Two weeks later Rachel had settled into our domestic routine, and I had successfully avoided any further lucky lechery. Honestly, she fit right in. Given how much attention she clearly paid to her appearance I expected her to be focused on shopping or wasting time online or similar, but it turned out Rachel was a reader. When my mom took my sister to a day camp activity at the nearest public library, Rachel went along and came back weighed down with about 15 books. To my surprise, she plowed through them in record time, often while curled up on the living room couch.
I normally did most of my reading in the Lab, but I started bringing my manga to the living room just to make sure she wasn't alone all the time. Even Vickie could be found lurking around behind Dad's favored armchair more days than not.
Oddly, Rachel never commented on the manga or the Lab. I did see her browsing the shelves once before her epic library trip, but I guess she wasn't interested. I dreaded her bringing it up, but after a couple days without comment or behaving any differently toward me I had to accept that she just didn't care.
It was honestly a little weird, and made me wonder if I'd been making my family's manga habit into something more than it actually was. I mean, sure, a lot of my peers would be only too happy to roast me if they ever discovered how much manga I read, but all of my friends were kind of weird in their own ways. I might have been doing them a disservice assuming the worst for their reactions if they ever found out.
Regardless, Rachel became a normal part of the household in quickly. I think my mom probably liked having her around the most; Rachel was always willing to help out with food prep, or dishes, or almost any chore that needed doing. (Whereas Vickie and I had to be reminded even for the things that we were expected to do regularly.) The rest of us didn't have any problems with her presence, though, which frankly surprised me. I was expecting having a girl my age living in the same house to be a lot more intrusive to my daily life.
Now that the Doyles would be arriving back home from their vacation, Rachel would be leaving any day. Or at least that's what I had assumed.
"Peanut?" called my mom as I walked by the kitchen where she was emptying the dishwasher prior to making dinner. She must have had something more labor-intensive than normal in store to be starting this early. "You have a minute?"
"Sure, Mom, what's up?" I asked her, and sat down at the kitchen table.
"You know that the Doyles are getting home tomorrow?"
"Well, your father and I were talking and we're thinking of offering to host Rachel longer term, if she's comfortable with it. Evidently her father is going to be out of the country for the vast majority of the school year, and we've got space for her that the Doyles lack. I wanted to ask you and Vickie about it first, though. I know it's not convenient to have to share your house with someone who isn't even a relative, and if you're against it the Doyles will figure something else out."
"Hmm," I said noncommittally. On the one hand, having Rachel living with me was indeed a major problem for me, though more because she was a manga love interest than because I had any personal problems with cohabitation.
On the other, I remembered what she'd said two weeks ago when I showed her the way to Dykstra Park. She'd grown up an eternal house guest; someone who people hosted and then forgot when she inevitably moved on, and I was one of those people who promptly forgot her. I didn't feel guilty about that—I was five at the time, after all, and there were very few people I'd played with back then who I remember at all—but I didn't feel happy about the prospect of shoving her out the door and forgetting her now that I knew it was a burden she was bearing. If I were being honest, I liked her pretty well. I was still angry about losing Emily, but spending two weeks in proximity to Rachel had made me realize that she was a decent person. It wasn't her fault she'd been chosen to interfere with my life.
"Well, Peanut, what do you think?" said Mom.
"I think—you should invite Rachel to stay," I said slowly. "You're right that it's not very, mm, convenient for me in some ways, but I don't want to just kick her out, either. Honestly, I like having her around; she's practically family at this point." I paused. "After all, I don't get stuck with the dishes as often with her here."
Mom laughed. "What a selfless hero I've raised. Alright, Mr. Chivalrous, you'd better make yourself scarce before I rope you into finishing the dishwasher for me."
Her tone of voice sounded like she was joking, but that was a serious threat. I high-tailed it out of there and headed for my room.
So Rachel was likely to stay with us for some unspecified amount of time, and if I didn't miss my guess she'd probably be attending school with us. Oh, who was I kidding. I was a teenage manga protagonist, and she was the love interest. Of course she was going to be attending my school. Hell, she was definitely going to end up in at least one of my classes, no two ways around it.
Well, I'd made my choice there and would just have to live with it. In retrospect, it wasn't that surprising Rachel ended up with us longer term. One instance of lucky lechery did not a rom-com make.
And that brought to mind something that had been bugging me, but which I'd had trouble putting me finger on: if I thought about it, the pacing for this manga plot just felt—well, off. I mean, boy meets girl, boy sees girl in her skivvies—that progression was tried and true, sure. But usually things would progress a lot faster. There'd been what, several weeks between when I met Rachel and when she moved in with us? And then another two weeks where we were living together, but barely interacting despite that.
It was just way too slow, unless the manga was quietly skipping swathes if time. How did that work, though? Was my life controlled when it was time for sexy shenanigans or whatever and then mine to do with as I pleased in the interim? I really wished I had some method to gain feedback or further concrete insight into what was going on, but I hadn't been able to break through the fourth wall again. Which left me with nothing but rampant speculation, and that could only take me so far.
Okay, backing up. Clearly keeping me in close proximity to Rachel was important for whatever narrative was developing, but if I was afforded decent spans of time that were free from the author's influence perhaps I could find a way to fight back or subvert the plot somehow.
I'd tried contacting Emily a few times already in hopes of nudging my life back on track, but that had been a dead end. She was still giving me cold shoulder, and if she wouldn't respond to me there was no way I could try to finagle a long-distance relationship. There went my best idea for throwing a spanner in the works, and at this point I was actually getting pretty angry with Emily. Ignoring me like this despite my repeated attempts to get in contact was incredibly hurtful and callous—certainly not a behavior I would ever have expected from her.
Well if that were a bust there had to be something else I could do. Forcing Rachel out of the house wasn't an option; I didn't want to be someone I'm not just in hopes of spiting my author, and I truly did feel bad for her situation.
Alright, this was getting me nowhere. Maybe I needed to approach things from another angle. I certainly was suffering from a dearth of solid information, but what was my end goal, anyway?
Basically, I just wanted the freedom to live my own life. I didn't have any problems with Rachel, per se. Hell, if I were honest under different circumstances I would have found her extremely attractive. No, my problem was that I viscerally despised being pushed around by some unknowable outside force.
In that case maybe I just needed to treat Rachel like family. I was pretty sure that if she had moved in with us under normal circumstances, I would have done just that; seinen rom-coms virtually never dealt with family relationships to any extent that I could recall. Maybe if I treat Rachel like a family member the manga will just fizzle out and end. Wouldn't be the first manga with a short run because it couldn't hold its audience's attention.
And with that I had a tentative plan, and Rachel had a temporary home.
I was so naïve. And all it took to shatter my temporary illusion of control was a simple shopping trip.