The reunification of the full moon requires more than a thousand—more than tens of thousands of miracles. Even so, if the two are to meet, then those thousands upon thousands of miracles will become one and fate will be born.
That’s the truth to which Iroha has always clung, but too many times has he watched fate wither and die prematurely alongside his hopes. Thousands? Tens of thousands? His efforts, his deaths in vain cannot be counted in such a way. He bears upon his stiff back the burden of more than a century’s worth of memories and quashed desires.
In one revolution of the moon, Mikoto despised him. She drew back every time he approached and her eyes bored into him like contemptuous daggers. Iroha would bite his lip so hard that it would draw blood. A worried Momotose would trail after him, but even her well-placed gentleness and support could not ease his long-broken heart.
In other scenarios, the onifuda chose Iroha, but Mikoto’s heart eventually went to another despite being his minamo at the start. Mikoto could never possess two moons; she always fell into emotional destitution by the end no matter how Iroha might wish otherwise.
In yet another lifetime or two or three thousand, Mikoto chose another kaei from the start. She looked right through Iroha as if he were no more than decorative glass and happily ended up with Mizuchi or Himeutsugi or even Karakurenai. As much as these loops pained him, Iroha preferred them above all the others. As long as Mikoto was smiling, as long as the moon shined upon her, that was enough.
One morning without any prior warning, he would awaken and find that time had restarted once again. Thousands, tens of thousands of times this happened. No matter how happy Mikoto was, no matter how deep in despair Iroha was buried, the loops would not end. The memories piled up like snow and over time the iron machine lost the ability to clear them away. On these mornings, Iroha would struggle to pull himself out of bed, desperate to ignore the aching void in his chest where his heart ought to have been.
He was always weak against her tears, no matter how many times he’d seen them over the years. If he were to bite into that forbidden fruit and take Mikoto’s hand, it would always end in tragedy. After tens of thousands of failures, this lesson carved itself into Iroha’s heart. His very existence, he felt, was one that could not be forgiven. Whenever time reset, it was always after Mikoto had already grown up. Iroha was never to know her as a child like the others did; he could only bear witness to the woman she had become, powerless to affect fate or sway Mikoto’s decisions.
This is the fate that he must bear. This is the destiny of one living always in the darkness of the moon.
Iroha watches Mikoto’s face as she lays in repose on the hospital bed. As always, he clasps her hand in his, gently squeezing and exploring the ridges between her knuckles and the soft flexibility of her joints. At this point he knows Mikoto’s hands better than his own. Every line on her palm is an edge of the map of her laid out in his mind.
This is the only time in the loop when Mikoto belongs to him alone; Iroha knows this well and cherishes it.
All too soon, Mikoto’s eyes flutter open. Iroha makes sure to let go of her hand at the right moment as always, though it pains him to do so. His hands seem to have been made to hold hers. It is their natural state of being. When Iroha detaches himself from Mikoto, he is only half a moon. Such is his fate.
“You’re awake.” Once this would have been a question, but by now he knows the routine.
Mikoto fixes her misty gray eyes on Iroha’s face, curiosity and concern overlapping. “You are…”
“…You don’t remember me?” A rhetorical question. Mikoto apologizes for the slight she believes she’s made, obviously flustered. Calm and iron-masked, Iroha explains the situation for the umpteenth time. “You were in an accident and so I carried you to the hospital.”
“I just happened to be there when it happened, so I brought you here.”
A lie, of course. There is no happenstance when it comes to his interactions with Mikoto. Every action is deliberate—no, preordained. It all depends on what the moon has in store for this loop. Iroha wonders—not without a sense of bitterness—just how low fate will bring him this time.
The onifuda is left behind for Mikoto as usual and Iroha returns to Kaen already feeling weary and defeated.
She has never once remembered him.
The day of the selection comes as a surprise to Iroha when Mikoto chooses him—rather, the onifuda chooses him. It is a rare decision for the moon to make, but not unheard of. These fates, Iroha thinks, are the most painful. Far better never to have her at all than to be chosen and then cast aside.
Iroha is never meant to have Mikoto. Her happiness will always come at the expense of his own and that’s something he’s grown to accept.
Whispering so to his heart, Iroha steels his resolve as Mikoto is inducted into the Chisengumi.
“Iroha-san!” Mikoto’s clear voice interrupts his thoughts.
Iroha turns his head to look behind him. She is breathing heavily—did she run to catch him? It has always been hard for her to match his pace. With his height and long strides, it would take all her willpower just to keep up. Iroha figures it’s better that way…for both of them. “…Did you need something?”
Pain flickers on her face for a mere moment at his curt tone. “No, umm… That is… I just wanted to say that I’m looking forward to working with you! I never got the chance to thank you properly for taking me to the hospital, so…”
“Pay that no mind. As I said before, I was only doing my duty.”
“Even so, you really helped me out. So thank you!”
Iroha’s eyes widen an imperceptible amount. Was Mikoto always…so forward with her thanks? Did she always smile like this at me? The endless time loops have overlapped too many times in his head. …No. Iroha turns away, killing the sproutling of hope within him. The moon would never shine on him.
“Ah… I know I still have a lot to learn, but I’m going to do my best, Iroha-san!” He can hear the pitter-patter of her shoes against the marble as she jogs to keep up with him.
“…Do as you like.”
Day by day, Mikoto becomes more skillful at Hana Utsushi. The Chisen Minamo are extremely competitive and would never recognize her as one of them if she didn’t have enough power to back up her status. However, in time and with Momotose’s guidance, Mikoto soon tops all of her fellow Minamo in the rankings.
“You’re so amazing, Muse!” Momotose squeaks, hugging Mikoto at her shoulders.
“N-not at all… It’s only because I had so much help from you, Momotose-san!”
“You should give yourself some credit, Muse~ I have no power over how quick of a study you are. Come on, Iroha, you should praise her, too!”
“………” Iroha stares out the window, aware of their conversation but refusing to take part. Words are unnecessary. The more he talks to Mikoto, the more he longs for her. Any more than this and I’ll go mad…
“Iroha, are you listening!?”
From the corner of his eye, he can see Mikoto looking expectantly at him. Iroha closes his heart to the temptation. I cannot praise her. An abundance of sunlight will dim the moon’s shine.
“Iroha, you’re such an insensitive brute!” Momotose stamps her feet on the ground. “Let’s go, Muse! If you hang around this barbarian all day, his idiocy will rub off on you!”
“B-but…!” Despite her protests, Momotose drags Mikoto away.
Iroha breathes a little sigh of relief at her absence. Alone, he is free to pursue his thoughts. Did Mikoto always look that way at me…? That all-too-familiar fear begins to burrow its way into his chest like a vine of thorns. These tens of thousands of trials have long killed Iroha’s ability to dream.
Despite Iroha’s reservations and unwillingness to believe, he and Mikoto make it to day 22 without incident. At least, without much incident. Mikoto shows no interest in the other Kaei, but she and Iroha are far from being on intimate terms. It is Iroha’s own fault, of course. Knowing that she is not meant to be his, he keeps her at a distance. He kills his emotions and always acts with propriety as his first and foremost intent.
“Are you fearful of me?” he asks her one day on a whim.
“I…respect you. Greatly. I fear that I won’t be strong enough to support you in the upcoming Kabatsu.”
Her answer confuses him. Iroha cannot recall her ever saying such a thing before. His paranoia overflows as he ponders whether this change in the loop will have any later repercussions. Iroha will never tell Mikoto, of course, just how much she frightens him. Her very existence serves to set him off-balance.
The day of Mikoto’s first Kabatsu arrives quietly.
“I’m so sorry, Muse! I so wanted to come along and help you with your first Kabatsu, but a few Chisen Minamo are having a dispute. It’s my duty to sort them out!”
“It’s all right, Momotose-san! Don’t trouble yourself over it.” Mikoto smiles.
“Iroha! You’d better take care of Mikoto! If you let her experience anything frightening I’ll give you an earful later!”
“We are not going on a picnic, Momotose.”
It’s with clear trepidation that Momotose sees the two of them off, but she needn’t have worried. Deep within Iroha’s heart is a promise to always try his best to keep Mikoto safe—even if the moon will not choose him, even if she will not choose him.
Walking about town, Iroha tersely explains the basics to Mikoto. In other loops, Momotose would tell him over and over to be kind, to try and understand a “maiden’s heart”. Still, even after all this time, it doesn’t come naturally to him. Iroha wonders if he’ll ever truly understand Mikoto.
Without Momotose to back him up in this loop, however, he makes the conscious decision to stay closer to the edges of the field where the weaker adebana gather. He and Mikoto dealt with a few strays that had wandered into Kaen before, so she should have the experience to fight.
“Field creation complete… Proceeding with the purge.” He and Mikoto get into position and handily defeat adebana after adebana, Mikoto’s confidence growing with each victory.
“We did it, Iroha-san!” Mikoto beams as the sun begins to set. “I was really scared at first, but when I thought that you—the strongest of the five brights—were here, I… I just felt safe. Thank you.”
“I have done nothing worthy of your thanks.”
“You’re always saying such things… You don’t understand how much you’ve done for me. How much it means to me.”
“…It’s you who doesn’t understand.”
“……No, I was only speaking to myself. Anyway, you should learn to regulate your emotions more.” He says pointedly, eying her ear-to-ear grin.
Mikoto makes an expression of minute annoyance before smiling once more. “Iroha-san… I understand that being proper and standard is important, but… If we can’t be happy after working so hard and doing our best, when can we?”
He is as weak against that smile as he is against her tears. “…I suppose you have a point.”
Mikoto’s eyes widen. “I-Iroha-san!”
“What is it?”
“…Am I?” Iroha touches his mouth gingerly, a little upset with himself for slipping.
“Ah, it’s gone. I wonder if I will ever see it again…” Regret tinges her quiet voice.
How long has it been since Iroha smiled from the heart? How many loops ago was he allowed to be happy? He can hardly remember.
Even if he and Mikoto are to part in the future, Iroha resolves to keep this memory close to his heart. That is all he will allow. After so much disappointment, Iroha’s soul is weary. He has lived on the dark side of the moon for so long that he knows of nothing else.
“Although its scent still lingers on,
the form of a flower has scattered away….”
“What was that, Iroha-san? I couldn’t quite catch it, you were speaking so softly.”
“No… It’s nothing.”
Day 25 dawns. Iroha awakens, his body feeling lighter than it has in some time. If this loop is nothing but a dream, I would prefer never to wake up from it. Mikoto looks only at him. She has not chosen anyone else.
“For whom will the glory
of this world remain unchanged?”
The frozen block of doubt in his chest is beginning to melt, bit by bit. Perhaps there might even be a heart beneath all that ice.
The sunshine in the courtyard that day is particularly bright. Iroha squints as he crosses the bridge, raising his forearm in a somewhat futile attempt to shield his eyes. With the sun so bright, the moon cannot emerge… It cannot lay its claim here. These thoughts alone are blasphemous, he knows, so he keeps them tightly locked inside. The moon brought Mikoto to him. It allowed Iroha to meet her again and again, across so many lifetimes.
Yet it also brought disappointment. Pain. Black butterflies gliding atop the winds of desperation and regret. Such things cannot be so swiftly forgiven.
A voice calls out to him just as he reaches the shade of the trees. Iroha turns his head slightly to see Mikoto running up to him. Even out of breath, she is lovely beyond comparison.
“What is it?” Iroha wonders if he is smiling again. When did his emotions begin to go so out of control? He struggles to keep a lid on them, but it’s always a colossal challenge in Mikoto’s presence.
“I made you something! I wanted to thank you for the other day.” She is referring, of course, to the apple chips he let her eat to regain some energy after a Kabatsu session. He remembers this moment well—yet another instance reminding him that Mikoto thinks nothing of him. Even so…
Presently, as Iroha begins to prepare himself for disappointment, Himeutsugi and Mizuchi walk by.
“Mikoto-chan! Iroha-senpai! What are you two up to?” Himeutsugi says brightly, cordial as ever.
Mikoto, homemade apple chips in hand, hesitates for a moment. “Ah, Himeutsugi-san! Mizuchi-san. Good afternoon! Umm, I was just showing my appreciation to Iroha-san for helping me during Kabatsu recently.”
“Ohh! Are those apple chips? How nice!”
“They look handmade.”
“Well, after eating the chips Iroha-san gave me last time, I started to think that I could make them myself. They might not look as pretty as store-bought ones, but I think they still taste all right!” she smiles sheepishly and then hands Iroha the bag of apple chips. “Here you go, Iroha-san! It would make me really happy if you are able to enjoy these somehow.”
“…Thank you. But you needn’t have worried. I was merely doing my du—”
“Mikoto-chan, Mikoto-chan! Do you have any for us?” Himetsugi asks excitedly.
The guillotine is about to fall. Iroha’s grip on the bag tightens, making a light crackling sound to echo his agony. He’s so fixated on trying not to feel anything that he nearly misses what Mikoto says.
“…I’m so sorry!” Despite himself, Iroha’s eyes widen in disbelief. He looks up from the ground to Mikoto’s embarrassed face. “I wasn’t thinking… This was my first time making these and… Well, I was focused so much on Iroha-san being the first to try them that I didn’t think of making enough for everyone…”
It can’t be…!
“Aww… That’s a shame, but I suppose it can’t be helped. Iroha-senpai did help you out, after all. It’s only natural for you to want to thank him! I hope we can try some in the future though, eh, Mizuchi?”
“……I suppose so.” Mizuchi coughs. “We shall excuse ourselves here.” He nods once in Iroha’s direction before walking away.
“Ah…! Wait up, Mizuchi! Well, see you both later.” Himeutsugi winks and then leaves to join his friend.
An awkward silence passes between Mikoto and Iroha once the other two are out of sight. Iroha cannot believe that this can be reality. Apple chips made for me alone…! Such a small gesture would be laughable if anyone else knew just how fixated he was upon it. Surely they would call him a petty man.
Still, Iroha always wanted to have everything of Mikoto’s. That sweet scent of hers drew him in, but more than that he wanted her heart. He wanted her to think of him even a fraction of how much he thought of her. Even so, the moon denied him time and time again. It would not shine upon him. He thought that was a truth, a fate that could not be shaken.
“Iroha-san? …I’m sorry, was this too much of me?”
“No… I’m… I’m grateful. Truly.” Words escape him at the most crucial moment.
“I just wanted to see you smile again. You’ve done so much for me and I don’t know if I do anything for you.” Mikoto wrings her hands, looking down at the ground.
In one swift movement, Iroha walks towards her. He cradles her chin between his thumb and index finger, lifting her face up so that their eyes can meet. He can see the faint glow of the moon in her eyes and it mesmerizes him for a few moments.
“You don’t remember, but you’ve already done much for me. There is no need for you to be ill at ease.”
“…Mm-hmm.” Mikoto smiles. “Iroha-san, you know… I can see the moon in your eyes when you’re smiling. It’s really pretty.”
“…Am I smiling now?”
Even if this is nothing but a temporary dream—a reprieve from the dharmic loops that have plagued Iroha for so long—he will accept it. He will take this fate gratefully. For here, in this time, Mikoto is accepting him and him alone.
It is the union of tens of thousands of miracles at last.
“Arriving today at the yonder side of the deep mountains of evanescent existence.
We shall never allow ourselves to drift away, intoxicated, in the world of shallow dreams…”