I really wanted to get Dad's input on how he would handle the Samantha situation that I found myself in, but I also felt like that would be a major breach of trust and I was on thin ice with her anyway. In the end, I didn't say much on the way home, and Dad didn't pry.
Back home, I headed straight upstairs and collapsed into my thinking chair. I definitely could have handled that encounter better, but I'd also gotten a lot out of it. She might have been borderline furious when it happened, but Samantha had opened up to me. Not only that, but for a solid chunk of our not-a-date excursion I was interacting with the actual Samantha, instead of her tsundere persona. That was a solid win in my book, not least because I now knew for certain that it was a persona.
Okay, so then what did I need to do to get Samantha out of my harem?
I had no clue. Hell, I'd probably just shoved her further down the rabbit hole. I wasn't sure what possessed me to tell her she was cute, but that was definitely going to come back to bite me somehow.
Alright, so more basic then: what did Samantha want? That was pretty easy, actually. She clearly had some sort of social anxiety or something going on and she wanted to fit in and be able to make friends. If I'd understood her correctly, she wasn't in the harem due to romantic attachment so much as because it provided her with the social interaction she desired.
By that logic, then, if I could improve her social skills, increase her confidence in herself, or just find her a social circle she would presumably not need the harem.
Well, this was great; I wasn't confident that I could accomplish any of those things. How do you make friends for someone else? Maybe if Vickie were a high school student I might be able to finagle something with her help, but she wouldn't join us at Alburn High or another year.
Hmm. I suppose I might be able to increase Samantha's confidence in herself, but I was pretty sure that was going to require more than just talking to her. At minimum, I imagined she'd have to experience for herself that she can navigate social situations without her tsundere persona for anything I said to have any real weight. Which would mean that I somehow had to gain sufficient respect with her that my words have weight, and set up a situation where she could safely practice being sociable safely.
Yeah, that wasn't a high bar at all. Especially considering that the only ways I was likely to improve my relationship with her all involved her falling for me, making getting any closer to her an ever more dangerous balancing act.
I rubbed my eyes. It was so incredibly tempting to just leave Samantha to her own devices for a while and focus on someone else, but that was exactly what the harem genre thrived on. Incremental equal progress, taking one step back for every two steps forward…a harem storyline was a multi-armed seesaw with me at the fulcrum.
No, I definitely needed to stick to the plan, which meant I needed help.
I went to find Vickie.
I found Vickie sitting at the kitchen table working on homework. I stopped dead in the doorway and pointed dramatically. "Who are you and what have you done with my sister? Vickie would never sit at the table."
"Ha ha ha," said Vickie. "You're a riot. So how was your date with Samantha?"
I slid into a seat at the back of the table so I was facing the room. "It wasn't a date. And it went mostly okay."
"Look, have you and Samantha talked much? I know you've only actually met up a couple of times."
Vickie narrowed her eyes at me and set down her pencil. "Are you trying to dig for info about here again? Because I already told you, if you want to know something, you should just ask her yourself."
"No, no, no. I'm not trying to get you to spill her secrets or anything. Just—are you two close?"
"Eh. I like her. If you want to know how she feels you could, oh I don't know, ask her."
"No, I just mean like—are you two friends?"
Vickie made an exasperated noise. "Would you get to the point? What is it you want?"
"Well, it's just—so I actually got a glimpse of Samantha without the tsundere and she's a far more tolerable person that way. But from what she said, I don't think she's confident in her ability to make friends and I'd really like to help her get over that. So I was wondering if you could maybe…" I trailed off hopefully. I actually had no idea what I was hoping Vickie could do, but as the one person who I knew liked Samantha as a friend she was my best hope.
Vickie put her face in her hand. "Xavier, I'm your thirteen-year-old sister, and even I know that trying to 'fix' someone else's issues—" ooh, air quotes and everything "—is a terrible idea. What do you expect to happen? People's self-confidence issues don't go away just because someone else tells them they're bogus."
"Right, I know. I just—I don't know, I guess I was hoping you could maybe invite her along if you go out with your friends sometime."
Vickie stared at me for a while. "Maybe I will, but if I do that's none of your business, isn't it? Now if you'll excuse me, I need to finish playing with prepositions."
"Have fun with that."
Well, that could have gone better, but maybe Vickie actually would invite Samantha out, which was all to the good, as far as I was concerned. Any positive social interaction that didn't involve me was bound to do her good, and hopefully start easing her toward exiting the harem.
However, I doubted that passively hoping my little sister would take care of things was going to be enough. Guess it was time to go back to the drawing board. Or I could talk to Dad! Now that I'd had some time to cool down, I thought I could get some good help from him without betraying Samantha's trust.
Having people able and willing to help me with this dilemma was really nice.
Dad turned out to be in the backyard pruning bushes. "Hey Dad, can we talk for a bit?"
He immediately got a crafty look in his eye I knew I wasn't going to like. "Sure, Xavier! Grab those pruning shears, and we can talk as long as you want!"
Great. Dad hated lawn work with a passion, which meant that Mom must have forced him out here and now I'd just gotten myself roped into it, too. I sighed. "Sure, Dad."
We got clipping, and for a bit the air was filled with the scent of rhododendron sap. Finally, Dad spoke up. "So what's eating you, kid?"
"I think I've cracked how to resolve one of my harem sub-plots, but I need to find a way to increase the girl's confidence in her own ability to make friends."
"Ooh, that's a tough one. And participation in your harem isn't enough?"
Huh, I hadn't thought about that. Finding friendship with other girls in a harem was indeed a standard plot point. However, Samantha was a grade younger than all of us, plus her harem relationships were all founded on her tsundere persona. "I don't think that will be enough in this case."
"Okay, that means you're going to have to get a little creative. Off the top of my head, I can think of a few instances where harem members can work on their social skills, but not all of them translate across cultures very well." Dad fell quiet, and for a bit the only sound was that of our pruning shears murdering their way across the front of our respective bushes.
"So, are you going to share?"
"Heh, sorry. So first, there's the group or class project. Sort of similar to that is participation in a school committee, but that's pretty much exclusive to Japan. Second thing that comes to mind is the after-school karaoke meet-up, or gokon-style group date. And last, you could approach the issue a little differently and try to hook her up with one of your male friends."
He was right; aside from the first and last options, those didn't translate very well. On the other hand, I hadn't thought of any of them, so that was legitimately helpful. "Thanks, Dad. That's really useful."
"Not a problem, kid! Now, where do you think you're going? Surely you weren't planning to abandon your poor father to this thankless task?"
I sighed. And there went my afternoon.