Chapter 5:

the world reflected in the water

A Study on the Stand-In Love Interest

“You good? I’m not dragging your lifeless body back to—hey! Hey! Your eyelids are fluttering! Quit pretending to be asleep!”

Orion cracked an eye open, feeling as though he’d died and been resurrected for a second time. He tried to sit up, reassessing his surroundings and the unfortunate reality that he’d only knocked himself out for a bit and had returned to hell. There was no telling how much time had passed in a place where the sky was always faintly orange, like the moments just before sunset.

But in this world, the sun never set.

(Or was that only a half-truth too, in a world that he only thought he knew?)

Well, it didn’t feel like he’d hit his head when he passed out. He was too aware, too awake, which was a real shame. Actually, there was an inexplicable throbbing pain in his jaw and an ache inside his mouth that felt like someone had tried to yank out a few of his teeth. He raised a hand to the side of his face and felt around experimentally.

“Ow,” he croaked, gingerly pressing his tongue against the bottom row of teeth. He wondered if he’d smacked his chin headfirst into a rock as he passed out. Even tripping on concrete had never hurt that much.

“Sorry,” came Halie’s voice, surprisingly subdued.

Orion turned to look at her, just as she dropped her gaze to the floor. She was sitting quietly next to him with her legs drawn up to her chest, her long raincoat trailing over the ground.

“I had to—take some drastic measures,” she mumbled. “You were about to fall into the water, so I…I panicked a bit. Even though you would’ve been fine, I guess I just didn’t—wasn’t thinking about anything other than Orion’s precious face. Promise me you won’t get mad. Um, does it still hurt?”

Orion clenched his jaws, wincing. “What did you do?”

“Okay, okay, well, you were falling, right?” she said, sneaking a fleeting glance at him with wide, slightly panicked eyes. “And so I couldn’t just grab onto your hood—what if I pulled off your jacket and sent you straight into the contaminated water? So I wasn’t thinking.”

“Okay,” he said. “Your point being…?”

“The only thing I could,” she said haltingly, “get a good grip on…‘cause you know, you were already unconscious, right? And your mouth was wide open but Orion’s face is handsome like that too. He’s always handsome, after all. And um, well…”

As she hesitated, and Orion’s lower face continued to throb, a sudden, horrible realization dawned on him then.

“So what, you grabbed me by the jaws?”

She blanched. “I said I was sorry!”

“Can’t believe you’d actually have the guts to grab your favourite character’s precious face with no hesitation,” he said, groaning. It hurt like hell, but he supposed he owed her for not letting him fall into the water.

“I saved your ass, for the record,” Halie scoffed, but there was no bite to her words. There was still a faint trace of guilt pooling in her green eyes, and he almost felt bad for her if not for the stabbing pain that continued to plague his jaws.

"Affection levels have increased to 5%."

Affection as in pity or something? It didn't seem like the Entity was capable of tracking any other emotions and defaulted everything to affection. Being forced to love the heroine simply because she was the heroine—that was the exact same gimmick that he saw in the webcomic. It was stupid, but he was starting to get used to it.

"Thank the protagonist,” the Entity commanded, as if to remind him of who was in charge. How irritating.

Between ordering Orion to be nice to Halie and sending him occasional affection level updates, the otome game plotline felt so contrived that he wanted to laugh. He couldn’t believe he had passed out because he was so worried about the parts of the backdrop that didn’t match what he knew. What did any of that amount to in the end?

This was just an otome game. Just a simple dating sim revolving around the protagonist. Everything else was trivial. The Entity had remained silent even when Orion had thought about jumping into the pool like an idiot—of course to this world, nothing mattered outside of her. He’d probably get teleported back right where he started if he actually went through with it.

Though he disliked the heroine character, this Halie was someone from his world that had played the stupid game at least a hundred times. She might not like him, but it seemed like she was willing to keep him around at least just because he looked like her favourite character. He could use that.

Orion needed to know more about this world, and more about himself. To survive, he should follow the Entity’s advice and keep her affection levels up, and maybe—

No, no, no, he didn’t want to think about that right now. He didn’t have time for romance. He was just here to play by the rules of the otome game, and he could only hope that it led somewhere that wasn’t a bad end.

"Thank the protagonist.”

Yeah, yeah, he was already planning on it.

“Thanks,” Orion said to Halie, and he meant it. He really did. “For saving me. And if you don’t mind, could you tell me more about that contaminated water?”

Was that too heavy-handed? But she seemed to perk up at that, which meant he was doing something right. Her posture relaxed somewhat, and she was leaning in slightly.

"Affection levels have increased to 6%."


“Okay, “ Halie said, taking a deep breath. “So the whole truth is actually revealed across all of the routes, mostly Leonis’s and Gideon’s though—that’s before we get into the meta bullshit. I don’t want to spoil like, the actual reveal though. I wouldn’t be able to bear the burden of doing that to a fellow fan.”

Orion fought the urge to tell her to get straight to the point, because he’d fought hard enough for a measly 6%.

“All of this gets pretty complicated,” she continued, and she sounded just as enthusiastic as when she was talking about her favourite character. “All you really need to know though, is that there’s a compound that binds to organic matter dissolved in the groundwater, which decomposes the flesh and recomposes it into clay. Pretty neat, right?”

What the hell.

“What,” he said flatly. “Decomposing flesh? Are you messing with me right now?”

Halie’s eyes were alight with glee as she leaned in close enough for him to see her eyelashes. “Ha! Bet you didn’t see that coming in your little otome villainess comic.”

“And you just stuck my hand in there? Are you crazy?”

“Affection levels have dropped to 3%.”

“You’ve got gloves for a reason,” she said, completely unperturbed.

She was insane. She was absolutely and utterly insane. And the setting was also insane. Wasn’t this supposed to be an otome game? What was with this pseudoscience nonsense, huh?

Halie looked full of energy again, hopping nimbly to her feet and holding out a gloved hand to help him up. “Anyway, let’s head back to the city. There’s so much shit we’ll have to deal with in the common route first, and then we’re gonna have a blast experiencing all the super weird plot twists since this is like, basically your first playthrough! I’ll get you up to speed when we’re in the city, ‘cause the game starts there with Halie looking for her brother, but you probably already know that.”

She was still holding out her hand, her expression growing impatient.

“You coming or not?”

“Affection levels have increased to 4%.”

That was a pretty inconsequential change, all things considered. Ultimately, it also didn’t matter to Orion, when she was only really seeing him as a man borrowing the face of her favourite character. But somehow, it was reassuring to have that link between them—however much of a farce that was. He wouldn’t be left here to die alone. There was someone in this world with him that knew everything about this wretched place, even if she wasn’t here for him.

Orion wasn’t here for her, either, so they were even.

He reached out and took her hand.

Lucid Levia
Steward McOy
Dhamas Tri (dmz)
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