A Study on the Stand-In Love Interest
There was a long, poignant silence.
“That’s kinda OOC,” Halie said finally, after an agonizingly long moment of contemplation that made Orion feel like he wanted to crawl into a pool of contaminated water and evaporate.
“Since when have I ever been in-character?” he managed to splutter in response. “Pretty sure we’ve established early on that I’m not your Magnaolia, and I’ll never be him.”
“No, that’s not what I meant.”
Uncharacteristically, Halie was averting her gaze, letting the silence stretch on for a little longer than he would’ve liked. She always had a knack for keeping him on his toes with her unhinged responses, so it was weird to see her go quiet like this.
Orion cleared his throat awkwardly. “What did you mean then?”
Actually, he’d always thought that this girl just really liked the sound of her own voice or something with how much she was always blabbering. The silence was a brief reminder that, hey, maybe she was just a person too. Maybe she was struggling to come to terms with living in this strange new isekai world too. He’d never really considered things from her perspective because she seemed so carefree.
“You,” she said finally, and he couldn’t tell if she was still looking contemplative, or if she was constipated. “You never say shit like this.”
Huh. Couldn’t she just go back to fangirling and not act as if his personality was made of the sum of its parts like a fictional character?
“How long have we known each other for?” Orion asked, fighting the urge to say something rude. “I’m just some rando, remember?”
She blinked. “I…guess you’re right.”
That was surprisingly quick. Maybe this was the first time she was actually seeing him for who he was, and not just superimposing Magnaolia’s face on everything he did. Maybe there were actually gears turning in her brain for once, and she was finally noticing that behind this pathetic guy’s handsome face, there was an even more pathetic guy.
He was pathetic, and that was why he needed a clear answer from her here and now. That was what Magnaolia’s adoptive mother had said. It was what Magnaolia would’ve wanted too, if he wasn’t such a boring nice guy.
“I don’t know if I’m the right choice, or whatever,” Orion said, swallowing the apprehensions that came with laying his heart bare. “And I don’t know if I can offer you more than some other guy—”
“Hey, hold up,” said Halie. “First of all, is this a confession? I don’t need that kind of fanservice, dude. What are you trying to pull?”
His mouth fell open. “I’m trying to be genuine here! I can’t just rely on this guy’s face to get you to pick me, what if you suddenly decide you want to go on a different route, huh? In the end, I’m just some guy that you barely know, but we’re in this together.”
“Oh,” she said, a look of understanding dawning on her face. “Ohhhh. You’re a pretty serious guy, aren’t you? Don’t worry, I was just teasing.”
“Don’t look at me with puppy-dog eyes,” Halie huffed. “You know I’m weak to his face.”
“Then don’t look at me,” he said impatiently. “And answer me properly. No more dodging my questions—I need to know if you’ll stick with me. As I am. Just as a solidarity thing, not a romance thing.”
There was a lie somewhere in there. He didn’t quite know where.
“What if she doesn’t like you?” Dr. Fuchisia had asked him plainly, and that had brought him up short. Orion had never even asked, so how would he know what Halie felt about him? The Entity, of course. But it wasn’t like he could explain the voice that lived in his brain, so he’d said something vague about a gut feeling.
But looking at Halie now, he had a gut feeling that the Entity could make mistakes too.
“Because frankly, if I didn’t have Magnaolia’s face, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Orion continued. He was discovering that once he started rambling, he couldn’t stop himself. Embarrassing. “But yeah. I am jealous. I’m worried you’ll go off with some other guy instead. I know I’m not like him at all—and after going to the clinic, I’m even more sure. So I need to know. Will you stick with me, despite everything?”
Do you like me? That question went unasked, hovering just under his tongue because he already knew the answer to that. He already knew, because the face she was making made something in his heart twist, like a knife sliding between his ribs.
“Affection levels have increased to 65%.”
Ah. It made sense now. Everything made sense now, huh. Because even now she still couldn’t answer such a basic question. Seeing the conflicted look in her viridian gaze was as if he’d been doused in ice-cold water.
“I don’t know,” she said at last. She looked flushed, and Orion felt a little guilty using Magnaolia’s face as leverage. “You’re right. I don’t really know you. But for now, seeing his face is good enough for me. So don’t worry, I won’t pick another route.”
His face, Orion repeated in his head, holding together the last of his resolve only because he hadn’t handed over his whole heart yet. Of course it was always Orion Magnaolia. Of course.
This was the answer he thought he wanted.
“Affection levels have increased to 70%.”
No, it wasn’t what he wanted at all, and he already knew that.
“Thanks, that’s what I wanted to hear,” he lied, watching Halie shrug off her backpack and rummage through it for the incriminating clay tablet. Why the hell was he expecting anything more? He should be grateful it turned out like this. It was better that she wasn’t delusional about her favourite character, better that she wasn’t treating him like a replacement, better that she didn’t demand that he roleplay him.
But if she asked, he’d probably say yes. Because he’d finally realized—the affection levels had always been meant to be his.
Going through the motions of the plot was more boring now that Orion knew what was going to happen in the story. Maybe Halie had been onto something when she’d purposely withheld a bunch of info from him. Boring would be fine any other day, but he kind of needed something unexpected to distract him today.
As expected, the town hall was in an uproar when the two of them stepped inside. Halie was clutching Leonis’s clay tablet in her arms, marching her way through the hallway like she was on a mission. Orion followed close behind, chasing every last frivolous thought from his mind so he could get through this.
He was noticing the clusters of people carrying the framed, council-issued clay tablets now. He’d heard from Dr. Fuchisia that many people lined up along the halls every day for weeks on end, begging for the council to grant their wish like this was a cult or something. The more he learned about this lawless land, the more inefficient everything that wasn’t modeled after the modern world felt.
Aries was nowhere to be seen.
The council members’ uniform was a raincoat with unnecessary straps—just like everyone else in the crowd, actually. That was fine in the comic because usually, side characters didn’t have much thought put into their design. But here, these were the living, breathing people that lived in the town of Arkose. The only person Orion could pick out from this crowd was probably Halie, but he was trying to avoid looking at her right now.
So he was sort of following her blindly, his gaze sweeping across the town hall and actually taking in the crowd for the first time. Maybe the otome game was about Halie and her four love interests, but the world they lived in had more than that. An older man, missing both legs up to his knees. A young family huddled in a corner, the father carrying a newborn swaddled in waterproof blankets. A teenage boy with a tearstained face, holding tightly to a stack of three clay tablets and snapping at anyone who came near him like a wild dog.
Everywhere he looked was an individual with their own story, quietly surviving in this world. It was intriguing. It was humbling. It was the distraction Orion needed, he thought, because he finally noticed that he’d lost sight of Halie in the crowd.
“Halie?” His voice was easily drowned out by the clamour and bustle, and Orion strained his ears to listen for something intelligible. He forced his way through the crowd, craning his neck for mousy brown hair and an oversized raincoat. The voices that slipped past his ears were a blur.
“...waited here since last night…”
“When I was a young’in…”
“Hey! No running!!”
“...have some lunch while we wait.”
“...seized the suspect, sir!”
“Good work, Cyian. It turns out the tip was right after all.”
Orion spotted two council members in the middle of a conversation, and quickly and discreetly made a beeline toward them. This was the part where Leonis was wrongly detained for asking for more information about Halie’s brother, Actaeus. And then Aries would come to her rescue before she could hand over her own tablet, and then they could smoothly proceed with the jailbreak scene. Where was Halie?
“The order from Mahogainy is to keep her locked up,” said one of the council members, a middle-aged man with dark hair and a beard and a gruff voice. “She said it’d draw out Caeruleum if they caught wind that the sister—”
That was as much as he heard, when everything happened all at once before he could process anything. A sudden, deafening screeching blasted into his brain, and it sounded like tires against pavement against a chalkboard. As Orion covered his ears in a futile attempt to block some of the noise, it cut off just as abruptly.
And then a voice, sounding clearly in his head—strained and desperate.
“No…it can’t be.”
What the hell, was that—