Chapter 19:

looking at guides after failing the boss battle once

A Study on the Stand-In Love Interest

As it turned out, the endgame of A Study on the Former Love Interest was wild, like any other otome game, and it went something like this:

The contaminated water crisis had actually been resolved over a decade ago, but the council unanimously decided to lie to the people to keep them under its thumb. Forged peace and the greater good or something, like any dystopian governing body.

Halie and Actaeus’s parents were researchers, and their lab had been involved in creating the dangerous, flesh-eating compound as an accidental byproduct. Including them, everyone from the lab was killed to hide the truth—that the council had purposefully released the contaminant into the rainwater all those years ago.

Actaeus discovered everything after digging up his parents’ research notes. It was only half-finished, but they had been working on a neutralizing solution before they died. So he poured everything he had into gathering people to help complete what they started so that he could fix the world in his lifetime. Then he brought his parents’ final work to the council.

If he had known the truth behind his parents’ death, he would never have done that.

The council seized the formula for the remedy, detained him, and continued to pretend that the contamination could not be reversed. As a result, Caeruleum was formed—an organization made up of the volunteers that had helped Actaeus complete the neutralizing solution. But the mayor painted them as criminals and cultists trying to bring back the great floods. The town trusted the council, and they were driven out.

When the heroine discovered the truth behind it all, she decided to take things into her own hands.

In each male lead’s route, she would bring these issues to light with the help of her man, win the hearts of the people, and banish the corruption within the council. There were also corresponding side plots for each dude: helping Orion protect the clinic from demolition, helping reunite Leonis with his older sister, giving Aries a chance to break free from the shadow of Mayor Mahogainy and the council, and finding closure regarding Actaeus’s disappearance together with Gideon.

And once you played all the routes, that was when things went completely off the rails. There was a thing called a “True Route” that was unlocked upon 100% completion of the game. It answered a bunch of questions, tied up some of the loose ends, and made things worse.

Like a “giving more questions than answers” kind of worse.

“So basically, this Mayor Mahogainy lady is aware she’s in an otome game,” Orion said numbly, repeating what Halie and the Entity explained to him. “But all her love interests died in the flood, so she’s pissed and she’s trying to ruin your life?”

“Basically!” Halie chirped. How she still had so much energy while explaining the entire story while on the road was beyond him. Every step through the soft, clay ground was like dragging his feet through molasses. But fangirls were built different, because she didn’t look tired at all.

The council being after them because the heroine had stumbled upon their closely-guarded secret that kept them in power? Fine. A normal scenario, and a solid final conflict. If they could expose the mayor and win over the people of the city, then they could work towards actually rebuilding and recovering for good. And then they could happily ever after.

But the mayor being an omniscient otome game character that had lost everything in her own game and was now trying to get revenge on the deceased Viriadians by going after their kids? Not so fine. Was this or the eldritch horror cryogenic sleep otome game worse?

“And so the mayor threw your brother into this…inter-dimensional limbo of the otome game system to keep him quiet,” Orion said, still trying to make sense of all of that. “Like a machine that literally sucks you into the game UI…?”

“Kind of,” Halie said cheerfully. She looked like she was really, really enjoying this. “She built it to go back to a time and place where her love interests were still alive, but of all the otoge universes out there, she hasn’t found it yet.”

“I made a deal with Mahogainy. If I can find this place for her, she’d set me free.”

So inter-universe travel. Made sense.

“So like,” he sucked in a shallow breath, “is there a scientific explanation to this or nah?”

“Nah,” she crowed. “I told you there’s some meta bullshit in here to tie the routes together. Basically bro gets tossed into the game, glitches out the system, and time stops ‘cause he breaks the whole space-time thingy—look at that sky that hasn’t changed for years.” She snapped her fingers dramatically. “Foreshadowing.”

“Foreshadowing, my ass,” Orion muttered.

“It’s actually more obvious when you play the game,” Halie said, pouting. “And that’s ‘cause the whole interface is Actaeus, and it starts breaking down whenever the heroine’s in trouble because he’s worrying about her. And in Gideon’s route, he reaches out for the first time—and I still remember the first time I played it, I got goosebumps man. The desperation, the terror, the fear of losing the last family member he had left. Actaeus’s voice acting was so freaking—”

“That’s enough Halie. Let the poor guy take it in first.”


“Sorry,” the Entity—Actaeus said, sounding a lot more genuine than Halie did. “I know it’s a lot. But you need to know what we’re up against.”

It was nice to hear Halie talking so much again, gushing about all the things she liked with unstoppable force. It made the contents of her rambling more bearable. Orion was irrationally glad he was here, even though life kept throwing plot points in his face like they were speedrunning this otome game now.

“So like, are we supposed to defeat that mayor to get back home, or something?”

Halie turned to look at him, and he could feel Acataeus’s judgemental stare from the inter-dimensional limbo prickling on his skin.

“Did no one tell him?”

“I thought he should know!”

“The poor guy. He’s in denial to the end.”

“Okay,” Halie said, taking a deep breath. “Here’s the thing. You do realize we were literally hit by a truck, right? This is isekai by death. There’s no coming back from this.”


He knew that. Of course he did. He wasn’t even disappointed or surprised, actually, it was just a fact stacked on top of a hundred other facts. In the end, this world was stupid and ridiculous and he didn’t really like it here, but this was the only world that had Halie in it. If they could go back to the real world together, he’d do what it took. If they had to live out the rest of their lives here together, he’d take it.

As long as they were together.

“He’s thinking impure thoughts about you again, my dear sister.”

“I would love to hear them, my dear brother,” Halie simpered.

They sure were on the same page, huh. With this Halie being isekai’d from his world, Orion was pretty sure the two of them weren’t actually even siblings though?!

Then her expression grew serious. “There is no ‘defeating’ Mahogainy. Like I told you, each love interest’s good end doesn’t even touch on the meta shit. We don’t even know what’s gonna happen now.”

“If it helps, the problem isn’t the mayor,” Actaeus added. “That’s what we were discussing when you were passed out. Something went wrong at the town hall, and now there’s no longer any way to predict the plot.”

Plot, huh. Wait, was Actaeus a victim of isekai too?

“If getting thrown from the world of the otome game into the system counts,” he said coolly. “But I digress. The problem right now is that neither of you made any significant changes to warrant throwing the story off-course like this. I’ve watched the common route play out thousands of times, in thousands of universes. There’s something else at play.”

“I’m just going to pretend I didn’t hear that,” Orion said weakly. The thick stack of facts was getting too heavy and overwhelming on his shoulders. This otome game world was more than enough to deal with already, he didn’t need to know the intricacies of the universe.

“Basically, we’re discussing the possibility of a third party,” said Halie. “How else did the council get tipped off about my request ticket? Why else would Leonis not show up when he should have?”

“Have you considered it’s because you dropped his affection levels to zero?” Orion asked.

“It’s not.”

“What he said!” she said loudly, fuming. “That was for you, and your stupid handsome face, and your insufferably cute personality—”

“Walk faster.”

“Stop cockblocking!”

She was laughing, her smile wide and unfiltered and so bright that he couldn’t look away. There was something about being apart that made the heart grow fonder, or something. But he knew at least this much now—he liked being around her.

He reached out reflexively, his gloved fingers grazing the edge of her sleeve. Catching him in the act, Halie raised an eyebrow at him. But before he could pull his arm back, her outstretched hand clamped around his wrist, and she laced her fingers with his.

The accuracy of the affection meter was questionable, but there was no mistake in the way Orion’s heart was thumping irregularly, just from glove on glove contact. He could feel her warmth through the layers of waterproof fabric, spreading from his palms to his chest, to his face. It was awkward, because he didn’t know where to put his thumbs. He didn’t know how tightly he should hold onto her hand.

But Halie’s smile was so bright that it was more radiant than the absent sun.

Orion’s ribs still ached, and walking through the clay in boots was still like wading through thick molasses, but the sense of giddiness made his body feel so light he could fly.

Lucid Levia
Steward McOy
Dhamas Tri (dmz)
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