Author's Note: This one seems to be set during or even after the final season of Justice League Unlimited—which means it happens after my other JLU fanfics, and well after The Question has made a complete recovery from days of torture when he was held prisoner by Cadmus. However, this story is self-contained; you don't need to remember the details of any of my previous fanfics which have also referenced the Question/Huntress romantic relationship. (But if you insist on reading or rereading them anyway, after you've finished this one, that will be fine with me!)
It's short and fluffy; no violence. (Did half my audience just leave in disgust after I admitted that last part? Oh well, you can't win 'em all!)
"Q," Huntress said, "while you're rewiring that thing, can I check your copies of the transcripts of Steven Mandragora's statements to the feds?"
"Sure," he said without looking up. "The folder's in one of those filing cabinets over in the corner." He waved in the right general direction and went back to whatever he was doing to the innards of a micro-miniaturized listening device in the shape of Musca domestica, the common housefly.
Huntress strode across the room and pulled out a drawer labeled L-N. After a moment, she said: "I'm not seeing anything under 'Mandragora.'"
"Oh, right. I have my own filing system. It wouldn't be under 'M for Mandragora,' but 'P for Phantom.'"
She closed the drawer and opened the one below it. "Phantom . . . there it is." She pulled out a bulging file folder. "But why did you choose that codeword? Because he's so pale? Because I wanted to turn him into a ghost when I caught up with him?"
"No . . . because Mandragora is cognate with Mandrake, and the comic strip Mandrake the Magician was created by Lee Falk, who also created the popular strip The Phantom."
"Er . . . okay." She flipped through the folder until she found the part where Mandragora was telling stories about the decline and fall of the late Carmine Falcone's crime family, the so-called "Roman Empire" of Gotham. There was something she'd wanted to check . . .
After a minute, she addressed Question's back. "Not that it really matters to me, but I kinda thought you'd run these things through a scanner, encrypt the images, and then burn 'em onto a disk along with a few thousand other pages' worth of material. Saves storage space."
"That's what I frequently do," The Question said agreeably, "but some things shouldn't be copied if it's avoidable, and really shouldn't be stored on any machine which ever connects to the Internet. In Mandragora's case, though, it's just that I haven't gotten around to it yet. When I scrounge up interesting documents in my field work, they go into a file folder until I digitalize them."
"Ah." She wondered for a moment if he was going to ask her to do the boring clerical chore of running some of his backlog of paper through a scanner, but apparently that didn't even occur to him. After a while, she asked casually, "So just how do you decide which stuff must stay here in a folder without ever going near an Internet connection?"
"Stuff that's merely Top Secret ends up on my hard drives or encrypted disks, as you suggested," he said. "Supervillain dossiers, copies of the NSA's best codebreaking software, nuclear launch codes, audio files of the last ten secret meetings of the guiding council of the Illuminati . . . the usual."
"On the other hand, some of the really weird and/or important stuff only exists as hardcopy, plus some things burned on DVD-ROMs and then kept isolated from the computers so that anyone scanning my hard drives wouldn't get a whiff of them. For instance, some scary magic spells . . . notes on the secret identities and personal habits of other superheroes . . . and particularly anything about you that you wouldn't want other people to find out, including the Justice League!"
"I'm pretty sure Batman has also assembled a comprehensive file on my activities," she objected.
"Well, yes, but he probably concentrated on what you've done since you first put on that costume, plus basic biographical information to help him understand why you wanted this lifestyle in the first place. For instance, there's a good chance he didn't dig back far enough to learn about the time when you were six years old and repeated, in mixed company, a joke you had recently overheard one of your father's bodyguards telling—"
She cut him off with a raised hand while closing her eyes against the memory. "I didn't understand the double meaning in the punch line! I didn't even know what a 'dirty joke' was in those days! Mama was mortified!"
"And your secret is safe with me," Q assured her. "But a few months ago someone who had witnessed your performance just happened to be reminiscing about that amusing moment as he sat in a barroom, and I just happened to have a bug planted nearby . . ."
Huntress scowled. "Who was it?"
"That windbag. I'll find him and . . . persuade him . . . to never gossip about any of my embarrassing childhood moments again!"
"Try not to commit any Class A felonies in the process," Q cautioned as his head turned in her direction.
Huntress decided not to be offended by his concern. (But honestly, she hadn't been planning to go further than a Class B at the very worst, and it might not be necessary to go beyond a handful of Class E's! On the other hand, it was possible he was joking. That faceless appearance gave him one heck of a poker face!)
She decided to change the subject instead. "So if Mandragora is filed under Phantom, where did you hide the dirt on me?"
"Well," he said absently, "H for Huntress was far too obvious. And writing your real name on the exterior of the folder would be even worse. Those cabinets have lead shielding against X-ray vision, but still, no need to take unnecessary risks . . ."
She nodded patiently. "But you must have found somewhere to put it."
"Well, I considered filing you under 'B for Beautiful, 'G for Gorgeous,' 'L for Loveable,' or 'S for Sensational,' but reluctantly concluded those were too obvious as well. Any red-blooded man who had ever seen you could think of those possibilities pretty darn quick if he were searching for your file in particular."
She blinked. Had he really just used the L word? Or a variation of it, anyway? About her?
Now The Question was welding shut the fly-shaped casing of his newly-modified bug. "So I finally settled on 'W for World Peace.' You are not exactly the most peaceable person I've met, so I knew I could remember the irony. And any villain who made it this far and started skimming folder labels in each drawer would be highly unlikely to suddenly decide he wanted to examine long-range plans for global peace and tranquility before he read any of the other files!"
"Ah," she said. "The Purloined Letter technique. Hide it right out in plain sight, but lightly camouflaged to make it look boring! Prying eyes will just pass right over it and keep going, looking for the really juicy stuff!"
"More or less. Although I wouldn't say that anything inside these cabinets is in such 'plain sight' as all that. Anyone who made it through the outer defenses of this apartment and grabbed the handle of any drawer in these cabinets would get some unpleasant surprises."
"Really? I didn't have any trouble opening a couple of drawers."
"Well, no. But you're a special case."
She paused to consider that. "What if, say, you got killed or captured, and Batman or Mister Terrific needed to check your files in a hurry to see how far you'd gotten on your latest investigation?"
"If they weren't smart enough to ask you for help, they'd just have to take their chances on the booby traps set for any unauthorized person who touches my filing cabinets," Q said matter-of-factly. "The sudden release of odorless nerve gas, laced with kryptonite dust and a bit of stupefying magic (courtesy of Dr. Fate), ought to be effective against the majority of known aliens and metahumans residing in this solar system, as well as any 'run-of-the-mill' humans who happen to come along (if they aren't wearing airtight armor with anti-magic safeguards), but if that fails, there are various other precautions. It's far likelier that a powerful intruder would inadvertently activate the self-destruct function than it is that he'd be able to salvage a significant portion of this material before it all went up in smoke."
Huntress paused to consider the implications of that last speech. "Hold on, Q . . . are you saying I'm the only person alive who can safely access your precious Master Files if you aren't handy to open them yourself?"
"Of course you're allowed to poke around in there any time you feel the need," Q said in what sounded like honest surprise as he swiveled around on his chair to stare at her. "Just remember to put stuff back where you found it when you're done. I set that up months ago; it just didn't come up in conversation before. Why wouldn't I decide you were trustworthy? What do you think I am, paranoid?"
She fought to keep a straight face. Probably she wasn't entirely successful—after a few seconds, Q said generously: "You don't have to answer that."
Huntress suddenly lunged forward and hugged him tightly. "Let's put it this way, Q. As long as you're not paranoid about me, I really don't care how many precautions you take against the off-chance that Superman or Batman or one of the other big names will suddenly flip his lid and decide to ransack this place!"
"That seems reasonable."
"And when I look at it from the right perspective, I think calling me more 'trustworthy' for a high security clearance than any of the other heroes we know is the sweetest thing you've ever said to me. Those other ideas you had for where to file my dossier weren't so bad, either!"
"Um," he said brightly. She waited to see if he'd elaborate on that remark, but he seemed tongue-tied.
"Are you blushing under that mask?" she asked suddenly.
"Nonsense," he said hastily. "After all the sin and depravity I've witnessed, any tendency towards blushing got scourged from my psyche years ago."
"Prove it. I want a good look at your cheeks before the extra blood has time to go back where it came from."
"Helena," he said, "I really need to finish modifying more of this surveillance equipment to my own specifications. I work best when I've got my mask on. You don't really expect me to keep taking it off and putting it back on every two minutes, just to prove a point, do you?"
"Q," she said sternly, "Let me clarify something: your skewed version of sweet talk has managed to get me in a romantic mood. If you're blushing, I want to kiss you. If you're not blushing, I still want to kiss you! But either way, I refuse to settle for smooching you through this protective layer of pseudoderm! That was the way I did it the first time, and frankly, it wasn't nearly as much fun as I'd hoped!"
"Hrrrm." He fumbled in a coat pocket, searching for the miniature spraycan he needed. (This would have been a lot easier if she hadn't still had her arms wrapped around him, but he didn't seem to be in any hurry to tell her to let go and move away from him for a moment). "On the other hand, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy . . . I wouldn't want people to think I was dangerously obsessive-compulsive or anything . . ."
"Perish the thought," Huntress murmured.
Author's Note: As recently as one year ago I had never written anything for the Justice League fandom, and now I'm posting my sixth short story in it! Been an interesting year! I have plans (and partially written drafts) for longer JLU-themed material in the future, so we'll see what happens in 2010. Meanwhile . . . Happy New Year, everyone!