“What are you doing?”
In a late afternoon in the summer, when the cicadas’ hisses have died down with the thrumming heat of a July day, Megumi finds Yuuji outside, under the tessellating shade of an oak tree’s branches. He’s fumbling with something in between his fingers, an intricately decorated piece of paper that Yuuji folds with something that trembles between caution and precision.
“Ah,” Yuuji says, looking up at Megumi. “I’m making origami.”
Megumi evaluates the half-shaped craft in Yuuji’s hands, all polygonal lines and triangles, and tries to identify some likeness of an animal from the paper. He squints and asks, “What is it supposed to be?”
Yuuji’s laugh is bright and short. “Don't you know an origami crane when you see one? Doesn’t everyone know how to make cranes?” Then, pausing to look at Megumi more seriously, he says, “You really don’t know how to make a crane?”
Megumi shrugs. Yuuji, shaking his head, reaches into his backpack before handing Megumi a sheet of paper. It’s thin and a silvery-gold, embossed with little stars that speckle across the square. Megumi takes the paper in his hands, taking care not to handle it too roughly, before sitting next to Yuuji, back rough against the oak tree’s bark.
Yuuji reaches over and guides Megumi’s fingers, gently taking his hand in his. He brings their hands, clasped together, across the sheet of paper, as if the paper is a canvas for their touch. “Fold your square in half so it makes a triangle — yeah, and then take these two tips of the triangle and squash ‘em down until you get another square. Yeah, like that.”
Megumi lets himself follow the movement of Yuuji’s hands on top of his own, folding and creasing the paper together. “I didn’t know you liked origami.”
“I don’t,” Yuuji admits. Together, they do another fold, another crease. Yuuji’s hand is feather-light on Megumi’s, yet warm all the same. “It's a habit, I guess.”
“Yeah. Senbazuru. A thousand cranes for the thousand years of a crane’s life. If you fold a thousand cranes in a year, the gods will grant you a wish.”
Around them, the wind whistles through the trees, the leaves fluttering like small hands clapping, a chime without a melody. Megumi stays silent, waiting for Yuuji to continue.
“My grandfather had a little jar of cranes by his bedside, though I never knew what he was wishing for. I helped him fold them as he got older and sicker and couldn’t fold them as well anymore. Ah, tuck that part in.”
Megumi wordlessly tucks a folded section of the beginnings of a bird into itself. “Maybe he was wishing for his health.”
“Yeah, that would make a lot of sense. He didn’t finish the jar, though — I only made around six hundred when he passed. Maybe that’s why he died.” Yuuji pauses for a second. His voice is chipper again when he says, “Now tuck the other part in, and you can pull the wings out — yeah, there you go! Your first crane.”
“Thank you,” Megumi says softly, before studying the little paper bird in his palm. It reminds him a little of his shikigami — an ancient legend contained in the spirit of an animal. “Are you folding a thousand cranes for a thousand wishes?”
“I guess,” Yuuji laughs, before returning to his own half-finished crane, delicate. “I haven’t really decided on my wish yet. Maybe I’ll figure out something when I finish making all of them. I’m halfway through so far. I’m making good progress.”
“So you’re just folding them because it’s a habit?”
“Nah.” Yuuji completes his crane and holds it out on his palm. It stands up firmly in his hands despite the breeze, as if the origami bird was gliding across the ponds of Yuuji’s skin. “It’s therapeutic, you know? Nice stress relief.”
“I see,” Megumi murmurs, still watching the late afternoon summer sun reflect a golden sheen off of the crane’s paper wings.
“How about you, Megumi? Do you have a wish you want the gods to grant?”
Megumi takes a deep breath.
In the almost-evening of a July summer day, Megumi thinks of all the things in his life that he wants but does not have. He thinks of Tsumiki, her body in a bed of lilies, suspended in time and indefinite slumber. He thinks of the father he never knew and the mother he wishes he knew for just a while longer, and how he only has decaying moments of softness and warmth. He thinks of Maki and Mai and how they’ve ripped themselves apart from each other. He thinks of Nobara with her head held high. He thinks of Yuuji and his hands and all of his paper cranes.
“I have too many wishes,” he says after a moment. “Wouldn’t be able to make enough cranes for them all.”
“Well, you never know,” Yuuji declares, before standing up. He stretches, reaching his arms out towards the sky. “Maybe you can write your wishes on the back of the paper before you fold them. Like little letters to the gods. Maybe they’ll grant all of them, who knows.”
Megumi looks at Yuuji, illuminated by the oranges of dusk, as if the edges of Yuuji’s body were spilled over with light. Against the glow, Megumi can’t tell where the hues of the sun stopped and Yuuji’s skin began. Silently, he wonders if this is a sight he should try to burn into his memory. Golden boy at sunset. A rare moment of peace that Megumi wishes he could ask for.
“Maybe,” he finds himself saying, gripping the crane tightly in between his fingers. “Maybe.”
On the back of the next sheet of origami paper, Megumi writes:
The two of us— we’re so young. At this rate, Itadori won’t be able to finish his thousand cranes. The council wants him executed before the end of the year. They’re getting more and more wary every single day Itadori becomes stronger, even if he only ever uses his strength to protect everyone.
He’s only sixteen — please, grant his wish, whatever it is. Even if he isn’t able to finish his cranes. Doesn’t he deserve it?
Megumi puts his pen down and swallows hard, repeating the words in his head like they’re a prayer, a mantra that only the gods can hear.
Slowly then, he begins folding. Doesn’t he deserve it?
A fold. Doesn’t he deserve it?
A crease. Doesn’t he deserve it?
The two of us— we’re so young. We’re so young.
A fold, a crease. A fold, a crease.