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?
From the window of her personal apartment, Queen Daria Von Doom watched predawn light slowly illuminate the forest outside. Ten years. Ten years since my biological father invited me here. By the end of summer, it will be ten years since he left to try to rule in Hell and me to rule Latveria.
A hawk circled over the forest edge. Castle Doom's grounds were protected and maintained by the foresters, so the local hawks and their prey flourished within sight of the walls. Daria watched them as old friends…friends she daily shared a few quiet, early morning minutes with before the whirlwind of activity started.
Daria sighed as ringing drew her attention away from the hawk. She sat down at her work desk and pressed a button on the communications panel. "Yes?"
Her personal butler, Janos, replied, "Your Majesty, the Countess wishes to speak with you. Are you available?"
"I have a few minutes. Put her through."
The communication display showed the change of connections to a secure, outside line. Daria said, "Hi, Quinn."
"Daria. How are you?"
"More nervous than usual. It's going to be a long day."
"Oh, yeah. Good luck with that constitution vote thing."
"Thanks, I'll need it."
"Anyway, I know you've got stuff like that under control. Can you spare an evening next week?"
Amused and irritated, Daria said, "Who are you trying to set me up with, this time?"
"It's more like just meet."
"He's the star of that new series on the SF Channel. He's really, really cute and he's also into all that science stuff I know you still like."
"Another actor? Quinn…"
There's nothing wrong with them. Well, not all of them. A few of them."
"Quinn, I'm not looking for some weird, reversed Grace Kelly situation here."
"Quinn, I know you're trying to help, but suggestions like that; don't."
"Daria, you never get out, except for official visits and stuff."
"I know. I have a lot to do."
"You've got to…"
"Quinn, if the vote goes well today, I will have more time. A constitutional monarchy will take a lot of pressure off me. Maybe give me time to go out on a date now and then."
"Daria, you've got to make time. You're one of the most available women in the world and there are hordes of guys who'd do anything to go out with you."
"With most of them only looking for a ready source of spending money and fame."
"So, you throw some money at them and have a good time."
"Quinn, you know that's…"
"Yeah, yeah. You're still a romantic under that tough armor of yours. But you haven't even dated anyone since that Tom guy in high school."
"Which, I am well aware of."
"So you're not interested in…"
"That's right." Daria looked at the time display of her computer. "I've got to get ready. I'll talk to you later."
"Okay, Daria. I'm sorry, I was only trying to help."
Daria sighed again. "I know, and it's appreciated. I have to go. Bye, Quinn."
Daria pushed another button to end the call. "Sometimes, it's not good to be Queen."
Dressed in the crisp green and black business suit that had become regular wear for official business, Daria was seated in her working office and faced several officials as she signed an official letter.
She crisply folded the letter and closed it inside an envelope. She placed it face down on the table and poured a small circle of sealing wax on the back before pressed an ornate stamp into it. "Now that all other business is done," Daria said as she placed the letter on a silver rack to cool. "Is everything set for the voting?"
The Prime Minister nodded. "Yes, Your Majesty. The polling places will open in fifty minutes."
Her Minister of Intelligence said, "We are still receiving reports that the vote is seen by some as a sign of your weakness. That you are not strong enough to rule and wish to give away your power." He carefully avoided her eyes. "That you are a Von Doom by name only."
There was the briefest flash of darkness in Daria's eyes, much like that of her biological father's. Without an outward show, she answered, "That was expected. Are your security measures in place to protect voters?"
"Yes, Majesty. There will be no trouble at the polls."
"Do we have any other concerns this morning?"
The Prime Minister said, "There is still poor support for the new constitution. It will be embarrassing for you if the vote goes against it."
Daria sat at her desk. "But oddly, a show of their support for me at the same time."
The Interior Minister said, "Your personal support is, as always, outstanding among the people. Your father would be proud of you."
Daria reached for a photo of Jake Morgendorffer that sat on her desk. "I'm sure, and I know my Dad is. My father, King Victor, taught me how to be a Queen, but my Dad taught me that even old fears and doubts can be overcome."
Daria's old friend and confidante, Jane, took a tray with two large cups of coffee from Janos and said, "I'll take it from here."
The butler bowed his head and smiled. "Of course, Lady Jane."
She softly laughed. "I still get a kick out of being called that. And you wouldn't believe how much it ticks-off the 'upstanding' Lanes that I'm a Knight of Latveria."
"A well deserved recognition, Lady Jane."
Jane went inside the office and set the tray in front of Daria. "I know you can use this."
"Thanks." Daria took one cup of coffee already prepared to her taste and sipped. "This is turning into one of the longest days of my life."
"As bad as our old days at…Lawndale High?" Jane drew out the school's name dramatically, like their old principal did.
"Just as bad. It would be worse if you weren't here. Thanks."
Jane shrugged, "Hey, Josh loves to tear around the castle and Devon loves to travel, so it works for all of us."
"I know it's kind of pathetic how much I depend on you. I'm glad Devon's been so understanding."
Jane sat on the edge of Daria's desk, knowing she was the only person who could get away with it. "I learned from my brother Wind's mistakes and made Devon read a full disclosure form of what marrying into the Lanes involved."
"And if that didn't scare him off, nothing will."
Laughing, Jane said, "But, I still won't risk a full-blown Lane family reunion."
Daria answered an interrupting buzz from her communication panel. "Yes?"
"Apologies for disturbing you," Janos politely said. "One of the servo-guards retrieved Master Joshua from the moat. The young man claims he was looking for the sea monster in it."
Jane looked at Daria. "You're the one who told him that."
"Lady Jane, he is rather wet," Janos added.
Jane stood. "Occupational hazard for five-year olds. I'm on my way."
Late in the evening, Daria sat on a wing-back chair in her apartment. Legs tucked under and a crystal stem-glass of Latverian Sable wine forgotten on the table beside her, she leaned against one of the wings. Sadly, Daria watched a wide-screen TV that showed several Latverian and international broadcasts and felt her spirits sink.
On the nearby sofa, Jane sat with her husband, a slightly taller man with wavy blond hair and eyes as blue as Jane's. Curled up with them, a blond boy slept, wearing an innocent smile.
A news broadcaster said, "The primary vote count has been completed and the Constitutional Referendum did not have the majority vote needed for ratification. The people of Latveria have chosen to continue following the wise leadership of Queen Daria."
Tired, Daria closed her eyes. "Damn."
"Well, not needing to build a legislative hall frees up a lot of money in the budget," Daria said as she went through a financial report. Her posture was more like that of her teen years than the one she normally held.
The Finance Minister said, "Yes, Majesty. What shall we do with it?"
"Move it to the reserve fund for now."
"Very good. The same with the seed funds for the Electoral Office?"
She nodded, almost as if trying to sleep than in agreement.
Concerned, he said, "Majesty, are you ill?"
Daria massaged her temples. "Tired. The last couple weeks are catching up with me."
"If I may…perhaps you can rest for a few days. Sometimes, you work harder than your father."
Daria looked at him and started to say something. The Minister held up his hand. "Majesty, Latveria will not fall if you take time to rest. But, it may have problems if fatigue clouds your judgment."
Daria rested her hand on the small pistol at her belt. "You never would have said something like that to my father." She removed her hand and stood. "That's one of the differences between me and him. We're done for now. Please have Janos assemble the ministers in the throne room at one this afternoon. I'll announce my…vacation…then."
"Majesty, the Duchess is on the line, as you requested," Janos spoke over the phone.
Daria opened the outside line and said, "Hi, Mom."
"Daria, it's so good to hear from you," Helen replied. "Your dad and I are so sorry things didn't work out yesterday."
"Thanks. How mad are you at the neighbors these days?"
From another phone, Jake said, "Nosy little…"
"Jake!" Helen sharply said.
"How would you like to really annoy them?" Daria asked.
Jake almost shouted with joy, "When are you coming over?"
"If you don't mind, in a couple days. After we work out permissions and security details with the US government."
Helen said, "We don't mind, but that's awfully short notice. Are you okay?"
"Very tired and need to get out of the castle for a few days. A nice little padded room may be just what I need."
Helen said, "It'll be waiting."
"Can you also call Quinn and let her know?"
"I'm probably the only head of state that gets called that by her mother."
"Don't be silly. I'm sure most of them get called something like that, they just don't tell anyone."
"I'll remember that the next time I'm in an endless meeting with one."
"After all these years, it's weird as hell to see you doing that," Jane said, seated inside Daria's personal aircraft.
Daria turned away from a large mirror, satisfied everything was in place. "How do you think I feel? There are times when I want to find my old jacket and boots and walk out there."
"You know exactly where they're at."
"Got me. But it's still tempting."
"Anyway, I'll keep a hold of Josh so he doesn't try to run out in front of you."
"That would make a hell of a photo op."
"Try not to eat too many reporters this time. Leave some for dessert."
Devon said, "Thanks once again. We could never afford all these trips."
Daria looked over the top of her glasses. "It's the least I can do. Jane's my strongest sanity anchor."
"I still feel a little guilty."
"Then help Jane hold onto Josh."
Daria stopped behind a podium bearing the Seal of Latveria that was set up on the airport tarmac near the exit from her personal aircraft. Slightly behind and to one side, Jane and her family stood next to the waiting limousine, where a cadre of servo guards took up positions in conjunction with the US Secret Service.
Daria told the group of reporters, "Good morning. To answer what I know will be the first question, I'm here to visit my family and take a short vacation. For the second question about the recent referendum in Latveria: the people of my country have made their wishes known."
A brunette woman said, "It is highly unusual for such a referendum to fail. What do you have to say about claims of fraud during the voting?"
"Independent observers from around the world were invited to observe the voting. All reported the voting went smoothly. The European Union delegation went as far as to say that the voting was the best organized and least suspect of any that they had observed…even in their own countries. These observers have stayed in Latveria to observe the investigation of each report."
An Asian man asked, "If the voting was so clean, then how do you account for the reports?"
"In any political process, some people will be displeased. They are probably the source of the reports."
"Isn't that quite a change for Latveria? Under your father, such activity was unheard of."
"That was King Victor. As you may notice, I am not the same person and I do not rule the same fashion as he chose."
Another man, this one with graying black hair, asked, "There are reports that you came here to rest. Are they true?"
"I was very busy the last few weeks and will enjoy a little rest, that's true."
A young man with blond hair asked, "Is it true your sister will be setting you up for some dates while you're in America?"
Daria paused. "I'm sure she'll be keeping her eyes and ears open for me."
A woman next to the previous reporter said, "Will you be looking?"
"I hadn't made any specific plans."
Another man asked, "Your closest advisor all these years has been Jane Lane. What about the rumors that you have carried on an affair with her?"
Daria looked directly into the man's eyes. "Do you ask any men in my position if they are having affairs with their male advisors?"
The crowd was quiet.
Daria's eyes bore in harder. "Do you?"
Feeling very upset, the reporter sputtered, "N-no."
"There, you provided the answer. No, I have not had an affair with her. Jane is my closest friend and is married to a man she loves. The very idea that Jane would cheat on her husband is abhorrent." Daria took one step toward the limousine. "Now that my mood for this has been ruined, I bid you good day."
Daria ducked inside the car and as soon as the door closed, the chauffeur had it moving.
Jane said, "Are you being hard on the press again?"
"Only those that deserve it."
"I thought he was gonna fill his pants." Jane waved her fingers. "Did you use a little assistance?"
"That would be privileged information."
Inside a nondescript cottage, Prince Zorba Fortunov II watched the interview and snorted. "Run away home, little girl. You're not fit to rule Latveria."
The handsome young man ran one hand through his dark brown hair and said in Latverian, "I will enjoy restoring my family's honor and rightful place on the throne, by trampling you into the ground like the foreign schoolgirl you are."
From the adjacent room, a voice said, "Do not underestimate your foe. You're seeing a temporary weakness. She has her father's intelligence and drive. Few rulers have honestly earned doctoral degrees…let alone while ruling."
"Then we should move now."
"No. We must prepare the way and make her weakness more than temporary. Then, we can move. Those decadent American reporters have given you leverage. The Queen has no consort and no heir. The Fortunovs always came to the throne with a family."
Zorba nodded. "Yes. It's quite irresponsible of her not to be prepared for succession."
The voice said, "And the process of searching for a consort should usefully distract her."
"A sweatsuit?!" Quinn shrieked. "Please tell me that's not the only thing you brought to wear!"
Slouching on a sofa in her parents' house, Daria said, "I'm here to relax," and kicked her feet up to rest on the coffee table.
"You're wearing those boots!? Daria, are you trying to give me a heart attack?"
"Quinn, I'm here to do nothing. Absolutely nothing. Park my ass, have pizza delivered and watch bad television."
"But you can do that at your castle."
"Not like this. And trust me; you don't want to try Latverian pizza delivery."
"I was hoping…"
"…To get me out more. I know. I'm just not up to it."
Quinn noticed the faint catch in Daria's voice. She swung around the sofa and sat next to her sister. "It's more than that - and more than you being annoyed at me for trying. Something is really bothering you about this."
"Quinn, I'm here to rest. Okay?"
Her old padded room had been left mostly unchanged. Even though she'd spent less than two years in there and it now seemed tiny, the room comforted her.
However, the direction of the current conversation didn't. "Et tu, Jane?" Daria said in disbelief.
"Hard as it is to admit, she has a point."
"Yeah, right. I'm not letting Quinn set me up on a blind date."
"Okay, I can see where you wouldn't go for the kinds of guys Quinn would locate, but a date might do you some good."
"I'm not going out with your brother."
Jane shook her head. "Between your duties and studying, you've retreated even further back into your shell than you were when I met you."
"Nonsense. I have to deal with all kinds of people every day."
"And not allow any of them close." Jane paused in thought before saying, "You always had a hard time letting anyone really know you. With how often people only want to see you for what they can get out of it, that's gotten worse. Hasn't it?"
Daria slowly nodded.
"And that's why you don't want to even try to date anybody?"
Daria looked out of the force field protected window. "Part of it."
"And the rest?"
Daria continued to stare out of the window, feeling faintly imprisoned by the invisible, silent forcefield protecting the house.
Jane pressed her friend. "What else?"
"What would I do? I've only gone out with two guys…and you don't even need to take your shoes off to count the total number of dates. I was never very good with that stuff, and now…"
Jame's jaw fell open. "That's it? You're scared?"
"The girl that stood toe-to-toe against the Fantastic Four?"
Daria turned in frustration. "Jane, I don't need you making fun of me over it."
"Sorry. It's hard to match the two. Almost everyone learns to deal with dates. What are you so afraid of?"
"That I'll screw up. You have to admit that my ability to think clearly went out the window when a guy showed any real interest in me. I can't afford to have that happen now."
"Um…you have a point, but that was ten years ago. Give yourself a chance."
"Back then, the worst a guy could be trying to use me for was sex. Now…not only do I have to deal with the sycophants, but over the years, several other traditional monarchies have sent their princes over to meet me. They represented everything from those who wanted a marriage to get outside cash to shore up a failing budget, to those that thought that I just needed a good man to take over as king so I don't have to worry. Or another that asked me how many apartments I had available for his concubines. I really understand why Elizabeth I didn't get married." Daria sighed. "But I don't want to end up another Virgin Queen like her, either."
"We'll just have to look somewhere else."
"But where? I can't exactly go down to the Zon and mingle."
"Considering it burned down a couple years ago, no…but I see what you're getting at."
Sarcastically, Daria suggested, "Maybe I can use one of those online matchmaking services. Single Female Monarch seeks companion. Must be intelligent, caring, and possess skin thick enough to survive castle politics."
Jane moved next to the window Daria was looking out of. "On second thought, why don't you accept Quinn's offer? Someone light and fluffy to start with. What could it hurt?"
"I'm going to regret this. Okay."
The five-star restaurant's private dining room was oversized for two, but it was the only place Daria and her date could expect to converse without continuous interruptions. She sat across a table from Don, the muscular, handsome actor that Quinn had mentioned. Daria had to admit the dinner was a masterpiece of fine cuisine.
After hearing another of Don's stories, Daria said, "I'm sorry, I didn't see that movie, either."
Somewhat confused, he asked, "You don't see many, do you?"
Daria shook her head. "No. It's not easy to get the time to watch one, and when I do have the time, I usually like to spend it writing."
"Quinn mentioned you've liked to write since you were little. Any screenplays in the works?"
"No. I write for my own amusement and a few close friends."
"Have you tried to publish any?"
Shaking her head, Daria said, "When I was younger, I might've tried. But now, writing is a release. Writing to publish would make it an obligation…and I have enough of those as it is."
Don laughed. "I know what you mean. Between the set, my agent, my publicist and my personal trainer…the days are just filled. But, I always find some time to get away to shoot some hoops. I played in college and considered turning pro…but I decided on acting instead."
"My sister mentioned that you enjoy science."
"Not just enjoy, I live it. Discovering Scientology was one of the greatest things to happen to me. Are you interested?"
"That's not quite what I meant."
As her plane taxied across Latveria's main airport of Doomsport, Daria reread several reports, ruefully saying, "What would it hurt?"
She shook her head and read more. "Zorba is really pressing the point about my single status and the need for a clear heir. Now we know who thought I was showing weakness with the referendum."
The plane stopped and Daria prepared to leave. As soon as the door opened, she hurried down the access stairs and to the waiting limousine. Inside was the Prime Minister.
"Welcome back, your Majesty."
"To the mess my little date created. What's your opinion of the situation?"
The gentleman answered, "There is support for Zorba's position, even beyond those that would prefer to see the Fortunovs returned to the throne. However, support for you continues to be much higher. Most would prefer for you to find a husband and start a family. That is not really a condemnation. The happiest days of my life were my marriage and the birth of my children."
"It's not that I'm adverse to the idea. Dealing with this is going to be a distraction. I don't like it."
Inside one of the deepest rooms of the castle, the Intelligence Minister said, "It's certain that he wants to place his family back on the throne and avenge the deaths of his father, Zorba I and grandfather, Vladimir. You don't want deep surveillance?"
"No, not yet. We don't have proof that has Zorba doing anything more than talking. However, if he is planning something, he's going to need outside assistance. Increase border surveillance for anything that may support a rebellion. That includes any methods to physically bypass the borders."
"I find I'm still adapting to your methods, compared with your father. But I will say, you've developed a more subtle way than his."
"If you uncover real evidence against Zorba, be prepared to move quickly."
"There will be no hesitation."
Now for the damage control to start, Daria thought as the slender television interviewer sat down and adjusted her microphone. Camera and sound technicians, carefully watched by servo-guards, worked nearby making final checks of equipment.
Happy with the microphone, the interviewer motioned to the camera operator to start. "Good evening. This is Mira Natarova and tonight, I'm the special guest of Queen Daria. Good evening, Your Majesty."
Daria made a faint smile and said, "Good evening, Mira."
"How are you feeling after your vacation?"
"It was refreshing to be with my family."
The interview questions that followed were lightweight and Daria correctly gauged them to be softening her up for later.
Mira asked, "We've heard little from you concerning Prince Zorba's campaign that you should've been married before ascending the throne, or at least have been actively seeking a husband since then."
Daria corrected, "There are currently no princes in Latveria. Mr. Fortunov has stated his opinion and I will not stop him. I agree that in many ways, it would have been easier for me to have been married before I became Queen. However, I was seventeen at the time. In my opinion, a little young to make such a decision."
"He's stated that for many generations, rulers of his family had been married before they ascended to the throne."
"Most of them were much older than seventeen when they did. Not a valid comparison."
"Are you opposed to finding a husband?"
"Not at all. I allowed other aspects of my life to push that out of mind and these questions have brought it forward. However, my position does make looking difficult." She leaned forward and conspiratorially said, "Lets face it, my security scares some of them away."
Mira lightly laughed. "But apparently, not your recent dalliance with an American actor. There are many who wonder what you were thinking."
"Mira, have you ever gone out with someone who at first seemed interesting, but later proved to be…less than compatible?"
Mira laughed again. "I'm afraid so."
"And I'm sure you have some horror stories about bad dates."
"I'm not immune to that happening, either. No offense to the gentleman, but he ended up being someone who wasn't right for me." Daria paused and looked at the camera. "And trying to date someone under the microscope of the news media and paparazzi is a challenge. I'm sure that everyone in Latveria wants me to find the right person. So, be patient."
Straining to maintain her composure, Daria said into the telephone, "I'm positive that he's a perfect gentleman, but fourteen is a little young…No, I think he would also be too young for my sister…I understand that is an acceptable age for betrothal…No offense to your customs intended, I was merely pointing out an important difference…Thank you for your interest. Please have a good day."
Daria cut the connection and tapped the controls to open another. "Janos, unless it's an important security issue, please hold my calls…Thank you."
Pushing her chair away from the desk, Daria looked up at the ceiling. "A month of come-ons from around the world. What the hell have I gotten myself into?"
Pulling on the desk with one hand to roll the chair back, she scanned through news reports and other online information. In addition to numerous speculative articles about Daria's hunt and the reasons behind it, there were also several good retrospectives of her reign, from her surprise appearance as princess and heiress, to the quiet abdication of King Victor and her coronation. The stories also recalled her early success, aided by the Fantastic Four, in maintaining control of Latveria against several outside attempts to take over, such as the one led by the villainous Red Skull. Since then, she was known for maintaining her father's high standard of honest government, while greatly expanding the personal freedoms of the citizens.
Daria permitted a faint smile. All the press following my availability is incredibly annoying, but the background stories have come across well and taken the edge off Zorba's attacks.
She changed the display to a recent report on Zorba's latest rally. His rhetoric had become strident and the crowds smaller. Good. He made a splash, but he's fading. Soon, his campaign will end. But, he wants power, and that may drive him to more desperate acts.
"I warned you not to underestimate your opponent," the advisor reminded Zorba."
Zorba pounded his fist on the table where he was seated "She's turned the entire thing to her favor! She's picking among suitors from around the world like a high-priced harlot and the people are behind her. She's even convinced everyone to stop using my proper title. How could this happen?"
"She's intelligent, committed and ruthless. Like her father, and from what I've learned, much like her mother. The question of her marital status has served its first purpose, now to use it for the second. It is time to show that she is too distracted and weak to properly protect and rule."
"But, as much as I would like to, we can't act now. It would be obvious that we are behind any acts."
"There are ways to hide what's going on."
A few moments later, a distant thump gently rattled the windows. Zorba jumped up and said, "What was that?!"
Calmly, the advisor said, "Your main office was just destroyed. I'm afraid that several workers and probably some bystanders were killed in the explosion."
"Are you mad?!"
"Clearly, Latveria's famous security can't be bothered to protect political opponents. Or perhaps, rogue elements within security acted against the Queen's political opponents. Or just maybe, they acted on the Queen's orders. It's so hard to tell." The advisor turned, malicious disdain in his tone. "Who is this woman who leads us, who says we should all have a voice - but somehow, those whose voice differs from hers…?"
Zorba sat back down, his eyes glistening with evil anticipation. "Rogues, incompetents, or assassins. What has the Queen allowed to happen under her very nose?"
Daria nodded as the Security Minister read his report. He said, "Finally, residue analysis shows that the explosive used was D17, the primary explosive used by the Latverian Defense Force."
She asked, "Have our inventories been checked?"
"Yes, Majesty. Our entire stockpile has been visually confirmed as present."
She said, "Damn, I didn't think he'd go that far. Where could he have gotten the D17?"
"It is only made in Latveria and the LDF has been the only buyer during your reign. Some was exported under your father. Zorba must have brought some back into the country. We are testing the residue for the manufacturer's lot chemical signature. The results will take another day, but with the lot number, we can trace where the explosive came from."
Daria nodded. "And potentially, Zorba's outside supplier. But, that raises another problem. How did he get it in the country to begin with?"
The Intelligence Minister said, "We don't know. It's possible that he had the supply on hand before he started his campaign."
"Find out. Who knows what else he may have brought in, or may yet bring in."
In the warm comfort of Queen Daria's private dining room, T'Challa, the King of Wakanda, savored his wine before saying, "Would that I had a son of your age."
The man also known as Black Panther noted Daria's almost imperceptible shift in mood and added, "I'm sure you've heard something akin to, 'It would be beneficial to both our countries,' more than you thought possible. I assure you, my comment was entirely based on the idea of having someone as brilliant as you as a daughter-in-law."
Daria nodded. "Thank you."
"You are most welcome. People like us often learn to so distrust motives, that it becomes difficult to trust enough to allow happiness with another." He reached to his side and raised the hand of a softly rounded, stately woman seated next to him, kissing it. "We will look long, far and wide for the right person. But in the end, they will often come from a direction you don't expect."
Queen K'Lena playfully said to T'Challa, "Like directly in front of you."
He smiled back. "Too bad you weren't behind me; you could have kicked me to get my attention sooner."
Daria watched them with a mixture of hope and jealousy. "It sounds like your advice boils down to: expect the unexpected."
"Almost," T'Challa agreed. "More like, be open to those who know you and not your royal persona."
Weeks later, Daria massaged her sore neck and asked, "Still no idea of where the explosives are coming from?"
"No, majesty," the Intelligence Minister replied. "Without a lot signature, the only thing we know for certain is that it isn't Latverian made. Not that anyone believes that. No commercial chemical companies have made it either, so it must be manufactured in a secret facility or something similar."
Daria said, "Which further points to Zorba getting outside help. This sabotage campaign is having a real effect on my credibility. Three bombings and we have no solid evidence to point us to the culprit, but all the apparent evidence points to us. We have to also consider that this may not be Zorba's doing. Somebody else might be exploiting the situation for their own purposes. Perhaps to undermine my government and then strike when Zorba tries to take over."
"Although, after the first explosion, Zorba's offices have been unoccupied and only bystanders injured."
Daria nodded and tapped her fingers on her desk. After some thought, she said, "Set up full-spectrum surveillance on all of Zorba's facilities. I do mean full-spectrum. Since whoever is behind the attacks has only been targeting his party, we have a legitimate reason to keep them under close observation. We need to capture someone actually planting a bomb."
The minister replied, "We will start immediately."
"Too much has gotten past our security. Which means that your staff has gotten lax, which I doubt, or some very high technology concealment is being used."
"Does that also mean that you will be adding additional surveillance of your own?"
Although set apart from the rest of the London restaurant, the raised, railed platform upon which Daria and her date dined was in full view of the other customers. A little stiff and formal, but nothing really bad so far, Daria thought as her date talked about polo.
He asked, "Do you play?"
"No. I haven't ridden on a horse since I was twelve."
"Perhaps you should try again. There is a certain regal look about a lady riding a horse."
"I'll consider it."
"If you're interested, I would be honored to teach you."
Daria felt warmth at the base of her throat. It came from a crystal sphere suspended from a golden chain around her neck. Daria smiled and said, "Will you please excuse me?"
Daria went to the private restroom provided for special guests. She locked the door and removed the chain from her neck, gazing into the mystical sphere. In her mind, an image of Zorba's press office appeared. Hazy and faint, she could see the outline of a man carefully approaching the building.
On each of her dress sleeves was an ornate gold button. Daria turned the edge of the right one until she felt a click. She raised the button to her lips and quietly said, "Intelligence Central, respond."
Transmitted through her glasses frame, Daria heard, "Intelligence Central. Awaiting orders."
"Suspect intruder at Site Three using advanced, adaptive camouflage. May be invisible to most of the electromagnetic spectrum. Locate with non-EM means and capture. Repeat, capture."
"Confirm, intruder to be captured."
"Update me then."
Daria returned to her table. "I'm sorry for the interruption."
In the early morning after her return flight from England, Daria walked with her Security Minister down the corridor of Castle Doom's dungeon. "Who do we have?" she asked.
"A Czech mercenary, fluent with the local languages and trained in demolitions. Dishonorably discharged from the Czech army after serving a jail term for theft."
"Has he said anything about his employer?"
"Nothing. So far, we've only held and identified him."
Daria stopped at the interrogation room door. "Mercenary? This may be very easy."
She and the Minister stepped inside. The prisoner was seated at a table with two servo-guards beside him.
Daria said, "This can be over very quickly if you cooperate. We need to know who your employer is, and where they obtained the explosives you had."
The man looked straight ahead without speaking.
Daria turned away. "Admittedly, Latverian prisons aren't the greatest places to be, but they are better than they were under my father. Now, you can tell us what you know and go to one, with appropriate considerations. Or, we can publicly release you without charges. I'm sure your employer will be interested in why we were so lenient."
The soldier stared at Daria's back, worry lining his face.
Daria turned back. "You're a mercenary, so it's a simple choice. Cooperate, or we let your employer deal with you."
The man swallowed and said, "This was my first mission. Different agents were used for each demolition and then they were teleported out of the country."
Daria said, "Somehow, I doubt if the other agents lived long after that. Keep talking. We'll need to confirm your statements, but cooperation will be favorably looked upon. Who did you work for?"
"Zorba. Prince Zorba."
"Very good. The explosives?"
"Rumor said his advisor. He also provided the camouflage suit. Best suit I've ever seen. Must have some major funding. I heard he's the one with the teleport unit, too."
"What about this advisor? Who is it?"
"I don't know. Never saw him. Nobody ever sees him."
In the Command Center of Castle Doom, Daria pointed on a map to a location outside of Doomstadt. "Mr. Fortunov has already figured out his agent was captured and moved here. We need to move quickly while he is off-balance."
To the Security Minister, she said, "Prepare a team to leave within an hour. I will be on hand to watch. Like my father, I feel this is something I should see to, personally. We will use contingency plan A3."
He answered, "Are you sure? There is a good chance that he or his followers may resist."
"My plan is to avoid that." Daria pulled on the fabric of one shirt sleeve. "But just in case, you know how protective this material is. Yes, there will be some risk, but it isn't unreasonable."
"I understand. Please be careful."
Inside her limousine, Daria watched blue icons for each human and servo-guard on the assault team on a monitor. Patiently, they went to assigned start positions around the compound where Zorba had moved to after the fourth bomb failed to explode.
In an armored personnel carrier next to the limousine, the young team leader nervously waited. Daria said over their encrypted radio, "Your commander assigned you to this because he believed you were the right woman for the job. I trust his judgment. You know the mission, so proceed at your discretion."
The leader silently nodded and closely examined the same display. She said, "Execute," and slid back a couple inches in her seat to bring other displays into her immediate field of view.
The APC's driver moved it into the compound. Over a loudspeaker, the strike team leader said in Latverian, "Zorba Fortunov. Tell your followers not to resist. We are giving you the opportunity to surrender."
Daria's car followed. Outside, Daria watched the strike team efficiently round up Zorba's followers without incident. She activated her communication system and said over the outside speakers, "Zorba. This is Queen Daria. Please come out honorably and peacefully with everyone in your company. I trust you will maintain your family dignity and not try anything unwise."
Moments after hearing that, Zorba the Second saw Daria step out of the car and walk around to the front. From the large house at the center of the estate, he exited alone and walked toward her. Two human soldiers stopped and searched him, removing a sidearm and a radio. With a nod, they let him proceed.
Daria stepped forward and said, "Zorba Fortunov. You are being detained for questioning concerning the recent terrorist bombings in Doomstaadt and an attempted bombing last night. You are not under arrest and will not be restrained." Daria gestured to a second APC. "Please enter for transport to Castle Doom."
Zorba grinned as he pressed a button on his watch. He and his target disappeared. Troops rushed to the area, but found nothing.
Zorba leaned against one wall of a small room and looked at Daria, shackled at wrists and ankles to a chair. "You stand up to adversity well. I'm surprised. I had expected a little more distress from you."
Daria said, "Sorry to disappoint. But then, I've done that for most of my life."
There was a knock on the door and one of Zorba's followers whispered to him. He smiled and said, "We have sufficient visual scanning to produce a digital model of you, and enough voice samples to construct what we want. That is, unless you want to honestly declare your abdication."
"You know that I won't do that."
He shrugged. "In that case, we'll have to create one. Shouldn't take long. Oh, yes. Since you might dispute it afterward, I'll have to…"
A door to the adjoining room opened behind Daria. Zorba's advisor asked, "What is she doing here?"
Zorba smiled. "I took advantage of an opportunity. By the end of the day, the crown will be mine."
"Idiot! You damned idiot!" The door slammed and silence followed.
Zorba looked back to Daria. "Useful, but too cautious. And such jealousy that I completed things long before he thought we could is unbecoming. He's the idiot for not seeing the value of you as a hostage."
Zorba removed his pistol from its holster and pointed it at Daria's head. "Back to business. We can generate as much live footage of you as we want, so your actual presence isn't needed."
The door behind him opened. Zorba angrily said, "I gave orders to knock before entering!"
An armored figure stood in the doorway. Light reflected from polished metal and the outside breeze flapped Daria's green hood and cape. Behind a smooth steel mask marked only by two eye slits, Daria said, "I don't take orders from traitors."
"What?!" Zorba spun around, trying to aim his pistol at Queen Daria. A clear ripple in the air streaked from her right gauntlet to Zorba's chest. The force threw him across the room to loudly strike the wall before falling to the ground.
The bound Daria calmly said, "Unit DB3 reporting. Advisor still unidentified. He exited the room through the door behind me. Greater than 95% chance he correctly recognized me as a robot and fled."
Daria ran through the door with servo-guards following. It led to a closed garage where Zorba's personal car was parked, but nothing else. "Dammit!"
A combat medic was treating Zorba when Daria returned. She asked, "What's his condition?"
The medic looked up. "Sternum, left scapula and multiple ribs broken. Left shoulder dislocated. Probable internal injuries."
"Evacuate him to a hospital as soon as he is stable. He has much to answer for."
The robotic Daria said, "Audiovisual record of events uploaded to Command Central."
"Area secure," the strike force commander told Daria.
"They are very realistic," Daria told the commander while indicating the updated Doombot "I know it was hard to watch the robot kidnapped, but you performed exactly as needed."
The officer saluted, saying "Thank you, Majesty."
Daria told the woman, "Thank you. Latveria wouldn't be nearly as successful as it is without people like you who make everything happen."
Once the scout helicopter's rotors stopped turning, Daria jogged to the Sensor System Operator and asked, "Did you record a teleport signal?"
The crewman replayed the recorded information. "Yes, Majesty. However, it's not in our signature library. We can't tell anything about it or even know if it's traceable."
Daria examined the display and said, "That is very unusual. I'll need to analyze it further."
"I'll transmit the data to Command Central."
"No. I don't want this data intercepted. Its existence is now Top Secret."
"Transfer the data to CD for me and zero out your sensor data memory."
"Immediately." The SSO had the data CD to Daria in less than a minute and the sensor memory rewritten with all zero data points. "Majesty."
She took the disk and said, "Return to base. You've done an outstanding job this evening."
In her office a couple days later, Daria continued to puzzle over the sensor data on the teleport. This is the damnedest thing I've ever seen. What the hell could cause that?
The door chime made her look away from the monitor and walk to the door. On the other side was Janos holding a tray. "I had dinner prepared for you, Majesty. Would you like it here or in your chambers?"
"Don't carry it all the way over there; I'll eat here. Thanks."
Janos placed the tray on a side table from the desk. "The Countess called earlier and requested that you return her call at your earliest convenience."
"I wonder who she found this time?"
"She intends only the best for you."
Daria lightly smiled. "I know. But our tastes have differed on most things."
"Including young men, I take it."
"Will you need anything else, Majesty?"
"No, Janos. Thanks."
Daria ate part of her dinner before she dialed Quinn's number on her communications console. After two rings, a synthetic voice answered, "You've reached the offices of Quinn Sense Image Consultants. If you know your party's extension, you may enter it at any time, followed by the pound sign. If you…"
Daria used the console's keypad to tap in Quinn's direct line, followed by a second code that allowed her to bypass Quinn's personal secretary.
Quinn answered, "Hello."
"You rang, Sis?"
"Daria. Glad you called back."
"What do you have up your sleeve?"
"Only a chance for you to have some fun and look good in the process."
"I'm almost afraid to ask, but I will. What do you have in mind?"
"There's this big celebrity charity ball coming up. You don't have to dance and you don't have to have a date. Its $10,000 a ticket and you go there to be seen and to mingle."
"And maybe find somebody interesting in the process?"
"I can't make any guarantees. There will be a lot more than actors there, so you might. But if nothing else, you get a night out to look good and a lot of money goes to charity."
Daria lightly sighed. "Send me the information. If nothing else, I can buy Mom and Dad tickets so the charity still gets my money. And you, if somebody hasn't already."
"I'm one of the volunteers, so you don't have to worry."
"Ah-ha, you let slip your ulterior motive. Trying to drum up some extra attendance?"
"Of course I am. What good's a charity ball if nobody attends? And if I can help my sister look good in the process, so much the better."
"I try to be."
"You succeed. I want to get to finish my dinner, so I'll talk to you later. Good night, Quinn."
After dinner, Daria barely looked at the monitor and accepted that outside help was needed. She opened the secure line, dialed a memorized number and waited. Upon hearing the pickup on the other end, she said, "Hi, This is Daria Von Doom."
A girl's voice joyfully answered, "Hey, Triple-D!"
Daria closed her eyes and winced in good nature. "Valeria, what are you doing answering this line?"
The twelve-year old girl said, "I was helping Dad and my brother and was the closest…" Her voice became fainter as she moved the phone away from her mouth, saying, "Here you go, Dad. I was just saying hi."
Reed Richards said, "Dr. Daria Von Doom. I'm sorry about that, but you know how Valeria gets."
"Yes, I do."
"Daria, to what do I owe this call?"
"Reed, I need a favor. Zorba Fortunov was the front man responsible for the recent bombings, but it looks like the real mastermind escaped using a teleport device. Our scanners recorded an unusual signature from it. I'm stumped and was hoping to get some help in interpreting it."
"I'm not in a position to help right now. We're monitoring a situation. But, I can send Franklin over; he knows as much about that as I do."
"That would be a tremendous help."
Seated nearby in Dr. Richards' lab of the Baxter building, twenty-one-year old Franklin Richards faintly blushed.
Valeria saw her brother's reaction and giggled.
Reed looked at his daughter and asked Daria, "Would it be possible for Valeria to come with Franklin? We may need to act at any moment and she's still too young to leave alone."
"Yes, and she can stay as long as needed."
"I appreciate it. We'll call things even."
"It's already evening your time. I'll have them fly out early tomorrow morning and they should reach Doomsport by mid-afternoon."
"I'll be waiting. Please be careful with your situation."
"And you with yours."
"Give my regards to Susan, Johnny and Ben. And tell Ben that the laboratory door still sticks occasionally. Bye."
"I'll tell him. Goodbye."
Knowing that help was coming, Daria was able to rest easier that night. She visited the LDF's main weapon laboratory the next morning. After a short tour of the labs, she met with the section leaders in a conference room.
One of them held the mercenary's adaptive camouflage suit up and said, "This is the most advanced EM refractive suit we've even heard mentioned. We detected it only because it was made to deaden sound, so sonar systems had no signal returns. When the target moved in front of another object, the hole in the object return could be followed."
Daria asked, "How advanced?"
"More than any power on Earth."
"Meaning, possible extraterrestrial assistance. Which could explain the D17 explosives; they may have been made off-planet. What about Zorba's teleport unit?"
A second scientist stood. "It was a pre-programmed, one use device. Very similar to an experimental unit stolen from Stark Enterprises two years ago."
"Make arrangements for the unit to be returned to Mr. Stark as soon as possible. He'll appreciate having his property returned, and any differences between the captured device and the one stolen from him may give us clues about who made it."
Daria looked at the expectant faces in the room. "I've been investigating other avenues, but have run into difficulties. Dr. Franklin Richards will be flying in today to assist me. Any requests for information, equipment or supplies from him should be considered a request from me."
The air traffic controller said, "Foxtrot, foxtrot, zero, one, three, zero, fiver. You are cleared to land on runway two-seven."
At the controls of the Fantastic Four's pogo plane, Franklin said, "Doomstaadt tower, understand clear to land on runway two-seven."
In the copilot's seat, Valeria asked, "Excited?"
He responded with, "It's always exciting to get out of the lab and do some field work, even if I have to baby-sit you at the same time."
"That's not what I meant."
"I know, but I don't want to talk about it."
"Sheesh, this is the perfect time! You'll be working side-by-side with her."
"Look, it's all wishful thinking. I'm like a little brother to her."
"You've been wishing for how long?"
"I'm here to do some important work; I can't be distracted by that…" Franklin then placed special emphasis on saying, "…Val."
"Don't call me that!"
"Then back off."
Janos greeted the siblings in the courtyard of Castle Doom, "Dr. Richards. Miss Richards. Welcome back."
Franklin replied, "It's good to see you again, Janos."
"And you, Franklin."
"Don't be so stuffy," Valeria said as she darted over to hug Janos. "Are you keeping her out of trouble?"
Janos gently smiled and regained his composure. "I do the best I can for her Majesty."
Franklin warned, "Valeria…"
She reluctantly looked down. "Sorry, I couldn't help it."
"Her Majesty asked me to get you settled into your apartments first." Janos motioned to a door. "Follow me, please."
Inside Daria's private laboratory, Valeria's enthusiasm was unrestrained. She jumped and embraced Daria. "Triple-D!"
Bemused, Daria carefully returned the gesture. "I'm glad to see you, and you look to be in a good mood."
"Yeah, now that I don't have to be so boring."
Daria asked Janos, "How bad?"
"Only one outburst in the courtyard."
Daria released the girl. "That's an improvement. I'll take it. Franklin, how are you?"
"I'm good," he said. "What have we got?"
"One damn weird teleport signature."
Janos took Valeria's hand. She asked, "Do I have to go?"
Daria said, "I know you've seen some things a person your age shouldn't and can handle it, but I'm not going to add to that. Janos has assured me that the latest games have been downloaded to your apartment's computer."
The girl kicked the floor. "Ahh. I keep getting left out."
"I used to say the same thing. Be patient," Franklin told her.
"I don't want to, but okay."
As Janos led Valeria to the door, he asked Daria, "Should I have dinner ready at seven?"
"Yes, and call if we're late."
"There's a lot of noise in the recorded signal," Franklin explained after his first examination of the data.
"I haven't been able to get through it for a good interpretation."
Franklin produced a CD. "I have some new signal processing protocols that should help. Do you mind if I install them?"
"This will take a little while to configure."
"Do you want some tea?"
"Still take cream and three sugars?"
"I've cut back to two."
"Okay." Daria opened the castle's internal communication. "Janos."
"Yes, Majesty? Aaah! Oops."
Daria heard Valeria say in the background, "You missed the crystal! We have to start the level over."
Speaking away from the phone, Janos said, "Oh, um, sorry, Miss Valeria. I was understandably distracted."
Daria said, "You're busy. I'll call the kitchen directly."
"Thank you, Majesty," Janos said in relief.
A couple hours later, Franklin said, "I have it."
Daria stood behind him and looked over his shoulder. "I should be jealous of how fast you figured this out, but I'm too relieved to worry about it."
Franklin shifted nervously as he became aware of how close Daria's face was to his. "Um, thanks."
"Can I see?" she asked.
Franklin pointed to the monitor and entered a command to the computer. The chaotic signal sorted out and morphed into several versions of the same line. "There wasn't as much noise as several apparently random repeats of the signal combined with a form of Doppler shift."
"What would cause that?"
"Temporal distortion. That wasn't just a teleport device; it was a space-time device."
"You mean that I'm dealing with a time traveler?"
"I'm sorry, but yes."
Frustrated at the new development, but relieved to have some information, Daria rested her forehead on his shoulder and patted the other. "No need to apologize. It's not your time machine. Thanks for figuring it out."
His eyes closed, Franklin said, "You're welcome."
Soon after they sat down for dinner, Valeria said, "Daria, do you mind if I eat in my room? I was in the middle of a really cool level and wanted to keep going."
"Don't tell your mother I let you."
"Thanks!" Valeria picked up her plate and rushed out of the room.
Daria shook her head. "I miss those days. Being able to spend hours on end playing a computer game."
"Me too," Franklin added.
Daria asked, "Is she still showing no sign of…?"
He shook his head. "Other than probably being smarter than me when she makes the effort, no powers yet."
"I don't know, I never had that that kind of energy at her age."
"Most of her school friends have the same energy, and they all get jealous when we visit you. You're quite the star of the pre-teen set."
Daria shook her head.
"A lot of girls her age, and the young women I went to college with, look up to you. From the fairy-tale story of you finding out that you were a princess to how you led the country after becoming Queen. They really like how you stood out in front to stop those attempts to steal the throne."
"I was scared to death."
"But you were still out there in front. Something few other world leaders do."
"It's kind of a given around here."
"I'm sure a lot of those leaders would change their attitudes if they were expected to follow your lead."
"One would hope."
In her room, Valeria sat on the bed, smiling and eating her meal. She adjusted the button earphone in her right ear. "Come on, big brother. I gave you the opening, take it."
She listened for a while and continued eating. "I suppose I can't expect miracles right away."
"I deal with a bunch of ministers and heads of state all the time that are all older." Daria joylessly laughed. "If I walk into a room with other world leaders, almost all of them are fifteen or more years older than I am. And it was worse when I started. They had a hard time dealing with an eighteen-year old girl. But a lot changed their minds after I was filmed shooting the Red Skull on the parapet."
Franklin asked, "I'm sure that got their attention. Were all of them jerks?"
"No. King T'Challa and Prince Namor were a lot of help. They understood the position I was in."
Valeria circled her hand in front of her face and mumbled, "Come on, come on. Quit talking shop so much."
She set her plate on a nearby table and went back to her bed, lying down with her hands folded behind her head. "I guess I should be happy that he's talking and not stuttering."
Franklin smirked and said, "You know, Valeria still has her Queen Daria dolls."
Daria lightly laughed. "Quinn has one of the first ones…unopened."
"Knowing you, I can't believe you licensed those."
Daria rolled her eyes. "I didn't want to, but once we realized the unauthorized ones were going to be made no matter what we did, we licensed them to maintain control and used the royalties for overseas college scholarships."
"I read an article a couple years ago that said the Power Armor version sold more among boys than girls."
"It's so reassuring to know I'm the subject of numerous adolescent fantasies."
After hearing the second knock on her door, Valeria realized what was going on and went to answer.
Janos held up a small device. "I'm sorry to disturb you. I'm tracking an unauthorized listening device placed on her Majesty's door." He held the device close to her ear and it beeped. "As I suspected. Miss Valeria, what are you up to?"
She blushed and looked away. "Listening."
"That is very rude."
"But, they're really talking."
Valeria held her finger to her lips. "Shh. It sounds like they're having fun."
"I must insist that you turn the device off."
Her eyes got wide and then she said, "My brother tried to take one of the servo-guards apart when he was thirteen?"
Daria placed her napkin on the empty plate. "I'm glad you came over to help. Outside of Jane and Quinn, you're one of the few people I can sit down with and talk to that's close to my age."
Franklin face warmed. "Kind of the same with me. Outside of my family and my parents' team, you're about the only person I can talk to."
"We do lead oddly sheltered lives." Daria shook her head. "You must also have a hard time trying to date anyone."
"You could say that." He inhaled and physically braced himself. "Daria, would you…?"
Keeping his mental initiative going, Franklin asked, "Consider going out with me?"
Daria sat back in surprise, but with her shoulders dropping as they relaxed. She thought for a moment and said, "Yes. Yes, I would."
Valeria pumped both fists in the air. "Yes!"
Janos raised an eyebrow. "I think my life just got more interesting."
"Six tickets?" Quinn asked Daria over the phone. "Mom, Dad, Jane, Devon, you…and who else?"
"You'll find out when we get there."
"Oh Daria, you can tell me."
"I have my reasons…"
"Daria, I won't tell."
"It's a surprise, leave it at that."
"Do you really have a date for the ball?"
"Yes, I do. You'll see who it is when he shows up with me."
"You're not gonna tell me, are you?"
"Oooh…why won't you?"
Following a sigh, Daria told Quinn, "You better keep quiet, even about what I will say."
"There's going to be enough press speculation as it is, I don't want any starting early."
"Oookay. Now I'm really curious."
"Good, then you'll have a nice surprise on Saturday."
Seated inside Castle Doom's lab, Franklin looked at Daria in surprise. "Not exactly what I had in mind for a first date."
"I think we could consider last night our first date."
"We could. I enjoyed it."
"So did I. Did you talk to your sister?"
"She thinks it's a good idea."
Daria breathed out in relief. "Good. I didn't want her uncomfortable with us going out."
"But, a fancy ball for our first, um, public date?"
"Franklin, you know that the moment we're seen out together, the press is going to go crazy and the tabloids will go into hyperdrive. We might as well jump in with both feet and get it over with."
"I can see that. But I was also wondering if you think that it's a good idea? With the unknown time traveler probably still out to get you."
"I finally learned that things like that are going to keep happening as long as I'm Queen. If I let them stop me, I become a prisoner in Castle Doom and a prisoner to my title. I want a life beyond Queen of Latveria. But, we can cancel if needed. I also can't afford to ignore real threats."
"That makes sense. Are you ready to start working on the time signal?"
"Let's get started."
Valeria stamped her foot. "Janos, we have to find something really special for Franklin and Daria to wear."
Janos explained, "We cannot simply purchase a dress. All of Her Majesty's garments for public appearances are specially made for her protection."
"Duh, a special type of unstable molecule. I think I've been around clothes made out of that before."
"Of course, Miss Valeria."
"So, who does the sewing for her?"
"The LDF body armor section of the military uniforms facility."
"The people that make the military body armor make those gowns?"
"The tailors consider it a treat to make something other than standard military apparel. They are very skilled."
Valeria nodded. "Yeah, her stuff does look good. Okay, but now I've got to find a cool pattern and find something for Franklin."
"They also make the protective suits for the prime minister."
"Oh, damn," Franklin said not too long after starting the analysis.
Daria looked over, saying, "What's wrong?"
"I identified the signal."
"Already? That's good…isn't it?"
"Well, it's good to know already; but the 'who' part could be very bad."
"Riddles don't help."
"The signature matches a time machine used by someone from a thirtieth century future. He's named after my grandfather, Nathaniel Richards, and may be a direct descendent. He's also known as Pharaoh Rama-Tut, Kang the Conqueror, and Immortus. If he's time traveling, it's either as Kang or Immortus."
"I've read about Kang in my father's writings. I wonder why he would be helping Zorba?"
"I have no idea. If he's active this time as Kang, he may see Latveria as a starting point for another attempt to take over the Earth. However, he has an affinity for Latveria, as I'm sure your father's stories mention. He may not even be after you, but something else."
"And this Immortus?"
"He's an older version who seems to be trying to clean up time problems caused by his earlier activities. His motives are almost always inscrutable, usually aimed at making a specific change to repair time. What he's trying to change may not be directly associated with what he's doing."
"Okay. You said he has an affinity for Latveria. Any known reason?"
"Probably because there's evidence that he may also a descendent of your father."
Daria stood quickly. "Which means he'd be a descendent of mine. What's he trying to do, disprove the 'killing your ancestor paradox'?"
"Because of the multiple timelines he's involved in, I bet he's already figured out how to get around the paradox. Such as...hmm, how should I put this?" Franklin cautiously said. "Um…considering the possibilities of in vitro fertilization, you may not be the only child of Victor's around."
Daria sat back down and thought for a long moment. "Before he left, I asked my father what he would have done if I'd declined his offer to become princess. He said he wouldn't have made the offer if he thought I'd decline."
Franklin continued the thought. "Logically, that would be easier to do if Victor knew he had another child who might accept."
"If my father had another child, he would also have made sure that there was overwhelming evidence to support his paternity. Just as he did with me." Daria nodded to herself. "This is starting to make sense. The other sibling could be Nathaniel Richards' direct ancestor. Eventually, Nathaniel would want his ancestor on the throne. Zorba wouldn't have made a good king, or even a good puppet. But, if a long-lost Von Doom showed up and removed my killer from the throne, this new Von Doom would've been accepted by the people of Latveria for taking revenge for my death and restoring the family to rule."
"But we ruined that plan. Meaning, we still need to keep an eye out for him and this possible other half-sibling of yours."
"As if one wasn't enough."
"And worry about what new plan they may develop. With a time machine, they can take as long as they want planning, and then come back at the desired time to make another attempt."
"Gee, I didn't want to get any sleep."
"Thanks Dad," Franklin said over the phone.
"Happy to help. Both of you be very careful; Kang is nobody to be trifled with, and interfering with Immortus can be just as dangerous."
"Well, hopefully tying into the FF's sensor net will improve our detection capability."
"Just to be on the safe side, I've keyed the sensors to also alert on my father's signal and the signal of the device Victor Von Doom made."
"In case he changes devices. Got it."
Daria joined the conversation from her work desk in the lab. "Reed, I'd like to add my gratitude for your help."
"Glad to assist. Now that you're here: we've settled the situation we were dealing with. If you want, you can send Valeria home. I'll send Ben over to pick her up."
Daria looked at Franklin and covered her phone. "Sounds like we better warn them."
Daria said into the phone, "Reed, she's involved in a little project and would be unhappy to leave it."
"If you succeeded in getting her to do something constructive, I'm going to get you to write down how. What's she doing?"
"She's working on a formal dress for me. I'll be using it for a charity ball in Los Angeles on Saturday."
"How'd you get her to do that?"
Franklin spoke up. "She's a little motivated because…I'll be attending the ball with Daria."
Reed said, "That sounded like something different from a formal escort. Am I right?"
"Um, yes Dad."
"I hope the two of you have a good time. If Valeria's really not being a problem, she can stay to finish the dress. Good night."
After Reed hung up the phone, he crossed his arms, smiled and faced his wife Susan.
She asked, "What was that bit at the end? Was it what I think it sounded like?"
Susan took Reed's arm. "I was wondering how long he was going to take after his dad and not be able to say anything."
Standing on the airport tarmac, Ben Grimm said to Franklin, "I hope you left the pogo plane in decent condition to fly."
"Don't worry, Ben, I didn't crack it up."
Valeria said, "You better look for the gum wrappers under the seat."
"Ben," Franklin said, "Good luck listening to her on the flight back."
Tugging on Ben's giant arm, Valeria said, "We better get going and leave the love birds alone."
"Yeah, be a good idea." Ben looked at Daria and said to Franklin, "Better not get on her bad side; she'll stand up to anybody."
"I certainly hope to avoid that situation," Franklin replied.
Daria said, "Have a good flight, Ben. Thanks for the help with the dress, Valeria. I like some of your added features."
"Any time, Triple-D."
Inside Daria's plane, she and Franklin watched the pogo plane take off. Daria said, "I hope she can avoid letting anything slip out between when she arrives in New York and when we get to the ball."
Franklin said, "Don't worry about that."
"I mentioned the possibility that, when she starts dating, that Ben might be persuaded to 'advise' her dates to be on their best behavior."
"And I thought I was hard on my little sister."
"You can bet she'll find some way to get even."
"We have a longer flight than they do. We better get going." She opened the intercom to the cockpit. "We're ready."
The pilot replied, "Yes, Majesty."
Daria sat down and buckled her seat belt and Franklin did the same beside her. He said, "I'm not saying to put it away, but your necklace still makes me nervous. My experiences with magic haven't been the best."
" Mostly because of my father. I understand, but don't forget I've also been trained by Dr. Stephan Strange, one of the leading experts in the good side of magic. Between the time-space signature detectors Valeria had worked into your tux and how I enchanted my necklace, hopefully we'll have enough warning if Kang or Immortus show up."
"I know, but those things tend to have side-effects."
"I don't go to the same places for help that my father did."
A woman in a blinding red dress that looked like it was sewn by a cubist walked along the red carpet leading from a parked limousine to the charity ball entrance. Beside her was a tall man in a classic black tuxedo.
"Renee, what could that designer have been thinking when he come up with that dress?" Quinn said into a cordless microphone.
Beside Quinn, an older blonde woman said, "What could she possibly have been thinking to wear it? But, her shoes are really cute. Don't you think, Quinn?"
"Oh, those classic strapped high heel with a hint of gold are wonderful."
Gazing at the woman's date, Renee said, "Mmmm. Classic black tuxedo cut to a perfect fit. She does know how to accessorize."
The next limo rolled to a stop and four Latverian guards stepped out to take up guard positions facing all directions. Another rolled up immediately and stopped.
Renee grinned and stepped in front of Quinn. "Next is Queen Daria of Latveria. There's been a buzz for most of the last week as to who her mystery date is. Any clues, Quinn?"
"She's been tight lipped about her date, but I bet there'll be an even bigger buzz once he's unveiled."
The suddenly larger crush of photographers along the red carpet was held at bay by the stoic glares of the guards. Scattered among them were television reporters, ready to go live with the story.
The chauffeur opened the door, allowing Daria to step out. The green body of the gown was closely fitted from the waist up to the round neckline and out along the arms to the elbow, where the sleeves flared out. The full black skirt went to just above the ground, hiding her feet.
"Once again in green and black, the national colors of Latveria, Queen Daria looks stunning. Who does her clothes?"
Quinn explained, "She buys the designs. This one I understand is from the Italian designer DeConti. Her clothes are, by tradition, always made within Latveria by local craftsmen."
"If she didn't have her mystery date, she wouldn't have a problem finding one wearing that."
Franklin stepped out of the limo and stood next to Daria. Dozens of camera flashes temporarily blinded him. Daria's reactive glasses protected her vision and she gently pulled on his hand to guide him down the carpet.
Quinn let out a gentle laugh and said into her microphone, "The way to my sister's heart must be through her brain. With her tonight is Dr. Franklin Richards, the son of Reed and Susan Richards of Fantastic Four fame. He has a PhD when most people his age are just realizing it'll take five years to get a bachelor's degree."
"I wanna know why brains weren't that cute when I was in college," Renee said.
Escorted by her guards, Daria and Franklin walked to the entrance of the entertainment hall. Quinn winked at them as they walked past.
"Rich, smart and good looking, but can he sing?" Jane asked Daria.
"I haven't asked," Daria answered. She pulled Franklin closer. "Franklin, this is Jane and Devon. You've heard me talk about them."
"Oh yeah," Franklin said. "Two of the select few she says anything good about."
Jane smirked. "Damn, I must be losing my edge."
Devon said to Franklin, "When they get started, just get out of the way. A lot safer."
"I'll remember that."
"You should've worn the headgear," Jane said. "It always sets you off in a crowd."
Daria said, "It weighs a ton."
"You need to make a lighter, traveling crown," Quinn said after stopping behind Daria.
Daria turned. "I really don't need any more official jewelry. Hi, Quinn."
Quinn playfully tugged at the collar of Daria's dress. "You can show a little skin now and then."
"You know why my all my public clothes cover so much."
"Like something's going to happen here?"
"I have to consider something happening at any time."
"Then maybe you need to come up with a clear version of those unsinkable molecules." Quinn looked at Franklin. "Going for younger guys. I didn't think you had it in you, Daria."
Daria glared. "I wasn't thinking about age…"
"I'm sure you weren't."
Franklin said, "Nice to meet you, Quinn. I've also heard a lot about you."
"Nice to meet you. Wow Daria, no wonder you wanted to keep him under wraps. The tabloids are already going crazy trying to get the story out."
Jane asked, "You two have known each other for a long time; how'd this get started? Or has it been going on for a while and you've been holding out?"
"Franklin was at the castle working on a project with me. We realized how much we had in common and how well we got along with each other."
Face clouded with worry, Jane very quietly said, "What kind of project?"
Daria gently held Jane's arm. "Something I can't talk about now, and I appreciate the thought."
"Be careful, amiga."
Pulling Jake along with her, Helen arrived. "Daria, thank you so much for the tickets. We're having a wonderful time."
Jake took his eyes off the rest of the celebrity crowd and said, "Hey, Kiddo! How are you?"
"I'm great, Dad. I want you to meet Franklin Richards."
Jake extended his hand. "Glad to meet you."
After Franklin shook Jake's hand, Helen extended hers. "A pleasure."
Franklin shook hers, saying, "I'm glad to finally meet both of you. Daria is…" He stopped and looked around, very worried.
The warmth from her necklace told Daria that Franklin's detector must have alerted him to a time-space signature in the area.
She said, "Mom, Dad, everyone. Could you please excuse us for a minute?"
As Daria and Franklin moved away, Jane and Quinn exchanged glances before Jane said, "I suggest we prepare to make a quiet exit or look for some cover."
Suspicious, Helen asked, "What makes you say that?"
"I've seen that look before. Something big and bad is about to happen and she's trying to get clear of the crowd so nobody else gets hurt."
Jane grabbed Helen's arm and Quinn grabbed Jake's, guiding them toward an exit while Devon followed as backup.
"But my little girl…" Jake started to say.
Quinn cut him off. "Is a big girl now. Dad, her dress is better protection than army body armor, and I bet Franklin's suit is made from the same stuff."
"How do you know that?"
"Who do you think put Daria in contact with the designers she buys patterns from?"
They moved past a brown-haired man who was saying to a stunning redhead, "MJ, you know I don't plan these things."
MJ folded her arms and said sternly, "I know, just be careful."
Jane, still pulling on Helen, said, "Plus, the only place she doesn't take her pistol is your house, Mrs. Morgendorffer."
"How could she get it past security?"
"No idea, but trust me, she did."
Getting to a secluded spot behind a line of fake plants, Daria pulled out the crystal and concentrated on it while Franklin pulled back the cuff of his right coat sleeve to expose a tracking display.
He said, "Looks like it's on the roof."
In her mind, Daria saw a helmeted figure in green and blue-violet armor lowering his arm. Scanning around, she saw all four Secret Service agents on the roof down. She said, "From what you showed me, it's Kang up there and he's already taken out the guards."
"The roof would give him a good vantage point to act when we exit the building."
Daria shook her head. "I doubt if he's waiting. Secret Service agents keep in constant communication; the rest probably already know something's gone wrong up there."
She pressed her glasses frame against her temple and listened carefully. A moment later, Daria moved her wrist to her face to speak into the cuff button. "Confirm that agents on the roof are down. Act with caution, subject has advanced technology. Contact the US Secret Service to evacuate the building, tell them Code Highland."
Franklin's fingers worked over the miniature controls of his display. "I wonder what's up that he decided to move so openly this time?"
"The bad guys like to attack when there's a crowd. Gives their ego an audience and the good guys also have to worry about protecting everyone else," a new voice interrupted.
With a pistol appearing in Daria's hand from within her sleeve, she spun to see a man in red and blue clinging to the wall.
Spider-Man said, "I hope you don't mind me dropping in. When Doc Doom's daughter and Reed Richard's son run off together and my spider sense rings like a bell, something's up."
Daria lowered her pistol. "You should be careful about sneaking up on people like that." She went back to concentrating on the crystal.
Franklin said, "You're a little out of your usual territory."
Spider-Man dropped to the ground. "Do you want some help or not?"
"Let's see, Kang is on the roof after Queen Daria and we're only armed with two pistols. I think the answer is: yes."
Daria said, "He's not on the roof; he's inside somewhere and I can't locate him anymore."
"Do you have a plan?" Spider-Man asked.
"Right now," Daria explained, "we're going to keep quiet for as long as possible and hopefully get everyone out of here. Then, we can get my body guards and the Secret Service over to help"
Franklin said, "We're working on that part."
There were still many people inside the hall when Spider-Man suddenly lunged and pushed Daria and Franklin to the ground. A fake plant behind Daria exploded when a yellow streak hit it.
Daria expertly rolled up with pistol at the ready. Franklin stayed prone and drew his pistol with less skill. By that time, Spider-Man was on the wall and shooting a web toward the source of the streak.
Screaming came from the remaining crowd in response to the detonation. The previous orderly evacuation disappeared as people scrambled to escape.
An invisible figure stepped out of the webbing, marked only by loose strands sticking to it. Concussion blasts with the stopping power of a .50 cal round from Daria and Franklins weapons rippled around the figure with no effect, except to splash away webbing from around each hit.
Franklin said, "I thought Johnny said these things knocked him across the room."
Daria fired again and said, "It did."
Spider-Man jumped to the ground, rolled and sprang up to kick Kang in the chest, knocking him to the ground. Rapid-fire yellow streaks came from the intruder's gauntlets, forcing Spider-Man to spring away, dodging the fire.
Daria motioned to Franklin and both of them moved behind the pots of the fake plants for at least minimal protection. They resumed fire moments later. The newer volley started to knock Kang back a little with each hit, as if his protection was weakening.
The invisibility also started to fade when Kang resumed fire at Daria, showering the area with plastic fragments as each piece came apart and Daria crawled to the next. Franklin continued to fire, trying to distract Kang from his target, to no effect.
Spider-Man shot a thick blanket of webbing across the decorative foliage remains, obscuring the location of Daria and Franklin. He anchored a web line and started to swing toward Kang, who spun and let loose fire at him. Spider-Man fired a second line and swung over onto it, avoiding the bolts but going wide of his target.
Spider-Man again temporarily out of the way, Kang ran around the obscuring foliage and webbing. Amid shots from Daria and Franklin that were hitting him harder each time, Kang fired again. The first two shots burned gouges in the floor, but the third struck Daria in the stomach, sending her falling behind Franklin with blood staining her clothes.
His invisibility gone, Kang tried to move to the side to get a shot past Franklin, who continued firing. Kang started to run and dodge, trying to get a clear shot. Franklin shifted around, keeping himself between Daria and Kang.
Spider-Man made another swinging pass at Kang, this time connecting and sending the time-traveler skidding across the floor. Gunfire echoed through the hall as Latverian guards and Secret Service agents rushed over after getting through the panicked crowd.
Kang aimed toward Daria and Franklin, wavering as he looked for a clear shot. Another kick from Spider-Man sent him stumbling back. More gunfire sounded and Kang recoiled from hits. He randomly fired at the approaching guards and flew upwards to the roof, shooting a hole through it and disappearing. Spider-Man shot a web line up to the hole and followed after.
Franklin crawled over to Daria, lying on her side. One arm was clamped over her stomach, with blood leaking around it to pool on the floor. Almost as shocking to him were the tears streaking her face.
He pulled her onto his lap and said, "Please, let me check it."
Daria slowly nodded and let him move her hand away. A deep gash cut halfway from her navel to her side. He quickly pulled the handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it against the wound. Daria cried out and grabbed his arm tightly.
Franklin whispered, "I'm sorry."
Daria croaked, "Damn, it hurts." She moved her free arm to her face and said, "Guards. Goalpost."
"What's that?" Franklin asked.
Daria choked and grabbed him tighter. "I told them I'm down and badly hurt. They're to get me medical attention as soon as possible, and then back to Castle Doom."
"Hold on, I hear them running."
She buried her face against his chest and sobbed. After a few seconds, she pulled back and said, "I'm sorry, are you all right?"
"He never shot at me."
"Good." Daria let go of Franklin's arm and pulled his head down, kissing him. She said, "Just in case," then leaned her face back against him, shivering.
Spider-Man dropped down from the ceiling as the guards and agents arrived. They spread around to checking for other threats.
Spider-Man said, "He got away, some kind of plane that just disappeared. It looks…" He noticed the already soaked handkerchief Franklin held against Daria. "Oh, man."
One of the Latverian guards ran up and dropped down on both knees, saying, "Dr. Richards, I'm the team medic."
As gently as he could, Franklin rolled Daria to give the medic a clear view of the injury. She inhaled harshly as he did.
The medic lifted the makeshift bandage and grimaced. "I need to seal the wound. She probably also has internal injuries and bleeding, but I can't deal with them." He pulled a slender case from a pocket hidden inside the back of his coat, opened it and removed a small tube.
"Majesty, I'm sorry, but this is going to be painful."
The medic twisted the tube open and ran the tip along the wound, instantly gluing the torn skin shut. Daria's fingers painfully dug into Franklin's arm as the guard worked. The man tossed the tube to the side and placed a fresh compress bandage over the wound, laying it down carefully. Next, he pulled the remains of a potted plant over and lifted Daria's feet onto it. "Majesty, you're going into shock." After that, the medic removed his jacket, put it over Daria and said, "Dr. Richards, we need to keep Her Majesty warm until the air ambulance arrives in a few minutes."
Spider-Man asked, "The roof is clear. Can it land up there?"
After a brief conversation, one of the Secret Service agents said, "Yes."
"I can get her up there and we won't have to fight to get her through the crowd."
The agent said, "Do it."
Weaving with great skill and speed, Spider-Man fashioned a web basket. Daria reluctantly let go of Franklin as she was placed in it.
Spider-Man grabbed Franklin and said, "I'll need help and I bet you want to ride with." He shot a web strand to the roof and pulled both of them up. After Franklin stepped onto the roof, Spider-Man dropped four web lines down to the corners of the basket and he hauled Daria up.
As the helicopter neared, Franklin told Spider-Man, "We really owe you one."
"Just being useful."
"Thanks. Can you do one more thing?"
Back at their hotel, Peter Parker slumped down on the bed next to his wife, Mary Jane. He was utterly drained from the night's events. "That was one of the hardest things I've ever done. Telling her family."
MJ held his hand. "How did they take it?"
"Real hard; same with her friends."
"Poor Queen Daria. What did that guy want?"
"He wanted to kill her, but I don't know why."
"I'm glad you're safe, Tiger. These things really worry me sometimes."
"What gets me is that he didn't hurt anyone else. The guards on the roof were stunned. He shot at me, but it was more to drive me away than hit me. From what I saw, Dr. Richards the Younger should've been hit, too. But, the guy never fired a shot even close to him. Almost as if he wanted Queen Daria dead, but was being very careful not to hurt anyone else."
"Sounds strange. Guess it was lucky that those tickets were donated to my agent, or you wouldn't have been here to help."
Weak, tired, and disoriented, Daria managed to fight herself awake and blink her eyes open.
"Sweetie," Helen said.
Daria faintly said, "Hi, Mom."
"Daria!" Jake exclaimed and held her fingers tight. By focusing, she could see he was avoiding the intravenous needle set in the back of her hand.
"Dad." She carefully squeezed back, brightening his smile.
"Welcome back," Quinn said.
"Hey, Quinn. Where?"
"Los Angeles Hospital," Helen answered.
"About a day and a half."
Helen said, "Honey, don't worry about that now."
Quinn said, "Janos is working to get you out of here to go home."
"Don't know what I'd do without him. But tell me, how bad?"
"Pretty bad," Quinn answered. "But you're stable now, that's why Janos is doing his thing."
Daria nodded and closed her eyes to rest. She asked, "Anybody else hurt?"
"A few bruises when the crowd panicked, but that's it."
"I don't think I'm going to be invited back to any charity balls."
Quinn smirked. "But, where would you go with Franklin?"
"I hope I didn't scare him off."
Jake said, "I don't think so. He's right outside. So is Jane."
Helen said, "Franklin's been here the whole time. Jane left long enough to see Devon off to go home to watch after Joshua."
Daria opened her eyes again. "I'd like to see them."
"Sorry, Daria. The hospital only allows family into ICU," Helen informed her.
Quinn said, "We're keeping them up to date on how you're doing."
"Tell them, thanks."
Working to maintain his patience, Janos explained to the doctor, "Her Majesty gave us clear commands. As soon as she is stable to travel, she's to be flown back to Latveria."
"Look, mister. She may be stable now, but with her injuries, I'm not willing to let her go yet. Maybe in a few days, I'll think about it."
"Then think about the other patients and staff here. Are you willing to put their lives at risk for one patient?"
Angered, the doctor said, "Are you threatening us?"
"No. I am pointing out a very great, and real, risk. The assailant who attacked Her Majesty was not captured. She is very vulnerable right now and a poorly protected facility like a hospital could easily be attacked. Political assassins rarely care about collateral casualties. Her orders are to get her to Castle Doom. There, she can be better protected during her recovery and far fewer people will be exposed to risk."
"I don't like it."
A State Department official stepped up beside Janos and presented the doctor with a sheet of paper. "This is a Presidential Order stating that if the sovereign leader of Latveria requests release, and she is determined to be stable enough to travel by doctors from the Latverian Embassy, her request is to be granted."
The doctor was flustered. "This is highly…you are…"
"The Latverian doctors will be here within the hour. Please make sure their examination of Queen Daria is not delayed."
In the ICU waiting room, Jane watched Franklin. For the last hour, the blond-haired man had sat in deep concentration, as if desperately trying to remember something important.
Sympathetic, Jane quietly said, "Wishing you could change what happened?"
"Wishing I still could."
Caught by surprise, Jane sputtered, "What?"
"As I child, I could…change things. Some were harder than others. After I, uh, did something to save my little sister, I haven't been able to. For a long time, I was glad not to have the power. I had a lot of trouble controlling it and caused a lot of problems. Now, I wish I still could."
"Look, Spider-Man told us what you did back there, using yourself to shield Daria from getting hit again."
"I should've been…"
"Right where you were. You did everything you could, and you did the right thing."
"And she's still in there."
"That's right, she's still here. Because of you."
When the doctors arrived, Daria's family left and went to the ICU waiting room. Beside the ever-present Jane and Franklin, there was a man with graying temples, a blonde woman and teenager who was clearly the woman's daughter.
Valeria was saying, "Gotta hand it to you, big brother. Saving a girl's life on the second date ought to impress her."
Jane saw the new arrivals and stood up. "Hey folks. This is Reed and Susan Richards, Franklin's parents, and this is Valeria, his sister. And these are Daria's parents, Jake and Helen, and her sister, Quinn."
"Whoa!" Jake grinned and stuck out his hand. "Great to meet you! I bet that stretching thing of yours is real handy to get things off the top shelf."
Helen elbowed Jake and said to the Richardses, "It's wonderful to meet you."
Susan said, "We're very relieved your daughter's awake and doing better. She's quite a young lady."
"She sure is," Jake exclaimed. "So's your boy."
"Thank you, Jake," Reed said.
Helen pulled Susan slightly to the side. "Your Franklin really likes Daria."
"I'm sure the feeling's mutual."
"Quinn?" Valeria asked. "Too bad it's ruined, but I'm glad you liked the design I found for Triple-D."
"You picked that out for her?"
"You've got real potential." Quinn smiled. "What did you call her?"
"Oops, I'm not…oh, phhst! You're almost family. I call her Triple-D."
"That has to get to her."
Franklin said, "She's the only one that can get away with it."
Reed asked, "Any more news on Daria's condition?"
Helen replied, "The doctors are in there now to determine if she can be moved back to Latveria."
"Anything we can do to help, just let us know."
Irritated, the hospital doctor entered Daria's room and said, "Looks like the arrogant little prat's going to ramrod this transfer through. Your embassy's doctors agreed you can be moved."
Daria said, "Please, don't insult my staff for following my orders. No offense to you, doctor. I'm sure you honestly think I shouldn't be moved, and under ordinary circumstances, I'd agree."
"You've got that right. Your small intestine was lacerated multiple times and your kidney was damaged. Even though we sterilized the entire area, the risk of peritonitis is worrisome and it won't take much to tear some of your internal stitches. You're also still recovering from severe blood loss."
"But, I can be moved, correct?"
"Barely. But I really don't think you should be."
Daria nodded. It was hard to concentrate and she wanted badly to go back to sleep. "I have a question. Did you try to cut my clothes away?"
"We couldn't. We had to take them off you conventionally, which slowed us down and may have made things worse. What were they made out of?"
"Cloth that can stop a 20mm, armor-piercing round and Kang's weapon cut right through it. He'll be back to try again. As much as it worries me to move so soon, I have to, before that thing shoots through the walls around here."
"Are you really serious?"
"Completely. Kang wants to kill me and I don't know what he's capable of doing."
"I'll sign the release."
Daria was quietly transported to the airport via a standard ambulance, avoiding attention and the media crush to see her.
Following all of the doctor's recommendations, Daria didn't try to walk and allowed herself to be carried to a temporary hospital bed on her plane. Around it, her family, Jane and Franklin waited.
She looked at them and said, "Getting a little pushy about the frequent flyer miles, aren't we?"
"These count?" Jake asked, followed by a wink.
Helen sighed, missing the wink. "Jake."
Quinn carefully hugged Daria. "We're not going with, but figured inside would be the most private place to say goodbye to you."
"I'd certainly call being behind a platoon of servo-guards private," Daria replied.
"Well, you sure made a splash in LA."
Helen and Jake moved in to simultaneously embrace Daria. "Take care of yourself," Helen said.
"Stay out of trouble, Kiddo," Jake added.
Jane followed. "You really had us worried. And we still are. Be real careful out there."
"I promise," Daria told her friend. "Give Josh a hug for me when you get home."
Daria reached around and held tight to Franklin. "Thank you so much. I'm sorry our big date was a bust. I'm going to miss you when I get home."
Franklin quietly said, "I'm going with you."
Daria pulled back just enough to look at his face, a soft smile on her lips. "You are?"
"I think we have some unfinished business."
Janos entered the cabin. "Excuse me. The pilot would like to remind everyone that our takeoff time nears and everyone should be clear of the flightline before the engines start."
Daria could see two Latverian fighter escorts on her side of the plane and knew that there must be two more on the other side. Waiting for takeoff, she said to Franklin, "While I really appreciate you being here, I'm worried about you being hurt."
"I'm not so sure I will be." Franklin said, "After you were shot, I was in plain sight of Kang and kept myself between him and you."
"I can't believe you did that."
"Daria, he could've easily shot me at any time. He didn't. He kept trying to get a shot around me, but he never shot at me."
"Not once. Like he was specifically avoiding shooting at me."
"As if you're his direct ancestor. Maybe he can't get around the paradox."
"I was thinking the same. If that's the case and I'm on the plane with you, Kang won't try to destroy it. And I'm going to stay as close to you as I can until we solve this."
Daria smiled and rested her hand on his. "How do I know this isn't just a ploy to spend time with me?"
"Would that be a problem?"
"No, not really."
The pilot said over the intercom, "Mr. Grimm reports that the Fantastic Four's plane is ready to follow. We have tower permission to use the longest runway, allowing a slower acceleration to reach takeoff speed. Please prepare."
From her personal bed, Daria told the Security Minister, "Every servo-guard is to be on active patrol and programmed to respond immediately to any time travel signature detected. They'll probably be destroyed quickly, but their main purpose will be to buy time."
The minister said, "I wish we had a way of detecting the signal before a time vehicles arrives."
"I can't move but I can still think. Dr. Richards and I will be working on that problem, and if possible, track it back to its origin."
"Yes, Majesty. Anything else?"
"Not now, thank you."
After the Security Minister left, Janos entered. "Do I understand correctly? You want Franklin Richards in the old royal servants' quarters?"
"Yes. They are physically the closest to here, even if they've been unused for years. Besides, our regular VIP guest quarters will be occupied by Dr. and Mrs. Richards, Mr. Storm and Mr. Grimm until after the ceremony."
"I hope Franklin doesn't mind the dust as we prepare the apartments."
"I think he'll mind more the attention he'll get, but he deserves it."
"True. The Star of Latveria has rarely been given to non-natives, let alone two."
"Come on, Ben," Johnny chided. "You've got rock for skin; a tux can't be that uncomfortable."
Ben Grimm muttered, "It's not the penguin suit. This place still makes me antsy."
"Yeah, it does feel weird, but she has gone out of her way to make us welcome."
"I bet her old man would be spitting nails to see this."
There were a few hushed gasps when Daria, in full regalia, entered on a hovering throne. She guided it to a main dais and allowed it to settle on the floor. "Welcome, everyone."
She carefully lifted a ribboned medal and said, "There are times when personal courage and action become an example for all Latveria. Franklin Richards, your willingness to face danger beside me and then to place yourself between me and the assassin is one of those times. Please come forward."
Franklin stepped up to the dais and stood in front of Daria. She passed the ribbon to Franklin while whispering, "Sorry I can't put it on you, but I don't dare move too much and pull any more stitches loose." Out loud, she said, "I, and all the people of Latveria, appreciate your selfless courage. For that, you are awarded the Star of Latveria."
Franklin stepped back and Daria held up a second medal. "At the same time, another put his life on the line. One who didn't know me, but couldn't stand idly by while another was attacked. In absentia, the hero known as Spider-Man is also awarded the Star of Latveria. Will the representative of the Avengers come forward?"
In gleaming red and gold armor, Iron Man stepped up beside Franklin. Daria handed Iron Man the second medal, saying, "I wish I could present this to Spider-Man directly, but I understand that he has important commitments that cannot be set aside. Iron Man, please pass this on to your teammate with my sincere thanks."
Iron Man said, "I will make sure this gets to him safely, as well as your thanks."
After the audience in the throne room applauded, the Prime Minister entered. "Thank you for attending today. A reception will now be held in the great hall. If everyone will please proceed to gather there, Her Majesty will be in shortly."
Johnny laughed and said to Iron Man, "Next time I see that web-head, I'm going to introduce him to a real hot sauce. I've upgraded my recipe."
"I'll make sure he's properly warned, as well as the rest of the Avengers."
"Yeah, that stuff gives a whole new meaning to 'flame on'," Ben dryly said.
Franklin saw Daria rest her head back against the throne. He said, "Excuse me," and went to her.
"You look a little pale."
She weakly smiled and nodded. "I've felt better." She held up her hand. "This is a celebration. I can hold on a little longer. It looks like Johnny's barely getting started."
"You want to see something scary; you should see him and Spider-Man together. Too bad Spider-Man had…other commitments."
"And I don't want to know what they are. He's keeping his identity a secret for a reason and I'll respect it. The fewer that know, the better it is for him."
"About that, I was thinking about something. He couldn't possibly afford the charity tickets on what he makes with his day job, let alone getting there and having some place to stay. His wife makes a lot more than he does, but even then, I don't see how."
"Blurg," Daria muttered as she looked at the food tray across her lap.
Standing next to her bed, Janos asked, "Majesty? Is there a problem?"
"Nothing about the meal. Just that my digestive system hasn't settled down yet after the sterilization and restocking. Even the light soups are a little hard to keep down."
"Is there anything more to be done for you?"
"The accelerated healing device my father developed did a lot, but the rest is going to require the old-fashioned way."
"I see. I hope you can eat a little better today."
"Oh, I want to."
An alarm rang through the castle. Daria sighed and said, "I knew it. Once everyone was gone, Kang's making another attempt."
Janos lifted the meal tray out of Daria's way as she faced a cart supporting a command console. She opened the intercom and said, "Status."
The Security Minister's voice came back, "Time-space signature matching target appeared in the forest outside the castle, bearing two-three-zero. Servo guards are responding and castle guard mustering for transport."
"Thank you. Any other details?"
"Scans detect four…five…six…eight robots exiting vehicle. Wait a moment…the time signature is back, matching an outgoing transport. Vehicle is gone, leaving robots behind. Maintaining scan in case this is a diversion. Three Doombots deployed as decoys."
"Understood. But don't count too much on the decoys. It seems like he identified the previous one immediately. Have you located Kang?"
"Negative. Robots only."
"He could still be concealed." Daria picked up the crystal necklace from her nightstand and concentrated. She coughed, winced and shuddered as she soundlessly added a short incantation. Mentally, she focused attention on the immediate castle grounds.
Janos answered a knock and let Franklin into the room. He hurried next to Daria and kept an eye on the computer's tactical display.
Her voice sounding vacant, Daria said, "I'm watching the castle."
"Got ya," Franklin replied. "I'll keep an eye on the time sensors."
"Losing track of the enemy robots," the Minister announced. "Switching to different search modes to try to reacquire. Setting servo-guards to auto-return fire."
Franklin nervously watched the tactical display as the robot icons faded out. He looked back at Daria, deep in concentration. She said, "Diversion. Watch for something else."
Hesitating, Franklin went back to watching the time sensors.
The minister updated them, saying, "Five servo-guards destroyed. Auto-return fire showing some success. Confirm one enemy robot destroyed. LDF field artillery has dropped light smoke into the area. Concentrating fire on clear voids in the smoke."
The time scan remained clear as Franklin kept up his vigilance. Daria's breathing grew uneven as she continued to concentrate.
"Five enemy robots destroyed or disabled. Twenty -three servo-guards lost. Remaining robots are retreating."
Daria sat straight up and lunged across the bed to the command console. She entered commands and one of the tower point-defense weapons activated, pointing to what looked like empty space. Holding the crystal in her other hand, Daria fine-turned the weapon aim and fired. She was rewarded with a small fireball about fifty feet outside her apartment.
"What was that?" Franklin asked in surprise.
"Some kind of drone that was heading directly here. To my apartment." Daria closed her eyes and groaned.
"Damn." Franklin caught her and carefully laid her back straight in the bed. Daria gulped and fought back pain. "Thanks. That took a lot out of me."
"I'm calling your doctors."
She nodded in agreement. "Please send a team out to find any remains of that drone that they can."
Janos said, "I'll tend to it, Majesty."
Feeling well enough to work at her desk for short times, Daria read the report on the drone remains. Small, less than a foot long. One-shot blast that would've penetrated the force field over the windows. Very sensitive and compact sensor. Nanotube syringe that can pass between the fibers of unstable molecule fabric. And finally, a poison fatal in microgram amounts. He's good. The only thing keeping me ahead right now is sorcery. But, I can't stay on the defensive forever, he'll eventually succeed. I need a way to stop him before he chooses the time to try again.
Reading the same from a laptop computer, Franklin said, "Once again, very specific for you. Kang must be worried about causing additional changes to the timeline. Maybe it's not just me. Maybe he knows somebody close to you has to be kept in the timeline, but he doesn't know who."
Toying gently, Daria asked, "Deciding you need to get some distance from me after all?"
"No. We know for certain he's trying to avoid hitting me."
"At least for now."
"Okay, for now. But something is limiting his choices of action. If we can figure that out, we can actively use it."
"What I'd like to do is take over his time machine and dump him in the Pleistocene."
"And tell him to evolve into something more civilized?"
"No, more like become an hors d'oeuvre for a cave bear."
"Tenth anniversary." Daria rubbed her eyes and sighed. "Janos, a leader must learn when to delegate. Tell the Interior Minister to handle the details and answer any questions you can."
"And those I can't?"
"Use your best judgment."
"Don't I always?" Janos softly joked. "One more thing. Dr. Richards asked for a picnic basket to be prepared. I believe he's on his way here now."
"You have to admire his persistence, and getting outside will be a good change of scenery for me."
"He has a talent for knowing when to do that, Majesty."
"Go out and ask him to wait; I need to change."
Still within easy view of Castle Doom and protected by out-of-sight guards, Franklin spread out the picnic supplies. "I'm glad you wanted to come out like this."
Daria sat down and said, "The tabloids needed another good photo-op."
Franklin looked down for a moment. "They have been making some interesting speculations about us."
"It's to be expected with you staying in the castle. I'll take it over some of their previous speculations."
Franklin looked around as he rotated a corkscrew into a bottle of wine. "I hope you don't mind."
"No. It's not like either of us will be driving."
Franklin pulled down on the corkscrew's levers to free the cork. He poured two glasses and gave one to Daria. "Here's to a little while to relax."
"To relax," Daria said and smiled before taking a sip.
After the return from Los Angeles, their meals had felt rushed and they usually discussed the day's research. But under the summer sun, they relaxed and talked over their meal like they had during that first dinner. Daria felt a peaceful happiness that she didn't want to end.
Daria noticed Franklin glance the data-link to the area sensor net while seeming to keep his attention on her. She playfully said, "Worried the Stark teleport units won't send us to the command center if a time-signature is detected?"
Franklin sighed and shook his head. "No. I…well; I had another reason for coming out here. But, I wanted to give you a few minutes of quiet first."
The afternoon's spell was broken and Daria asked in concern, "What are you talking about?"
"While tracking down a computer malfunction, I found a nanobot had shorted out the mother board, apparently by accident. I unobtrusively scanned the castle and located over six hundred more nanobots."
"That's what I was checking for; there's none out here."
"Surveillance. Once a day, each one synchronizes with the others to send a data pulse into the future."
"How long have you known?"
"I discovered the first one two days ago and only caught the data pulse this morning. I didn't want to say anything inside the castle in case one recorded the conversation."
"Dammit! With that kind of intelligence, Kang will know exactly what defenses we plan so he can evade them. Plus, choose the best moment for his mission."
"I'm confident he doesn't know that I've detected the nanobots and their communications."
"How were these pulses getting past our sensor net?"
"They were short enough to look like static unless you specifically looked at them."
"Can you track them to their destination?"
"I know I can."
"Hmm." Daria thought for a couple seconds. "Have they gotten into all parts of the castle?"
"No. The hermetically sealed rooms attached to the lab haven't been entered."
"Those are magically sealed also. Good. There's one more thing we need to do. Find a way to disable all of them at once."
"Kang will know we've done that."
"But if we do it right after the regular signal, he won't know immediately. If we travel to the same time they were transmitting, we'll have the element of surprise for a change."
"How do you…wait a minute, you have a time machine?"
"My father believed in spares. It's in one of those sealed storerooms."
"What other interesting things are stored down there?"
"In spite of your feeling of invulnerability, I don't want to take any chances. There's a full backup suit of his armor."
"No. It's the best protection we can put on you."
"I don't have a choice, do I?"
"Not unless Iron Man lets you borrow one of his suits."
Forcing herself not to look around the room for the nanobots, Daria changed back into her normal business suit for work. If that futuristic pervert's been…better not think about it.
Her computer sounded a soft ping to indicate a news update. She went over and checked the source: the online edition of World Weekly Tattler displaying a photo of her and Franklin's picnic taken with a telephoto lens. The headline read, "Romancing the Queen."
I have to admit, that does look romantic. And they could've said a lot worse.
A second ping prompted Daria to say, "I'll have to ask security how many camera crews are camped out around here."
The Daily Globe-Sun proclaimed, "Fun Outside the Royal Luv Shack!"
"My faith in the tastelessness of humanity is restored," Daria said with a shake of her head. As much as part of me wishes it was. But I absolutely can't risk any unintended side-effects now.
Seated on her throne to answer questions from reporters, Daria waited for her chance to go to lunch with Franklin.
One reporter asked, "Do you plan any special announcements for Thursday's Tenth Anniversary celebration?"
"None that I'm aware of."
The next reporter asked, "Even about Dr. Franklin Richards? He has been living here for most of the summer."
Daria faintly smiled. "Dr. Richards came here to assist with some data analysis in the wake of Zorba Fortunov's activities against me. During that time, we developed a relationship that I'm happy to say continues. But as for any announcements, no."
A third said, "Rumor has it he also stayed around for your recovery after the assassination attempt."
"Yes, he did."
"Any follow-up to the attempt on your life?" the first reporter asked.
"We've increased security and are investigating the situation."
"Any clues about who was behind it? Any possible connection to Zorba's conspiracy?"
"Since this is an active investigation, I'm not going to give out any details."
Behind the press corps, Daria saw Franklin point to his watch. She told the reporters, "Thank you for your time and questions."
A reporter at the back noticed Franklin and asked, "Lunch date with Dr. Richards?"
"Yes, and I don't like to be late."
The press left the room after squeezing a few noncommittal answers from Franklin. He quietly told Daria. "I tracked the signal to the year 2958, most likely part of Kang's future empire."
"Have you disabled the nanobots?"
"They went down a few moments before I signaled you."
"Then we better get ready to pay Kang a visit."
Looking at the burnished metal armor, Franklin said, "That is not going to fit me."
Daria said, "It's self-adjusting. I know you have a lot of bad memories about my father in that armor, but…"
"I know. Okay, here goes nothing," Franklin said while picking up a section of leg armor.
"I'll get into my armor and then we'll get the time machine out."
"We're going to make a fine looking pair."
"Better not let my sister see us."
Franklin replaced Dr. Doom's wide belt with a narrower one that had several devices attached to it. Otherwise looking very much like his parents' long-time nemesis, Franklin stepped back out into the lab.
Daria was already there and opening the adjacent store-room. "I see you figured things out."
"Not too hard. I'm surprised that it's so comfortable to wear."
"My father lived in those armors, so they're made to fit comfortably and adjust to any short or long-term changes in body form."
"I never pictured him as designing anything for comfort."
"In his eyes, I'm sure it was more practical. Being slowed down by armor chaffing or by a blister would be embarrassing."
"I can see that."
Daria poised a knife over a lead seal on the door. "Ready?"
"Waiting will only make it worse."
Daria cut the seal and opened the vault-like door. The bullet-shaped vehicle inside looked like it had just been put into storage. The surface was clean and the room was free of dust. She stepped to the door and inserted a key to open it.
"Mind you, I've never tried to drive this thing before. I hope you have the right destination data."
"I hope so, too."
Daria got into the pilot's seat and Franklin sat in the copilot seat. She closed the door and took a deep breath. "I better know what we're doing. Powering up."
Flipping several toggle switches brought the machine up to full power. When she was ready, Daria asked, "What's the target time?"
Franklin removed one of the belt devices and read, "Julian day 280…"
Punching in the numbers as she repeated them, Daria said, "…280."
"7 point 53…"
"…7 point 53."
"Okay. The time machine will automatically compensate for all planetary motions. Do you have a target location on Earth?"
"42 degrees, 53 point 455 minutes North. 78 degrees, 51 point 692 minutes West."
"Got it. The vehicle will avoid stopping us in solid objects, so there may be some offset. Now, I have no idea of how long, our time, this trip is going to take."
"Maybe we should've packed a lunch."
"Too late now. Time motors engaging in three...two…one…zero."
"Tight fit, but we made it," Daria said while looking at monitors displaying the faintly lit room outside. Two long rows of tables faded into the darkness to one side. "I think we arrived in the cafeteria."
On his second try using the unfamiliar time machine controls, Franklin said, "We're about a hundred meters from the target."
"That's a lot of space inside a building. We better get moving. Any signs of alarms going off?"
"Not yet, but this thing's a bit obvious."
"A chameleon circuit would've been nice. Oh well, we have to work fast."
"Speaking of which, your father didn't put a stealth mode in the armor either, did he?"
"Sorry, he wasn't one for sneaking around."
They left the vehicle and carefully moved toward their target through dark corridors and past dark rooms. Good thing Kang doesn't run a night shift, Daria thought as they neared their goal. The room was sealed by a metal door with no visible control or latch.
Franklin studied one of his devices for half a minute. He then pressed one of the device's buttons and the door opened.
Daria said, "I never saw lock-picking on your resume."
"The information Iron Man and the Avengers provided said Kang used an RFID key. I just had to find the right frequency pattern to duplicate."
"That's creepy, because I bet those RFID keys are implanted in the workers."
"That's one way to keep them from losing their keys."
"We better get to work before anything hits the fan," Daria said as she started examining the room."
"I'll be damned," Daria said after examining a small drone robot. "Kang's not one to let opportunities pass. Not only could the drone have killed me if it gotten through, but it's what delivered the nanobots."
"Another mystery solved."
"Have you had any luck?"
"Confirmation that he thinks I'm a direct ancestor," he replied. " Wonderful."
"We don't get to pick our relatives, one direction or the other."
"But the big news is that if you remain Queen of Latveria, I won't be."
Daria thought for a second and decided she didn't understand. "Repeat that?"
"If you remain Queen of Latveria, I won't be his direct ancestor in this timeline."
"That's what I thought you said." With sudden concern, Daria asked, "Do you die because of me?"
"No, but if you remain Queen, I apparently never have children that lead to him."
"So he's going back in time to kill me. Does he think that there's some time loop he has to fulfill or something? What gave him that idea?"
"Actually…" Franklin hesitated before adding, "…he believes that he's restoring somebody else's alteration of time."
"I'm still working on it."
Daria set her attention back to another computer, looking for weapon or defensive data.
A couple minutes later, the computers shut down.
"Dammit!" Franklin pounded the console. "I was getting close."
Daria grabbed his arm. "We need to go."
The door failed to open to the RFID signal. Franklin said, "No good."
Daria raised both fists and fired at the door. "No time for subtlety."
Franklin raised both gauntlets and joined Daria's fire. After several seconds, the door shattered away from them. Franklin looked out and ducked his head back as weapon fire splashed against the corridor wall."
Daria asked, "How many?"
"A dozen, easy."
"The only way out is through them."
Franklin said, "Keep behind me. Kang should still be worried about the paradox…"
"How the hell are they going to know? To all outward appearances, you look like my father."
"Yeah, so keep your head down. We both shoot around the corner with both weapons and make a break when the guards go for cover."
"And hope we do better than Butch and Sundance."
"A lot better. One…two…three!"
Several guards fell and the rest disappeared inside a cloud of smoke and dust as they scrambled for cover. Daria tapped Franklin's shoulder and the two ran for the time machine.
They made steady progress toward their goal. Moving between alcoves and doors a long the corridors, they were able to fend off the guards' attempts to stop them. Their armor resisted even direct hits and the gauntlet weapons stopped any guard hit and dispersed others.
"Fools! Cut off their escape first!" Kang bellowed at his guards as he entered his command center. He charged across the room and entered a command into a console. Across the corridors in the alerted section of Kang's palace, heavy doors rolled across the corridors, turning them into a series of sealed rooms.
Kang stood before one of the guard commanders and barked, "Who are they?"
"Dr. Doom and his daughter, Daria Von Doom."
"I doubt if Queen Daria would travel in time to recruit her father to help. No, it must be one of the old Doombots that she's using as a bodyguard. I want it and her destroyed. I'll tend to this personally."
Daria lowered her hands. The door was blackened and an outer façade was splintered, but the armored inner core was only slightly damaged. "It's no use. These doors are too heavy to get through."
"Looks like it's time to come up with a Plan 'B' real fast."
"I'm open to suggestions."
"Maybe we can cut into the overhead."
"Come on, I don't think Kang will make B-movie mistakes."
Franklin shot at the ceiling and the result was the same as shooting at the doors. Decorative molding fell to the floor in pieces, but the armored structural forms were undamaged. "It was worth a try."
After several minutes, the door behind them rolled to the side.
Kang stood in front of a large group of guards and said, "You're very difficult to kill, Queen Daria. I must congratulate you on your ingenuity and determination. However, your time is now at an end."
Franklin stepped in front of Daria and reached for his faceplate.
"I'm disappointed, though," Kang said and fired at Franklin. "Having only one of those old robots as a guard."
The young man staggered back against Daria and fell to one knee.
Kang's guards opened fire on Franklin also. The shots bounced away, but each hit on his right side caused him to hiss in pain. He dropped the faceplate and said, "Damn. Too slow."
Kang saw who the target was and yelled, "Cease fire!"
"Hey, I was right," Franklin coughed.
"Franklin Richards. Don't risk your family's future," Kang sternly warned. "The Von Dooms have been a plague on your family before and will be again."
"I think you're more concerned about yourself than me. I'll trust my own judgment."
In a low voice, Daria said, "Forgive me."
Crouching behind Franklin, Daria held one of her gauntlets to his head. "I'm not dead yet, Kang. Let us go and nothing happens to him."
Kang seethed in anger but didn't move. "Don't you see, Franklin? You're only a pawn to her. A tool for her to use as needed. Queen Daria's like her father and cares nothing for others."
She demanded, "Open all the doors between here and my time-machine. Close each as we go past."
"You can't leave, Queen Daria. You don't belong in this timeline. Zorba and Red Skull should've killed you after your failed election."
"Don't give me that. I know you were backing Zorba and Red Skull was imprisoned years ago." Daria pressed her fist against Franklin's head. "I'm losing patience."
"You're being used as a tool by a being called Immortus. You were never destined to capture Red Skull, but to die at his hands. And then, in response to Zorba's corruption, your sister is to seize the throne. That is the true path of time."
Daria rebutted, "Oh, so you think that claiming I'm supposed to already be dead will make me cooperate?"
Dimly, an odd memory surfaced in Franklin's mind.
He was old and tired. It took much of his little remaining energy to open his eyes and look at Valeria. Despite the deep lines in her face and white hair, the child-like twinkle in her eye was still there.
She noticed his wakening and said, "Hey, Brain."
"Hey, Brat," Franklin said, barely above a whisper.
"How are you today?"
"I'm almost done."
"Don't say that."
Valeria nodded and held his hand.
Franklin sadly whispered, "Kind of made a mess of things, didn't I?"
"What do you mean?" Valeria asked, though knowing why he thought that. " Look at all you've done."
"For everyone else. But I turned my life and everyone's around me into a disaster. Look at Wendy."
"Hey, she knew what she was getting into."
"No. I don't think anybody could really know. Marrying her was a huge mistake and she paid the price for it."
"You paid a big price, too. Has Kenneth been by to see you?"
"No. I didn't expect him to break forty-two years of silence. I was a father in name only. I was too tied up in saving the world to spend time with him."
"You gave up so much of yourself for others. I wish you could've been happier."
Franklin nodded off and re-awoke. "Tired." He seemed to look far away and said, "You know what I regret the most?"
"Do you remember Daria Von Doom?"
"You had the biggest crush on her as a teenager."
"I regret that I never asked her out. And then she died and it was too late. I wish…I wish things had happened differently."
Franklin felt his life start to end and his last breath began to leave his lungs. Almost like a trick of light, he saw a man in a green with a blue cloak standing behind his sister. The man said, "Things can be different, if you really want them to."
"Daria, we have to get out of here, now," Franklin warned.
"Can you walk?"
"The right side of the armor isn't working. I need help."
Kang said, "Daria, we both know you won't harm him. Stop the charade."
Franklin raised his left fist to his head. "But I can. Let us go."
Kang stepped back, incredulous. "You can't be serious."
"Either both of us leave, or neither of us will."
The door behind them opened. Using her suit's augmented strength, Daria pulled Franklin as he pushed with his functioning leg. Once through, the door closed again.
Franklin said out loud, "Don't try anything, I haven't let down my guard."
When they reached the time machine, Daria used her key to open the hatch, noticing the burn marks and scratches from attempts to open it. Pulling hard, she dragged Franklin inside as she saw the cafeteria door starting to open.
She didn't waste a moment before she laid Franklin on the floor and started powering the time drives. Working as fast as she could, she yelled back at him, "How bad are you hurt?"
He looked down at the distorted and singed armor. "I think my whole right side is going to be very colorful, but that's about it. The armor took a worse beating than I did."
Once Daria had the time machine underway back to her present day, she climbed back to where Franklin lay. She grabbed the edges of his breastplate and angrily said, "Don't do that again! You scared the hell out of me!"
Franklin's reply of "I only…" was cut short by her kissing him.
Franklin's eyes opened wide in surprise. Daria leaned back and said, "Promise me you'll keep your head down."
"Promise me you'll be careful. You're not bulletproof, dammit."
Franklin regained his senses. "I promise."
"Good. Let's see if we can get your armor working. We didn't remember spare clothes."
Confused by Daria's change of subject, Franklin asked, "What about…?"
Daria gently said, "There's a reason I don't want you hurt."
Daria removed her gauntlets and began to examine the damaged armor. After a while, she said, "The left side nuclear power pack's leads are damaged."
She noticed Franklin's concern and added, "The core shielding is intact and there's no radiation leakage. Don't worry."
As Daria worked, Franklin said, "Thanks. Back there, I had a strange feeling…of a memory."
"Like I sometimes had back when I could change reality. Memories of things before a change."
"I don't understand. You haven't had that power since rescuing your sister and making it possible for her to be born."
"I know. But…Kang was correct about you being killed by Red Skull. In the memory, I saw who I think was Immortus just before I died of old age. I'd just told Valeria that I regretted not asking you out and wished things had been different. He somehow enabled me to use my power so that you weren't killed."
Daria stopped and stared at the wires in her hand for a minute. "Uh…it, um…" Daria inhaled and said, "It's odd to think that somebody changed reality for you."
"I wanted a second chance. In that timeline, we never got together. I married someone else and had a child that must've led to Kang's lineage."
"If you regretted not asking me out, you must've had feelings for me before."
Daria asked, "How long?"
"Four, five years."
"I thought I'd been bad about a crush. But, I'm glad you finally spoke up over dinner."
"We should thank my sister for setting that up."
Daria made a face and said, "So Valeria didn't leave to play computer games that night? I'm destined to be surrounded by yentas."
"She'd been nudging me for a long time."
Daria used a small solder pen to reconnect the damaged power pack contacts. "Try that."
Franklin moved his arm and leg. "It works."
Daria stood and looked at the time machine controls. "If we go back to our regular time, we'll lose the initiative. We have to stop Kang first."
"I copied a lot of data that I didn't have time to examine. Maybe we can find something in there to help us."
On a shaded rooftop in New York, the Spider-Man told the Human Torch, "Sorry Johnny, but that's all we know. MJ and her agent kept expecting somebody to hint at the gift tickets to get her to do a photo shoot. I've gotta admit, it was suspicious for me to be there."
"Yeah, Peter. Why bring you all the way across the country? Why not somebody local, or one of the other Avengers who've dealt with Kang before?"
"Not a clue. Maybe Susan will have better luck tracking down the tickets from the other end."
"Let's hope so. I'm worried about them running off in Dr. Doom's old time machine. Those things are bad news."
"But, Franklin has a good head on his shoulders. I'm sure he thought things through."
"Peter, how well did you think things through when you were first seeing MJ?"
"And he has it bad."
"Yeah. Come to think of it, he did act like he was still in the 'knight in shining armor' stage. What about her? She's held Latveria together for ten years; she can't be stupid."
"Queen Daria's no slacker in the brains department and she really doesn't take stuff from anybody. Trust me."
"So when they get their heads out of the clouds, they're gonna be a helluva team."
"If they make it."
The friends looked out over the city for long minutes. The quiet was broken by Johnny asking, "Tell me something. How do you brains keep getting the cute girls?"
Quinn looked up the ticket numbers in the accounting records of her computer. "Here they are. Hmm." Quinn smiled and waved her finger. "Now I remember. The lady said she was getting them as a surprise for a special couple."
Susan Richards asked, "Do you remember anything about what she looked like?"
"Let's see…mid-twenties or so, a little taller than you, blonde, had long bangs combed down over her eyes, that peek-a-boo seductress-type of look. Very business like dress suit. No jewelry, not even earrings. I know it's not much."
"Every bit helps, so don't apologize."
"I'm sorry I got Daria involved in that ball."
"How could you know anything would happen? You couldn't."
"I hope they're all right."
"We're all hoping that. But, we're also trying to do what we can for them."
"Thanks. We'll let you know when we find out anything."
Susan left Quinn's office and entered the elevator. A blonde woman reading a magazine said, "Don't worry, there weren't any strings attached to those tickets."
Susan said, "What do you know about…?" She stopped when she saw the woman's face.
"They've been very happy together before and I didn't want Daria to die in that ballroom again. I could trust Spider-Man to do the right thing to help."
"Do you know how they are now?"
"I'm as in the dark as you are."
Susan looked worried.
The woman added, "But this time, they have the upper hand."
"At this rate, we may end up in the Pleistocene," Daria said as she continued guiding the vehicle back in time.
"Hey, I am making progress," Franklin said from the other seat.
"I found some historical records of Kang's preferred timeline. It's not the true temporal baseline, because there's only one reality where Kang rose to power on his own. His manipulations resulted in an unknown number of different versions, each rising to power by various means in their realities."
"What do the records say? Briefly."
"Okay. Basically, what he told you. Early in your reign, you defeated Red Skull's attempt to seize Latveria. However, he was able to escape. Later, he plotted with Zorba Fortunov to overthrow you. In the process, Red Skull personally killed you."
"Lovely reading there. We'd speculated that I may have another sibling or half-sibling. Your memory and what he said seems to bear that out. Any clue of who that is?"
Franklin worked some more at decrypting the data. He closed his eyes and said, "Um…yeah."
"You can be sure that Kang hadn't informed her yet."
Daria quietly nodded. "In a way, that makes sense. My father maintained thorough surveillance of me growing up. Actually, a scary amount. It must've been a difficult challenge to keep that secret. It would be more efficient to use the same effort to keep an eye on two children."
"Wouldn't that be risky? You'd think he'd want his children separated in case one was discovered."
"He must've determined the lower risk of a smaller, single surveillance effort was greater than the risk of both of us in the same place."
"Okay, but Quinn? I can't see her as a successful Queen."
"I can. The modern business world is damn cutthroat and she's doing well. Quinn's a lot more charismatic than I am, and she can be very determined. Give her the incentive of my death…"
"Okay, but she really wouldn't have been ready when you came to Latveria."
"It's clear I was the main plan and she was the backup." Daria dropped her shoulders as an idea hit her. "But she could've been prepared given more time."
"You mean take her back in time for more training?"
"No. I mean take more time in the present. I wonder if there were more opportunities for my father to open that gate to Hell than he mentioned. If there are…"
Franklin was unsettled by the wry smile on her face. "Daria?"
"We may have a nice trap for Kang."
"Wait a minute," Franklin warned. "That's getting into some of that nasty stuff your father used."
"Yes, but I can't think of a better place for Kang than Hell."
"One slight problem: you destroyed the Anatolian Key."
"There are other ways and I'm not really worried about somebody down there noticing his arrival."
"Look, the combined efforts of the Avengers haven't been able to kill him. I don't think we'll have better luck. We're never going to outdo him with technology. So, that leaves magic."
Daria operated the vehicle's controls. "It should take us a couple hundred years to turn around and head back."
"That was bad."
"Humor helps me deal. I don't like what I'm planning, but don't see a better alternative."
"Do you mind if I keep thinking about other options?"
"I'd love a better option."
In a sleek, white dress, Daria sat next to Franklin and put her arms around his neck before kissing him. Alone in the cabin of her private jet, they enjoyed the moment.
Wrapping his arms around her, Franklin said, "I can't believe we did it."
"You better, 'cause you're stuck. I can't believe that Johnny wanted to write 'Just Married' on the plane's rudder."
"You know how he gets."
"I suppose I'd really have been surprised if he didn't try something like that."
"I'm still happy you even agreed to go out with me the first time."
"After a year of strange and weird dating, your honest approach was so welcome." She kissed him and said, "And it worked. Of course, getting Ben to fly you over to ask made a big impression, too."
Franklin leaned back and raised his hand to his forehead. "Oh, boy."
"What?" Daria asked.
"I just remembered another reality."
"I'm sorry. From what you said, it sounded like you were unhappy then."
"No, Daria. I remembered another reality."
"Another? As in, not the one Kang described."
Franklin squirmed in his chair. "We, uh, were leaving for our honeymoon."
Daria stared at him. "Honeymoon?"
"I'm not making this up."
"I didn't think you were. But…but that means another timeline or reality that happened, but was changed. Why would you change that one?"
"I don't know. Maybe something bad happened later that I tried to fix." Franklin sighed and sunk down in his seat. "There's a reason I was glad not to have the power any more. You think this is confusing? Try to keeping things straight as a kid."
"Could Kang have done something to interfere with that? He was very intent to keep you away from me."
"Maybe." Franklin concentrated on the memory again. "I think that's the reality I caused by my deathbed wish. You captured Red Skull like we remember, and Zorba was never more than a minor nuisance."
"Sounds like you wouldn't have a reason to change things."
"With how I felt, no reason at all."
Brow furrowed behind his faceplate, Kang intently studied the tracking display. "Excellent. Their machine keeps moving through the timestream as they try to formulate a plan."
Kang leaned back from the console and smugly crossed his arms. "I only need to wait for you to re-enter into normal space."
"As you requested, Emperor," one of his technicians said, presenting a rifle-like device. "One electro-magnetic pulse rifle calibrated to disable the Doom armor both were wearing."
Kang hefted the weapon. "No more of their self-sacrificing games."
"I lost him," Daria said, looking up at the ballroom ceiling. She held her small pistol in one hand and the crystal from her necklace in the other.
"I can't track him either," Franklin said, checking the display hidden behind the cuff of his tuxedo.
"Maybe he's dropped to ground level," Daria suggested. "We better start scanning down here."
Franklin adjusted his wrist scanner while Daria continued to focus on her crystal. A bright yellow light glared and she tumbled backward. Franklin dropped to the ground next to Daria and he saw a deep wound in her chest. Frantic, he checked her pulse and found none.
After clearing the crowd, the Latverian guards and Secret Service agents found Franklin still leaning over Daria's body.
Franklin suddenly sat straight up and sucked in a lungful of air. Daria asked, "Another one?"
Dumfounded, Franklin nodded his head.
"That doesn't look like a good one."
"Daria…I have no objections to your plan to send Kang to Hell."
Rattled by the tone in Franklin's voice, Daria said, "Okay."
"I'm ratting myself out. Mom, you have about three years before I start to time dance," the adult Valeria told Susan as they reached Susan's car.
"Thanks for the warning," Susan replied.
"I'll wonder for years how you figured out so fast."
"Playing tricks on yourself. Cute." Susan's face changed. "But I'm worried. Reed and I were beginning to hope that you two could lead something closer to normal lives, that you wouldn't have such powerful abilities."
"Mom, from what I saw, if Franklin is happy, his power won't develop."
"What about you?"
Valeria stiffened. "They're back."
"Franklin and Daria?"
"Yes. And…Mom, I have to go. I'll say hi to your future self and tell her what happens. You'll know pretty soon yourself. Bye."
She performed a fast pirouette and vanished.
"Dammit! You don't love her. What the hell are you thinking?" Valeria screamed at Franklin.
"I do care about Wendy. She accepts me for what I am."
"That's bull and you know it. You're still thinking about Daria."
"Valeria, she's dead. I have to go on with my life. You have to admit that."
"Go on, yes. Not throw away!"
"I'm not throwing my life away."
"Don't try to fool me. I remember…"
"So do I! But this time, things can be different."
Valeria controlled her rage and gently grabbed her brother's shoulders. "Yes, they can be worse. Before, you thought about somebody you didn't get to know. Now, you miss somebody that you know you would've been happy with. That'll make things even worse."
Franklin looked down. "But I still can't change things. She's dead and there's nothing I can do about it. I know Wendy cares for me now. If I work at it, I might be able to keep things together."
"Franklin, I can do something about it."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm sorry I kept it from you, but I promised Mom and Dad to use it as little as possible."
"Yes. Franklin, I'm going back to get you some help at the charity ball. You're never going to be happy without her. I'm going to fix that."
"Valeria? Don't do that just for me."
"I'm not. I liked her, too."
"Again? At least you're smiling," Daria observed.
"That actually was part of the last one. We've had a little extra help."
"Valeria does eventually develop the power to time dance. She must've gotten the tickets to Spider-Man."
Daria sat still before saying, "Then I really owe her. But we have to get through this first."
"Any more ideas for your plan?"
"Everything we need is in the lab. After we park the time-machine, we just have to go to the inner lab and pick up supplies and get ready."
A faint blip on one of the scanners caught Franklin's eye. "Again?" He entered commands on the simple keyboard and started to analyze the sensor signal.
Franklin pounded on the console and flinched in pain. "We're being tracked. Kang must've put something on the outside of the vehicle."
"Damn," Daria said in frustration. "We're a couple of amateurs compared to him."
"How long will it take you to get things ready when we get back?"
"At least an hour or two."
"I thought you said everything was there."
"It is. But things have to be set up and prepared just right."
"I have a bad feeling we won't have that long. We're in a time machine, but don't have time for what you need to do."
Daria said, "We don't, but somebody else does." She manipulated the vehicle controls. "Can you tell if that tracking device can pick up our communications?"
"No way to know until we try."
"Do you know where it's at?"
"Back right side, opposite the hatch and the hardest to get to."
Daria next typed two messages on the communication console. "First, we need to find out if the communication's being monitored. Do you feel up to running around some?"
"As long as I don't have to bend over. My side's really starting to hurt."
"When we stop, jump out and take a quick shot at the tracker. If you hit it, great. Otherwise, just get back inside."
"I've programmed a series of random stops around our home time, give or take a few weeks. You'll take one shot at the tracker each time and get inside."
"That'll tip Kang off we know about it."
"Exactly, and we'll look like we're trying to lose him. At the first stop, I'll send a fake message to see if it gets intercepted. If not, at one of the later, random stops, I'll send a message to Janos to have everything ready."
Franklin nodded. "And drop in after he has things ready."
Franklin's fast shot missed the tiny tracking device and ricocheted off the time-machine's hull. Even as he reached the hatch and started to close it, he saw another time machine appearing nearby. Franklin yelled as the door sealed, "Kang's already here!"
Kang calmly said as the other machine vanished, "You can't get away."
Inside, Franklin went through the sensor readings of the tracker. "I don't think it picked up your message."
Daria glanced to the side at him. "Now for the goose chase."
Janos quickly responded to the low tone sounding in his earphone by going to his quarters. Inside, he checked the recorded message from his direct communication link to the Queen. "Oh dear."
Concerned, the middle-aged gentleman went straight to the well-secured inner laboratory of Castle Doom. Originally built by Victor Von Doom, Janos had never set foot inside during his many years of service. Setting aside his trepidation, the butler unlocked the door and entered through a heavy door that momentarily stuck before opening completely. Carrying the printed instructions, Janos faithfully gathered the arcane objects and supplies. Methodically, he placed them inside the inner lab exactly as instructed.
Franklin fell, motionless, with his legs still outside of the time machine. Daria climbed over her chair back and stood near the door. Dropping and spinning, she pointed both fists outside and fired. She saw one blast glance Kang and send him staggering back with a rifle still in his hands. She yanked hard on Franklin's shoulders and got his legs clear of the door. After slapping the closure switch, Daria reached over the pilots chair and started the pre-programmed travel.
"Franklin?" she asked while pulling his faceplate away.
Trying to joke, he said, "I don't think this suit likes me."
"Kang shot me with something that completely shut down the suit. I mean everything is off."
"We need to get you out of it then."
"What about not having any extra clothes?"
"We'll throw a lab coat on you when we arrive. Until then, there's the cloak."
Familiar with the suit design, Daria hit the quick release controls and was able to quickly remove the armor.
After getting Franklin's arms free, Daria went back to the pilot's chair and tried to keep her attention on the controls while Franklin got out of the rest of the armor, though she couldn't resist a quick look.
Franklin wrapped the cloak around his waist. "Bet I look heroic now," he said as he sat down.
Daria saw the deep blue and purple bruising on Franklin's rib cage. "Oh, crap. Are you sure you're all right?"
"I said I was going to be colorful."
She pushed carefully on his ribs, causing Franklin to hiss in pain.
"I'd say more than colorful. You might have a cracked rib."
"Does it really matter right now?"
"No, not really. But you will get that looked at when we're done."
Daria stood up and moved back inside the machine. "I should get rid of my armor, too."
Daria started to remove hers. "I can't afford to have it shut down during the incantation."
Janos completed the preparations and went to a communication console. He pressed one button and a red light began flashing in the room. He pressed a second and then said, "Evacuate the castle."
He stopped at the lab door and looked down the corridor before shaking his head. Janos let the door slide shut and sat down on a stool set against one wall of the room. He checked his watch and said, "Not too long. I should stay close in case Her Majesty needs something else."
Less than half an hour later, the time machine appeared in its storage area. Janos was startled to see his Queen wearing only a cloak pulled around her body, tied over one shoulder and held at the waist by her belt.
Running from the time machine to the prepared lab bench, Daria yelled to Franklin, "They're in that cabinet," and pointed to a storage unit.
The young man opened the cabinet and pulled a lab coat from a hanger, throwing it on as the cloak fell down. Stepping free of the loose cloth, he finished buttoning the coat.
Daria took her position by the bench and saw Janos. "I told you to evacuate."
"You did, Majesty. However, it felt like the wrong thing to do."
The sound of three distant explosions caused Daria to look up. "Those servo-guards aren't going to last long. Janos, use your better judgment and remember that I'll need your many skills after this. Get behind me."
Franklin stepped beside Daria. "What do I need to do?"
She gave him a gold hoop about six inches across. "Hold this up and concentrate on protecting us."
"That's a lot. You need to concentrate. Distraction will cause the protection to weaken or fail."
Talking softly in a tongue Franklin didn't recognize, Daria began the incantation. Her eyes closed and she continued without pause. Without error and without hesitation, she reached for each item on the table in turn. Her voice deepened and slowly built in volume as the spell grew.
The lab door opened and Franklin raised the golden ring, concentrating on keeping all harm away.
Kang's laughter filled the room. "Too late." He set the heavy rifle down. "And you've conveniently removed your armor to make killing you easier."
Daria's voice gained a darker, sinister sub-tone.
Kang raised his fist and a blast of energy came from it, only to splash against an invisible barrier inches from the lab bench Daria and Franklin were behind. Kang raised his other fist and fired again with the same result.
"Very well," Kang said. "I'll go around." He fired at the ceiling over Daria and his attack was again deflected.
Daria's eyes opened, revealing pupils reduced to pinpoints, as if staring at a bright light.
Kang shouted, "Is that who you want, Franklin? Is that what you want? Look at her! Look at her!"
Daria lifted a knife and placed the tip against her palm.
"Yes. Franklin, I'm going back to get you some help at the charity ball. You're never going to be happy without her. I'm going to fix that."
"Valeria? Don't do that just for me."
"I'm not. I liked her, too."
Franklin watched his sister step back and smile at him. Inside, he knew she was right. Wendy wasn't the one. He wouldn't be happy and neither would she. He wasn't trying to make things right this time; he was punishing himself for losing Daria.
He said, "I would've taken the hit for you if I'd had the chance. You are the only one for me. The only one."
Franklin brought his attention back almost in time for another blast from Kang. A sliver of energy cut through to lash across the back of Franklin's hand holding the hoop and Daria's arm.
Without breaking her trance, Daria smiled and glanced toward her wound. She lowered her free hand and touched the blade to the seeping blood and brought it back
Carefully keeping attention on Kang and Daria, Franklin reached over and grasped the blade. "You don't need to go on . Kang's lost."
The touch started Daria out of her casting trance. "What?!" She oriented herself and said, "Franklin?"
Franklin stared at Kang. "I remember too much now. I know where my heart lay." Holding the golden ring high, Franklin stepped around the bench. "I won't father his lineage."
Kang stepped away. "You can't join your family with the Von Dooms!"
"That's interesting." Daria stepped around the other side of the lab bench. "You're not just worried about Franklin being your ancestor. You're worried about the two of us being together."
Daria stepped up beside Franklin and both advanced together, forcing Kang back.
Kang fired energy bolts at them to no effect. If anything, the protective shield over seemed to grow stronger.
Daria continued. "That's why you so desperately want me gone. It's not just that I'd prevent Franklin from fathering your line."
Kang was stopped by the lab wall. For the first time, Franklin and Daria saw fear on his face. Daria moved closer. "Something must happen in our future together that you don't want. That's why you're trying to prevent us from being together."
Daria wrapped her hand around Franklin's to hold the ring.
Kang's hands were pushed back so that he was unable to direct his weapons at them. Desperate, he said, 'Franklin, she's right. You must break away from her. The future of your entire family depends on it. Your grandfather made sure her grandmother was unable to properly gain control of Mephisto's power. Your father kept hers in check for years. The Von Dooms can't be trusted. They'll use anyone for power. Victor sold his true love's soul for power. Daria sent him to hell for power." Kang yelled, "Don't trust her!"
Franklin said, "I trust my heart, so I'll trust her."
The ring touched Kang's chest and the protective field closed around him like a shell. Immobile, his eyes darted from one to the other.
Daria and Franklin let go of the ring, leaving Kang like a statue. Franklin asked, "What now?"
"He has many crimes to account for," a voice said behind them. Franklin recognized it from his memory, turned and said, "Immortus."
A dark-haired man in green and blue with a gold starburst emblem was behind them. "This Kang will bother you no more. There is a prison in Limbo awaiting him."
Daria asked, "How can we be sure? It's taken all our effort, and more than our share of luck, to capture him."
Immortus said, "Look at him. Is that the face of a wretch I'd release?"
Daria looked and saw unabashed rage and hate on Kang's face.
Immortus said, "I'm his greatest enemy and he mine. There will be no peace until all the splintered versions of Kang are dealt with."
The tall being bowed his head and vanished, along with Kang.
Franklin looked in greater surprise at the woman standing behind where Immortus had been. "Valeria?"
His now older sister said, "You made sure I had life, now I've made sure you have happiness."
"So, you know more of our future?"
"I've peeked. And no, I won't tell you, except that you'll have fun."
Daria simply said, "Thank you."
Valeria winked. "Anytime, Triple-D." She spun, leapt into the air like a ballerina and vanished.
Janos stepped out from behind the lab bench. "You two should have those cuts tended to. It's a good thing I stayed around."
"What would I do without you, Janos?" Daria asked warmly.
"Probably be very messy, Your Majesty. Speaking of which, I'd suggest changing into more appropriate attire before calling the castle staff back. They still have a lot of work to do before tomorrow's anniversary celebration."
Daria looked at Franklin's cut right hand and the similar scars on her own. "Can you believe it slipped my mind?"
Janos smiled. "You have had a few things to distract your attention as of late, Your Majesty."
During the anniversary reception, Daria watched the gathered crowd. Her dad was in an animated conversation with Ben. Ben's upward glare indicated it was probably about Jake's father, Mad Dog. Nearby, Dr. Strange, watched with amusement. Susan and Helen stood together, talking over glasses of wine. Johnny chatted with his good friend, Peter, and Peter's wife, Mary Jane. Daria remembered them from several visits to the Richards and didn't mind extending the invitation at Johnny's request.
Across the room, Daria spotted Quinn dancing with a handsome young man. Daria smiled and thought, as much as I know you'd love to be known as Princess Quinn, I hope you never have to learn that you are. Father knew what he was doing by keeping our existence secret. Please keep some innocence for both of us.
"So, where's Mr. Wonderful?" Jane asked, coming up from the side.
"He's rounding up his sister."
"Found out about the betting pool she's trying to start?"
"Valeria's worse than you ever were."
"I knew better than to bet real money on you getting together with Trent."
Franklin arrived with Valeria with him. He said, "Found her."
Daria quietly said, "Can you promise to keep completely quiet about something? Absolutely quiet."
Sensing Daria's mood, Valeria nodded. "Yes. I promise."
"Good." Daria pressed a ribboned medal into Valeria's hand. "Sometimes, the gratitude for another's courage and generosity cannot be openly acknowledged. But that doesn't mean it's not honestly felt." Daria hugged Valeria close and whispered, "Thank you, for everything."
Cheeks flushed pink, Valeria said, "Thank you, Daria." The twinkle returned to her eye and she looked at Franklin and then Daria, "So, when are you two getting hitched?
Thanks to Kristen Bealer, Brother Grimace and Ipswichfan for beta reading.