"Who's your new friend?" asked Carmen, sitting down at their table.
Ami said, "This is Mercurius, otherwise known as Suuri Kurume. Or Kurume Suuri, here. Kurume-chan, this is my friend Carmen Gonsoles."
The geek replied, "I am pleased to finally meet you. Ami-chan has told me much about you."
Carmen said, "Lies. All lies. What are you doing here? I thought you lived in Japan"
Suuri said, "I have come to live here. It is the best place for my business, and I get to be near Ami-chan now. In fact--"
Ami interrupted--something that she seldom did, at least in casual situations. "Carmen, are you free for the weekend?"
Carmen said, "Yes, for once. 72 glorious hours. I plan on sleeping for 71 of them."
"Want to sleep with me?" asked Ami.
"What?" Carmen did not expect to hear that phrase from Ami.
Ami sneezed, which Carmen knew now was a sign she was embarassed. "What I mean is . . . how about coming with me for the weekend? I will staying in Kensington with my friends. You have never been there."
"Well . . ." She felt Ami's shoe digging into her shin. "Yeah, why not?"
Carmen had been hearing about "the place in Kensington" from Ami or even occasionally from Mamoru for two years by then, but actually going there was an overwhelming experience. It was not that it was a mansion--Carmen had never lived in one, but she had been in plenty of mansions in Grosse Pointe and elsewhere. It was all the life going on.
First, there was Umino and his family. Carmen had known him for awhile through Ami, before he had dropped out of Stanford, and she had known he was married and had a child. The first person she met at the mansion was his wife, who introduced herself as Naru. She had a baby on her hip, and obviously was going to have another one in a few more months. Two more children came up to her while Naru was introducing herself: two little girls, one of them obviously Umino's, the other--
The other was familiar. She was the child who had so unsettled Carmen when she had made her first disastrous run at Mamoru. And she still seemed to look through Carmen, although, mercifully, she ran off to play with Naru's girl after another moment.
Before Carmen had long to think about that, Rei Hino came up to her, carrying yet another child. Carmen hadn't seen Mamoru's post-Ami flame in a long time. Still, she was warm enough. She pointed out her husband. "That is my Yuuichirou there, with his mother. She has been staying with us for a long while."
"Who's the old man with her?" Carmen asked.
"Oh, that is my grandfather." Rei came close to whisper to Carmen. "They sleep together, but we are not supposed to notice."
Carmen had barely begun to digest this when she discovered that the violin music she was hearing was not from a stereo. Michiru was playing, oblivious to all the chaos around her. Haruka, her partner, was sitting on the floor at Michiru's feet, with her child in her lap. The child seemed rapt, watching Michiru play. And there was something else: Michiru was about as pregnant as Naru.
There was still more. Mamoru was nearby, standing arm in arm with Minako Aino, the blonde Carmen had marked down as big trouble so long ago now. Carmen had been right; Aino had been the obvious fixture in Mamoru's life almost from the moment Carmen noticed that Rei wasn't. Why did she wait? Carmen wondered again. By now she had seen Aino enough to see dozens of boys and men make perfect fools of themselves to attract her attention, while Aino didn't even seem to be aware of what they were about. Didn't seem--but Carmen had also heard Aino come up with a couple of astounding insights. The girl with the silly red ribbon in her hair was more than she seemed. She would have to be, to hold Chiba's attention for very long. Never booksmart, but streetsmart, somehow, despite her childlike aura. Carmen had kept her distance, even though she had no doubt that Minako had offered her friendship. In some ways, Aino seemed as spooky as Chiba's first ex, though Carmen could not find a reason for her feelings. It wasn't that Minako had Chiba. It was something else . . .
Carmen also noticed that Minako was holding on to Mamoru closely . . . exactly as she remembered Ami had, when it was her time with Chiba.
Carmen forced herself to unfocus on Chiba and his girlfriend, and spoke to Michiru. "Well, this is a production I hadn't heard of. This is why you dropped out of sight?"
Michiru put on one of her most inscrutable smiles, and replied, "Yes. I did not think I would have trouble like Haruka, but I was wrong . . . I'm not sorry. I don't know if I will tour again."
"Did you use a sperm bank?" Carmen asked, before thinking--Michiru always seemed to make her do that, on the few occasions they'd met since the recital.
Michiru said, "No. I wanted my child to know her father. Mamoru obliged . . . and Minako, of course."
Chiba was blushing, something Carmen had never seen before. It was clear to Carmen they hadn't been lovers, even though Michiru had let it seem so for a few seconds. Aino was laughing, but Carmen caught a false note in it, and something sad behind her dancing eyes.
After a few minutes of trivial conversation, Carmen followed Ami through a doorway that led into the basement. There she found Naru again, sitting alongside her husband as he typed on one of three keyboards. Kurume, Ami's much taller nerd-boy friend, was also working, along with a few other nerds, of assorted races and even including a nerd girl. "Welcome to Mercurius.com," said Ami.
"I would have liked to have stayed on at Stanford, but I just could not afford it," explained Umino, rubbing Naru's tummy a little later.
Every one of the nerds in the basement had more money than Carmen's father.
As they were settling in for the night, Ami remarked, "I used to share this room with Rei all the time, until she got married. You're the first to share it since then."
Carmen said, "Thank you. I'm honored. I mean, I mean that. I'm not just joking."
"I know," said Ami.
After thinking on it for awhile, Carmen asked, "What's up between Chiba and Aino?"
"What do you mean?" asked Ami ingenuously.
Ami's question did not sound right to Carmen. "I think you know what I mean. I may not know Aino that well. I'll be honest, I don't want to know her that well. But there's something up with her. If I can see it, it must be huge."
Ami did not answer her for a notable interval. "There is something huge, but I don't think I should tell you more. You should talk with her."
Carmen said, "Maybe . . . I don't know, she just sets me on edge. Not her fault, but she just spooks me. Almost as bad as Chiba's ex. Doesn't she live here?"
"Usagi?" said Ami.
"Yes. Where is she, anyway?" asked Carmen.
"She had a date after school," said Ami.
Carmen said, "But I didn't see her . . . oh. Well, she's a big girl now, I guess."
"Yes . . . " Ami was clearly uncomfortable talking about her friend.
After a few moments Ami spoke again. "Thank you for coming."
Carmen said, "Well, it wasn't any great sacrifice! I mean, gee, stay in this place instead of my dorm? You didn't have to kick me! Why did you do that, anyway?"
Ami said, "I wanted you especially because Suuri had just asked if I was going to stay over tonight."
Carmen said, "Oh. You wanted me to keep him from climbing all over you."
"Yes, that is it," said Ami blandly.
"Would you say I know you pretty well by now?" asked Carmen rhetorically.
"So, you want to tell me again why you wanted me here tonight?" Carmen asked.
Ami sighed. "I wanted you here because I was thinking about climbing over Kurume. It has been a long time since I made love."
Carmen said, "Wait a minute . . . let me guess. You want this guy, but you want him to think it's his idea."
Ami said, "Yes. Ideally. At least I want him to wait a little longer."
Carmen woke up later and couldn't sleep. Ami was oblivious. After awhile, Carmen decided on some herb tea, and quietly set out for the kitchen downstairs. As she approached the stairs, she spied Minako Aino on the first landing, kneeling, looking through the railing. Her face was lit up by a beam of moonlight, brightly enough for Carmen to see tears running down. She had a hand over her mouth, and was making no sound.
But there was sound, from below, somewhere in the great front room. Carmen went to the railing and looked for what Aino must be looking at, and found it. Silhouetted in an open doorway, two people were closely embraced, kissing. One had to be Chiba. The other . . . his ex; Carmen could see those strange little buns she almost always wore in her hair.
Something compelled Carmen to go to Aino on the landing rather than creep back to her room and forget about it. She simply led Aino back with her to her room, without a word.
All that Carmen did with Aino was sit with her on Carmen's bed, but she did it until it was light and Ami woke up. Even then, Aino said nothing about what she had seen, or why she was in their room.
Chiba was gone when they all came down to join the others for breakfast. Chiba's ex met Aino, and they went off somewhere alone for a long time. Then they returned, and Aino seemed to act as she always had before: cheerful, always helpful, a little goofy. But Carmen saw it was an act, and she didn't think she was the only one.
Carmen did not forget what had happened on her visit with Ami, but there were nine months of internship remaining. She discovered that Chiba wasn't seeing any of Ami's friends during that time, and a couple of remarkable facts. But she didn't have time to act on any of these.
Carmen Gonsoles had only seen her mother once in her internship year and her father not at all. When she returned to her family home in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, she had not set foot in it for nearly three years. It was unsettling to see how much had changed. Her baby sister Alison, the little surprise in her parent's lives, was twelve now. In not that many more years Alison would be off to college, and then what would their parents do with this house they already seemed to rattle around in? The hope that Matt would take it over with his own family had ended with his divorce six months into her internship.
Carmen would have gone crazy if Ginger Han hadn't come to visit for a day. She explained to her friend what it had been like. "Now they want grandchildren from me. Especially my mom. She keeps asking me about boys I've been seeing. She's even tried to set me up a couple of times."
Ginger asked, "What about Chiba? You dated him a couple of times."
Carmen said, "Yes, I went out with him a couple of times. And that was it. I couldn't help asking him about what was going on with the other girls."
Ginger said, "Enlighten me. I kinda lost track."
Carmen said, "Well, he was still with the blonde, Aino, when I started. Then three months along, she caught him making out with his old girlfriend. I was there, actually."
Ginger asked, "Which one, Ami or the one after her?" Ginger was fairly well acquainted with Ami.
Carmen explained, "No, no, before Ami. I think you only saw her once. Name's Usako--no, Usagi; Usako is a nickname Chiba always uses for her. Anyway, he knocked her up, and she had his kid, just before I left. But he'd already knocked up Aino and she had his kid. And he fathered another kid on that violinist, Michiru, though I think he was just a sperm donor there."
Ginger said, "You mean, the one with the girlfriend who looks like a guy?"
Carmen said, "Yeah, Haruka, that's her name. Anyway, for some reason the all had their kids at Stanford Hospital, and there is Chiba listed as the father of three kids by three different mothers in five months. And he just happens to be a medical student there. There was some talk, but they let him stay."
"Geez, what a total sleeze!" exclaimed Ginger.
Carmen shook her head. "I don't think so. It's just that it is a weird situation, and no one is talking to me about it, not even Ami."
"What situation? All of them pregnant?" asked Ginger.
Carmen said, "No, that's not what I meant. Aino--her name is Minako, and I got to know her pretty well--she backed off from Chiba to give his ex a clear shot. But his ex didn't take him back. Minako wouldn't explain why his ex won't take back Chiba. Even Ami wouldn't tell me. She just said there are some things she can't tell me."
Ginger asked, "What about Chiba? You just said you dated him while all this was going on."
Carmen shook her head. "Chiba told me he'd never really be over his ex, his 'Usako,' as he nearly always calls her. Really, he warned me. He would have left it at that, but I got just a little more out of him. I asked him why his ex wouldn't get back with him, even when she was having his kid. He said he couldn't tell me the reason, like the others. But he said she might be wrong. And that was it. I could never get him to even talk about it after that time."
"What do you think the big mystery is?" asked Ginger.
Carmen sighed. "I don't know. But I'm going to find out, no matter what I do with Chiba."
The mystery of Chiba's social life did not remain on Carmen's mind much longer. Three days later, Alison did not return home . . .
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