Chapter 27:

the cards have fallen off the table

A Study on the Stand-In Love Interest


It was easier to deal with Gideon now that they had stripped him of his knife and he was bound so tightly he couldn’t even hope to escape. When he regained consciousness, he’d tried to call for Maximium Yellow and Light Salimon #FDAB9F, but Halie had gagged him repeatedly with her glove and eventually he gave up.

So he spat on the floor and glared at them with all the spite he could muster.

“So you want to know my deal with Mayor Mahogainy,” he sneered at Halie, straining against the restraints that held his arms and legs tightly. “Even I don’t know the extent of her powers—but she promised me this. If I were to successfully destroy Halie’s life here, Eilah would return to her rightful place.”

“And you’re really convinced that she’s not just bullshitting you?” Halie asked. She wrinkled her nose when he tilted his head and spat again on the floor. “Ew, stop that.”

“Gideon Obisidian’s affection levels are at -63%.”

Ah, Actaeus was doing his role properly for once. Orion didn’t realize the affection levels could get any lower than it already was. Well, there was no helping it.

“She holds this world in the palm of her hand,” Gideon insisted, sounding like he’d gone completely insane. “Moving Eilah to this world will be easy for her.”

“That machine,” Halie murmured, only loud enough for Orion and Actaeus to hear. “Can you really traverse across the separate, branching otome game universes?”

“My consciousness is stuck here in permanent disembodiment, so that’s a question you should ask the machine’s owner.”

Orion blinked. “So Mahogainy really is the final boss in the end.”

“There’s no way we can take her down,” Halie said. “We’ll be making the whole city of Arkose our enemy—which we already have. At minimum, we’ll have to finish the common route first, figure out how to dismantle the council from the inside out…hmm, we’ll need Aries’s help for that—and then we need to gather the villagers from the scattered farming villages across the world. Oh, and we’ll need Caeruleum on our side too, which means we have to win over Gideon. Oh god, this isn’t going to work at all.”

“Wait, just so we’re all on the same page,” Orion said. “Just what is our goal here?”

“To take down Mahogainy or find the universe she’s looking for, whichever comes first.”

“Um, to get through the rest of the story with you the best I can…I guess?”

“To get rid of Halie and to bring Eilah back to where she rightfully belongs.”

“I’m just going to ignore the last comment,” Orion said, and Gideon shot him a dirty look from where he was tied up on the floor.

“And you call yourself Eilah’s fan,” he scoffed. “She would be so disappointed that you weren’t trying to do everything you could do to reinstate her to her rightful position.”

“Obsessive, aren’t we?” Halie muttered under her breath, but Orion held out his hand to stop her and shook his head. In response, she fit her palm against his—which wasn’t the point of this at all.

“Hey Gideon,” said Orion, dropping his arm back to his side. “I think you missed the whole point of the webcomic. Did you keep up with it every week on Tuesday?”

“Read it the moment it updates,” Gideon said gruffly.

“Then you have to remember all the scenes in which Eilah protected the heroine,” he said. “All the times where she took a step back from the plot to make sure the Gideon and Orion in that world, and Aries and Leonis too, would take another step toward their happy ending.”

“Exactly!” Gideon shouted suddenly, straining against the ropes. “She sacrificed so much! But where is her happy ending?”

“But it wasn’t a sacrifice.” Orion was sure of it, because there was someone right next to him with a similar personality, the same earnest devotion to something she loved. “A Study on the Former Love Interest is her favourite otome game.”

“I know, and that’s why she deserves to be in it! She deserves to be here with me!”

“But did you ever stop to think about what she wants?”

Gideon’s face twisted. “They never gave me the chance. Halie Viriadian—that bitch never gave me a chance! Don’t act like you’re better than me. You abandoned Eilah. You’ve forsaken her.”

Orion was surprised Halie took a backseat as Gideon yelled, without so much as an offhand comment. It was even more surprising that Actaeus didn’t have a snide remark here and there, or even an insult for the man slandering his sister. But it seemed like they were letting him handle it, and something about having a shouting match with a helplessly tied-up man was cathartic.

“You like her a lot, don’t you?” he asked. “You like her so much that you don’t ever want to see her sad, or in pain, or lonely.”

There was no response from Gideon, just heavy, laboured breathing. For a moment, Orion wondered if they should offer him water. There was a pool of contaminated water nearby, just outside. Ha…ha…

“Eilah to you, is what Halie is to me,” Orion said earnestly. “This Halie, standing in front of you right now, the one that you refuse to acknowledge. She’s strong. She’s cool. She’s smart and resourceful and hardworking. She’s everything Eilah is and more because she isn’t just a fictional character—she’s a person with flaws, mistakes, and more nonsense than substance sometimes. Most of the time.”

“Hey.”

“Some days, the only thing she cares about is this otome game,” he continued. “Other days, she’s stabbing people with chopsticks and getting thrown into prison. I don’t even know her that well yet—maybe even less than I know about Eilah. Maybe this won’t work out by next week. But right now, I’m happy for the chance to spend another day with her.”

Orion took a deep breath, meeting Gideon’s gaze levelly.

“I hope you’ll find someone like that for yourself someday.”

He felt something pinch him from behind.

“Hey!” Halie hissed at him, sounding flustered and angry and incredulous at the same time. “Why are you confessing all this while staring into that guy’s eyes, huh? Look at me!”

-

They were going to leave Gideon there, and then leave. That guy wasn’t their problem anymore, and Maximium Yellow would probably find their cult leader tied up on the floor by morning and they would be long gone by then.

But then Actaeus brought up that Gideon’s affection levels had gone back to -45%, and then to -30%, and by the time Orion and Halie were ready to leave it was at 0%.

0%.

A neutral number, equal parts disinterest and interest. A number that had been either the cause or effect of Aries trying to club them to death so it wasn’t actually that reassuring, but it was a stark contrast to the the -64%—

“-63%.”

…a stark contrast to the unadulterated hatred he’d shown them prior, despite never actually getting to knife anyone in the end. It meant something, even if Orion didn’t know what yet.

And maybe he was just being overly optimistic, high on the blissful feeling of first love, that he started feeling a bit of pity for that guy.

“Did you really want to start a farm, Halie?” he asked. “Because if you do, I’m with you all the way.”

“What.”

“But you also said you wanted to see the story through to the end with me,” Orion continued. “I know how much you love this otome game—”

“I don’t, actually,” Halie said. “I told you, the game is mid. I only liked it for my best boy.”

“Oh. Forget I said anything then.”

She laughed her sweet, wind-chimes laugh, giving him that rush of adoration of annoyance that surged through him. “Even so, I did enjoy playing it a lot. This world kind of sucks, but I like it. And you like it a lot, right? I can tell.”

“You can? How so?”

“Not telling,” she said, and her grin was impossibly bright. “It’s my turn to say I’m with you all the way. So what’s the plan?”

Steward McOy
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