Author's Note: My last Justice League fanfic was set shortly after "Double Date," but before the last few episodes of that same season of Justice League Unlimited. This one is set after that entire season has ended—the League's nasty problems with the U.S. Government and Luthor and Brainiac have been resolved (for the time being), The Question has physically recovered from the wounds he suffered when he was being tortured by Cadmus, and things seem pretty darn peaceful for the moment.
Question of Protocol
There were things he wanted to be doing back in Metropolis as Clark Kent.
There were other things he wanted to be doing back in Metropolis (and elsewhere) as Superman.
But to use any of those as an excuse for leaving the Watchtower right now would just be the coward's way out. He had persuaded The Question to sit down for a full session with a psychiatrist—Doctor Alberta Ramos, who was visiting the Watchtower today—and if it all went badly, then Kal-El should be available to take the heat from The Question, instead of ducking out during the session and leaving someone else to face the music for him.
(Like any self-respecting superhero, Superman avoided psychiatrists and psychologists as much as possible; he was exceedingly reluctant to suggest any of his friends voluntarily spend time associating with those people. Just looking at the backgrounds of some of Batman's worst enemies—Hugo Strange, Harleen Quinzel, Jonathan Crane—proved that excessive study of mental illness in other people could have a corrupting influence upon your own brain!)
This explained why Superman had spent the last hour and a half sitting at a computer station, playing a realtime strategy game against Wonder Woman.
He didn't normally go in for that sort of thing, but he had to kill time somehow while waiting to see how The Question behaved when he emerged from the soundproofed room. Wonder Woman apparently had a similar problem; Batman had promised she could go on patrol with him tonight, as soon as he finished up one piece of business elsewhere. The agreement was that he would teleport up to the Watchtower to meet her when he finished whatever he was doing now. She had suggested playing a war game, just for practice, and Superman had recklessly agreed.
Now he'd been painfully reminded that Amazons took their military science seriously. Diana had gradually whittled his empire down to the point where his forces only retained dominion over one large plateau at the north end of the map. This meant that the vast majority of the natural resources scattered across the randomly-generated "known world"—coal mines, iron mines, lumber camps, and so forth, many of which had originally been developed by Superman's workers—were now generating raw materials exclusively for her war industry, allowing her production of new military units to vastly exceed his.
The only thing keeping Superman's nation alive was the fact that there were only two narrow land routes leading up from the plains to his plateau, and he had heavily fortified those areas to create lethal bottlenecks for any infantry and cavalry units which tried to march up the slopes. Unfortunately, now that the numbers were on her side, Diana had become frighteningly willing to keep throwing more and more cannon fodder into both areas until one set of defenses or the other would be smashed flat by sheer attrition. Strategically, she could afford to wear him down that way. Superman doubted he would have been so ruthless about sacrificing all those poor soldiers just to gradually breach the enemy's perimeter . . .
At any rate, it was something of a relief when The Question entered the rec room, spotted Superman and strode toward him, moving like a man who was calm and confident, as opposed to angry or depressed after a messy therapy session.
(Superman could have used X-Ray vision to examine the real face beneath the pseudoderm mask, but good manners prevented him from doing that to any of his teammates if there wasn't an overwhelming reason for it.)
When the faceless man stopped a few feet away, Superman paused the game and asked politely: "So . . . how did it go with Doctor Ramos?"
The Question shrugged slightly. "I've seen much worse. But if you want to hear the tentative verdict . . . very intelligent and with a fairly strong sense of responsibility, but also having a pronounced tendency to cut corners and break a few rules for convenience. Self-conscious about failure to measure up to society's conventional standards of 'beauty.' Perhaps a wee bit paranoid. But probably a pretty good person despite all of the above."
"That's what she said about you?"
"No, that was my diagnosis of her. Just a layman's opinion, of course, but I did get a signed confession of her past sins. Cheating on a few tests in high school. Drinking alcohol as an undergrad before she turned 21 (the legally required age in her home state). Last year she hit a dog with her car and drove off without sticking around to see how badly it was hurt. Also, she has spent a lot of money on plastic surgery over the years, although of course that isn't a crime. But I think all of these things are consistent with the personality flaws I summarized a minute ago. I admit I didn't find anything really juicy, such as any reason to think she's in the pay of one of our usual enemies."
There was an awkward silence—at least from Superman's perspective—before he finally said, "That woman is a psychiatrist."
"Yes, you mentioned that."
"She was supposed to explore the things which were troubling you."
The Question mulled that over for a few seconds, then said calmly, "Perhaps you should have mentioned that part before you sent me in there to speak with her."
"I did tell you!"
"No . . . actually you didn't. A couple of hours ago you said: 'Question, we have a psychiatrist visiting. As it happens, I'm a bit worried . . . and . . . well . . . can you spare some time to sit down with her for a question-and-answer session and see how it goes?' and I said, 'Sure, Superman, I'll talk to her right now if you think it's important.'"
The faceless man paused for judicious consideration before adding, "Looking back on it, I finally realize you didn't specify who was supposed to ask most of the questions and who was supposed to provide most of the answers. At the time, I assumed you were worried about her because you suspected she had useful information about a criminal case which she didn't care to share. You don't do 'bad cop' well at the best of times, and certainly not with women, so you called me in."
Wonder Woman was covering her mouth with one hand.
Unperturbed, The Question continued. "I proceeded on that basis. At first the doctor kept answering each question of mine with questions of her own, which is a classic form of stonewalling. I deduced she was very sensitive about certain aspects of her life. It took me about an hour to wear her down to the point where I had a very good idea of where the hot-button issues were. After that, it was smooth sailing."
Superman glanced at Wonder Woman, hoping for support. After a few seconds, she lowered the hand from her mouth and managed to say, in a voice with scarcely any laughter in it, "I heard your conversation earlier, Superman, and I remember it the same way he does. Word for word!"
"All right," Superman said resignedly. "I felt very awkward about the subject, and as a result I didn't express myself in simple, straightforward sentences. Yes, I ought to know better. Let me try again: I know what sort of torture you endured when Cadmus had you. I know they had you for almost a week. When Huntress and I pried you out of their clutches, you were in horrible condition. I gather you hadn't given them whatever it was they wanted to hear, and I admire that. But the ordeal was bound to leave scars—and I don't just mean a few scorch marks on your epidermis."
"I know what you mean," The Question responded. "But our League currently includes misfits, iconoclasts, superhumans, nonhumans, and even one or two outright weirdos. Has it occurred to you that where such a motley crew is concerned, it probably isn't even possible—much less reasonable—to insist upon a 'one size fits all' approach to dealing effectively with any severe emotional trauma arising from misfortunes in the line of duty?"
"I hadn't looked at it exactly that way," Superman said after a moment, refusing to be distracted by the nagging question of just what it took to qualify as a "weirdo" by The Question's standards. "But I hear that talking about such things can be therapeutic, even when the victim knows perfectly well it wasn't his fault to begin with."
"Are you planning to take it upon yourself to summon psychiatrists up here each time you think somebody in our group would benefit from a session?" The Question inquired. "Because if you make a habit of this, sooner or later someone is bound to recite the bit about the mote in one person's eye and the beam in the other guy's."
"Really?" Superman asked, patiently playing straight man, even as the journalist within him took note that The Question had now managed to drag that Biblical allusion out into the open while carefully phrasing it in such a way that he could steadfastly deny having personally accused Superman of fixating on other people's motes, et cetera. (At face value, he'd only offered a friendly warning that some hypothetical other person might do so on some future occasion!)
"Tell me something—after Darkseid used high-tech torture to brainwash you into thinking you were his own beloved foster son, and sent you to conquer Earth, and you finally snapped out of it . . . did you later spend long hours with a headshrinker to make sure your head was screwed on straight again?" The Question waited a beat, and then asked innocently, "Or even a single hour?"
Superman frowned. "That was different."
Wonder Woman covered her mouth with her hand again, which didn't exactly qualify as a strong show of support for the Man of Steel's position.
Meanwhile, The Question just let that answer hang in the air for awhile before he answered blandly, "Of course it was. But if the rest of the League doesn't pressure you to have such sessions when you don't feel the need, then why not show me the same courtesy?"
Wonder Woman had her face under control now. She said, "Let me put it another way, Kal. Apparently you didn't want to offend a valued teammate, so you were very vague in 'suggesting' he talk to a psychiatrist who 'just happened' to be visiting the Watchtower today. In hindsight, what you should have done was ask directly if he wanted to talk to a mental health professional about what happened to him at Cadmus. Then he could have said 'yes!' or 'no!' or 'I've already made an appointment with someone I selected myself!' If he said 'no!' then you could have tried to persuade him to reconsider, or you could have dropped the subject entirely, or conceivably you could have persuaded the rest of the council that he should either talk to a psychiatrist or else take a leave of absence. Making psychiatric sessions mandatory for continued active duty would have been unprecedented in this League, but you might have pulled it off."
(We will draw a discreet curtain over the next few minutes. Suffice it to say that Superman, finding his clever plan for helping The Question had collapsed under its own weight, managed to stick around just long enough to avoid looking as if he were making a panicked retreat. He even remembered to surrender to Diana's legions in the game they'd been playing. Then he teleported back down to Metropolis, where there were indeed many other things he should be doing.)
Batman arrived a bit later, after Superman had returned to his beloved Metropolis and thus couldn't possibly overhear anything happening up on the Watchtower, since sound waves have never gotten the hang of propagating in vacuum (even though the makers of science fiction movies often seem to think otherwise). After whispering something in Diana's ear which made her smile, Batman took The Question aside for a brief conversation. He began by asking, "How did it go?"
The Question summed up the chat with Superman in a few sentences, and added: "Thanks for the warning. I didn't really think he would talk around the subject so much that I'd later be able to say, with a straight face, that I had thought I was supposed to ask all the questions and the doctor was supposed to reveal all the secrets."
Batman probably realized that the "straight face" bit was a deliberate joke when it came from The Question, but if so, he failed to show any trace of amusement. Instead, he stuck to the main point: "I've known him a lot longer than you have. Even though he has bulletproof skin, some subjects can get beneath it and make him very uncomfortable. But of course the script allowed for minor deviations. You could have gone straight into the speech about his own experiences with mind-altering torture if he had made himself clear at the outset. Thereby skipping the session with the psychiatrist entirely."
"Do you really think he'll reconsider his position to the extent of getting some professional counseling for himself?"
Batman made a soft noise which might have been a contemptuous snort. "Not him. But when I realized what he was up to, inviting Doctor Ramos up for the day, I thought it best to nip this nonsense in the bud. We didn't need him alienating too many good members by trying to shove them into interviews they didn't want—or would prefer to arrange for themselves, with people they already knew in their home towns, totally independent of the League."
The Question didn't argue. Batman made a dismissive gesture and added, "Well, I've got an Amazon waiting to go on patrol with me, and you probably have plans of your own." He ended that sentence without explicitly saying: With The Huntress, whom we kicked out of the club.
The Question braced himself for the worst. Over the last few days, he had already heard three speeches of cautionary advice from other Leaguers: She got tossed out on her ear for a reason; I'm sure you can do better if you just lighten up a little; don't let her drag you down to her level; are you sure she's not just using you as a conduit to keep her apprised of Justice League business now that she's an outsider? and so forth.
He should have known Batman always had to be different from the common herd. The Dark Knight merely said, "If you and Huntress have serious feelings for each other, then I hope you will have a good influence on her. She needs one. I never managed to fill that role when we worked a few cases together, but of course there was no romance involved. That factor might tilt the balance."
Behind his mask, The Question blinked as he tried to remember the last time he'd been accused of being a good influence. (Nothing came to mind.)
"But you probably don't want to tell her I said so," Batman suggested, and The Question nodded. He might not understand women very well, but he knew he wouldn't gain anything by saying to Helena: Batman thinks you should keep dating me because it will make you a better person. If ever there was a line guaranteed to backfire . . .
Batman nodded back at him and turned away. Evidently the conversation was over. The Question headed for the teleport bay.
(The Question was not to know that four days ago, just before she had to leave the Watchtower after she'd been permitted to stay by her boyfriend's side in the infirmary during his convalescence, Huntress had bumped into Batman and he had suggested that he hoped she would have an improving influence upon The Question's more objectionable habits. Batman had been telling the truth both times, but he had a feeling these two youngsters wouldn't believe that if they ever happened to compare notes on those particular conversations. But he considered it highly unlikely that they would do so within the next year, and he saw little point in worrying about anything more distant.)
Author's Note: The basic premise of this one just occurred to me a few days ago: What if some well-meaning psychiatrist tried to interview The Question? Wouldn't he end up knowing more about her than she learned about him? The rest of it followed from there. The finished product isn't as funny as I originally hoped for, but I thought it might still amuse someone. Meanwhile, I'm still working, off and on, on a longer Justice League fanfic which I want to get completely written before I ever post "Chapter One."