Chapter 2

The Fool

Kat had a half eaten donut shoved into her mouth as she pulled on her white buckle shoes, and checked her reflection in her mirror. She was wearing Crossfire Academy's girls' uniform – a burgundy blazer with the school's crest on the breast pocket, a light-pink sweater underneath, a thigh-length gray skirt, and white knee-high stockings. It was early Monday morning – about seven fifteen – and she was on her way out, grabbing her pink messenger bag as she exited her tent, the dark-pink one in a lineup of multicolored tents all around the grounds.

She finished off the donut and used some hand sanitizer from her bag to get the stickiness off of her slender fingers as she made her way towards the large, colorful welcome sign that was lit up every night of the weekend. No one else was out and about – Ikuto and Jesse usually left a little later for school, and everyone else wouldn't stir until the afternoon. Mondays were usually the worst for Kat, as she'd been up the late into the previous night, performing, and after the show was when her real work began. How she wished that she, too, could sleep in.

Just then, a hand clamped down on her shoulder, causing her to jump. She had to resist the urge to grab the hand and flip whoever had touched her over her head and slam them into the ground. She'd been mercilessly trained by an elite assassin's guild that called themselves the Court of Clow, and every fiber of her being was in defense mode. But she sensed no danger, and stiffly looked over at Jason – or, who she believed to be Jason, going by his inky black hair and emerald-green eyes, with silver hoops in his ears. She'd yet to see him out of costume. This morning he was garbed in…the Crossfire Academy's boys' uniform? It was the same burgundy blazer, with a white button-up under shirt and a pair of gray pants.

"You're going to school with us?" Kat inquired, just as Ikuto and Jesse emerged from their blue and green tents respectively.

"Oh, hey, man!" Ikuto clapped Jason on his shoulder, wrapping his arm around it in a brotherly hug. "Looks like Jack decided to send one more of us to "the most prestigious private high school in Rhode Island"." He imitated our headmistress, Madame Beatrice Lefaunt, even gave that tittering little laugh she often did after saying something she found amusing.

Kat and Ikuto laughed. "I think you'll like it here." He said sincerely to Jason.

"I wish we'd get just one more girl acrobat. It's starting to feel like a real sausage fest up in the trapeze."

"You're pretty face brings enough girliness to even it out." Jesse teased, ruffling her wavy blue hair.

"Whatever." Kat laughed, batting his hand away. "I'm going to school." With that, she was walking away.

"Crossfire has some of the best education in fine arts on the east coast." Ikuto explained to Jason.

Jesse nodded. "And the babes at this school – you wouldn't believe how gorgeous some of them are. I can introduce to a few if you'd like."

"Actually," Jason cast glance at Kat's back as she walked to the gate, "I already have someone in mind."

/ / /

"So why were you sneaking around last night?" Jason asked, following Kat to her first period class – a class they now shared, according to the schedule they'd given him in the front office.

"I don't have to "sneak"," she replied, indignant, "I live there."

"Which, again, begs the question of why you were." Jason pressed, falling into step with her.

"Better question: Why were you spying on me?" she demanded, whirling around on him.

"I was just out taking my nightly walk and saw you. I didn't know if you'd gotten yourself into some kind of trouble." He seemed to be telling the truth.

"What I do on my own time is none of your business." Kat said, turning on her heel and marching into the classroom. She slid into her seat, placing her bag on her desk so she could dig out the books and notebooks she'd need for this morning's lesson.

In the desk in front of her sat Rose Martin, Kat's best friend since grade school. She was slim and pretty, with a doll-like face and big hazel eyes. Her bright-red hair had been pulled up and she was wearing a jack o' lantern headband.

"It's officially spooky season." She declared, setting down what could only be a pumpkin spiced latte from a downtown coffee shop she and Kat frequented on Kat's desk. She was nursing her own cup as well. "Have you thought about what you're going to be for Halloween?"

"I haven't really." Kat admitted. Fall through winter was her favorite time of year, but things had been so crazy lately – her father had been giving her jobs nearly every night, some of which took her out of the city – she hadn't even noticed that it was October first. In a month, the circus would close down for the season and reconvene in the spring for their yearly foreign tour. Their main home was in Bullet City, where they spent the last half of the year, but they were a traveling circus for the first half.

That meant Kat would need to return to her step mother, Trish's, home for the winter months.

Trish and Li Dao were separated; she couldn't stand how cruel he was. But she'd always been there for Kat. She'd been a healer for the Court of Clow for many years before retiring to take a job at the local hospital.

"Thanks," Kat said, lifting the cup towards Rose before taking a sip and savoring the flavor.

"Who is the hottie who followed you in?" Rose inquired in a hushed but conspiratorial tone, nodding towards where Jason was standing by the white board at the front of the classroom. He didn't yet have a desk, so he was waiting for the professor to arrive and introduce him. He was scrolling through a red iPhone, leaning against the board as he waited.

"Hottie?" Kat repeated incredulously, making a face. "Hardly. That's our new jester at Starlight. And so far, all I've gathered is that he's a smart ass and nosy. I haven't even seen him perform yet so I don't know if he's worth all the trouble."

"Does this nosy, smart ass jester have a name?" Rose asked, taking a sip of her coffee.

"Jason." Kat replied, rolling her eyes as Rose returned to staring at the jester. Kat herself pulled out a notebook and a Kiki's Delivery Service pencil case, preparing for class to begin. She was already halfway through her coffee and it didn't feel like nearly enough caffeine to make up for the lack of sleep.

It was going to be a long day.

/ / /

During the evening, after training and rehearsing for that weekend's show, the carnies would gather around the ring and sit on the wooden benches that lined it to talk and chill out. For the older members of the circus, that meant drinking a few beers or a glass or two of wine. For the younger ones, it was more just a social interaction.

Jason sat in a chair that was flipped around, his arms crossed over the back of it, watching Kat, who was sitting, leaned up against one of the wooden beams that held up the structure of the big top, cradling a dark-blue mug covered in holographic stars in her hands. She was dressed in her training fatigues; a loose cream-colored crop top with a red stripe across it and matching red short-shorts, as well as red hand wraps to for better grip on the trapeze. Her mug was full of hot chocolate, piled high with rainbow, star-shaped marshmallows.

Her hair was pulled up into a messy pile atop her head, several strands having come loose around her heart-shaped face during her practice.

She was radiant.

And Jason wasn't the only one who'd noticed – Seojun, the sword eater, was staring at her as well.

"How about a little music?" Lewis, the strong man, asked, pulling out an acoustic guitar from behind one of the boxes of miscellaneous supplies backstage. A round of approving affirmations sounded.

He took a seat around the edge of the ring, right beside Kat. "I bet if we all ask nicely, Kathryn will even sing for us." He winked at her. She looked so tiny compared to his hulking mass.

Kat shook her head, opening her mouth to protest, but several voices spoke up to cut her off.

"Oh, please, Kat? It's been so long." Poppy, the lion tamer and clown pleaded.

"Your voice is so pretty, I love hearing it." Said Sid, the second clown.

"Come on, Kath, just one song won't hurt." Jesse insisted.

Clearly defeated and outnumbered, Kat set aside her mug and scooted closer to Lewis. "Alright, alright," she conceded with a smile, which made Jason's heart jump a little. What was wrong with him tonight?

"The usual?" she asked, looking up at the strong man.

Lewis nodded. "You can never go wrong with the King." He began to strum a familiar melody.

Kat cleared her throat and took a few deep breaths, then she began to sing.

"Wise men say, "only fools rush in",

But I can't help,

Falling in love, with you…"

Her voice was enchanting, and beautiful. It filled the tent, serene and sweet.

"So take my hand,

Take my whole life, too.

For I can't help,

Falling in love, with you."

As the song drew to a close, the carnies broke out in applause. There were unshed tears in Lewis's eyes as he set aside the guitar. "You sound just like your mother." He blubbered quietly. Kat gently patted his arm, which was massive compared to her hand.

"If you keep going on like this, I'll just have to stop singing." She said simply, to which many protests rose. Sniffling and drawing a handkerchief out of his shirt pocket, Lewis cleaned up his face and pulled himself together quickly. "I'm fine, I'm fine." He assured.

Laughing, Kat stood up and squeezed what little bit of his shoulder she could grab onto a picked up her hot chocolate, moving to her seat once again to start her homework.

The other acrobats and Jason took a seat at a picnic table nearby to do the same, but ended up talking more than working. Jason found out Ikuto had joined the circus when he was thirteen years old, and Jesse when he was nine. They were both his age now, sixteen going on seventeen.

"And what age did she run away to the circus?" Jason asked, jerking his head to where Kat was sitting, pouring over Pride and Prejudice.

"Oh, Kat's like Starlight royalty," Jesse said. "She was born into all of this. And we know she's by far the best trapeze artist here; you won't hurt our feelings."

"Back when Starlight was still in China, Kat's mom was the star acrobat. Risa Cho was a legend. People came from everywhere to see her perform." Ikuto interjected. "I saw her once, when I was five. I signed up for gymnastics the next day."

"What happened to her?" Jason asked, completely enthralled.

"When Kat wass six years old, she did her first show." Jesse explained. "It was Risa's last."

"Something was wrong with the equipment, and there was an accident." Ikuto frowned. "Risa fell to her death. Kat won't talk about the details."

How awful it must have been to have the memory of your first show tainted with the death of your mother. Jason frowned over at Kathryn, trying not to feel sympathy, because he knew she would loathe him for it, but he could better understand her now at least. She had many walls up around her, but as evidenced by her relationships with the other circus folk, it was possible to get close to her, and he was determined to do so.

"Someone should tell him that Kat doesn't date within the circus," Ikuto said, and for a second Jason was afraid he'd said something out loud, but then he noticed Ikuto nodding towards Seojun, who'd approached Kat and struck up a conversation in what sounded like Korean. "We picked him up earlier this year when we were on tour through South Korea. He's had it bad for her ever since he got here."

"Join the club." Jesse said begrudgingly. Was that a jealous bite in his tone? Apparently Kat had captured the attention of many different suitors. Jason had to swallow down his own jealousy at seeing Kat so at ease with the sword eater.

Turning his attention back to his own homework, he struggled through a few algebra equations, but found his mind wandering back to Kathryn again. Did she get good grades? She seemed to be extremely organized – she used a planner covered in Lisa Frank aliens, llama sticky tabs to mark her textbooks and books she was reading, and took meticulous notes in a Miraculous Ladybug notebook. Every class its own individual folder in a colorful Ed Hardy binder. She was as diligent as she was adorable. Surely she was on the honor roll with as hard as she worked.

Dammit, why was it so hard to focus? She was just so close – the scent of strawberries and apple blossoms that seemed to follow her everywhere was almost intoxicating. Her very presence was a distraction. If he didn't get away, his grades would suffer. Closing his text- and notebooks, he stood up and exited the big top. It'd be much easier to concentrate alone in his own tent.

He'd need to finish his school work soon. It was nearing time for his after hours activities.

/ / /

Phobia lined up the scope of her metallic-pink sniper rifle that had been decorated with stickers and rhinestones, a bunch of small plushie keychains hanging off of the end, lying flat on her belly on the rooftop across from the Towers, a high-end apartment complex on the nice side of Bullet City. 5th Avenue.

Once her target was in her sight, she carefully wrapped her black-gloved hand around the pink trigger, waiting for just the right shot to fire.

Suddenly, the gun was kicking out from in front of her, and it nearly caught her in the face, had her lightning reflexes not been on high alert – she jumped back as soon as she felt movement to her side and sat up. Renegade was smirking down at her, his arms crossed over his bo staff. She couldn't see his eyes behind his mask, but she could feel that he was taunting her.

Clenching her jaw, she gave a sour smile. "Stalking me now?" She got to her feet and drew her katanas. "You're making it very difficult to do my job."

"I can't let you kill Congressman Killgore." He said matter-of-factly with a shrug. "He may be corrupt, but every life has worth."

"Ugh, I just threw up a little bit in my mouth," Kat rolled her eyes and made a face. "Keep all of that Council of Justice "life is precious" bull shit to yourself."

"Sorry. It's how I was raised." He lifted his bo staff and fired off a shot of electricity.

Kat side-stepped it, charging him head-on. She crossed her swords to block his staff as it came down on her, so that their faces were mere inches apart. "Isn't Manhattan your usual stomping ground? What are you doing in Rhode Island? This isn't your terf." Kat spun, ducking out of the way of his staff and coming up behind him.

He quickly whirled around to face her. "A guy can't take a vacation?" he asked innocently, flipping the staff from one hand to the other. "I thought I'd check out more of the east coast, see what Bullet City had to offer in the crime department."

Smirking at her once again, he brought the staff around and up into her abdomen. "So far, it hasn't disappointed. Pretty thieves and assassins that I just can't get enough of."

Wheezing from the hit, Kat regained herself much quicker than the last time he'd landed a blow on her – thankfully – and elbowed him in the jaw, hearing his teeth clack together hard. He spit out blood. She allowed herself a smirk of satisfaction.

This whole back and forth, tit for tat between them was amusing but also infuriating – she had work to do. And if she failed a mission, the Court of Clow – her father especially – was not known for their mercy.

A thought occurred to her just then – she should just kill him. He'd be of no hindrance to her dead. Why hadn't she decided this sooner? She needed to start thinking like an assassin or her father would surely beat the ideology into her.

But something deep down inside of her didn't want to kill him. She'd never particularly liked killing. Those were her least favorite assignments, and she avoided doing it whenever she could. However, Renegade was making it a habit of getting in the way of her work.

"I saw your act at the circus."

Kat froze, squeezing the hilts of her swords so tight her knuckles must have been white under her gloves. He not only knew her face, but her identity. Now he had to die.

"Did you enjoy the show?" Kat inquired, racking her brain for the best strategy. From where she was standing, she could back flip over him, grab him from behind and draw her blade across his throat. Quick, clean and simple. It would be over in a matter of seconds.

"You're the best acrobat I've ever seen. It was like you were flying." He sounded transfixed. He rounded to be in front of her, and reached under her chin, making her go rigid, but all he did was pull off her mask, allowing her abundance of blue hair to fall free around her face. "I can't help but wonder why someone with so much talent is doing all of this."

"You could say it's the family business." Kat replied. It was the truth. Even her elder half-sister Lilith was a member of the Court of Clow, and acted as their father's right hand. There were many differences between Kathryn and Lilith, but the main one was that Lilith desperately craved her father's approval, and Kat knew that such a thing did not exist. They'd never shared any kind of familial bond, like Kat imagined normal sisters should.

"Imagine what you could do if you used your skills for good." Renegade said.

"Why haven't you turned me in?" Kat demanded. "You know who I am. Why haven't you arrested me yet?"

"Because I believe in you."

That bewildered her. Had anyone ever said those words to her before? Yes, many years ago, before her first show. They had been the last words her mother had said to her. Snatching her mask from Renegade's hand, she shoved her hair up into it and pulled it back down over her face.

"Then you're even stupider than you look."

Just then, another person joined them on the rooftop, wearing all black, including a domino mask over his eyes. His shoulder length black hair was pulled back at the base of his neck, and the top of an intricate, colorful tattoo could be seen peeking out of the collar of his shirt, which was outfitted with a bullet proof vest and utility belt, as well as holsters with guns and a belt of grenades. His rippling muscles were still very prominent beneath all of his equipment.

"You were taking too long, dollface. Who's your friend?" he said in a husky, raspy voice.

"This is the infamous Renegade. He's taking a crack at our side of the tracks for a while, and I'll admit I was a little distracted." Kat smirked as her partner approached.

"I hope you told him you were already spoken for. But I'm in a bone-breaking mood, so if you didn't, no big deal." Dylan said, cracking his knuckles through his black fingerless gloves.

"Renegade, this is my partner, Nightmare. He's a bit possessive." Kat stood aside, happy to let Dylan deal with this problem. As much as he might wish it so, they weren't actually together as a couple, but there was no one else she'd trust more to guard her back than Dylan.

She retrieved her fallen sniper rifle and prepared to finally finish what she came here to do.

She could hear Nightmare and Renegade start to struggle against one another, and a shot fired off. Wincing, she took aim. It wouldn't be long before the police were called now – this neighborhood was too nice to ignore gunfire. Luckily, the shot was perfectly lined up – the congressman had stupidly come to the window to see what the noise was about, moving the curtain aside. No hesitation, Kat fired. Killgore dropped like a brick, the bullet entering his skull directly between his eyes.

"No!" Renegade shouted in distress.

"I'll leave him to you." Kat said, slinging the strap of her rifle over her shoulder. "Make it quick. It'll be crawling with cops soon."

With this, she left the rooftop via a fire escape, stealthily making her way through several alleyways, the sound of sirens getting farther away with every step she put between her and the two young men locked in battle. Nightmare would be able to do what she couldn't; it would be on the news in the morning that Renegade had been killed in the line of duty, his secret identity would be revealed, and the city would mourn the fallen hero.

Swallowing hard against the dryness in her throat, Kat hurried to the rendezvous point to meet her father. Li Dao was out of his mask and uniform, simply wearing a black tailored suit, his dark hair slicked back. A jagged scar ran across his left eye brow.

"Nightmare said you ran into some more trouble. I'm assuming you left the nuisance in a pool of his own blood." He said in that same cold, measured tone he always had. Kat had only seen him lose his temper once on someone, and that person had been killed slowly and horribly. She still had bad dreams about the whole incident. Traumatized, a therapist would say she was.

"Nightmare is actually taking care of him right now." Kat replied nonchalantly. "I wanted to report in as soon as the hit was carried out. So the client knows that we do succinct, quick work. Better than anyone else in the business."

That would sate him – one thing her father valued above all else was good business.

The corners of his mouth twitched, as if he were going to smile. He didn't. "Very smart thinking, indeed, Kathryn. As usual, you'll receive your cut in the morning. You're free to return to your frivolous pastimes until I have use of you again." He said, examining his nails. "But do not think I'm displeased. You've been doing good work lately. And you shall be rewarded very soon."

As Kat walked away, dread dropped in her stomach. She'd never much liked the Court of Clow's idea of "rewards".

/ / /

"What do you mean 'he got away'?!" Kat demanded in a hushed yell, pacing around her tent, squeezing her metallic pink cell phone tightly. "I thought you had it handled!"

"He was quick. After you left he dove off of the roof and I lost him. I'm sorry, dollface." Dylan replied. "We'll get him next time. Don't worry."

"You don't understand!" Kat snapped. "My father knows I've now failed to kill Renegade twice. Do you really think he'll accept any excuses?"

"I'll take full blame for the failure," Dylan said in a calming tone. "It was my fault, anyway. I'm the one he got away from. Just try to breathe, Kitty."

Kat did take a deep, steadying breath. Her head stopped spinning and she tried to focus on the things in her tent. Her safe place. A double bed draped in a pink and black comforter was unmade in the center, over which hung a small rainbow-beaded chandelier lamp, and all over the ground were colorful, beaded silk throw pillows. A dresser that had been painted dark-pink was in one corner, a matching vanity in another, covered in makeup and brushes. As she grounded herself, she felt better.

Sitting down on the bed, she sighed. "This guy just won't quit." She muttered, pressing a hand to her forehead, which was beginning to ache. "I just hope he doesn't show up on my next job."

"Well, if he does, you know all you need to do is call me and I'll back you up." Dylan assured.

"I know. Thank you. I'm going to try to get some sleep. I have a long day of rehearsals tomorrow. Are you coming to the show?" she inquired.

"Always, dollface." He answered. "Goodnight."

Hanging up, Kat tossed her phone aside and rubbed her eyes. What did Renegade want with her? Was he truly trying to turn her over to his side? Of all the "villains" in all the cities in all the country, it had to be her, here in Bullet City.

Crawling up under her blanket, she plugged her phone up to an extension cord that was connected to one of the many generators that kept the circus electricity up and running, and fell into a troubled, exhausted sleep.

/ / /

Where was he?

Jason had missed his cue, and almost everyone backstage was starting to panic. Nothing was happening out in the ring, which was against every circus rule in the book. Kat bit her bottom lip and watched from behind the curtain, rubbing the sheer sleeves of her costume. His first performance, and he couldn't even make his cue.

Just as confused chatter had broken out among the audience, it quieted to surprised gasps. Kat's aerial hoop was being lowered from the center of the ceiling, and lounging in it, as if he was the one who was to be entertained, was Jason, in full motley, the black kohl mask painted around his eyes. When the hoop reached the ground, Jason hopped down and took off his four-pointed hat, causing the bells to jingle softly. It was so quiet out there, Kat could hear them clearly.

From within his hat, he produced a pure, white feather. He presented it to the crowd as if it were a commodity, waving it slowly back and forth. And then he brought it to his lips and blew on it.

An explosion of white feathers flashed, and suddenly there was a flock of doves flying in a perfect formation around the big top. Delighted gasps and cheers erupted from the crowd. Kat was in awe as well, unsure of how he'd managed such a trick. At least now she knew what the large bird cage that had recently been moved back stage was for.

With one wave of the feather, the birds were gone, earning shocked intakes of breath from the onlookers, including Kat. She turned behind her to find the cage full of doves, perched on the fake tree inside it. Amazing.

Turning back to the show, she watched as Jason pulled what appeared to be a playing card from his hat next. Flicking the corner of it, he tossed it up into the air, and suddenly, playing cards were raining from the ceiling, fluttering down like snow into the bleachers and the ring. One landed by Kat's foot, which was wrapped in her usual pink ribbon. She leaned down to pick it up. The Joker.

"Will the lovely Kathryn Cho please come out to assist me with this next trick?" Jason was addressing the audience, but Kat jumped as he said her name. "Bring the card you found with you, please."

She found herself walking out into the ring, unused to being so low to the ground, and it felt strange. She was about to hand the card over to him but he held up his black-gloved hand.

"Don't show me." He instructed, reaching into his hat once again. He pulled out another card, then turned it over to show Kat. It was the very same Joker she had in her hand. "Is this your card?"

"How did – " Kat's wonder was cut off by a man in the audience.

"That's clearly staged! She's part of the show!" he yelled incredulously.

Jason feigned looking injured. "My good sir, I assure you I deal in only real magic. Don't believe me? Pick up a card, any card, and come join us in the ring."

The man did as Jason said, and when he approached he kept the card turned face down against his shirt. He was a middle-aged man who was squat and balding, with clearly no childlike wonder left in him. He must have brought his kids to enjoy the circus, because he certainly didn't look the type to do so himself.

"Now," Jason reached into his hat once more, pulling out a card that was the Eight of Clubs, frowned, shook the card, and it changed to the Ace of Spades. "That's better. Was this your card?" He held it up to the man, who gaped at him, staring from the card in his hand to the one in Jason's.

"That's – that's incredible!" the man said, astonished. The crowd erupted into cheers.

Jason took Kat's hand, and though she'd hardly been part of the act, had her bow with him into the praise. She'd seen him light wonder back into a man who'd all but erased it from his life tonight, and she was sure that out of everyone in that tent, she was the most amazed of all.