Sunday morning found me feeling much more like my old self again, in more ways than one. I was still hacking up half a lung when I got up in the morning, but after a cup of tea and an hour upright I could barely tell I was still in the final stage of recuperating. I had a tentative plan for accelerating my way out of this damn manga without sacrificing parts of my life or being a total jerk, and Dad thought it would work which made me hopeful for the first time in a while.
The question was how to kick things off. Rachel was out of bounds. I was still pretty sure she was the Main Girl, so any action I took with her was either headed for a relationship or externally-induced complications. I was leery to experiment with Jill, since the childhood friend was a common fallback so she might present the same issues as Rachel. Paula was a solid choice, but I wasn't wholly confident in my ability to handle her if things went sideways. Ms. Cariño damn well better not be in the harem, so I'd decided it was best to just pretend Wednesday evening never happened and hope for the best.
Which left Samantha. Oddly enough, I had zero problems with using her as a guinea pig to test the viability of this approach. The question was how best to approach her.
Then again, perhaps I could enlist the help of an insider.
It took some searching, but I eventually found Vickie stretched out behind the couch on her stomach, reading a manga.
I've probably mentioned this, but Vickie is kind of weird. For as long as I can remember, she has loved lurking underneath tables and behind furniture. Most kids will play wherever the toys are, but in my family we were constantly stubbing our toes on playthings that she'd stashed under the dining room table. These days that wasn't such a problem, but if I wanted to have a private conversation anywhere other than my room, I always had to check a few odd places for Vickie.
I knelt on the couch and looked down at Vickie over the back. "Hey, Vickie."
She glanced up then returned to her book, clearly disinterested. "What?"
How to put this? Oh well, this was Vickie, after all. She probably wouldn't care. "What's the deal with Samantha?"
That earned me a suspicious look. "What do you mean?"
"You two are friendly, right? Is she always so…tsundere with you, too?"
"Oh, that. Ask her yourself."
Ah, so my hunch was right! She did act differently around Vickie. I had wondered why Vickie would put up with that brand of absurdity. Usually if something annoyed her, she was not shy about pointing it out. She'd had some pretty epic fights with friends when she was younger thanks to that, if memory served.
This was valuable intel, but perhaps if I pressed a little more… "Aha! So it's an act! What's she really like, then?"
Vickie gave me a look. Why is it siblings are so good at communicating "you are the scum of the earth" with nothing more than their eyes? "Ask her. Yourself. Now go away; Kyoko is about to stick it to this know-it-all producer."
Well heaven forbid I get in the way of important work like that. "Fine, I'll leave you to it if you tell me something that Samantha likes."
"I'm not doing your dirty work for you, Xavier." Ooh, someone was still angry about the onii-chan incident, if I didn't miss my guess. Well, whatever. I had enough to work with.
If Samantha was intentionally acting like a tsundere, then that meant she was very likely aware of manga, anime, or light novels. I couldn't be sure which, and I had no idea why she had adopted that persona, but that info gave me an idea how to proceed.
I sat down on the couch and scooted it back a bit.
"Hey!" shouted Vickie.
"Oops, forgot you were there."
Now, to make this work I was going to need to do a little planning. I got out my phone and booted up the Maps app. Hm, good; I'd have to get someone to drop us off, but everything I needed was within walking distance after that.
Operation Not-Quite-A-Date was a go.
Dad's little pep talk had reminded me that although harem protagonists are largely victims of happenstance, I didn't have to be. Knowing the popular tropes meant that I had a reasonably good chance of encouraging a specific outcome if I set things up properly. In this case, my goal was to get a little closer to Samantha without triggering too many romance flags, and the method I'd lit upon was the not-quite-a-date shopping trip. Although I didn't know anything about Samantha's likes and dislikes—thanks for being so helpful, Vickie—getting her to agree to go shopping with me should offer a predictable framework in which to try a few things out. I checked with Dad, and sure enough he was free to drive us next Saturday.
First things first, though: I needed an excuse. This wouldn't have worked very well with Jill or Paula, but Samantha's budding friendship with Vickie offered me a great opportunity; and fortunately, I had Samantha's contact information from the first day of school.
Hey, Vickie's b-day is coming up in a couple months, I texted. Need to get her a present, but unsure what. You available next Saturday to help shop?
Resist that, if you can! Sure enough, a couple minutes later…
You don't even know what to get your own sister? You're a terrible brother. But I suppose I'm free. What time?
Was planning on Barnes & Novel south of Outlet mall around 10:30. Meet me there, or you need a ride?
A little while later: I'll meet you there.
Hook, line, and sinker. Now I just had to survive another week and hope for a lack of harem hijinks until I could start put my nascent plan into motion.