Chapter 24:

all the faces in the crowd, but it’s only you

A Study on the Stand-In Love Interest

The deal that the council offered—handing over the escaped criminals in exchange for clearing Caeruleum’s name—was nonexistent in the original otome game, of course.

Word travelled fast in Gideon’s information network because they had a working radio system, which kind of ruined the mystery of the all-knowing information broker. Gideon was loath to reveal anything to them, but Maximium Yellow sort of ruined that for him. All of these were just a series of unconnected events, but it turned out better than Orion could’ve ever hoped.

Now that it was somewhat difficult to turn them in, Gideon reluctantly told them about the things they already knew.

“Actaeus is not a criminal,” he said. “He’s only ever tried to do good. He was framed by the council for crimes he did not commit.”

Orion made his best shocked and horrified face at that.

“And Coabalt…” Gideon’s expression darkened slightly, before he shook it off and shut his eyes. “I’m just glad he didn’t…have to get caught up in any of this.”

“Notice how he’s not telling us anything about the contamination. This man is terrifying at -45%.”

Wasn’t this man his friend?

Orion asked Actaeus silently if he was absolutely sure his affection meter wasn’t broken. His own had fluctuated so much just from breathing the same air as Halie. Gideon had spent an hour talking with someone so radiant and dazzling, how could he not even feel a shred of affection in his ice-cold heart?

“And just a moment ago, you were complaining about how you didn’t want him to like her.”

Out of the corner of his peripheral vision, Halie shot him a furtive look and beamed when their eyes met. Ah, Actaeus was sharing his private thoughts with her again. He let it go this time.

“At the time of your arrival, Caeruleum was still deliberating whether or not to sell you out,” Gideon said flatly. “Naturally, we can no longer do that. But we wish to…make it up to you. I will gather all of the organization’s forces to search for information pertaining to Actaeus. In exchange, Halie Viriadian, you will assist me with a favour.”

“What favour?” she asked.

He smiled, with all the false pleasantries of a man that disliked her at 45%. “You will have to find out tomorrow. I’ve asked Maximium Yellow and Light Salimon #FDAB9F to prepare your quarters so you can rest here for the night.”

It was so, so hard for Orion to keep a straight face.


“Separate quarters,” Halie grumbled. “They didn’t have to go through all this trouble; we’d be fine together.”

“That’s because we’ve only ever had one bed available,” Orion tried to reason with her as she plopped herself down on the scratchy-looking cot in her assigned room.

“But I want to sleep with you.”

His heart got caught somewhere in between his ribs and his throat. “W-well, it’s just for one night.”

“You only want a one-night stand?” she gasped. “I get it. It’s over between us. Goodbye.”

“Don’t be so dramatic,” Orion said, sighing. “We have more important things to worry about.”

“What could be more important than me?”

Good question.

“That Gideon didn’t tell us a single thing we didn’t already know,” Actaeus cut in. “He doesn’t seem to know about the council getting tipped off about Halie’s request ticket, but he knows about the bounty on your heads? He’s hiding something.”

“Information brokers,” Halie grumbled. “They’re always like that. I hate his route, I hate his face, crafty guys suck so much. Gideon’s my least favourite love interest.”

“His affection levels also don’t make sense. But it’d be futile to try and understand it. Be on your guard around him.”

Briefly, Orion wondered if affection levels were something that went both ways. Sure, they were in a game in which Halie Viriadian was the protagonist—but they also had more free will than the way Halie had described a visual novel to him.

Of course it was different in a game, because you could just mindlessly pick the choices you wanted. But here, how could Halie raise the affection levels of someone she wasn’t genuine about? Not to mention the two of them already kind of messed up the story because they got together before the end of the common route.

“You might be onto something. Say that out loud.”

“Well, you hate that guy, right?” Orion asked Halie, voicing the offhand comment that he wouldn't realize was spot-on until later. “Then why would he like you back? Besides, you already chose me. You said there was like, no harem options in this game…”

(—which, thank god there wasn’t.)

At that, Halie’s eyes went wide and round.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh no.”

She looked unsettled for the first time, staring down at her gloved hands like was thinking about the things she’d done, the people she’d stabbed, and all the times she’d laced his fingers with Orion’s. Her eyes, very green and full of settling panic, met his.

“I forgot. I forgot this was a game. Shit—I got so carried away that we skipped the whole story. Instead of fixing things, we just made it worse.”

“Wait, you’re worrying about the story now?”

“I don’t know!” she said, her voice small and panicky. “We shouldn’t have come to meet with Gideon. We should’ve gone to go talk with Leonis instead. We should’ve followed the plot of the game properly, but it’s my fault—”

“Shh,” Orion said, impulsively clasping her hands with his own and bringing them to his chest. “Nothing is your fault. We couldn’t have known what we were supposed to do. Even now, we can only guess where our decisions will take us.”

“We’re in an otome game,” Halie said. “There are only a set number of choices I’m supposed to be making. Look at how far we’ve deviated from where we’re supposed to be. I got so excited spending all this time with you, I’ve forgotten about that.”

“It was the council that tried to kill us,” Orion pointed out. “How could you have stopped them from chasing us out?”

“Then we should’ve gone after Leonis.”

“How? Literally how?”

Halie shrugged, looking defeated. “I don’t know. But still, it’s all my fault.”

“If everything going wrong is your fault, I don’t care.” Orion took a deep breath, pulling her awkwardly into his arms before his burst of confidence wore off. She was warm, and very tiny underneath the oversized raincoat. She hugged him back, slowly, her arms sliding hesitantly around his waist.

“Honestly, none of this makes sense at all,” he confessed. “Things going wrong or right are the same to me. We’re not getting clubbed to death by council members, right? Why are you so upset?”

There was a long pause, and she just squeezed him tighter.

And then—

“Because I like you a lot!” Halie wailed into his jacket, her voice muffled against the waterproof fabric. “I can’t not hate Gideon, he sucks because he kills Orion Magnaolia in all his bad ends! Even in the normal end! But what if that’s what’s ruining everything?”

Wow. Really, wow. No wonder he had a bad feeling about Gideon Obisidian.

“You never said that.”

“Let’s say you’ll ruin everything no matter what you do,” Orion suggested, ignoring Actaeus. “Then does it matter in the end?”

Halie smacked her forehead weakly against his shoulder in response, so he continued. “Do you need to bother trying to cater to these fools who don’t appreciate you for who you are? Fuck the otome game, and just do what you want! I’ll be right by your side.”

“You’re right,” she said. She wriggled out of his arms, and Orion automatically loosened his grip.

“You’re right,” she repeated, reaching out a gloved hand to touch his face, gently. Tenderly. It still set his skin on fire, even though the pressure was so light he could barely feel the leather against his cheek.

Halie seemed to ponder something for a moment, before she pulled back again. Carefully, she peeled off her gloves, and then tossed them in a pile by the foot of the bed.

The small hands that cupped Orion’s cheeks were wrinkly from wearing gloves for so long, not soft and cute like he’d expected. But he was too smitten to notice, too busy getting lost in the brilliant green of her gaze to care.

“I want to leave,” she murmured, cradling his face like she was holding the world in the palm of her hands.

“We’ll leave,” Orion said fervently. “Whenever you want. We’ll go anywhere.”

“I don’t want to do Gideon’s favour.”

“We’ll sneak out tonight, then.”

Halie stroked his cheek, her thumb pausing just under his chin. Orion was rooted to the spot, not sure where to put his hands or if he’d blinked at all in the past five minutes, or where he’d left his heart. It was thundering somewhere like the beat of a drum in his ears, outside of his ribcage.

“I want you to know that I know you’re not Orion Magnaolia,” she said, her voice very quiet.

“I know. I won’t ever question it.”

“And I want…” Halie took a deep, shaky breath, “to ignore that your route isn’t supposed to happen until after we confront the council alongside Caeruleum with evidence of their misdeeds, and that we might not even—get to, you know…do anything together before the whole clinic storyline is resolved, and who knows if the real life version of this world will even include the fandisc content with all the domestic bliss shit…but you know what?”

She grabbed a handful of his collar, and yanked Orion's face closer to hers, her gaze burning.

“I don’t want to wait for that,” she said breathlessly. And then without another moment of hesitation, she leaned in on her tiptoes and kissed him on the lips.

Steward McOy
Dhamas Tri (dmz)
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