"How'd the party go, Xavier?" called my mom as I headed in.
"Excruciating," I called back. "Why didn't you tell me that I'd be meeting her relatives?"
"What, Paula didn't tell you what kind of party it was?" said Dad, emerging from the kitchen and chuckling. Evidently the two of them had been cleaning up from dinner or canoodling or something. "That girl is a piece of work."
You don't have to sound quite so approving, Dad.
"Party aside, how are you doing, Xavier? How're things going with…life?"
"Ah, I guess life is progressing. Honestly, I need to think about it."
"Can I lend an ear?"
"No thanks Dad, I think I'm good. Oh hey, Rachel." She'd just exited the hallway on her way to the living room.
"Welcome home, Xavier," she said as she passed a critiquing eye over my costume.
"Thanks. Oh, Paula says 'hi'."
Rachel might have stiffened a bit, but it could have been my imagination, because a split second later she was back to normal. Was she jealous? It seemed unlikely, just knowing Rachel, but I guess jealousy was a classic source of conflict in manga. Guess I'd have to wait and see if she was unusually curt towards Paula, or stuck closer to me than normal, or something. I was pretty sure the overt displays of jealousy that were common in manga were unlikely to come from Rachel.
"Hi, Paula," Rachel said lightly.
"Right. I'm going to go get out of this darn costume."
Rachel waved me off, Dad headed back to the kitchen with an encouraging pat on my back, and I went and de-vampired myself.
Back in my room, I curled up in my thinking chair and pondered.
Even with a little distance, I was still perplexed by my evening with Paula. I couldn't see any obvious way forward, but perhaps I just needed to organize my thoughts.
What did I know about Paula at this point? She had a big family, but based on the things her cousins had said both Paula and her mother were not treated very well by a solid chunk of the extended family. I didn't know anything about her dad; he hadn't come up at all. Her mom was super awkward and flirty with kids less than half her age. Maybe that was one of the reasons Paula was so casually physical? Not that knowing that really helped me much.
By her own admission, Paula was feeling lonely and ostracized both by her family and schoolmates. I had a sneaking suspicion that trying to push her into making friends the way I had with Samantha wasn't going to work, as a result. She was perfectly friendly with me and the rest of the harem, so I didn't think that social awkwardness was her issue. Honestly, I was still a little baffled just what her issue really might be. Surely not all females in her life were jealous of her, and there had to be some guys who were interested in her for more than her body. Right?
Then again, what did I know? Barring any actual evidence, I was just going to need to take her description of her own life at face value.
All of which left me without much to work with, because I just could not think of how I could possibly help Paula gain confidence in herself without raising a whole bunch of problematic romantic flags. And having seen her extended family, I had even less of an inclination to try and resolve the manga by pursuing her romantically than I'd had before. Paula put me off my stride because her one-two punch of great body and physical flirtiness tended to hit me right in the hormones, but despite now having spent some one-on-one time with her I was still uninterested in dating her.
Okay, so maybe it was time to reposition. Say there wasn't much I could do to push Paula down her own road towards happiness. Was that actually a problem? She'd said herself that she wasn't interested in me romantically, so it was entirely possible that she'd fade out of my life naturally when it came time to graduate. That was an awful long way down the road, but if she was legitimately friend-zoned by her own preference, then she was unlikely to drive the manga plot forward outside of introducing randomness thanks to her propensity for screwing with people. Perhaps this little outing was sufficient to count for exploring the Paula route.
Oh man did I ever hope that was the case. I guess I'd just have to wait and see how—and if—her behavior had shifted at all around me over the upcoming week. If she was still emotionally hands-off despite being physically hands-on, then I was probably in the clear.
Leaving me with the conundrum that was Rachel. I was having a really difficult time figuring out what I was going to do to get Rachel out of the harem, or at minimum on a non-romantic track. Since we were living together, she was the harem member I saw most frequently, yet oddly the manga had pretty much left her alone ever since the other girls showed up. I was honestly a little baffled.
Typically, the main girl in a harem either firmly establishes her relationship with the protagonist early on, or else continually strengthens or affirms it in between escapades with secondary members. I'd certainly seen a lot of Rachel early on—ugh, pun not intended; thanks for that, brain—but we hadn't crossed paths much in manga-driven ways since.
While this had left me free to try and address the issues raised by other harem members, it also left me without any good idea of what to do about Rachel.
On the other hand, Rachel was living in the same house with me. Which meant that she had regular contact with Mom and Dad, both of whom were in on the whole manga thing. Could I just…tell her the truth? That was still unreasonably frightening to me for some reason, but Rachel had been living with us for several months now; she was surely aware that three-fourths of the people she lived with were big into manga, and she'd never judged me or said anything about it to anyone at school. I reeeeeally didn't want to, but perhaps if I just sucked it up and told her about my situation, with Mom and Dad backing me up…
I knew Seamus had the same lunch as I did. If I could convince Rachel to look for friends elsewhere, I'll bet Paula and Samantha would keep one another company. I'm sure Jill had other friends she could hang out with, and actually if she were dating Seamus it wouldn't matter so much if she followed me, anyway. That would completely disrupt the main contact I had with the harem on a day-to-day basis, and barring increasingly-unlikely manga coincidences that might put a few nails in the genre's coffin all on its own.
This had promise. I'd have to run it by Dad to see if he had any feedback or could spot likely points of failure, but maybe the biggest hurdle I had now was just forcing myself to talk frankly with Rachel.
While that was a high hurdle for me emotionally, if the payoff was my freedom—well, that exchange seemed well worth it to me.