big debut?"
Relaxing in Franklin's embrace, Daria laughed with the man she called Dad. I'm connected to Victor Von Doom by half my DNA, but I'm separated from him by what you gave me. "Something we can be proud of."
From his speaking stand, Dr. Doom pointed to a middle-aged man in the small, disinterested audience and said in Latverian, "You're old enough to remember when the Romany people were downtrodden and despised."
"I remember," the man replied.
"Didn't I raise all our people out of that and give them a nation to be their home?"
"Yes, Your Grace. You did, and we're grateful for it."
"Didn't I make Latveria safe and secure?"
"Yes, Your Grace."
"Then, you want me back as your king?"
"No sir. You gave us a place to be our home. Queen Daria made it such."
"Do you have more loyalty to her than to me?"
"Because her loyalty is to us. Your loyalty was to yourself."
Dr. Doom's hand reflexively went to his belt, where he used to carry a pistol.
The man shook his head and walked away, along with most of the remaining crowd.
A deceptively soft-featured woman with short, blond hair, the Security Minister set her report down and said, "The Archduke has little public support. Actually, though it's still within the sampling error, your popularity has gone up since he started trying to garner support to replace you."
Daria's shoulders twitched with a short, quiet laugh.
"Was something I said something funny?" the minister asked.
"No, only my memory. Part of me will always be amused at being popular...and at keeping track of my popularity."
'"Ah." The minister opened another report. "We believe that there is an increasing risk of his use of other means to gain control."
Crossing her arms, Daria stood beside the taller woman and looked down at the same report. "I agree. The question is: what will he use?"
"Perhaps he is trying to develop a new weapon?"
Daria slightly shook her head. "No. He's now more than a decade behind us, technologically. He will rely on magic. It's what my father's always been a little better at, it's what he's been using, and perfecting, since he left."
"He's been able to control people at a distance. What if he does that to plant an agent within the castle?"
"That can be detected and the sensors will soon arrive from Dr. Reed Richards. But, we can't discount his ability to be convincing. We might have people working against us because they think it's right, and not because he's directly controlling them."
Looking concerned, the Security Minister said, "I agree. Your Majesty, there's not much that I know to do about magic. That gives the Archduke an advantage."
"I've had some good teachers, so I can assist you."
Inside the executive office of Quinn Sense Image Consultants, Quinn opened a large envelope while saying, "Let's see what kind of challenge today's customer brings."
Instead of the expected photos and biographical sketch, Quinn found her birth records, including donor information from the in vitro clinic where she and Daria were conceived. Also included was information on Daria. At the bottom of the envelope was a short note.
As you can see from the clinic records, you don't have a half-sister, you have a sister. Queen Daria knows about this and has kept the information from you for her own purposes.
The receptionist called, saying, "Ms. Morgendorffer. Your nine o'clock is here."
"Send them in, Rachel."
A tall man in a black suit entered and sat down in the seat on the other side of Quinn's desk. She looked up and felt fear upon noticing the slight traces of facial prosthetics that only a professional would see. Before he could speak, Quinn launched into her speech. "First, we're getting rid of that mask. I mean, eww! What are you supposed to be, the Phantom of the Oprah? And that suit isn't even designer. You came here just in time for my help."
"I believe I can help you," the man said. He gestured to the envelope still on Quinn's desk. "You've read my message."
"Look, um, Mr. Doom. Anyone could've faked that stuff."
"True, Your Highness. I fully expect you to investigate these claims. In fact, I encourage it. Including genetic testing. Rest assured, I am father to both you and your sister."
"Why are you telling me now?"
"I have nothing to gain from withholding it from you. I kept knowledge of you and your sister's existence hidden to successfully protect both of you from my enemies. But now, since you are already so closely associated with your sister, you're a target of her enemies anyway. Her keeping your status secret gives you no protection. It does, however, keep all the wealth and power of Latveria firmly in her hands."
Dr. Doom rose and said, "If you decide you need me...I'll know. I can see my way out. Thank you, Your Highness."
Leaving Quinn in rare speechlessness, he politely nodded and left the room.
"My apologies, Majesty. We've lost contact with Archduke Victor," the Security Minister apologetically told Daria.
With a linen cloth modestly covering her suckling child, Daria rotated her chair to face the minister. She sighed in resigned frustration and said, "So, my father's decided on a plan. Upgrade the security around my family and Lady Jane's to High Alert until further notice."
A buzz from Daria's glasses forced her to hold up her hand. "One moment." Activating the private communication, she said, "Yes, Janos."
"Majesty, the Countess is calling and she sounds most upset."
"I'll take it, thank you." Daria deactivated the private comm and said, "Now we know where he went first."
The Security Minister quickly checked a small, handheld computer. "We only have reports of normal business at her office."
"My father is not moving openly. He was there, I'm positive." Daria opened the videophone link and saw the tear-streaked face of her sister. "Quinn? What happened?"
"I thought you trusted me."
"Then why didn't you tell me? About our father."
Daria felt a cold chill in her heart. "He told you."
"Yes. Why didn't you?"
"I wanted you to have your own life, without having to worry about things that I have to worry about."
"Daria, I can see you not wanting the world to know...I couldn't do what I love to do if everyone knew."
"I'm glad you understand."
"But why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you trust me?"
"Because there's so much that weighs on me that I didn't want you to have to worry about."
"So you faced it all alone before you got together with Franklin. I could've been there for you."
"I know. You would've faced anything I asked."
"And that's why I didn't tell you. Quinn, just learning who I was changed my life so much, and not all for the good. I lost the life that I had been planning. I didn't want you to lose your life, especially lose it to stay in my shadow."
Still upset, Quinn said, "Daria, I know you wanted to protect me, but I've been an adult for a long time now. You should've told me."
"I'm your sister, not your half-sister! How could you not trust me?" Crying, Quinn cut the connection.
Daria slowly sank into her chair, holding Princess Jane for comfort. "Victor...you bastard."
Legs tucked underneath and wearing a green sweatsuit after one of her regular self-defense practices, Daria leaned against a chair arm as she spoke to Jane on the videophone. "Wanting to protect her innocence. I sounded like some kind of 19th century matron protecting the virginity of a girl."
"Your heart was in the right place."
"Jane, if our roles had been reversed, I'd have been livid. Quinn had every right to be mad. I was patronizing and arrogant not to tell her. And now, she won't answer or return my calls."
"Ouch. Remind you of someone else you know? Look, we got past that old 'Tom Thing'; you and Quinn will get over this."
"Thanks for putting that in perspective."
"Although, I feel her rescue may be from something a lot more dangerous."
"I hope not. What about your folks?"
"I've talked to Mom and Dad. After the initial shock, they're recovering. Dad's even going to talk to Quinn for me. But, Mom's worried about how Victor was able to manipulate things, and why she was chosen."
Jane shook her head. "I'd be creeped out and worried, too. Damn. Victor knew where to hit you."
"He is a genius." Daria picked at the chair arm. "I could've locked him up when he refused to give his word not to move against me and nobody in the world would've never known."
"You know you couldn't, that's why you're different from him."
"I was hoping that his experience in Hell would've...made him into somebody that would change their life so that they wouldn't go back."
"Makes sense to me."
"But, it makes bad political sense. Now, I've exposed everything I've worked for to destruction. Victor has never failed at gaining control of Latveria. If he succeeds this time, it'll be hard on the people. They clearly told Victor that they didn't want him back as king. I know Victor well enough that he feels betrayed and will punish them for their betrayal."
"Daria, you and Franklin are some smart cookies. Throw in your hubby's dad, and that's a lot of brainpower."
"True, but I hope that doesn't cause me to make Victor's most common mistake: underestimating my opponent."
Mindful of Daria's warning, Jake carefully looked around and followed a servo-guard to take an extra bag of trash down to the cans set along the street. Getting close to the cans in the dim light, he saw something odd on the driveway. Leaving the robot standing guard, he slowly set the bag down and backed away, returning to the house.
Minutes later, Daria looked at the visual feed from the servo-guard and felt nausea and disgust at what was shown on her monitor. Eight squirrels were carefully lined up and spread out. Each had a single, small caliber bullet hole between the eyes.
"No, Victor. After your first jolt, you're not going to knock me off balance. I'm not the teenage girl you remember." She faced the chair where Franklin held their daughter. "However, I'm not going to let my friends and family be at risk again."
A relatively short man, about 5'6", with wavy blond hair stepped off the elevator of a parking garage and started looking for his car. A second man, tall and dark haired, stepped from the stairwell and walked to intercept.
Wary of the stranger's approach, Devon Phillips asked, "Can I help you?"
The stranger said, "Do you enjoy your trips to Latveria? Do you enjoy playing tagalong while your wife hobnobs with the Queen?"
"Oh, a reporter. I guess all that stuff about Daria's father has people looking at how she and my wife get along. To answer your question, no, I don't mind playing 'tagalong' while Jane visits with Daria. Franklin and I get along well and there's not a problem."
Dr. Doom's eyes narrowed and he looked directly into Devon's eyes as he spoke. "So, my daughter, you can move quickly when you need to." He pulled a Mauser automatic pistol from within his coat and shot once.
Devon staggered back against a wall and slid down. Thin trails of smoke and a couple sparks came from the bullet hole in the decoy robot's head.
"I'm glad your parents agreed to take on some house guests," Daria told Franklin as she watched the decoy robot's video playback.
"There's plenty of room in the Baxter Building. To be honest, I'm sure Mom is glad to have a little female company there."
"The testosterone does get a little thick around Ben and Johnny."
"I wonder if Ben was the best choice to pick up Quinn."
"I wouldn't want anyone else flying the pogo plane under these conditions."
Her arms sternly folded over her chest and pointedly looking out the side cockpit window, Quinn complained, "You could've given me more time to pack!"
"You're just as hard-headed as your sister," Ben Grimm grumbled as he piloted the plane.
"What, did you know about that, too?" she snapped.
Ben sighed. "No. Ms. Morgendorffer, I only found out when Reed asked me to fly out to get you after she called him."
"Well, she should've told me!"
Ben nodded. "Yeah, she should've. Secrets can really hurt the people you care about."
Quinn looked at him with sudden sympathy and understanding. "Yeah. I bet people think you can't be hurt."
Ben flexed one of his rocky-skinned hands. "This throws them off."
"I'm sorry I hit you."
"Apology accepted. I'm sorry I startled you."
"I think you scared my receptionist more. Um, I'm kinda glad you did come to get me though. Meeting that Dr. Doom weirded me out."
"Must've been hard finding out he was your father."
"I don't want him to be my father!" Quinn screamed. "Daddy's my father."
"Jake's a good guy..."
Starting to cry, Quinn said, "But she still should've told me. I thought she was over me calling her 'cousin' in school."
Ben reached over and gently patted Quinn's shoulder. "She's a queen and spends a lot of time worrying about and protecting people, like some kind of supermom. I bet...she sometimes forgets and does that to family. Doesn't make it right, but might be an explanation."
Quinn leaned against his hand. "Yeah, I bet you're right. But, that still doesn't mean I won't get even."
"Never said you couldn't."
"Majesty," the Security Minister said, "We have a report of the Archduke, in armor, attacking the Royal Latverian Academy library."
Leaning on a table and wearing a smoother, polished version of her father's armor, Daria said, "Diversion or calling me out to a direct confrontation?"
"Or both," Franklin added, also wearing similar armor.
"Is that a Doombot?" Daria asked.
"We're still moving units onto the scene. I'll let you know as soon as the scans are complete."
One of the older officers in the room said, "That library was one of the Archduke's proudest additions to the Academy."
Making a fast decision, Daria ordered, "Send a full-combat ready decoy of me to the scene."
"You think he's coming here?" the Security Minister asked.
"I'm betting he's already here."
Franklin stepped beside the officer at the castle surveillance console of the command center. "Disable all data compression from the sensor logs. We may need every bit of unaltered information we can get."
Daria said, "We're going to check on Her Highness."
As the couple exited the control room, Daria said, "Keep us up to date on any changes in status, here or at the library."
"Yes, Majesty," the Security Minister said.
Hurrying down a corridor with Franklin, Daria received an update from one of the command officers. "Your Majesty. The combat decoy engaged and quickly destroyed the Doombot attacking the library."
"Decoy," Daria said as they reached a door. Franklin opened it and looked in, to see the baby crib sitting undisturbed in the sealed room. Careful, Daria entered and looked in the crib, where the baby peacefully slept.
A second command officer interrupted. "Your Majesty, we just detected a minor shift in air movement near the guest tower."
"We're on our way. Bring in the available servo-guards."
Listening to guidance from the command center, Daria and Franklin crossed the castle to the guest quarters and found the source of the air movement change. A previously hidden door was slightly open, as if purposefully left that way.
Using a scanner built into the arms of his armor, Franklin took some readings and said, "One set of footprints entering, two exiting."
"Damn!" Daria exclaimed.
"But, who was Victor after?" Franklin asked.
Daria reached down and picked up a perfectly polished collar button. She opened a second comm channel. "Janos." After a couple seconds' wait, she said, "Janos, can you hear me? Janos?"
Daria sat on her throne and read a terse statement in Latverian for the television cameras. "For the alleged attack on the Royal Latverian Academy and kidnapping, I regretfully announce the suspension of the title of Archduke, along with all associated responsibilities and privileges, from Victor Von Doom. I have also issued an arrest warrant for him. If you have any information, please contact law enforcement immediately. For your safety, do not try to approach him. He may be highly dangerous."
Lying on his side and looking at Daria sitting up in their bed, Franklin said, "You need to get some rest."
Rubbing her tired eyes, Daria said, "I know. But, I'm too worried about Janos."
"I'm worried, too. He's a good man."
Daria slid down in bed and faced Franklin. "I never had an uncle."
"He's like family to you. Just as much as Ben's family to me and Valeria."
"And we're his family. Janos' parents and siblings were killed by the Fortunovs when they ruled."
"We'll rescue him as soon as he can be located."
"Damn right. Victor's going to pay for this. He's not trying to take over yet; he's punishing me."
"You'll win. You're stronger than he is."
Daria put her arms around Franklin. "Because I'm not alone."
Franklin put one arm over her. Quiet, they slowly drifted off to sleep.
Next to the bed, the baby rubbed her hand over an itchy spot on her forehead, where the strange man had touched her with one finger.
After almost a week of daily attacks by Dr. Doom on civilian and cultural targets, Daria wearily entered and looked around the command center of the castle, asking, "Still nothing?"
Nervous, the Security Minister said, "No, Majesty. After each attack, Victor's escape has been undetectable by any of our systems."
I can't even find any sign of him by magical means, Daria thought. Victor left Janos' communication button to let us know who was captured, and that we couldn't follow. Now, he's systematically attacking the people of Latveria. Something happened to him in Hell. He's spending too much time on vengeance when the old Victor would've moved swiftly to take over.
The minister stepped closer. "I'm very concerned. Your butler has extensive knowledge of the castle's upgrades and Victor had a reputation for extracting information from captives. When Victor decides to attack here again..."
"I'm well aware of that, but thank you for the reminder." Shifting to another concern, Daria asked, "Has the delivery been made to the Baxter Building?"
Daria went to her station and sat down before opening a videophone channel.
Susan Richards appeared. "Hello, Daria. We received your package today. How are you?"
"I was just informed that it was delivered; that's why I called. As for how I'm doing, tired."
"I bet. How's my son?"
Franklin called from the station he was working at, "I'm fine, Mom."
Daria quietly said to Susan, "He's wonderful."
She slightly nodded and said, "Do you want to say something to everyone?"
After several moments, Daria's family, as well as Jane and her family, appeared. Looking downward, Quinn stayed in the back.
Daria told them, "I don't know how long this fight with my father will last. I love each of you and part of me wants to take you somewhere completely safe." She folded her hands and sighed. "But, that would be little more than a gilded prison. You have your lives and it's not fair for me to take them away. So, for those of you that wish to go home, I've had clothing made to fit each of you, and in the style you normally wear. The cloth is from the same armored unstable molecules used for my protective clothing. Each garment has a limited life-support system that will give you ten minutes of protection to submersion or hazardous gasses, automatic sensors to activate them if needed, and built-in communications directly to me. Finally, each has a one-use teleport. The Fantastic Four have graciously allowed the destination to be the Baxter Building."
Reed Richards, sitting across the room, said, "Those who want to stay here are still welcome."
After a couple brief words with Devon, Jane said, "No offense, Reed, but your place doesn't work for art. Daria, thanks for the new duds, we're going home."
Next, Helen said, "Susan, you are a wonderful hostess, but home is where we should be."
"Quinn," Daria cautiously said. "I was completely wrong. No excuses, no explanations, no mitigation. I was wrong not to tell you and I'm sorry."
Still hurt, Quinn slowly lifted her eyes.
"My hands are tied a little by tradition. Officially recognizing you as princess has to be through a formal ceremony at Castle Doom, otherwise I'd do it now. But, give the word and my personal aircraft will be on the way."
"Send it now. Before you say anything about it being dangerous; I know. I'll face..." her voice dropped in disgust, "our father..." and returned to normal to finish, "with you."
Touched by her sister's statement, Daria turned to one of the staff. "Contact the United States Embassy and tell them that my plane will be flying, with escort, to New York to pick up a VIP. Have my aircraft and escorts prepared for launch as soon as we have flight plans and diplomatic conformation."
Helen asked, "Will there be room for two more?"
Dreading having her entire family in a single place that she suspected Dr. Doom could still enter undetected, Daria nonetheless answered, "As if I could keep you away."
Jane took her time before speaking. "Daria, I know your guts are tying themselves in knots right now. You'll stand up to world leaders and superpowered villains without flinching, but you're terrified of those you care about being hurt. I'm going to give you a little solace." Jane then said to Quinn, "No offense; we'll watch on television. I know Daria won't be alone, and she'll have a little piece of mind knowing that some of those close to her are out of the danger zone."
"Thanks, Jane," Daria replied. Because I know how much that voice in your head is screaming to be here.
Setting the quickly-made security plans for Quinn's ceremony on one of the many stacks on her desk, the Security Minister read the incoming bulletin. Pained, she closed her eyes and said a quiet prayer. She then opened a drawer and removed a bottle of aspirin. Taking two, she chased them down with water from a glass on her desk.
"What I get for accepting the promotion."
She looked at the report again. "My generation grew up believing you always had our safety and best interests at heart. We grew up to respect honor and the law. Now, you're attacking your own people for staying loyal to your duly named successor. You have no honor left...only spite."
Carrying the baby in one arm, Daria used the other to embrace Quinn. "You've handled this with much more grace than I deserve."
Quinn hugged back and said, while looking back at Helen, "You've just turned into a big mother-hen. Just like someone else we know."
"It's still more than I deserve."
Helen stepped up and said, "Now, if you're done making comments about your mother, can I see my daughter and granddaughter?"
Quinn stepped back to let Helen and Jake in to huddle around Daria.
"Sweetie," Helen simply said.
"Kiddo," Jake added, following with, "and Kiddo Jr."
"Mom, Dad. I'm glad to see you."
After Jake and Helen moved on to greet Franklin, Quinn stepped back and placed her fingertips on either side of Daria's head, examining her features. "But damn, Daria. You look worn out. I really hope you've got a good makeup artist lined up before the ceremony."
"I've been running on less than four hours of sleep a night since Janos was taken. I suppose I look a little haggard."
"Sis, you look like death warmed over. But, I'm gonna fix that."
The presence of Helen and Jake already seated in the front row of the throne room excited and piqued the curiosity of the gathered diplomats, dignitaries and reporters. The appearance of a third throne, slightly smaller and set to the opposite side of Daria's from Franklin's, also stirred speculation within the gathering.
Once the audience was seated, Daria and Franklin entered. Remaining standing, Daria addressed the crowd. "One of the problems of keeping something secret is that, despite all the logic behind it and all the good intentions for keeping it secret...is that it can still be very wrong to do so. I'm sure you're all curious about the additional throne. As you are aware, my existence was kept secret until only a few months before my coronation. Recently, there have been rumors that I was not the only hidden child of Victor Von Doom. Those rumors are correct."
Excited whispers and conversation started anew in the audience.
"Because of his situation, keeping our existence secret was the right thing for Victor Von Doom to do. However, despite my best intentions, keeping my sister's true lineage hidden was wrong. Today, I hope to make the first step in correcting that mistake."
Starting from the back, heads turned to the center aisle as Quinn made her way forward. She was dressed in an elegant green gown, similar to the one Daria had worn for her coronation. Reaching the dais, Quinn stopped and knelt in front of Daria.
Franklin reached behind Daria's throne and brought out a gold coronet. Daria took it and held it above the bowed head. "My full sister, Princess Quinn."
Quinn perused her schedule and said, "You're kidding. Daria, I want to help you. This looks like a bunch of stuff to keep me out of your hair."
Sitting on a sofa in Quinn's new residence, Daria said, "No, Quinn, this isn't a fairy tale, this is reality. There are a lot of things you need to learn that go with that headwear, and you need to learn it quickly."
"But, you're the Queen, why do I need to learn a lot of this?"
"Because you're next in the line of succession after Jane Valeria. Since she's an infant, if something happens to me, you become regent until she's sixteen."
"Wait, you mean, all...um...this...uh...on me?"
"That's right. If something happens to me, there's over half a million people out there that will look to you for leadership. Learning to do that is one of the biggest ways you can help me."
"That's about how I felt."
Answering the signaling comm unit, Daria said, "Yes?" After several nods, she terminated the connection and said, "You have a call, Quinn. One of the ambassadors."
"For you. No time like the present for a little diplomatic practice."
Quinn answered the videophone and listened quietly before her eyes enlarged and she quickly said, "Um...no, no thanks. Look, I've gotta go, bye," and disconnected the call.
Seeing Quinn's shocked expression, Daria said, "Oh, did I warn you about some of the 'interesting' marriage proposals you would get?"
The receptionist at one of Latveria's television stations sat frozen in fear as Dr. Doom calmly walked through the front door. Without pausing, the armored figure strode past and into the hallway beyond. Other staff of the television station dodged out of his way to hide in side offices as Dr. Doom proceeded directly to the active studio.
Everything in the newsroom came to a fast stop as he entered the studio and stepped behind the anchors' desk, except the cameras. While the two anchors moved to the side, Dr. Doom addressed the live cameras.
"People of Latveria. Your king calls upon your loyalty. While she has performed admirably in my absence, it is time for Queen Daria to step aside for the rightful ruler of Latveria. Let her and her sister know that this is what you want. If she abides by her loyalty and honor, Queen Daria will consent immediately and all will be well. If she does not consent, then she and her entire family will be considered traitors and enemies of Latveria."
The woman seated to his right, though terrified, stood and said, "Sir, although we'll never forget all you'd done for Latveria, you stepped down and named Her Majesty as your successor. Since then, she...she has been a better ruler than you."
Doom snapped his pistol from its holster and shot the news anchor without hesitation. He faced the cameras and said, "Treason will not be tolerated. Show your loyalty, or face the consequences."
He stepped over the news anchor's body and walked out of the building without opposition.
Covering her eyes, Quinn asked, "That's really our father?"
Daria stopped the video playback on one of the monitors of her office. "I'm afraid so, and I fear he has gone mad."
Looking up through tear-stained eyes, Quinn asked, "How can you sit there like that? Don't you feel anything for that poor woman?"
"Like a cold knife into my stomach. She died for believing in me. I've learned to keep going, but I've felt every death. If I ever stop feeling, that is the time I need to step down."
"Is it always like this?"
Daria put one arm around Quinn's shoulder. "No. This is one of the worst times."
"Excuse me, Your Majesty," a voice interrupted over the comm system.
"Go ahead," Daria said.
"The new magical detector worked. We've tracked Victor to a destination."
"Thank you. We'll be right there." Daria rose and offered a hand to Quinn. "Time to go to work..." Daria nodded to the stopped video on the monitor. "...for her."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Keep an eye on things from the command center with the Security Minister. Franklin and I will investigate this destination."
"Are you sure? I mean, I'm so new at this."
"Positive. It's also part of what you need to learn. You've run a business; I have faith in you."
"Um, thanks. And Daria, be careful...I'm not ready to take your place."
"We will. I'm not ready to be replaced."
Both armored, Daria and Franklin stood, crouched, in the lead hover armored personnel carrier as it raced to the old mine that had been identified as Dr. Doom's destination after leaving the television station.
The driver said, "Majesty, we're approaching one km from the objective."
"Thank you, sergeant." Daria kissed Franklin and closed her face plate. "Ready?"
Closing his, Franklin replied, "No, but when has that stopped us?"
Each pressed a small button on their belts and disappeared from the APC. Instantly, they found themselves inside a hand-hewn underground chamber. To their left was Janos, head down and hanging from wrists chained to the ceiling. Bruises and dried blood covered his face and matted his hair. His normally impeccable uniform was filthy, cut and torn.
Behind a table covered in mystical paraphernalia, Dr. Doom bellowed, "No!" and raised his fists, firing bolts of magical fire at Daria and Franklin that threw both to the floor.
Wordlessly, Daria held up a golden hoop and Franklin scrambled over to Janos. The magical fire splattered and dissipated against Daria's shield while Franklin fired two quick shots from his gauntlets to cut the chains holding Janos.
The following volley of fire from Dr. Doom was momentarily halted by the shield before cutting through and knocking Daria against the far wall. She yelled, "Go!" to Franklin and rolled behind a table of electronic equipment, firing bolts of energy back at her father.
"Hold on!" Franklin called and pressed the button again. He and Janos vanished from the mine chamber and reappeared in the now empty APC. Latverian Defense Force troops were already entering the mine at a full run.
Quickly checking the butler's vital signs with his suit sensors, Franklin yelled, "Medic!"
A corpsman came around the corner of the exit ramp and ran inside, dropping next to Janos and opening his supply kit.
The equipment above Daria shattered under Dr. Doom's attack, sending shards of case and circuit board in all directions. She continued to fire back, causing Doom to reel with each hit. Seeing his bolts failing to damage Daria's armor, Dr. Doom fired a renewed, stronger volley. The unstable molecules of her surcoat and cape tore like threadbare fabric, while the battering also started to overheat the armor.
As Daria paused to add an enchantment to her failing armor, Dr. Doom suddenly hesitated. Daria looked up at him standing strangely still and said, "Father, we can end this now. Do the honorable thing and turn yourself in."
He started lowering his arms, giving Daria a sliver of hope. Suddenly, red flashed from Dr. Doom's eyes and Daria saw him disappear in a fiery explosion.
Feeling her bruised ribs, Daria staggered up and examined the wrecked chamber. Any evidence of what her father had been doing had disappeared under his attacks or his departing fireball. Certain that Dr. Doom was gone, Daria called on the radio, "Franklin, how is Janos?"
Franklin said, "Weak, but he'll pull through. What happened down there?"
"Victor escaped, but something odd happened. I'll explain later."
"What condition are you in?"
"Bruised, but otherwise unhurt. But, we need to improve our armor before we face him again."
Quinn raced up and almost leaped to hug Daria as she stepped off the APC. Daria produced a muted smile and said, "We'll have to work on your decorum later."
Quinn looked down over Daria's battered armor and said, "My God! You look like you've been through WWIII!"
"Like I said, we'll work on your decorum."
"Oh, um...oh." Embarrassed, Quinn realized just what Daria meant.
"You'll get the hang of it."
A medical gurney was wheeled out of the APC and was met by a team of doctors. Ignoring all other activity around them, they started working on Janos as they pushed him into the castle infirmary.
Walking with Franklin on her other side, Daria said to Quinn, "I'm going to get a little rest. Monitor the situation and let me know if anything happens. We'll be in our residence."
Whispering, Quinn desperately asked, "Daria, are you hurt?"
"Not too bad, I think. But I need to get out of this armor and checked right away. I'll be back to the command center as soon as I can."
"Okay, but you better not be hiding anything."
"You'll be the first to know if it's serious."
"I'd better be."
Daria said, "Don't get pushy. I'm still the Queen."
Helping to remove Daria's armor, Franklin inspected the damage and said, "You would've been killed if you'd been wearing the same armor you used to face Kang."
"I know. That last set of blasts...if he hadn't paused, I would be dead. I couldn't have finished the spell in time."
"Maybe there's still a little humanity left in him."
Frowning at the dark, multi-hued bruises spreading around her ribs, Daria said, "I think there may be a lot more in there..."
Also frowning, Franklin started checking Daria's ribs. "What do you mean?"
"I don't know how it got past us when we scanned him before, but I think he's possessed."
"Are you sure that's not some kind of wishful thinking? That you may still have a chance to save him?"
"He paused, and started to lower his arms when I asked him to surrender. Just before his escape, his eyes glowed red. I think my father gained control for a few seconds and when whoever regained control, they left before he could try again."
"Considering all the stuff you've learned from Dr. Strange, that must be one powerful entity to hide a possession from you."
"Considering who my father was going up against in Hell, I'm not surprised."
Seated on her office sofa and nursing her daughter under a soft, green shawl, Daria closed her eyes and gritted her teeth.
Sitting on the other side of the sofa, Quinn asked, "Are you okay?"
Daria nodded. "Let's just say that I have bruises in some very uncomfortable places."
"Ow," Quinn said, wide-eyed and crossing her arms over her chest.
"Ow is a good word for it." She kissed Princess Jane's head through the shawl. "But I'll live, and have something to make her feel guilty about later."
"You are starting to sound like Mom."
"I can see her viewpoint more clearly."
"You're not going to start on me about having kids, are you?"
"No, I'm not. Although, it is funny that I used to picture you as the one having children and me choosing to remain childless. I even used that in a story, once." Daria sighed and said, "It seems like a long time ago."
"You don't get to write much anymore, do you?"
"Not as much as I'd like, but it's very relaxing when I get the chance."
Quinn patted the baby. "You have a new audience."
"I've never written children's stories."
"It'll give you something to look forward to."
Daria softly hugged Jane. "She has a knack for that."
Responding to a tone in her glasses comm unit, Daria replied, "Go ahead."
Calling from the infirmary, one of the castle staff said, "Majesty, Mr. Budjovic is out of surgery and on his way to recovery. The doctors expect him to completely recover."
"That's good news."
"And as directed, we'll inform you when he's awake and the doctors say he can have visitors."
Daria said to Quinn, "Janos is out of danger and in recovery."
"I'm surprised you're not down there."
"I'd like to, but I'd only be in the way." Feeling Jane stop feeding, Daria reached under the shawl and made herself publicly presentable. She stood, pulled a small towel across her shoulder that had been resting against her neck, and leaned Jane against it to burp her. "What I can do is find out who is controlling our father to keep what happened to Janos from being repeated."
Standing in the laboratory with Franklin, Daria said, "I think she'll be one of my best bets to ask about what's going on."
Feeling his old apprehension of the kind of magic Daria was about to use, Franklin simply stated, "I'm staying right here and will step in if anything even looks like it's going wrong."
Daria put her hands behind Franklin's head and kissed him. "There's a reason I keep you around."
"And all this time, I thought it was my cooking," he said, knowing that his wife would appreciate the break in the tension.
Daria momentarily laughed. "Thanks, I needed that."
"No, but when has that stopped us?"
Daria went into the center of one side-room and knelt on the floor. Using a silverpoint pencil, she inscribed a protective circle around herself.
Franklin stepped into a second nearby circle and completed it with a similar silverpoint pencil.
Cross-legged, Daria settled down and lit a white candle. Eyes closed, her clear voice started an incantation in a language even the name of which is forgotten to most linguists. Concerned, Franklin watched as Daria slowly opened her eyes and tapped a golden tuning fork on the candle stand.
A faint, golden glow arose in the air before Daria. She asked, "Cynthia? Cynthia Von Doom?"
Like it came from across a long room, a woman's voice answered in Latverian, "I am here, my granddaughter."
Hearing for the first time a grandmother she never had a chance to know, Daria felt a lump in her throat. Replying in the same language, "I'm glad to finally have the opportunity to meet you."
"I am pleased as well. You're grandfather and I are proud of you."
Daria smiled and whispered, "Thanks."
"But you are in great danger and your daughter even more so."
"He has plans for her. My gravest mistake was summoning Mephisto and foolishly trying to control him. For that, he hates and cursed our family."
Daria felt fear and anger growing. "Is Mephisto the one possessing your son?"
"Yes. Mephisto is exacting his revenge on Victor for freeing me."
The answer clicked inside Daria's head. "He's attacking and torturing people and things important to my father."
"By destroying the good things Victor built...or tormenting the people that have built good deeds upon his work. In the end, he means to break you and your sister and strip away the good within. All the time, Victor is trapped inside his body, fully aware of what is happening."
"But why his interest in Jane?"
"Because she is untouched by the evil that has been done in the Von Doom name. You have risen above it, but you have still been touched. There are parts deep inside you that yearn to follow your father's old path."
Daria admitted, "True."
"Your daughter has not learned that temptation. By taking her away now, Mephisto means to take away the redemption of the Von Dooms."
"All the more reason to stop him."
"He is powerful, cunning, and spiteful. Hate is his preferred tool."
"I get the hint. I thank you for your help."
The gold glow drifted away like a breeze had entered the sealed room.
Fatigued by the spell, Daria slumped and caught her breath. Franklin rushed to her side and helped her to rise. "Easy."
She held on to him and said, "We have to protect Jane."
"I heard, but how?"
"I don't know."
Wearing a comfortable, old nightshirt, Quinn looked out of her window the next morning. "What was I thinking?" she asked the neighboring forest. "Daria made it all look so easy."
Carrying an acorn in its mouth, a squirrel loped away from the forest edge. Quinn watched as it ran, stopped to look around, and ran again. Finally, after looking around, it speedily dug a hole and dropped the acorn in. It reared up to look around, as if triangulating where it was. The squirrel dropped back down and covered the hole before scampering back to the forest edge.
"Dad would like you," she said.
A colorful songbird flitted about the trees above where the squirrel had disappeared. Quinn rested her elbows on the windowsill and propped her chin on her hands.
"I don't get to see birds like you much in Los Angeles. There, it's always buildings and cars and freeways. I know that they had parks and stuff to go to...I just never had the time." Quinn suddenly laughed. "But now, I have more stuff to do than I though possible, and I still have time to look. I think I made the right choice."
Wincing as he pushed himself to sit upright in the hospital bed, Janos said, "Majesty?"
Daria set a dining tray down in front of him. "Your breakfast."
Looking at the meal, the butler was speechless.
Daria removed covers from the plates and said, "It's time someone took care of you for a change."
Humbled, he faintly said, "I don't know if I deserve such care. I tried to hold out, but I told Victor everything I knew about the castle. The pain..."
Taking his hand, Daria said, "You didn't deserve what happened to you. I doubt if anyone could've withstood that kind of torture and I won't hold anything against you."
"There seemed to be more malice and less calculation...not like the old Victor."
"It was Mephisto; controlling Victor."
"I thought something didn't seem right about him."
"I wish I'd picked up on that sooner." She released his hand and tapped the tray. "The doctors want you to eat. Don't make me say that's a royal decree."
Lifting a fork, Janos, said, "You won't need to; I'm very hungry. Thank you for bringing breakfast."
"My pleasure. Now, this is a royal decree. You're to relax and recover from your injuries. Don't worry about your duties until the doctors say you're ready."
"Yes, Majesty. I'll try."
Daria reluctantly said, "I wish I could stay longer."
"Duty, I understand."
"You always do. Get well soon." Daria halted at the door and turned, leaning against the frame. "Janos, I'm not as concerned about you returning to duty as I am about a member of my family getting back on his feet."
Dr. Stephen Strange shifted in his seat and instinctively looked to the side of the monitor where Franklin's image appeared. "Your distrust of the magic we're discussing is perfectly understandable."
"No offense, Stephen, but that's an understatement," Franklin answered. "I'm still working on a way to make Mephisto appreciate Clarke's Second Law."
Dr. Strange smiled in recognition. "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
"I have several possibilities I'm working on."
Daria placed her hand on Franklin's. "We make a good team that way."
Dr. Strange settled back in his chair. "One I wouldn't want to face."
Daria said, "I just hope that between the two of us, we can free my father and send Mephisto back where he belongs."
"If you succeed, he'll forever be an enemy."
Daria said, "He is already."
A warning bell rang in Daria's office and she immediately activated a desktop comm unit. "Command center, what's going on?"
Quinn quickly answered, "Daria, he's attacking the airport!"
Daria and Franklin rose together as Daria replied, "We're on our way."
Franklin said to Dr. Strange, "Looks like we'll have to talk later...if there is a later."
Inside the command center, Quinn looked around at the expectant faces staring back at her. Worried, she asked the lieutenant that had been showing her the different work stations, "What happens now?"
The young man nervously answered, "Until Her Majesty arrives, you're in command, Highness. What are your orders?"
Frightened, Quinn looked at one of the security monitors as an escort fighter exploded. Seemingly unmoved, Dr. Doom turned to the next fighter in line and fired blasts from his gauntlets, also reducing it to a fireball.
Trying to think clearly while the command staff watched her, Quinn blurted out, "Get everyone out of there!"
One of the officers said, "We have a strike team two minutes away."
"No!" Quinn yelled, turning to the officer. "Just get everyone away from him."
"But, the damage..."
"We can buy new planes. We can't buy people."
"Yes, Your Highness."
Realizing that the situation was almost like trying to keep track of models at a fashion show, Quinn gained control and said, "Look we can't hurt him with what the army guys out there have with them, but the army guys can get everyone else out of there."
Now with clear orders, the staff instantly went about carrying them out, directing the assets under their control on the complete evacuation of Doomsport.
The monitor showed Dr. Doom standing on one of the aprons, surrounded by burning wreckage of equipment and buildings. He fired a final volley at the control tower, decapitating it before he vanished behind a veil of flames.
Placing a hand on Quinn's shoulder, Daria asked, "Casualties?"
"Seventeen wounded in his first attack. One critical and eight serious. No fatalities," one of the staff read from a report.
Another said, "Your state aircraft and their escorts were destroyed, along with six private aircraft and three airliners. The west concourse was destroyed, as was the control tower and the government maintenance and repair hanger."
Daria felt relief and said, "My congratulations to Her Highness and each of you for a successful evacuation of Doomsport. The following information is classified. Victor is possessed by the demon Mephisto and we're working on a way to stop him. Latveria's conventional forces and weapons are ineffective against him and using them would only risk lives for no gain. Until further notice, the protocol Princess Quinn started will continue: LDF troops will not confront Victor and will be used exclusively to evacuate all citizens from an affected area."
The Security Minister said, "Long-term, that will lower troop morale, and avoiding contact with Victor will cause a public loss of confidence."
"I plan on facing him before that becomes a problem. Until then, our goal is protecting lives."
Inside Daria's office, Daria turned to Quinn and said, "Thanks, you saved a lot of lives."
"You really thought I did the right thing?"
"Exactly, and you kept your cool to get it started."
"I was scared to death."
"I can't tell you how many times I've been petrified."
"Do you really have a plan to deal with this Mephisto?"
"Almost. Your little display in there made some things a little easier."
"Um, thanks. But, how?"
"I know you can handle things if I don't make it."
Jane leaned toward the videophone screen and said, "You can't fool me; you've got that 'up to something dangerous' look."
"You know me too well. It's very dangerous."
Jane pointed a finger at the phone camera. "You're gonna make it and I expect to talk to you tomorrow, understand?"
"Yes, dear," Daria replied after a short, grim laugh. "At least you're not here to get in the way, this time."
"I wish I was."
Daria said, "You shouldn't. Hug Devon and Joshua for me."
"I will. Daria, be safe."
"Thanks. Bye, Jane."
"Bye, Daria." Just before the connection ended, Jane threw in, "Until tomorrow!"
Daria looked at the gracefully aged faces of her parents. "Mom, I can't fool you, so I'm not even going to try."
Helen smiled to mask her fear for her daughter. "You've finally learned."
Daria turned Jane Valeria to give her parents a better view. "I had help."
Helen remembered her two children at that age. "You'll be surprised at the strength she'll give you."
"And determination." Daria looked back toward the videophone. "Mom, Dad. I love you."
"We love you, Sweetie."
Jake said, "And our little princess."
Helen said, "Daria, do what you have to do. You know we're behind you, like always."
"Thanks, Mom. I can use all the help I can get."
Jake added, "Oh, and Squirrel Lady says to kick his butt."
From his bed, Janos said, "I'm worried. With me off-duty, who's going to clean up the mess you're about to make?"
"We'll blunder through somehow," Daria said, sitting in a chair next to the bed.
Serious, Janos said, "Majesty, please forgive my boldness. I know that you're willing to sacrifice yourself to protect what you love. But please, don't be too willing. We need you as a queen, not as a martyr."
"I should make you one of my advisors, but I know you'd be unhappy."
"Thank you for not putting me in a position to turn down the offer."
"But, that doesn't mean I won't listen to your advice anyway."
One of the nurses cracked open the room's door. "Your Majesty. He's next to be evacuated."
"Thank you, one moment," Daria replied. After the nurse closed the door, Daria leaned over the bed and embraced Janos. "I hope to see you soon."
All three wearing armor, Daria and Franklin spoke with Quinn at the courtyard edge as the castle staff waited in their vehicles to complete evacuating the castle. While Daria and Franklin wore the traditional green and black, Quinn's surcoat and cape were blue. She said, "I don't get it. If you want all of us out of the castle for our safety, why aren't you sending Jane Valeria with us?"
"Because I believe she'll be safer here," Daria said. "Quinn, I'm sure Mephisto knows where to find my daughter at any time. If she goes with you, he'll attack the evacuation and you'll be helpless to stop him. A lot of people will die to no good end. Here, we have a better chance to protect her and to stop him. We're going to use every means at our disposal to do that."
Franklin stepped beside Quinn to review some controls built into one arm of her suit. "You can monitor our lifesigns here. The sensor logs from both of our suits will download real-time to the flash memory of your suit. You can monitor both from here; the controls are straightforward."
Quinn said, "It's gonna be hard to watch."
Daria said, "We understand. But if we're both incapacitated, you'll have no other way of knowing what happened. I don't want to stop Mephisto and then bleed to death because you didn't know we needed help and that it was safe to reenter the castle."
"Daria," Quinn said, "We'll be on our way back as soon as you send that thing down to Hell."
"You seem pretty sure of that."
"I believe in you, Sis."
His face ashen with concern, Franklin knelt beside Daria's chair. "It's time."
An uncharacteristic tear in her eye, Daria held her daughter and whispered, "I love you, Sweetie. Goodbye."
Daria reluctantly passed Jane Valeria to Franklin, who softly held the infant to his chest and rose. "Are you sure you don't..."
Daria nodded, although every part of her being wanted to continue holding her child.
Saying, "I love you, little one," to the baby, Franklin stepped inside the most heavily reinforced room in the depths of Castle Doom. A minute after, he stepped out and closed the heavy door.
Daria joined him and placed her hands on it. Fighting her emotions, she croaked through an incantation and closed her right hand. Breathing heavy, she worked through a second, closing her left as it was done. The walls glowed blue for a fraction of a second and Daria said, "Those are the strongest wards I can put up."
"I hope they're enough."
"They have to be, or all this won't work."
Somewhat clumsy in their armor, Franklin held Daria and said, "I love you."
She looked up and kissed him. "I love you."
After they separated, Daria said firmly, "This is going to work. That bastard is not getting our child."
With Franklin by her side within the protective circle, Daria rang a bell and called out, "Mephisto!"
They heard an echo of the bell, transformed into something deep in tone and sinister. Within the circle across the room, the figure of Dr. Doom rose from the floor. A deep red glow came from his eyes as the figure looked across the room at Daria and Franklin.
Mephisto moved his head from side to side, examining the room. "Choosing your battlefield, I see."
Keeping her voice even, Daria said, "Release my father and return to your home plane."
"I decline. I'm not finished with Victor's punishment and I've barely started yours. The plans I have for your child will be savored for many years."
"I see you will need to be convinced." Daria pronounced a spell for tormenting a being held within a summoning circle.
Mephisto mockingly slapped at his neck, as if swatting at a mosquito. "Do you intend to bore me into submission? Are you not in the least curious as to how I came to control your father, or bring him back to Earth?"
Daria said, "My guess is that Kang the Conquer provided you with the Anatolian Key from an alternate timeline. As a means to strike at me if his attempt failed."
Mephisto laughed. "Ah, mortal hubris can be so entertaining. Did you really think that those of us living in the outer planes were incapable of making one of our own?"
"So, you used one of your own making."
"Of course, silly girl. Why would I need the assistance of such a pathetic entity as Kang? A being that has suffered ignominious defeat in more realities than you can comprehend." Reality seemed to ripple around Mephisto as he stepped out of the summoning ring. "Your father was beaten. The mortal mind can't deal with the reality of Hell. It is evil beyond their comprehension. Doom lost the will to conquer. He wanted out...to make amends so he wouldn't become one of our permanent guests." Mephisto laughed. "He wanted to be saved."
"And I will save him."
"Mortals have a phrase, 'playing cat and mouse', that may apply. I should tell you, however, that a cat would be far kinder."
Although Mephisto made no outward gesture, the lines of the protection circle on the floor around Daria and Franklin flashed white and then exploded upward in a curtain of fire. Everything within the circle was caught in the updraft and smashed into the ceiling. The magical items and books were incinerated almost immediately, while Daria and Franklin heavily fell to the floor on opposite sides of the smoldering circle.
Mephisto started to slowly walk toward Daria. "Your lessons are about to begin. You will learn pain...fear...and most deliciously, hate."
Already getting warnings from parts of her armor, Daria pulled herself onto one knee and faced her family's enemy. "I will learn endurance, courage, and patience," Daria said as she unleashed a magical blast.
Mephisto staggered back a step in response, though no apparent damage occurred. He said, "So, you don't want to hurt your father. How noble. How long can you hold onto such nobility?"
Without looking, Mephisto raised a hand toward Franklin, firing a fraction of a second before Franklin was able to take a shot at Mephisto.
Franklin cried out in pain as the blast jammed his right arm straight back, shredding away fragments of armor and shattering bones in the process.
Mephisto said to Daria, "What's more important? Not hurting your father and allowing me to break every bone in your husband's body, or using everything in your power to stop me from using your father?"
Riding inside an APC, Quinn gasped and held her hand over her mouth at the information coming to her from Franklin and Daria.
With her, the Security Minister asked, "Are you well?"
Quinn said, "Stop the car."
The driver immediately brought the vehicle to a halt.
Quinn said, "Send everyone else ahead. We're staying here with an ambulance to get back as soon as we can."
"Are they in trouble?"
"It's getting ugly, fast. The sooner we can get to them, the better."
"Yes, Highness." She switched to the radio. "Ambulance Two, fall out and come back to command vehicle."
"Yes, ma'am." the ambulance driver replied.
The minister said, "Highness, if they are injured, you should send their lifesign telemetry to the medical team."
"Good idea." Quinn studied the controls gracing the small panel Franklin had added. After a pause while she worked through all the directions Franklin had provided, she pressed several buttons and then said, "There."
Hold on, both of you. Daria extended her right hand forward and started chanting an exorcism spell.
Mephisto stopped his advance toward Franklin and turned his head an impossible amount to look at Daria. "Can you complete it in time?"
Sitting with his back against a wall, Franklin took a shot of painkiller from the suit's autoinjector before locking the armor joints of his right arm, creating an instant splint.
Mephisto's attention returned to him. "Can you do that again?" A quick salvo of blasts crashed into Franklin's extended left leg.
Franklin's head arched back and he howled as the armor plates buckled and bones broke.
Gaining strength, Daria's voice caused Mephisto to turn unwittingly. Commanded by the spell, the demon stood still. Feeling the spell start to separate him from Victor Von Doom, Mephisto said to Daria, "Perhaps you should feel your husband's pain."
"No!" Near delirious, Franklin wildly fired with his good arm, throwing Mephisto's aim off. His glancing blow still knocked Daria down and caused her voice to shriek, but didn't stop the spell. Ignoring Franklin, Mephisto began to fire almost continuously as Daria rolled and dodged. Inevitably, one blast struck Daria's left side and her cry of pain stopped the incantation.
Mephisto's inner smile quickly failed as he heard a voice inside his head pick up the chant without pause. "No!"
Victor Von Doom felt himself grow stronger as the spell built up power. He had enough control to begin chanting out loud.
Mephisto clamped down with his mental hold on Doom's body. He growled, "You will not escape me."
Hearing that her father had continued the spell, Daria picked up the casting again even as Mephisto regained control of her father's body.
Still firing the shots intended to hit demons without harming the host, Franklin's barrage continued, though with more misses than hits.
Standing, Daria came to the end of the spell and she shouted, "Be gone!"
Her father's arms spread wide and Mephisto bellowed in anger and frustration as he was driven from the body. Victor collapsed to the ground, leaving Mephisto, reformed in his native shape, standing over him.
"Enjoy your freedom while you can, Victor Von Doom," Mephisto said, looking down.
Instinctively holding one arm over her broken ribs, Daria said, "Return to Hell, where you belong."
"You've only scored a very minor victory, child. Your father was dying when I possessed him. Without me, he'll soon be dead and his soul will be mine forever."
Mephisto stepped to the side and laughed. "Oh, what a choice you must now make, my impetuous girl. To tend to your dying father...or to your husband...or protect your child."
The demon turned and walked through the wall, leaving no trace of his passage.
Speaking raggedly, Franklin said, "I'm too slow to keep up with you. I'll check on your father."
Wishing she had time to go to her husband, Daria said, "I'll be back as soon as I can," and activated the suit teleport.
Quinn felt the tears on her cheeks as she helplessly watched the events happen inside the castle. Seeing the need, Quinn turned to the minister. "We're going back. Fr...His Highness and Victor are in the lab and need help. The Queen is pursuing Mephisto. We can get in and help the prince and my father while she's dealing with that thing."
"You're cutting a fine line," the minister observed, "but I think Her Majesty would approve."
The driver called back, "On our way."
At top speed, the APC and the armored ambulance raced back to Castle Doom.
Arriving ahead of Mephisto, Daria made preparations for his arrival. Her armor glowed white as she finished the last spell.
Mephisto pivoted quickly and stepped to one side as he walked through the wall. He looked down at the marks on the floor and said, "A spirit trap. I'm disappointed."
"I'm willing to try everything at my disposal."
"An act of desperation." Mephisto's smile was absolute malice. "I am disappointed that Victor will not see me take you and your daughter...but I'll make sure he knows every detail."
Daria backed to the door leading to the final room. "I can't let you."
Mephisto's advance was stopped by a magical barrier. He closed his eyes and swiped his clawed hands across it. Red-tinged tears formed and spread across Daria's defense. With a second swipe, it fell in tatters. "I'm not giving you a choice."
"I tried to give you one." Daria held up an amulet and whispered. Pure, white light filled the room and where it touched Mephisto, his skin burned and peeled away.
Stumbling back, the demon flailed against the light and the roots of the castle rumbled from his angry voice. Daria stepped forward, concentrating on the amulet to push Mephisto away.
Pressed against the wall, Mephisto fixed his eyes on Daria, ignoring the burning light. Black, oily smoke erupted around him, billowing away to swallow and dim the light. Leaping with incredible speed, Mephisto reached out and grabbed the amulet from Daria's hand. Holding it in front of her face, he crushed it in his hand. Moments later, molten gold leaked out between his fingers and spattered on the floor.
"Enough," Mephisto hissed, striking Daria with a back-hand blow that tossed her aside like a toy. Despite the protection it offered, the back of Daria's helmet crumpled under the impact and Daria almost blacked out from the blow to her head.
The sealing ward on the door stopped Mephisto from opening it. Placing his hand on the door, purple-black tendrils of magic snaked away from it, forming a chaotic network around the ward spell. Mephisto slowly closed his open hand, drawing in the web until he closed his hand in a fist. He waved his other hand over the door and the locks clicked open.
Unable to properly focus and fighting sudden nausea, Daria got to her feet. "No."
With a slight effort, Mephisto pushed the door open and grinned back at Daria. "You thought yourself clever and strong. Thank you. Each failure of yours adds sweetness to my efforts. You've made this an entertaining day."
Seeing Daria start to unsheathe a bronze dagger, Mephisto flicked a bolt of magical energy back at her. The queen was spun to the right and the dagger thrown from her grasp. Unable to maintain her balance, Daria stumbled to the floor.
Mephisto waked into the room and placed his hand over the cradle. "Ah, I can feel the mark I left on her forehead. Lowering the hand, he cautiously tapped and felt the final protective ward Daria had placed on the crib. Mephisto pressed his hand forward. Blinding bright fire boiled from his hand as he pushed it through and grasped the cradle top, yanking it open.
One of the medical team doctors radioed the command APC, "Your Highness, Her Majesty's condition is serious. At minimum, she has a severe concussion. Based on her vital signs, I believe she also has a fractured skull and a cranial hematoma. She'll need treatment quickly to avoid brain damage."
Quinn said, "We're almost there. The medical team will go to the laboratory. One of you will follow me to my sister."
"What if Mephisto is still there?"
Quinn said, "He won't."
Shocked, Mephisto saw that the cradle contained a metallic box about six inches across and an inch thick, with an opening in the middle. Next to the box was a small, thin circle of baby's skin. His anger at being fooled grew when he tried to pull back and found that his hand was being drawn toward the box opening.
Using the door to hold herself up, Daria said, "Did you really think I was foolish enough to put my daughter at risk, or to believe that my magical powers could stand up against yours?"
Anger exploded across Mephisto's face as he felt the pull of the spirit trap drag him closer. "How?" he bellowed in confusion, unable to understand why he failed to notice such a simple enchantment.
"It's not magic; my husband has other talents," Daria answered. "Have you ever heard of Clarke's Second Law? It's an extradimensional space accessed by advanced physics. Your new home."
Mephisto's blast at Daria faded as is it left his hand. "You will regret this," he warned.
"Saving my family? No."
Castle Doom shook with the demon's impotent roar as the trap pulled him in and sealed shut.
Daria staggered to the cradle and checked that the trap's lock on top of the small box was secure. Satisfied, she sank down to the floor and opened her radio link. "Command APC, this is Queen Daria."
Quinn answered, "Daria! We're less than a mile away, hang on!"
Resting the side of her head against the cradle to stabilize the spinning room, Daria said, "I'm glad you still can't follow directions."
The first thing that registered in Daria's mind as she awoke was a hand holding hers. Her head throbbed with a dull ache as she turned to see Franklin at her side. Seated in a wheelchair with his right arm and extended left leg sealed in a lightweight cast, he said, "Good afternoon."
Feeling the bandages around her head with her free hand, Daria said, "I've been out for a while, haven't I?"
"Almost a full day. We've got to stop meeting like this."
Daria smiled at the joke and said, "We're getting a little too old for it."
"We were worried for a while, but the doctors were able to stop the cranial bleeding and relieve the pressure before there was any damage. They also put a reinforced carbon-fiber plate over your skull fracture. You're going to have to take it easy while you recover from your concussion."
"What about you?"
"Seven fractures in my arm and three in my leg. Painful and messy, but not life-threatening." Franklin squeezed Daria's hand and looked down. Sadly, he said, "However, you should know that your father...isn't going to make it."
Daria sat up and grunted at the pain from her healing ribs. "I want to see him."
Followed by a nurse and pushing a wheelchair into the room, Quinn said, "We figured you would."
"Thanks, Quinn, for being stubborn and coming back early."
With the nurse's assistance, Quinn helped Daria into the wheelchair as she said, "It was what I thought you'd do."
After Daria was secure, Quinn pushed her wheelchair and the nurse pushed Franklin's into the adjacent room.
For the first time, Daria saw Victor's face, scarred many years ago when he intentionally forced the still-hot faceplate of his armor onto it. Mixed emotions crowded together in her mind. She had no doubts about the evil her father had committed, but she also recognized all he had done to help everyone in Latveria. In many ways, Victor Von Doom deserved to return to Hell for what he'd done, but Daria also knew that part of the reason he originally went was for redemption, to save someone he'd selfishly sacrificed.
Doom opened his eyes and looked at the sisters. Weak, he said, "My daughters, both of you strong, brave, and wise. Daria, a man on the street said you were a better ruler. He was right."
"Quinn, it is a pleasure to finally meet you."
Shifting his view to Franklin, Victor said, "The irony of you as a son-in-law is not lost on me, but I cannot deny the wisdom of it."
"I couldn't argue with Daria's logic."
Victor next said to Daria, "Is my granddaughter here?"
"No father, I sent her away to safety."
"I had hoped to see her."
"But, she'll return shortly. Do you mind a little wait?"
"I will wait, though I am intrigued as to how you were able to completely hide my granddaughter from Mephisto. He should've been able to sense her anywhere."
"That assumes she went somewhere..."
Daria, Franklin and Quinn waited within the room that had been used to trap Mephisto. After several minutes, the air in front of them shimmered and soon the form of a slender, teenage girl appeared, slowly spinning to a stop a foot off the ground. Her long, blond hair fell like a cape around her shoulders and the bundle held in her arms.
Easing to the floor, Valeria Richards saw her brother and sister-in-law occupying wheelchairs and said, "Ow. Looks like you had a rough fight, but you must've beaten the bad guy."
Daria said, "We had to make it believable to Mephisto. We stopped him, but at a high cost. I hope little Jane wasn't too much of a bother."
Valeria gently pushed the cloth away from her niece's face and said, "Nah, JV was cool."
Franklin shook his head, but smiled. "JV? I should've known you'd come up with something."
"It's one of the things I do best."
Daria took her daughter from Valeria and gently kissed the faint, red spot on the baby's forehead. "Welcome home, Sweetie."
Thoroughly confused, Quinn asked, "Valeria, where did you just come from?"
"Yesterday, with a stop next Tuesday."
"Triple-D asked me to time dance JV a day ahead."
Franklin asked, "Sis, where in next week did you stop?"
"Just my room. I wanted to spend a little time with my niece." Valeria half-grinned at Franklin. "She's cute; must be from taking after her mom."
In a friendly warning, Daria said, "Are you questioning my taste in men?"
"Oops. On second thought, scratch that," Valeria verbally backpedaled.
Quinn interrupted, "Time dance? Will somebody please tell me what's going on?"
Valeria said, "I can time travel."
"Therefore, Jane physically wasn't 'anywhere' to be located by Mephisto, so he could only detect the mark he'd left earlier. I suspect it was when he kidnapped Janos. We found the mark after Grandmother said Mephisto was after Jane. Franklin removed the top layers of skin and placed it in the cradle as a decoy." In addition, Daria said, "Quinn, that's why Franklin and I didn't tell anyone else what we had planned."
"My head is starting to hurt," Quinn said, "but, I'll take your word for it."
To Daria, Valeria asked, "I've only been able to time dance for a few months. How did you know?"
Daria looked up from Jane, smiling. "You told me."
"I told you? I don't remember...oh," Valeria said, stopping as she realized the implication that in her future, she would travel into Daria's past and tell her. "You know, keeping track of this stuff is going to get complicated."
Pushing Franklin back into the infirmary, Valeria paused. "Hold on. Facing Dr. Doom after what he did to me...I'm going to need a minute."
"He's not as frightening as he was before," Franklin reassured his sister.
After resting a few moments with her eyes closed, Valeria said, "I'm ready."
Seeing Valeria, Victor said, "Now I understand. Miss Richards, you've grown to be a handsome young woman. You and your brother have done me great honor...which I do not deserve."
"Um, Dr. Doom, to be honest, I was helping Franklin and Daria," Valeria said. "With our history, I really wasn't thinking about you."
"The only ones that should be called doctor is Her Majesty or His Highness," Victor corrected. "Please, call me Victor. You may not have intended to honor me, but by helping my daughter and granddaughter, you have. Visiting like this also honors me."
Valeria put her hands in her pockets. "I guess."
Shifting his head, Victor saw Jane Valeria and said, "A lovely child. For too long, Castle Doom has not been a home to children."
Quinn said, "You know, I just realized that you didn't get to see Daria and me as babies."
"Not true. I secretly arranged to see each of you once after you were born."
"Oh. Um, Daria said that you were keeping an eye on us as we grew up. Why did you let us stay in Highland so long?"
"I did not wish to unnecessarily interfere. Highland was difficult, but it also made both of you strong." Victor looked to Daria. "Make sure Jane Valeria has true challenges in her life. The obstacles you overcame as a child are what made you such a strong ruler."
"I will, Father," Daria replied.
"Good afternoon, sir," Janos said from the door. In a comfortable robe and walking with crutches, he asked, "May I come in, Majesty?"
"Janos, please have a seat," Daria said.
To the butler's surprise, Victor looked pained to see him. The former master said, "Your loyalty was always unquestioned. Seeing what you endured under Mephisto's torment was one of the hardest things I've witnessed, yet your loyalty to the one who deserved it did not waver. You are a pillar of honor in this land."
"Thank you, sir."
Nodding off for a couple seconds, Victor recovered and said, "My limited powers can't hold off the inevitable for much longer."
Quietly, Daria said, "I suspected that was why you wanted to see Jane so quickly."
"My one regret is not meeting Helen and Jake. While I knew Helen had great intelligence, ambition and strength, I long doubted Jake and thought him a weak fool. However, I can only claim to be a genetic donor. Jake Morgendorffer was your father in all other ways. I may never understand him, but I cannot deny the results of his and Helen's parenting."
Daria said, "I'll make sure that they know."
Victor leveled his eyes at Franklin. "Dr. Richards. I am proud to have you as a son-in-law. Please tell your parents and their compatriots, farewell."
"Quinn. I've known you for far too brief of a time, but I believe you will bring a gaiety to this castle that it has lacked."
"Valeria, to you I can only offer my apology, and to say that you are as fair as your namesake."
"Janos, allow Her Majesty to reward you as you should be rewarded."
Janos let a reluctant smile slip. "If you insist."
"Daria. I can rest knowing Latveria is under your care. You are a model of what a monarch should strive to become."
"I owe much of that to you. Before you...go, I have one official announcement. I'm restoring the rank and title of archduke to you."
"You always believed in redemption, even from the day I first brought you to Latveria. Know that your belief has not been wasted." His next words were whispers too faint to hear. His eyelids partially closed and a last sigh escaped before the alarms of the bedside monitors sounded.
Daria made herself sit up straight as a production assistant adjusted the green scarf covering the bandage on her head. When he moved away, Daria gently placed her crown over the scarf.
In front of the throne, the TV Latveria floor director said, "Stand by." He held up a hand and counted down with his fingers, three, two, one, and at zero, pointed to the camera.
When the camera's on-air light came on, Daria said, "Good evening. Yesterday, a plot by the demon Mephisto to implicate Victor Von Doom in attacks upon Latveria was uncovered and stopped. This afternoon, to our sorrow, Victor Von Doom died of injuries that occurred while helping to stop Mephisto. I have ordered the restoration of his title and recognition as the former King of Latveria. I am declaring tomorrow an official day of mourning, and he will be buried with full state honors in three days."
Daria paused for a second to allow the news to settle. "His Grace did many things for the greater good of Latveria and her people. We live in a safe and secure nation that he built. However, we also know he committed many wrongs, both to the people of Latveria and to others around the world. I ask you to think of both sides of this man. To remember that we all have the capacity for good or evil and that we can turn away from the darker parts of our being, even if it seems we are too far gone."
In a small hospital in eastern Latveria, a doctor placed a newborn in his mother's arms. Crying, Katerina Lukova gratefully held the infant that, minutes before, the doctors had declared stillborn. Though they couldn't understand how a baby that didn't have a chance at life was now alive, they were glad the child was now healthy and strong. She kissed the ruddy-faced boy and said, "You're my little miracle, Oskar. I hope you're going to be happy."
Hearing this, Victor thought, Oskar. A new name for a new life.
Thanks to Kristen Bealer, Ipswichfan and Mr. Orange for beta reading.