Chapter 20:

interlude (not an interlude)

A Study on the Stand-In Love Interest

They must’ve put Arkose far, far behind them already.

Their pursuers were on foot too, which was probably the only reason they managed to lose them at all. It was something about the worldbuilding not being complete enough for the need for cars to exist in the contained world of the otome game, and so they didn’t exist. How convenient.

Though there was a somewhat reasonable explanation for this too. In some uninhabited areas they passed, the clay had gotten so thick that Orion was sinking in up to his knees. Trying to drive through that might slow them down, actually. He had a mental image of Aries and his cronies dragging their heavy metal bats through the clay, and the absurdity of it all powered him through even when he started losing steam.

He’d been through too much and seen too much that he was starting to become numb to all the shit life was throwing at him. There was a dreamlike quality to the way things just kept coming, like gut punch after gut punch. Even the ache in his ribs from where he’d been hit didn’t feel real anymore.

Still, Halie held his hand tightly, and that was what kept him grounded.

It was the two of them, against the world.

“And me.”

Ah. Actaeus was vital to their getting away from the council of course. But his presence soured what could’ve been a dramatic and intimate escape, and just when Halie was starting to consider him as more than a vessel of the original Orion Magnaolia too.

“That’s a low bar.”

“What’s a low bar?” Halie piped up.

There was that other problem of Actaeus getting into his head, which made the whole “great escape with the girl he liked” really difficult to enjoy. His feelings were just barely taking root, and that guy wouldn’t stop bugging him about it. Orion never had a single impure thought about Halie!

“I know. You’re just sweating thinking about holding her hand.”

“Aw, is that so!” Halie squealed, her grip on his hand tightening. “That’s so cute, oh my god. You’re so cute!”

He—couldn’t win against her. Not in a million years.


And he couldn’t win against the stupid Entity in his head either, but maybe that was for the better.


“ remind me why we’re looking for Gideon again?”

They’d set up camp in a semi-intact neighbourhood of abandoned buildings and crumbling ruins. Halie wandered off to take a bath in a nearby pool of roped-off contaminated water without hesitation. Since it was safe and all. Orion was torn between morbid curiosity as to whether or not it was actually safe, and of course, the utmost importance of preserving a lady’s dignity—

“So you’re just deciding whether or not to take a peek. How shameless.”

“I’m not!” Orion burst out, indignant. His intentions had nothing of that sort!

“Ha! You can’t hide from me.”

“Don’t you dare say anything to her, or else I’ll—I’ll…”

When Halie returned, she found Orion lying on the ground staring blankly into the sky because he’d given up on arguing and was just content with naturally turning into clay with the passage of time.

“He’s sulking,” Actaeus said primly.

Halie just laughed and said that he was cute, and maybe the way Orion’s heart soared was worth all this slander he had to deal with.

And then they got down to business.

“The key to discovering the truth is to find out why Leonis betrayed us,” Halie was saying. She’d hunched over, scribbling into the clay on the ground with her fingernail. Her gloves were in a forgotten pile near where Orion was sitting.

It made him realize he was still decked out in nitrile gloves and a lab coat. The off-white fabric was pretty heavily stained with clay and sweat, especially because he’d chosen to be dramatic and lie on the ground earlier. Orion apologized silently to Dr. Fuchisia as he peeled off the lab coat and tossed it into the pile with Halie’s discarded gloves.

“Hey, hey, are you paying attention?” Halie said, nudging him with her elbow. He glanced down at her handiwork, and couldn’t help but grin stupidly because of course her doodles were completely indecipherable.

“These are really cute,” he said.

She smacked him.

“Hey!” he protested. “How can you keep calling other people cute, and then get all violent when it’s the other way around?”

He could hear Actaeus snickering, as Halie’s cheeks flushed pink.

“Oh,” she said, sounding relieved. “I thought you were calling Gideon cute.”


She pointed at the blob she’d drawn into the clay. It had X’s for eyes, and weird scribbly hair.

“I was saying that your drawing is cute, what the hell?”

“Well, yeah! Obviously my drawings are the cutest!”

“And you—y-you’re also—”

“Gideon was a good friend of mine,” Actaeus cut in, not letting Orion finish his disaster of a sentence. “One of the founders of Caeruleum. The first to suspect that I was still alive somewhere.”

“He was the one tirelessly searching for the truth when the council labelled Actaeus as a traitor,” said Halie, changing gears immediately back to talking business again. “That’s why he built an information network. If anyone could find out how the council got tipped off, it’d be him.”

“So what’s with this drawing then?” Orion asked, examining the scribbles that were probably meant to represent their current camp, and the squiggly line that connected it to Gideon.

“A map,” she said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“A visual for our plan.”

Neither of those felt remotely useful, but okay.

He tried again. “So we have to go find Gideon. But do we even know where he is?”

“Two and a half miles to the south from here.”

“Caeruleum’s base, obviously. Where else?”

Orion regretted asking, because between the dude trapped in the game system and the insane fangirl who played this otome game thousands of times, their plan was pretty much already settled without him.

“So, are we heading there now then?”

Halie looked at him like he was insane. “Seriously? It’s like, 2 AM right now. I need to sleep before these eyebags become a permanent part of my character design.”

He couldn’t argue with her there. The sky was as orange as ever, messing with his perception of time. But his body was already exhausted beyond his limits, and sleep sounded really appealing right now. He could probably collapse right here and now into the ground, blood-poop-flesh clay be damned.

“We’ll sleep here,” Halie said, jabbing a clay-covered finger at the dilapidated-looking place just behind her. “This whole place is pretty run-down, but as long as we’ve got a roof over our heads and a working door, we’re good.”

“And uh, a working shower?” Orion asked hopefully.

“Ha, what a concept,” she said, sarcasm dripping from her voice. “It’s either the pool over there or you wait ‘til it rains.”

Orion scrambled to his feet to follow her to the abandoned, ramshackle building. With a light tug, Halie opened the front door and stepped into the gloom. The place was bare, and the air was thick with dust as if its residents evacuated a long time ago. Unlike Magnaolia’s house in Arkose, there was an actual washroom instead of an outhouse out in the back.

“It’s not going to work,” Halie said, as if she knew what he was thinking. “If you need to pee, dig a hole and do it outside.”


So unfortunately, Orion wasn’t brave enough to take a dip in the contaminated water for a bath after all. He decided to go directly to sleep on the floor. With only one bedroom in the house because of course there was only one bed, he’d feel too self-conscious now to sleep next to Halie, with Actaeus watching disapprovingly from inside of his brain.

“It’s fine, actually. You’re too much of a coward to do anything anyway.”

It was comments like those that sent him stammering about how he liked sleeping on the floor more because it was better for his back, before Halie all but dragged him onto the bed with her with surprising strength. He’d forgotten how strong she was.

The blankets were soft but the mattress was uncomfortable, and the impact made his ribs start throbbing again. Halie was busy fluffing up the pillows, so he tried to slide off the edge of the bed, but she stuck a leg out to block him.

“Like I said, it’s fine,” she said impatiently, as he repeated his flimsy excuses. “It’s warmer like this. Didn’t we already sleep together once?”

“Yeah, but that was before.” Orion made a vague hand gesture in the air for Actaeus, wherever he was.

“Then even better,” Halie said. She tugged the blanket out from underneath his back and gave it a good shake. Then, she draped it over the two of them and laid down on the mattress. “Night.”

Steward McOy
Dhamas Tri (dmz)
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