I now had a dilemma. Samantha and Jill were both on trajectories that could lead out of the harem, which meant my next obstacle was Paula. And I had absolutely no clue how to deal with Paula.
The thing was, I couldn't figure her motivation at all. She was two years my senior, which meant that she should have been hanging out with other seniors, or maybe juniors on the outside. Instead she was spending a significant amount of time with a mixed group of sophomores and one freshman. She enthusiastically joined the improv club, but I'd never heard her say anything about any other extracurricular activities. Hell, she barely talked about herself at all. I knew she was working part-time at the Stirbucks in the Outlet, too, so I wasn't sure if she even had free time to spend with anyone other than her fellow harem members and me.
Add to that the fact that just about whenever I tried to interact with her I ended up getting flustered when she inevitably started teasing or flirting, and I had no idea what I was going to be able to do about her.
As I worried over the issue, two weeks passed. Nothing much happened. Seamus clearly hadn't said anything to Jill—not terribly surprising, really, given she was rarely anywhere to be found outside of school hours thanks to cross-country—and Samantha had eventually started roughly alternating eating with Amaya and Jewel and spending lunch with the harem. She was still kind of pissed with me over literally shoving her at her two new friends, but that just meant she aimed the tsundere mainly at Paula, so I can't say that I minded.
I realized dithering over Paula wasn't doing me any good, but to be fair I did have a good distraction. My 16th birthday was coming up, which as far as I was concerned meant one thing: my driving test was fast approaching.
My birthday is on October 21, which this year fell mid-week. I'd passed the written test over the summer, and had the practical driving test scheduled for the Saturday after my birthday. My mom had asked if I wanted a party, but given the high likelihood it would devolve into some sort of harem scenario, I declined. As a result the Wednesday of my actual birthday we went out for dinner and had an ice cream cake at home with just family. Well, family and Rachel, of course. At this point she was pretty much a Brock, for all practical purposes. I guess maybe that was working in my favor, too, because it had been a long while since I had anything that screamed "harem scenario" involving Rachel.
Saturday morning rolled around, and Mom drove me over to the local DMV. The driving test went pretty well, although I had a bad moment while trying to parallel park. Missed the car in front of me by several inches, though, so it all worked out. After waiting around for a while afterward, the good news came down: I'd passed! I got an awful picture of myself taken, they printed out a temporary license, and I blissed out in the passenger seat while Mom drove us home. That test had been surprisingly stressful; something about having an adjudicator watching my every move really brought home the fact I was moving a couple tons of metal around at speed.
I was super happy I'd passed it, though. We'd still be sharing the same pair of family cars, but now that I didn't need to rely on a parent to ferry me around my world just got a lot bigger.
We pulled into our driveway, and Mom shepherded me toward the front door. I was still so happy at my relative freedom that I didn't really think about why we might be going in the front instead of the back.
Until I opened the door and found myself staring at Rachel, Jill, Samantha, Vickie, my Dad, Hayden, Seamus, and Jesse. "Surprise!"
"Ack!" I said, and involuntarily started to take a step back, only to trip over my own foot. Shit, I hadn't done this in weeks!
As I started to go over backward, Mom grabbed at my arm but only succeeded in hitting it. This spun me halfway around, and I desperately tried to get my feet back under me.
I failed, and I threw up my arms in an attempt to catch myself as I started to fall down the front steps.
Instead of face-planting on the walk or the lawn, though, I found myself colliding and tangling with Paula and we both went down in a heap.
I may have mentioned that manga harems, and rom-coms more generally, love their coincidences. Well, there's a particular favorite in harems: boy (or girl) falls over. Unpictured, typically physically improbable, actions briefly ensue on the way to the ground. Boy is left on top of girl in one of three main situations:
- Straddling her, while girl's clothing is mysteriously hiked up and she stares up at him in either shock or seduction (depending on the genre). Because, you know, landing on your tailbone doesn't hurt at all so of course pain isn't a likely expression.
- Face down in her cleavage.
- Face down on top of her with a hand firmly groping a breast. This usually results in a lengthy breast massaging session, as the protagonist absentmindedly wonders what this strangely textured thing his hand has landed on could possibly be.
I got option number three. I have literally no idea how I managed to end up with a hand on Paula's chest when I'd been trying to catch myself. There must have been some special manga magic, because I'm fairly certain that under normal circumstances even if I accidentally groped her on the way down I would have ended up with my hand on the ground simply because that's the direction her breast curves, and no one tries to grab the ground when they're falling face forward: they try to land open palm.
But still, here we were. I scrambled off her so fast, she probably didn't even notice.
"Shit, that hurt!" exclaimed Paula as I levered myself off her. She grimaced and pushed herself into a sitting position.
"Are you alright?" I asked from where I was kneeling nearby. Thanks to Paula's last-minute intercept I was jarred and my knees felt a bit scraped up, but nothing hurt particularly badly.
A chorus of similar queries came from behind me as the whole crowd tried to force its way out the door. I swear I heard my dad say, "Classic!" in the background. Dammit, Dad.
"Yeah, yeah, I'll be fine."
I stood and offered Paula a hand, which she took and used to pull herself up. It caused me to stumble a half step forward; Paula was heavier than I'd expected.
Though I'm pretty sure she'd say the same thing about me.
"Well," said Paula, wincing a little as she straightened up and looked over the concerned group of people bumping one another down my front steps. "Let's get this party started!"
I trailed the rest of them into the house. I'd gotten complacent over the last couple weeks, but it looked like the genre was back to mess with me with a vengeance.