Despite Dan’s words, she kept on screaming and sobbing.
“Why did you do that? He held the secrets… he could have made us all so amazing… like gods!”
“Gina, stop it…” Dan tried again, taking a step toward her.
“Oh, SHUT UP, DAN!” She shrieked back, lashing out at his outstretched hand with her fingernails. They clanged harmlessly off his still-armored right hand, “It’s easy for you to do it, isn’t it? Everything’s easy for you, and your family… everything’s just so easy, isn’t it? You wonder why people hate you, why I…”
Her voice melted away. She couldn’t bring herself to say it. Instead, she tried something else.
“You remind them of how useless they are, of how stupid they are!” her face was red and puffing up from the emotion, “you make people feel inferior, just by walking in a room. I thought… I thought that with you, maybe I could be like that… but you only made it worse! And that man…that man!”
She gestured to the body that was Dr. Holocaust.
“He could have made me just as good as you, just as special…”
“He didn’t care about, you Gina! I do.”
“No you don’t!” she bellowed, pushing him aside and kneeling down next to the Dr.’s body, examining the still handsome features of the dead man.
“If you did, you would have done something different… you would have made yourself something different, for me…”
“You don’t think I tried?” Dan shot back, a little angry, “I tried to get along with your crazy mother, I tried to adjust? You don’t think I did?”
“It’s not that you didn’t try,” she said softly, still crying, “it’s that you couldn’t. You couldn’t stop being just so damn… you.”
“I can’t stop being who I am, Gina,” Dan said finally, firmly, “I won’t lie.”
“I know you can’t. And that’s why… that’s why I hate you!”
In a flash, she grabbed the metal Death’s Head mask of Dr. Holocaust and swung it at Dan’s head with all her might. It bounced off harmlessly and skidded to a stop next to the doorway. Gina let out a cry because of the shock of the blow and fell into a heap on the floor, her hand bleeding slightly from the metal mask.
“That fucking armor was always there, wasn’t it?” she sobbed bitterly, “I could never get through it.”
“I was unaware that you needed to,” Dan shot back coldly. Tom diplomatically knelt down to examine her hand.
“Let me see,” he said, craning his neck while still sporting broken arms, “It might be broken.”
“No!” she cried, “I don’t want another of you looking at me… you freaks!”
She leapt to her feet, kicking out at Tom and striking a grazing blow against one of Tom’s arms that caused him to grit his teeth. Both Ben turned to his injured brother as Gina made to dash between him and Dan to escape.
“Dan, grab her!” Ben called.
Dan reached out, but was unable to restrain her as she stumbled over to Holocaust’s desk, noting a control panel built into the wood.
“He said he wanted you to take care of all his creations, didn’t he?” She said with a manic smile on her face, “I’ve seen them, you know: I wandered around these tunnels, and I saw them: they’re hideous, ugly, monsters… they could probably rip you all apart!”
“He wanted you to take care of them, so why not set them free!”
She slammed her palm down on the control panel, and suddenly the underground compound was awash in red warning lights, sirens, and the sounds of opening cast-iron doors.
“No, let’s see how super you boys really are!”
And, with a cackle, she headed for the door.
“Dan!” Ben shouted, “get her, damn it!”
But again Dan was too slow, and Gina once again disappeared into the halls, laughing in her insanity.
“What the hell, Dan?” Ben blustered, trying to help Tom over to the desk, “what happened there?”
“It’s not something for you to worry about, Ben,” Tom said darkly, “we have bigger problems, now.”
“Yeah, the inmates have a day pass, now. Can you sense them?”
“I sense nothing,” Tom said, his face grim, “Holocaust made them without fully functioning minds, without souls… they are barely animals. Some of them won’t even feel pain.”
“Then I guess they won’t mind if Dan punches the shit out of them!” Ben shot back with a grin, “right, Dan?”
But Dan was silent, still looking at the steel & diamond ring in his gauntlet-free left hand.
“You know,” he said with a sad laugh, “I could have gotten another ring. But this one was so cool.”
“Now is not the time, Dan,” Tom rose from the edge of the desk, brushing away a fussing Ben, “we have work to do.”
“She said she hated me.”
“Some people always will.”
“But why her?”
Tom used his telekinesis to turn Dan’s head round to face him. His body followed numbly.
“I don’t know, Dan,” he said, his blue eyes piercing into Dan’s, but not controlling, not manipulating. Dan blinked a few times at the sound of that phrase.
“You don’t know?” he asked, almost sleepily, “YOU don’t know?”
Tom nodded slightly, as though his neck pained him, too.
“Well, there’s a first time for everything, I guess,” Dan replied to the nod, the ghost of a smile starting to show above Dan’s strong chin.
“I say when I’m wrong,” Tom shot back defensively.
“Yeah, like twice.”
“Maybe I’ve only been wrong twice.”
“And maybe I’m a god-damned kangaroo.”
“Shut up, Dan.”
“I don’t really want to.”
“What if I make you?”
“What, are we still teenagers? You going to beat me up with those busted wings? I’d like to see you try!”
“Don’t be so cocky, Dan…”
Ben found himself between his brothers, putting up a forcefield… just in case.
“Don’t we have something more important to do right now?”
As if on command, horrible shrieks began to emanate from deep within the bowels of Holocaust’s lair.
“Dad and the Gentleman are out there, and if those… things get to them…”
Dan and Tom gave each other a look that seemed to say “we’ll settle this later.”
“Right,” Tom nodded, “We’ve got work to do.”
“Just like in the old days?” Dan said, his face lit up with a giant grin.
“Like the old days,” Tom replied, his face still stony. Then, he allowed himself a slight bit of a smile with one more barb.
“Just don’t get like you used to, Dan,” he said, almost embarrassed, “All that whooping and gung-ho garbage. It makes you look retarded.”
“You’re just jealous.”
The three had made their way out into the hallway, and the floor had begun to rumble beneath their feet. They made their way back to the main chamber where Ultro and the Atomic Gentleman still sat, ready to put up a final stand.
“You’ll have the benefit of a bottleneck here,” the Gentleman offered, “that is, until they start smashing down the walls. What’s above us nowadays, anyway?”
“World War II Memorial,” Tom shot back, expertly cracking his neck in preparation.
“I fear, not for much longer,” the Gentleman replied.
“That’s okay by me,” Ben said, “I always thought it coulda been better, anyway.”
There was another smash, and now there seemed to be an awful smell filling the room.
“They’re not much for hygiene,” Dan muttered, raising his fists.
“Damn it, Dan!” Ben said with alarm, “where’s your other gauntlet?”
“I dunno,” Dan shrugged casually, “over there, somewhere.”
“Well, go get it!”
The shrieks were now closer than ever. Dan grinned under his armor.
“Oh, well… guess I’ll have to do it with one hand behind my back!”
“Dan,” Tom said quietly in that voice that always seemed to carry.
The newscaster’s good mood immediately evaporated as he got ready for another scolding. Much to his surprise, Tom smiled broadly from beneath his beard.
“Don’t hold back this time, all right?”
Dan laughed loudly and began stretching his arms and legs animatedly.
“Oooh, I’m gonna hate myself in the morning for this, but… worth it!”
With one final smash, a horrific hunchbacked abomination lumbered into the chamber, spewing what appeared to be a flammable chemical from a loose approximation of a mouth and sparking it into a plume of flame from a loose approximation of a nose. Ben dove in front of his family, erecting a field in time to block the fire. Immediately following the flamethrower were a multitude of other nightmare creatures, all designed for military purposes ranging from tunnel blasting to air reconnaissance. Organic, command ready machines for Holocaust’s new army. Nevermind immediately leapt into action, levitating the rubble around him to use as bullets against the airborne foes. If one of the creatures got too close, they were liable to have whatever appendages they sported twisted around themselves, then hurled bodily through telekinesis. With all of his mind controlled powers rendered moot, Tom have moved to a gruesome offensive. Ben kept in front of both his oldest brother and the two older men, throwing up protective shields and doing his best to shove away the onslaught. Between the two, they managed to hold their position, but made no significant offensive movement.
That was Dan’s job.
The Blue Traveller launched himself into battle with a roar; lashing out, as he promised, with only his right hand. His left elbow and forearm, however, were still armored and made a deadly pairing as Dan tore through the ranks easily: punching, kicking, headbutting in a dervish of blue and yellow. Ben took occasional glances over to make sure the Traveller was safe, but he never needed to. Ben noticed, oddly, that the chaos of the battle and the constant crush of flesh around his brother would have made a very ugly page in a comic book, but this was how battle really was: disorganized, confusing, a mess to anyone looking in from the outside. Ben pushed a mutant with machine guns for arms over in the direction of Nevermind, who immeidately impaled it with a spare piece of construction iron. He took only a moment to remark to himself that what he just did was actually pretty cool before another creature with massive digging claws was set upon him, only to be drop-kicked into oblivion by a flash of royal blue.
“Hey, you got a little schmutz on ya, little bro!” Dan called out as Ben wiped monster blood and spittle from his forehead, “Now you really are one of us!”
Ben took the opportunity to lash out with a fist encased in a field, stunning one creature long enough for Dan to turn around and double-sledge the monster through a far wall.
“Home run!” Dan whooped.
“With an assist,” Ben corrected him. Dan launched himself back into battle, laughing above the din. It was his unbridled laugh, the kind that used to make the walls of restaurants ring when they went out for family dinners.
“Dear me,” the Gentleman called to Ben, “is he all right?”
With another joyful holler, Dan leaped into battle against three of the Sonderkommandos, dispatching all three almost simultaneously with an acrobatic mix of strikes, flips, and aerial cartwheels. All the while he was calling out to himself, proclaiming his strength and power, and always, always laughing.
“Oh, you think you got what it takes, tough guy? BAM!”
“C’mon, c’mon, let’s do this! BOOM!”
“You want some? Do ya? HAHAHAHAHAHA!”
“Sir,” Ben said after pushing another monster away, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him this ‘all right’ before in my life.”
In a whirlwind of activity, the monsters were finished. With the structural integrity of the building now suspect, the three brothers made to help the older men back to the surface. As they approached Bob, they found their father looking very worn, very tired, barely able to hold himself up on his elbows.
“Nice job, boys,” he said breathlessly, “You make a pretty good team, just like when you were kids.”
“You’ve got to get him out of here,” the Gentleman’s voice was even more strident, and worried, “He seems to be fading, and fast.”
“I want to say,” Bob’s breathing was getting haggard now, “I want to say to you boys…”
The three knelt down next to their father, each of them quickly removing their masks so their father could see into their faces. The scared faces of three children who, despite everything else, had no idea how to handle their father seeming so feeble.
“I just want to say that… I’ve always been proud of you. All three of you. I’m so proud–”
Halfway through his sentence, Bob Graf’s eyelids fluttered, and he lost consciousness. Tom was quick to catch his head before it hit the concrete floor, hovering it just inches off the ground with his telekinesis. Dan and Ben helped Tom bear their father out of the tunnels and back into the elevator that they had come down on. When they reached the surface, they found their eyes stabbed by early morning light. Knowing that the government would soon be called in to investigate the disturbance, they hurried back to the car like thieves from a mark, where the ladies were waiting for them.
“Is everything all right?” Claire called out, running forward, “Bob went back, he said he had to help…”
She saw her husband’s body being laid carefully in the back seat of the car.
“Oh, Bob! No!”
“Get him to a hospital,” Tom said flatly, his eyes boring into those of his mother’s. Claire took one deep breath and crawled into the back seat, cradling Bob’s head in her lap.
“You two,” Tom motioned to Lucy and Melanie to get in the front of the car, “as quick as you can.”
“Where’s Gina?” Melanie asked simply. There was no reply. The car sped out of sight, leaving the three brothers with the former supervillain Sir William Dawes, The Atomic Gentleman.
“You three ought to hurry,” he said, adjusting his still immaculate French cuffs, “You’re bound to attract some attention looking like that.”
“We could say the same about you,” Ben replied. The Gentleman gave a little chuckle.
“A man my age, dressed like this, out and about and disoriented in the early morning? In Washington, DC? I could use any one of a number of political fundraisers as an alibi.”
“Good point,” Dan said with a nod and a smile, “so… where are you going, anyway?”
The Gentleman adjusted his lapels and sighed, looking up at the sky.
“My boy, I think I am going to journey home, and find my wife. After thirty years, she’s probably wondering where I’ve gone. I always told her, if something happened to me in my… demon days, that she could find me in a certain spot, in a certain park. I don’t want to disappoint her. Tell me… is it spring?”
“Uh, no, actually,” Ben shook his head, “It’s fall. Almost winter.”
“Ah, yes,” he smiled broader now, “It was around this time of year when I disappeared, if I remember correctly.”
“And you’re sure your wife will still be waiting for you?” Tom asked with no undue skepticism.
“Of course, my dear boy,” the Gentleman replied, his eyes twinkling a bit, “Wouldn’t yours?”
The Gentleman snapped up his cane and doffed his white top hat at the trio, bidding them adieu.
“I originally sought the aid of Dr. Holocaust because my atomic energy made me nigh-immortal. I have done terrible things to a great many people; I viewed my accidental powers as a curse that robbed me of a life with my beloved. Though it took several years, I believe my powers have been completely siphoned off, and now I am looking forward to going home, growing old, and dying next to the woman I love. Surely, you would not begrudge me that?”
There was an uncomfortable silence that followed. The Gentleman stood, firm and strong, against the three shuffling Graf boys. Finally, Dan stepped forward.
“No, we wouldn’t,” he said, extending a gauntlet-clad hand to be shaken.
The Gentleman shook his hand warmly, and then the two others.
“It has been a long winter since my wife saw me last,” he said with tears at the corners of his eyes, “but I suppose no winter can last forever… even a Nuclear one…”
And with that, he was gone into the massive, sprawling National Mall.
“Did he really do all the stuff he did in the comics?” Ben said after a pause.
“And then some,” Tom replied plainly.
“And we didn’t bring him in?”
“…why?” Ben said it not so much as a question, but more as a noise of confusion, still a boy struggling to comprehend the thoughts of a man.
“Because he went through a torture that no one should have to.”
Dan popped his helmet back on, effectively obscuring enough of his face. The sadness was still unmistakable in his voice.
“Dan,” Tom tried his best to be diplomatic, “With those creatures running loose, there was no way Gina would have–”
With a sigh that sounded surprisingly heartfelt, Tom slid his own skullcap mask back over his head.
“Ben,” he said, looking toward his younger brother.
“If we come in contact with you, will we be in your field?”
“And if we all hold our breath, do you think Dan could put enough downward thrust to bounce us to the nearest hospital?”
“Oh,” Ben started, a bit taken aback, “well, I suppose so. It’ll be incredibly dangerous.”
“Little brother,” Tom shook his head slightly, “You’ll have to understand: everything we do is incredibly dangerous.”
“Good point,” Ben began, only to be cut off by the sound of approaching police cars, “Well, looks like we don’t have much choice.”
With Tom held in a bearhug by Ben, and Dan holding onto the both of them, using his armored suit for protection, the three of them shot off into the early morning sky, a light green blur propelled by the Blue Traveller’s immense strength. A few police were quoted as saying they thought they saw “a big, green, snot bubble flying off the National Mall,” and were summarily given extended vacations. The CIA would eventually uncover Dr. Holocaust’s lab deep under the World War II memorial, and within months a media frenzy surrounded the peculiar sinkhole that had developed under the structure, causing the government to build a completely new memorial on the spot.
Back in the present, Ben chanced a look down as they flew airlessly to the nearest hospital. On a bench near the Jefferson memorial, he thought he could just make out a man dressed all in white, holding an old lady in a pink ensemble, frozen in a romantic embrace before the chilly autumn morning sun.