Chapter 1

Unmasked

The scent of popcorn, peanuts, and candy floss permeated the air, and colorful lights covered the big top tent, illuminating all of the performers dressed in flashy costumes. Upbeat carnival music played.

A clown rode a pony with blue boofed up feathers in its mane and tail around the center ring, lions jumped through flaming hoops, elephants stood on their front legs with their hind ends in the air, and a slender, lithe young woman dressed in pink and sheer glittery fabric gilded with golden thread moved in and out of an aerial hoop suspended above it all, twisting her body this way and that around the sides.

She wrapped her legs around the top and hung upside down, then set the ring to spinning at an alarming speed. When it slowed to a stop, she lifted her legs straight up, then brought them down, and swung from the hoop onto a trapeze. From there, she flipped through the air and grabbed a thick silk ribbon, and began circling the ring from above, waving to the crowd below. All the while, the exhilaration she always felt when performing rushed through her veins, giving her a high only doing acrobatics could bring on.

Kathryn always looked forward to performing. The excitement of the circus, the thrill of doing daring feats hundreds of feet in the air.

As she was spinning, she caught sight of someone on the balcony, dressed all in black, with a black mask on as well. Their eyes met, her sapphire-blue on a sea of emerald-green, and that moment seemed to last a lifetime.

Snapping out of it, she forced herself to focus on the show once more.

When she'd built up enough momentum, Kat swung from the rope back to her hoop and sat down on it as it lowered towards the center of the ring.

Once it was low enough, she jumped down and held her arms open to the audience, who deafeningly applauded all of the acts. No one was seated, and confetti canons blasted scraps of colorful paper into the air from each corner of the big top. It rained down on them like snow, and Kat couldn't help but laugh.

Another successful performance.

As people began filing out of the wooden bleachers, Kat headed backstage, behind a flap in the red-and-white-striped tent, which opened onto a huge space that was filled with three vanity tables that had large lighted mirrors, boxes of extra supplies, and a wooden staircase leading up to the balcony.

Walking over to her mirror, she powdered her face with a puff from a brass filigree powder box and checked her elaborate, glittery makeup to ensure everything was still in place for the next show in an hour. Staring at her reflection, she sized herself up; she'd been poured into a pale-pink leotard with gold accents, frilly details, sheer long sleeves made of gauzy material covered in small beads and glitter and matching pink ribbons wrapped around her feet all the way up her calves. Two strips of the same sheer, glittery fabric as her sleeves were attached to her shoulders and swept out behind her like a cloak when she walked as she moved to return to the ring.

Before she could go back out, however, she was stopped. She'd seen him during her performance, but was still surprised when she found the jester she'd locked eyes with standing with Jack Whitely, the ring master and proprietor of the circus, who was wearing a bright-red coat with bronze buttons, as well as a black top hat, which hid a good amount of his graying ginger hair. Most of the gray had been caused by Kat, as he frequently reminded her.

The jester was dressed in full black motley, complete with a four-pointed hat with sparkling silver bells on the tips, black kohl painted in a mask around his eyes – not an actual mask, as she'd first thought when she'd seen him up on the balcony. He flashed an enticing grin, causing Kat to look away to hide her blush. Although, all of the lights were in the ring, and backstage only a couple of dim lamps lit the space – aside from the round bulbs around the mirrors – so her pink cheeks might not have been noticed anyway.

"Ah, Kathryn!" Jack beamed with pride as he stood next to her, squeezing her shoulder. "This is our own little fairy – no one flies the trapeze like she does. She's one of our star attractions."

Kat was certainly blushing deeper now, but the jester simply removed his hat – a motion followed by the soft tinkling of bells – and bowed his head to her. His hair was the same black as everything else he wore, as if he'd bathed in an ink vat.

"I saw you on one of the promotional posters." He said, replacing his hat. "It did you no justice, Miss Kathryn."

Surely he was making a joke. Her makeup may have survived her act, but her pale-blue hair was askew, little strands falling from her bun, which was held in place by a diamond clip. It had been her mother's. Though she'd worn concealer, she'd sweated most of it off and the dark circles under her eyes from countless sleepless nights were visible, and though her skin shimmered with the glitter powder she used before every show, she knew she looked even paler than usual. Perhaps he was just trying to be polite?

Kat rested her hand on the curve of her left hip. "Are you a new act? I've never seen a jester at a circus before."

"Ah, but I bet I'm not the strangest thing you've seen here." He countered with a small smirk.

"True." She had to agree. She'd been with Starlight Circus her entire life and had seen many, many oddities. "What's your name?" she asked.

"They call me Jason. I deal in magic tricks, among other things." He replied. "I see why they call you a fairy. You looked like you were flying out there. And with these – " he gently tugged on the sheer material hanging from her shoulder, " –one might think you have wings."

Kat felt a shock at his touch – nothing like static, but certainly something electric. Something that she couldn't quite explain. Jason must have felt it, too, because he was looking at her with slightly wide eyes. Jack was oblivious to the moment they were apparently having, because he stepped between them, chuckling and giving them both claps on their backs.

"I expect you to show Jason the ropes, Kathryn. I want him to feel like part of the family." Jack said sternly. "I believe his act might just be the fresh, new one we've been looking for."

Still distracted, Kat adjusted her bun and nodded. "Of course." She said absently, trying not to look directly at Jason. She retreated to her makeup table and reapplied concealer, blended it, and set it with shimmery powder. "I'm going to go out and take some pictures with the kids."

She breezed past Jack and Jason without looking back. The kids who visited the circus always wanted pictures with the carnies. Kat exited the big top to find that the other acts were already having their photo ops.

Rita, the bearded lady, was posing with two twin boys who couldn't have been older than five. Her long, tawny hair was braided down her back and her beard fanned out around her face, which was very pretty, in spite of all the hair. Poppy, the lion tamer and one of the clowns, was in her pink and yellow clown costume with matching makeup, taking photos with a little girl. Poppy's usually straight curtain of pale-blonde hair was pinned up under a pointed hat covered in pink and yellow polka dots, topped with a sunshine-yellow pompom on its point. Sid, another of the clowns, was tying up balloon animals for a small group of children that had gathered around him. His outfit was green and red, almost identical to Poppy's, aside from the color scheme. Lewis, the strong man, was posing for some pictures as well, flexing his massive biceps. There was no hair left on his gleaming bald head, but he did have a big furry caterpillar of a mustache.

Kat fell in line with Ikuto and Jesse, the other two acrobats. Ikuto was Japanese, with a head of dark hair and matching eyes. Jesse had dyed his hair a dark-purple, and he had the darkest brown eyes Kat had ever seen, as well as every inch of both ears pierced, just like hers, only instead of neon pink spikes going through his lobes like hers, he had a swirling black and white tunnel that matched his costume. Just then, a girl and her little brother scurried excitedly to her.

"You were so cool!" the girl exclaimed, beaming. "I want to be an acrobat when I grow up! Can we take a picture with you? Please?"

Kat smiled down at her. "Of course." This was what she loved most about the job. Inspiring wonder in children, and even adults sometimes. She'd always adored this feeling, and by now she knew she'd never tire of it. Placing one hand on the little girl's shoulder and the other on the boy's, she gave her best grin, facing who she assumed to be their parents, who snapped a few photos on a cell phone.

"Alright, kiddos, let's head home." The father said, beckoning for the children to follow him.

"Thank you so much. It really was a great show." The mother spoke to Kat and the other acrobats with a grateful smile. Kat felt a little pang in her chest, the way she always did when she saw a mother with her kids. Even after all this time, her own mom's accident still haunted her. Would she ever be at peace with her death?

Realizing that her eyes were burning with unshed tears, Kat swiped them away with the back of her hand and looked to Ikuto and Jesse. "Shall we go get a practice round in before the next show?"

/ / /

"That doesn't belong to you."

A deep baritone voice caused Kat to freeze, her hand hovering above an open display case she'd just broken into. A smooth, glowing blue stone was nestled among purple velvet behind the glass, a beacon in the otherwise darkened museum. The Heart of the Sea – a precious jewel on loan from some Oceanside kingdom, brought to Bullet City for a short time as part of an exhibit at the Museum of Art and History. Someone was paying her father very handsomely for the chance to own it.

Fortunately, she would not be recognized – she was dressed head to toe in a black skin-tight suit with bright-pink going down the sides of the legs, a cowl-like mask that went over her head, leaving only her mouth and chin uncovered, with pink eyeholes. Not even her hair would give her away. This outfit afforded her total anonymity.

"Well, not yet, anyway." She lamented, smirking and slowly turning her head to look over her shoulder. Her hands instantly went to the hilts of the dual katanas on her back, drawing them free. Their blades gleamed dangerously in the light from the Heart.

Her opponent was tall – he stood at least two heads over her – and muscular. He had dark hair and wore a red and black nylon suit, a bo staff in his hand, a black domino mask covering his eyes. Renegade, if the crimson "R" on the left side of his chest was any indication of who he was.

"Filthy thief." He growled, his hand shooting out to grab her wrist. But she danced away, snatching the Heart with the tip of her blade and sending it into the air. Tossing one of the swords up, she caught the gem and shoved it into the black satchel strapped to her thigh, then caught her katana as it came back down.

"That's a bit harsh." She mock pouted. "I'm just trying to make a living here."

He wasn't amused – he was suddenly towering over her, driving his fist towards her.

"Not the face!" she exclaimed, ducking just in time to avoid being hit. Then she nimbly backflipped away to put some distance between them. "Things are moving too fast – I need some space."

Was that a chuckle he was trying to suppress? Kat was surprised – she'd always considered herself funny, but her jokes were mainly for herself since none of the heroes who'd fought her had ever laughed before.

She was so taken aback by it that she nearly didn't dodge the blast of electricity he sent from the tip of his staff at her. When she regained herself, she was tackled to the ground, one of her katanas flying from her hand as he pinned her against the marble floor.

"If you wanted to be on top of me that badly, all you had to do was ask." Smirking wryly, Kat drove her knees up into his chest, gripping his wrists so that she could propel him up and over her head.

His eyes widened; he obviously hadn't expected her to be that strong. She was small, but she could bench five times her body weight.

Recovering quickly, he made sure not to let her retrieve her second sword. That wasn't a problem – she didn't need both to fight. One would do just fine. She used the steel to deflect his electricity, relying on the rubber hilt to protect her from being fried to death. "I don't believe we've even been properly introduced. Rude of you to try to barbeque a lady you don't even know."

"I'm Renegade." He replied shortly, grabbing the sword by the blade and wrenching it away from her. It hit the ground with a metallic clang, but Kat was quick to draw several pink x-shaped blades and toss them. Two grazed his shoulder but he didn't flinch as blood surfaced from the cuts.

"I'm Phobia."

"I know who you are." Renegade brought a hard uppercut into her stomach, literally knocking the wind out of her. "You're notorious."

"I'm flattered, really." Wheezing, Kat stumbled and pressed her hand to her abdomen. "But autographs are five bucks a pop."

It took way too long for her to catch her breath again – damn terminal illness. Gritting her teeth, she tried not to make it obvious that she could barely breathe, but he still noticed and seemed almost concerned.

While he was distracted, she drove a palm strike directly into his face, causing his nose to gush fluids. Crying out, he stumbled back a few feet, but instead of instinctively applying pressure to his injury, his hand wrapped around the black and pink fabric of her mask, yanking it off.

Now Kat cried out as a sharp pull went through her skull; he'd grabbed a handful of her hair along with the mask. Panic jolted through her body – her face was exposed. She prepared for an inevitable strike, but it never came.

Renegade was staring down at her in awe, his green eyes wide behind his mask. She took this opportunity to sweep his legs out from beneath him, dropping him on his rear, and snatched her mask back before running past him and exiting the building.

/ / /

"You're late." Li Dao Cho, or better known to the Chinese mafia and the rest of the world as the super villain Scath, scolded in a mild tone, regarding his daughter through the mesh of his kelvar mask. He stood calmly, his hands clasped behind his back, in the midst of a ruined, half torn down house on the west side of the city in a poor neighborhood. This had always been their meeting place.

Kat – still in her Phobia guise – approached anxiously, detaching the satchel from around her thigh and presenting it to him. "I ran into some trouble. But it was nothing I couldn't handle."

Scath took the bag and opened it, his mask momentarily illuminated by the otherworldly glow of the gem before he closed it again. "Did you dispose of the hero who interfered?"

"The coward ran off before I could." Kat lied smoothly. She had learned long ago that she could not hesitate with her father. She could not falter or be uncertain.

"If you happen to run into them again, finish the job." He said measuredly. "Loose ends, and all that."

"Yes, Ba Ba." Kat nodded.

"Regardless, you performed your job well. You'll receive your cut of the reward." He tucked the satchel under his arm. "It will be deposited into your account tomorrow morning. I'll be in touch."

With this, he threw down a pellet and vanished in a cloud of smoke. He'd taught her this trick, so she knew he was still nearby, but she still sighed heavily. A hero knew her face now. If, God forbid, he attended the circus and saw her there, he would know her right away.

What was she going to do?

Miserably, she began making her way back to the circus grounds.