Chapter 22:

the final love interest

A Study on the Stand-In Love Interest


Orion wondered what Gideon was like.

He never even got a chance to meet Leonis, so this would be the second time that he’d actually come face-to-face with another love interest. At the town hall, he’d only barely managed to fumble his way through the scene. Now that he knew the rest of the plot—meta bullshit and all—he could imagine it would only get easier.

But on their trek south through the unpaved clay, he learned it wasn’t so simple after all.

“That’s actually the problem,” Halie said gravely. “We’re still on the common route, so erase 95% of everything you know from your brain. And make sure you act surprised and horrified at everything Gideon says.”

“Huh? Why?”

“Because you're supposed to know nothing at this point,” came Actaeus’s voice. “Picture this: you’ve barely managed to escape Arkose with your lives. Your only lead is the feared leader of an insurgent group, someone the council had marked as an accomplice to a violent, wanted criminal for years.”

Okay, then the logical choice was to run in the other direction and go all the way north and off the map, no?

“Following the script, the only reason we would even consider meeting Gideon is because Leonis assured us he wasn’t like how the rumours made him out to be,” Halie added. “So we’re gonna have to do some bluffing. Pretend we resolved the Leonis route early and that he went back to his hometown with his family.”

“Is that really okay?” Orion asked warily.

“If you have a better idea, let’s hear it.”

He didn’t. He was thirsty and tired and hungry. The drinking water and leftovers Halie had brought from Magnaolia’s house were running low and going bad respectively. There was no way he’d be able to come with a better idea.

Well, if Orion couldn’t trust the two of them to handle this, then what else could be done?

As Halie walked briskly next to him, she seemed to be contemplating something for a moment. Then without warning, she slipped her arm through his. She peered up at him through her eyelashes, and suddenly Orion was no longer feeling tired or hungry.

“So,” Halie said casually. “What was your name before you died?”

What the f—what a great conversation starter.

“It sounds a little far-fetched, actually,” he said. “But my legal name was actually Orion.”

“Oh my god,” she said, her grip on his arm tightening. “Oh my god. Isekai really is fucked up. You’ll never believe this, but my name was…”

-

Halie pointed out the Caeruleum settlement before he could see anything on the fading orange horizon, even if he squinted. It looked like what was left of it, until she told him this was how it was normally. It was very different from the picturesque sanctuary of Arkose and the clear divide between the city and the wasteland. A blend of ruined, dilapidated buildings and rubble formed a sprawling town like it had been sculpted out of clay instead of being built there.

Before approaching the outskirts of the settlement, Halie had slipped on her gloves again and handed Orion his soggy nitrile ones, much to his dismay. It felt like he had too many fingers as he tried to peel open the rubber that was sticking together and stuff his hands inside.

Halie said they had a duty to dress as the locals did down to the fingertips, especially here.

There was no sandstone barrier to welcome them, but the wide, open cityscape felt much more hostile and unwelcoming. The crumbling buildings cast a grim shadow against the deep orange clay, and maybe it was just Orion’s imagination.

“It’s not. This place is rather unpleasant.”

Halie stopped. Orion stopped just behind her, stumbling a little to keep from accidentally bumping into her back. With a slight tilt of her head, she motioned for him to move a little closer.

When he complied, she stood on her tiptoes, steadying herself by grabbing his shoulder in order to reach his head. Then she cupped a hand against his ear. Her breath was warm against his cheek.

“Okay,” Halie whispered. “No matter what he says, just keep acting surprised and horrified—remember that.”

“Okay,” he whispered back in a daze.

Satisfied, she drew back and resumed walking, pulling far ahead as he watched her with a numb, ridiculous sense of disappointment because he thought she would’ve kissed him on the cheek. For good luck, or something.

“Good luck for what? You suck that much at following basic instructions?”

“Shut up!” he hissed, hurrying to chase after Halie. “Get out of my head.”

-

It didn’t come as a surprise that they were not welcome here.

They were surrounded quite immediately by an entourage of cloaked, hooded figures, and Orion practiced his best surprised and horrified face as he hid behind Halie’s slighter form. It seemed like the people from Caeruleum could tell the two of them were from Arkose right away.

“Please don’t hurt us,” Halie whimpered, her voice shaking in a way that was almost believable if Orion hadn’t seen her stab a man with chopsticks with zero hesitation. “W-we just need an audience with Gideon. We don’t want any trouble.”

“As if Sir Gideon would meet with the likes of you,” one of the cloaked figures jeered, closing in on them. “How dare you waltz into our home, demanding the presence of a man you do not even stand in the same room in?”

So every city had their insane cult following for their leader figure, it seemed. It was as if Mahogainy and Gideon Obisidian were just two sides of the same coin. Orion was trying his best to keep a straight face.

“It’s not…really a demand,” Halie insisted, the pitch of her voice rising impossibly. If he wasn’t smitten and enjoying that lovely honeymoon phase in which she could do no wrong, his ears would bleed. “This—this is a plea. It’s a request.”

“A request,” the Caeruleum man sneered. “A request. What are we, the council?”

“What is going on here?”

Another voice cut through the jeers, one that was deep and resonant and full of authority. The crowd parted, hooded heads bowing as the speaker swept past them. Clad in a long, black cloak that trailed over the ground, the figure that was presumably Gideon Obisidian had deep black hair, chiseled jaws, and a gaze that was as sharp as flint.

He was the one that had been lauded as the unofficial true route if you didn’t count the secret ending, Halie had told him. And he looked the part—Gideon’s stature and impermeable expression seemed to command the crowd. Even in the webcomic, Orion remembered that he gave off the overwhelming aura of the male lead, capturing hearts both in the story and outside of it.

Still, most of his coworkers had been fans of Aries or Leonis. Or Eilah. Ha, it looked like he shared some solidarity with this guy in terms of local popularity back at the office.

“What is going on here?” Gideon repeated, dragging Orion forcibly out of his reminiscence. The black-haired man’s gaze swept across the horde of his followers before landing on the one who had sneered at Halie. “Tell me, Maximium Yellow.”

Orion’s breath got caught in his throat. So he already had an inkling everyone had misspelled, colour-based names in this world, and that it was for no reason other than aesthetic. And he had an inkling that they’d have to run out of the nice colours after padding out all the main characters.

But that name was ridiculous—so ridiculous that he was having a hard time trying not to laugh, even though the bowed figure speaking urgently to Gideon Obisidian was supposed to make him surprised and horrified. Surprised and horrified.

He tried to disguise the laughter that escaped his lips with a cough. When Halie shot him a glance, he clamped his mouth tightly shut and tried to think about how he got real lucky getting isekai’d as a main character.

Steward McOy
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Dhamas Tri (dmz)
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