Harem Scarem: 015

Thankfully before lunch could descend into even more awkwardness, we were interrupted by Ms. Cariño stopping by our table on her way to the drama room.

Ms. Cariño is the drama teacher, and although I've never taken a drama class—I have no interest in acting—she knows me thanks to the improv meetings she holds in the evening a couple times a week. She's quite short, keeps her hair pulled back in a severe bun, wears oversized glasses that are thick enough they make her eyes look a little oddly placed, and I've never seen her in anything other than a long, formless, muumuu-like dress. At a guess, I'd say she's in her 40's or 50's, but I'm admittedly terrible at placing people's ages. Off-stage, Ms. Cariño is very soft-spoken, but it's deceptive; she can really project when she wants to. Guess that's a drama teacher for you.

"Xavier," she said quietly. "Are you planning to attend the improv meetings again this year?"

I nodded with enthusiasm; though admittedly a lot of that enthusiasm was thanks to her interrupting Paula's teasing. "Yep!"

"Lovely. I'm planning to have our first meeting Thursday at 7. We'll discuss what days and times people want to continue to meet for this semester."

"I'll be there, Ms. C!"

"If you could let Hayden know the date and time, I would appreciate it. He's not taking any drama classes this semester, so I am not sure if I will see him before then."

"Will do."

Ms. Cariño smiled, nodded, and continued on down the hall.

"Improv?" asked Paula.

"Yeah, it's a—well, I guess it's not technically an official club. Ms. Cariño hosts it a couple times a week, and it's mostly a bunch of drama geeks doing improv activities."

"Hmm, that right." Paula appeared to lose interest.

At long last the bell signaled the end of lunch, and before the tone had completed Jill was up and dragging me away from the table. "Come on, Xavier, let's get to the gym!"

Rachel waved with a small smile, Paula winked at me, and Samantha sniffed and looked the other way. "I'm coming, I'm coming!" I said to Jill, pulling out of her grip and following her toward the locker rooms.

After changing into gym clothes, we all met up in the indoor gym where our teacher, Mr. Patterson, gave us the rundown on what we could expect from his class. Evidently today we would be getting baseline records for things like how many push-ups and crunches we could do, our speed at running 100 meters or a mile, and similar. Thankfully, the mile run was one of the last things we would be doing, so hopefully I wouldn't have to worry about a stitch from eating lunch so recently. It still struck me as vaguely sadistic to schedule P.E. immediately after our only meal of the day.

Mr. Patterson instructed us to get into pairs, and I looked around to see if I could catch anyone's eye. I wasn't very familiar with anyone in this class.

"Hey Xavier, pair up with me!"

Well, except Jill, of course.

We collected a pen, clipboard, and stopwatch, then lined up with the rest of the class while Mr. Patterson taught us his preferred routine for warming up. That done, we started rotating through the stations he had set up.

"I feel like we haven't really talked much recently," said Jill, as we schlepped our way back to the gym to kick things off with some crunches, push-ups, and pull-ups. "How have you been doing?"

Oh, you know, just getting shunted into a harem and wondering when I'll get my life back. "I'm fine. What about you?"

"Eh, same old, same old! You know me. Here, I'll go first." Forty-three push-ups later it was my turn.

"So—I didn't know you were so friendly with so many cute girls," Jill continued as I got down into the push-up position. "You dating any of them?"

"A little busy here," I managed.

"Twenty-four, not bad." Jill, you monster, you did almost twice as many. "But seriously, are you and Rachel going out?"

"No, I'm not interested in dating right now. My girlfriend broke up with me over the summer when she moved across the state."

"Eh?! You had a girlfriend? Since when? Who was it? Okay, I'm ready; start timing." Jill started doing crunches as I hit start on the stop watch.

I waited until the stop-watch hit one minute. "Stop, that's a minute."

"That's forty-eight," said Jill, and I marked the number down.

"Did you know Emily Holt?" I said as we switched places.

"I think she was in one of my classes; kind of short, a bit hyperactive?"

"That's Emily."

"You set? I'm starting the timer…now."

A minute's worth of crunches passed. "Forty-two," I said.

Jill marked that down. "So when did you two start dating?"

"A few months before summer break." Ugh, I really didn't want to talk about this. Time to turn the tables. "What about you? Claimed yourself a hot boyfriend yet?"

Jill slugged me in the shoulder, which is her version of blushing. "You know I don't have a boyfriend, dammit. No one's interested in—" She shrugged and cut herself off.

Well, that was Jill all over. She's always been incredibly competent and driven, but for some reason she has a weirdly low opinion of herself.

But this turn of the conversation put me in something of a bind. Normally, I'd say something nice and vaguely supportive, but now Jill was a harem member. "Vaguely supportive" was likely to raise flags that should be left well enough alone.

On the other hand, my interactions with Jill up to this point had been par for the course. She might be officially part of my harem, but so far she was the only girl in the harem with whom I had a normal relationship. Was there some way I could keep her as a friend without encouraging her romantically? Or was that just going to send me into wishy-washy harem protagonist territory?

Screw it. I liked Jill, even if I didn't like her. Until I had a chance to come up with some countermeasures, I might as well just treat her like normal. I slugged her back. "Don't sell yourself short."

Jill watched me with an inscrutable look on her face. "Thanks, Xavier. You haven't changed."

"What on earth does that mean?"

She hit me with an evil grin. "It means you don't have a chance of beating a single one of my records today."

"Dammit, we were competing?!"

Fourth period was Pre-Calculus 1 with Ms. Caldwell, and as I'd come to expect at this point, I barely knew anyone in the class aside from Rachel. Alburn High is pretty big, but it was still bizarre so few of the people I'd had in classes last year were in class with me this year.

Although I guess the vast majority of manga set in schools do only have 2-3 named characters in any given classroom, with the rest either faceless background characters or extras who receive backstories and names only when required by the plot.

I should definitely learn the names of everyone in all my classes just to stick it to the author.