Chapter 28:

is beginning death only the??

A Study on the Stand-In Love Interest


“...so that’s the whole story of the otome game,” Orion finished, watching Gideon’s expression not change at all. He started worrying that he wasn’t actually paying attention, until Gideon exhaled slowly and shut his eyes.

“What kind of a shitty dating sim is this?”

A beat.

“That’s what I said!” Orion said triumphantly, turning to Halie. “See, I’m not the only one that thinks your tastes in romance games suck—”

“Did you just say my taste in romance sucked?” Halie interrupted. “Well, if you suck that much, then I’m breaking up with you!”

“No, wait—I take it back, your tastes are impeccable—”

“Can you two stop flirting every chance you get?” Gideon sounded tired now, probably worn out from the five-hour-long lecture about the ridiculous plotline of this ridiculous otome game while being tied to a chair. Halie and Orion had exhausted the fight out of him with lore about the contaminated water and Actaeus’s game UI and Gideon’s bad ends in excruciating detail, and now he was a mere husk of who he once was.

But Actaeus had confirmed that his affection levels had risen to 2%. It wasn’t much, but it was honest work! And it only made Orion more certain than ever that there was a right way to go about defeating Mahogainy and righting all the wrongs of this world once and for all.

And that was playing loosely by the rules of the otome game.

“It took years for the heroine, so it might take us a while too,” Orion told Gideon sheepishly. “But for our final confrontation with Mayor Mahogainy down the line, we’ll ask her—that if that machine of hers can really send Eilah here to you, then she must be able to send you to where she is too.”

He seemed doubtful, his obsidian-black eyes narrowing at them. Which, honestly, was fair, because he was still tied down even if they’d loosened the ropes so he could actually move his hands. But he had long lost the will to fight and was still in the middle of processing the clay and politics and the weird meta stuff that this world was actually made of.

Orion couldn’t blame him for looking a little lost.

“5%,” Actaeus said. “You were right.”

Because they needed all the love interests to at least have a stake in their plans for the remainder of the common route to proceed smoothly. Even if they couldn’t fall in love with Halie—and they’d better not, or Orion would have words for them— he needed their cooperation.

“I don’t know how he managed to pull off Gideon this whole time,” Halie said, making a face. “He’s only a webcomic reader so he doesn’t know shit, but he even fooled me.”

“2%...stop talking Halie.”

“Yeah, how many times have you played Gideon’s route, huh?”

She blinked at him innocently. “Once, to unlock the true route.”

“That figures.”

“You really…” Gideon spoke slowly, like something was finally registering in his mind. “You can really send me to Eilah’s world?”

“Very, very strong emphasis on the maybe,” Orion said. “We still have so much to figure out, like why the hell Actaeus can’t talk to you, and what Mahogainy’s machine actually does—like does it need a human sacrifice? Maybe that’s why we had to die to come here? But we were sent to this world too, after all. Anything is possible.”

“3%...”

“I think he likes you,” Halie hissed. “This sucks. Put it back.”

“Put what back?!”

“Me!”

“What do you mean, Halie? What does this mean?!”

-

In the original game, the heroine was able to gather her allies because even if Halie insisted there were no harem components, each of the male leads indisputably and unconditionally enjoyed her company enough that if given the opportunity—they would certainly come to fall in love with her in another life.

Maybe that was why she was so pissed that he was the one winning them over, one percent at a time.

“How is this any different from cheating!” she wailed, when he came back from sneaking into Arkose to meet with Aries Buragandy for the first time since the jailbreak incident. In the end, Aries still retained a part of the gentleness he’d shown the heroine in game, choosing to hear him out as an old friend.

“That’s the only thing that we are,” Orion said placatingly. “Old friends.”

“Old friends, my ass.” Then her tone shifted from fake indignance to curiosity. “So did you get that scene of him saying, ‘I will only let you go, just this once’ and then he looked at you dramatically in the eyes but you know he’ll let you go every other time?”

“...”

“Come on, you can’t just say nothing! Tell me what he said in exact detail!”

“He did,” Actaeus said gravely. “He said: ‘Viriadian may be a heinous criminal, but I have known you since we were children. If you stand so staunchly against the council, then it must be for good reason. I hope someday, you will show me that reason. And that is why this time, I will let you go.’”

“Oh my god,” Halie squealed, sounding absolutely delighted. “Oh my god, that’s so—I wish I could’ve heard that! Aries is actually voiced by my favourite voice actor aaaaahhh. Thank you, dear brother. I will cherish these lines forever.”

Orion made a mental note to memorize each and every one of his interactions with the other love interests from now on.

-

“If that world with Eilah in it really exists,” Halie brought up one day. “Would you want to go?”

“No???” Orion said, dumbfounded. “What kind of question is that?”

They were lounging around in one of Caeruleum’s run-down houses that they’d designated as their base of operations somewhat. Much to Gideon’s dismay, they’d barged into one of their empty buildings and made it their temporary home. It wasn’t like they could go back to Arkose now, and Gideon had given up on turning them in.

Some days were slow and peaceful, the domestic bliss that Halie had said she dreamed of. With her head on his lap and the eternal orange sky watching over them, it seemed like she decided that was a good time to test him, or something.

“Seriously, what brought this on?” Orion prodded, poking her in the cheek when she didn’t respond. “Are you getting tired of me? Do you want me to leave?”

“No.”

“Exactly.” He brushed a strand of Halie’s hair out of her eyes, and she childishly blew a stream of hot air against his hand. “Then if there’s another world out there with the original Orion Magnaolia, would you want to go?”

“Yes,” Halie said immediately, and it made his heart plummet, sinking into a pool of contaminated water.

“Oh,” he said. “That’s…very nice.”

She pulled herself up from his lap and glanced at his face—he must’ve looked shocked and horrified—and then she leaned in to press her lips gently against his.

“Didn’t you…just…literally—” he mumbled against her mouth.

“I’m in love with you, idiot,” she said, throwing her arms around him and squeezing all the air and insecurities out of him and maybe breaking a rib or two while she was at it. “But that Magnaolia guy is my favourite character. I’d want his autograph, or something. Oh god, I’d want him to sign my merch, and like, tattoo his signature on my back…”

Still a fangirl through and through, Orion thought, holding her tightly in his arms. That might’ve been what had drawn him to Halie from the start—more in a morbid curiosity way than anything else at first. She was remarkable. She was radiant. She was beautiful, even when she was trying to piss him off.

If they added up all the affection levels of the three love interests other than Orion, they were still at less than 10%. It would take a long, long time—maybe even a whole lifetime—to reach the point that they’d have their trust. Orion had thought Eilah had it rough.

But his own goal wasn’t to get to the end—not really. His goal was woven into each step of the way and the woman that was there right next to him. She was laughing with him, laughing at him, and giving him more grief than joy sometimes. But as long as he had her, there was no place he’d rather be than this weird, post-post-apocalyptic world.

No matter where this unknown route took them, Orion was glad to get to play through the rest of this ridiculous otome game with her.

Steward McOy
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