Author's Note: Okay, if you're principally familiar with DC's superheroes (and villains) from the animated shows about Superman, Batman, the Justice League, etc., then you may not recognize the "special guest star" I swiped for this story. But look on the bright side! You won't be alone! Huntress and The Question won't recognize him either!
For continuity buffs, a few words about the timing: I figure this one happens after "Double Date," but before "Question Authority" and the subsequent episodes of that season of Justice League Unlimited. In other words: As our story opens, Question and Huntress have already admitted they like each other, and she's already been booted out of the League, but she's never yet seen him without his mask. I'm counting the events of "Double Date" (and whatever happened immediately after the episode ended) as their "first date." Hence the incredibly imaginative title of this story, which must have taken me at least three seconds to come up with:
The Question was not exactly a touchy-feely kind of guy. Huntress considered that a pleasant change of pace from most of the guys she'd dated in the last few years, who were eager to start touching and feeling at the drop of a hat. The typical modern bachelor seemed to think that if she so much as agreed to watch a movie with him, then she was automatically handing him a blank check to run his hands over anything that caught his attention while they were sitting side by side in a dark theatre.
On the other hand, thus far The Question hadn't even asked her to sit down in a movie theatre with him in the first place; much less tried to "take advantage" of the situation. Granted, that might have something to do with the fact that he already knew she beat up big strong thugs on a regular basis. Would-be Romeos who asked "Helena Bertinelli" to go out with them usually had no inkling of her fighting skills at the time—although sometimes they collected empirical evidence as the evening progressed. (Vince Faber's arm was probably out of the sling by now . . . she'd generously given him two warnings, but when he kept pushing his luck . . .)
But Huntress didn't really think Question would have started pawing at her for fun even if he'd only known her as a helpless-looking civilian. He just wasn't the type.
All of which helped to explain why she wasn't quite sure how to take it when he called her up one bright summer morning and asked if she could find time to join him in a trip to the beach that afternoon.
"The beach?" she repeated, stalling for time while she considered possible motives. Is this going to be the sort of thing where we change into swimwear and then take turns running our hands over each other's bodies on the pretext of oiling up against the sun? If so, then what a corny, juvenile, transparently self-serving notion! Sure took him long enough to think of it! Which swimsuit should I wear? The electric blue bikini? Or perhaps the red one-piece which leaves my entire back bare, unless you count the strings tied behind my neck?
While all this flashed through her mind, The Question was continuing: "Doctor Fate tells me that he expects a momentary curdling in our timestream to reach its critical point in the air above that beach at about 1:17 PM Eastern Standard Time, and he's afraid something sentient may pop out. Unfortunately, he's got an urgent appointment in Niffelheim in that same timeframe, so he asked if I could just observe for him and be ready to call the Watchtower if anything really disturbing materializes. I thought I might need backup, and since you live about six miles from that beach . . ."
Huntress gripped the phone very hard. Please, please, please let this just be a line. A flimsy excuse to get me to the beach in the first place. The superhero set's functional equivalent of a high school boy inviting a girl to drive out to a secluded spot after dark so as to gaze up at the stars and study "astronomy" together?
Still not sure what was implied here, she tested the waters. "So this is a surveillance mission? What should I wear?" Ideally, he'll say we can best blend in by posing as a romantic couple who only have eyes for each other . . .
"Full costume, of course, just like me," The Question said immediately, with a mild note of surprise in his voice. "No need to let a potential enemy see our faces if it goes south. That reminds me—do you have any silver-tipped bolts for your crossbow?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact. I had a case take me to Transylvania once."
"Really? I don't have that one in my files."
"I can tell you about it while we're waiting for the time-curdle," she said resignedly. If any other man had invited her to go stand on the beach and just wait for something to curdle, she would've told him to have fun standing there by himself. But she didn't think inviting her (or any girl) to do anything with him came easily to The Question; she wanted to encourage this new behavior until it turned into a habit.
"Thank you," he said in response to the implied acceptance, sounding as sincere as he ever did with that weird "working voice" of his. (She assumed it wasn't what he always sounded like, but who knew?) "I'll feel much better knowing you have my back. Meet me in the parking garage six blocks north of your apartment in half an hour." He hung up.
Huntress hugged herself for a moment. It felt ridiculously good to hear The Question admit he looked forward to spending more time with her, relying on her to pull her own weight if anything went wrong, even if the purpose of the get-together really was purely professional, and even if his grasp of the social niceties—little things such as saying "Goodbye," for instance—still needed some serious work.
She'd already had her morning shower, so she only needed to switch from street clothes to a clean costume before meeting him—
Wait a minute. After that night when the faceless man had helped her track down Mandragora, she'd given him a cellphone number. That was the phone he'd just called. And he'd made it clear he already knew her real name and family history. But she hadn't told him about the new apartment she had only moved into last month. She certainly wasn't listed in the White Pages yet, and she didn't remember handing the new address to anyone on the Watchtower before she was booted out of the League a few days later . . . so when and where had The Question acquired it?
It wasn't worth throwing a hissy fit, but she made a mental note to insist that fair was fair, and if he knew her home address then she should know his!
An hour later: they were sitting inside Question's car, parked at the edge of Cavalieri Beach, air conditioning running full blast while they watched for any signs of a disturbance.
Why Q felt the need to wear his full costume in the summer sun, she really didn't know. Wouldn't his "faceless mask" conceal his identity just as well without the overcoat and hat?
But she didn't even bother asking about his personal dress code. Instead, she wondered aloud: "So why aren't we warning these people to evacuate the beach?"
"I asked Fate about that. He said that back in the 1940s he used to warn everyone in sight whenever he had a premonition that something strange was about to happen. But such impressions are not an exact science. After several occasions when nothing changed as far as mortal eyes could see, people lost interest in his warnings. And the Justice League needs to be extra-careful about its credibility right now. What with that high-profile, messy, and ultimately pointless fight between Captain Marvel and Superman just the other day, this isn't the right time to be accused of stirring up hysteria with another false alarm. Besides, he doesn't think anything much larger than a single person will be able to squeeze through this curdling in the split-second window of opportunity."
"Is that why it's just us? Two vigilantes who don't even have scary powers? Everybody knows we're just regular people in unusual clothes—so if nothing happens, nobody cares?"
"Yes, and it's also why we're staying here in my car with the tinted windows, so that we don't attract much attention at first." The Question glanced at his watch. "Two minutes to go, according to Fate's crystal ball. Let's move in."
They climbed out of the car and stepped onto the sand, about halfway down to the current waterline. Some curious gazes from sunbathers came in their direction—Huntress suspected it was more because of the way Question was ridiculously overdressed for the occasion than because of their masks—but no one actually tried to bother them immediately.
Question held up his wrist so Huntress could check the time if she were so inclined.
Lots of nothing was happening.
When she saw The Question's watch advance to 1:19, Huntress made up her mind and said: "Now look, Q, I like a joke as much as the next red-blooded American girl, but if you seriously think I'm going to—"
Something man-shaped in a bright green bodysuit fell out of the sky and landed on Q's left shoulder. The Question staggered under the burden, dropping to one knee—then Huntress grabbed one of the green guy's flailing arms and yanked, removing the extra weight from her friend's spine as quickly as possible. (Not very much extra weight, she discovered—the new arrival was slim; maybe 130 pounds?)
She caught her breath and smoothly picked up where she had left off:
"—doubt your story about Doctor Fate's premonition, you've got another think coming!"
"I appreciate the vote of confidence," Q said deadpan as he rose to his feet. "I suppose his crystal ball just needs a tune-up."
The green-suited guy had rolled on the sand and came smoothly to his feet, facing them. He had two long orange insect-like antennae rising from the top of the mask which covered his entire head. The antenna connected with orange piping which ran around the front of his mask. There was a hole for his mouth, and dark blue lenses over his eyes, but otherwise he looked solid green from head to toe.
"YEEHAW!" yelled the new arrival. "Terra firma! Home sweet home! I had adventures like you wouldn't believe on the way back! You're the Huntress, am I right, babe? And your buddy here must be what's-his-name . . . The Blank?"
"The Question," two voices replied as one. Huntress added helpfully, "I think 'The Blank' was a Dick Tracy villain."
The green guy waved his hands expansively to show how trivial these details were. "Close enough! So I guess you're the welcome wagon from the Justice League? Here to beg me to finally join your precious club? Didn't want to risk the Titans or the Doom Patrol or one of those other outfits getting to me first with a tempting offer?"
Huntress muttered, "We didn't?"
"I knew it! But have patience, my pulchritudinous little predator!" the green guy exclaimed. "Sure, I know how it is! I know you think you can't get anything done without me. I know you've heard all about the ever-resourceful Ambush Bug from my old pal Giffen by now. The way I figure it, he must still be calling the shots for your proud outfit, so this is my golden opportunity to get the fame I always deserved!"
He paused dramatically, then added, "Okay, I've thought it over! You can tell Giffen I'm fully on board!"
If he expected grateful applause, he didn't get it. The Question merely asked: "Who's your friend Giffen? Another name for one of the League's members; one who will vouch for you?"
Ambush Bug covered his eyes with his forearm for a moment, seeming heartbroken. "You don't know him? He's lost interest in the old franchise? Maybe gone across the street to a certain marvelous competitor? Say it ain't so, Joe!"
Huntress said, "He wasn't kidding. We've never heard of 'Giffen'—not by that name."
Ambush Bug perked up again. "Ah, you're just playing dumb to see how much I really know, ain't ya? But you can't fool me! I see Giffen's influence is still around somewhere, even if he's lurking behind the scenes! Just looking at the current makeup of your League, I can tell! (Giffen always did go heavy on the greasepaint.) But seriously—" he started ticking off names on his fingers, "—you've got your Captain Atom, your Fire, your Ice, your Booster Gold, your Japanese Doctor Light, your Rocket Red, your Crimson Fox, your Power Girl . . ."
Huntress had been following the thread of his speech . . . more or less . . . but now asked dubiously, "Who's Power Girl?"
"C'mon, you must know her! I caught a glimpse of her the other day. Or the other month, or whenever it was . . . I was just skipping along as a silent observer from one day to the next before the timestream settled down . . . anyway, P.G. has blond hair, a white leotard with a cut-out oval in the right place, looks a heck of a lot like an older-and-meaner edition of that sweet little Supergirl?"
The Question fielded that one. "You're describing Galatea, the super-powered assassin who just happens to be Kara's secret clone."
Ambush Bug scratched his head. "Am I? Rassinfrassin' continuity . . . every time you think you've finally got the persnickety details down pat, some wisenheimer rewrites history again the moment you turn your back! Assassin-fresh-from-a-test-tube wasn't the way Giffen ever treated P.G. Maybe he did 'move on to other projects' when I was all snarled up in that time vortex thingie! You've really never heard of him?"
Huntress shook her head.
The orange antennae quivered as Ambush Bug said, "Then I guess I'll just have to establish my credentials the old-fashioned way!"
Before he finished saying that, he was already commencing a flying kick, his right foot aimed at The Question's center of mass. Q blocked it while Huntress launched a snap-kick of her own which might have done terrible things to the green guy's left kidney if he hadn't vanished into thin air at that moment—Pop!—and then he instantly materialized just behind her, a green-clad arm sliding across her throat as he went for a chokehold. Her elbow thumped back into Ambush Bug's abdomen—then he was gone again, just as Q threw a punch that sailed right through the space where Bug's head had been and finally collided with the top of her left ear as she was turning her head.
"Watch it!" she snapped, and saw Q flinch.
(She wasn't really angry at him, but figured it was best to keep him on the defensive. If she played her cards right, later she might be able to persuade The Question to atone for that tiny injury by "kissing it better." Of course, doing that properly would require he peel off that funky mask first. Then she'd insist on her constitutional right to kiss him back as proof that his apology was accepted, and then she'd have her arms locked around his neck and a fat chance he'd have of escaping any time soon . . .)
"YAHOO!" bellowed the green guy from directly above. Huntress cursed herself for getting distracted in the middle of the fight. As she looked up, the green guy tossed a handful of sand in her face. For the next few seconds, she was frantically trying to clear her vision enough to be effective again . . . meanwhile, the steady thumping noise of flesh against flesh suggested that Q and Ambush Bug were trading blows.
When her vision was almost clear, Huntress snapped her crossbow free of her belt and started squinting in the direction of the closest noises. (She'd also been hearing more distant yells from people rapidly vacating the area after they saw things getting rough, but that didn't concern her now.) When she thought she had an opening, she fired—and was unsurprised when Ambush Bug vanished with another Pop! as the silver-tipped bolt flew down the beach and buried itself in the sand fifty yards away. (Huntress had made sure there were no civilians in that line of fire, of course.)
Ambush Bug reappeared just behind The Question, fist raised to strike, but Q must've been learning the weirdo's patterns—he spun, grabbed a wrist, and flipped the green freak over his shoulder so that Ambush Bug slammed down hard against the sand.
"Why are we fighting?" Q asked as Ambush Bug scrambled to his feet again.
"Why? Why? WHY? Because this is how superheroes always introduce themselves! Sheesh, buster, how would I ever get you to take me seriously as good recruit material if I didn't follow protocol?"
"This wasn't how I joined the League," The Question commented. "I don't think many of us fought other heroes before we were invited to sign up. You're pretty new at this, aren't you?"
"You kidding? I've been around for years! Ask Superman about the time a chunk of Red Kryptonite switched our minds into each other's bodies! Naturally he wanted me to take over for him for a couple of days until it wore off, and I was honored—"
Ambush Bug had held still too long as he indignantly answered Q's questions. Now he grunted as Huntress moved in from behind and slammed him upside the head with her crossbow. As the green-clad hero-wannabe staggered, The Question threw a punch into Ambush Bug's solar plexus, knocking the wind out of him. Then Huntress chopped the Bug on the neck and he shut up entirely—which was a blessed relief.
The Question had his Justice League communicator out in a trice while Huntress did her best to "secure" the unconscious prisoner. "Question to Tower. Question to Tower. We've got a costumed adversary, possibly delusional, with personal teleportation capability. What? No, he's down and out for the moment, but we can't hold onto him for long unless someone provides teleport-blocking tech to keep him in one place after he wakes up. Okay. Understood. Over and out."
By the time Q had finished his call, Huntress had tied Ambush Bug's wrists together behind his back, then bound his ankles together for good measure. She didn't know if the tightly knotted ropes would stay bound to his body if he teleported away, but it was worth a shot! The Question put away his communicator and said, "It may take the support staff five or six minutes to scrounge up a portable unit and get it down here."
Huntress nodded as she stood up and brushed sand off her legs. "So what do you think of this Bug's ravings? Will Superman really recognize him?"
The Question answered with another question. "Have you ever heard of Red Kryptonite before?"
"Me neither. I can ask Superman later, but it sounds like an urban legend."
Huntress blinked (at the shock of hearing Mister Conspiracy Theory himself speaking disparagingly of urban legends). "And of course you never believe in those, Q."
"Not often, anyway," he scrupulously corrected her. "The most popular ones are what the hidden power brokers disseminate as cover stories to distract us from the realities of how they make things happen."
She considered that. "Okay, supposing for the sake of argument that everything he said was just part of some puppet master's mind games for us . . . maybe there's still something we can learn from this experience. Now, if this were one of those Saturday morning cartoons I used to watch as a kid, and if Ambush Bug were the vanquished villain of the week, this would be the moment when one of us summed up the Moral of the Story in a few pithy words."
They looked at each other expectantly.
Finally Huntress raised her eyebrows. "Well?"
"Me? It was your idea. I thought you'd have something on the tip of your tongue."
"No, no, gratuitous philosophizing is not really my thing. I figured you'd love to answer the question of what this nonsense actually meant, though, for the benefit of anyone who missed the subtleties on the first pass."
"Hrrrm," The Question said in his throat. "Let me think about that for a moment."
He was still pondering when a group from the Tower flashed into existence. Two technicians were carrying a fancy-schmancy doodad which presumably would block Ambush Bug's teleport abilities after it was activated . . . and standing just behind them was a grim, pointy-eared figure whom Huntress knew all too well from past encounters in the dark alleys of Gotham.
"Question," Batman said. "Appears you're done here. Good. I want your help with certain lines of inquiry relating to some of the League's recent . . . difficulties."
The Question said, "Of course. Just tell me where to start digging."
There was a pregnant pause as Batman turned his head to look in Huntress's direction for a few seconds. Then he turned back toward Question and said, "This is confidential League business. The two of us will talk after we get back to the Watchtower. The sooner, the better," he finished pointedly.
To do him justice, The Question looked at Huntress before responding to Batman's "invitation." His faceless mask was as unreadable as ever, but she thought something about his body language suggested he was actually a bit tense and embarrassed at how she was being snubbed. She forced a smile and said, "This League business sounds serious. Better get cracking, hotshot! Believe me, you'll see me again later!"
In what she chose to regard as a sudden display of affection, The Question actually took the initiative in reaching for her hand and shaking it before he and Batman stepped away to get outside the effective range of the now-activated teleport-blocker. Soon the two costumed men were gone, beamed back to the Watchtower. The pair of technicians made small talk while waiting for local cops to show up and take Ambush Bug into custody—apparently they wanted to give the cops a crash course in how to handle the teleport-blocker without accidentally turning it off at the worst possible moment—but Huntress was only half-listening.
Huntress knew she ought to be happy for Q—it wasn't often that Batman openly admitted another costumed adventurer might actually be good enough to help him with important detective work, as she had reason to know—but the timing of this "call to duty" stunk. Couldn't it have waited a few more hours, so she could have put her plan into effect about laying a guilt trip on Q regarding her recently bruised ear, et cetera?
Had Batman timed his interruption deliberately? Now that she'd been kicked out of the League, was the Dark Knight trying to keep a member in good standing (The Question) from spending too much time exposed to her presumably-bad influence? Or was yanking Q away on such short notice just another sign of the brusque insensitivity that Batman normally exhibited, with no personal grudge behind it?
She didn't know for sure, but boy, did she have an opinion! Huntress ground her teeth together and made a solemn resolution. The next time I'm with Q, I'll wait until we find something he really wants to study and then I'll confiscate it until he gets his priorities straight.
She'd never before needed to extort a man into asking her out on a real date, but drastic times called for drastic measures!
Author's Note: Now I'll explain a bit about the "special guest star."
Ambush Bug was featured in a bunch of DC comics in the 1980s, usually with Keith Giffen (who created him) drawing the relevant stories and serving as co-plotter. A bit later, Giffen began a long run as co-plotter and artist on some "Justice League" titles in the late 80s/early 90s. That's what Ambush Bug is referring to when he expresses his conviction that Giffen must still be calling the shots for the latest version of the League, et cetera.
As far as I know, Ambush Bug has never been used in any episode of any TV series, so if your primary acquaintance with the Justice League is from the television version, don't feel bad if you didn't recognize him! In the comics, Ambush Bug has sometimes showed signs of breaking the fourth wall (as they say—in other words, of having a fair grasp of the idea that he lives in a comic book universe), and I'm merely assuming that in this story he somehow (who knows how?) got lost in a timestream and eventually made the transition from a "comic book universe" to an "animated series universe" without immediately grasping that it was a whole different world where no one had ever seen or heard of him!
(On the other hand, it is equally possible that this Ambush Bug is simply a raving lunatic, native to the world of the Justice League animated series, whose deluded mind sincerely believes he used to live in a world where someone named Giffen was heavily involved in deciding the destiny of a group of heroes called the Justice League; a group which included someone called Power Girl. After all, that's the theory which Huntress and The Question are currently working on, and what is there to prove them wrong? Even in the Ambush Bug comic book stories of the 1980s, "raving lunatic" might not have been such an unfair assessment . . .)
P.S. I wrote this short story rather hastily after the general idea came to me. I also have on my hard drive thousands of words' worth of another story I started writing (on a very intermittent schedule) some weeks ago; a much longer story set in the world of the animated Justice League's continuity, and with a romantic flavor as well (but not a Question/Huntress fanfic). However, I've made a solemn decision to not post any of that one until I've finished writing the entire thing. (It will probably run at least six or seven chapters, at a wild guess.) I don't know when it will all be ready, but I'm giving you advance notice: If you enjoyed this story, stay tuned!