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A Desperate Affair

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It was late morning when Phantom blipped into her apartment and shed her costume in favor of a shower and a cup of coffee. She'd been out in one of the distant dimensions dealing with a missing (and very precocious child) and it had already been a day. Actually, as she strolled out bundled in a robe and coffee cup in hand, it might have been more than a day as she glanced at the thirteen messages blinking away on her machine. One frantic check of the date later, she was skipping rapidly through her messages. Two missed days of work, okay, that would be hard to deal with. A late assignment, not a problem. The fact that yesterday had been family dinner night? Big problem.

Giant problem.

Huge bleeping problem.

After listening to her mother's guilt-filled message three times, there was only one thing to do. Well, two, but she was already panicking. No. It was time for action. Time for... a giant lie that would distract her parents for at least a month.

After pulling a handfull of odds and ends from her dimensional pocket, ('Where did I even get a yo-yo. How long has this been in here?') Phantom retrieved her cell phone and a slightly battered card.

Please, please pick up. Pleeeeeaaase.

"Avenger? Phantom. I need a favor."

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There was a noticeable pause, both before and after the phone was picked up. "Certainly," came Avenger's reply. "Where are you now? Though you can likely meet me faster." Jack was out of costume this particular night, and licked his lips clean as they talked. It was a good thing he'd been home to take the call, rather than out hunting earlier.

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"It's not that kind of favor. Unfortunately." Phantom sounded unusually harried on the other end of the line. In fact she was pacing back and forth in her room with solid thumps that was probably upsetting her downstairs neighbor, "Its a secret identity sort of problem. I thought I was only gone a day but sometimes other dimensions move faster or slower. It's actually very difficult to tell just how fast time is progressing on Earth Prime."

She was babbling. Must stop babbling. Breathe.

"Anyway. I've lost about four days. Missed dinner with my family. It's a Big Deal. Can you join us for dinner tonight?"

She paused, closing her eyes.

"Please? I'll owe you one."

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"You're asking me to dinner?" The shock in Avenger's tone was entirely real. His first, and even second, impulse was to say no. It was a terrible idea. But he could hear the desperation in Phantom's voice, and guessed she wouldn't have called him if she had any other possibilities. And suddenly, painfully, he remembered his own family dinners. The ones he'd never have again. Maybe it was selfish of him, but..."Will be difficult. But can do it. Where do we meet?"

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"My place. How about 5PM then we'll head over to Kingston." She gave him the address, the relief in her tone was palpable even across the connection. "It's casual. Four siblings plus families. Its a monthly thing my family does. It gets harder and harder to pass."

As normal. As human. As Taylor Chun, not Phantom.

"And, Avenger..." She hesitated as if she was going to add some sort of admonishment or warning then simply said, quietly, "Thank you."

Then Phantom disconnected the line.

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Difficult to pass? You have no idea. Jack arrived at Phantom's place a little before five, checking himself out in the mirror. He looked debonair in a suit and tie, or so he thought; the black jacket and slacks clinging to his muscular body in a way that the ladies usually seemed to appreciate. He put on sunglasses against the glare of 5PM outside, running his mouth against the faint taste of iron still on his teeth. He was well-fed, well-groomed, and on his way to meet a lady. Surely nothing could go wrong meeting family...at dinner! I have tasted death itself. This won't be that bad.

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Phantom... well Taylor actually, opened the door to let him in with a small smile. Except for the Eye of Heshem winking at her throat, she looked entirely different out of costume. Her feet were bare still as she'd slide on heels at the last possible minute so she had to tilt her head back to meet his eyes. She was a small woman although she still had a tendency to carry herself as if she was much larger. At the moment, she was still sliding back into her mundane persona so she'd stopped phasing through objects in her small apartment but hadn't gone entirely out of Phantom's walk. She blinked, as if halfway startled to see him out of costume and her glance swept halfway down him before she stopped herself with a small shake of her head.

"Hi, come on in." The voice was always the first thing that fell away out of costume so while her voice was still husky, it no longer boomed imperiously. "I'm running late as usual. I had to dash out to bounce a minor imp, which meant fire, of course. Just got out of my second shower. Thanks for coming."

The apartment was small and relatively spartan but not surprisingly so. There were piles of college homework on the much used desk in the corner. Taylor let him in and then swept through the room, still looking for something. She'd already thrown on a sundress with thin straps. It fell to mid-calf and was a surprisingly girly choice. As she searched the room for her keys, she managed to shake the last of Phantom's gliding walk and drop into something with a much shorter step. Her black hair was still damp at the tips but was air drying to soft waves that were pulled back in a clip.

Finally she stopped and glanced around the room, looking annoyed, before she remembered that she'd left her keys in the dimensional pocket after the imp incident. Her hand vanished for a moment as she pulled them out triumphantly and turned to face him, "I always do that. Would you like me to drive?"

She stopped and pulled her shoes on at the door, slipping into low wedge sandals that she bent down to fasten quickly.

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Jack's posture and voice was very different than Avenger's; his eyes sharp and full of good humor, his posture leonine and fit. Avenger was a grim, crouching predator; Jack was something lighter and leaner. A leopard to his costumed self's hyena. "Feel free," he said with an amused smile on his face as he studied Taylor. He absolutely towered over her, something that was going to make the evening's festivities all the more interesting. "Is there anything in particular your family's going to ask me?" he asked her. "Stories you've told them about your imaginary friend?" He smiled warmly, keeping any nastiness out of the question.

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She rolled her eyes at him, an expression much more effective with pupils, and pulled a face, "No, I came up with this brilliant plan exactly half a minute before I called you. All I've told them is that I missed dinner the other night because I 'met someone'. The hope of having more grandkids alone made my mom stop using the guilt voice. I have no idea what they're going to ask. I've never brought home anyone 'special'."

Taylor led them down to the car, providing a brief synopsis of her life for Jack as his lack of knowledge about her would be odd to her family no matter how charming. She was a student of linguistics at the University and spoke half a dozen languages while working in the library, "My family tends to fall into a mix of Cantonese and English at home but they'll try not to exclude you on purpose. Sometimes they forget that not everyone that comes over is bilingual. My brother's wife has only bits and phrases that she speaks so you're not the only one. Unless, of course, you speak it. If you do, I wouldn't let on. They might start planning a wedding."

She flashed a smile that revealed dimples in both cheeks. So that was why her mask was cut to cover that portion of her face. Dimples were not exactly high on the intimidation factor. Her voice was filled with affection as well as the long-standing suffering that only comes with family, "I'm the youngest of the family. Jackson, he's the next oldest, will be the most likely to catch on that something's wierd but I'll try and keep him busy by bringing up things I know he doesn't want Mom to know."

She led the way to the car, an old and well used car but very well taken care of. The thing was clearly on its last legs and at this point was only used to drive to Kingston once a month and back. "So what about you?"

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"I'm afraid I don't speak Chinese," Jack admitted. "Or, uh, Cantonese, pardon me." He thought for a moment, then said, "My full name is John Anderson Faretti. My family came over from Italy at the turn of the century; we don't speak the language of the old country anymore. I grew up in the Fens in the sort of neighborhood it doesn't sound like your family visits, where my dad was a storefront accountant and my mother took care of the house. I've got one brother, Theodore, who's in the Army, and I was the younger of the two. I work behind the scenes at the Atlantis Casino in the Boardwalk keeping track of inventory. It sounds glamorous, but it's mostly boring scutwork. I didn't make it through college." He told the story very convincingly, a smile on his face and not a quaver in his voice as he told Taylor all about him.

It was only after they got in the car that Jack laughed. "And if they swallow that story, they'll swallow anything."

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"We can hope and pray," she said fervently, flashing him a quick laugh as she drove the car quickly to Kingston, "No, both of my parents are doctors, as is my oldest brother. I'm in the 'softest' science in the family."

She drove quickly through Freedom, cruising along with the impatience of someone who could teleport from place to place had but she obeyed the laws as she took the quickest shortcuts over there and parked in front of a well-manicured lawn of a nice house. There were several other cars parked out front, all of the nicer than Taylor's and she handed Jack a bottle of wine. "Here."

Taylor fished her purse out of the cars backseat, bouncing on one heeled foot to do so through the window before she glanced up at the house. It looked like the troops were out in force. Taylor was sure that everyone had been called in early to present a united front. Sighing she led the way up the small brick walkway to the front door which she opened after knocking once on it. "Go ahead and take your shoes off."

She gestured at a rack and pulled her own heels off, using his arm to balance as she did so. The house was full of chattering voices and a small child ran by nearly knocking them both over, an older sibling in pursuit.

"Auntie Zee's here!" The older one shouted into the kitchen as he zoomed after the smaller boy.

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The second they walked in the door, Jack's whole personality seemed to change, a mask dropping over his face almost visibly. His arm went around Taylor's shoulders with perfect ease, a huge smile breaking out of his face. "Oh, wow, so this is the place?" He looked perfectly like a boyfriend home for the first time with a daughter of the house, a man slightly nervous but mostly at ease in these surroundings. "This is great! I love what they've done with those vaulted ceilings. Hey, kids!" He let Taylor lead them where she willed; since she knew her way around.

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Through the arm accross her shoulder, Jack could feel the small jump she made before she relaxed into the embrace. Her skin goosebumped slightly and Taylor could feel her pulse speed up despite the knowledge of the pretense. She had not expected him to be quite so charming. It was honestly a little eerie. On the bright side, the plan was much more likely to succeed and there was no turning about now.

"Watch it, squirt," she said to Neil, the younger boy and managed to seperate the two of them with a look and a firm hand on the older's shoulder, pushing him forward and into his mother's care in the kitchen which was absolutely filled with people. Taylor made rapid introductions. Her mother was a fair haired blonde but with a similar size and build. Jack was easily the tallest man in the room. The only one who came close to him was her youngest and closest brother Jackson who introduced himself with a friendly enough grin and firm handshake, "So how long has Zee been hiding you from the insanity?"

Taylor made a face at him.

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"Oh, I like to think we carry a little bit of insanity around wherever we go," said Jack with a laugh. "John Faretti. But you can just call me Jack. Everyone does." His father's face swam before his eyes, and he put the image out through force of will. "I'm just sorry we couldn't make it out here sooner, but you know how hard she's working these days. Can you believe the number of languages that come out of this girl?" He pointed to Taylor. "Puts organizational insurance to shame any day of the week, I tell you what!" He laughed, his tone almost perfect.

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Jackson chuckled, "Everyone calls me Jackson. Somehow it never got shortened." He slung an arm around Taylor's shoulders hauling her in close as he lowered his voice, "Zee, you know you are on THIN ice, right? Mom just about flipped out when you no call, no showed on dinner. I walked out and 'took a call' from you, but a little warning if I have to cover for you would be nice. You need to get a personal organizer or something."

His tone was light but worried eyes searched her face, and Taylor's stomach clenched with guilt.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, it's just-"

"Things come up. Yeah, I know." He cut her off with the sigh of someone who'd heard one too many excuses as she squirmed free from under his arm and retreated to Jack's side to slip a hand into his. It worked to guide him through the crowd towards her parents but her fingertips shook slightly. She hated this, absolutely hated this, but she couldn't bear to tell them the truth.

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Without really thinking about it, Jack gave Taylor's hand a comforting squeeze as he was introduced to her parents. "Dr. Chun, Dr. Chun," he said with two polite nods, and then a firm handshake for both Taylor's mother and father. "It's a pleasure to make your mutual acquaintance." He smiled. "You have no idea all the stories I've heard about the two of you from Taylor the last couple of weeks. I'm glad we could finally be introduced."

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"I wish we could say the same," Taylor's mother, Claire said with a consternated look at her daughter before being shushed by her husband who shook Jack's hand with a firm grip and a kind smile, "Zee always has to go her own way on things. It's both one of her most frustrating traits and one of the ones that makes her quite so special. She won't even let me replace that car of hers with something safer."

"I don't need a new car, Dad," The last thing Taylor wanted was her dad spending money on something that would sit in the garage gathering dust, "And when I do need a new car, I'll buy it myself. I hope we're doing Scandanavian or Chinese. Not both."

She cast dubious looks over the pots simmering on the stove. It was never good when her mom went for culinary fusion. "I'll give Jack the tour while everyone gets wrangled to the table."

Her dad's kindly smile didn't hide the paternal 'we'll talk later' look, but as elegant retreats went, it wasn't bad, as Taylor slipped the two of them out of the crowded kitchen and up the back stairs where she immedeately leaned against, letting her head fall back against it with a soft thunk. "Two minutes tops, and then someone will be sent for us. Thanks, again, and sorry about all this.

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Jack leaned close. He wasn't quite violating Taylor's personal space as he murmured to her, but they were certainly in an intimate position with each other. "'Sno problem. So you don't think your parents can handle your work?" His voice was a soft murmur, inaudible to the people below. "Is not telling them going to work in the long term? Your business, not mine." He gave her a small smile. "Keeping secrets from the people that matter can be harder than you realize."

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Taylor tucked her hands behind her back and tilted her face up to him, "I think about it. Often. But I'd rather have them think I'm just a failure than be afraid everytime I don't answer my phone."

She turned her body in towards him, her voice soft as she didn't want anyone to overhear the conversation, "If I was a more normal super hero, maybe, but I can't just decide to quit one day. My powers came with a price. I have to guard the veil, for the rest of my eternal existance. I don't even know how I'm going to cover up never getting any older yet."

She glanced up at him with a serious expression, "It's not the fear they can't handle it. I know they love me, but what I do is dangerous, and its even more so to them. If a demon, or a cult dedicated to some dark thing, or whatever I face... If any of them knew I had a family. They'd be targets. I can't take the chance."

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"You'd be surprised how important it is to have a family on your side," murmured Jack. "Having them there, supporting you, can be the most important thing in your life." I bet. He smiled a little, then shrugged slightly. "But I'm not really the person to talk to about family business, or someone who has any business giving advice on how to live your life. We put on so many masks in our line of work that sometimes taking one off can be the hardest thing to do."

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Taylor smiled back, the edge of her mouth kicking up almost ruefully, "Of course, there's always the possibility that I'm afraid that without the mask there isn't a Taylor anymore. Just Phantom."

Her words were light but not untruthful and she was about to say more when Jackson interrupted from downstairs.

"Hey, lovebirds, dinner."

Taylor flushed and ducked under Jack's arm to go thump her brother on the shoulder in silent rebuke before leading the way to the dinner table. It was a crowded affair, despite the large room with nearly a dozen adults and three children under the age of ten. They mostly stuck to English but every now and again a conversation would break out in another language. Jack was seated between Taylor and her brother's wife who looked more out of place at the gathering than he was. Unlike the Chun family of professionals and scientists, she was dressed in a bohemian style and when Jack seated himself next to her, politely asked if the feng shui of his seat was alright or would he rather switch.

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"I'm, uh, I'm fine, thanks." Jack was beginning to get a little nervous now, and wondered if the Chun in-law next to him had picked up on his worry. He'd met a couple of 'vampires' who could actually eat and digest solid food, and a few more who could chew, swallow, and throw up again later. He was not one of those vampires, though, which meant all the food laid out before him looked decidedly unappetizing. (But not smell, oh no. He knew exactly what food had tasted like.) That at least made it a little easier to feign discomfort, shifting in his seat with an uncomfortable look on his face.

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Ah, her mom had gone the Scandanavian AND Chinese route. Every so often she got on this kick. Taylor sighed and internally debated whether or not she could dump the food into her dimensional pocket when no one was looking. She didn't need to eat anymore and, unless it was a social thing, generally abstained. It took far too much focus to eat a normal amount of food with no hunger pangs for guidance. She glanced around Jack at Savannah at her feng shui comment and smiled faintly. She was always on some New Age kick.

Her father's question brought her attention back to the table as he asked, "So... how did you two meet?"

For a moment, Taylor hesitated in the act of spooning food onto her plate before she finished the motion and looked up, her eyes twinkling, "I ran into Jack during that big explosion in Riverside. We helped a little old lady with her cats."

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"Yes sir," said Jack with a slightly pained smile, pushing his plate back a fraction of an inch. "It was quite a spectacle, let me tell you. I was on my way to work when the blast went off. I work pretty close by there, at the Atlantis, so it's actually on my morning constitutional. I might have bypassed it," he admitted, "but when I saw Taylor going to help that poor lady in her burning house, I had to do something." He reached over and patted her hand, then smiled again at the Chuns. "Your daughter is really something special. I'm glad to have had a chance to know her."

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"We've been doing morning coffee since then, although nothing quite so exciting as the first time," Taylor interjected with a dry humor to the words. Nothing too exciting, indeed. Stopping an interdimensional assault here, fighting of a tyraniccal overlord there. Taylor paused taking a sip of her water and started to choke slightly at the familiar tingle in the back of her brain.

'Not now, not here! The water in the cup sloshed slightly, spilling a few drops on her hand and the floor as her other hand flew to her neck and closed around the amulet at her throat. Only Jack was close enough to see the light that gleamed briefly through her fingertips.

"Excuse me," she murmered, blotting the water with her napkin.

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