Chapter 3: Intermission Night

Now I've done it... I may just have ruined the whole play...

Applause continued to roar, and the moment I went up into the wings of the stage, the actors approached with frightening looks. I hung my head wordlessly, unable to look them in the eye. That mistake had without a doubt ruined the script, ruined a Burlet play. I'd metaphorically torn up a script written by the playwright everyone here worshipped, broken a prop, and forced everyone to adlib.

It was said that, while Burlet was alive, he would not forgive any mistake in acting out the most minor details written in the script - not a single blink, sigh, or footstep could be off. The perfect set was to have the perfect players, and their combination would create an overwhelmingly realistic world for the play. Such a carefully-calculated world would crumble from the slightest error. What the Villager had done - it was sacrilege against him. A bead of cold sweat ran down my spine.

"...I'm sorry!! I-I... I made an unforgivable mistake...!"

Kaito retained his sharp expression and firmly grabbed my shoulders.

"Are you hurt?!"
"You swung your hand into the clock, yes? Show me... That must have hurt."
"My, it made such a loud noise, too. I felt my heart stop..."

I held my trembling left hand out, and Kaito and Luka carefully examined it. It was a little sore, but there was nothing in the way of an injury.

"Thank goodness... We were worried."

Everyone sighed with relief, losing the sharp gazes they'd had before. I was certain they'd be angry. Bewildered by their response, my vision wavered as I wondered how to respond. No one seemed to care a lick that I'd broken the clock. Their scary looks as they approached gave me a very different idea, but they were just worried about me being hurt... My heart, crushed with fear about having failed and what I should do to make up for it, was slowly warmed.

"...Um... But more importantly than me, the clock might be broken..."
"The prop crew went running toward the stage a second ago. I bet it'll be fixed by tomorrow," Len told me, still looking at the stage.

Sure enough, there were two staff members there checking the clock prop all over. Seeing that brought back my urge to get out of here immediately.

"But I... I messed up the script. I... profaned his play..."
"Profaned...? Why?"

"...Because his scripts, they have to be performed perfectly. Not even one mistake can be allowed, or they aren't complete... And that's why you all were so serious, and put in so much practice. Of course I knew that... but I..."

The actors' faces clouded, and they looked off into empty space. No one would make eye contact with anyone else. There was a long awkward silence, and even the backstage staff hadn't come to speak to us, because they were busy pretending not to be watching.

"Miku... You're right that the finale of the act didn't go according to script. But I don't think that accident you brought about was a bad thing. No, to be honest... That moment gave me goosebumps."

Kaito lowered his eyebrows and spoke with a smile. His face seemed to say "you got me good."

"Actually, I feel the same. In all my years in this troupe, nothing's given me such a thrill before. An unintended accident, bringing such exhilaration as to make the scene unforgettable... I saw your face then, and I wanted to provide help, but I couldn't move. Just as you said "If only this moment could last forever"... you truly did stop the clock. It came out a little rough, granted, but..."

"I hate to admit it, but I simply have to respect you for making a miracle like that happen. Even if you are just a clumsy oaf most of the time, you made it into something of an art! It puts all of my roles to shame."

Kaito, Meiko, and even Luka were, for some reason, praising my accident. The dread of my mistake dominated my mind and body such that I didn't even feel any pain in the hand that struck the clock, so I had no opportunity to see what everyone's reactions had been. Luka was right that it really was just another one of my clumsy blunders.

"Yeah, we sure were all frozen up! Me included! I was thinking like, the most startling moments are the ones where you don't even scream! And I was on the other side of Miss Miku from the clock, so I really heard it loud. My heart pounded, and I was watching everyone wondering who would follow up that act!"

"Oh, Meg... Always taking it slow, aren't you."
"Really, the accident itself was fantastic enough, but... Len instantly filling in and Miss Rin cleaning up from there was just stupendous, and nothing less. I've seen many actors on my long road here, but it would be difficult for even an experienced veteran to act so quick-wittedly."

Gack, who was typically silent and rarely if ever wore a smile-like smile, showed me a grin of heartfelt joy.

"Ehehehe! Wow, we got Gack's praise!"

Rin and Len gave their respective thanks to Gack. The others, too, extolled their performance. Yes, if Rin and Len hadn't brought everything together, the play truly would have stopped, and who knows what would have happened next.

"Um... Miss Rin, Mr. Len! Thank you so much. I don't know how to thank you... All of you, I mean. I was so stunned, and I thought, if you hadn't stepped in..."

"Enough, Miku! We're all in this play together, okay? Of course we'll help each other out... we're friends! And no one's gonna shout or blame you for making a mistake. When someone makes a mistake, someone else just has to cover for it. Just trust us, okay? I know I'm believing in our lead actress, too!"
"Miss Rin..."

Happiness welled up in my heart hearing Rin say that she believed in me.

"Thank you. I... I'll learn from my mistake, and do my best in act two. Even though I messed up at the end... It was so much fun performing today. I thought I'd be so nervous, but I found myself dancing like I'd really become the Villager. I thought from the bottom of my heart, what a wonderful party... and I was honored to be standing on that stage. It's all thanks to this lost script being found, and the troupe holding that audition... It really feels like a miracle."

Unable to hold in my emotions, I let them all out. In doing so, I felt the mood change a little bit from the excitement over my accident; everyone looked a little restless. Had I said something improper again?

"Y-Yes... You're right. You really could call it a miracle, indeed."
"Oh, yes."

Kaito folded his arms, then slowly opened his mouth as if about to tell a fairy tale.

"Come to think of it, perhaps we never told you the story of how we came to discover Crazy ∞ nighT. Well, this is a good opportunity for that. ...One night, after finishing a show, we were drinking in green room #1 for our usual celebration. Then the prop-maker Ia came and told us she'd lost a prop for tomorrow's show, and couldn't find it anywhere in the theater.

"We, too, searched every nook and cranny. And just in case, we decided to also search the rarely-opened underground cellar, where no-longer-used props and setpieces were stored. In doing so, we found an old, rotten box in the back of the cellar. We casually opened the suspicious box, and..."

"Inside was a book... titled Crazy ∞ nighT."

"Yes, Len was the one who found it. We were so surprised, and thought it couldn't be true. After all... as far as anyone knows, the mansion Mr. Burlet lived in was burned down long ago, and no trace of it remained. As such, no detailed records of his life or anything else about him remain any longer. It's also said that he himself died in that fire, but no details on that remain either. If any of his belongings were found, they'd go for a premium on the same level as a national treasure...

"But here at the Burlet Company, the theater he created, a few of his belongings were found after his death. Including, now, by sheer coincidence, his lost posthumous work. It would appear that sometime before his mansion burned down, he visited the theater and left the script in the cellar."

"Perhaps upon his death, he wanted to leave a glimmer of hope for the people who carried on his will... That's what we felt when we found the script. And we noticed that this play, Crazy ∞ nighT, showed inspiration from his hometown of Zacry Village, his mansion, and the surrounding forest. So we traveled to that village many times, doing research to come if only slightly closer to understanding the play he'd pictured. It was a wonderfully tranquil place."

Meiko gently smiled, remembering that time nostalgically. Zacry Village... The village where Mr. Burlet lived, and my own birthplace as well. I was somewhat pleased to hear her complimenting it.

"Oh yes, we took many trips there. It was inconvenient to be sure, being so backwoods, but it was quite pretty."
"Yeah, it was very peaceful and livable. I'd like to live somewhere like that someday."
"Oh, Len... You just want to copy everything Mr. Burlet does, don't you! Like the other day, you made a wax seal you'll never use because you said he had one! Gosh, you're such a Burlet nerd!"

Without exception, the members of the company aspired to Mr. Burlet's works and charisma, with such unimpeded passion as to be called fanatical. Len in particular, in contrast to his cool attitude and appearance, was said to likely be the one who adored Burlet the most. His sister had told me in secret that he had a dedicated collection room at home with countless Burlet-related items, strived to be better than anyone at acting out his works, and dreamed of someday becoming a playwright himself.

"...And that's a bad thing? Burlet was a man among men. Of course I'd model myself on him."
"A wax seal? That doesn't sound like something youths these days would use much, but I must say, it does seem rather refined of you."
"Geez, Gack! "Youths these days"? You sound like such an old man!"
"Er... Are any of you listening to my story?"

With all eight members of the cast together, it was hard to stick to a single conversation. Someone would throw in an aside like this, and things would quickly be derailed.

"Er, I'm listening, Mr. Kaito! I want to know what happened next. I'm very, um... curious about... what kind of memories you were making, before I joined the troupe."

The pasts of the actors who, until not too long ago, I viewed as standing among the clouds. Not to mention, the whole story surrounding Crazy ∞ nighT. We'd all been so busy with practice, I felt I never had the opportunity to ask them about the path leading up to this production.

"Thanks, Miku. Let's get back to it... In order to put on the perfect enactment of Burlet's play, we kept going to that village that served as a model for research, working tirelessly on the details of the production. Then we started talking with our advertisers, and picked up some potent sponsors. When the papers wrote "Burlet's lost work found, the era of the legacy-carrying Burlet Company returns to West End"... we were certainly surprised. This led people all around the world to take interest in us.

"On one hand, the times are changing, and the rise of movies is crushing theater culture, rotting it away. But there are no small number of theater fans still on the lookout for superb classics. Yes, just like us. We've long wanted to show his marvelous works to the world, carry on his tradition, let the culture of Burlet survive unchanging to the next generation. In our time, a troupe like the Burlet Company is antiquated, some might say. But perhaps the glorious history of it is still compelling. We want the young people of today to have the chance to understand the quality of his works..."

The others soon became attentive to Kaito's fervent speech. Their faces were all serious.

"And even among the company... there were some swept up by the changing of times, who sought reform in the Burlet Company. "Rebels" against us... as we called them. When the troupe began to suffer financial woes, the membership split into two - the rebels, and those like us who wanted to preserve the will of Burlet. It was about... a year and a half before you joined, I believe. Daily we would argue about the future of the troupe, sometimes even getting into fistfights over it."

"Ah, those were the days... My fists really got going sometimes!"

Meiko spoke with an impassioned look, and Len and Gack in front of her briefly trembled. Though of a calm demeanor and an older-sister-like disposition, she was actually deathly scary when made mad. If someone picked a fight, she'd always give it to them, she boasted; she told me that before she became an actor, until her early teens, she hung out with men and got into fights constantly, a true delinquent. Numerous terrifying legends of her were still passed down among the delinquents in the area, it seemed.

"Mei-pie sure put in a lot of work during that time... All the men she dealt with came back one by one, suddenly converted to our side... Well, the point is, in a sense we won the battle to carry on Burlet's legacy. We held our ground... and then finally, found a chance for a comeback. Which was, of course, this play. You could say the whole trip from falling into money woes a year and a half ago to today was a very dramatic story in itself. As if Burlet had a hand even in the script for those events..."

"Some do deign to say the phantom playwright had the hand of God, yes... It wouldn't be too strange to think he did have intellect beyond mortals, would it?"

Even Meg, with a suspicious look, sounded her agreement to Kaito's speech.

"The passion in this company... All your devotion to Mr. Burlet made a miracle happen, I'm sure of it. How wonderful..."

Then Luka, who had been looking at the stage in a sort of trance, spoke.

"You know, I don't have much interest in theater itself... But his plays are a different story. When I perform in them, I find myself meeting another self in the play. It's an impossibly joyous feeling. My heart quivers, and I can do nothing but bubble up with passion for my other self."

"We've really been saved by the works our great predecessor left us. If we hadn't found this script back then, the company wouldn't have had a future. We have to keep going further with his plays, and protect the troupe. Many things have been lost to that end, but still, I..."

Kaito's eyes gazed off into the distance. Seeing his determined face, Meiko responded sympathetically.

"I understand what you mean to say, Kaito. Whatever the reason, it's truly painful to lose friends. But we all joined the troupe wanting to perform Burlet plays, didn't we? We'll keep alive the works and the company left by the one we adore... And that is a truly happy thing. This play, too... it feels like a dream."

(Lose friends...?)

Meiko spoke sadly, seeming to reflect on the irreplaceable time she'd spent with everyone. The others, too, went from being excited to having pained faces, recalling both happiness and sadness, and quietly listened to her.

"Yes, it really seems like such a dream..."

With act one over, everyone in the company began doing their respective preparations for act two. I was by myself in the props room on the second floor, helping with the prop work. The task was neatly arranging pages of old newspapers to be used tomorrow. No page could be too large or too small. I had to picture the scene in which they were used in my head, and carefully assemble them for that purpose. Sitting in a work desk by the windowsill, I finished one and then glanced up out the window.

There'd been a full house today. Even the standing seats sold out, and after all tickets were sold, the streets outside were still flooded over with people who came after hearing about it from newspaper extras. It was 10 PM, long past the theater closed, but there were still crowds of fans waiting outside the green room entrance for the actors to come out. Among them was a group with matching outfits... looking closer, I realized I'd found Rin and Luka's fans. I gazed at them absent-mindedly for a while, then one suddenly grabbed another by the collar and yelled something. A fight was starting - a scene I'd seen many times before.

"Are they going to be okay without umbrellas? I hope they don't catch cold..."

The rain that had started in the evening continued to fall with a light drizzling sound, forming some puddles on the street. Gack told me that the forecast for this weekend, and thus the three days of Crazy ∞ nighT's run, was nothing but rain. I suppose it was the knowledge and experience he'd picked up running a farm as a second job - Gack could sense weather patterns from wind direction and temperature, and he had yet to make an incorrect prediction. Even in this rain, there'd been a superb turnout, which seemed to indicate that act one was a huge success.

Ahh... ah.

While casually looking down at the rainy street, I saw one of Len's fans, a passionate frequenter of the theater, leave out the green room entrance. He boarded a limousine parked on the street, and the car sped off.

"Was that Mr. Len's sponsor...? He's always watching from the VIP seats... The gentleman who brings the roses Miss Luka says always look so cool... I wonder what color they were today...? I don't suppose... they're lovers, are they...?"

All the actors in this play were main cast members, each with their own level of popularity, and many fans to their name. Rin and Len had the greatest number of passionate supporters, Luka had fans that showed up every time without fail, and even Miku who just entered the troupe had a significant number of people who knew her face.

"That's so nice... I wonder if I'll ever have fans like that, someday..."
"...Don't you already?"

I turned around in surprise and found Len at the now-open door. He was holding a huge blue bouquet improperly like a baseball bat, his left hand leaning it against his shoulder. A complete departure from during the play, his expression was as neutral as ever, but he seemed just a little displeased to me.

"...M-Mr. Len! When did you...?"

Len and I had hardly ever spoken. Not only was I withdrawn, finding difficulty speaking to others, Len was on the shy side and only talked with those he was close to - and since Rin, Meiko, and Meg were always around him, there were very few chances for just the two of us to speak. An awkward silence. I tried to think up a topic, feeling obligated to continue the conversation. But I felt like we'd said all there was to be said about the show earlier when the whole group was together, and nothing else appropriate came to mind.

I glanced toward Len, and as we made eye contact, I noticed he was sort of staring at me. His blue eyes bordered by long gold eyelashes, though technically the same color as Rin's, gave a different impression from Rin's cheery ones, carrying a serene and quiet glint instead. But I knew that during his performances, his eyes had an abnormally passionate look to them. Right now, they were back to his usual frigid blue, but I found both colors to be beautiful.

"...I don't want you getting the wrong idea, so just so you know..."
"Wrong idea?"
"They're just a sponsor, that's all."

I tilted my head, not immediately knowing who he meant by "they."

"...I mean the man who gave me these roses."
"Ah... C-Could you have, um... heard me...?"
"I didn't really mean to hear it. ...But I heard it."
"I-I'm sorry! That was rude of me..."
"...It's fine. Just as long as you understand that it's not anything like that..."

Maybe that was the reason he looked upset. Though Len never showed much interest in others, he was seemingly not so hard-hearted to this person who, while a sponsor, was still a fan. (With other people, he would display overt displeasure.) He would always smile at this enthusiastic support, so I foolishly misinterpreted that, and my mind took it in a weird direction.

"This rain is... really something."

I looked toward the bouquet in his hand and noticed it was a little wet, with drips falling off the petals.

"It is. Mr. Gack said it would rain all throughout the production..."
"Hmm... Then there's no doubt about it. I bet you anything he'll be busy checking his vineyard tomorrow."
"Huh...? You think Mr. Gack will be late?"

"...There are lots of times when no one's watching him... Did you not know that he often slips away to his nearby field when he has the chance?"
"N-No, I had no idea... Oh, actually, Mr. Kaito said today that he came really early, but he hadn't seen him since. But wasn't that because he went to pick up Miss Meg?"

"...Could've easily been both. He seems to be an expert at it, and he isn't like Meg, making big blunders like being extremely late. He's not the only one juggling jobs. Luka and Meg are often gone to do modeling or writing... Even we sometimes go do rounds to advertise. The point is, you can go around doing whatever you want. As long as, in the end, you can put forth your assets, your acting talent, then no one will complain."

"I see... You all do a lot besides just practice. Which broadens your horizons, and that experience helps with your acting..."
"You've got it. Practice alone won't make a play go perfect. You have to do a variety of things, go a variety of places, experience more. And someday, I..."
"...No, forget it."

He seemed just a little sad, I thought. Silence fell again. Since we'd never spoken just the two of us before, it was tense for me. I had to come up with a topic.

"Um... Mr. Len, what do you do on your days off? Like, as a hobby, or..."
"O-Ohh! That's right, you do talk about that with Mr. Gack and Mr. Kaito! Oh, and wasn't Miss Meiko supposed to be really good...?"

Not good... The conversation wasn't getting anywhere. I'd never played billiards myself, and while there was a billiards room at the theater, I'd never gone into it for anything but cleaning.

"...U-Uhhhmmm, Mr. Len! Ah, what's your favorite play by Mr. Burlet?"

We met eyes briefly, but he quickly turned away. I couldn't read his still-neutral face, unchanging since he'd come into the room. The silence was so awkward, I'd abruptly forced myself to come up with another topic. I was shocked to my very core by my inability to take a hint, and regretted my question as soon as I heard myself say it.

"...I think my favorite might be The Silence of the Snowy Night..."
"Oh! That's actually my favorite, too...! It was my first Burlet play, which my grandma took me to see when I was little. I was so entranced by the realistic world in the story, I felt like I'd been left behind in the play... I was so moved by it, it got me wanting to become an actress!"

I had the same favorite play as this prodigy! That trivial coincidence made me happy, and while I knew my words were pretty jumbled, I went on talking anyway.

"Huh... So you like it too. It's particularly dark and sad, even for Burlet, but it has a sense of wonder I never get tired of seeing. The story itself is great, but the details of the set are truly amazing. Just a single production of a Burlet play can use so many sets. Even the snow and the way it falls... from the powdery snow to the stormy snow, all the props are made specifically to match their scene. All those minor details compounding is what creates his dense worlds."

Perhaps because of the fact that out of over a hundred Burlet plays, we had the same favorite, he became significantly more talkative than before.

"Is that right? I've only been here half a year, so... I've never seen The Silence of the Snowy Night performed by the current main cast..."
"...I haven't played in it yet, either. I think someone said that it was planned next after Crazy ∞ nighT..."
"Is it?! Wow... I can't wait!"

I wondered, what would that masterpiece look like played by this cast? The part of the protagonist, the boy who loses the girl he loves... Could it be?

"It seems like there's no one but... well, for now, no one but me for the lead part. After all, I can play the part, and I'm not too old for it."
"I think you'd be perfect as the lead, Mr. Len! I'd love to see what kinds of performances the company's current cast puts on. I really can't wait..."
"...Well, it's not all fun and games. That script calls for more acting skill than others, so I'm sure it'll need a lot of practice. And I've no doubt you'll be picked for the cast, too."

I might be picked, too...? Again? For the next Burlet Company performance? I believed that I'd been picked as the lead actress for Crazy ∞ nighT on account of being an unknown newcomer from the same village as Mr. Burlet - to "make some news," in a sense. Thus, I was completely prepared for, and resigned to, the possibility of being discharged after this show if I didn't do well.

"That performance you put on today... It was pretty good."

I lifted my head, unable to hide my surprise at the sudden praise. "Pretty good," the prodigy said - about my acting. My face flushed with joy.

"So there's a pretty considerable chance you'll be cast in the next play, too; not just a one-hit wonder. But..."

As he spoke, he stopped leaning on the doorway and stepped to face me, meeting me head-on. The pouring rain echoed through the room, and there were easily five meters between us, yet his quiet, monologue-like words were spoken clearly, so I could hear them easily. The art of speaking in a quiet tone, yet not being drowned out by surrounding noise, voice and mood both reaching all the way to the furthest seats... It was one I still hadn't learned.

"If you want to aim higher, it's no good to keep practicing this same way. You might come to a stop somewhere. So you should study the basics more."
"Yeah. Not so much the basics of acting, but helpful skills to go on top of acting. What do you think the most essential skill for an actor is?"

I puzzled over it for a bit, not immediately having an answer.

"Err... ex, expressiveness?"
"Eh...? Ahh, um... e-experience?"
"Nope. I mean, that's important. But the most important thing is insight."

"A good play makes the audience even forget about their real selves, so they can get absorbed in the world in front of them. Making a good play takes set preparation, backstage help, and most importantly, the actors' acting ability. But "acting ability" covers a lot of things. If you ask me what sort of ability it is... it's being able to show something fake as if it were real."
"Making the fake... real...?"

"To put it bluntly, it's a trick. Us fooling the audience. We convince them that what they're looking at is another real world. That's what a play is. A totally fabricated sham. A world with props, sets, people, and surrounding events that are all downright lies. So, how much can you do to make it seem like it's not? Can you show it as if it were the real world? That's our job."

"Yes... I see. But what do you mean by insight being most important?"

"You have to act like this sham is real, and fool the audience into thinking that. That fooling is where insight is key. Let's say I do some action, and somebody... let's say you're watching. You're going to feel some way about it, have some kind of reaction. Well, what if I could make predictions about how you'd react, and what if my prediction was almost never wrong? Then I could fool you as much as I wanted without you noticing anything amiss - I could freely manipulate your feelings."

"Say, if I tore apart this bouquet of roses, right here... Would you be scared?"

Len approached me slowly, a hint of madness in the back of his eyes. A few blue petals, thicker in color than even his eyes, fluttered off the roses. I stood up and almost reflexively backed away from him.

"What must I say... or do... to scare you? Go for the visual, and tear apart these roses...? Or maybe swiftly go to your pain receptors, forcefully punch you... But depending on the person, things done to instill fear might not instill fear, but rather anger or sadness... or even joy. Yes, surely even that's a possibility... And all of those possibilities are in a big mix. But you want to know the exact result. How do you find out? What should you do, to find out what emotion they'll feel?"

Len had gotten up right in front of me, staring right at my face. There was a faint smile on his lips, and his wide, unblinking eyes showed the cold-blooded cruelty of a predator about to leap on prey. I'm scared... Why did I feel scared of him? He'd been talking perfectly normally, but then this sudden transformation... he had completely changed in an instant. He held up the bouquet toward the ceiling, and quickly swung it down. I shut my eyes to brace for the coming impact.

"I guess that was just too scary, huh?"

I timidly opened my eyes and saw only blue. It was the bouquet, right? My vision was too blurry to tell; I'd started crying.

"My bad. I went too far."
"...Please don't cry. I'm sorry."

He was definitely just teasing me. All he did was say he might tear apart the bouquet or punch me, and approach me with a scary look, and I completely fell for it. Alas, I really had been scared. For a moment, it was scary enough to make me cry. Such was his acting skill - I had been completely fooled. I let my tears and snot run for a while, and he anxiously handed me a handkerchief, so I loudly blew my nose on it. His straight face turned slightly more displeased.

"You're going to blow on it...? Well, fine."
"P-Punishment for muh-making me cry..."
"...I said "my bad.""

"I know... the answer."
"By observing me... you could tell what to do to scare me. That's why you were staring at me..."
"...That's right. I'm happy that you finally get it," Len replied, without a trace of happiness in his face.

Was he acting all cool to make it impossible to discern what he was thinking? Or was that his normal way of expressing emotions? I didn't know yet. How could I know he was really thinking "I'm happy"?

"...I... never thought about all that at all... I just wanted to act in a play, and hoped people would like me as the Villager... that's all I thought..."
"It's also essential to immerse yourself in the world of the play, dedicating yourself to becoming your role. However, you have to read the mood from the audience and the other players, and adjust your acting accordingly. Otherwise the fabricated world begins to slip away. Like that moment today."

"I got so wrapped up in my acting... I became the Villager and totally forgot about really being Miku, so I was blind to everything around me..."
"Well, it goes the other way; it's not good to read the audience too much, and play right to their expectations. You have to keep betraying their expectations, in a good way. But you also have to balance it with their assurance that you'll always come through in the end. An unstable performance that no one understands makes the audience uneasy, and then there's no way they can enjoy the play. So keeping balance is the hardest part, in a way."

"So just dedicating myself strictly to acting won't do..."
"But that is important. The harder you're trying, the more you get through to people. Nobody's going to be displeased if they see you're trying your best, right?"
"Yeah... That's right."
"And when it's a klutz like you desperately giving her best effort, it's going to look even better to people than it would for a regular actor."

"I guess I've said a lot. All I want to say is... Your honesty and the way you never doubt anybody is admirable, but if you want to climb higher in the world, that won't be enough. You should learn about strategy, too - using your insight to fool the audience."

"Although, hm... you'd probably make a good audience member."
"Because you're easy to fool. You should observe the feelings of the most easily-swayed people first. You can probably empathize with them."

"Once you've got enough experience, maybe you can fool me someday, huh?"
"I-I'll try... But fooling you seems like much too high a hurdle for me, Mr. Len..."

"...That "Mr. Len" thing is weirding me out."
"Wha...?! It... is it...?"
"I'm the younger one... You don't have to call me mister."

His silent response put a pressure on me, one that spoke to him not accepting a dissenting opinion.

"I understand... E-Er, I mean, got it. I'll cuh, c-call you... Len. I mean, no! Can I... really call you...?"
"...It's fine, Miku."

A boy who, though younger than me, had a wealth of experience, genius intellect, and natural acting talent. I always shrunk before his mature and frigid aura, but I felt like he was a really good person. He was sparing his time to give inexperienced me advice, and showed a desire to get me feeling comfortable with talking to him without scruples. If only slightly, I was being recognized by the other members of the troupe as a true friend.

"Um... Thank you. Really, I've been... really nervous... and wondering if it was really okay to be in this troupe. It was always something above the clouds to me, that I always looked up to. Even though I've been getting to practice with all you amazing people... it's been hard for me to move past that. So, um..."

"...We'd be worried if you decided to quit. If you went away all of a sudden like she did, everyone would..."
"...There was a friend of ours who suddenly left us. She had no problem getting lots of lead parts, and her acting was... well, it was good. So... when she left, it was hard for us to deal with."

"Wow, I see... She must have been amazing if you're praising her like that, Len. Oh! When Miss Meiko was talking about financial woes and trouble with "rebels" before I entered the troupe, she mentioned losing friends... Is that related...?"

He seemed to tremble a little bit, but I wasn't sure. Our eyes briefly met, and his seemed to have a hint of sorrow, but he quickly turned aside.

"Well... yeah, some things happened. But, now you've joined us. ...I have high hopes for you. No, not just me. We all do."

My heart lept up at Len telling me everyone had their hopes up for me. Still looking down shyly, he quietly added on, "Even if you do have a ways to go."

"Um, well, I'll try harder than ever! I really want to live up to your expectations, Mr. Len, and everyone else's...!"
"That'd be appreciated. Oh... and the "mister" came back."

"Anyway... Meiko asked me to come get you. Are you done with that?"

Hearing "that," I looked down at the huge strewn pile of newspaper pages at my feet. I'd have to make a few more bundled newspapers to be finished. And once I was done, I'd then have to take them to the prop crew.

"...I'll tell her, then. Go meet Meiko in the wings when you're done."

Len turned his heel and headed for the door.

"U-Um! You forgot this! Your bouquet!"
"...I'll give those to you. They're a good fit for you today... right down to the meaning of the flowers."
"Huh...? But..."
"I'm a guy. I don't get any joy from getting flowers."

Len lifted his lips into a wonderful smile. Ah, I see... So this was the face he had when he was really "displeased."

Picking up the bag of old newspapers with both hands, I left the second floor props room and went downstairs. On my way down the hall to the stage, I found Rin in front of the door to green room #2. She was carefully holding her shoulder bag in her hands, watchful of her surroundings. That unusual scene I'd seen in the green room before the show returned to my mind. I carefully observed Rin, and saw something move ever-so-slightly inside her bag. I approached her and spoke.

"Miss Rin!"
"Eh? Oh, Miku! Ahhh, umm..."

Suddenly, the cover on her leather bag was gently lifted up. A kitten lept out, landed on the floor, and quietly mewed.

"Waaah! A c-cat..."
"(Aaaah! Miku, shhh!)", Rin whispered at me.

So she'd snuck a kitten into the green room. Pets weren't allowed in the theater, so if any managers saw it, she'd probably get yelled at.

"...Did you... pick it up off the street?"
"Y-Yeah... Keep it a secret from everybody, okay? They'll yell at me for picking up another one. But what else was I gonna do...?"

Rin had an uncomfortable look, looking up at me with serious eyes. Like a child whose prank got found out, frantic to patch things up with excuses. I'd always seen her as a cheery uplifter who stood on the same level as the adults of the company, so seeing her flustered and scrambling over a stray cat was a very new experience. Rin lifted up the kitten trying to run around mischievously.

"Have you picked up a lot of strays?"
"...Yeah. I just feel so bad for them. Its mother wasn't nearby, and it was about to get run over by a car. And the streets were really busy this morning thanks to the fire at Harrods, right? If I'd just left it, then..."

Rin's expression was somewhat gloomy. She stared at the stray cat in her bag, but her gaze was uncertain, as if looking at something else past it. She went silent.

"I know how you feel. When I see an abandoned animal, somehow I can't just leave it. I didn't have parents myself, so when I saw kittens or puppies left alone without their parents, I always picked them up. Though my grandma would get mad at me..."

"Huh? Miku, you didn't have a dad either?"
"My dad... well, both my parents passed on right after I was born. So my grandmother raised me."
"I see..."

The kitten in Rin's arms slipped through and sunk back into her bag. It seemed to like it in there. Rin gently stroked the cat's head with her open right hand, and placed her left on her neck. I glanced at the locket she always wore around it.

"Um... Miss Rin, do you also not have...?"

Immediately, Rin stared piercingly at me. With a look like she was scouring through me for something. She had just the same eyes her brother did when I encountered him in the props room.

"W-Well... Yes, I have one, a father. And a mother too... probably."

Only looking sad for a brief moment, she instantly turned around from her nervous attitude and put on her usual lively smile.

"Oh, but! This kitty has me now! So everything's fine!"
"Are you planning to keep it? Can you keep it at your house...?"
"Yeah! I'm allergic, though!"
"Whaaa?! Is that going to work out...?"
"Yeah... Somehow! Len can help too."

Was it safe for her to live with a cat if she was allergic to them? And she seemed unfazed right now, but I worried that she'd start to show an allergic reaction holding the cat like this. But she kept her composure and happily stroked the kitten's throat again.

"I'm going to go leave it with a friend for now! I'll be back in about ten minutes. After that, we'll get ready for our afterparty in green room #1! We still aren't fully prepared for tomorrow, are we? Were you headed back to the stage?"
"Oh, yes. There may be some things to clean up still..."

"Then can you tell the cast to meet in green room #1 when they're all done? We'll have a meeting about act two, and a nice little celebration for the success of the first day! Okay, Miku?"
"Oh, and you can drop the "miss"! Just call me Rin."

Just the same thing her brother had told me earlier...

"I was just thinking Len might've told you that, too."
"How did you...?"
"I kneeew it! Aww, Len beat me to the punch again. He always runs ahead to snatch the best opportunities! Even though everyone knows it's Rin who keeps spirits high in this company!"

Did the twins have some kind of telepathy? I was stunned that she'd guessed right about Len's conversation with me in the props room. Unless, heaven forbid, she was listening from outside the room in secret...? It didn't seem that way. Maybe this was a talent that came with the "insight" Len was talking about.

"Oh yeah, and Luka, too! Pleased with that handkerchief she gave you today?"
"Huh...? O-Oh, yes! It has such a cute design... It almost feels like a waste to use it."
"Great! Actually, she bought it the other day when I went shopping with her. She looked so serious about trying to pick out the perfect one! Apparently, she wanted to wait until the show was all over and give it to you as a present then... Oh, but don't tell her I said that, or she'll get mad!"

With that, Rin waved her hand and ran off in a hurry. Once she was out of sight, I carefully took out the handkerchief Luka had given me and focused my eyes on it again. Luka, yes, that Luka, had picked this out just for me... The corners of my eyes heated up, and I pressed the handkerchief to them.

Everyone thought of me as a friend... That happy fact gave me the strength to keep doing my best tomorrow. I had to try harder, so that I could at least repay them a little for all they'd given me. I'd steel myself for tomorrow, and make up for my mistake.

After Rin left, I went to the right wing of the stage. The backstage set crew, stagehands, and lighting staff were all gathered, more or less finishing up with their preparations for tomorrow. Kaito stood in the middle of them giving managerial directions. Over in the left wing, I saw Meiko, Gack, and Meg talking with the prop-maker Ia about something.

"...Oh yes, indeed! Then, too. Though she's usually very clumsy..."
"Ah... Now that you mention it, you're right. She was like another person entirely."
"Like? She totally was! Like she lept right out of the play!"
"I was really moved by her performance today, too! Miss Miku's helped me a lot with the props, even... Oh, Miss Miku!"

They appeared to be talking me up. I tried to hide my fidgety restlessness as I approached them.

"Well done, everyone...! Um, sorry to keep you waiting, Miss Meiko!"
"Well, I anticipated as much. Len and Rin caught you, didn't they?"
"Eh?! H-How did you know..."

Len, Rin, and now Meiko were correctly guessing my actions as accurately as if they were watching the whole time. It began to go beyond surprise and strike fearful awe into me. As far as I could tell from their faces, everyone was just making mere guesses, so how in the world...

"How, you ask? Heehee... It's a secret. But you're really easy to read; everything shows on your face."
"...Is it really that blatant?"

"Yes, very! But that's a fine thing. Lovable, even."
"Indeed. I feel you have a very good character about you. It's ador... cough, ahem! ...Ah, it's magnificent."

"M-Mr. Gack... are you actually praising Miss Miku? That thing you said to me earlier, too... "That blunder was truly magnificent! I haven't seen such a hilari... cough, cough - pleasantly wonderful mistake in years!" I wasn't sure if that was supposed to be pleasing or depressing."

Ia looked up at Gack with scornful eyes, and he smiled awkwardly.

"Gack is quick to compliment anything as "magnificent," but... sometimes that compliment isn't particularly appreciated, hm? I was carrying some set parts once, and he told me "Miss Meiko, your upper biceps are truly magnificent. Very practically useful!" My pride was really hurt by that one..."
"W... Was it, now? I, ah... I meant it purely, from the heart..."

"Praising a lady's biceps from the heart...? Mr. Gack, you really don't know how to deal with a woman's feelings, do you! I mean, I can get really intense too when I'm writing, but I've still got the heart of a proper lady! You're always asking if I'm eating enough or if I'm hungry, but every time I hear that, I feel like you're making me out to be a glutton! I mean, it's true to an extent? But there are limits!"
"Oh, yes! He's done that to me, too..."

Like a dam bursting, the women spoke up about the thoughtless things Gack would casually say to them daily. He backed away in fear of their intensity, looking around wildly. He usually stayed calm and composed with a cocky smile, so it was amusing to see him flustered like this.

Gack was cool and orderly in appearance, very popular with women without any rumors of frivolity; a serious, kind, likable young man. But being such a good person, sometimes he'd slip up and I'd see him get a scolding, usually from his female colleagues. I'm not sure how to best describe it, but he was never doubtful of people, had a tendency of being too pure, and would be leniently forgiven at times when he should have been admonished, sometimes even applauded. And often times, this didn't please the women.

He winced, red-faced, and his eyebrows sank, quickly losing his usual mature dignity. Seeing him so droopy and shrunken-away reminded me of a dog being scolded by its master for doing something that it thought was good, and not understanding why. I felt a little sorry about it, so I came to his aid.

"Um... I think that sort of slight thickheadedness Mr. Gack has is just great! He usually always has this grown-up feeling to him, so from time to time, seeing him getting scolded and turning frantic... It's kind of cute, like watching a dog. I guess I just think it's great that he has all these sides to him."
"Miss Miku...! Thank you very much."
"...Miku? That... doesn't follow from what we said at all... And Gack, is that remark really something to be happy about? Sigh..."

With a great sigh, Meiko scrunched her face sourly, like sucking a lemon.

"Hmm... I can see some overlap between Miss Miku and Mr. Gack. I mean, maybe they're trying to be serious, but they're just out-of-it by nature. Sometimes I feel like I've run out of responses to their antics..."
"You do a good job even trying, Miss Meg... Well, I suppose that's part of these two's charm."

"Ia, no need to kick them while they're down. But... yes, being serious and suave alone isn't very interesting... Maybe a few unfortunate elements here and there help to add flavor."
"U-Unfortunate... elements, Miss Meiko...?"
"It's a compliment! Heehee..."

Once the lengthy teasing came to an end, Meiko, Meg, and Ia had bright smiles, and Gack beside them hung his head and drooped his shoulders with disappointment.

While Kaito was more of a feminist, Gack kept to some old customs rare in these times, striving for the traditional way of the gentleman. So he was fundamentally kind and sweet to women, and as a result of that personality, found it hard to make a rebuttal when they went off and berated him. After a sigh, Meiko turned back toward me.

"At any rate, Miku, back to business. It's about that last scene today. Because of the broken clock, that part where you drop the letter was a little off, wasn't it? Do you remember about where you dropped it? Just as close as you can recall; I was just thinking that since I'll be the only one on stage at the start of the act, I'll need to put that in position as well. Can you help me with that?"

"I understand. Oh, Miss Ia! I finished with these... Can you check them for me?"

After replying to Meiko, I handed Ia the bag of newspapers I was carrying.

"Wow, you did all of it... Thank you! That's a huge help. It's tedious work making these!"
"I'll help any time you need it!"

Ia thanked me with a charming smile and went back to finishing up her other work. I then went back up on stage with Meiko to prepare for the beginning of act two.

"Helping with the prop-making... Now, that's great!"
"Not really... I can't really do anything significant..."
"Ia's working double time to do the setpieces for this play too, so she's really busy. I'm sure that even you helping out with the small tasks is a big help to her. We're short on hands right now..."

I was reminded of earlier remarks about numerous people quitting during the conflict a year and half before I arrived here. Thus, in order to get the large-scale set for this play done in time, it seems all the backstage staff had to do extra work outside their usual fields.

"Everyone! Stay where you are and listen!"

Kaito, who'd been observing the entire stage and giving directions, began to shout directions loudly enough for everyone to hear.

"We're almost done with the final adjustments for tomorrow's set. Backstage staff, I know you have early-morning preparations to do, so head home for today and get some good rest. And the rest of you, finish up quickly so you can go home soon. All the cast members, we're about to do our final checks for tomorrow. Sorry to wear you out, but as soon as we finish this, we'll meet up in green room #1."

"Um, Mr. Kaito. I know we're backstage staff, buuut... we can still do what we like, right?", the stagehand Mayu quickly asked from behind Kaito.

"Sure, as long as it won't impact you tomorrow. Looking at the state of things, I don't think we'll be able to do an afterparty for the whole crew. Tell everyone that for me. Oh, and Mayu... Don't drink too much. Good work today!"
"Okaaay! You too, Mr. Kaito!"

Mayu thanked Kaito, turned to the staff members behind her, and gave them a grin and an OK sign. With direct permission from the stage manager to party, the staff proceeded out in groups. It seemed they were all planning to have their own after-show celebration at a bar somewhere.

All of a sudden, I remembered Rin telling me to inform the cast about a minor celebration in the green room. I'd completely forgotten about it.

"Oh, Mr. Kaito! Mis... Er, Rin told me she was preparing a meeting for the cast to talk about tomorrow, and to have an afterparty."
"All riiight! Let's get drinking! I'll have to get Meg to make you-know-what again, heeheehee..."

Meiko put on a face-filling smile at the mention of the word "afterparty."

"Ohh, Meiko, do you just think of me as a handy drink dispenser?! I know you love beer and all, but it feels like you only consider me "useful" at times like these..."

Having worked at a bar in her bottom-of-the-ladder days, Meg knew a lot about alcohol. She was intimately familiar with cocktails, all kinds of beer, and the tastiest ways to drink everything. I guess it was just her way to thoroughly master anything she got involved in, as she was apparently on the same level as first-class bartenders. In fact, it wasn't just beer; she was an expert in all drinks, particularly tea and coffee. I'd often seen the cast badger her to mix drinks for them. Particularly our beer- and tea-lover Meiko, of course.

"M-My... That's not true at all."
"Oh, reeeally?"

Meg glared right at Meiko's face with doubtful eyes.

"W-Well, yes, really! Besides, of course I recognize you can make more than just cocktails. Your tea is simply the most delicious thing...! Say, Miku, aren't you a big fan of Meg's tea too?"

Meiko quickly shifted the topic, looking for agreement. Meg turned toward me, still glaring.

"Eh? Y-Yes! The first time Miss Meg poured me her milk tea... I'd never gotten to drink such delicious tea before... It has such a heart-soothing flavor..."
"Well said, Miku. Yes, you're exactly right! Meg's a wonderful person, not just restricted to beer, but capable of making delicious tea, coffee, or any other drink. Truly dependable. And even so, her occupation is that of a playwright. And she's a stellar actress on top of all that? Such an inspiration!"

Meiko overbearingly sung Meg's praises, bringing in totally unrelated topics. They were all true statements, but surely even Meg had to sense her true intents heaping this praise now, of all times.

"Ah, geeeeez! Miss Meiko, that's too much! You're going to make me blush... All right! In commemoration of the success of today's show, I'll make your favorite Meiko Special!"
"Woohoo! So generous, our Meg! The famed baroness of beverages!"
"M-Miss Meg...?! (You do realize she's back to only complimenting you for drinks...!)"

"A-hem! But of course! Despite appearances, I know all about drinks. The Meiko Special is mostly made from premium alcohol, so it would normally go for a very high price... But today, we splurge! Because today is the commemorable first production day of Crazy ∞ nighT! Miss Miku, I'll make you a Miku-Miku Special for being such a hard-working lead actress, too!"
"Miku-Miku... Special...?!"

No, as usual, Meg was taken in by Meiko's silver tongue. She would, once again, gladly be a handy drink dispenser. Gack watched the two of them wordlessly and sighed.

"...I feel they might be drinking a bit too much tonight."

By the time I was done checking the start-of-act setup with Meiko, it was already 11 PM. Kaito, Gack, and Meg had already gone upstairs, so only Meiko and the prop-maker Ia remained in the wings.

"Hey, Miku. Did Rin look okay?"

I was stuck for an answer to the sudden question. Okay? What could she possibly be asking about?

"Err... She seemed as energetic as usual, I guess...?"
"I see. That's good. But... She does have asthma, you know, so I wonder..."
"Oh, did you not see? I was certain she was hiding another stray kitten or something in green room #2..."
"Ah... U-Um..."

Rin, Len, and Meiko kept anticipating my every action and thought as though they could see right through me, but Meiko in particular stood above the pack, I thought. She really did observe everyone's slightest movements. Was it like an occupational disease for actors that the stage infected them with, or was it her natural attentive, meddlesome personality at work?

"...She told you not to say anything, didn't she?", Meiko smiled, putting a finger to her lips.
"Heehee. You don't have to hide it. This happens all the time."
"Um... R-Rin... said she felt bad for it, and couldn't just leave it, so..."

"I'm well aware. Once she sees one, she just can't pass it by. But she is allergic to cats, and asthmatic to begin with. Her medication seems to be working well as of late, though. It used to be much worse."
"I didn't know that. So she'd go that far... she's a really nice person."
"...I can identify with her."

"Say, do you know F. Milord?"
"Y-Yes! I mean... You mean that Mr. Milord! In the top three of West End's... no, the world's best actors...!"
"He's their father."

I was shocked. Mr. Milord was a longtime veteran actor known the world over, who got his start in West End doing theater, but worked in the world of movies as well. He had a graceful and beautiful appearance, somewhat shadowy features, and perfect acting talent that could instantly whisk the audience into the play's world. He'd been charming women around the world for over a decade.

"Now, this is strictly secret from the public. But she does seem to have opened her heart to you, so I'll tell you. I'd expect her to tell you sooner or later herself."
"Ah... Um, well. I won't disclose what you told me to anyone! Never!"

"But... Wow, so Mr. Milord had children... I didn't even know he was married. But I guess... they do look like their father, don't they?"

As the image of the famous actor came to mind and I compared him to the two of them, I really began to feel there was a resemblance.

"Naturally, though, their father abandoned them."
"Huh? They were...?"

"Ever since they were babies, they were raised by their grandparents, never knowing who their mother was. Len tells me that Milord came to visit once a year or so - or maybe not even then, evidently. They were raised being told that their father was too busy with work to come home often, so there was nothing to do but accept it. But the two in their youth still looked forward to seeing their father, even not knowing when he'd come. Yet one day, they realized that was just an excuse. Their father had no interest in having children... so they were left to the grandparents.

"By that time, Len had faintly come to realize it already, but Rin was still holding onto a belief in her father's goodwill... so it was traumatic for her. She always tries to steer conversations away from the topic of parents, you know. She can't talk about it. If you force her to remember the trauma, she can start hyperventilating at worst."

"...I... I see. So it was traumatic... Is that why? She asked me "you too"..."
"Huh? "You too"...?"
"Oh, um, both my parents died right after I was born, and my grandma raised me after that... But I never met my parents at all. It's not traumatic for me. So you don't need to worry about that with me."

"Hmm. So you were also raised by your grandmother... Is she doing well?"
"Oh... actually... she passed away about a year ago. That's what made me determined to follow my dream... I moved to West End right after that..."

As I spoke, I touched the bracelet on my left hand, a memento my grandmother had given me before she died.

"I'm sorry for making you remember painful times..."

Meiko looked concerned and sorrowful, as if she were suffering the loss herself.

"It's okay! I'll always have this memento of grandma with me, and I mean, I'm doing fine... She always told me it was her dream to see me strive toward my own dream."
"Hee... You're much stronger than you look. Your grandmother must have been well-assured about leaving her dream to you."

Meiko smiled kindly, like a mother cradling her child.

"I'll be fine, Miss Meiko. But I mean, is Len okay? Because, um..."

Meiko lifted up her slightly-lowered head, and with a bit of gloom in her eyes, spoke haltingly.

"Ah, Len, well... He's much more mature than he looks... Rin is always cheery and thoughtful, but she really does get lonely, so she's a bit delicate. I'm sure she still thinks about her father... Thus, Len knows he has to support her... I suppose. Also, Len... seems a bit more concerned about his mother than his father."

"Um, and who would their mother be...?"
"...Well. That's one thing I don't even know. Not even whether she's alive or dead, an actress like us or just a regular citizen... Len once went to ask his father about it directly, but he wouldn't tell him. And Len realized that, if she were long dead, then there should be no reason to not at least tell him her name. The fact that Milord would hide that convinced him that she was still alive somewhere... He takes whatever chance he can get to search for his mother."

"Don't look so gloomy, all right? They'll both be fine. They may be young, but they're very supportive siblings. And Kaito's quite caring to Rin too, you know?"
"Oh, yes..."
"It seems even Kaito was in a similar situation to Rin in his youth, so they understand each other's loneliness well. That's why he fawns over her like a father."

"Wow, I see... Even Kaito?"
"Indeed, I think everyone has had difficult pasts. But now, we're here. And we have friends."

I was envious. The people of this troupe were all somewhat unusual and individualistic, and yet... their feelings were always one. The bonds they shared were very warm ones.

"And you're one of them, of course."
"Everyone's long accepted you as a friend, you see? Well, all right, I suppose it hasn't been that long. You can take it slowly, at your own pace... But I'd be happy if you could start thinking of us as friends, too."
"N-No way...! I-I do! I really do think of you as, um..."
"My, really? Thank you, Miku."
"Y... Yes!"

"Well... We got a little sidetracked, didn't we? The others are waiting for us. Shall we go?"
"Oh, sorry! Miss Meiko, you can go ahead and start the afterparty... I still need to do a little... um..."

I glanced toward the stage. The spotlight was still on, and Ia remained all by herself. She was fixing the clock I'd broken hours ago.

"All right. Come quickly once you're finished, okay?"

Seeming to understand perfectly without me saying anything, Meiko went ahead to the green room. Once she was gone, I approached Ia, standing in the spotlight and fixing the clock, to ask if I could help at all.

"Oh, Miss Miku! Thank you for helping me out earlier. I'll be all done once this is fixed, so don't worry!"
"Um... I'm sorry. It was my carelessness that broke it... I know it's my fault you're staying late..."

She held the clock hands that I'd forcefully smacked and knocked off during the show. I heard that the crew went looking around everywhere for a grandfather clock with just the perfect design for the play, and finally got their hands on a real antique one. It was made slightly differently from modern clocks, so Ia seemed at a loss, not knowing how the internals worked.

"I really don't know how to apologize..."
"Please, don't worry about it! I think the reason the hands came off was because the screws were loose. This thing is so old, it took some doing just to make it work. This kind of thing happens all the time... Now, first I need to work out why it's stopped, fix that, then just put on the hands... Umm... Do I put a screw in this hole...?"

"Wow... So this is what the inside of a clock looks like. Oh, do you put this in?"

I squatted down next to Ia and handed a small piece by her feet to her.

"Thank you. I really don't know anything about machines either, but Mr. Kaito taught me a thing or two about clocks when we bought this. He seems to know a lot... In fact, I think he collects old curios and things. This clock was actually pretty expensive, but he wanted it the moment he saw it and paid out of his own pocket."

"...Wow... I can't believe I broke something so important..."
"You only took the hands off, it's no big deal! Not even Mr. Kaito is angry about that at all, and we've all broken our share of things... a lot of things. Let's see, what was the worst of it... Oh right, probably the time Miss Luka... In the heat of her performance, she scribbled all over a painting that had historical value... That was really bad. Ahahaha..."

Ia laughed, seeming to remember what the scene had been like. But deep in her eyes, I could sense she wasn't laughing much at all. I'd only just joined the troupe, and my eyes weren't as sharp as everyone else's, so there was a lot I didn't know. Like Kaito having a collection hobby, or the disaster Luka had caused - I hadn't had the slightest knowledge.

The cast and staff were all strict, yet very kind people, so I wanted to do my best for and with them. But time... time was something I couldn't fill in right away, no matter what I did.

"So, you know, everyone has their oddities, but they're good-natured people, so you'll soon get along just fine with them, Miss Miku... Well, I mean, aren't you already pretty friendly?"

Ia, as if sensing the doubt in my mind, threw me some encouraging words.

"Well... maybe... They're almost as friendly as family."
"Hmm. I've been here almost ten years now, and it's not like everyone was a member from the very beginning. Back when I joined, Miss Meiko was still a newcomer. Then Mr. Kaito sort of wandered here. Miss Meiko happened to meet Mr. Kaito in a back-alley bar around here while he was on vacation, they hit it off, and she scouted him. Then she found out he was the son of a wealthy family..."

"Whaaat?! A-A wealthy...?!"
"Hm, well, he always tries to keep it secret, so a lot of people don't know."
"He keeps it secret?"

"I don't think he wants to inherit the family business, is the thing. It's a long-standing noble family that's been around for generations, and I think his father is the CEO of a big global corporation that represents our country... So, ever since Mr. Kaito was young, he was given a gifted education, and was groomed to lead the company. A very strict upbringing, he said. In response to that harsh life, it was the brief periods of amusement he was given between his studies that he looked forward to more than anything else.

"His mother loved Burlet plays too, so that influence led the two of them... Oh, but his mother was frail, so she passed away when he was young. Maybe in response to that, Mr. Kaito secretly trained to someday become an actor. When Miss Meiko brought him in to the troupe, he was dressed very strangely. Apparently, he'd fled home and went running all around the world in disguise, trying to get away from his father."

I recalled how Kaito's elegant way of drinking lemon tea in the green room made me imagine a royal palace or mansion as the backdrop, so I told him he reminded me of a butler in such a place as that. Meiko and Luka laughed at it, neither confirming or denying, but to think he really was a noble... At the same time, I realized how rude it must have sounded to him, and my head drooped down with a bit of self-loathing again.

"Oh, so... that's why..."

Ia took a thoughtful pose, wondering how to interpret me drooping my head, then continued on.

"So, we quickly found that Mr. Kaito was qualified to join, and he started taking part in new plays. But at last, he was found... One day, a while after he joined, men in black suits and sunglasses - very tough-looking - suddenly intruded into the company. They were his father's secretaries, here to try and take Mr. Kaito back by force. And they put on the pressure: they said that if he didn't come back home, who knew what would happen to this already half-folded troupe..."

"They threatened to use their influence to ruin you...?"
"Right. Everyone was shocked, and begged them not to do that. Miss Meiko in particular wore herself out trying to persuade Mr. Kaito's father again and again."

"But there wasn't any motion to, um... to drive him out? Since he'd only just arrived and brought all this trouble with him..."
"I thought things might pan out that way at first, too. But people with a real passion for Burlet plays are the troupe's most valuable assets. Everyone banded together to keep such assets from being stolen out from under them. Everyone from the managers to the actors unified... there were a lot of fierce people willing to fight for him. I guess that's still true."

"Isn't it? So everyone decided to protect Mr. Kaito no matter what came of it. And what do you think Mr. Kaito did?"
"Huh? Well, I don't think someone responsible like him would just silently go along with it and let the troupe go under..."

"He told his father that he'd show him a play - a real play, and then he could make his judgement. His father supposed it would be the last play Mr. Kaito ever did. Then he got seriously busy... I think he made a play with all the main cast in just a month. For one of Burlet's most famous works, Oath of Black...

"So we put on that show, but... in the last scene, Mr. Kaito's role, the angel, atones for his sins and commits suicide with a fruit knife. And there... Mr. Kaito actually did stab himself. At first, everyone was stunned by what a true-to-life performance it was, but then we saw blood was really coming from his stomach... We panicked. Even his father's face went pale, and had an unbelievable expression. We hurried him to the hospital, but he was unconscious for two or three days... He was on the border of life and death. The whole time, his father was flustered. He never imagined he'd do something so stubborn."

"When Mr. Kaito finally woke up, everyone in the room wept with joy. But Miss Meiko alone slapped Mr. Kaito, who was still totally calm, really hard... "Why did you do something so idiotic, you idiot?!", she yelled. And Mr. Kaito replied. "If it were going to be my last play, I wanted to truly show the potential of theater. I wanted to challenge myself to see how real a thing I could make using the fake world of plays... I know I worried you, but if I were saying goodbye to theater for life, then I wouldn't have any regrets having died that way."

"Hearing this, even his father was forced to admit his devotion to acting. In fact, he said he would provide support to the troupe - but Mr. Kaito refused to ever rely on his father's aid. He'd willfully chosen to walk this path, so he'd someday succeed and bring the troupe back from its money woes."
"...That must have been... so difficult for you..."

"If we had outright accepted his father's support, all our monetary problems would probably clear up just like that... But we wouldn't be able to say we "got back on our feet" in any real sense. We have to do something about the past decade's trend of theater culture as a whole declining. We have to get more visitors, and get back the prosperity of this culture, or we can't call it a comeback. That's what Mr. Kaito said. And I agree with him. We'll keep making good plays... and bring in as many people willing to spare their time to see us as we can."

"That's true... Even if it's entertainment that isn't making much money, it's still entertainment for those people. But if no one finds it fun, then they'll start to feel like no one wants it, not even for free..."

"Yeah. Something changed in everyone after that incident. Like everyone was strongly bound together by one belief, one ideal... They felt a duty to bring joy to the audience's hearts by putting on good plays together. And Crazy ∞ nighT provided that opportunity. It has a great sensational aspect, the script actually is a very interesting one, the production's had a lot of time and effort put in, and the cast puts all our stars on display, and they've practiced like mad. So we really hope this can be the chance for a big revival of interest in the Burlet Company...

"Well, then again, we can't really afford to take our time to make everything ideal. Our financial situation is pretty bad, and the managers are holding their heads daily. And that's with the help of the sponsor company we've been longtime partners with, and Mr. Kaito's father providing just enough help in secret that Mr. Kaito won't find out. Oh, and that Burlet-loving businessman... Mr. Len's gentleman with the roses. Even with all that, the debts win out. It's just so expensive putting on a Burlet play, since you can't make concessions with the sets, the costumes, the actors, anything. But that's also kind of a point of enjoyment that keeps us going."

"So that's why Mr. Kaito is always so determined... No, and Len... And everyone else..."
"Oh, for the record, Mr. Kaito's made up with his father, so they get along alright now. Sometimes he goes back to his old home on vacations. Although, I hear he's also getting pressured to marry already so the grandkid can actually inherit the family this time..."

Ia spoke with a bit of a pained smile.

"Every person in this troupe seems to have... overcome something major, it seems like. It's amazing."

"Sure thing. I think the actors in particular have had an above-average amount of suffering and effort to put in. For the troupe... and for themselves who love the troupe. Mr. Kaito and Miss Meiko have been here just over ten years, Miss Luka, Miss Rin, and Mr. Len for about five...? And about three or four years ago is when the financial problems started to visibly worsen. Around that time - and at roughly the same time - Miss Meg who was working to become a playwright and Mr. Gack who managed an independent farm asked if they could do anything for the Burlet Company they so loved, so they joined.

"They were still busy with their other jobs, so they had to juggle both. Still, having needed to learn a lot about it to write plays, Miss Meg's acting was quite good, and she soon entered the main cast. Oh, and Mr. Gack! He'd been part of the cast for a troupe in another country, and he had experience and natural talent that let him adapt to any role. Everyone was glad to gain such powerful allies and worked in total cooperation with them to get back on their feet.

"So whatever it takes, we want to succeed with this lost play... This chance to save ourselves financially. It's had a year of preparation, and a lot has happened in that time. ...We've gained things, but we've lost just as much..."

Kaito had said the same thing Ia just did. "Many things have been lost..." And Meiko and Len both brought up a friend who they'd suddenly lost...

"Absolutely... I heard there was a friend you lost..."
"Ah! Where did you hear that?"
"Um... From Len? ...Should I not have heard about it, maybe?"

"...Nah. Hmm, Mr. Len... Well, you see, up until shortly before you joined, Miss Miku, we had a star actress who filled a lot of lead roles. She and Miss Luka always took the spots for heroines..."

Ia spoke of her with a hint of tragedy in her voice.

"She was very friendly with everyone in the troupe, especially the actors, and even helped out the backstage staff often... She was such a good person. And with Crazy ∞ nighT too, she really..."

"A-Ah... Look at me, saying silly things! Sorry, don't worry about it, okay? Now we have you here, Miss Miku... Yes, the lead role of Crazy ∞ nighT, that's Miss Miku. No buts about that!"

Seeing Ia talk so hastily, I got nervous wondering if I heard something I shouldn't have. After a short silence with her wearing a pained expression, her kind and good-natured smile returned, and she spoke again.

"Oh, speaking of which... during the auditions for Crazy ∞ nighT, I was watching in secret from the back. And as I watched, I kept thinking, there's no way we can have a total novice newcomer play the lead in a Burlet play... And since there were so many participants, judging took three days. Everyone was getting pretty exhausted. But toward the end of the third day... someone perfect for the part appeared. We almost felt like the Villager herself had come out of the script... She was a little shaky, but the mood about her was just perfect for representing the world of the play. Yes, that was you, Miss Miku."

"!! N-No way... I'm not really... I still have a long way to go. Even Len told me so."
"But did Mr. Len also tell you how much faith we have in you?"

"Right? There's no doubt about it. So please, have confidence!"
"But... I messed up today..."
"And that's fine! You can recover. The play's only just started."

Ia grinned and gave me a playful wink. No, brooding about it wouldn't get me anywhere, would it? I had to answer to everyone's expectations.

"...Alright then, looks like it'll work now. Just need to put the hands on!"

While we were talking, it seemed Ia had nearly finished repairing the clock.

"Oh, good...!" I reached for the two clock hands to give them to her.
"Oh! Be careful, Miss Miku! The hour hand there used to be a knife, apparently. Or maybe this was a clock meant to hide a knife in... it's not really clear. It's pretty sharp at any rate, so be careful not to cut yourself."

As I carefully lifted it, I found it did have a lot of weight to it. The hour hand's edge was neatly sharpened, so I took care in picking it up and handing it to Ia.

"Hmm, maybe in this little gap... Huh? These hands did go here, right? Weird. How do you get them to fit...?"

While at a glance it seemed like they would fit, the size of the holes didn't seem to match up, so they wouldn't go on.

"Maybe I should ask Mr. Kaito? All I need to do is get them back on..."
"...Oh, well, I can take them to him later and ask directly. I need to apologize to Mr. Kaito, anyway... I mean, he was the one who found and bought this clock."

I took both hands back from Ia. Since the hour hand was dangerous, I carefully wrapped my handkerchief around it and put it away in my pocket.

"So, I guess I can leave that to you?"
"Yes! Um, I'm sorry for making you stay so late. I know all the other backstage staff has gone home already... I'll turn off all the lights and things, so Miss Ia, you can go."
"Thank you. Okay, guess I should get ready to leave."

Ia stood up and started cleaning up the screwdrivers and pliers lying around. As I helped her, I took a look around to see if there was anything else. I noticed the wall clock in the wing of the stage said it was past 11:30. It had gotten really late.

"Um, Miss Miku?"
"Today's performance was really wonderful. I mean, I joined the company because I love Burlet's plays, too."

"It was always my dream. I'm not the type to stand up on stage, but I wanted to do the job of supporting the world of the play from behind like this. I'd heard that with movies on the rise and theater declining, the Burlet Company might go under, but I still wanted to do it. It's not a great salary, there's a lot of work, and no overtime pay... But I really feel like this is work worth doing.

"And with Burlet's lost work Crazy ∞ nighT being found, we'll be able to keep going on. It's kind of a dreamlike twist, and it makes my heart happy. But the most fantastic thing is our Cinderella, Miss Miku, selected as the lead actress out of the blue! Thanks to you, this troupe can recover."

"T-Thanks to me...? I never did... I was only picked as the lead by chance. It feels like a dream to me that any of this is happening... Like an unseen force is guiding me, not like I'm doing it myself. And not to mention, today I messed up Burlet's script..."

"Well, being led by the forces of chance is a quality of a star! There isn't much charm to a protagonist who can resolve everything all by herself, is there? Like for some reason, people stop wanting to help her, and she runs into random misfortune, but in the end, she gets really lucky and marries the prince or something. I think the power the lead of a story has to move their surroundings is really charming.

"Besides, I know you've practiced more than anyone else, Miss Miku. You're putting in tons of effort! You always come really early and practice in that unused cellar, right? Everyone knows."

Don't tell me someone was watching that amateurish practice...? And not just Ia, but everyone had seen? My face burned like wildfire.

"Heehee. The people who watch really watch close. Look, no matter how terrible a showing there is for a performance, there's always an audience member in the special seats. I call him Baron Von Silkhat, personally. In fact, long ago, the company might have called Mr. Burlet himself that. Anyway, he's a gentleman who loves Burlet, and I guess in imitation of him, he lets his bangs cover his eyes and always wears an antique silk hat. I'm sure people like him are glad to see you perform, Miku. And I bet starting with this, you already have a ton of fans!"

"You definitely do! Just have confidence - you're the lead! Anyway, I'm done cleaning, so I'll go now. And ask Mr. Kaito about the hands!"
"Aren't you tired too, Miss Miku? Get some rest. Good work!"
"Okay! T-Thank you!"

"The people who watch really watch close," huh... Baron Von Silkhat - could the gentleman I bumped into on the street this morning be the same one Ia was talking about? Certainly, in all the surviving portraits of him, Mr. Burlet was portrayed as a gentleman wearing a silk hat, with thick bangs long enough to hide his eyes, and many impassioned fans tried to imitate that style. To think that gentleman always bought special tickets for our performances...

Once Ia left, and I was alone on the stage... I stepped into the center of the spotlight which still shone. I was a little unsteady on my feet; Ia was right that I was pretty exhausted. Starting with my strange dream, then running through the crowded street, arriving late, the busy events in the green room, the show itself, my unexpected mistake in the midst of it, and my conversations with everyone afterward... I threw out my hands and shook them, as if to shake off the emotions I'd been carrying since morning.

They all even knew about my supposedly-secret early-morning practice. The emotions behind my every action, and the surrounding actions too - it was all evident to everyone in this company, they saw right through me. I was so embarrassed to learn that they could practically tell everything I was thinking. However, moreso than that, I was incredibly glad that anyone was paying that much attention to me.

Behind my eyelids, I imagined a common sight from my youth. Walking a little bit into the small forest near my house, there was an wide open thicket. There was no one there but me; no cast, no staff, nothing at all, so I put on an imaginary play where I was the lead. Once the play was done, I would then become my own audience and applaud myself. No one was around then, but... I wanted there to be people who would watch me someday, and applaud me. So I thought of it as training for that. And tonight, for the first time in my life, I received real applause.

Now I was standing on stage. The Burlet Company stage I'd always aspired to. Has my dream come true, grandma? On the back of the old bracelet, her memento, which she too had inherited from her mother, was clearly written the name "Burlet."

Walking around the stage absent-mindedly, looking over the empty seats, I noticed something glint in the corner of my eye. I turned to it and saw something white on the floor. I don't suppose it was the letter prop I'd dropped at the end of act one? I approached and picked it up.

"Huh? It's addressed to me... And... I thought I saw it shine..."

The prop hadn't had any name written on it, so this didn't seem to be that. I inspected it all over for a means by which it could have shined, but it was perfectly normal paper. There was no sender, yet it was addressed to me. Who in the world could it be from?

I opened the envelope and read through the letter inside. Instantly, the information written there poured into my head like a flood. My hands trembled, and I was struck with an illusion - as if the world I'd believed in was just a distant fairytale, and everything was in the world of the play all along.

Trying to push down the violent emotions welling up in me, my head came to be dominated by bizarre feelings. My legs took one step, then another. In the distance, I thought I heard the buzzer sound. And the applause of a single person. But once I started to run, I couldn't stop, and I hurried down off the stage.


Chapter 4: Beginning of the Everlasting Night

As my eyes tried to focus on an unfamiliar ceiling, I went back through my memories from this morning. After that long recollection, I took a big, deep breath, and looked around at my surroundings.

I'd woken up on a bed with a splendorous canopy. I remembered arriving late to the theater in the morning, curtain rise, act one concluding, helping with prop-making... being teased by Len, telling Meiko about Rin picking up a stray kitten... Then when I was alone on the stage, I picked up a letter and went to read it... and then what? I thought I heard the buzzer for curtain rise in the distance... But as much as I focused my thoughts, my head was blank, and I couldn't remember what happened next.

Was this... one of the green rooms? I hadn't slept well the day before, so I was at peak fatigue. Maybe once the first day was finally over, I had a dizzy spell and collapsed. I looked out the window and saw a beautiful full moon high in the sky, crossing the meridian... Which meant it was still only midnight? The wind blew fiercely outside, shaking large tree branches. The rain seemed to have stopped.

Suddenly, I heard loud sounds mixed in with the wind - thump, thump, thump. What could be making that? An eerie noise that seemed to reverberate off something from far away. Though I could hear it clearly like it were right at my ear, it was so echoey to imply the source was quite distant. But taking a look around, there was no one in the room... Then the sound stopped. I was probably just hearing things.

More importantly, what was everyone else up to? I told Meiko to start the afterparty without me, so surely they were already partying in green room #1. It had gotten so late. I had to hurry...

Getting out of the bed and taking one look around the unfamiliar room, I turned the doorknob and went out into the hallway. Lamps were placed every few meters along the wall of the dim hallway, shining dubious light.

Did the theater have a hallway like this? The century-old theater did have some parts renovated over the years, but for the most part retained the same gorgeous Adam-style interior from its construction... Yet the lights, windows, walls, display shelves and chairs, carpet... Everything I saw was clearly different from what I was used to. Everywhere I looked, I saw the same unified style of furniture. Had they remodeled while I was asleep...? No, that was ridiculous, and would take more than a day.

Heading down the long hallway, I saw the grand stairs and hall up ahead. They, too, were similar, yet different from the theater I knew. Where could this possibly be? I peered down the hallways surrounding the stairwell. Then, I noticed Rin and Len squatting in front of a clock in the hall below. But were the stairs always so long? The two of them seemed close enough, yet felt very far away.

"Rin! Len!"

I leaned on the handrail and raised my voice to call out to them. But they didn't respond to me. Could they not hear me? I shouted again, louder.

"Hey! You two!"

The two of them spun toward me at nearly the same time.

"AhhHH... YOU broke the CLOCK..."
"Oh NO, OH no! Time has COME to a STOP! You said IT! If ONLY this MOMENT could last FOREVER! The clock MUST have HEARD your wish! YahaHAHA...!"

Those lines... They were the ones the twin prodigies had adlibbed after my unbelievable accident broke the clock - managing to take advantage of it, amazingly, but also just so the show could go on. Were they lapsing back to the first act that had already ended? Maybe they were still doing their usual practice of fully assuming their roles. Rin especially liked pranks, so she'd be likely to tease me - by acting out the scene I'd messed up again.

"...Um, really, I'm so grateful for what you did then. Thanks to you two, the show didn't have to stop, which was such a relief. Anyway, um... I guess I fell asleep. I might have collapsed? Did someone carry me to a bed? I really can't remember much..."
"ColLAPSED...? What DO you MEAN?"
"Don't ask ME!"

So I hadn't collapsed, at least. But then why was I sleeping in a bed?

"EVERYone went TO bed on THEIR own TWO feet!"
"Yes, to BED THEY went, to SLEEP!"
"Everyone...? S-So everyone is asleep but you two?!"

They did say they'd discuss things for tomorrow and party in the green room, so maybe they just drank too much and got incredibly sleepy. I mean, I wasn't the only one who was tired, so it was possible... But then why were these two awake?

"Yes. BeCAUSE, the parTY's over, so eveRYONE went to THEIR rooms."

Though I didn't know that, not having participated in that party. Unless, don't tell me; I did take part, but drank so much I forgot about it... That couldn't be it, right? I did feel my head ache a little when I tried to trace my memories, but surely that couldn't be from a hangover.

As for this place... If this wasn't the theater, it was possible it was a high-class hotel in some corner of West End which Kaito... or possibly Luka, had paid for us to stay at.

"BeSIDES, the play HAS stopped."
"TIME has stopped!"
"LOOK! Because THE clock is BROken, TIME in the PLAY has STOPPED!"

Rin pointed to a grandfather clock stopped just a few minutes before midnight. It looked remarkably like the clock I'd broken at the end of act one.

"HeeHEE... It's STOPPED... YahaHAha!"

Rin laughed, again with her unnaturally stiff Doll Girl expression plastered on her face. Why did things feel so off? We were having a conversation, yet I had the feeling that things were somehow misaligned. Something's fishy here... I hurried down the stairs, and the two slowly stood up. The strange sense of distance I'd felt earlier, why they seemed to be so far away, it was because...

Rin was a little bit shorter than me. Len was about that same height. And yet before me now were dolls that came up to around my hips. Yes, so it seemed - two genuine dolls.

"Ball joints...?"

In observing the small doll boy, I noticed... unmistakable, ball-jointed doll legs. Not just makeup for the play, but actual doll legs, of a distinctly different shape from the legs a human would normally have.

"Well, YES? Didn't WE tell YOU? We're DOLLS!"
"WHY...? You mean, WHY do dolls HAVE ball JOINTS? Or WHY are we DOLLS that can TALK? BeCAUSE we told you THAT, too; our PART is to be LIVING dolls!"

My spine shivered at their grinning, joyous, eerie smiles. No. What I was asking was, "Why have you turned into dolls?" Len had been turned into an actual doll. And while her dress hid it, perhaps Rin, too... Glancing toward her dress, I saw she had the exact same grin as her twin.

Yes, in the play, they were supposed to act as living dolls, and both had put in endless practice to easily assume that role. But what I was seeing now was the actual dolls themselves from Crazy ∞ nighT. The twins were just as prodigious as was claimed, with talent and intelligence that matched the adults, so little things wouldn't throw them into confusion. But how could they stay so calm about their bodies being turned into dolls...? No, not even that, how could it look like they were enjoying this situation?!

I fearfully looked Rin in the eyes. Sparkling with curiosity, they looked back at me.

They were big. Even bigger than her usual eyes, which were big enough... Just like a doll's in that way. They were so glass-like, I could only see them as truly being glass. I kept my gaze fixed, and she didn't even blink, nor did she look away. And still she looked up at me joyously. Her lips were slightly lifted, but her eyes didn't indicate a smile... and I saw no pupils in the back of the glass balls.

I wanted to run, to get away from these terrifying two at once, but my legs wouldn't budge, as if temporarily paralyzed. I'd completely cramped up. I-I had to say something... I could only hear my pulse loudly beating in the quiet hall. I was afraid of this silence. I was afraid of these creatures in front of me!

"Um, I, I'm, c, curious about the others... I-I'll go see them!", I finally wrung out.
"Okay! GOT it!"

My legs finally moved, and quickly took me down the dim hallway left of the hall without looking back. I could hear the twins' giggling from behind, echoing off the tall ceiling. I felt an uneasiness in my chest, and I just couldn't bear to stay there any longer.

Rin and Len were scary... No. That wasn't them. Just thinking about the reason they made me feel frightened was scary. A thought that had briefly crossed my mind upon waking up, then settled down in the corner, crawled up my neck again. It can't be... No, it can't. That's not possible! At any rate, I had to find someone, and call for help. Call for...

That's right. I should go outside. Even after 10 PM, I'd seen lots of fans waiting for us to come out on the street. And today was a Friday, and the nights were long in West End. So somebody would surely be out there. I quickly went back the way I came to the hall, hoping I didn't have to meet those two again... Once I made it to the end of the hallway, I peered into the hall, glancing toward the clock. They weren't there anymore. I sighed with relief.

I put my hand on the front door. But pushing and pulling wouldn't budge it an inch. I wondered why... It didn't look locked. I shoved it with the weight of my whole body, but still nothing. Were there any other exits? Aha! Maybe I could escape out the windows in the south hallway. Those windows shouldn't be locked... Gotta get to the hallway...

At that point in my thoughts, my legs, which were headed back for the same hallway I'd just tried to go down before, came to a halt. How did I already know...? I wasn't looking anywhere but ahead of me earlier, and certainly not at the windows. I gulped down my spit. Head still reeling in confusion, I took careful steps, one at a time.

Paintings large and small hung on both sides of the hallway. They had varying motifs, from landscapes to people, and the moonlight coming in the windows added color to their worlds. Finally, I arrived at the large window on the first floor, and sure enough, it wasn't locked. I applied force just as with the front door. But this too wouldn't open. It started to drizzle again outside. Trees shook in the strong winds, and the forest appeared particularly eerie.

Forest... Why was I in a forest? A forest in the dead of night. An unknown mansion. Rin and Len looking like actual dolls. And despite me surely never being here before, I knew where things were... How did my body know with pinpoint accuracy about the windows in the south hallway?

That unthinkable possibility crept up closer to my vision, and I resisted the urge to just nod to it any second now. This was the spitting image of the play's world... The world of Crazy ∞ nighT...

I didn't know this mansion; I'd never been here... But the Villager in the play knew about it. Because before the party, she'd gone with the maid and the dolls to help shut the windows... That minor detail, about the windows in the south hallway of the first floor, was written in the script. My heart pounded like an alarm, and my body shook. I'm dreaming... that's what I wanted to believe. But if this really were the world of the play... I ran back down the hallway and approached the clock I'd seen earlier in the hall.

"What are you doing there?"

I was startled by the sudden echoing voice and looked around wildly to find its source. Kaito stood in the hallway upstairs.

"Mr. Kaito!"

I called his name, relieved to see our dependable leader. Unlike Rin and Len, he looked perfectly normal and human. I ran up the stairs to him.

"I wouldn't recommend running; this mansion is old, and the steps are rather steep. An accident once happened here, you see."
"There are many strange things about this mansion... And there's much I don't know, even after years living here. I'm almost tired of hearing about curses this and ghosts that. Now then, everyone's waiting in the living room."
"Um, Mr. Kaito...!"

I approached and looked him in the eye, then spoke with desperation similar to earlier today.

"I just saw it. There's something strange about Rin and Len! They're dolls... Their limbs turned ball-jointed! The two of them turned into real Doll Twins! Tell me, where... where is this? What happened while I was asleep?!"

Kaito blinked a few times, then tilted his head slightly.

"Hmm...? What are you saying? The doll twins have always had ball joints... I received them at the same time I received this mansion from my grandfather. I heard that they were created by the witch who lived in this forest... But she's gone now. So I suppose I can't say for sure whether they always had such joints..."

"T... That's not what I meant! Weren't they human? Until just a while ago!"
"...I don't know what you're thinking, but when I inherited them as master of this mansion, they were already dolls. I don't know what exactly the witch did... but perhaps it was something of that nature. They've also been able to talk like humans ever since that time..."

Shocked, I turned away from his stare. It was the same feeling as when I talked to Rin and Len... He was talking just as if he really were...!

"Did you... see something frightening here on these stairs? Like a ghost, say."

I sensed his always-kind eyes turning faintly cold. A young aristocratic lord with the blood of a long-standing family, refined and educated. His cold gaze carrying a slight grief, he was the master of the mansion, with the duty of organizing the eccentric residents... That was his expression. The usual calm and kind leader who got us all in order, had a weakness for women, and was easily won over by Rin... This was completely different from that gentle personality of his.

"Sigh... Well, we certainly wouldn't be surprised to hear that you did see a ghost. Strange things appear to be happening in this mansion."

His grief-shrouded eyes clouded a little bit more.

"It would seem the next page of the script has gone missing."

Part 3

Novel List