Chapter 9:

open house

A Study on the Stand-In Love Interest

“That took you way too long,” Orion said, watching Halie struggling to carve out the letter ‘S’ into the wet clay with a fingernail. “This whole clay tablet system is too inefficient.”

She didn’t even look up. “Maybe. What else can you write on? There’s no paper. No trees. But clay is everywhere.”

“Then why do we have oxygen if there are no trees?”

“Affection levels have dropped to 18%.”

“This is a fantasy otome game, don’t think that hard about it.”

Though Halie was quick to criticize the minute details from the webcomic’s writers, she was just as quick to defend everything about the game. It made understanding the world objectively a lot more difficult, and learning more about A Study on the Former Love Interest from her was a pain in the ass.

Orion Magnaolia had a residence in the city—a small place about half the size of his apartment from back home. As soon as the rain stopped, Halie took him there, claiming that it would be a safe place to hold their discussion away from prying ears before the next important scene. But seeing how her face lit up when they stepped inside the cramped building, Orion had a feeling she just wanted an excuse to barge into her favourite character’s house.

She did, in fact, spend several minutes poring over the walls, the low ceiling, the kitchen sink, and it felt like an invasion of privacy even though this wasn’t his space. It might've been because it wasn't his own space that it felt so uncomfortable clutching the keys to an unfamiliar house and standing awkwardly in the doorway until Halie shooed him in.

Then, as she perched at the edge of a metal stool and he sat down on the kitchen floor, she finally launched into the most roundabout explanation that Orion had ever heard in his life.

She talked about Aries Buragandy. That man had a soft heart, she said, despite his responsibilities as a member of the council. So Halie played the role of a fish-out-of-water country girl, overwhelmed by the big city. That angle ensured he’d take pity on her so that she could secure a request ticket, but nothing more than that.

Because it turned out each of the love interests had a type, and his was a strong-willed heroine that could match his banter, unafraid to speak out and stand up for herself. Huh. That pretty much described Halie. Wouldn’t it be so much easier to just be herself?

"You sound like a good fit for this guy," Orion reasoned, half-jokingly. "How about you change favourites?"

"How about you shut up?"

She talked about Orion and Aries, about how the two of them met as schoolmates. Orion Magnaolia had always admired Aries and his unwavering conviction. Sort of like a fanboy, she said. And for that, Orion’s messy performance was convincing enough—despite having no idea how he was supposed to act.

“You’re not like him, not even one bit,” Halie added vehemently. “But Aries is just a person. All he can see is the guy in front of him, his awkward and endearing good friend that’s always putting others before himself.”

And then she went on a tangent about Magnaolia that lasted more than an hour, and he let her ramble because this was the happiest he’d ever seen her.

“Affection levels have increased to 23%.”

And that was good too, he supposed. Organic growth.

He learned about a lot of useless trivia, like how Orion Magnaolia hated the taste of bell peppers even though it was one of the easier garden vegetables to grow. Or how he was actually terrified of blood, but would volunteer at the short-staffed clinic anyway. Or how he’d take on the council’s rejected requests by himself, because he loved the town of Arkose and the people in it more than anything.

He’d share his precious resources without hesitation with any traveler he encountered in the wasteland, which had led to him collapsing from dehydration more than once because he readily gave away all his water. He was someone who was even willing to throw himself into danger to protect strangers.

He sounded pathetic, Orion thought, but weirdly admirable at the same time.

“So,” Halie said, repositioning the clay tablet on her lap, “anything else you wanna know while I fill out this request form?”

With the question flipped back to him, his mind suddenly came up blank. What did he want to know? Well, a lot of things—but it was kind of difficult to think of something on the spot, now that they’d actually sat down for this conversation. The world, the characters, the plot. There was so much he didn’t know.

So his thoughts wandered back to her.

He wasn’t over it, after all. It was difficult not to think about how cutting Eilah’s existence was like destroying the foundation of the story. Orion knew Halie was a huge fan of the original game, but he liked the webcomic just as much. Outside of Eilah’s journey to free herself from the villainess fate, the world was so bleak that it was hard to see a romance game in here. And without her, what was the heroine’s role?

In the comic, each of the love interests had been drawn to her naivety like it was charming or something. But there was nothing to move the romance forward, because her personality was so bland. That was why the love interests started taking an interest in Eilah, who rejected all their advances with delicate grace. But if there was no villainess in this world, then the heroine didn’t even have anyone to compete with for the love interests. She could be bland for fun, and still win.

Was the plot like, a battle royale for the girl or something?

“Ah,” Halie said, when he’d relayed those thoughts to her. “I think that’s where we have a glaring, fundamental misconception. Tell me, Orion not Magnaolia, what do you think an otome game is?”

He squinted at her. “A reverse harem dating sim with a bunch of love interest dudes chasing after the same girl?”

“Go on.”

“And well, they all like her, so I don’t really get how the game works if the villainess isn’t—”

“So what you’re describing is an otome isekai,” Halie said plainly, scraping a line into the clay tablet. “I don’t want to overwhelm you when you’re just getting accustomed to this world—”

(Funny she had some self-awareness after all, after dropping all that lore about flesh-eating water when they first met.)

“—but they’re so far removed from actual otome games that it’s a separate genre entirely. The whole point of an otoge is simply this: you play as the heroine. You play through half the storyline. The choices you make during that will lead you to a branching path, down a specific guy’s route. You try to romance that guy and collect his CGs. Rinse and repeat with each route, separately. That’s the basic format.”


“Just don’t think too hard about it,” Halie said sympathetically. “My heart only belongs to Orion Magnaolia, that’s all you need to know.”

Yeah, Orion didn’t want to think too hard about it either. Like everything else, romance for Former Love Interest sounded a lot more complicated than Villainess’s Love Interest. Ha, he sure had it rough, ending up here.

“You play visual novels, right?”

Orion just stared at her.  “Is this a bad time to mention that I’m like, a normie and I don’t know what that means?”


Halie rambled on and on about all her favourite otome games instead of telling him more about this one. It turned out that although Orion Magnaolia was her favourite love interest character ever, the game he was from was actually pretty mid—whatever that meant.

One thing that surprised him was that there was a wide span of genres across otome games, with very little of that aristocratic, vaguely European fantasy aesthetic his coworkers liked so much. A Study on the Former Love Interest wasn’t an outlier at all. From modern to futuristic to historical fiction set in a variety of eras and countries—

“First and foremost, otoge are story-driven,” Halie said. “Of course, there are plenty where romancing the love interests is a strong focus. But hey, isn’t it more fun to find love when you’re trying to unravel the mystery behind your childhood friend’s disappearance but no one remembers him and he’s actually an eldritch being who was trying to reincarnate himself in the right timeline to meet you, but it turns out to be a simulation and you’ve been in a cryogenic sleep for centuries?”

What the fuck.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg, Halie told him cheerfully, because bad ends were even more unhinged! She proceeded to explain the plot of several of her favourite otome games from start to finish, each sounding more absurd than the last.

All this time, she was still diligently carving into the clay tablet with her fingernail, as if every word out of her mouth was just idle talk. Her gloves were laid out neatly on the kitchen table. Eventually, she’d successfully scrawled down the words ‘I ’ M L O O K I N G F O R A C T A E U’ in lopsided, capital letters. There was grit and clay under her fingernails.

Orion just watched silently, too afraid to ask about the plot of Former Love Interest now. Halie carved one last letter into the clay, and then held out the tablet to admire her handiwork.

“That took you way too long,” Orion croaked numbly, wishing he had ended up in the webcomic instead. “This whole clay tablet system is too inefficient.”

Lucid Levia
Steward McOy
Dhamas Tri (dmz)
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