"Aren't you two just adorable," babbled Paula's mother as she grabbed my arm and physically dragged me into the room proper. It was a move that was extremely reminiscent of Paula's own tendency to cling, but where Paula came off as sexy and flirtatious her mom only really managed to nail down creepy and way too old. If I hadn't already been feeling supremely uncomfortable, that would have put me over the edge for sure. "I wondered why you were taking so much time with your costume this year, Paula. Guess it's because you had to make two! You sly girl." Seriously, this was her mother? I shot Paula a look that I hoped communicated get me the hell out of this situation but although I was half-expecting to see her laughing at my expense, she was actually blank-faced. It threw me off my stride.
Literally threw me off my stride, that is; I tripped over my own feet and almost took her mother down with me. Fortunately, before I had to have a Manga Moment with Mom, Paula grabbed me herself and yanked me off-balance the other way—and out of her mother's clutches. "Is that salad you insisted on bringing put together yet?"
Her mother held up her hands. "I know, I know, cousins only, right? But I was just finishing things up in the kitchen when you got here, and when I heard I had to meet your date!"
"Xavier, my mother. Mom, Xavier," said Paula with exasperation in her voice. "Okay, you've met him."
"I hope we'll get to see a lot more of you, Xavier!" said Paula's mom unrepentantly, and winked at me. She freaking winked at me. I could go home now, right? Because I wanted to go home.
Paula's mother hitched her shoulders in what could have been a shrug, and practically skipped back out of the room. "Ta-ta! You kids have fun!"
"Welcome to the family, Xavier! How you liking Aunt Jas?" said an unfamiliar voice.
Oh, right. In the moment I'd forgotten, but I was now surrounded by a room full of Paula's cousins. Lovely.
After an initial flurry of interest—and a long parade of names that went in one ear and straight out the other—I was able to fade into the background and try to pretend I was part of the wallpaper. Pretty much all I took from my initial crash-course in Paula's family structure was that she had an extended family that was just as ridiculously large as Seamus'. Of course, I only knew about Seamus' extended family through hearsay—mostly him bitching about family gatherings. Here I was right in the thick of things, and fully prepared to start bitching myself.
From what I could gather, the cousin's Halloween party was an annual event in Paula's family that had been going on since before she was born. Paula glided through the gathering with me in her wake. She was a very different person from the Paula I knew from school. Still pretty out there, but she was far more often the butt of her cousin's teasing than the one doing the teasing—and their teasing could get pretty brutal. It was honestly throwing me off. I'd always seen Paula as someone firmly in control of herself, but here she was far more often on the defensive.
Paula's costume—and mine for that matter—were excessively elaborate compared to everything else at the party. Most of her cousins had settled for costumes that were clearly store-bought, or that might have received care and creativity in their initial creation but were now years old. It was a puzzle: why had Paula created such an intricate pair of matching costumes for a party that she didn't appear to actually enjoy? Why did she want me here at all, when she was mainly interacting with her family members? What the hell was wrong with her mother? (Yeah, I still wasn't over that.)
And most importantly, just how was this going to help me get Paula out of the harem? In retrospect, Samantha was reasonably straight-forward, and the solution for Jill just kind of fell into my lap. I wasn't going to think about Ms. Cariño in hopes that problem went away on its own, and Rachel—well, Rachel was still pending. I thought seeing Paula in a different environment would give me some clue about what might be driving her, but I was completely at a loss.
At least the food was alright. It wasn't quite the diverse spread that my mom would have provided for such a big party, but although it was clearly potluck-style the dishes were almost entirely homemade and pretty tasty even when they didn't look like all that. At Paula's recommendation I had the shepherd's pie that she said was some aunt or other's specialty, and I deeply regretted meeting her mom instead of her aunt.
We'd been engaged in high-stress mingling for several hours when a subset of Paula's older cousins cornered me while she was in the bathroom. I wasn't sure what to expect, since this whole scenario top-to-bottom was off the rails as far as manga plotlines went.
"So, kid—it was what, Xavier?—lemme guess: you asked Paula out, am I right?" said the eldest of the four cousins who had wandered my way with intent as soon as Paula ducked out. The other three consisted of a pair of guys who looked to be close in age—maybe in their mid-20s—and a woman I hadn't interacted with who looked somewhere in between them and the older guy.
I wasn't sure how to respond to that, but fortunately for me they weren't apparently looking for a conversation so much as an audience.
"Course he did," said one of the younger guys. "I mean come on: those tits! I'm related to her, and even so it's like daaaamn."
"Ha, seriously," said the older guy. "It's not like you'd date her for her sparkling personality, right?"
The woman tittered and the other young guy huffed, but evidently neither had anything to add. I hadn't been aware that was actually a way that people laughed.
I also wasn't entirely sure why the Asshole Brigade here had decided to seek me out. Well, would hate for all that practice to go to waste: I gave them my blank-faced stare.
The woman lost steam and the younger guy shut up, while the other two just appeared to be getting angry.
"Well?" said the older guy with a confrontational step toward me. "How's she in the sack then? Was it worth it to date the daughter of the family slut?"
"You—" I started, not entirely certain where I was going but pretty damn sure it wasn't going to end well.
"There you are, Xavier!" said Paula brightly from behind me. "I've been looking for you. Sorry, Brad, we've got to head out." She turned to the room at large, raised her voice, and gave a wave. "It was good to see everyone!"
"Bye, Paula!" called Rita from out of the general low-level salutations. "Drive safe!"
Paula gave the four dickwads around me the brightest, fakest smile I'd ever seen on her face, and we were out of there.
What. The. Hell.