The sea extended beyond what he could see. The crash of the waves was strangely muted in his ears, as he wondered how the tides still moved, endlessly responding to the moon's pull, indifferent to the beating of a single heart.
He remembered this feeling from long ago. Like the world had changed and not changed at once, when he could no longer trace an all too familiar path to a bar, and descend the stairs expecting a spiral of smoke curling up from a cigarette and calm eyes, an exasperated gaze behind spectacles and a chiding, “You're late this time, Dazai-kun.” He'd known, since then, to expect loss, to listen to the laughter of people walking by him, watching the sun set and rise and understanding that nothing stopped even when it felt like everything did.
The sunlight was far, far too bright. It glared down on the sea, making the waves glitter and sparkle, heating his clothes and skin, and when the water lapped at his ankles it brought a sudden burst of cold that seemed to stubbornly defy the sun.
He looked down, then back at his footprints, and realised he had moved forward without thinking.
The chill seeped through his clothes, into his muscles, into his bones. It left an ache, and pain like needles prickling and wearing down to his marrow. He thought he could hear a familiar voice laughing, then saying, “You're no longer as young as you used to be, Osamu-san.”
“We are no longer as young as we used to be, Atsushi-kun,” he murmured, and the sea wind answered him.
He took another step forward. How long had it been, since he thought of this? It hadn't crossed his mind in decades, and now his hair was tinged with grey. Still handsome as ever, Atsushi had reassured him, before he was wracked with coughs and Dazai fetched a basin for him to spit into. Still smart, and exasperating, and the same man he had fallen in love with, Atsushi had said, as Dazai held him and wondered why he was so light, wondered if a jealous gust of wind were to enter whether Atsushi would be brought up, up, and away into its embrace. Wondered when it was the laughter that always caressed his ears became something he strained to hear.
“Will you forgive me for this?” Dazai wondered. Something cracked in the salty wind, and he realised it was his voice. He closed his eyes, letting the waves wash around him, feeling the subtle pull of the currents. Then he opened them and prepared to take another step forward toward the far-away horizon.
In the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a flash of white that shone in the sunlight. He paused, then turned, neck protesting the sudden movement to see –
His breath caught as he examined the butterfly. It fluttered in the air near Dazai's head, buffeted by the wind, but still managing to circle him.
It was a beautiful one, he thought, feeling distant from his own mind, as he took another step forward and his calf muscles seized. The butterfly fluttered directly before his eyes.
Its white wings were striped with arresting purple and orange lines.
Dazai stopped. The sea crashed around his knees.
“A butterfly...near the sea?” he said.
The butterfly flapped closer, as though relieved that he had stopped, and rested on his nose. The legs tickled as it seemed to scramble for purchase on his skin. Dazai watched as the wings opened and closed leisurely, responding to the wind, and the shades of purple, the orange that caught the light, were as familiar to him as his own breaths.
He touched a finger to the wings. The butterfly pressed against the finger that could so easily crush its delicate wings.
“Ahhh,” Dazai said, the long, drawn-out breath catching in his throat. He swallowed, lips twitching, then he said, “You will not forgive me even in death, will you? Atsushi-kun?”
A leg brushed against his nose. Dazai smiled, and he began to chuckle, as he remembered sneezing against Atsushi's hair, the other man's annoyed groan as he said, “Then you really should stop burying your nose in my hair, Osamu-san.” And Dazai's reply in a banter they could recite in their sleep, “But you smell so good, Atsushi-kun.”
Another leg twitched. Then the butterfly fluttered away from his nose and onto his finger, then behind him, until Dazai had turned away from the sea and was walking up onto the sand. The butterfly continued to dance in the air before his eyes, as Dazai shivered at the feeling of wet clothes clinging to his legs and the sun's unforgiving heat on him.
“I suppose you're going to say it's my fault in the first place?” Dazai asked.
The butterfly tilted sideways and Dazai thought that, if it could, it would have frowned.
He shook his head and looked back at the sea. It continued to shimmer in the sunlight, an unending stretch. The butterfly fluttered at his side, a little behind him, so that when Dazai next turned he was another step further from the water.
This too was unchanged, he realised. He would always, always, be tied to the pull of the moon, even when its light is hidden where he could no longer find it.
“Will I...will I see you, in our next lives?” Dazai whispered, eyes fixed on the dancing creature.
When the butterfly landed on his shoulder he could not feel the weight. But Dazai smiled all the same. His eyes slipped close, and his shoulders shook slightly. “Okay,” he said after a few beats.
The waves crashed against the shore. As the fluttering wings headed away from the sea and he followed, the sound of the sea growing fainter in his ears, he said, words disappearing into the wind –
Wait for me.
There was no response except the butterfly flapping its wings in a gentle beat.
If spoken by the distant Bird—
If met in Ether Sea
By Frigate, or by Merchantman—
No notice—was—to me—