I stared at the group of people who had gathered in my living room, bemused. I wasn't sure who was responsible for this party, but the guests were a weird confluence of my normal friends, family, and harem. I was at a loss over what to say or how to act.
Fortunately, my dad stepped up before things got too awkward. "Congrats on getting your license, kid!"
"Yeah, and happy birthday!" said Jill. A chorus of "happy birthdays" and "congratulations" followed as the rest of the group chimed in, and the ice was officially broken.
As Mom slipped in and out of the kitchen, delivering a growing collection of snacks, I sat back and spent a moment watching my social circles collide.
Jesse was hovering uncomfortably in the background until Rachel said something to Hayden, who took pity on him and introduced him to Paula and Samantha. Samantha was way more reserved than I was used to seeing, which made sense given what I knew about her social anxiety hang-ups, but she gradually started acting more like herself as Paula and Vickie tag-teamed her.
Meanwhile, Seamus practically pounced on Jill and appeared to be catching up with her about the several years that had passed since they talked last. Excellent; it looked like the "hook Jill up with Seamus" gambit was still in play.
Dad meandered between people as his interest led him, getting introduced and extracting minor life details in passing. Rachel disappeared into the kitchen to help Mom for a bit, and then came and sat down near me, ending my brief moments of virtual isolation.
"How'd the test go, Xavier?"
"Hey, Rachel. It went pretty well, though I had a bad moment parallel parking."
"Mm, I've heard a lot of people fail that."
"Are you planning to get your license? You'll be 16 this year, right?"
She smiled ruefully. "I'm sixteen now."
"Yeah, my birthday is September 16th."
Evidently Dad was hovering, because he broke in at this point. "That was just last month! You should have told us! I would have baked you a cake."
"Well there you go, Dad. She's been eating your Saturday abominations for a couple months now, so she was probably scared for her life if you concocted a dessert."
Dad made an exaggerated "I've been stabbed through the heart" gesture. "You wound me!"
Rachel laughed. "Honestly, it slipped my mind. I've been shuffling between houses so often that celebrating birthdays just doesn't occur to me."
Dad leaned over with a conspiratorial wink. "She says that, but who do you think organized this little shindig?"
Ah, so that's why this particular group of people ended up invited. Rachel is one of the few people who knew everyone here.
She shrugged and stage whispered, "Blame Samantha" to me. Wow, that was totally believable, too. I could almost hear her say…
"It's not like I wanted to celebrate your birthday!" exclaimed Samantha from behind my chair. She'd evidently worked her way around the room over toward us in an attempt to escape talking to Jesse and Hayden.
"Yeah, yeah." I waved her off. "If you'll excuse me, it looks like Mom has broken out the mini-sausages, and I'm going to go liberate a few before Seamus discovers them."
"Enjoy," said Rachel with a small smile, while Dad muttered something to himself about low quality excuses for food.
Although before I went, maybe a little revenge for her continued tsundere act was in order. "Hey Dad, have you met Samantha before? She's really into anime; maybe you should take her to the Lab and give her a tour."
Dad's eyes lit up, and he dragged Samantha off while she shot me a look of abject betrayal over her shoulder. Rachel laughed and wandered over to Hayden, Jesse, and Paula, pausing on her way to say something to Vickie who had evidently holed herself up partway behind the recliner with a bowl of mixed nuts. Vickie ditched the nuts, and went after Dad and Samantha.
Outside of the harem at lunch time, I hadn't really spent much time watching Rachel navigate social situations. I didn't realize how competent she was at reading and directing social interactions. She was so soft-spoken most of the time that she kind of faded into the background of the conversation, but she was obviously constantly monitoring not only the circle of people she was actively interacting with, but also the room as a whole. Whenever someone, including myself, spent too much time alone Rachel would find a way to steer them into conversation or direct other people their way. When it became clear that Dad was never going to let Samantha escape the Lab and Vickie wasn't helping, Rachel drifted off in that direction and a few minutes later Samantha rocketed out of the hallway and ensconced herself on the couch, the bowl of mixed nuts Vickie had abandoned clutched defensively to her chest. A few minutes later Rachel slipped through the room into the kitchen, and Mom wandered in without any new snacks to chat with Samantha on the couch.
It was honestly fascinating to watch, and I found myself distracted in a lot of the conversations I was having simply because I was curious what Rachel would get up to next.
"That's how it is, then?" asked Paula with a wry grin, and I refocused. At some point I'd ended up in the corner of the room with Paula while the rest of the party was congregated at the other end of the room or had spilled out into the back yard.
"What was that?"
"You like Rachel."
Paula rolled her eyes. "Xavier, you've been watching her like a hawk this whole time. I hope you don't behave like that normally; doesn't she live with you?"
"Look, you've got the wrong idea; I was just curious today because she's practically running this party. Haven't you noticed? Whenever someone's alone or looks uncomfortable, she finds a way to intervene."
"Eh, don't really care," said Paula. She leaned forward with a devilish grin. "I'm just saying, if you want to get together with Rachel, maybe you should stop groping other girls, huh?"
"Groping…?" Dammit, of course she'd noticed. "That was—" And crap, there really was no way to explain without trying to convince her that she was a fictional character.
"Oh, I'm not angry or anything!" said Paula. "A girl likes to know she rates higher than stopping yourself from face-planting."
Argh, this was the problem with talking to Paula. She inevitably just ended up teasing me. I swear she only hung around us because she liked to mess with me.
I glanced toward the rest of the party where there appeared to be some sort of heavy debate going on. They looked like they'd be embroiled in that for a while, and for once Rachel wasn't even glancing our way. I'd been brooding over how to deal with Paula for so long, but maybe I could just ask her. She'd probably just blow it off, but it was worth a shot.
"Why are you here, Paula?" I asked abruptly.
"I mean, like, why are you hanging out with a bunch of underclassmen? What are you getting out of it?"
"Oooh, so serious!" Paula gave it some thought, then shrugged. "I just really like to mess with you."
What is she, a mind-reader? "No, seriously. I'm honestly curious."
Paula gave me a long look, then got a glint in her eye I wasn't sure I liked as she folder her arms under her breasts, shoving them up like some sort of challenge. Or maybe a shield. "Why don't you tell me, Xavier? Why are any of us here hanging out with you?"
Fine, I'd play along. I started ticking off the people who were still arguing on the other side of the room off my fingers. "Seamus is an old family friend and Rachel's cousin, and Jesse's friends with both Seamus and me. Hayden's my best friend. Rachel's new in town and doesn't know a lot of people, which is why she hangs out around me a lot. Plus she lives here, since Seamus' family doesn't have an extra room and we do. Samantha is weirdly bad with people, and hangs around me because I put up with her nonsense. Jill's an old childhood friend. Vickie, Mom, and Dad are family, so they don't have a choice in the matter. And apparently you like to mess with me." Oh, and half of you are harem manga heroines.
Paula hummed noncommittally. "Okay, you get a B minus."
"What?!" I should have mentioned the harem thing.
"It's a passing grade, Xavier. Don't get greedy now."
"How was that a B minus? I was spot on!"
"Mmm, if you say so. But from my perspective, you missed some key facts."
"Aw, you're a smart boy. I'm sure you'll do better on the next test."
"So that means—"
But Paula interrupted me. "Tell you what, Xavier. You show me a good time next Saturday, and maybe I'll clue you in."
Paula winked at me. "It's a date, then!"
Before I could respond Vickie came over and dragged me off.
"Come on, Xavier, the justice of croquet has finally prevailed and you're on my team."
Well. Not much I could do against the justice of croquet.