What's better than being pursued by a single gorgeous girl? Why, being pursued by a whole crowd of them, of course!
Thus was born the harem sub-genre in manga. Harems show up all over the place, and in all sorts of genres (usually the ones that are focused on wish fulfillment; power fantasies, romance-oriented shounen or seinen stories, and the like); and the "reverse harem"—which is exactly what it sounds like—is decently represented, as well, for those who prefer a female lead.
Of course, I could be wrong about being stuck in a harem, but the fact that I'd run into no less than four different girls as soon as I left the house suggested strongly that I was headed for Harem-ville. After all, "coincidence" in manga is pronounced "plot device", and all of those interactions—with the possible exception of Jill—felt like introductory scenes. Exhausting introductory scenes, at that. I was really not looking forward to—
"Oh, there you are, Xavier," said my mom. I opened my eyes to discover her moving several of the bags currently occupying the bench with me to the floor prior to sitting down. "Where's your sister?"
"Vickie's in V-Mobile picking out a mobile phone."
"She's what?" Mom's eyes instantly sharpened. "Did your father—"
Uh oh. I'd been meaning to give Vickie some grief and maybe tease Mom, but I'd flipped her switch. Not good. "No, no, I mean Vickie is helping a—friend, I guess."
"Ah, good." Mom sat back and the look on her face relaxed into normality. "I just heard from Rachel, and she doesn't have anything else she needs, so she'll be joining us shortly. Do you need to pick anything else up?"
"Heck no! Let's go home!"
Mom eyed me but declined to comment on my eagerness to get as far from the mall as possible. "You've got your gym clothes, then?"
"Yep, I'm good to go."
A few minutes later, Rachel joined us, Mom extracted Vickie from V-Mobile, and I drove us all home.
As soon as we arrived, I shut myself in my room, threw my bag of new gym clothes under my desk, and started to pace.
A harem. A god damn, slice-of-life, romantic comedy harem. Just my luck to get stuck in one of my least favorite genres. I mean, I get why someone would want to be fawned over by beautiful women. Being propositioned by that nameless older woman or Paula had obvious appeal—no, stop it! Down that road lay insanity. Letting the author lead me around by my libido was a short road to hell, since ironically while harem protagonists may often end up in sexy situations, they never, ever get to consummate them in any way. Well, outside of hentai and more extreme ecchi series, I suppose, but those typically have some absurd reason that forces physical intimacy within the first few pages. I was cohabiting with a girl who I'd seen in her underwear. Yeah, this was way too clean for hentai.
In any case, a harem only functions so long as the protagonist is unable or unwilling to commit in any demonstrative way to a particular girl.
Which I guess meant that I had one easy way to try and wiggle out of this situation: I just had to try my hardest to get close to only one girl in my harem. Odds were good if I was able to get a single girl to commit to being my girlfriend, the manga would end and I'd be free to live my normal life.
One problem with that, though: I didn't want to date any of these girls. I wanted to date Emily, dammit, and fake-dating someone felt horrible. I guess if they were just characters in a story, I didn't have to care about their feelings—but no, down that road lay madness. I'd lived a normal life for almost sixteen years before I got stuck in this stupid manga and my life got infested with trope-driven coincidences. Presumably once the manga ended, I would go back to living a normal life, and everyone around me was just as much a victim of the manga as I was. If this experience made me into some conniving bastard, I'd have failed myself just as badly as if I gave up trying to influence my own life and tried to play a good little Gary Stu harem protagonist in hopes that the manga would end on its own.
So scratch the "aggressively court a single girl" strategy for now. What else did that leave me?
I'd initially been planning on treating Rachel like family, or maybe just avoiding any sort of intimate physical or emotional encounter with her in hopes that the manga would fizzle out on its own. With a harem coalescing around me, though, that was far less feasible. The more girls involved, the more chance for coincidences to push me in directions I didn't want to go. Heck, the trip to the mall today was an excellent example of that at work. I felt like a pinball that had been given a thorough tour of the pinball table.
I suppose I could try to drive the girls off somehow. Maybe by being really mean or dismissive? That seemed dangerous, though. Even if the harem only consisted of Rachel, Jill, Paula, Samantha, and Ms. Sexy I'd still be alienating the social circles surrounding all four if I started acting like an asshole towards them. That might get me out of the manga, but the cost would be prohibitive since I wouldn't get my normal life back at all. I didn't want to end up some pariah; especially not with three more years of high school ahead of me.
But what did that leave me with? Were there any positive aspects to being in a harem rather than a typical rom-com?
Perhaps there were, now that I thought about it more. For one thing, I was basically neutral territory now, and would likely remain that way for some time. I admit, I find Rachel really attractive; if she had remained the only one competing for my affections, the temptation to just let the manga run its course would be a lot harder to resist.
Additionally, when I came right down to it, I still didn't have a good feeling for how much control the manga storyline had over my life. Obviously the author could arrange truly unbelievable "coincidences", and I suspected that they were able to influence me subtly by drawing my attention to specific things. My awareness of Rachel's feelings at several points had seemed unusual to me, for instance. I still felt like I was basically myself, though. Sure, I made a mistake when I thought I could save Ms. Sexy a bit of hassling from those three idiots, but I acted in a way that was consistent with who I'd been prior to getting manga-ized. Heck, I didn't realize she was Ms. Sexy until after the three had run off.
Given all that, it was possible that having multiple girls vying for my attention could provide an opportunity for me to do some minor experimentation to try and determine the extent of my personal power versus the power of the manga story.
I collapsed on my bed. I was feeling a bit better about my situation now. Still exhausted? Yes. Still angry? No doubt about that. But maybe a little less helpless. I really hated passively reacting to everything, and now that I had a better of idea of what I was working against maybe I could gain a foothold and fight this stupid manga.
As if to mock me, my door opened and Vickie stuck her head in. "Whatcha doing, onii-chan?"
I bolted straight upright. "MOOOOM!"
Vickie stared at me in abject shock. "What is wrong with you?!"
Here's the thing: Mom's a full-time housewife, so you'd think that she would be the one to defuse fights between us siblings. But despite working long hours outside the home, Dad's actually the one who deals with the fallout for most of our confrontations.
See, the thing about Mom is: when she gets angry, impatient, or otherwise off her center she is scary as shit. All three of us learned very early on in our lives that it was far preferable to abort our fights early and wait for Dad to come home than to provoke Mom.
Vickie probably knew that calling me onii-chan—a Japanese term that translates loosely to "older brother"—would bug me. By calling Mom into things, though, I'd escalated things straight to DEFCON 1.
I felt slightly guilty about that now that I thought about it, but quashed the feeling ruthlessly. There was no way I was going to allow my little sister into my harem, and unlike my friends at school I could happily take the scorched earth approach with her without fearing long-term repercussions. She'd be unhappy with me for a while, but we'd survived that in the past and would again.
Mom ghosted up next to Vickie while the two of us were still gearing up for a good throw-down. "What's going on, you two?"
"Noth—" started Vickie, but I cut her off.
"Vickie called me onii-chan!"
If looks could kill, I'd be collapsing into multiple bloody pieces right about now. "I was just joking," Vickie managed to grind out.
Mom's face went completely flat. Oh shit. I didn't think this would trigger her like that. I figured she'd just laugh it off, and Vickie would know not to try acting like a manga character in future.
Mom grabbed Vickie's shoulder and leaned down. I couldn't see her face, but Vickie went from furious to terrified in no time flat.
"Never. Again." Letting go of Vickie's shoulder with a push that sent her stumbling back a half step, Mom spun around and stalked down the hall to the stairs.
Vickie shot me a look of complete betrayal and slunk away rubbing her shoulder. Mom must have really had a grip on her. As soon as I heard her door shut quietly down the hall, I moved over and eased my own closed. No one slams doors in our household when Mom is feeling upset.
That was a little weird, and I was having trouble calming down myself. Even when it's not aimed at me, Mom angry sends me straight into fight-or-flight mode. On the plus side, I do believe I successfully excluded Vickie from my harem.
Because while Japan might be fine with treating blood relations as acceptable targets of sexual desire, it sure as hell wasn't happening in my story.