Despite jinxing myself by hoping for an easy week, the following week was in fact a return to routine for me. We were building up a set of useful phrases in Japanese as we simultaneously learned basic sentence structure, expanded our vocabulary, and worked our way through the hiragana syllabary. Classic Literature was devoted to trudging through ancient Greek "classics", complete with incest, self-mutilation, and other wholesome topics every schoolchild should be educated on. Jill continued to put the lie to male physical supremacy in P.E., and I was having grave doubts over my choice to fulfill my math requirement with Pre-Calculus. Fortunately, Rachel has a better head for numbers than I, so I was able to survive the homework by occasionally enlisting her aid in understanding just what the hell was going on and why I should care. Well. At least she helped me understand what was going on. I sure hoped the first test was a take-home test, because otherwise Xavier's in a pinch!
Ugh, maybe the last week had been too peaceful; manga-isms were creeping into my normal thoughts.
Lunch continued to be the most fraught time during my day, but even that was starting to settle into routine. A couple of times over the week I noticed askance looks from people passing our table that brought me back to the reality that it was pretty weird I was sitting surrounded by babes (and Samantha). But otherwise the presence of my harem members was starting to just feel...normal.
In retrospect, that was kind of frightening. Maybe a more exciting week would have been a good thing.
In any case, the weekend was upon me, and with it my unofficial date with Samantha in the first battle of my campaign to uncover her backstory so I could maneuver her out of my harem.
With that thought in mind, I girded myself for battle: a pair of my dressier slacks that Mom had bought me when my Uncle Jon had his Manly Man party. They were a little short around the ankles at this point, but hopefully Samantha wouldn't notice. I didn't really have anything fancier than a t-shirt, so I raided my Dad's closet and secured a polo shirt that I'm pretty sure I've never seen him wear. Smelled alright, at least, and if not fashionable, it was at least different than what I normally wear.
At the cost of some flirtatious ribbing, I had sounded out Paula and determined that she was likely working, which meant as long as I avoided the mall, I should avoid encounters on that front. Rachel was home-bound, and since Dad was ferrying me to my meeting with Samantha and Mom was taking Vickie to a weekend cheer thing of some sort, I didn't anticipate Rachel showing up out of nowhere. Jill was a bit of a wild card, but I vaguely recalled that the cross-country team practiced in the morning on weekends, so she'd hopefully be off running around the woods or something.
I checked my itinerary, made sure my phone had the appropriate alarms programmed and was on vibrate mode, and headed out the door with Dad in tow.
We arrived in the parking lot for Barnes & Novel a good 45 minutes early, but I shooed my dad off anyway. Any manga protagonist worth his salt beats his date to the appointed meeting spot so she can find him leaning up against something looking cool. I wasn't so sure I could pull off "cool," but I could manage an early arrival.
While I kept a weather eye peeled for Samantha I wasted time on my phone. If I'd read her correctly, she was the type to arrive early and then berate the person she was meeting over arriving after her, even if they were in fact early. Sure enough, about 10:20 I spotted her getting out of a rather beat-up pickup. I slipped my phone in my pocket and did my best to loiter nonchalantly.
"Oh, Xavier!" said Samantha as she approached me. "You're early. Did you wait long? I mean, not that I really care…"
Ah, there was the tsundere we all knew and…well, that we all knew.
"Nope!" I lied with as much forced cheer as I could muster. "I just got here." There, one manga stereotype successfully initiated. Standing around outside B&N had been super annoying, but having the exact manga cliché that I'd been aiming for trigger was kind of a rush. Mwa ha ha, the power! Hopefully, this meant that I'd successfully initiated the "shopping date" trope.
Samantha eyed me, but forbore to comment. I thought about commenting that she looked nice—which was legitimately true—but was worried that would result in her commenting on my own non-normal get-up. The point was moot when she took the conversation in a different direction, anyway. "So when is Vickie's birthday, anyway?"
"That's…a ways off. Why are you so worried about getting her a gift now?"
I shrugged. "I like to be prepared."
"Mm-hm. Not that I particularly care, but when is your birthday, anyway?"
Aw, crap. I clearly came up with the wrong excuse. Oh, well, I'd cross the birthday bridge when I came to it in a month or so. "October 21."
"That's only about a month away! Well, good to know. Not that I want to celebrate your birthday with you or anything. Don't get any weird ideas!"
Not rolling my eyes was a supreme act of will that I sensed I would be exercising a lot over the next couple hours. "I wouldn't dream of it. Shall we?"
Like the gentleman I am, I opened the door for her, and we entered Barnes & Novel. I'd suffered a Birthday Reveal ambush, but Stage 1 of my plot to figure out Samantha was successfully underway.
When I was younger, Barnes & Novel was basically just a bookstore with a few children's toys to spice things up. Likely thanks to online booksellers, though, in recent years they had been diversifying in increasingly geeky directions. Now the local B&N featured board games, collectible figurines, and most importantly Japanese media: several shelves dedicated to manga, light novels, and anime. My plan was simple: I didn't believe for a second that Samantha would answer direct questions, so I was found for a two-pronged attack. First, I'd try to lower her guard using the tried and true methods of the not-quite-a-date shopping trip trope, and as a fallback I planned to observe what attracted her interest at B&N. Since Vickie's birthday wasn't for another two months, give or take, I didn't actually care about finding a gift for her, which left me free to devote my energies toward Samantha.
Before I could go about any of my more complicated schemes, though, I needed to at least pay lip service to my stated purpose. "How about we browse a bit, and you let me know if you see anything you think Vickie would like?"
That put paid to a good 15 minutes; we meandered around the store, and I cheerfully shot down every suggestion Samantha came up with. To be fair, they were all legitimately terrible. As far as I knew, the two had only ever hung out twice and it was pretty clear Samantha had no idea what Vickie really liked.
With every rejected idea, Samantha got more and more tsun with fewer and fewer traces of any dere. I figured I'd pushed it about as much as I could without driving her off completely. "Maybe if we split up we can cover more ground. How about I head over there—" I pointed off toward the fiction and self-help shelves, and then toward the manga, anime, and collectibles "—and you try over that way."
"Fine! Good idea! I was going to say that myself!" And off flounced Samantha. I gave her a few seconds head start, and then followed right after her.
For whatever reason, at our local B&N the manga shelves are all half height, while the "proper" fiction is on shelves that are taller than me. That meant that Samantha was very easy to tail.
I positioned myself a few shelves behind her and just followed along, ready to duck out of sight if she started to turn my way.
Samantha initially headed straight for the shelves of manga, making me think that I'd already discovered her source of tsundere behavior. However, she browsed through the shelves very listlessly; as far as I could see, she didn't appear to know much about what she was looking at. Guess maybe I hadn't gotten lucky after all.
She drifted over toward the collectible figurines, but didn't even give them a glance. Had I guessed wrong about her? Was she actually a real-life, all-natural tsundere?
Then with a furtive glance back toward the shelves she thought I was browsing, she zeroed in on the anime.
Now this was not a girl looking for a present for a friend. Samantha moved with purpose through the shelves, zeroing in on particular series, checking prices, and all the while talking to herself half under her breath. I'd hit pay dirt, and she was so engaged I easily moved to the shelf just on the other side behind her so I could eavesdrop.
"Mmm, that's not a bad price. I wonder if Mom…but Xavier. Darn it." A box went back on the shelf, though she tapped it thoughtfully with a finger before pushing it home. "Ooh, a re-released Blu-Ray version? I wonder…hm, I think those are all the same special features. Oh well." Back another one went, and Samantha meandered down the aisle a bit before stopping and tearing a third box off the shelf. "Another re-release?! Damn it, make a third season already!"
I couldn't help myself. "They're never making another season of that, Samantha. And the manga's better, anyway."
"Yeeargh!" With a truly bizarre shriek, Samantha jumped about a foot in the air, fumbled the Blu-Ray she was holding, dove for the floor to retrieve it, and spun around. "Xavier?! What—I thought you were—if you made me break this, you have to buy it! But it's not like I want it or anything!"
I couldn't help it. She was so over-the-top I just started laughing. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," I gasped as I tried to get my laughter under control and circled around the shelves to join her. "I just saw you over here staring at stuff so intently and I had to see what you were so interested in."
Samantha opened and closed her mouth like she wanted to say something, but was evidently too nonplussed to come up with a good tsundere comment.
"Seriously, that reaction was just so over the top…anyway, I really am sorry about surprising you like that. Is that anime any good? I assume you've seen it, based on what you were saying just now."
"Yeeees," said Samantha, looking nervous. "I've seen it."
"Well, was it any good? Like I said, the manga is great, but I haven't actually watched the anime."
"Wait, you've read the manga?"
"Yeah, although not as often as Vickie. It's one of her favorites."
Samantha looked incredibly torn over something, but then thrust the case into my arms. "Then you should get her this for her birthday. It's a great show, even if you probably are right that they're never going to make a third season. And this edition contains both the first two seasons for the cost of one."
"Thanks, Samantha," I said with real warmth. I think that might have been the first time she hadn't felt the need to throw in a dumb tsundere comment. "This will make a great gift for Vickie, then."
Samantha blushed, fidgeted, looked away. "Don't worry about it," she muttered.
Dammit, who knew she could be so cute? Kind of made me want to torment her and then make up just to see her dere side a bit more.
Since I wasn't your garden variety sadistic and/or clueless manga protagonist, though, I turned away and headed for the checkout with Samantha trailing behind. In my pocket, I felt my phone buzz; we were right on time.
"So I'll understand if you need to get home," I said over my shoulder, "but if you've got some time, would you like to grab some lunch? There's a great little hole-in-the-wall teriyaki place down the block."
"Sure, I guess," muttered Samantha, evidently not fully recovered from having her interest in anime revealed.
I turned back and grinned to myself. Phase 2, successfully initiated.