Chapter 8:

common route walkthrough

A Study on the Stand-In Love Interest

“[Tell him you’re looking for your brother.]

[Remain quiet.]

[Tell him to #$%^ &*@]”

The Entity flashed those lines in front of Orion again, and for a moment, he thought he was finally free from the burden of free choice. But then he realized those were Halie’s choices from earlier, and her sudden silent treatment started making sense—but it also didn’t.

Because why the hell did she choose the second option in this situation? She should’ve warned him before they entered the city if she was going to force him to do all the talking! There was no way Aries wasn’t going to be suspicious of him—this man was a love interest, but he was also a council member. And in this place, the council’s word was law and its judgement was absolute.

In the comic, Halie was untouchable because Aries liked her enough to protect her from the other council members. But there was an arc in which Eilah had been wrongfully accused of a petty crime once, and nearly paid for it with her life.

Yeah, there was no way he was going to be able to talk himself out of this.

“Hah, I’ve got to stop making exceptions for you,” Aries sighed, but not in a way that sounded like he’d caught on to their farce—yet. “We can’t just help everyone you pick up off the ground for free, Orion. Resources and manpower are scarce enough. We can barely keep up with our own citizens, let alone outsiders.”


He expected him to at least comment on how Orion Magnaolia was acting a little different today. Halie had easily sniffed him out with a single word out of his mouth. Maybe fangirls just had higher standards.

Well, here goes nothing.

“A-actually, she was the one who picked me up off the ground,” said Orion, referencing what Halie had told him. “I uh, collapsed from dehydration.”

Surprisingly, a look of understanding crossed Aries’ face. “I told you not to go search for that kid alone. I know you don’t like how we do things, but I—if you had asked me, I would’ve…”

When he trailed off, gazing into the distance with a pensive expression, Orion took the opportunity to shoot Halie a quick, furtive glance. A part of him was worried she was feeling under the weather and maybe that was why she was so quiet this whole time. But one look made that concern dissipate immediately—she had a hand clamped firmly over her mouth, and she was trying her best to hold in laughter. Rude.

“What’s wrong with you?” he hissed under his breath, his eyes flitting to Aries and back to her again. “Are you trying to get me killed?!”

“You’re pretty hot when you’re angry,” she whispered back, which sort of just completely killed his motivation to retort anything at all.

“Affection levels have increased to 16%.”

Could that stupid gauge stop going up for stuff like this?!

“But you did great,” she continued in a low whisper. Orion didn’t notice that she’d already let go of his arm until she patted his shoulder. “I’ll take care of the rest.”

In his mind’s eye, the Entity showed him another scene from the game, set against the backdrop of the crowded town hall. Halie, the sweet and timid heroine, asking Aries to help her look for someone. She said she’d heard rumours circulating in her hometown that the council’s web of information spanned across cities. She came here because she heard that they’d be able to help her out, for a price.

Orion’s vision swam, and he realized that it wasn’t a clip from the game after all. Before his eyes, Halie was nodding along, smiling shyly as Aries explained that she’d have to put in a formal request for the council. Orion had never seen her act like that before, like she’d been replaced by the original heroine. He could only really hear bits and pieces of their conversation—was the town hall always this crowded, and was the crowd always this loud?

Or was he the one who’d taken a step back, not wanting to intrude on them?

Halie’s long jacket made her seem even tinier next to Aries Buragandy. There was a dazed half-smile on her face, and she was tugging absentmindedly on her jacket zipper. The only time Orion had ever seen her this meek was when she apologized for grabbing his jaw—but that was only because she felt bad for doing that to Magnaolia’s face. She’d sobered up quickly, and was back to her usual abrasive self within minutes.

But this time, things were different.

Maybe Orion was viewing the scene through an otome game filter, but watching them made his heart flutter uncomfortably. For the first time, it really felt like he was in a romance game—as if he was standing quietly on the sidelines of one.

Because he’d missed out on a lifetime of Orion Magnaolia’s experiences, he never figured out how that guy was supposed to act. Halie had accepted that he wasn’t him pretty quickly, albeit bitterly, so there was never a reason to try.

Until now. Faced with some dude he was supposed to know, who happened to be a rival love interest programmed to give his entire heart to Halie—

In that instant, the only thought that flashed through Orion’s mind was that there was no way he could compete with someone like that. All the nonsense that Halie had said about how the other male leads wouldn’t fall for her—was she blind or just stupid?

Ha, that was just like the Halie in the comic.


“You’re stupid,” she retorted. “I think you’re just jealous.”

“Who’s jealous?” Orion spluttered. And of what, her harem? Not in the slightest! He couldn’t care less about a girl he didn’t care about, and he didn’t care about her either. Still, seeing that she was back to her old self around him gave him a strange twinge of relief in his chest.

There was something comforting, he realized, when it was just the two of them. With Halie, there were no pretenses, no false pleasantries, just two people who knew of each other’s real identities—well, that wasn’t quite it. But they were both outsiders and they knew it, and this one connection was the only reason Orion had survived in this world so far.

But she could blend in seamlessly with the shape of the crowd, chatting up a storm with some guy she claimed she had no interest in. He needed her, but she didn’t need him. Maybe Orion really was jealous of her.

“Or are you still pissed that I left you to the wolves?” Halie asked, nudging him playfully in the arm with her elbow—exactly on the spot where she’d left a bruise from squeezing his arm earlier.

“I am,” he said, choosing to omit everything in between. “You’d better have a good explanation for that.”

“I do!” she said brightly. “Want the long explanation, or the short one?”

“Keep it short.”

They’d moved outside of the town hall after that, and Orion was grateful to get away from Aries and that stifling place. The rain was still falling lightly, pale grey clouds silhouetted against the orange sky. The unchanging colour made it hard to judge the time, but regardless of the hour on the clock, it was time for a long nap.

Halie was clutching a board the size and thickness of an iPad, looking very pleased with herself. It was like a slab of rock—not unlike a miniature version of the sandstone barrier that stood outside the city. However, it was outlined by a metal frame, letting it hold its rigid, rectangular shape. He’d seen one of these before.

“Remember this from the comic?” she asked, holding it out for him to see. Orion nodded. He remembered finding it amusing that some things in this world were high-tech, while others made it seem like they’d regressed back to the Bronze Age.

A clay tablet, used for writing.

“A request ticket for the council,” he said.

Halie beamed. “You know what, I think I changed my mind about you. Better it’s you than some other rando.”

Some other rando, huh?

“You seemed to get along with Aries Buragandy just fine,” he pointed out, and then regretted it the instant the words left his mouth.

“Affection levels have increased to 19%.”

“Oh my god, you really are jealous,” Halie said, sounding delighted.

“Not at all!”

She grinned. “You’ve never played an otoge before so you’re probably not aware. See, the choices you make in the common route affect which route you end up on. Sometimes it’s easy! Choices like side with Orion, go with Orion, tell Orion his hair's fabulous. Bam, Orion’s route.”

Orion blinked hair out of his eyes, scowling.

“But sometimes,” she continued, “it’s the way you’d react to certain situations. Or even worse, like—turn left or right? Pineapples or an incandescent lightbulb? One wrong choice too many, you end up on the wrong guy’s route. And we can’t have that here, ‘cause I can’t save and redo IRL.”

“What do you mean…?”

“I was purposefully saying the shit that’d make Aries feel more neutral about me, but without pissing him off. What did you think I was doing?”


What did Orion think she was doing? Maybe the answer to that was tucked quietly in the relief flooding into his heart and the laughter that sounded over the gentle pattering of rain. Even though she was laughing at his expense, laughing at how stupid his expression looked right now, the strange giddiness that he was feeling still wouldn’t go away.

“Affection levels have increased to 25%.”

Lucid Levia
Steward McOy
Dhamas Tri (dmz)
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