Chapter 23:

cards on the table

A Study on the Stand-In Love Interest


On their way here, Halie and him had talked about how uncanny it was that they shared a name with the character they’d reincarnated as, but not much else about the life they’d left behind. He mentioned he’d worked at a mid-sized insurance company. She told him she had worked in healthcare.

For a few brief moments, he wondered if they would’ve liked each other’s company if they had met before they died. But they couldn’t have met, unless he decided to finally take up his coworkers’ offer to attend an anime convention with them or something.

(Then Halie told him that she’d never attended an anime convention in her life, shattering that fleeting dream of could-have-beens.)

Orion was thinking about weird things again because they were reaching the pinnacle of the unknown, where the story veered so off-course from the game that even Actaeus could not predict the shape of the future. Facing the final love interest made him worry irrationally about what would happen from here on out.

“Good, you should be worried.”

This was one of the few times Orion was actually grateful to have Actaeus in his head, to wrench him away from thoughts that were irrelevant to the here and now.

“Tread carefully,” came his voice again, sounding troubled. “Gideon’s affection levels are strange.”

That made him feel something, and for once he knew exactly what it was. Jealousy tasted bitter on Orion’s tongue, because this was his Halie, not the naive heroine that guy was supposed to fall in love with, and that guy didn’t even know the first thing about—

“The level isn’t high. It’s low—and it’s in the negatives.” Actaeus had never sounded this uneasy before, which was alarming. He was telling this to Halie too, because Orion heard her swallow audibly next to him.

“Halie, maybe this is your fault after all. How did you manage to drop Aries’s affection levels down to zero? Maybe we can learn something from that.”

She made a face, responding to Actaeus in her head. As they conversed silently, Orion glanced at the cloaked figures congregating around Gideon. The motions scared him a bit, actually. The last time he was in the same space as a fellow love interest and his cronies, he’d gotten chased around with metal bats and nearly died.

But they also didn’t seem like they were going to attack them right away, like they had to wait for the next scene or something.

The Maximium Yellow guy seemed to have finished explaining…whatever there was to explain about this situation, because Gideon started striding in their direction. Remembering Actaeus’s words about his negative affection levels for Halie—hatred?—Orion moved instinctively in front of her to shield her.

“What business does Arkose have with Caeruleum?” Gideon’s voice was a rich baritone, and it made Orion jealous because his own voice was closer to that once, before he’d died and came here…

Look surprised and horrified, he reminded himself. He faced Gideon, and twisted his expression to muster up all the shock and horror he could offer—

From behind him, he felt Halie pinch his elbow, hard.

-

“So Coabalt has returned to Scoria,” Gideon finished, sounding thoughtful. “This is news indeed. Good news.”

Orion had unfortunately been banned from making his best horrified faces and was promptly exiled to the corner of the room while Halie discussed business with the leader of Caeruleum. As soon as she brought up that she was Actaeus’s sister, Gideon treated them cordially, inviting them into his home.

And the place was really, really run-down.

The walls were reinforced with clay, and the ceiling of the living room looked like it was caving in. One corner of it was missing entirely, like someone had ripped a chunk out of his house and then laid a piece of tarp over it to protect it from rain.

Orion looked around nervously as Halie spoke of breaking Leonis out of prison, effortlessly lying through her teeth. She wove in her confusion as to why the council would be after her brother. And then she spoke of the emotional moment that never happened of Leonis finally reuniting with his sister.

Actaeus was helping her through all this, probably. Orion was noticing how she’d shift her personality ever so slightly as she spoke, testing against Gideon’s impassive expression. But he didn’t seem moved at all by her performance, nor a single word out of her mouth. Actaeus told them silently that Gideon’s affection levels never wavered once, sitting at a staunch -45% since the beginning.

Negative 45%?! How was that even possible?

“I don’t know,” Actaeus said. “There is no precedent for this.”

There was no precedent for the whole plot to go off the rails in a fixed, linear otome game, huh. But that was the point of isekai. Introducing a new variable to the world was bound to affect things, change things, shatter the established setting. Watching the protagonist adapt and think of creative ways to survive was what made A Study on the Villainess’s Love Interest so satisfying.

Though the stakes were high in theory, Eilah never did reach a single bad end since all the love interests took some interest in her charm and wit. They would never hurt her, and especially not take a bat to her ribs. The focus was more on resolving interpersonal drama, which was exciting in its own right.

In contrast, Orion had nearly gotten bludgeoned to death by an otome game love interest. This place was dangerous because things were constantly evolving past their expectations, past the realms of what made up the story. If that unknown third party that they were looking for was the 0% all along…well there was a problem.

“You’re right,” Actaeus mused. “Halie might be the problem.”

No she wasn’t. Halie could do no wrong.

“See, I only have two goals—the first, to protect my sister in every version of the game. The second, to find the world in which Mahogainy’s love interests still exist.”

Wait, that plot point was still relevant here?

“But this Halie is not my sister. There has never been a world with more than one outsider at once. There has never been a world that had broken from the confines of the game like this.”

That was probably because he kept saying shit like Halie Viriadian is the protagonist, and wouldn’t help him out until he was cornered.

“There has never been anyone as stubbornly disagreeable as you, either. If you had followed my guidance, perhaps things would not have played out this way.”

Orion seriously doubted that everyone who was transported into an unfamiliar world would follow the instructions of an unknown entity perfectly, without question.

“Still, I need to thank you. There’s a chance we’re getting closer to Mahogainy’s goals,” he said. “That’s the only reason I didn’t abandon you when I learned that it wasn’t just you—that Halie was also an outsider that was sent to this world.”

The fact that Actaeus couldn’t tell this Halie apart from his actual sister after all the nonsense she spewed upon their first meeting meant he probably didn’t know his sister that well.

“You know what? I’d abandon you in a heartbeat.”

As Orion quietly argued with Actaeus in his head, Halie was finishing up the conversation with Gideon. He turned his attention back to them instead of responding.

“So I was hoping you had some leads about my brother,” Halie said, her voice taking on a somber tone because the next angle was probably trying to invoke pity. “I don’t understand why the council has condemned him. Or why Aries looks at me with that painful, regretful expression.”

“Buragandy, hm?” Gideon said quietly.

“As expected, many of his lines have also changed. He’s supposed to remark about Aries’s loyalty to Mahogainy.”

“Do you know him?” Halie asked, perking up.

“I have…heard of his feats.”

“Still -45%. His cards are too close to his chest. Orion. Do something.”

What the hell could he do that the other two couldn’t?

“Look shocked and horrified.”

Orion was pretty sure Actaeus was just trolling, because he was sitting in the corner of the room behind Gideon. Only Halie could see him from where she sat, but she was incredibly focused on that guy right now.

Still, he started pulling faces anyways, diligently practicing his most surprised expression. It was probably luck because there was no way Actaeus had predicted this, but this was precisely the moment one of the Caeruleum people walked by the open doorway and caught sight of him.

“Sir Gideon!” It was Maximium Yellow peering into the living room, because it was always Maximium Yellow. “Did you tell them about the council’s ultimatum?”

Steward McOy
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