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The Exam Ghost

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 “It’s Taishi, right?” The boy lifts his head and Ichiro grins. “Hey.”

 “Hello?” Taishi says.

 “Dougo Ichiro,” he declares, sticking out a hand.

 Taishi frowns at him but takes his hand slowly. “Manza Taishi.”

 “Great, do you mind if I sit with you?” Taishi shakes his head and Ichiro sits with him. “You seem kinda lonely.”

 “I’m fine,” Taishi replies, pushing up his glasses.

 “The teachers ignore you too.” Taishi scowls. “Umm, not to snoop but when I asked one why they ignored you-”

 “There’s no way a troubled boy like that would ever be allowed into a prestigious school Binan?” Taishi says. Ichiro nods sadly and Taishi takes his drink from him. “I’m here, but I’m not one of you.”

 Ichiro grins. “Well, I wanna be friends with you. I think you seem pretty cool. If you wanna be friends.”

 “Maybe…”

 Ichiro grins and nods. He doesn’t really know what it is about Taishi that draws him to him, but Ichiro is sure he wants to be close. He wants to be his friend. He doesn’t want anyone to feel left out for just being themselves.

 

 Taishi stays late a lot. He studies. And he’s always here when Ichiro arrives, waiting for him with a smile. Ichiro thinks he sees bruises on him sometimes. He wonders if Taishi comes from a bad place. He thinks Taishi might be avoiding going home. But he doesn’t want to ask. Not just yet. Even so, they Ichiro is sure that he and Taishi can be great friends. He knows they will be.

 Lots of people will love him if they give him a chance.

 And so the pair of them join a group of first years hanging back to investigate stories of the boy who killed himself from exam stress. They said his ghost still haunted Binan. That he was still walking the halls. Still trying to study. That he would be trapped until he passed his tests and would attack and kill any who were achieving higher grades than him.

 

 The pair of them are at the back of the school, chatting quietly, but Taishi is strangely quiet, more than normal, arms folded, almost wrapped around himself. Ichiro smiles and nudges his his side gently.

 “You ok?” he whispers. “Not scared?”

 “No,” he replies with a small smile. Ichiro frowns. “I just… I get the story.”

 “You do?” Ichiro says.

 “You know, I wanted to get into Binan so badly,” he says. “I studied so hard to get the scholarship. I obsessed over it. I needed to be here.”

 “Taishi…”

 “I didn’t have many options,” he says, fingers brushing his neck. Ichiro frowns. He’s seen bruises on Taishi’s neck before, he’s sure. “I had to get out, one way or another. Binan was my only hope.”

 Ichiro smiles weakly and takes Taishi’s hand loosely. “I’m glad you made it. Let’s graduate together, ok?”

 “We’re here,” one of the others call.

 

 The group head into the old classroom. It looks pretty dusty and deserted. The chairs and desks are back against the walls. It’s all a bit convenient really, isn’t it? The leader of the group grins. Ichiro thinks his name is Satomi. He opens up the bag with him and pulls out a board.

 “That’s a bad idea,” Taishi whispers.

 “What is it?” Ichiro says.

 “Spirit board,” he replies. “You put your fingers on it and the spirit leads you to spell things out.” Ichiro nods slowly. “They’re a bad idea.”

 “Don’t be a pussy, Manza,” Satomi laughs. “We used one of these the day before school started, you know? We’re all fine. We contacted the spirit.”

 “Really? Really? Really?!” Ichiro cries.

 The group sits around the spirit board and Taishi frowns, hanging back. Still, Ichiro grins, joining them. It’s just a game, right? They put their fingers on the pointer and it circles slowly before settling on HELLO.

 “Come on, Taishi,” Ichiro calls.

 Finally, Taishi sighs and sits next to him putting his fingers with theirs. Satomi’s eyes widen. “See how it’s got cold? The spirit’s here.”

 “Sure,” Taishi mutters.

 The pointer jerks and they stare down at it as it starts to spell things out. Ichiro grabs Taishi’s hand subtly out of sight of the others. It answers questions, as if the spirit really did kill himself because of exam stress. Taishi grips his hand tight and Ichiro squeezes back. If Taishi understands this spirit so much, it must be hard for him.

 

 B-E-H-I-N-D-Y-OU

 The group fall silent.

 H-E-L-L-O

 The group stare down at the board before Satomi lifts his head. They turn and follow his gaze to the classroom door in the darkness. There are footsteps outside. Ichiro grasps Taishi’s hand, breath catching in his throat.

 

 The door jerks open, revealing a dark figure, and screams echo off the walls before the light comes on.

 

 “What on earth has got you children so worked up?” There’s a blond in the doorway. He’s wearing their uniform. The ghost? Is it the ghost?! And then Ichiro’s eyes widen. He’s Nanao! He’s Wakura Nanao! “Kids?”

 “Who-who-”

 The blond sighs. “Wakura Nanao. Former Student Council President. President of the Earth Defence Club. What’s going on?”

 “We- we were talking to the Exam Ghost,” one of them whispers.

 “Exam Ghost?” Nanao sighs. He shakes his head and claps his hands. “Come on, kids, let’s pack up and get you out before Taiju spots you all and gets you all written up.”

 The group of them head out of the school in darkness. Ichiro smiles and squeezes Taishi’s hand gently. He’s looking tired and pale. As they head out the school gates, Taishi pauses, gazing back at Nanao, who’s smiling back.

 “Taishi?”

 “Nothing,” he whispers.

 Ichiro frowns and Taishi wraps his arms around himself. He doesn’t understand Taishi at all somedays. He reaches up gently and pushes Taishi’s hair back from his face. He likes Taishi a lot. Even after such a short amount of time.

 “Taishi… I…”

 “Dougo-kun, was it?” Nanao calls. Ichiro turns, staring up at him. Nanao is paying attention to him? Nanao noticed him? “You look familiar.”

 “Ah, we’ve met before,” Ichiro replies with a grin. “When we were younger. You told me to be myself.”

 “I’m glad I gave you such good advice,” he laughs softly.

 

 Ichiro nods, turning to Taishi only to pause. He’s not there. Taishi’s vanished. He sighs and shakes his head. Taishi’s so shy. He won’t make friends if he’s going just disappear like that. Maybe Ichiro scared him off by being so close and in his space. He sighs and lowers his head. He’ll find another way to tell Taishi he likes him. Or not. It’s not a big deal, right? It’s just a dumb crush.

 “Dougo-kun?” Nanao says. “Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

 “Ah, yeah, right. Thanks. I should get home.”

 “Be careful, Dougo-kun.”

 “I will! And call me Ichiro, senpai!”

 

 Ichiro doesn’t confront Taishi about vanishing. Nothing seems to have changed. He and Taishi hang out like normal. He doesn’t see Nanao around, but he must be somewhere. Ichiro starts to look into the Earth Defence Club. Nanao said he was present of it. And eventually, he finds it. In a storage room in the attic. Still, he pulls Taishi along behind him, telling him all about how Nanao is his hero, who made him be himself. Taishi just nods along, muttering that they should join a club, it’s expected.

 And so they open up the door to the clubroom and find a pair waiting with tea. The redhead lifts his head and smiles back at them.

 “New kids?” the one over the desk yawns.

 “Hi hi hi,” Ichiro says, waving back at them. “I’m Ichiro, this is Taishi. We were looking for Nanao-senpai.”

 The redhead frowns at him. “More of you?”

 “More of us?” Taishi says.

 “Hasn’t Wakura-senpai suffered enough without everyone treating his pain like a sideshow?” the redhead snaps.

 “I don’t get it,” Ichiro huffs. “He said he was president of this club, right? So where is he? I wanna hang out with him.”

 

 The pair frowns and glance at each other before gesturing to the sets around the desks. They shut the door behind them and sit as the redhead goes to make them a tea each. There’s another mug there. Must be for Nanao.

 “I’m Kirishima Ryoma,” he says. “That’s Shuzenji Kyotaro.”

 “Dougo Ichiro.” Taishi mutters something that is probably his name. Ichiro smiles. “Taishi’s shy, don’t worry. He’s fun when you get to know him. I met Nanao-senpai when I was younger, he was a big big big influence on me. And then he found us while were trying to talk to the Exam Ghost.”

 “Exam Ghost?” Kyotaro yawns.

 “Yeah, you know the one who killed himself because of exam stress,” Ichiro explain.

 They nod slightly before Ryoma smiles and sets the mugs in front of them, setting down the spare green mug.

 “Wakura-senpai is…” He frowns and tilts his head. “There was an incident. Just before the end of school last year. It’s why he left the Student Council… He doesn’t actually show himself very often anymore. It’s pretty amazing you met him.”

 “That’s so sad,” Ichiro whispers. “What happened?”

 “Rumours are nasty things,” Kyotaro yawns. “They can ruin lives.”

 “But, we still make him tea, just in case.”

 

 “How sweet of you,” Nanao laughs. They all turn and Nanao is smiling down at them. He walks over slowly and sit with them, lifting his tea and sipping slowly. “Thank you, Ryoma-kun. It’s nice to see you two little ones. Ichiro-kun. Taishi-kun.”

 “I’m glad we found you,” Ichiro says, beaming up at him. “This club isn’t easy to find.”

 “We like to be out of the way,” Ryoma replies.

 “It’s good not to be the centre of attention for once,” Nanao says with a bitter smile. He lifts his mug and Ichiro gazes back at the honey brown eyes, reflecting the ripples of the tea. “Although, I always love my club doting on me. Ryoma-kun is a wonderful wife. Maybe you will be too with a bit of training, Ichiro-kun.”

 Ichiro’s cheeks burn hot with embarrassment and Taishi nudges his side. “I’ll definitely work hard for you, senpai!”

 “Really?” Taishi sighs.

 “What?”

 Nanao smiles and tilts his head. He seems more at ease. But Ichiro can’t help notice the bandages marks on his wrists. Slowly healing scars, hidden under his sleeps. Nanao has been hurt. So much it’s left marks on his body. He glances at the bruising around Taishi’s neck, just visible under the collar of his uniform. His friends are in so much pain.

 

 “You staying behind to study more?” Ichiro sighs, heading out the club room a few weeks later.

 Taishi smiles weakly. He’d failed a test. Ichiro thinks he might well have passed. His paper came back ungraded. They won’t even mark his papers…just give him a zero… Ichiro wishes he could do something for him. He hates the idea that anyone is putting their hands on Taishi. Especially at home, where he’s supposed to be safest.

 “You know… if you don’t wanna go home, you can come help me study at mine?”

 Taishi smiles back. “Thanks for the offer. I’ll manage.”

 “If you’re sure.” Taishi nods. “Don’t work too hard, Taishi.”

 “Thank you, Ichiro. For caring.”

 “I always care. You’re a person. Humans have got to look after each other, you know? That’s the problem with the world. It’s why do many people are unhappy. Because we don’t look after each other. And you’re my friend.”

 

 As Ichiro is heading out, Nanao is coming in. Ichiro grins up at him and Nanao smiles back. It’s not his normal smile through. It’s strained and hurt. It’s fake. “Good night, Ichiro-kun.”

 “Night, senpai,” Ichiro replies. He can’t bring himself to ask what’s wrong. “Taishi’s still in the club room, if you’re locking up.”

 “Oh? What’s he up to?”

 “Studying. The teacher didn’t even mark his paper again.”

 Nanao frowns. “I’ll have a word.”

 Ichiro nods and waves as Nanao heads up to the club room. Nanao is such a great president. He can’t imagine what sort of thing could have happened to make him so sad. Something must have happened. They said rumours, but it doesn’t make sense. Nanao seemed so perfect and so wonderful. How could anyone be so cruel as to hurt someone so amazing?

 There’s writing on the door as Ichiro closes it. Ichiro scowls and lowers his head, fingers brushing the paint. No wonder Nanao looked so sad. It’s right there in big bold red letters across the door.

 WAKURA NANAO STUDENT COUNCIL WHORE

 Ichiro wrinkles his nose and shakes his head. He’s not letting that stay here all night. He stomps off to the storage shed and returns with a bucket of soapy water and a sponge. It hurts just to look at it, how could he expect Nanao to see this again? The look at his eyes was awful. He can’t let him go through that. He can’t let his friends keep hurting, even if he can’t do much.So he scrub rolls up his sleeves and scrubs at the words, ignoring the tears stinging his eyes. People are so cruel. Why can’t people just be nice? Why can’t people just accept others? Why’s it like this?!

 

 There are screams when Ichiro and Taishi are coming in the next morning. The pair run towards the screams and yells, coming from their class, but Ryoma grabs them both and by their wrists, pulling them back from the doorway.

 “No,” he says, voice shaking. “No, you mustn’t see that.”

 “What’s going on?” Ichiro cries.

 “One of the teachers hung himself,” Kyotaro yawns.

 Ichiro stops trying to see and goes still. The teachers are hurrying over and herding the students away into another of the classrooms to keep them out the way but Ichiro catches a glimpse of the classroom. The teacher hanging there, the words ‘I’m sorry’ in shaking letters scrawled across the board.

 

 “Taishi?” Ichiro whispers. Taishi jerks around and Ichiro smiles weakly, swinging his legs as he sits on the desk. “You ok?”

 “Maybe I’ll get marked fairly now,” Taishi says with a small smile.

 Ichiro frowns. That’s not a very healthy way to deal with death. Still, he’s right. He’s the same teacher who’d refused to make Taishi’s paper yesterday. His frown deepens. Hadn’t Nanao talked to Taishi about it?

 “Isn’t he the guy Wakura-senpai was sleeping with?” Ichiro stiffens at the voice across the classroom. Taishi scowls. “Everyone knows right? Wakura-senpai won’t show his face because everyone knows he’s been sleeping around to get what he wants. Made the poor idiot fall in love with him and then he fell apart realising he was just used.”

 “Don’t talk about Nanao-senpai like that!” Ichiro cries, jumping off the desk.

 “Get a grip, Dougo,” the guy sneers. “Ah, but you’re mega rich, aren’t you? Is your senpai giving you private tutoring between the sheets? How much do you pay him for that?”

 “Shut up!” he yells, grabbing his collar. “You shut up! Don’t talk about Nanao-senpai like that!”

 He grabs Ichiro’s collar and wrist, jerking his forward. “How about you show us what you’ve learnt, huh? Maybe he’s worth what you’re paying-”

 “Enough,” Taishi snaps, shoving them apart. “You keep your hands off him.”

 “A whore senpai’s not enough, Dougo, you’ve got your bit of rough protecting you too?”

 “I said enough!” he snarls, shoving him away.

 “They should never have let that animal in.”

 

 Ichiro sighs and nuzzles into Taishi’s shoulder. Maybe Nanao did something? If a teacher hurt him and hurt Taishi, could Nanao have said something to make him do that to himself?

 “Taishi…” Taishi turns, guiding him back to the desk they’re waiting at. “Did I freak you out that night?”

 “Hmm?”

 “You just vanished.”

 “Oh… that’s…”

 Before Taishi can figure out how to explain, a teacher appears, calling to them and letting them know what’s going on. They’re going to have to go home. They’re getting two days off to recover. Taishi doesn’t look happy about it. Two days in a house where Ichiro is sure he’s being abused. He wants to protect him.

 

 “Taishi,” Ichiro whispers as they’re heading down the steps towards the doors. He smiles, pushing some loose wires aside to they can pass under safely. They wouldn’t usually go this way, it’s being done up and there are hazards everywhere, but they don’t want the students going passed the body.“If you don’t wanna go home… you can stay with me. I mean, the offer’s still there.”

 “Thanks, Ichiro,” Taishi says with a small smile. “But I should be ok.”

 “You sure?”

 “I’ll manage. I always manage.”

 “Taishi-”

 “Everyone gets what they deserve in the end, Ichiro. Don’t forget that.”  

 “Hey, Haruto, look out!”

 There are screams and yells and Ichiro jerks around just in time to see the guy who’d been saying all that stuff about Nanao falling down the stairs. There are thuds and cracks and Ichiro gasps as he gets tangled in the wires. The others rush to help him as he struggles to breathe and Ichiro stares up at them. He’s dying. Ichiro realises with a jolt, he’s watching someone die. He grabs Taishi’s hand as the noise attracted teaches to try and help, but it’s too late.

 As they’re herded out as carefully and quietly as possible, Ichiro finds his gaze drawn to the top of the stairs. Nanao is standing there, watching with a silent frown.

 

 “Taishi,” Ichiro says quietly, pausing outside in the courtyard. “I think Nanao might be a ghost.”

 Taishi stops, gazing down at him. “Ichiro-”

 “I know it sounds crazy, Taishi, but think about it. Those marks on his arms. Satomi said they spoke to him before school started. What if they summoned him? And he turned up when we were using the board. It said behind us and there he was. That teacher was supposed to be involved with Nanao. He was going to talk to him about you. That Haruto guy was talking about him. He’s been there both times. What if Nanao’s ghost is killing people?”

 “Ichiro…” He sighs and shakes his head. “Nanao isn’t dead. He’s not a ghost and he’s not killing people.”

 “You know it’s the people who don’t believe who die first in the movies?”

 Taishi smiles bitterly. “That’s fine.”

 Ichiro frowns. Is Taishi’s life really so bad he’s fine with dying? He definitely needs help. Ichiro has to help him somehow. He’s going to save Taishi from his pain somehow. Taishi can’t be ok dying first. That’s not an option!

 

 Ichiro is determined to find answers. That night he’s one his laptop, reading silently through the results of his search on Binan High suicides. Of course their teacher comes up most, but he wants over the break. Or last year. He wants proof that Nanao is the ghost they summoned.

 And then finally it pops up. The tragic suicide of a Binan High student late the previous year. He opens up the article, skimming through for proof it’s Nanao. Ichiro frowns, glaring at the page.Not Nanao. Too young to be Nanao. His age. Just how many people are struggling at Binan? Still, he follows the link when there’s mention of a tragic attempt following high school bullying. His eyes widen. That’s Nanao! This is definitely Nanao! A boy on the Student Council, struggling with bullying and malicious rumours, attempting to take his life. Attempting? There’s no other information on it. Ichiro wrinkles his nose, heading back to the last article and reading through for more clues.

 If Nanao failed to take his own life, why’s he there whenever these strange things happen? Maybe he tried again and succeeded. But this is the story of a boy who killed himself because he failed exams.

 “The Exam Ghost…” Ichiro realises. “You’re the Exam Ghost…”

 But that doesn’t explain Nanao. Ichiro gives up, searching Nanao’s name instead. Not much comes up. He supposes it wouldn’t. Victims of their age are generally given anonymity, aren’t they.

 

 Going back to school is terrifying. Ichiro doesn’t know how to deal with ghosts. He doesn’t know how to confront them. He frowns, folding and refolding the paper in his hands. What if he doesn’t know he’s dead. What if Ichiro ruins everything by confronting this?

 He walks slowly up to the clubroom in the early morning light, ignoring the disgusting accusations painted on the door again. He sighs, opening the clubroom door. Taishi is sitting at the desks, books open again, bandages wrapped around his hands, bruises on his arms. He glances up and smiles as Ichiro shuts the door behind him.

“What’s wrong?” Taishi says quietly.

 “You really don’t believe in ghosts?” Ichiro says, sitting across from him.

 “Of course not,” he replies with a sigh.

 Ichiro frowns, sliding the paper across the table. Taishi frowns, opening it slowly. Ichiro holds his breath as Taishi reads. He doesn’t know what to do. He needs Taishi’s to help him here. He reaches out slowly and lays his hand over Taishi’s. And Taishi gazes back at him, pale and trembling.

 “Ichiro-”

 “It’s ok, isn’t it? We’ll figure something out, right?”

 “This is ridiculous,” Taishi snaps, pushing the paper away. “Ghosts don’t exists.”

 “Taishi, this is serious, people are dying!”

 “They deserve it!”

 Ichiro sighs and lowers his head, drawing his fingers back from Taishi’s. “No one deserves it, Taishi.”

 

 Taishi doesn’t answer. Ichiro stands slowly and walks over, wrapping his arms around Taishi and leaning into his shoulder. He wants Taishi to understand. He wants to save Taishi from the pain that’s made him so miserable. So angry. No one deserves it.

 “You’re really important to me, Taishi,” he whispers. He draws back slowly, cupping his cheeks gently. Even if he’s rather terrified, he leans in and presses their lips together lightly. “I’m so sorry.”

 “I didn’t have any other options,” Taishi says, voice a little hoarse. Ichiro nods weakly, slowly undoing Taishi’s tie. “I couldn’t stay in that life. I couldn’t keep living that life. I had no choice. Binan was my only hope. I had to get in.”

 “I’m so sorry,” Ichiro says, unbuttoning his collar with trembling fingers. “I’m so so so sorry they treated you like that.”

 “I’m never going to be one of you,” he rasps. “Just because I’m not one of you, even though I worked so hard, they wouldn’t let me in. I just wanted to get away. I got the highest results on all the entrance exams. I’m the smartest kid in our year! So why?! Why won’t they even give me a chance?!”

 Ichiro hugs him tight, letting Taishi cry into his shoulder. It’s so unfair. His poor Taishi is amazing and they wouldn’t let him escape his terrible life. So he escaped the only way he could. He draws back slowly, opening up Taishi’s collar. His fingers brush the hideous dark pattern of rope around his neck, tears dripping down his cheeks.

 “I’m so glad I got to meet you, Taishi. We’ll just… we’ll figure something out, ok? Trust me? You’re going to get what you deserve too.”