Chapter 6 - Who is the Prince? Theories point the way!
"I think he's coming to," a voice said as fingers snapped over his head. "Hey! Chiba!" the voice repeated loudly, "Hey! You awake?" His mind cleared groggily, but he could make out Hanada's uncovered face, both North King mask and masquerade mask gone. His eyebrows were raised in concern as he repeated, "Chiba Mamoru, are you awake?" Mamoru nodded and Moegi yelled over his shoulder, "He's fine!"
"What's going on?" Mamoru asked, pulling himself up onto his elbow. His Cardinal King attire was gone, replaced by the tuxedo of the evening, the white shirt and black suit smudged with dirt and grime. Hanada and Moegi were dressed similarly; apparently the crisis was over.
"Paramedics have arrived. Everyone's waking up – so far no major injuries, but they're still checking everyone against the guest list to make sure no one is missing." Hanada explained, rocking back on his heels. A faint smile played at his lips as he eyed the crowd, a story already writing itself. Mamoru shook his head, his hand reaching for his temple as the world swam a bit.
"The attack?" he inquired, looking around the garden to see broken benches and tables, tree trunks singed but otherwise okay. Workers were already sweeping the glass away from the broken doors and inside the ballroom a mess of activity found guests with blankets over their shoulders being checked over by paramedics as party officials buzzed around with warm drinks. Looking around, he didn't see her, but she was sure to be okay; she hadn't even been near the ballroom. Tsukino was fine, probably with her father.
"Jewel Tiara appeared and used an ability that dissipated the cloud," Hanada said. Mamoru was instantly back in the conversation, watching Hanada almost as closely as Hanada was watching him. There was something curious in his eyes, almost as if the blond wanted answers but wondered if Mamoru would actually give them. Confused, Mamoru waited for the question, but Moegi spoke first.
"Just in time, too," he commented, breaking their stare, "Your dumb-ass was done-for. Great job on communicating with your teammates, Chiba, so glad there was a collaborative effort." His blue eyes were in a solid glare, irritation radiating off of him in waves. At first Mamoru's pride riled against the accusation, gearing up with anger and a quick comment, but Hanada interrupted before he could express his distaste with the latest addition to their little group.
"Ha! He was worried about you," Hanada snorted with a smirk.
The anger died down immediately, turning into mild annoyance in the pit of his stomach as his rational side won. Moegi's irritation didn't stem from being ignored, but from being afraid. It seemed Moegi, despite his outer appearance of disdain and annoyance at everything, was perhaps the most affected by the battles and their role as warrior-protectors; he had called out to stop the fire that consumed their enemy, Sailor Mars, and all the earlier outbursts were probably just nerves. Mamoru made a mental note to check the possibilities before biting off Moegi's head. At least until there were a few more battles under South King's belt. Instead he smiled teasingly, "Aww, Moegi, I didn't know you cared!"
"Shut up," Moegi growled halfheartedly, his eyes sliding back to the ballroom entrance for a moment before rounding on Mamoru again, "What would have happened, anyway?"
"What do you mean?" Mamoru asked, sitting up slowly, his head spinning only marginally now.
"He would've died," Hanada answered, guessing Moegi's meaning effortlessly. "If that being had disappeared and taken the energy back to the Dark Kingdom – "
"The Moon Kingdom," Mamoru interjected. It was important that they know their enemy and not give them the luxury of hiding behind ominous monikers.
Hanada nodded to accept the correction and continued, "- it would have been beyond us to recover. These people, Chiba included, would have died by morning." Hanada's statement, fierce yet matter-of-fact, was one that Mamoru tried to let slip past him without a second thought, but the words hung on stubbornly, fighting to get to him.
"Or ended up in critical condition with just the slightest of chances of survival," Helios offered telepathically, his voice fading in as though joining them from a distance, "depending on how much energy was pulled."
A feeling of general unease took hold of him and pulled, but before the conscious thought of his death could surface, as his mind tried to grab hold of anything to distract him, he felt the sudden urge to find her – Usagi Tsukino. Things would be okay, somehow, as long as he found her. Inexplicably yet assuredly okay. "Well, on that cheerful note," he commented sarcastically as he pulled himself carefully to his feet, "I'm going to go check on something. I'll see you guys later." He left, walking towards the broken glass of the ballroom without looking back.
"Check on what?" Moegi scoffed as he stood and started to follow.
"He's right! The prince – the family hadn't presented their golden crystal yet."
Mamoru was outdistancing them but he could still hear Hanada's reply and he felt marginally guilty for not correcting them, and guilty again for not joining them. The mission had to come first – everything hinged upon this secret war, everything, and he should be working nonstop to perform at his best. He paused just inside the doorway, his shoes crunching on the glass, and hesitated. But as his eyes slid over the crowd, the orchestra, the media, that uneasy feeling from before returned, his nerves catching fire uncomfortably, urging him to run or fight. He had to keep moving, no matter what option he chose – those thoughts were not pleasant company. Thoughts of darkness, of nonexistence –
Before he knew it he was halfway up the stairs, heart beating furiously in his chest as unsteady party-goers moved aside to let him through. This wasn't a game. He reached the landing and turned, going through the doors as they opened to emit a caterer, the same from before. The blond man stepped aside, holding the door for Mamoru to go through. He nodded automatically in thanks, his mind remembering the draining sensation and heaviness from before as it threatened again with the idea of what could have happened, what had almost happened, and –
"Mamo-chan!" Her voice. His mind stopped, back-wheeling to return to the real world as Usagi Tsukino rushed towards him, the warmth about her somehow absolving him of his apprehensions. He drank in the sight of her as a castaway would solid land, feeling centered and strong again as the tiaraed girl, so vibrant and filled with life, reaffirmed that he was alive. Holding the long skirts of her dress as she rushed forward, her long hair bouncing behind her, she skidded to a stop just in front of him and paused to catch her breath. Her hands rose to her chest as she breathed, a guilty smile on her lips. "Hey," she managed after a moment, straightening and wringing her hands together nervously. "I'm really sorry, but I just can't find Luna anywhere. I went back through the rooms we went in and she's just not anywhere – "
Mamoru interrupted her with the most forward thing he had ever done. In one step he closed the distance between them and pulled her close, at that moment needing to feel her, to know beyond a doubt she was here and real, and that he was, too. "I hoped I would run into you again," he admitted softly. Why her? What was it about her that made him feel stronger all of the sudden? He felt now like he could turn around and fight again, as though his brush with death had been nothing, so long as she was safe. She knew nothing about his other life; she couldn't relate to it in the slightest, so why and how could just being with her comfort him so much? What was it about her that made him need to reach for her?
"The same for me," she replied quietly, a smile in her tone. He pulled back slowly, his mind racing with what their dialog implied and yet moved sluggishly as time seemed to stop. She tilted her face towards his and as her eyes found his he realized his answer. … it was just her. Everything about her, from her forward gestures and over-the-top reactions and their silly arguments to how well she seemed to click with him; whenever she was around he felt better – more complete – and while she threw him off guard he always went away feeling as though he knew himself better. She represented everything normal and good in his life, and everything they were fighting to save. And there was still so much about her he didn't know or understand… His lips were inches from hers, her eyes closed softly…
"Usagi-chan!" the warning came seconds before the door behind them flew open. His eyes shot open, as did hers, but as the sound of the ballroom invaded their space, Usagi, on tiptoe, kissed him lightly before backing away. His heart thundered in his chest and his cheeks burned red as his hands instinctively reached out for her, wanting more; her touch had been like a tease and his mind spun as a feeling, warm and familiar and almost nostalgic, crept forward and instantly retreated again. But as her name was repeated, relief in the tone, he pulled himself back. "Usagi-chan! There you are!" She broke eye contact first as a tuxedoed man came forward to hug her firmly then push her backwards to look at her appraisingly, "Are you alright?" It must have been her father.
Usagi looked confused as she answered, "Yes… why?"
"Where have you been?!" the man, ignoring her question, asked, then turned suddenly on Mamoru, "And who is this young person?" he added, his tone distinctly suspicious and negative, as only a father's could be.
"Kenji-papa, this is Chiba Mamoru, a friend of mine," Usagi introduced, her body language hinting to him that he might want to go.
Not wanting to disappoint her, he nodded his head in greeting and in farewell, "It's nice to meet you, Tsukino-san. I must be going now. Good night," he smiled and was pleased to see Usagi blushing before he turned back towards the ballroom door, pretending he didn't hear Kenji's outburst of "A friend of yours?! Just how did you meet this 'friend'?" As the door to the room closed behind him, Mamoru found himself nearly alone at the top of the stairs. Most of the party-goers had gone or were leaving, coats being claimed as workers strove to clean up the mess. The orchestra was packing their instruments, caterers putting away their wares; in the midst of it all stood Hanada and Moegi, looking around discontentedly. He descended the stairs and joined them.
"Anything?" Hanada asked him with interest, though Moegi looked defeated.
He shook his head, "No, nothing." … if the Golden Crystal were here, surely Helios would have sensed it during his search earlier? And if not, the shadow creature hadn't found it, either. The night was a partial success in that regard, though they were no closer to discovering their missing Prince.
"Same here," Hanada sighed. "They called off the showing due to the attack, so no luck at all."
"If it hadn't been for that creature, this would've been a waste of a good night," Moegi complained as they walked towards the exit, the limousine incoming.
"Oh, lighten up, Moegi," Mamoru commented, his opinion of the night vastly different. The limousine stopped for them and a valet rushed to open a door. Mamoru thanked him and slid in, making way to let the others though. "This was much more exciting than your original plans, admit it."
"Hardly," the blond replied as he took a side-facing seat in the middle.
"Well you could take a cab home if you find this unsatisfactory," Hanada commented nonchalantly as the door closed. Hanada raised his hand and the limo paused, awaiting instruction.
At first Moegi did nothing but look back at them, distinctly not amused, but Hanada held his ground. After a moment the door was reopened by the valet, who asked, "Is anything wrong?" Mamoru chuckled quietly at Moegi's disbelieving face as Hanada waited, ignoring the man. Finally Moegi growled and answered, "No. Fine, this was better than my original plans. Can we go now?"
Hanada nodded, put his hand down, and turned to the valet, "Thank you anyway, but we're fine." The man nodded in return, closed the door, and the limousine pulled away, back towards Tokyo.
The late night on Thursday, combined with the events therein, made Friday's soccer practice a little more difficult than usual. Mamoru's attention was constantly fading in and out, switching from watching the ball and reacting to the game to thoughts of the close call last night and whether what had happened between Usagi and him had meant anything to her, and finally to general sleep-deprived disorientation and back again in random order. He was missing passes, shooting awkwardly, and nearly tripped over his own two feet once or twice before he took himself out of the scrimmage, apologizing to the team before sitting on the bench.
"Guys, I'm out, too," Midori added, walking away from the net and shaking his head disappointedly. He joined Mamoru on the bench, yawning as he brought out his water bottle and took a swig. Mamoru paid him little attention, content on watching practice with a hazy mind until the coach dismissed them and he could go home, but Midori struck up a conversation. "Man, I'm just really out of it today. Had a late night last night; I thought I could handle it but I guess not." Mamoru hummed a reply, not entirely interested in Midori's conversation but offering some kind of reply nonetheless; their goalie's new dedication to the team was important to their league ranking and he didn't want to seem standoffish and risk making Midori feel alienated. Midori didn't seem to mind a nonsyllabic answer, "Yeah, should'a gone to bed earlier, but it couldn't be helped, you know?"
At that, Mamoru couldn't help but chuckle, "I know the feeling."
The practice ended not long after and they all parted ways. When Mamoru got back to his apartment he collapsed on his bed and slept for a few hours; when he awoke again he made himself dinner, did his homework, and fell back asleep, though something about earlier bothered him; when he awoke the next morning the realization hit him like an epiphany. He got up, dressed, and rummaged around for a copy of the school's paper from the teams' first win of the season to be sure. The black-and-white page was smudged from dried raindrops, but it was clear enough for his purpose: featured on the page was a team photo, blown up so each player was clearly recognizable. There, slightly to the right on the back row, was Midori. Mamoru studied the picture closely, then closed his eyes and brought to mind another picture, a painting found in a bedroom in the mansion they visited the other night… to him, the subjects appeared to be the same person. Midori… was it possible Midori was the child in the painting?
He turned the hands on his watch to noon and waited for Hanada to pick up – the newspaper did short biographies of transfer students, maybe there was something in there they could use to pick apart this stubborn theory… or support it. Because as of that moment, Mamoru was convinced that Midori, the overconfident goalie of the soccer team, could be their missing Prince. The connection was made and both Moegi and Hanada appeared on screen, Moegi wearing a school uniform while Hanada was dressed casually.
"What's up?" Moegi asked in a hushed whisper, "Has there been an incident?"
Mamoru thought a moment but eventually replied, "Well, no, not really."
"I'm in a debate; I'll catch up later." Moegi's image disappeared abruptly.
"Well I'm glad we didn't have to inconvenience him again," Hanada commented with good-natured sarcasm, "So, what is up?"
"Hanada, do you have access to previous newspaper articles?" Mamoru asked, getting straight to business.
"Yeah; I keep them all on a server accessible to all newspaper staff. Why?"
"Could you look up Midori? He transferred in earlier this year and I wondered about his background."
Hanada cocked a brow skeptically, but he disappeared from the holographic display. Mamoru took that time to pull out the team's contact information and find Midori's phone number; an address wasn't listed, but maybe it didn't have to be. Just as he grabbed a bowl for breakfast, Hanada's voice returned, though his picture was still missing. "Midori Nero," Hanada snickered, "transfer student from… Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada?!" Hanada read faster, mumbling some words until he got to the important parts, "soccer team… father native to Tokyo… mother - Natasha Vitka?! Wait, that name… hold on." Keys tapped as Hanada typed furiously. "No… Mamoru – you don't…" He returned on screen, his face serious and careful at the same moment. "Natasha Vitka, heiress to the Vitka diamond mines, who recently hosted a party at her Tokyo estate on Thursday night."
They stared at each other in silence, neither daring to speak first.
"So what prompted this outing?" Midori asked as he and Mamoru strode the street crowded with Saturday afternoon foot traffic.
'An overprotective unicorn,' was what Mamoru thought, but instead shrugged and replied, "Eh, I was bored and wanted to see how the other side lived." The vendors were out in droves, trying to drum up some business from the random passerby. Overall it was a nice afternoon, present situation aside. After his conversation with Hanada and their approach on Helios, Mamoru had been given the task of watching Midori. He was supposed to be feeling him out – seeing what he was really like and if he gave off any weird kind of aura, maybe see if he had any hidden latent abilities, but overall it felt like he was babysitting and it threw him off. If Midori were the Prince, Mamoru was just doing his job as Cardinal King by protecting him; but, then, the Dark Kingdom hadn't found Midori yet, so was he jinxing it by hanging out with him? The situation felt off…
Midori laughed, "You mean we-who-are-not-geniuses? I'm afraid to say the lives of the little people aren't all that entertaining, Mr. Top-Score Soccer-Star."
… but that didn't mean he didn't like the guy. Midori was a whole lot happier than either Moegi or Hanada; he had a good-natured humor and let jabs just slide off him, never taking anything too seriously. There were times that Mamoru sensed brief flashes of anger or embarrassment, but then Midori would just laugh it off and the emotions would evaporate again. He liked the contrast from the too-serious Moegi and briefly wondered how the two would get along; he supposed, if their reasoning was correct, he would find out eventually.
"You see, rather than whittle away our time with such exciting pastimes as studying and practicing, we little folk occupy ourselves with food," he held up the half-eaten vending-machine sandwich – while apparently loaded, the brunet seemed to have a thing for cheap staples - "girls," he turned and gave an over-obvious wink to a group of girls hanging around outside a little café called 'Crown Fruit Parlor'; while the gesture was over-the-top, he did catch their attention. Two laughed, one rolled her eyes, another blushed, but they all waved in some form at him. Midori waved back and turned abruptly, stopping at the entrance to a store with animated posters plastered to the windows, "and video games." Without seeing whether Mamoru wanted to play, Midori entered the "Crown Game Center", trashing his sandwich on the way in. Shrugging, Mamoru followed – there were worse ways to spend the afternoon.
When they parted ways for the evening - "You're not so bad, Chiba. We should hang out again sometime." – Mamoru went straight from the shopping district to a meeting with Helios, Hanada and Moegi to tell them about everything that happened, which was, pretty much, nothing unusual. He hadn't 'felt an aura' surrounding Midori, but then he hadn't sensed anything had been off about Hanada or Moegi, either, and unless talent with fighting games or being a good goalie was a supernatural skill, Midori didn't seem to have any extraordinary abilities, either. But then, too, it wasn't like Mamoru ran around showing random people that he could heal scrapes in seconds, he hadn't really even shown them as it hadn't been necessary yet; Midori could be hiding something spectacular and just be too humble to… well, never mind. Mamoru had the feeling that if Midori did have an extraordinary skill, he'd be showing it off left and right like he did his high score at the arcade. As Hanada mused aloud about protection possibilities, Mamoru wondered again if the "USAGI" that had the third highest score at the side-scrolling adventure game had been Tsukino Usagi, and, if it had, if she would realize the two new "CHIBA" scores below hers on that list were him.
At the end of the day, it was decided that Mamoru should keep a general eye on Midori, just in case, until Helios could study him properly and tell them for certain whether he was the Prince of Earth.
Midori apparently spent all day at home in bed on Sunday – or so the person who answered the phone told him - so Mamoru had the day free to himself; however, he didn't exactly have the greatest of excuses to hang around that arcade without one of its regulars showing him around, so he spent the day catching up on school work and preparing for the next week of lessons, losing himself in a book and a television special about the European dark ages. There wasn't much activity, Moon Kingdom-wise, that they could detect, so it was a lazy day for him, too.
On the way to Monday afternoon's soccer practice, Mamoru caught up to Midori and they walked together for most of the way, Midori making small talk about classes and teachers as Mamoru acted as his sound board, but as Mamoru turned for the locker room, Midori turned off in the other direction.
"Hey, Midori," Mamoru paused, looking back at him with an eyebrow raised, "Practice?" surely he hadn't forgotten – the schedule had been static for months.
"Yeah, sorry," Midori shrugged, "Can't today; my cousin's getting married and she's all creeped out by the bridal boutique she's buying her dress from and wants me to go with her since her mother's out of town."
"Why is she creeped out? A sales associate?" Mamoru asked, brows tightening; he had a certain kind of distaste for lechers.
"Nah," Midori negated, shrugging, "something about a ghost that steals bride's youth. It's ridiculous, but she's really superstitious and swears there's been news reports about people fainting there," he rolled his eyes. "I'm to bring prayer beads. Anyway, have a good practice, Chiba." He turned without waiting for a farewell and left the building, his bag swung over his shoulder in a familiar fashion.
"Hanada!" Mamoru hissed into the watch as soon as the blond's face appeared on screen. "Listen, could you look for any stories about haunted bridal boutiques?" he asked, trying to keep his voice down and stay unnoticed in the locker room as his teammates got ready for practice.
"Er… yeah, sure," Hanada replied, then disappeared as keystrokes echoed through the communication system.
"What kind of club are you in?" Moegi inquired skeptically.
"The "Hey, Midori's not coming to practice today because he's checking out a bridal boutique thatsteals energy from brides!" club! Now, what are you doing?"
In minutes, Hanada had a rough address and Moegi, being closest, was on his way, somehow forgetting to mutter and groan about his busy schedule being interrupted. At first, Mamoru just sat there in the locker room, looking down at his soccer cleats, trying to convince himself that it was all just some petty rumor made to either to drum up business for or steal business from that company. That the description was eerily similar to how the Moon Kingdom drained energy was simple coincidence. Or maybe even not – it could've been started by someone who had been through an attack and so was able to describe it with detail. In any case, the story was that the attacks only happened at night. And besides, Moegi was there. And, after all, they didn't even know if Midori was actually the Prince – it was all just supposition. He laced his shoe and stood; he made to take off his watch, but in the end decided to keep it on. "...as paranoid as the horse," he mumbled, pushing away from the bench and heading outside.
It was raining. Drizzling for now, but one look up hinted that the storm was just beginning. They were starting warm-ups in the field and Mamoru joined them, hoping the exercise would let him feel somewhat normal again; however, not half an hour into practice, his watch set off alarm after alarm, screaming at his wrist. Thunder rolled overhead and before Mamoru could make up an excuse to leave, the coach called practice for the storm. With barely a wave Mamoru was off the field and into their locker room, but rather than gather his things he went straight on through and out the side entrance. Once free of the building and prying ears, still walking towards the street, Mamoru dialed in the conversation.
South King appeared immediately, Hanada in a separate frame. "Attack at the bridal boutique!" South yelled before disappearing. Cutting the connection, Mamoru put on a burst of speed, his cleats drumming on the wet pavement as he reached the street, turned towards the shopping district, and kept running. When at last there was no one else around, the storm having driven everyone inside with its pouring rain and rumbling thunder, Mamoru ducked into a side alley and transformed. With the greater agility and speed of his guise as Cardinal King, Mamoru jumped from side to side up the walls of the alley and raced across rooftops the rest of the way. Streets were hard to keep up with from the different vantage point, but so much practice with it had tilted his perspective and with a few key marks, he soon found himself across from the bridal boutique in question. The building was impressively tall, accented by a life-sized mannequin of a bride seeming to leap out of the second-story windows – and just as Mamoru jumped, those windows exploded outward.
Cardinal King rolled out of the way just as a creature with the body of a silkworm and the legs of a centipede landed behind him, one of its short and stubby limbs pinning his cape to the ground as the creature hissed in challenge, spitting threads that clung to Mamoru's cape and shirt. Spinning around, he kicked at the beast just as a whip cracked against its body. Recoiling from the blow, the monster unintentionally freed Mamoru and Cardinal King moved quickly to get away as his cape disappeared, momentarily locking eyes with North King in thanks. "Where is-?"
"Inside," North replied without needing to hear the rest, "He's safe."
"It went after the girls," South added, his daggers whizzing through the air to land on the beast as he joined them, burning its flesh despite the heavy rainfall; however, the daggers held for only a second before the monster's body transformed, turning its outer skin into a carapace that South's flaming daggers deflected off of easily. South growled. It turned and spat at them; North King sprang out of the way just as the sticky mess flew past, and South grabbed the back of Mamoru's jacket to pull him out of the path. "The dresses in that rumor? Made by this thing. The fiber drains energy and sticks to your skin; Helios found the energy source, we just have to find a way to destroy it. Your sword, maybe?"
Mamoru summoned a rose and the three of them separated; as the rose transformed into a sword, Mamoru charged, wielding the blade in sweeping arcs at the beast's head. Each blow bounced off harmlessly, and as the monster turned its fangs and sticky saliva towards him he had to retreat. Bouncing back to guard the front of the store, he held his weapon defensively, watching and waiting for just the right moment to strike. North King cracked his ice-whip, stealing the monster's attention away time and time again, testing it's maneuverability as Mamoru looked for any access point large enough for him to utilize. On a random turn, South threw a dagger and it stuck between pieces of the insect armor, burning away and causing the beast to squirm, showing Mamoru other weaknesses in its outer shell. As it thrashed Cardinal King rushed forward, blade at the ready, and stabbed it between two plates, his sword sheathing in the sticky flesh of the bug beneath. It squirmed and flung itself towards him, but Mamoru stood firm despite his revulsion, slicing deeper and deeper until, at last, the bug lay still.
"The energy is - MAMORU WATCH OUT!"
While alarm fueled his actions, the rain had made his hands slick and as he turned to face whatever new threat had appeared, he did so without his sword.