“It’s not your fault, senpai.”
The metal bar of the crappy folding chair was digging into Sasaki’s back and hitting her spine in a place she didn’t even know existed. That didn’t bother her as much as it could, because Itadori Yuji was hitting a place in her heart she also didn’t know was there. That’s not right, Sasaki couldn’t help but think, and that thought almost made her laugh. Nothing about this was right.
She shouldn’t be fighting the urge to bawl her eyes out in public when she never cries over anything other than romantic ghost stories. She shouldn’t be sitting next to a hospital bed filled with the unresponsive body of her only friend. She shouldn’t be listening to her only underclassman try to comfort her, when his clothes look like they’ve been both fought and slept in and his foot is carefully not tapping an uneven rhythm onto the floor.
“I’m the one who picked it up in the first place,” Itadori continued, voice as lighthearted as it always is, “so I’m sorry.” He turned his head to face Iguchi, still silent in the bed. Sasaki could barely feel the tears falling down her cheeks. They might have gone cold. There was something wrong with that statement, but she was too busy thinking about the wrongs with Itadori to care.
Itadori wasn’t shifting his weight back and forth like he always does when he’s trying his best to concentrate on something requiring thinking. His gaze seemed distracted, eyes in the direction of Iguchi’s face but not landing on either the bandages or his mouth. Itadori was waiting, mouth not closed but barely breathing. Sasaki dearly hoped that he wasn’t waiting for her to reply. What could she even say to him? It’s your fault, Itadori, was the logical conclusion. Something had to happen for her to almost die less than twenty-four hours ago, and something did happen. A finger had exchanged hands. She had to burn one of her school uniforms this morning. Iguchi still wasn’t waking up.
Itadori was not a subtle man. It’s my fault, he was practically screaming at her from the delicately set curve of his spine.
Sasaki wanted to scream back. How on earth did he think this would cheer her up? Has Sasaki really been that bad of an upperclassman for him? She tried to tell him that she didn't need him to reassure her right now, but nothing came out. At least they were the same there. She would laugh at that on any other day. Sasaki thought that if she laughed now, she’d end up coughing out blood.
Itadori made an uncharacteristically jerky movement with his arm, like he meant to pull his hand out from his pocket but decided against it halfway through. Sasaki couldn’t tear her eyes away. Itadori never stopped doing something after he decided to go through with it. That was why they were here after all: a cold hospital room with their only other friend lying in a cold hospital bed and not waking up. There were a lot of problems with that statement, and the biggest one was that Itadori was here.
It wasn’t that Sasaki didn’t want Itadori here. The problem was that Itadori Yuji was never supposed to be in the Occult Research Club.
It wasn’t that he was lying about enjoying it, that wasn’t the problem. It wasn’t like he was unsuited for the things they did, which Sasaki and Iguchi did do, thank you very much for asking even if Sasaki preferred no one asked at all. Not that Iguchi could do much of anything, now or later— Not now. Not when Itadori wasn’t doing anything right now either, when his whole being runs on doing things. This was very, very wrong, and Sasaki was sick of thinking like a broken record.
Questionable, even thought that was the whole point of a Research club, doings aside, Itadori stuck out as the only first year, the only non-alumni of Takaono Junior High School, the only non-believer of ghosts, the only non-believer of the fact that the forest behind the school was haunted by an old pair of sneakers, the only new recruit to the club. It was a lot of onlys, but he was never scared away by either club doings or the club doers.
It was nice of him. Sasaki would always stand by that adjective to describe Itadori even if Iguchi gave her a questioning look when she let it slip. Itadori was a good kid before he was a smart kid. That was his problem. That was why his body were locked into a casual standing stance like he was a puppet trying to imitate someone at ease. He didn’t look like the Itadori she was used to.
Sasaki remembered what he looked like when they first met. It had been weird to see an average height, not unattractive, probably athletic first year boy walking alone through the course fair, peeking at every club booth but not asking any questions besides casual conversation. He didn’t seem unfriendly or uncaring. Just disinterested. He had been cheerfully ignoring the shouting behind him from multiple athletic clubs. Sasaki could’ve sworn the girls soccer team was one of them. This is our chance, she had thought, if he’s not interested in anything else then we’ve got him. What was one misfit to another? Opportunity.
Sasaki wasn’t an oblivious person. Itadori’s eyes had sparkled at the mention of low commitment before anything else in her spiel. They had softened when he noticed the completely full stack of flyers on the table and turned determined when he looked at the hastily written “Only Needs One Half of a Member More!!” note Iguchi taped onto the banner. He had sounded teasing when he replied that he’d be a little more than a ghost member. I can be a pretty good zombie, he had laughed, and those are scarier than ghosts anyways. He had called her and Iguchi senpai immediately, and he hadn’t been hesitant when telling them he needed to leave early every day.
She didn’t ask. Neither did Iguchi. They were only interested in Occult Research, not tragic backstories. Itadori was a casual enjoyer of life, and that included their club by association. That was all they needed, and what seemed like all he needed too. He listened to their theories and even contributed to some of them, whether it was by testing a physical limitation or doing on-scene scouting. He was the perfect addition to their club. He never joined their late-night movie watchings or Sunday afternoons digging through the newspaper archives in the library, but Itadori was still a friend and an underclassman. Sasaki was planning to start calling him Yuji soon. She thought he wouldn’t mind.
“That was a curse," Itadori said, "Not a monster. It wasn’t just a finger either. It’s called a special-grade cursed object, and it attracts other curses. That’s why that happened.” Sasaki startled and realized that she had been zoning out. Itadori’s hand was on top of the bed frame, not curled around it but just resting. He was looking at the blanket now. Sasaki blinked desperately. That sounded like an explanation, like one of her lectures about the potential source of eerie creaking noises in empty parks. It couldn’t have been that though, because she was supposed to be the expert in monsters and the teacher of the group.
How did you know that? How did you find that out? Were you there? Why are you telling me this? Why are you trying to make your voice steady and not shaking? Why do I still think you’re going to tell me it’s your fault?
“You couldn't have known about it,” Itadori offered her with a smile like he was throwing a lifeboat from a sinking ship. His eyes were closed. Maybe that’s why he missed his mark. “It’s okay.” He was smiling like the news of real occult activity would make her smile too.
Sasaki wanted to tell him that nothing he said would ever cheer her up if he couldn’t look her in the eyes while saying it.
There was another logical conclusion waiting here. If you’re telling me this, then you knew it was dangerous. What you gave to me. That makes it your— Her heart was going to break through her chest. Itadori was squeezing his eyes shut tighter, the corners of his smile stretching up as if they were trying to reach the weird twin scars on his face. She had to do something for him, dammit, or she would have resign from being club president. Only a fake would fail at protecting her club members, and she only has one chance left. Itadori was taking in a deep beath.
“Don’t say it,” Sasaki whispered, “please.” It was the loudest thing she’s heard in the past two hours. She had gotten so used to listening to the analog clock in the far corner of the room that silence stood out now. Sasaki didn’t think she was even crying anymore.
“Itadori.” He didn’t close his mouth, but the smile was gone. Sasaki knew she sounded desperate, and she hated it. Upperclassmen are supposed to be confident and know what to tell the underclassmen they care about. She was just one girl sitting in a hospital room, barely older than him if she admitted it. But she wasn’t trying to smile, and that had to mean something to him. “That doesn’t mean it’s your fault.”
Itadori didn’t move. “Itadori, you didn't know about it either. If it’s not my fault, then it’s not your fault either.” Sasaki clenched her forgotten hands into fists. It barely wrinkled the fabric of her skirt. She never wore this one anyways. Might as well break it in now. The thought that she’d only hear another apology if Itadori spoke again was the only thing preventing her from demanding him to reply.
“Please don’t try to bear this alone,” Sasaki begged. I don’t think you can, she couldn’t say.
She didn’t know who she was asking. Itadori wouldn’t give in to her. She wasn’t so bad of an upperclassman that she didn’t know what the flatness in his eyes meant. She wasn’t so bad of a person that she didn’t know what deflection meant in a teenage boy. She wasn’t so bad of a friend that she didn’t know what Itadori did with anything that ever troubled him: lock it up inside where he thought it would never bother anyone. “Itadori, please. You don’t have to apologize to me, or anyone. It wasn’t your fault.” His hand dropped from the bedframe. Sasaki thought her heart crashed to the floor at the same time.
“Thanks,” Itadori grinned, showing all of his perfect, pristine teeth. Sasaki wanted desperately to knock it off his face. She didn’t deserve to see that smile. Neither did he. Sasaki wanted nothing more than to get up from this stupid plastic chair, but she couldn’t move a single muscle.
Please don’t go yet. You still don’t believe me.
Itadori turned away. Sasaki couldn’t see his smile anymore, but that just made everything worse. Not like this. She had the fleeting thought that if she let Itadori go now, she would never be able to get him back. Her whole body felt cold. She didn’t know when the last time she blinked was. Maybe the metal bar digging into her spine was actually locking her to this room for her own safety. Maybe Itadori really didn’t belong here, in this hospital room or tiny club or world that would always be bigger than him. She opened her mouth—
“It means a lot, senpai. Really.” He made to chuckle, but it sounded more like he was choking. “I’ll see ya later.” Sasaki could only stare at the red accents on his sneakers as he bounded out of the room with cheerfulness carried in his every step. A tried and true Yuji Itadori personality trait. A trained one. Sasaki knew she would never forget the sound of that final step the same way she wouldn’t forget the way he walked up to their club booth the first time they met. Calm, self-assured, apologetic. She had never figured out why his posture had seemed sheepish to her. She knew now that it was from an emotion deeper than sympathy and heavier than regret. She didn’t want to name it, but she knew it echoed in her tears when she chanced a glance at Iguchi again. He hadn’t moved at all.
Itadori had at least. His run didn’t hold any of that feeling she knows runs in his blood. His stride was as weightless as it always is.
Sasaki could almost believe it was genuine, that her reassurances helped him run at least a centimeter away from the guilt that chased him out the room and down the hallway and through every second of his too-short life. Almost.
She knew it would never be enough.