Chapter 21:

game theory

A Study on the Stand-In Love Interest


Halie stole all the blankets like how she’d stolen his heart—sneakily, without him even realizing until he was wondering why he felt cold in the middle of the night.

Orion was too exhausted to do anything about it so he curled up into a ball at the edge of the bed and fell asleep like that. This meant he woke up with horrible back pain along with throbbing in his ribs, but he felt somewhat refreshed when he opened his eyes and found himself staring into Halie’s bright green gaze.

“Ah,” he said, not fully awake enough to get jumpscared by Halie’s face too close to his own. “Morning.”

“Did you sleep well?”

He pulled himself upright, feeling the strain in his back and every single muscle in his body aching. Though he slept pretty fitfully, his mind felt well-rested enough to drag himself into the new day. Hopefully.

“Yeah,” he said. “Sort of.”

“Great.”

Halie crawled over to him and placed her smaller hands gently on top of his. He met her gaze nervously. The realization came crashing down on him—she never finished telling him how she felt about him because Actaeus had interrupted.

But things could easily go either way.

The reality was, he didn’t know her actual affection levels. He didn’t know if her gaze was reserved for him, or for the original Orion Magnaolia. Because in the end, he was shamelessly masquerading as her favourite character. Every time she looked at him, she’d be reminded of him. If Orion encountered some girl that had been isekai’d into the world with Eilah’s face, would he really be able to face his feelings?

“I’m sorry,” Halie murmured, and the gentle squeeze that she gave his hands was heartbreaking. “I’m really sorry—but you reek, can you please go take a bath?”

-

There was a pile of ropes lying next to the edge of the pool. Squeezing his eyes tightly shut, Orion prepared himself to stick a bare hand into the contaminated water. He couldn’t do it. Maybe he wasn’t a local, and maybe it hadn’t even been a week since he arrived in this world, but remembering the descriptions of the effects of the flesh-eating compound made his skin crawl.

“You’ll be fine.”

Reassuring, but not reassuring enough. Actaeus was just a disembodied voice—he wasn’t the one that was going to step into the unknown. What if this was the one pool in the world that happened to not have been properly decontaminated? What was that guy going to do about that?

“I spent a decade of my life researching the contaminant,” Actaeus said haughtily. “Between Careuleum’s efforts and the half-life of the compound, this is just ordinary water. It can’t harm you. Unfortunately.”

Orion had blindly trusted the Entity for this long, and maybe that was why Actaeus’s words weren’t reassuring at all. But he took a deep breath, and dipped a pinky into the pool.

It was cold and wet, like water.

“Yeah, because it’s water.”

-

Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t really confessed his feelings properly either.

So in the middle of Halie and Actaeus planning out how to approach Gideon way earlier than his intended scene in the plot of the otome game, Orion blurted out something embarrassing.

“Halie, I never finished telling you what I wanted to say yesterday.”

She looked up from the scribbles in the clay, and Orion could feel Actaeus staring at him too, silently asking if this was relevant right now. It was, he told him silently back. He needed to face her properly to move on from this. In moments like these, it was easy to forget the dangers they’d escaped from and the dangers lurking up ahead. He’d always been a man of selfish priorities, and that wasn’t going to change.

It was easy to just settle into the comfortable rhythm of what they had now, letting Halie flirt on the line between romantic and well, her usual playful harassment about his face. He could do that, but the ache beyond the pain in his ribs wouldn’t let him have that.

He liked her more than that, more than an arbitrary 55%, more than the scope of Orion Magnaolia’s route. He liked her, and it wasn’t just because her side profile and the way the orange light hit her hair and set it aflame made her look like Eilah’s reflection in the water.

He didn’t care about that anymore.

His Halie was more than a fictional character with palatable personality traits fitting into a tiny box he could hold in his hand. She was always surprising him every day—and sometimes in terrible, discomforting ways. He actually didn’t know where he was going with this, only that he knew of one thing for certain—now in this moment, because it might not last forever, he needed to tell her how he felt.

“I think,” he said, his voice echoing loudly across the empty, abandoned streets and decrepit buildings. “I think I like you a lot. I know it’s not fair, saying that with this guy’s face, but I like you.”

It wasn’t that big of a deal, saying those simple words out loud. But he could feel his face burning, as if washing his face in the pool of contaminated water earlier had started dissolving the outer layer of his skin or something.

“No. You’re just blushing.”

The whole point was that he didn’t want to know that?!

“I see.” Halie was pulling herself to her feet, dusting clay off her knees. As she headed toward him, closing the short distance and reminding him that she looked as intimidating as she was cute—Orion’s throat suddenly felt very, very dry. Her eyes were green and round, staring back at him like the depths of the abyss.

And then she leaned in and rested her head heavily against his chest. It made his ribs burn in protest, but not nearly enough for him to say anything because his heart was rattling and drowning out everything else. Then, Halie let out a long, strangled sigh.

“Okay Actaeus, you shut up for five minutes.”

…??

It was only then that Orion realized that maybe that guy, as the Entity, could pick and choose his conversations at will. Which meant every jab at him had been intentional. What the hell.

“Ugh, that guy’s not even my real brother, and he keeps giving me shit,” Halie said, her voice muffled. “I guess we really have been worrying about the same thing.”

“About Actaeus?”

“No, you idiot. About us.” She reached out and put her hands loosely on his shoulders, burying her face into his coat. “If we’re seeing each other for who we are, or if we’re just projecting on our faves.”

Orion made a face, even though he knew she couldn’t see. “I don’t even like the heroine.”

“Okay. it’s just me then.”

No, he’d asked himself those questions too. But he was pretty sure he had his answer, and that was why he was waiting for hers. That was why he wanted so badly to wrap his arms around her shoulders, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it just yet.

“Then let me just say this—I know you’re not that Orion,” she breathed, and his heart skipped a beat at the softness of her tone and the vibrant, wind-chime sweetness of her voice. “But you’re my Orion.”

That was what he needed to hear.

It meant that they were on the same page, even if it was just the first chapter in the book.

He threw his arms around her waist, lifting her up off her feet. She was laughing, telling him to put her down between fits of giggles. She was telling him she’d never fallen in love in real life before, and that she didn’t know how things would go. She didn’t know if she’d be able to say the right words or make the right choice or end up on the right route.

“Your route is an unknown,” she said, resting her head against his shoulder. “But I think I’m willing to brave that unknown for you.”

Orion couldn’t really expect her to break the habit of treating him like an otome game love interest. That was a part of her, as much as everything else was.

“You’re not braving that unknown for me,” he told her. “You’re braving it with me.”

She was giggling about that too, saying that he could be unexpectedly cheesy sometimes. Embarrassing, but at that moment he didn’t care. If it was for her, he loved cheese from now on.

Because they were in this together, wherever life took them.

Even if it meant taking them down the path to a far greater unknown than either of them ever expected—the final love interest, Gideon Obisidian.

Steward McOy
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