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Bad∞End∞Night: Set My Heart Aflame

This is a short story from the Bad∞End∞Night novel website, a bonus for buying both volumes. It's about the actors in the troupe, and it doesn't spoil anything, but you should probably at least have read Chapter 1 of the book, if not up to Chapter 3, to be familiarized with them.

Please note that I find this story... pretty... questionable. Just recognize that I don't entirely agree with the handling of certain subjects here. And if that warning worries you, then you may want to give it a pass.

Basically: don't worry, I feel iffy about parts of this too. But the story is what it is. So, if only for completeness, here you go.

——

"Set My Heart Aflame"

The end of December; the year was coming to a close. In West End, preparations were beginning for winter festivals and New Years events, making the streets busier than ever. The Burlet Company was no exception to this; while we prepared for our final production of the year, we were also in the middle of a major end-of-year cleanup for our traditional annual event.

All the cast and staff, backstage and front, gathered for a two-day-long cleaning of the theater. The cleanup aimed to be an opportunity for everyone to look back on the past year and form aspirations for the next, and deepen bonds with one another. No one was particularly enthusiastic about the cleaning, but nearly everyone worked hard on it in anticipation of the party that would follow.

I, Rin, was assigned to clean the reference room. It was a place sort of like a library, filled with scripts used last year, bibliographies, and lots of other material. Miku and I swept every nook and cranny of the typically-not-entered room with feather dusters. While it was periodically cleaned, layers of dust had still built up in unused portions.

"You know, I really don't have much motivation to clean usually... But I can kinda get into it for this year-end cleanup! I wonder why? Miku, do you clean at home often? I mean, you're making things really neat here..."

"Hmm... I guess I might just be used to it since I always helped my grandma..."
"Miku, great at housework... Yeah, that's how I see you! I almost always have servants cleaning my house, so I've hardly ever done it myself. But if you tell me it's cleanup for a big event, then I can get going!"

"Ahaha... That's true."
"Apparently Len does his own cleaning, though. I just don't mind if my room's a little messy, you know? Oh, that's what Meg says too."

"Miss Meg's room certainly is, um..."
"...Like a jungle, yeah. Remember how she tripped and hurt herself the other day because of how much of a mess her house is? I've sent out some of our servants to help out at Meg's house after that incident."

"Servants, huh... I sure aspire to that kind of life... You are a pretty wealthy lady, huh, Rin?"
"Hmm, am I...? My nature isn't all that ladylike. Everyone calls me rambunctious, or a shrew, or that kind of thing..."

Talking with Miku behind me, I quite enjoyed the rambling conversation between fellow girls. Simply saying what came to mind, letting the topic jump here and there at will, with no interference from the men. The gentle mood was comforting.

"...Rin, you... really are beautiful, aren't you... Sigh..."

Suddenly, I heard a sigh of wonder from Miku dusting shelves behind me.

"Huh...?! W-What's this all of a sudden?"

"Your pretty blonde hair and blue eyes... Like a true lady... No, beautiful like a princess..."

I was frequently complimented as "cute," but hardly ever as "beautiful." Miku's sudden praise made me break into a smile.

"Well, I guess Luka's been telling me I'm a little more mature lately, too...! Boy, it's kind of embarrassing! She always used to treat me like a little kid, all cute and tiny, but I am getting older now, you know?"

"Did she really? I don't think that has to do with it at all. I feel like there's just a little bit of a mature aroma seeping out of your cuteness. Maybe I'd call it "bewitching"...? Hey, this photo is from before I joined the troupe, isn't it?"
"Hm...? Photo?"

I turned around to Miku, expecting to see her dusting a bookshelf. However, in her hand wasn't a feather duster, but a thick album she was sitting down with and gazing at a particular part of. Her eyes sparkled, forgetting all about the cleanup, and she was entranced by one of the photos. Who knows how long she'd been doing that; I looked around the area Miku was supposed to be cleaning and saw that hardly any work had been done.

So I'd been the only one diligently focusing on cleaning, which I wasn't even accustomed to... It was kind of embarrassing. I cleared my throat loudly, and approached Miku imitating Luka's famous "looking down from above" pose, preparing to preach at her - which I was normally on the other end of.

"Miiiiikuuuuu?! I know the feeling of finding an old album while you're cleaning, but please! We're in the middle of cleanup for the end-of-the-year event... Yes, the Burlet Company's biggest cleanup job! Do you even listen? Sheesh! You just warp into your own little world!"

Miku looked up at me, blinked a few times, and tilted her head just once, but again looked down at the photo and grinned absent-mindedly. No good. She was completely in daydream land.

"Sigh... Looks like you need instructive guidance from a veteran in the company. This cleanup, you see... It's a time for everyone to look back on their memories of the year, sweep away all the dirt accumulated in the theater, and while you're at it, clean up your body and mind to meet the new year fresh... So it's like a physical and mental thing, that's really important! And..."

"I'm coming in. Green room #2's don... Hey..."

Right as the sermon was getting more intense, Len entered the room after cleaning green room #2. What bad timing. I promptly glanced at him to try and explain, but sure enough, he looked at me scornfully, unable to hide his disappointment.

"...Y-You've got it wrong, okay? I was diligently cleaning until right before you came in..."

"Yes, of course. I thought you were taking a while... You were both slacking off? Don't get Miku falling behind, too..."
"C-Come on, that's all wrong! Forget what it looks like, I can do the job when it comes to it..."
"Yeah, I got it. So, what's Miku looking at so zealously?"

Len didn't seem to have any faith in me seriously cleaning from the get-go. Okay, maybe it wasn't very believable that someone who didn't clean at all normally would work hard at it just once a year on a big whim. But I wanted to point out how cruel the difference in treatment was here. Because this time Miku was the only one slacking off...!

"Len! Look at this. I think this is from a little bit before I joined..."

Miku pointed at one of the photos she was looking at as Len approached.

"These eyes have such a fantastical beauty, like they're sucking me in... She's like a real-life flower fairy. And I feel like... This person is Rin, but also someone else... I'm not sure how to put it. But it's really wonderful..."
"...!!"

Miku handed over the photo while blushing. It showed a young girl dressed like a lovely dancer, wearing a beautiful dress comprised of many fake pink flower petals made of silk, wearing splendorous pearl ornaments all over her body, with a sorrowful smile. She looked like she jumped out of a page from a fairytale. Yes, it was... one of my roles.

"Y-Yeah... You're, uh, right. Mhm..."

Len turned his face away, and spoke bluntly with a bitter face. There was a slight cold sweat on his brow.

"Corruption Upon Bloom... I've never seen a performance of it before, so I've never seen the Dancer's outfit before either, but... Oh, it's so wonderful... Hey, is this costume made of..."

A person's life has many different events. Fun ones, painful ones, happy ones, sad ones. People live with all of those memories in their hearts. The past is a record, and their eternal footprints write in the book of memory. Probably everyone has at least a few memories they simply don't want to accept, or would forget about entirely if they could. They can be called youthful thoughtlessness, past mistakes, dark history.

I timidly looked toward Len standing beside me, and he appealed to me with forceful eye contact alone... "Don't say anything." Yes, it was about a year before Miku joined the troupe... In a cold winter, just like now.

——

"Len! Are you up?"

An early winter morning with warm sunlight coming in the window. I politely knocked, as I usually don't, and waited for the room's inhabitant to come out. Before long, the door clicked open and my brother appeared. Fully demonstrating his just-woken-up displeasure, he replied in a voice a tone lower than usual.

"...What?"
"Ah... G-Good morning! What a nice day, huh! I poured you some good-morning tea!"
"..."

"Ahh, finally some good weather! The birds are chirping more peacefully than usual... How about some tea together?"
"...If you don't have business, leave. I'm still sleepy. Night."

I stopped his left hand from closing the door, and half-forcibly intruded into the room.

"H-Hooold on! Look, I have a request, actually... And I'll never ask for another as long as I live!"
"...How many times you gonna reincarnate until you're satisfied...? I still wanna sleep. Leave it for later."
"No, no, no! It's clearly morning already! And it's a race against time!"
"...?"

With that, I took away the large mask covering my face. My brother gazed at me, suddenly waking up, and sighed grandly.

"Sigh... I'll get ready. You go and gather everyone, then explain the situation."

——

"Rin!! What happened to your face?! Are you okay?!"

The moment I entered the room, Kaito approached hastily. He stooped and made eye contact, looking at me worriedly at close range. But seeing him so serious made me crack up. Not expecting that, he wrinkled his brow and gave me a dubious look. I was well aware it wasn't the time to laugh, but I was just kind of pleased that Kaito's reaction had been exactly what I predicted it would be, word for word.

"Oh dear... That's quite a doozy, Rin. Have you gone to the hospital? And does this mean today's performance is cancelled?"
"Yes, Rin is the lead actress of Corruption Upon Bloom. With her like that, logically speaking, we'll probably have to delay the whole three-day performance... What a shame! But anyway, let's get her to a doctor quickly!"

Luka made an unenthused comment, and Meg spoke cheerily - the exact opposite of her words, particularly the "what a shame." Meanwhile, I proceeded to the dresser in the corner of the room. I looked myself over in the mirror again... I looked terrible. Red swollen specks were all over my face. And my sluggish body told me I likely had a fever, as I felt like I was burning all over.

"Umm... I was fine last night... But I woke up like this. I'm sorry..."
"That looks like it'll take at least two or three days to heal. It seems like hives to me... Does it itch or hurt anywhere?"

Meiko approached and gave me her sympathy. She checked my fever and looked around my body.

"Six hours until the show begins, hm... Yes, we ought to make a decision soon and put a notice about the cancelled performance up front. Early visitors are coming already. And Miss Rin should be examined at a hospital quickly as well. We can't let it worsen."

Gack spoke gently and smiled at me. Their kindness to say they were more worried about my health than the performance, if a bit shamelessly, warmed my heart. The door clicked open, and Len came in last. Looking everyone else over and lightly bowing, he slumped down on the sofa next to me.

"...So? What's the verdict, Kaito? Is it cancelled?"

Len requested a decision from Kaito, who had his eyes closed in thought. This show was a repeat of a first showing done a month ago. It had been a significant hit amid unstable audience numbers, so everyone had high hopes for it. Also on the line was the possibility that it could be a chance for the troupe to regain its financial footing. I couldn't bear to betray everyone's hopes and let the show be cancelled because of me. So...

"Len... Umm..."
"...What?"
"...I'm sure, well... Len, you've probably already guessed. You all want to go through with this show no matter what, right...? So..."

"...How about just saying it straight, Rin?"
"Agh... So I, um, he... I want Len to... stand in for me."

I glanced toward my brother relaxing next to me. A beat later, everyone was looking at Len with surprise. Their dumbfounded faces gradually changed from shock to delight, like a ray of hope had entered into the depths of despair.

"I see... That is an option! You are twins, so of course you look similar. With makeup and the costume, it may just work."
"A stand-in... Mr. Len does say he has all of Burlet's scripts memorized, and he's an excellent actor, so I think he'll really be able to do it!"
"A very creat... er, wonderful solution to this predicament. It seems like a risk at a glance, but I can expect that Len in all his talent may be able to pull it off."
"A nice idea indeed! He's a boy, granted, but Rin has a child's physique, so it works out, doesn't it? My, I'm getting a little excited!"
"R-Right? After all, Len's very smart and a far better actor than us all, isn't he? I feel there's hardly anything he can't do! Oh, yes!"

Everyone unanimously supported the stand-in plan with excitement. But Len himself was the same as ever, silent with a poker face. He seemed like he might be displeased. No, probably he was just flat-out displeased.

"..."

"Ah... But, it is a role he hasn't practiced at all. Will it go so easily, I wonder... Say, Len. You're anxious too, aren't you? We know how you feel, but try to stay calm."

Meiko probably inferred Len's internal feelings of unrest and tried to cull the growing excitement that was leaving him in the lurch. But I couldn't give up here. I had to make Len stand in for me, for the revival of the company.

"...Look, I..."
"Pleeease, Len!! Your cute sister won't ask another favor for as long as she lives! Stand up on stage for her! I mean, if this is cancelled, our chance for a comeback...! And all the backstage staff is already expecting it to be a huge success... Sniff... I don't want the show to be cancelled because of meeeee!"

Here came the waterworks. It probably wasn't good for my appearance with my swollen red face, but I had no other choice. Surprisingly, this strategy was effective on Len. Even if he knew they were crocodile tears of an actress, he once let it slip that seeing a woman's tears always made him feel bad. Maybe it was an effect of having a crybaby like me by his side since childhood. Not matching his gentle, princely face, inside he was more like a knight... He had a personality with more chivalry than necessary. I snuck a look at him through the gaps in my hands, and sure enough, he glared at me with a face concerned despite the knowledge of it being fake.

"Sigh... I really would have liked to do Kaito's role..."
"S-Sniff. But didn't he tell you you're still too young to play a mighty commander...? Wait two or three years... Wahhh..."

"But, seriously! You want me to put on that frilly pink dress and play the part of a pretty girl who swindles all the men fawning over her?"
"Well, you can't change the script, now can you? Sniffle... I didn't want to play such a cute little demon myself, you know? It's just embarrassing. I'm more suited for an angeeel..."

"...Liar. You've been bouncing up and down since the casting was decided. Talking about how you'd recruit all the men in West End as your bodyguards... And this time you'd invite Kaito -"

"Waaaaah! If it was going to be like this, I shouldn't have gotten all cocky and eaten that pastaaa! Pasta with a new species of mushroom... Luka, you dummyyy!"

"Hah?! Excuse me? Why is it my fault, now?"
"That's right... It was Miss Luka who reserved the restaurant last night! And she took the initiative in recommending everyone that suspicious new menu... Miss Rin, that's such a pity. You have my sympathies!"

"Meg! That's some talk considering how elated you were! "Wow, I've never had such delicious dolce before!""
"Oof... W-Well, um... That dolce was just hit the spot like nothing in a long time, and I personally really enjoyed it a ton...!"

"Perhaps I should have stopped Rin before she made her order. I was drunker than usual, so I couldn't put on the brakes. If she'd just asked for the children's cream pasta like usual, then all this..."
"It's not your fault, Kaito. It was the manager's recommendation, so it piqued everyone's curiosity... We all got too caught up in the moment."

"Indeed, the wine last night was wonderfully delicious... Even I went on a bit of a spree. But to think that mushroom pasta would invite such tragedy..."

Everyone, while looking back at last night's party, began arguing about where to put the blame. It was likely the mushrooms in that pasta last night that gave me hives. When I ate it, it had a slightly stinging taste, but thinking back on it, that was the same feeling as when I had an allergic reaction. Just like when I touched a cat: I'd be fine for the time being, but there'd be a reaction some time later.

Luka had initially recommended the odd-looking and odd-tasting pasta, but everyone was drunk and recommending it to me. As the designated keeper of high spirits, I felt I had no choice but to eat it, and gulped it down while striking a strange pose. So everyone felt similarly responsible.

"...Hey, you forgetting something?"
"?"

While everyone accused and defended, a quiet alto rang out. That single coercive line brought hushed silence to the room. Everyone's gaze gathered on Len, grinning with a sharp glint in his eye, putting his chin in his hands on his knees.

"...I wasn't invited last night, you know."
".........Oh."

Everyone realized just then that Len wasn't at the party. We'd completely forgotten about it, but why was Len not there?

"Uh, umm...? I-I'm pretty sure I told Kaito to tell you to come once you were done working... H-Huh? O-Or was it Luka and Meg...? A-Aha... S-Sorry!! I was sure you didn't come because you were too busy... Ummm..."

At once, everyone else was suddenly flustered.

"Oh, I... Did I hear that? Erm... Ah, Gack called me after that..."
"Hm? That's right... Maybe I heard that, maybe I didn't... He might have been there, might have not..."
"E-Excuse me?! I didn't hear anything... M-Maybe... Right, Meg?"
"Right! I don't remember anything like that. That kind of thing is Mr. Gack and Miss Meiko's duty!"
"I can clearly remember that the beer was delicious at the restaurant, but not much else... I'm sorry, Len."

Everyone thought Len had been made aware and left him behind, it seemed. Yes, they decided that someone must have told him, so when Len didn't come, they figured his work was going late.

"...Have fun?"

After hearing everyone's excuses, Len smiled wider. His almost affectionately kind smile was so different from his usual self that it was very scary. The more his smile deepened, the more pale everyone got.

"Oh? Ah, w-was it fun...? Hmm... W-What do you think, everyone?"
"L-Let's see, it wasn't much different from a usual get-together, was it? Not especially fun or anything, was it? Certainly, it was fun. The beer was great. But that's all."
"Tell the truth."

Len spoke with an extraordinary smile, but his tone was terrifyingly deep, unthinkable as his voice. Everyone felt the pressure and unconsciously readjusted their posture.

Unable to handle the dreadful pressure, Meg swung her right hand to her forehead in a salute and blurted it all out.

"Sir! It was really, really fun!! The pasta was great, the dolce was amaaaaazing, everyone got super drunk, and we partied the night away! What's more, Mr. Gack got completely smashed, and on the way back I..."

"(M-Miss Meg?! We had a secret agreement...!)"
"Ahh..."
"Heh... So even Gack was drunk, was he? I thought he seemed odd..."

It was the first I'd heard of Gack being drunk, for sure. Luka shot a teasing glance at him, intrigued by the rare event.

"I see... Exciting enough for Gack to get smashed, was it?"
"...! Ah, b-but was it really that fun? Meg always makes things sound seven times more outrageous than they are!"

"Miss Rin! I'm not exaggerating for once! And it's usually more like five times, isn't it? I heard you saying how you hadn't been to such a fun party in ages, don't try to hide!"
"(Gaaaaah! Meg, take a freaking HINT!)"

The more Meg exposed about the fun party last night, the more Len's mood visibly worsened. Somehow, the well-heated room seemed to go below freezing... I hoped that was just my imagination.

"All right. I'll be a stand-in. However... not without conditions."
"Huh? Really?!"

Though Len didn't seem like he could be in any worse of a mood, apparently he would stand in for me. Everyone quietly turned to watch Len to follow the sudden development they hadn't quite caught up to yet.

"I have two conditions."
"Huh? Two of them?"
"You say something?"

"N-No! S-Saving us on a mere two conditions... You're truly my angel! No, my god, Lord Len!"
"...Very well, pitiful lambs... You must know your place, if you don't wish to die prematurely..."

""""""...!!""""""

Len, or rather Lord Len, stood up from the sofa next to me, and slowly and elegantly walked to the most luxurious chair by the window... He leaned back in the chair Luka always used, crossed his legs, and relaxed his body. Even Meiko, who would normally promptly speak up about his bad manners of putting his feet on the glass table, watched him in suspense. Everyone's face said "oh no," but it was too late...

It seemed that leaving him out last night incurred his wrath, flipping a switch underneath his cool and collected mask. No matter what anyone said, we wouldn't get back the normal Len. Yes, not until Len's... Lord Len's objective was satisfied... The bewitching charm of his smile was like a demon invited from the underworld. If we resisted, who knew what he would do.

"E-Err. W-What would those conditions be, Lord Len?"

"Right. The first one... My being a stand-in will be a secret known only to the chosen six lambs here. You won't dare let it slip to anyone else, yes...? If you can't keep that promise... I'm sure you understand what will happen."

""""""..........""""""

"...Your reply?"

""""""Y-Yes, sir! Lord Len!!""""""

"Very good. And the second... In the three days until the end of this show... You foolish lambs will be my devoted servants, and I will give you the right to serve me with all your mind and body. Be honored."

""""""W-Whaaa...""""""

This naturally was met with dissatisfaction.

"...To me, this is a major wound, and may be something that vexes me for life... An innocent boy of thirteen, made an outcast by his six traitor friends, left with the mistake caused by their happy party... And despite being totally unrelated, I alone must put myself on the line to pay the price. Made to read a script I've never practiced, forced to play as a girl who swindles men driven by lust... And moreover, you want a massive crowd to watch. Having my dignity taken out from under me at such a sensitive age... It's truly a deep cut..."

""""""We'll do anything you ask, Lord Len!""""""

"Then first, Kaito. The most stylish of the Burlet portraits in your collection... The one with the full moon in the background, where his arms are wrapped in bandages and he feasts on flower petals. You will display it here in green room #1, to stimulate my motivation."

"Huh?! You want me to bring that here? That painting's pretty heavy... And pretty big, too."
"...Oh? Well then, my motivation to act is gone... Too bad."
"Wait, I've been working out lately, so maybe it's not so heavy at all! I just remembered, hahaha... I'll bring it right away, Lord Len!"

Kaito rushed to bring back a large portrait of Burlet he kept at home. Certainly, a portrait that large in this room would give a significant impact. His pose in that painting was also... very... interesting.

"L-Len... No, Lord Len! Hold on a moment. Having that portrait in this room... Don't you think it would be a little... unsettling for us all? Wouldn't it feel somewhat like Burlet is always watching us? Besides... That portrait is said to be an unfortunate time from his youth... He was drawn in an embarrassing pose which he mistook as cool... So I think displaying it in this holy green room may be a bit embarrassing..."

Gack hastily opposed displaying the portrait of Burlet. He was rarely this disoriented.

"I don't mind. The young era of the emperor, His Majesty of theater... Simply seeing his beautiful countenance from that time boundlessly lifts my spirits... Perfect for concentrating before a play. And you will call him Lord Burlet. Gack, I feel you're often lacking in respectfulness. Take this chance to look back at his great past, and heighten your own morale. Yes... When I have the time, I shall tell you of his legacy directly. Ah, and also... I suppose I'll get rather thirsty in doing so..."

"R-Right! Yes, my looord!"

Understanding the command from just a glance toward her, Meg ran off to get tea. Gack covered his face, reddened up to his ears, with both hands, and muttered something. I wasn't sure why, but he seemed to have a particular hitch about the Burlet portrait.

"While I drink tea, I suppose I'll review the script... While I have memorized the contents, it is my first performance. I'll want to have the costume and makeup completed soon."
"Y-Yes! I'll do it. Luka, will you help me do the costume?"
"All right... Sigh."

Meiko and Luka agreed to help each other, the former doing makeup and the latter the costume.

"F-For now, it looks like we got Len to cooperate by the skin of our teeth. Thank goodness..."
"Ahem. Foolish sister who's the cause of this all... At ease."
"Yes sir! My dearest brother!!"

And so he temporarily agreed to fill the role, and the incident was resolved... so it seemed. A tragic situation no one could have predicted occurred several days after the show ended as a roaring success.

——

A week later...

"...It'll get cold, you know? Meg made it just for you..."
"Yes, you're right. If only it would wake me up... If this were a bad dream."
"..."

Kaito picked up the lukewarm teacup with an elegant motion, took a sip looking at nothing in particular, and set it back on the saucer. Meiko watching him silently across the table sipped her cup with a similarly slow motion. It was a familiar sight, but their eyes completely lacked ambition. The streets outside were busy with the excitement of the New Years event, but green room #1 had the leaden mood of a vigil.

"Mei-pie... You look really wonderful today. That crimson shawl suits your beautiful figure. You're just like a goddess of flame, swooping down for me as I'm about to freeze any moment. If I had one wish, I'd want you to melt my frozen heart with your passionate fires..."

"Thanks. But the heater here is hot enough. It's 82 degrees inside... A little too warm."
"I see... Too bad. It must be a difference between our senses of temperature, hm?"
"True. A shame..."

As I watched the two sorrowfully talk out of the corner of my eye, I reached for the warm milk tea. I'd gotten very used to these adults' romantic bargaining since joining the troupe.

"I'm just normal, aren't I? Nothing strange or different about me, is there?"
"Yes, Kaito, you're normal. As always, you're a self-proclaimed feminist, but can't resist seducing a woman when you see one, so really you're just a frivolous lecher."

"Exactly right! I'm a self-proclaimed feminist, but can't resist seducing a woman when I see one, so really I'm just a frivolous lecher... Wait, what...? Did you just casually berate me?"
"Yes, I did. You fine, woman-loving man."

"I see... Well, good. On my word, I love women. Especially blooming ones. But a bit more maturity is fine, too. Yes, I'm not interested in mere girls, and obviously don't care for men one bit. I'm a real manly man, you see? Ever since the moment I met you...!"

"...Is that really right? You've changed..."
"Mei-pie?! T-That's not true, is it? I haven't changed one bit since then! Isn't that right?"

"My... But people always change. Yes, they age, and grow old, and eventually, sadly rot away... And the times, too, have shifted to favor young girls. Ah, or Kaito... Have you opened that forbidden door...? Heeheehee."
"Stop, Mei-pie!! Don't say any more..."

Meiko spoke gloomily with a self-derisive expression, and Kaito held his head with both hands and looked up to heaven as his knees gave out. What a crude reaction. Not only these two, but every one of the pitiful lambs who became Lord Len's servants that day was down in the dumps. Indeed, the show had been a big success. It being too much of a success caused unprecedented tragedy.

"What's the matter? You all look glum."
"..."

Everyone gathered in the green room glanced toward the final person opening the door. As Kaito saw his face, his cheeks went red and he covered his mouth with one hand. Across from him, Meiko looked hurt for a brief moment, then returned her gaze back to her teacup. Gack at the window looked off into the distance with tearful eyes. Luka sitting by me the same sofa looked like she's spotted a dreadful monster behind Len, then dropped her shoulders, heartbroken. The action made the sofa creak.

Amid the gloomy, dull aura in the room, only one person, Meg, had her eyes twinkle from Len's appearance, ran over to Len as he sat down, and prepared him tea. Like a faithful dog waiting for its master... I let out a sigh.

"He's here... The foolish brother who's the cause of it all..."

I stared at him leaning back on the big sofa in the middle of the room.

"H-Huh? Cause of what...?"

Len, playing the Dancer in my place, performed the script perfectly without a single mistake, and the three-day play ended a success. The instant the Flower Dancer Meiko and Luka helped create appeared on stage, the audience's hearts were snatched up, and even Kaito in the opposing role was charmed.

The show had unexpected effects. The passionate "Lord Len" sealed deep in Len's heart was a perfect match for the character of the Flower Dancer: apparent purity at a glance, but deeply-hidden bewitchingness. Someone said that it was a crime how beautiful he looked. I thought that was nonsense at the time, but now I truly understood what it meant.

The day after the show, all the papers talked about the performance put on by Rin, young hope of the Burlet Company, and an unheard-of number of gifts and fan letters came to the green room. Needless to say, it was a bit shocking.

At first, everyone told themselves that Len had just put on a fine performance. But from that day forth, pinups of the Flower Dancer from the performance were sold in mass quantities, overselling those of the company's top actresses Luka and Meiko in just three days. Meiko and Luka were so shocked by this that they missed practice the next day. And Kaito, who had witnessed Len's intense performance up close, was utterly taken by the Dancer. He desperately denied it, but from the moment he went on stage, there was no doubt he had become the Flower Dancer's slave.

Gack, who was repeatedly told "stories of the great Lord Burlet" by Lord Len in the dressing room, was for some reason burning up just like Kaito, shrinking with embarrassment. Everyone was surprisingly fond of the Burlet portrait, so we decided to keep it in green room #1. But when we decided that, Gack alone had a face of anguish.

And while everyone else was feeling their heart damaged, Meg was apparently pleased to be ordered around by Lord Len - "Maid... I like the sound of it" - and thus greatly enjoyed the bizarre situation. Once the three-day performance ended, "Lord Len" returned to his room in the depths of Len's heart, and the regular Len was back, but Meg would still lonesomely await orders.

It was an event that wounded everyone deeply... Yes, Len too was greatly hurt by playing the Dancer in front of such a crowd, but it hardly looked that way. Rather, thanks to him getting out feelings that he usually didn't display at all, he appeared more refreshed that he did before.

While everyone gave him looks of resentment, Len wasn't very mindful of it at all, and began unpacking his bag with a restless attitude. He didn't seem to notice what his performance had wrought on us all. As for myself, it might have been wrongful jealousy, but I couldn't help being extremely regretful that Len's Dancer was far more popular than the one I performed.

Someday, I'd have to get back at him for this humiliation - my brother being praised for that role, even taking the good will from people I cared about. I'd practice more, polish myself, put in all my effort. We'd competed since the moment we were born. This was a major defeat, but I'd turn it into my next victory. Making a vow, I glared at my rival and brother. As if spurred on by the determined flames inside me, everyone else looked at Len seriously. But Len himself must not have perceived our thoughts at all, and only tilted his head dubiously.

"Hey... For the afterparty of Corruption Upon Bloom. I reserved the restaurant you went to the other day... Because I wanted to go too."

Everyone who'd been burning with flames of resolve was taken aback by the sudden announcement and blinked.

"...If you leave me out again, I'll never forgive it."

His head was lowered, so I couldn't see his expression, but the bit of his ear sticking out from his hat was a little red. A cute attitude I couldn't imagine from him normally. For the time being, the flame lit by the Flower Dancer showed no sign of going out.

< Fin >


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