As I made my purchase and we exited Barnes & Novel, I was starting to feel nervous. Using B&N to determine if Samantha consumed Japanese media had gone almost too well. Now I had a difficult choice to make. I had planned all along to invite her out to lunch in order to cement our outing as not-quite-a-date; just shopping for my sister seemed insufficient. However, I needed to decide how aggressively to push her. Samantha was clearly off-balance, which meant that if I kept the pressure up I might get lucky and entice her into opening up about the root cause of her weird behavior. However, it seemed equally likely to me that pushing too hard too fast might accomplish the opposite; she might retreat into hard-core tsundere mode, and it would be a classic example of taking one step forward only to follow up with two back.
In this regard, the manga trope was letting me down. I could predict any number of things that were likely to go wrong (the most likely being discovered by one or more harem members, then subsequently being poorly stalked by them for the duration of the "date"), but explicitly achieving a new level of emotional intimacy…well, that felt like it might be stretching the trope past its breaking point, and I wasn't sure what would happen were I to do that.
I was going to have to play it by ear, and that was frankly terrifying. I've never been very good at interpreting the emotions of the people around me, and despite now being convinced that Samantha was acting out a tsundere character for some reason, I still had no clue what her motivation might be.
Samantha wasn't giving me any clues at the moment, either. Aside from calling her mom to let her know that she'd be eating lunch with me, she was basically silent the entire walk to the restaurant.
A chime on the door of Happy Teriyaki jangled as we entered. Honestly, I'd never eaten here. The pictures I'd found online certainly made it look like a hole-in-the-wall, and it generally has positive reviews, but it was still up to fate whether it would actually turn out to be great. Certainly the pictures of teriyaki they had posted as part of their menu didn't look like anything special, and judging by the bulgogi, bibimbap, and kimchi listed prominently on the second half of the menu the owner or chef was probably Korean. Not that I was surprised; I'm fairly certain I've never been in a teriyaki place that was owned or operated by anyone of Japanese descent.
Maybe for the same reason that Obaasan and Ojiisan refuse to eat American teriyaki. I'm guessing the main similarity it has with Japanese teriyaki is that a chicken is involved.
In any case, we ordered at the counter, sat down, and descended into awkward silence while we waited for our food.
This was not good. I needed Samantha to feel more comfortable around me, not less, and I was at a loss for good conversation topics other than anime. Which was bound to turn into more of an interrogation, because odd as it may seem, I've never really watched anime much. For whatever reason, there wasn't any anime in the house, despite its close ties to manga. Maybe that was Mom's influence; there wasn't a TV in the Lab, so anime would necessarily have lived with the other videos, which might have been closer to home than she liked.
"So," said Samantha at last. "Not that I'm curious or anything, but you read manga? Vickie had said she really likes it, but I didn't expect…" She trailed off and watched me expectantly.
Great, now I was panicking for a different reason. Evidently after all of this, I still instinctively shied away from revealing my manga habit. Which was stupid, especially since I was reasonably certain Samantha was a fellow nerd.
Samantha was starting to look like she regretted opening her mouth. Dammit, Xavier, man up! "Yes! Yeah, I read a lot of manga. My dad has a huge manga collection, so we've all been reading it for years."
"Really?" Samantha grinned, relief clear on her face. "Do you watch anime, too?"
"Uh, no, not really. Not that I'm against it! It's just not something we have in the house for some reason. I take it you're the opposite?"
"Well, sort of. My mom has a few old anime series that she likes to re-watch pretty regularly, but I'm the one who really got into it. She mostly just humors me, I guess. Doesn't really watch the stuff that I like anymore, for the most part."
I may be dense, but even I can spot an opening that obvious. "So what are your favorite series, then?"
Samantha lit up like the stage at a Japanese pop idol concert, and for the next thirty minutes talked virtually non-stop. She barely even acknowledged the food when it arrived (turns out that Happy Teriyaki indeed served a pretty average plate of teriyaki; if I ever visited again I'd have to try the Korean dishes and see if that was what the folks online were loving on).
About the time I was pondering whether I really wanted to eat the rather lackluster "salad" that had come with my meal, Samantha finally wound down. "Um, I might have gone a bit overboard there."
I waved that away with a smile. "Don't worry about it. I don't get to talk about Japanese media with anyone offline very often." I hesitated. Samantha had opened up more than I'd expected, and I decided to take a risk. "Look, don't take this the wrong way, but I couldn't help but notice that you haven't been particularly, well, tsundere since we left Barnes and Novel. What's that about, anyway?"
Samantha froze. Shit, that came out completely wrong, didn't it? "Wait, Samantha, that came out wrong—"
"Thanks for lunch," she said, stood, and walked out.
Shit, shit, shit; pretty sure there were tears in her eyes. Thank goodness this was the sort of place where you paid for your meal in advance, because I scrambled after her without thinking for a second about paying the check. I barely remembered to grab the B&N bag with Vickie's gift.
I hit the street to find Samantha already halfway down the block, fumbling for her phone.
"Samantha, wait!" I called out, hurrying after her.
She spun around. "What do you want, Xavier? Is mocking me a really fun game for you?"
"Look, Samantha, I'm really sorry. That came out completely wrong. Please give me a chance to explain?" I looked around, somewhat frantically. Thank goodness, by chance she'd headed in the direction I'd been meaning to go before I'd made a hash of things at the restaurant. This wasn't quite how I'd imagined things going, but I may as well make use of my preparations. "There's a little park about a block to the left; will you hear me out?"
Samantha stared me down hard. "Fine! I don't really care one way or the other, but I suppose I can at least listen to you for a few minutes."
I'd never been so relieved to receive a dose of tsundere.
The walk to the park was super awkward, but finally we arrived. It was about what I'd expected; a small play area for little kids, some benches around the edges for old codgers, and a bit of green space for dogs. Samantha and I grabbed a bench for ourselves, though with quite a lot of space between us.
"Well?" she said, refusing to look at me.
Ugh, we'd gone completely off the rails at this point. How was I going to salvage things? "Look, I really enjoyed hanging out with you today, and—I mean, it just seems like a lot of the time you're intentionally acting out a tsundere character and I'm really sorry if I'm completely off-base, but I really liked talking to you without—well, without the tsun, I suppose. And when I discovered that you like anime, I couldn't help but think that it must be intentional, so I just had to ask…I'm really sorry. I didn't mean to be a jerk."
Samantha was quiet for a few moments. She didn't seem to be angry, though. More like she just wasn't sure what to say. I clamped down on the urge to spew any more apologies and waited.
When she finally said something, it wasn't anything I'd expected. "I'm not good at this, okay?!" She bit her lip, and now she looked furious and sad, but I had a feeling it wasn't directed at me. "I never know what to say or do, and people just don't like me! I'm too shy, nothing I say is clever, I'm just not good at making friends, I'm just not good enough. I don't even have any shared interests, because who watches anime? No one at my middle school, that's for sure. They think Japan is all karate and samurai and don't care. So I figured, maybe I can change things for high school? I mean it happens in anime all the time, right? And I thought and thought about it, but you just can't change who you are, and it's scary! I don't know what's fashionable and I'm terrible at holding conversations and nothing was working, but then I tried acting like a tsundere and you ran into me and it worked! I met you, and Vickie, and Paula, and the others and I actually have people to talk to at school and do things with. So what do you want from me, anyway?"
I had no answer to that, and Samantha was evidently done with the subject. She was still staring out across the park instead of looking my way, and had a bit of a hitch in her breathing, while I sat there like an idiot with absolutely no idea what to say.
As the silence stretched, and Samantha gave a little half-hiccup, half-gulp and pulled out her phone, I realized that I was just proving to her that she was right: being genuine with me had brought her nothing but grief. Before she could unlock the phone, I forced myself to speak up. "You know, you're the only person outside my family who knows that I'm a super manga geek."
Samantha started and looked my way; it seemed she'd given up on the conversation continuing.
"I tried to tell—well, anyway, I've always figured people would mock me if they knew I was binge reading what they would consider romance comics for teenage girls, among other things. So I just—never mentioned it. And you're right, it's hard when you can't share the things you love with the people around you. I can understand where you're coming from, there.
"It's just—you're a lot cuter without twin-tails, and a lot more enjoyable to talk to when you aren't pretending to be hostile. I dunno. I guess we all act in ways we think will appeal to the people around us or whatever, but I like you a lot more than any tsundere."
"Thanks, Xavier," said Samantha softly, before unlocking her phone and sending off a quick text to someone. "I'll keep that in mind, I guess. Um, see you at school." And without really looking at me again, she scurried off toward the road.
I thought back over what I'd just said. Oh, shit. I know the whole plan was to get a little closer to Samantha in hopes of untangling her motivation for being a harem member, but I think I just kind of implicitly confessed to her there, didn't I?
And although I certainly had a more positive view of her now…there was no way in hell I wanted to date her.
I texted my dad to let him know I needed picking up, and stared morosely over at the swings I'd been planning originally to sit on with Samantha (that being a classic manga location for light emotional connections). Where was I going to go from here? At the moment, I hadn't the faintest.