Chapter 4:

he dreams of going home

A Study on the Stand-In Love Interest

Orion felt a bead of cold sweat trickle down the nape of his neck.

"What do you mean, doesn't exist?"

"Exactly as I said," Halie said smugly. "You've never played A Study on the Former Love Interest before?"

Orion scowled. "Do I look like someone who'd play a dating sim to you?"

"Oh god, don't say something like that with his face!" she wailed, putting a hand dramatically over her heart. "It’s not just a dating sim—especially once you complete all the routes because the replay value is insane, and yeah Orion’s route is so basic and he’s only really got one cute CG if you don’t count the fandisc but that’s pretty much the case for all the guys, considering the bulk of the relationships…only…really started developing…after…”

Orion quickly seized the opportunity to cut in before she could catch her breath.

“So you were saying about Eilah,” he prompted, watching her expression twist again. “Stop making that face and answer my question.”

Halie glowered, then breathed in deeply like a long, heavy sigh. “It’s simple. The game never had a character like that. The spinoff webcomic only wrote her in to appeal to the masses ‘cause that villainess shit is so popular these days. Hate to break it to you, but she’s not real.”

“Neither is Orion,” Orion interjected, frowning. “By that logic, this whole place is fictional.”

“Hey, don’t say that with his face!”

“Affection levels have dropped to 2%.”

Ah. Otome game. Right, now that he thought about it, there never really was much of a focus on the gameplay aspect in the webcomic. Outside of trying to fix the plot, Eilah spent all of her time and energy ensuring that she never stole the spotlight from the heroine. There was a line about her trying to avoid raising affection levels in an early chapter, but it was glossed over.

For a moment, he expected the Entity to fill in that line for him, but there was nothing. Nothing except for a gnawingly familiar phrase:

“Halie Viriadian is the protagonist.”

He was getting real sick of that. The world of the webcomic was still the world of the otome game, wasn’t it? Building on existing stories happened all the time, adding new, contrived plot points to the storyline or fresh faces to the cast. What gave Halie and the Entity the right to just decide that Eilah was a fake? That was no better than how the mob characters treated her in the webcomic, just because she was destined to be the villainess!

“I can tell you still don’t understand,” Halie said. She brushed past him, stepping closer to the water that Orion had tried to jump into earlier. That seemed like a lifetime ago now. “I hold no hatred for Eilah Veramillion. Quite the contrary—I think she’s very well written. But in the end, Villainess’s Love Interest is nothing more than a watered-down version of the common route, and parts of Gideon’s route, I think. The writers never bothered to play more than ten minutes of the game.”

She turned her head slightly to glance over at where he stood, unmoving. “Want me to prove it to you?”

Without waiting for an answer, she knelt next to the edge of the pool, by the very spot where Orion had loosened the rope earlier. Under the orange-hued sky, her hair could almost be mistaken for a deep red, spilling over the high collar of her raincoat. She looked a lot like Eilah, Orion realized with a pang. Same loose bun, same delicate frame, same oversized, asymmetrical raincoat draped over her petite figure.

Eil—Halie—patted the ground next to her with a gloved hand, and Orion took a step toward her involuntarily. Then he sighed in defeat and squatted down to join her.

Without warning, she grabbed his hand and plunged it into the contaminated water.

Orion panicked. “Wait, wait, the hell are you—”

“Quiet. You’re wearing gloves for a reason. What do you feel?”

“Terrible,” he said. He struggled to pull free as he felt the phantom cold from the water splash against the thin fabric that protected his skin.

“Not asking how you’re feeling, stupid.” Halie still wouldn’t let go of his hand, which would’ve been rather lovely with a different person and in a different scenario altogether. “Feel how shallow this is.”

She was right. Orion’s fingertips grazed against a hard surface, and the water barely came up to his wrist. All of a sudden, the pool of death didn’t seem so dangerous after all. It was only really deep enough to kill a submerged phone, like the muddy water in the storm drain from not long ago.

And even if this was potent acid or something just as dangerous, everyone in this world was decked out in protective, waterproof equipment. The water was even roped off to protect the public. In the webcomic, the pools of contaminated water formed an endless, bottomless sea, and Eilah feared being thrown into it if she reached the bad end.

“Can you really call it a bad end if you fall into a pool this shallow?” Halie asked, as if she could read his mind. She let go of Orion’s hand and wiped her palm carelessly against the front of her jacket. “The writers read through the wiki once, absorbed about as much lore as this puddle, and used the plot points all wrong. That’s all I have to say.”

Orion watched as she pulled herself deftly to her feet. It was a lot to take in from the beginning—dying, waking up in a world he was only familiar with behind a phone screen, hearing the voice of a strange entity in his head, and meeting a crazy girl who dunked his hand into dangerous, unknown liquid just to prove a point.

What did Eilah experience when she ended up in this place?

When Orion had first started reading Villainess’s Love Interest, he had thought the orange sky over the ruined landscape was so beautiful. It wasn’t, not here. Not when the view was half-obscured by overgrown bangs that were too short to tuck behind his ears. Not when he was feeling like he was living inside a nightmare he couldn’t blink and wake up from. Every time he blinked, strands of hair kept getting caught in his eye.

He remembered how much he liked the sweeping panels that he had to turn his phone sideways to read. Glittering orange and greys as far as the eye could see—it was like he’d stepped inside the delicately illustrated backgrounds illuminated on his screen. But there was something about this world that was different—more raw, more rough, like a sprawling, unrestrained wasteland. Setting first, cute romance game second.

A game, not a comic.

Maybe what the Entity had repeated over and over in Orion's head was finally getting to him. It only really clicked somehow when Halie had shoved his hand into the puddle and he’d felt it for himself. The reflection on the surface of the water showed him a rippling, distorted reality—a different shape from the world he knew. He’d been viewing the strange orange sky through a camera filter, through still frames, through the gaze of a memory of a stranger.

What if he didn’t know a single thing about this world?

He’d never played an otome game before in his life. Halie's affection for him was in the single digits—not that he could blame her for that. But what did all that mean? What was written outside of the villainess’s journey? Who was Orion Magnaolia, and why was Orion here?

Suddenly, he felt a wave of exhaustion seeping through the cracks in his bearings. It was like he’d pulled three all-nighters in a row, like the years of fatigue from his thankless day job were catching up to him now. He’d been squatting in the same position for so long that he could no longer feel his legs. His vision was swimming. He felt numb, as if something in his brain had quietly shut down to protect himself.

“If you get it,” a high, sweet voice floated past his ears as he struggled to raise his head to see her—an almost familiar silhouette against orange against the sky. “Come with me. It’s not safe out here.”

In a body that wasn’t his, in a world that wasn’t his, with a girl that wasn’t here for him, a strange, bitter feeling lodged itself in his throat. Orion swayed dangerously, his heart thousands of miles away, back to where he came from. Somewhere between the numbness and the half-formed thoughts and unanswered questions, the sensation of tipping over and free-falling made him hope for a moment that the dream was ending.

That girl was calling out to him, her voice like static in his head. Right now, that didn’t matter. She didn’t want him here in the first place.

Maybe, Orion thought before his head hit the ground, it was better that he was never going to meet Eilah Veramillion in this life.

He wouldn’t know what to say to her anyway.

Lucid Levia
Steward McOy
Dhamas Tri (dmz)
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