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Trust in God (And Keep Your Powder Dry)

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Stephen was well aware he was in no position to question Doom's decisions. He'd had the opportunity to play god for himself, and turned away from it; the fact that Doom had the ruthless arrogance to decide the fates of lives and worlds without flinching was the only reason they were here at all.

Of course, sometimes he had to question Doom's decisions.

"Valeria?" he said.

Stephen still didn't know what to make of Doom's... adoption, if that was the word, of Reed Richards' former family. Was it petty or magnanimous? He suspected perhaps both. A taunt, yet also a genuine attempt to grasp at something that he must be aware eluded him; an almost tragic, cargo cult effort to recreate what his enemy had always had that he did not, as if that might somehow bridge the gap between their differing receptions by the world. He remained eternally blind to the true reasons that he failed, protecting his weaknesses to the point of even concealing them from himself, like... well, very much like a man who refused to take his armour off long enough to take stock of the injuries it hid.

He was, however, neither remotely stupid nor particularly irrational when not poked in one of those obvious weak spots - which left Stephen rather at a loss to make sense of this particular suggestion.

"She would be an eminently suitable appointment for the role," Doom said calmly, raising one eyebrow beneath the mask as if to question Stephen's agitation at the idea.

"Perhaps, when she's older..." he allowed. This didn't seem to make the desired point. "Victor, she's four!"

If Doom had possessed anything approaching a sense of humour, Stephen might have suspected he was being pranked. Initially, he'd been more than pleased at Doom's proposal to appoint a second adviser to govern in the realm of science as Stephen advised him in matters of magic and mysticism. Any evidence of willingness to share power was good news, and privately Stephen suspected that an extra layer of filtering between Doom and the people under his rule was just as well for everyone concerned.

However, the idea that his counterpart would be barely more than a toddler...

"Her mind is second only to my own," Doom said.

Fine, a genius toddler. "Brilliance is not the same as wisdom," he said. Nor was it the same as emotional control or the stamina to stay up late without getting cranky. He didn't have much experience with young children, but what little he did suggested they were generally much like miniature supervillains in terms of instability, unwillingness to be reasoned with, and penchant for disproportionate destruction.

"Nonetheless, better that it be put to work than be allowed to grow restless. We would not be wise to allow her free rein to study this world's mysteries unchecked."

They'd both agreed, though Stephen not without reluctance, that it was better for their fledgling world to forget all that had been before its birth. This little patchwork oasis of salvaged realities was too precious and too fragile to risk the conflict if its occupants should learn that there had once been a time before Doom was their god, that such a thing might be again. Survival of the fittest had governed at the end of everything, and those who had lasted long enough to be salvaged from the brink included superhumans, genius minds, Omega-level mutants. If they sought to wrest control of Battleworld from Doom, they could all too easily tear it apart.

And though Stephen had mediated on it many troubled nights, he could find no better candidate to raise to the role of godhood than Victor von Doom. He himself had fled before the terrible responsibility, and he was sure that any soul with a healthy dose of humility would do the same. Who did that leave? The ruthless and the arrogant.

Uniquely among that bad bunch, Doom had almost enough talent to justify his self-regard, and he aspired to a code of honour of sorts, even he was wilfully blind to the moments when his petty flaws caused him to transgress it. Though it pained Stephen to admit it, the seeming absence of any version of Reed Richards across the surviving realities would probably be for the best, all told. With no challenge to his dominance to reopen old wounds, Doom remained largely stable, and acted the role of the stern but noble ruler it suited him to believe that he was.

Which was why Stephen had found himself cast - albeit not without a certain sense of irony - in a new role of his own: that of defender of Doom's godly nature from all outside challenge. Smoothing over flaws in their world's artificial history, cracking down on any threats to the infallibility of the religion that was Doom.

And if that now meant dividing up the duties of his office with a four-year-old girl... then so be it, he supposed.

*

Stephen hadn't known Reed Richards' children well, when they had still been Reed Richards' children. Fleeting visits, usually, to check on or secure their safety after some encounter with a magical threat; Reed would never do - have done - any less than the utmost to protect his children, but Stephen privately suspected that outside of true emergencies, Reed had simply been uncomfortable in the presence of magic that he remained unable to explain.

(It was another of life's bitter ironies that Doom was forever blind to the one way in which he was unquestionably Reed's superior, incapable of choking back the fury and indignation at being the world's second best scientific mind and second best sorcerer long enough to recognise the unequalled marvel that it was to be both.)

So Stephen, all in all, had seldom had much contact with young Valeria - at least not when she was conscious and fully herself. He was aware she was advanced for her age, perhaps superhumanly so given the convoluted circumstances surrounding her birth. But he hadn't been aware that she was quite this stubborn.

"The entire purpose of the Foundation is to make new discoveries about the nature of our world," Valeria said, folding her arms. Stephen had received lectures from some of the greatest mystics and most powerful cosmic entities in the multiverse, but there was still something disconcerting about getting one from a four-year-old. "Your research into the differing mythologies that have developed across the kingdoms provides valuable clues to the state of scientific progress in each region. It simply doesn't make sense for us to receive only censored copies of the documentation."

"It's the highest purpose of the law to prevent rebellion growing against the divine rule of our god Doom," he said. And wasn't that a sentence he'd never expected to be uttering in his life. "We need to stop the spread of misinformation before it can cause harm."

More importantly, they needed to suppress the kind of discrepancies in the regions' histories that would lead a mind as sharp as Valeria's to start asking awkward questions. While Doom had instilled all his people with false memories of always having lived here, he couldn't erase every recollection of their former lives without stripping away their personalities with it. Until a generation or two had passed and those details blurred into half-remembered folklore, it was necessary to preserve this crude recreation of the feudal system that stopped groups from different universes from ever comparing notes too closely.

And it certainly wouldn't help to have Valeria's Foundation doing the kind of systematic side-by-side comparison that would bring all the flaws into sharp relief.

"But knowing what kind of misinformation people subscribe to can tell us so much!" Valeria said, flailing her hands. She turned to Doom. "Dad, can't you explain to him that we need this information?"

The term of address was jarring as much for the informality as for its more obvious wrongness, but Doom seemed wholly unperturbed by either. "Do not mistake desire for necessity," he told her sternly, steepling his gauntleted hands where he sat on his World Tree throne. "The Sheriff's office will release the information to you once it has been stripped of blasphemous elements. The heretical witterings of fools who refuse to accept the evidence given to them by God has no place in your scientific analysis."

That was the thing about Doom. He played the role of God so well that Stephen sometimes wondered if he himself even remembered things hadn't always been this way. Perhaps, in his mind, they always had, and he regarded this new state of creation as a mere correction of an oversight in the design of the past universe.

His subjects, certainly, believed in him without question - even those who hated and feared him with it. And yet young Valeria, who believed as much as any, showed no hesitation at challenging his word.

"The Sheriff - while I'm sure he has many fine qualities-" condescension from a four-year-old, how delightful, "-is not a scientist!" she insisted. "How can he possibly determine what might be relevant to our research?"

Doom's eyes narrowed behind the mask. "The Sheriff serves as my right hand because I have appointed him there," he reminded her. "Do not presume that the fact I have made you his balance permits you to question my judgement."

Valeria bowed her head, at last seeming to realise that she had to concede ground. "No, sir," she said.

But the stubborn light was still there in her eyes as she rose to leave, and though Stephen was quite sure it presaged trouble of some kind, in an odd way he was still glad to see it.

*

Stephen really should have realised that any child of Reed's - or indeed adopted child of Doom's - would be as precocious when it came to rebellion as in anything else. He'd been braced for further attempts at persuasion and arguments, perhaps even some devious plan to lower Stephen's position in Doom's favour. He'd already seen from just their few preliminary clashes that Doom's opinion of her dangerous mind was more than justified.

All the same, being woken in the middle of the night by one of the magical alarms he'd set to protect the Sheriff's office still came as a bit of a surprise. He rose and threw on his uniform with a few careless magical gestures, still somewhat unused to the more military lines of his current garb - and, he had to admit, rather fiercely missing his cloak. Nothing was quite so good for appearing in front of intruders in a flash of light as a billowing cloak and a touch of levitation.

His forbidding Sheriff's uniform was of course just as intimidating in its own way, but the effect was rather wasted on Valeria, who was hanging upside-down from a spider-like mechanical contraption that could have come from a high-tech jewellery heist, and merely took the opportunity to point a hand-held gadget at him when he appeared.

"Huh, that's interesting," she said thoughtfully, rotating back to upright in a slow loop as her contraption lowered her gently to the ground. Once she touched down, it retracted its telescoping arm and disappeared into her backpack. "I missed your alarm system because it didn't spike on the scanner, and neither do you. Are there other types of energy than god particles out there? This changes everything we thought we knew about power readings!" She popped the back off her hand-held device, fiddling with its innards with an intent expression that reminded him of her father - both of them. "I'm going to need a more sophisticated scanner," she muttered.

She appeared to be perfectly happy to forget her original attempt at breaking into his office in the face of an intriguing scientific mystery. Stephen wished that he could be so sanguine. The information he protected in his office as Sheriff had the potential to destroy their fledgling world in the wrong hands, and while Valeria was no more than a bright child playing at rebellion with no idea of the stakes, her dogged persistence was a very real threat.

The sound of Doom's unmistakable footsteps caused him to spin about. In the world that was past, Stephen would have sensed his approach much earlier; Doom had always worn his magical potency like another suit of armour, a bold, unmistakable presence that stood out like a beacon where others might seek to blanket and conceal. But here, everything carried the sense of Doom's presence, a magical signature woven through the essence of this world more thoroughly than he'd ever managed to stamp his name and image into Latveria-that-was. Stephen was caught unprepared, with no time to consider any possible way to conceal the extent of Valeria's foolishness.

He instinctively moved to take up a protective position in front of her as Doom marched into view.

Doom ignored him entirely, eyes narrowing as they fixed on Valeria. "Did you think I would remain unaware of your efforts to defy me?" he said coldly, dangerously.

She tried a disingenuous shrug and smile. "Can't blame me for trying?" she suggested.

"You would be unwise to test me further, child," he warned her.

Stephen shifted uneasily as for the first time Valeria started to look slightly nervous. "Victor..." he said, with a subtle warning note of his own. No matter what consequences it might carry for this fragile new world that they'd built, he couldn't be expected to stand idly by and let Doom bring harm to a child.

But to his great surprise, Doom went down on one armoured knee to meet his adopted daughter at her level. "Do you imagine me, perhaps, to be inadequately equipped to weigh all factors in my calculations?" he said, with more softness in his voice than Stephen would have credited.

"No," she mumbled to her chest.

"Or perhaps believe that my insight into this world is less than your own position affords?"

Valeria shrugged sheepishly.

Doom rose back to his feet. "You are the daughter of Doom," he said, and for the first time Stephen considered that he might truly mean it, in all the ways that actually mattered. "You are capable of all things. Is the absence of this information an obstacle or a challenge?"

That brought the determined set back to her jaw, but now it was forged into pride instead of defiance. "A challenge," she said.

"Then overcome it." Doom clapped her on the shoulder, acknowledgement and dismissal, and she trotted off back towards her room in the royal chambers.

Once she was gone, he turned to Stephen with a sharp swirl of his cloak. "I suspect it would be wise nonetheless for you to relocate the more dangerous information in your care elsewhere," he said. "Somewhere a bright but perhaps at times impetuous child would not be tempted to seek access."

"Indeed," Stephen said. If he didn't know better, he would have thought that Doom sounded almost fond at the thought of such future rebellion against his edicts.

And perhaps, he was now realising, he didn't know better at all.

He returned to his quarters in a state of deep reflection. This latest instruction of Doom's played very well into his long-term plans - after all, he had known from the start that it would be the height of foolishness not to make his own preparations for the inevitable day that Doom's megalomania spiralled out of control. The excuse of creating defences to outwit Valeria's brilliant mind would provide great opportunity to conceal the existence of his private precautions.

But now for the first time it occurred to him that there might still be some hope that they would never be needed. Victor von Doom had surprised him greatly already in this shared venture of theirs.

Perhaps he would continue to do so.