A Study on the Stand-In Love Interest
For Orion, dying went a little something like this:
On the way back from a long day at the office, he’d made a wrong turn that took him halfway down an unfamiliar street before he noticed. He was distracted, of course. The webcomic he liked had updated while he was at work, and he was so absorbed in reading that he tripped over the curb and went sprawling into the damp concrete. His phone clattered noisily out of his grip, skidded through a gap in the storm drain, and disappeared out of sight. Just his luck.
After several tries, Orion did eventually manage to fish it out from the dirty water pooling under the grate. He blanched at the sight of mud dripping from the precious keychain hanging off his phone, and he tried to scrub off as much as he could with his sleeve. Only then did it occur to him that he should've prioritized the phone first—he wiped it down quickly, then held down the side button and held his breath.
The screen flickered once before it went dark. It did not turn on again.
Well, that was just great. Foolishly, Orion’s biggest concern at the time was that he was only halfway done reading. He pocketed the busted phone with a grimace and pulled himself to his feet. His knees ached, and the side of his jaw stung painfully from where it scraped against the pavement as he fell. Everything was only starting to hurt now, like a delayed reaction or something.
Orion took a look around, and that was when he realized for the first time that he had no idea where he was. As he scanned the empty street for the nearest passerby to ask for directions, he spotted a young woman stepping out of the building up ahead.
He called out to her.
But just as the woman was about to tell him the name of the road, her words were drowned out by a sudden, horrible screeching noise blasting into his brain that sounded like tires against pavement against a chalkboard. At that very instant, Orion didn’t know—couldn’t have known—what was about to hit him, figuratively, literally, and tragically.
And yet, in the moments leading up to the end, it was as if the whole world slowed down for him to take in everything for the last time. His sleeves were mildly damp from earlier and getting crusty from the drying mud. The faint, almost sour aftertaste of coffee lingered at the back of his tongue. He could barely feel the throbbing in his jaw anymore.
In the fading twilight between street lamps, Orion could just make out the features of the slighter figure in front of him. Her mouth was moving, but he couldn’t hear anything over the deafening screeching. It seemed like she was still earnestly trying to answer his question, gesturing and all. But Orion was never that good at reading lips, so he just shrugged, hoping it was a universal enough response for her to understand.
All of a sudden, there was a disorientingly bright light, like a camera flash.
He squinted, his eyes stinging as they struggled to adjust to the brightness. Standing completely unaware in the blinding headlights of a vehicle speeding straight toward them, that was when Orion saw her clearly for the first time.
Even though this was neither the time nor the place, all he could think about was that she was breathtakingly beautiful. Strands of her hair were illuminated like a halo framing her face, and she was gazing fixedly past his shoulder with a grim expression. He was staring. There was no way he wasn’t.
Without warning, she darted toward Orion, her arms outstretched as if to push him out of the way. Like an invisible string snapping, it was only then that time suddenly flowed normally again as his back hit the concrete and he found himself shielding his gaze from the sharp, dazzling glare of lights that blotted out his entire field of vision, and the screeching noise in his head abruptly grinded to a halt—
And then there was nothing at all.
A crumbling city falling apart at the seams. An organization built to feed destruction. A group pieced together to protect. In the midst of it all, a young woman who dreamed of blue skies and dry land and a world beyond here.
In the popular webcomic A Study on the Villainess's Love Interest, the protagonist was a modern woman that found herself reincarnated as the titular villainess. As a spin-off of a classic otome game, the series didn’t have much going for it, except for maybe it's blandly unique setting in a genre saturated with nobles and royalty.
Of course, Orion had never played the original game, and he wasn’t going to touch it with a ten-foot pole even if he was paid to do it. He wasn’t even really into the villainess isekai genre either—in fact, he’d always been what his friends called a “normie”. Apparently it wasn’t a compliment.
But a coworker had recommended the webcomic when it had just started serializing, and Orion read a few chapters because he thought it was funny that one of the love interest dudes shared the same name as him. And much to the surprise of everyone at the office, he got pretty hooked pretty quickly. Enough to keep up with reading the new chapter every week on the day it updated (Tuesdays at 7:00 PM). Enough to buy a blind box keychain and trade with one of the receptionists (who had an Eilah dupe while he happened to pull her best boy—uh, whatever that meant).
Orion liked the setting. It had a nice post-post-apocalyptic thing going on with the contaminated groundwater, even just as a minor backdrop. Somewhere in the villainess plot there was a tale of how the people of the world were able to survive, rebuild, and find hope after losing everything, and Orion thought that was really neat.
He liked the artwork. It was pretty anime, but there was a grungy feel to it that let him convince himself that he was still a normie. The characters’ outfits were cool—impractical techwear-ish coats with tons of random belts and buckles that had to be hell to take off. Eilah wore hers fantastically, and she was pretty, confident, smart, and really hot—
He, uh…really liked the villainess character. Eilah Veramillion wasn’t just a pretty face though; she was an incredibly interesting protagonist that used her knowledge of the otome game to take control of her own fate. Sure, apparently that trope was a staple in otome isekai or something, but Orion didn’t need to know that. He was a normie, remember?
Besides, he was kind of dead. Just like his phone.
Well, his life had never been unfulfilling, but he also wasn’t too important in the grand scheme of things. He lived alone. The neigbourhood cats fattened up even if he hadn’t visited for a while. The office was getting two new interns next week—they’d be more than enough to replace him.
Maybe his only regret, at least in his last moments, was saying goodbye to Villainess's Love Interest. All things considered, it wasn't really a masterpiece or anything, but he always looked forward to Tuesdays.
Now there was nothing left to—
—look forward…? To…?
Huh. Maybe this wasn't the end after all. For starters, the fact that Orion was able to consolidate these thoughts while being dead was a pretty good sign. That proved he still existed somewhere, even if it was only within the spaces of his mind.
People sometimes woke up from comas, right?
The most reassuring thing, ironically enough, was that it felt like he’d been run over by a truck. If his body hurt, then that meant he had to be conscious. There was feeling in his limbs (pain), and he felt as if someone had taken a baseball bat to his abdomen. Orion sucked in a sharp breath and winced as air spilled into his lungs. Yeah, he definitely wasn't breathing a second ago. That wasn’t alarming at all.
The pain began to fade as he slowly regained control over his fingers, his shoulders, his jaws. Orion was suddenly hit with an overwhelming, almost nauseating sense of deja vu as he struggled to peel his eyes open, because this was exactly how Eilah Veramillion had described waking up in the world of A Study on the Villainess's Love Interest at the start of the comic. Word-for-word, even.
Blinking fatigue out of his eyes, he glimpsed the orange-tinged sky first, and dismissed it because it could just be the sunrise—he must’ve passed out and was left out on the sidewalk to dry or something. But Orion couldn’t explain the ruins that took the place of what was once a normal street with normal buildings. And the nets that cordoned off pools of water on the ground further up ahead were all too familiar.
A minor backdrop. This was only supposed to be a minor backdrop.
A crumbling city, deadly groundwater that wasn’t quite water, and a pale orange sky. The tale of four handsome men vying for the heroine’s attention when they “really should be using their energy to help pick up the pieces after the apocalypse.” That was how Eilah had worded it.
This was the world, the setting, and the backdrop of the webcomic—it was unmistakable. That very world had sprung to life before Orion’s eyes, and he felt like he was going to be sick.