In the fall, night comes to Doomstadt thus:
The trees are in the last phases of shedding their leaves, the dead sheets of orange and brown litter the streets and the roofs indiscriminately. The whole affair makes Doomstadt look…dirty. Rustic. A slightly less imposing version of Stoker's Transylvania.
The sun turns from a glowing yellow to a sickly orange and loses its last grip on the sky, disappearing behind a misty, violet sky. Thin clouds of a coming winter appear and stars creep out from behind the veil. Sometimes those clouds break apart enough to let angles of light shine down on Doomstadt's overgrown, overcrowded, Hanoverian homes.
The very city itself is a stationary witness to history. Armenians and Gypsies, Turks and Vandals. Doomstadt had been the crossroad for thousands of years of conflict; Roman legions had crossed the Danube to the south and failed to stave off Barbarians in the north. They failed. When Victor von Doom returned to his homeland and assumed power from an undeserving and uncivilized despot, he succeeded.
The Romans were shallow.
Victor von Doom was righteous.
Without turning to see Richards, without opening his eyes to see the beauty of his work, Victor von doom speaks as calm and characteristic as ever.
"Dr. Richards. Have you come to make a martyr of me?"
From the corner of his eye, Reed perceives movement. Before he moves to do anything about it, he sees Captain America's shield wheeling through the air on a collision course with Doom.
Underneath the cold steel facemask, Doom scowls and readies himself.
He sees the shield flying at him; if he knew no better the shield would appear motionless, a simple disc suspended in the air yet coming ever closer.
Doom crouches slightly and raises a hand.
Catches the disc in midair and wheels around in place, securing the leather straps around his hand and forearm.
The whole affair takes less than five seconds.
Doom's eyes narrow and he notices the Human Torch standing, slightly off-balance, mouth agape with surprise.
"Yowza." Ben Grimm's voice cuts through still air. He touches a rocky hand to a rocky face in concern.
Dooms peaks, not looking away from Shaw's corpse: "What now, Richards? Shall I deign to turn myself over to your graces?"
"That would be the smart thing," the Human Torch says through gritted teeth. He points a flaming hand at Shaw's contorted body. "How many murders does this make? Fifteen?"
Doom disregards the comment. His head cranes to see Shaw's body. It's bleeding out onto the brickwork in the street.
"His death was nonessential, Jonathan, as was his life. Why should I care?"
"Because he's a friggin human being, you piece of—"
"Johnny." Richards' voice is calm and authoritative. Like a good father. "That's enough. You and the others start clean-up. I'll speak with Victor."
Iron-Man speaks up, pointing an armored finger in Reed's face. "Like hell you will. We have a job to do. Victor von Doom—" Iron Man's voice quivers ever so slightly. "—You're under arrest. I think you can kiss your little fiefdom goodbye."
Iron Man motions to Captain America and turns back to Doom.
Under his facemask, Doom smiles.
And, despite the armor, makes a fleeting eye contact with Tony Stark
Reed Richards notes it, but all too late. All he can do:
Iron Man pivots in place and raises both his arms in front of him, palms flat against the thick and dead autumn air.
"Fools, von Doom is Latveria!"
Blue energy explodes from Iron Man's gauntlets.
Captain America, without shield, crouches and flips over Iron Man.
Reed Richards and Johnny Storm sidestep with centimeters to spare.
The blast hits Ben Grimm in the chest. He doesn't fail, he doesn't even flinch. He crosses his arms in front of him and steadies himself, accepting the blast. Waiting to reflect it back on the sender.
Behind the armor-mask, the mind of Victor von Doom sees Grimm…pushing back…?
"Impossible." Doom's mind pushes Stark to say it, and after the lapse in logic, Doom retakes his anger. "You will die, Benjamin! At my hand, heroes will weep for your passing!" The gauntlets automatically respond to Doom's mental commands and increase the power.
With one hand, approaching Grimm, Doom blasts Richards and Storm into submission. When Captain America lays a hand on the armored shoulder, countermeasure 10,000 volts shock Rogers into submission.
Doom increases the power. Through the heat and the power and the sheer magnitude of the blast, Grimm still resists.
"You will fail, Benjamin. They all have."
Grimm falls to one knee. The energy from Iron Man's armor ceases.
Smoke billows from Ben Grimm's rocky hide. He pants heavily. And lets the other knee down. He's exhausted. Too greatly to stand--or even to reply.
"Yes," the mind of Doom gloats. "Bow before me, Benjamin."
"You…you win, Vic."
"Oh I know that." An armored hand pulls off the yellow facemask of Iron Man. Tony Star's eyes glow a mesmerizing, demonic, emerald. "Look around you, Benjamin. You've been ill-used. Mistreated. These people, lying prostrate in my streets like vagabonds…do you genuine believe they care for you?"
"You betcha," Grimm sneers.
"You are a foreigner to them, Benjamin. They seek only their familiars and shut out any who do not—how do you say—two the line. Dr. Richards has no room for malcontents, and you are certainly one of those, yes?"
The mind of Doom tells Tony Stark to kneel. To whisper in Grimm's rocky dimple of an ear with a calm and authoritative and soothing voice.
"They know not of hunger, nor desire, for those things have been so readily available to them for all the years of their lives. They think they have known sadness—Richards with his wife's unfortunate miscarriage, and the super-soldier with his untimely incarceration among the ice—but their sadness is of the child who spills his ice cream. There is no attenuation in them. They quarrel amongst themselves like that child over matters only a child would. Do you see?"
"Yeah," Ben says. Quietly.
"You are an amazing paradox, Benjamin. As I understand it, Americans seem to thrive on the indulgences of the flesh. But you…you are aggressive, and you have much to give. You see? Like Richards and Jonathan over there. You have much to give, and et they would begrudge you a speck of food at the dinner table, would they not?"
Grimm's head turns away. Doom touches one of Stark's hands to the rocky chin and brings the head back.
"Listen to me," the voice says with grave flatness. "You are still rich, and full-blooded. Still so very full of the anger and aggression which people—men like you and I—require to merely survive.
The man who acts as Iron Man stands and brings Ben up with him, clapping a hand to his shoulder.
"You are a good man, Benjamin. I can make you better. I sense…you do not wish to leave Latveria?"
"And so you shall not. Ever again."
The body of Iron Man steps behind Grimm and raises one arm to the base of his rocky skull.
In a flash, Ben Grimm's turns around and smashes the gauntlet from Tony Stark's arm in one hit. Shards of red and yellow steel and machinery and micro-circuitry flutter to the ground, the heavier pieces.
For a moment, the face of Tony Stark is blank, staring in disbelief at what just happened. His eyes flash green again.
"Oh, way to go, bucko," Grimm mutters to himself. "You roused th' beast."
Stark's eyes look suddenly worried. Anxious. Thy dart back and forth between Grimm and the prone body of Doctor Doom a meter away. Ben sees the armor lunging forward—Doom's last-ditch and thoroughly stupid mistake—and simply rips him with an extended foot.
Iron Man crashes to the street and rolls over on his back. Ben extends a hand to help him, up. The eyes aren't glowing anymore.
"Ol' Doomsie took controllaya, Tony. Don't worry, though, we'll have you back in the hot tub with a supermodel or six by six tonight."
"That's a relief, I—"
He suddenly notices his left gauntlet is missing. No, that's not quite fair. It's—
"Is that my armor?" he says and points to the shards on the ground.
"Uh, yeah." Ben scratches his head, faking concern. "I had to get a little rough with you."
"Well, as long as that's the only thing you broke."
Tony slides his mask back over his face and turns away. Ben slaps his back as he does it.
"No worries, metal man. I gotcha covered. You jes' send the bill ta Reed. He'll take care of it."
"So noted, I—"
"What? What is it with you and cutting off mid-sentence?"
"I just noticed," Stark says. He points to the dead and contorted body of Sebastian Shaw a few meters ahead. The stream of blood, its source in what was formerly Shaw's prefrontal lobe, is just now pooling around Ben's feet.
"Ewww," he says and lifts his feet.
"Don't be a girl, Benjy." Ben turns around to see the Human Torch hovering in the air, aflame from the waist down. "Think of it as wine."
"Easy fer you t'say, Bic-head. You ain't innit."
"Fact of which I'm very proud," Johnny says and gives a mock-salute.
Reed stands, dusts himself off. Smiles quickly at Johnny and Ben, and turns away.
"Where does he think he's goin?" Ben asks.
Johnny leans in close and whispers: "I think, to join our regularly scheduled old guy convention."
Ben's head cranes skyward momentarily and he turns to Johnny. "Just how old are you?"
Reed stands in the empty spot between Iron Man and Captain America. The three of them stare at Shaw's corpse with scientific scrutiny.
"Alright, I'll say it first," Stark says. "It's strange. This isn't like Doom."
"Definitely," Rogers adds.
"Yes, yes," Reed waves a quieting hand. "We know."
"Question is," Rogers interrupts, scratching his head. "We can't just toss him in any old cemetery. We could make a martyr of him, and who knows what it'd be like with graverobbing."
"Who would steal the body of Sebastian Shaw?" Stark asks.
"Stranger things have happened," Reed says and kneels over the body, closing the eyes with the heel of his palm. "I have an idea."
In Castle Doom's highest parapet, a shrouded figure observes three black spots—the departing Fantastic Two, the super-solider, the alcoholic and the spider-creature—fading into the night sky, toward a stationary black crescent just south of Orion. The Helicarrier.
A wind tolls through the empty town forum, wrapping itself around Victor von Doom's body. Behind the cold iron facemask, Doom's mouth curls downward.
Flee, Richards. Run back to your false citadel of comfort and tell your friends that their time has expired…
The SHIELD Helicarrier. En route to Manhattan.
Spider-man and the Human Torch.
Johnny's kind enough to bring me a gallon of soda—probably from Fury's private stocks. When Johnny kills it, our conversation moves to the evening's transpirings.
"I'm sorry we brought you into this," he says.
"Meh," I wave a hand. "It's what I live for. The wife may not like it, but it'll pass. Between you, me, and the table here, I'd be lying if I said I had anything better to do."
"So," he says, after a minute of silence. "How'd it go with Jameson?"
"Peachy. Though I think his 'I hate Spider-man bit' is a little too convincing.
"How do you figure?" Johnny cocks his head.
"Lemme tell you a bedtime story about password protection…"
Deep in the subbasements of Castle Doom, a lone figure in a black suit and an ebony-death mask lays flowers on a granite sarcophagus.
"You were meant for greater things. Your destiny was not to be found in the bowels of Hell, to be suppliant to a demon. You were but a victim of circumstance, and privy to events much larger than either of us could have possibly predicted. You gave me…what only one other on this earth has, and for that I thank you. But I cannot return you to this plane.
Everything I have done, all the advances and sacrifices I have made…the lives I've ruined…it was all for you. But I cannot have you back. I know this now. And not in a thousand years would I ask for your return. I shall miss you terribly, but I keep your true memory alive in my heart. Not on this slab of stone. I…miss you.
The United Nations.
Iron Man and Captain America.
"Thought you'd be interested. They arrested Lin earlier."
"Yeah. Conspiracy. Searched his office, raided files. The whole shebang."
"You know, if they were half as serious about this with people like the Skull. Or Magneto—"
"He's been making a lot of trips back East lately, Steve. Been spending too much time in Latveria."
"Then his anger at Doom was staged. Deflecting the floodwaters away from himself."
Iron Man shrugs. "If you say so. But you ask me, I say something doesn't add up. This may just be the tip of the iceberg."
"Tony," Rogers smiles. "Ever the futurist."
Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters.
Reed Richards and Scott Summers.
"You're certain you can take care of everything?"
"Yes, Dr. Richards. Despite whatever he did—and…I'm more than willing to take your word for it—we'll give Dr. Shaw a proper burial. You have my word."
"Thank you, Scott."
"Then…things worked excellently, did they not?"
"The heroes are no longer in my country, if that is what you mean."
"It is." She smiles thinly and runs silken hands across harsh iron. "Tell me…what do you mean?"
"Stay your hand, harlot. I have accepted your commission only so far as it benefits my purposes. Further intrusion by your…club…and our relations shall come to an abrupt end."
"Duly noted. And…your doctoral degree?"
"It is of no concern. Not anymore."
Emma Frost slides one arm around Victor von Doom's waist. Under the cold steel mask, the King of Latveria—the Black King of the Hellfire Club—scowls.
The winds are changing…