I woke the next morning feeling physically awful, but the best I'd been emotionally in a long while. I still wasn't sure exactly how I was going to get myself out of this situation, but just having someone know about it who was solidly on my side was incredibly liberating.
As an additional benefit, I guess my harem realized how ridiculous they'd been all visiting me at once, because despite another day at home recuperating I received not a single caller. By Saturday, I was starting to feel halfway human again, and after enjoying a surprisingly edible egg dish for breakfast—Dad seemed to have finally gotten a handle on the basics—I retreated upstairs to combine a strategy session with avoiding Rachel, because I had a really bad feeling that I was due for some sort of manga-related run-in with her. I wasn't convinced my little partial nudity a couple days ago was anything more than a warm-up; I'd had run-ins of one sort or another with every other harem member recently, and it felt like Rachel was due.
I'd just settled down into my thinking chair when someone knocked at the door. Before I could say anything, my dad just barged right in. Gee, thanks for respecting my privacy, Dad.
"Hey, kid. Your mother tells me that you've got a bit of a girl problem." He shut the door, pulled out the folding chair that I keep tucked under my desk, sat down, and cleared a spot for the notebook and pen he was carrying by simply shoving stuff into a pile out of the way. This is why I don't usually want my parents in my room. Dad's great, but he's got no appreciation for a properly organized utter mess.
"You could say that."
Dad sighed theatrically. "Well, son, when a man loves a woman very much—"
"What? No, that's not—"
Dad laughed and waved me back down. "I know, I know, kid. You're stuck in a harem, and your mom wants me to help you brainstorm a way out. We are going to have a sex talk right now, though."
"What the—no way, why?!" I'm not a religious person, but I was seriously tempted to take up prayer right then in there on the off chance that a divine miracle could prevent a repeat of the fiasco of my thirteenth birthday.
"Simple!" said Dad with a huge grin as he folded back the cover of his notebook and uncapped his pen. "Manga don't include sex talks."
Ten minutes later, I had a renewed and comprehensive appreciation for the ins and outs of heterosexual intercourse—pun very much intended, thanks so much for that one, Dad—and Dad was happily tearing up a piece of paper into infinitesimal flakes.
I could see why Mom looped him in so fast. He was really good at this.
"So, on to the topic at hand," said Dad as he carefully deposited his paper scraps in the dusty waste basket under my desk. "I don't have any direct personal experience with harems outside of the Lab and my admittedly febrile imagination—"
I groaned. Really, Dad? Right after the sex talk repeat?
"—but there's one question you have to ask yourself regardless of genre: when the manga ends, what do you want to have accomplished? No, don't answer right away! This is important. See, your mother said you were pretty worked up about being trapped in a manga, and I can understand that. Having control of your life suddenly wrenched away is horrible. But here's the thing: you never had control of your life in the first place. You just didn't have some ineffable force screwing around with you. If you keep that expression on your face, it's going to stick like that, young man. Think about this. You have a broad grounding in manga, and judging from what your mother said you identified your genre incredibly quickly. That means that you are uniquely suited to take advantage of your situation. Now, I'm guessing Emily was a casualty of your genre and you're probably still salty about that, but I'm telling you this in all seriousness, Xavier—" Dad leaned over and stared at me hard. "—You will never have a harem of beautiful women fawning over you again, because that's not how reality works. So, I'll ask you again: what do you want to accomplish?"
That—was not remotely what I was expecting Dad to say. "What are you saying I should do, Dad?"
"I'm not trying to push you into anything, Xavier. I just think you shouldn't immediately dismiss being in a manga as this horrible thing."
He must have seen my deep and abiding skepticism painted all over my face.
"Don't get me wrong," said Dad. "If I could go back in time and prevent your mother from ever experiencing the Labyrinth Obscura I would do so in a heartbeat and damn the consequences. Being trapped in a manga storyline can be horrific, I'm fully aware. But on the other hand, Hana would never have given me a second glance if weren't for her manga. Being a character in a manga directly granted me the most important things in my life, so all I'm suggesting is that you take the good with the bad."
Dad leaned back and began playing with his pen. "I'm on your side, kid. Whatever you want to do, I will try to help make it happen. I just want you to think hard about all your options. I'm not suggesting you try to be some sort of player; you've never been that kind of person, and I'm thankful for that. But I do think it would do you good to try and get to know these girls in your harem a little more while you're still in a risk-free environment. That is—you're not in an ecchi or hentai harem, are you?"
I gave him a look, and he visibly relaxed.
"Thank goodness for that. I was worried I'd just given you some really irresponsible advice." He laughed nervously. "Oh man, Hana would have definitely done something she'd regret if I'd pushed you into trying to get emotionally intimate with a hentai heroine."
"Can I give this some thought, Dad?" I asked.
"Sure thing, kid," he said, standing up and ruffling my hair. "You know where to find me when you've got your thoughts in order."
After Dad left, I jumped out of my thinking chair and started pacing around the room. Was he right that I was thinking about this wrong? Could I live with an ongoing harem and find some sort of silver lining to it all?
I wasn't confident about that at all. How much of my life was I going to waste cultivating harem relationships that were ultimately doomed to failure? I mean, here I was a couple weeks into school and I'd barely interacted with my closest friends, never mind my casual acquaintances. What if I tried to play along with this manga and ended up a social outcast with no friends as a result? That didn't bear thinking about.
On the other hand, Dad was right that actively trying to get closer to the girls was virtually risk-free. Outside of drama harems, which usually twist the genre on its ear by faithfully producing the back-biting and darkness that would likely underlie any actual harem dynamic, harem protagonists are always restrained from getting too close to any given harem member because it would upset the whole premise.
Mom told me I could accelerate, subvert, or break the genre. She seemed to have taken it as a given that I would want to get out of this situation as fast as possible, but didn't have any concrete ideas for how to do that. Or else maybe she did have some ideas and she was just staying quiet about them until I was truly desperate. Now that I thought of it, that was entirely likely. Given her past experiences, not to mention her anger management issues, I couldn't imagine that Mom would be likely to suggest any plan with much subtlety to it.
Then along comes Dad and suggests that I should what—just sit back and enjoy the ride? I was more than a little suspicious that Dad merely wanted to vicariously enjoy a harem through his son, the way the fathers of a few of the kids I'd known had forced them into sports. Far as I could recall, that had never ended well.
Despite all that, Dad clearly had some concrete ideas for how to get around the genre. His little demonstration with the sex talk demonstrated that quite effectively. I was definitely going to need his input and expertise if I wanted to get out of this manga without wrecking my life or wasting a bunch of time on experimentation.
So what did I want to accomplish, then? I wanted out of my manga as soon as possible. I didn't want to be saddled with a girlfriend just because the genre said I needed one. Honestly, I was halfway hoping that Emily might move back after the manga concluded, though that was out of my control. Ugh, and I kind of wish I hadn't taken the time to think this stuff through because I just realized something unfortunate: I didn't want to hurt the girls in my harem, if I could help it. With the possible exception of Samantha, I legitimately liked them all as people, even if I didn't particularly want to date any of them. Ha, and was that an attitude that had no place in a manga or what?
Though, hmmm. That gave me a possible idea for subverting this thing. I wonder if genre was the only thing I could subvert? Guess I needed to talk to Dad.
I don't know where he thought I'd be expecting him, but after checking just about every room in the house I found Dad in the Lab re-reading one of the harem classics. Boy was I glad slapstick violence wasn't a part of my particular harem. Yeesh.
"Figure out what it is you want to do?" asked Dad, setting his manga aside.
"Yeah, kind of," I said. I checked under the table and behind the chairs, then closed the door, sat down, and laid the piece of paper and pencil I was carrying down on the side table. "So, I never thought I'd say something like this, but—you up for giving me that sex talk a third time?"
Dad laughed out loud. "Well you see, Xavier, when a man loves a woman very much, or maybe just thinks she's extraordinarily hot…"