Hyouka
Even Though I'm Told I Now Have Wings Preview

Chapter 1
What's Missing from the Box

Part 1

I'm not the kind of person who clearly remembers things that have already come and gone. Even if someone were to tell me that something or other had definitely happened, say in elementary or middle school, all too often I could only stare blankly back at them, offering an unsure "Did it now?" in response. And yet, though there were also experiences I shared with others, I was occasionally the only one able to retain lucid memories of them later on. I had no way of knowing what it was that separated that which I would eventually forget and that which I would always remember.

Tracing through my memories—through the seemingly limitless gray of uncertain places and events—there were occasional moments of vivid recollection. These mostly chronicled events like sports festivals, daytime excursions, and school field trips through the woods, while others covered pointless events I didn't deem important, but, through the gradual weathering of time, still found themselves somehow cemented in a special spot in my memory. I couldn't help but feel a strange sense of admiration at their tenacity. On the other hand, I realized there were also times when I found myself clearly remembering a single tiny fragment of a completely normal day, one wholly indistinguishable from any other at the time. Unlike the detailed, magazine article-like memories that recorded events, they were extremely fragmented, void of anything orienting them. Even then, they were difficult to forget, memories akin to an old photograph you couldn't bear to throw away. For example, tirelessly watching the whirlpools born from clashing channel waters in summer, the robust imagination sprung on by rows of imposing volumes from unreachable library bookshelves in winter, competing for the last book at a store on the way home with your friend, only for the both of you to give it up in autumn... What exactly was it that separated these memories from the countless forgotten?

Then there were moments when I was suddenly struck by a certain feeling: “I might never forget this.” Won't I always remember that June night as well, under which I walked the city streets enveloped by a lukewarm breeze? Though, I guess I won't be able to confirm that feeling of mine until ten, twenty years in the future.

It all began with a single phone call.

Part 2

I made yakisoba for dinner that evening.

It had been fairly clear out in the afternoon, but because the clouds gathered as the day set and seemingly prevented the heat from escaping back into the sky, the night air around me was humid and none the cooler, despite the absent sun. As everyone else in my family had their own pressing matters to attend to, I was alone in the house. Cooking sounded like it'd be a pain, so I peeked through the fridge in the hopes of finding leftovers or something else that didn't require effort to prepare and spotted some chilled noodles meant for yakisoba.

I found some shriveled lettuce, dried enoki mushrooms, and stale bacon, so I cut them up to shreds. I added oil to the pre-heated frying pan and threw in the noodles first, letting them sit there for the meantime. White steam started to billow upwards from the pan, and I became somewhat anxious as I hadn't added any water, but I managed to suppress that feeling in the end and waited a couple of minutes as it was being cooked, pulling the noodles apart every now and then. I then transferred them—crunchy, almost burnt—to a plate all at once and then started sautéing the other ingredients. When those were cooked as well, I moved them to the edge of the pan with long cooking chopsticks and poured Worcestershire sauce in the now empty space. As it started to simmer, its iconic fragrance wafted up from the pan and dyed the kitchen air around me with yakisoba tones. I finally added the sauce to the noodles and lightly tossed the mixture. With that was one order, ready to serve.

I carried the plate from the kitchen to the living room and then brought out a pair of chopsticks with a glass of barley tea to finish my preparations. On the table was some sort of postcard for my sister, reading "Class 3-I Reunion Notice." I don’t want to imagine what she'd say to me if I ended up accidentally getting sauce on it, so I moved the postcard to the letter rack, and finally, I was ready to dig in without any further distractions. I brought my hands together, and just as I picked up the chopsticks, the phone started to ring.

I looked up at the clock on the wall and it read exactly half past seven. The nerve of someone to call at a time meant so perfectly for dinner... To add to that, I was the only one home, so whoever they wanted to speak to was likely not even here in the first place. At first, I was just going to let it continue ringing as I picked up the steaming yakisoba noodles, but it ended up being so incessant and sincere that ignoring it any further caused a strange feeling of guilt to well up from within me. If I had to do it, do it quickly; I sighed and put my chopsticks back down. I stood up and picked up the receiver.

"Yes?"

"Hello, is Oreki-kun—"

I had assumed the call was going to be for my father or sister, but the voice from the other end wound up being one I was all too familiar with. Perhaps guessing from my voice and the atmosphere between us, the person calling suddenly switched from his polite tone to his usual one.

"Houtarou?"

"Yeah."

"Whew, what a relief. I didn't think you'd be the one to answer. I'd have no idea what to say if that sister of yours picked up the phone instead."

Although it might've been fortuitous for Satoshi Fukube, I couldn't say the same for me.

"Sorry, but for every second I talk with you, my yakisoba gets colder and colder."

"What?! Yakisoba you say?! What a tragedy!"

Yes, a tragedy, indeed.

"I'm glad you understand. Please get to the point, then."

I heard laughter in his voice. "You wouldn't have this problem if you just got a cellphone already. That's not what I wanted to talk about, though... I was hoping you'd take a little walk with me. You free after this?"

As I wasn't really the type of person to party late into the night, I rarely left the house after dinner. It’s not like it wasn't unheard of, though. Thinking back on it... that's right. I had gone on an evening stroll with Satoshi once before. I glanced at the clock again. It'd probably take me fifteen minutes or so to finish the yakisoba, and some time after that to change.

"Yeah, I can leave at about eight."

"Okay. I'm glad to hear that. Should I come pick you up?"

I drew a map in my head of the distance between both of our houses. I'm sure he'd be willing to come all the way here considering he was the one who asked me in the first place, but I guess there was no reason to bully him like that. I thought up a location that was more or less an equal distance between our houses.

"Let's meet up at Akabashi Bridge."

"Sounds good. It'd be terrible to let your yakisoba get any cooler, so let's continue our conversation then. See ya."

The call promptly ended there without any lingering hesitation or closing remarks. He probably figured that any longer would only annoy me; that sensitivity was just like him.

When I returned to the table, the surface of the yakisoba had in fact cooled. With a simple one, two tosses of what previously seemed cold, however, heat began to rise from the dish once more.

Moonlight pierced down through the thin clouds in the sky, and a damp wind blew between the many houses around me. I had left the house wearing a wool shirt at first but immediately felt too hot despite the nighttime breeze, so I changed into a cotton one instead.

Although I couldn't fit my wallet into my chinos' pockets, the idea of carrying a bag with me sounded like a hassle. At the same time, however, I couldn't really rely on Satoshi to cover me if we did end up needing to spend money and I didn't have any on me, so I took two thousand yen notes from my wallet and put them into my shirt's pocket. I stuck my thumbs into my pants pockets and left the house at the promised hour, but night fell early in Kamiyama City, and the narrow streets had already descended into soft silence.

Although I didn't really rush at all, I managed to arrive at our rendezvous point in less than ten minutes. As the name Akabashi literally meant "red bridge," it was exceedingly common, and in reality, the bridge we were meeting at wasn't even called that in the first place. It was called that, as you might imagine, because it was painted red, and its original name was forgotten all too easily. The area itself was often crowded in the afternoon because of the banks and the post office nearby, but I had no idea it became so empty after the sun set. I looked at the red bridge, illuminated by the street lights, but I saw no one there. How strange, I thought, I thought he would've left first. As I looked around, however, a hand suddenly touched my shoulder from behind.

"Evening..."

Although I'd be lying if I said I wasn't surprised, I wasn't that taken aback either. It's possible I sensed his surprise attack when I didn't see him at first. Without even turning around, I responded with a simple "Hey."

"What a let-down. Where's the love?"

Satoshi circled in front of me with a grin on his face, but it felt like there was something hidden behind his smile. His eyes didn't meet mine, but instead fixated on the bridge as he continued.

"Where should we go now?"

"I'll leave it up to you."

I didn't have much experience with these kinds of things, so I didn't know what was normal for a nighttime stroll. Satoshi turned his head and said, "It'll get a little more lively if we walk towards the city, but... I guess we can't go through the streets with all the bars. They're pretty scary."

"Probably, yeah, Mr. General Committee Vice President."

"There’s a family restaurant up ahead if we follow the bypass.. It's open 24 hours."

That was far, though. We wouldn't be able to get there without a car, or at least a bicycle. I guess Satoshi wasn't being serious, however, as he continued, "Well, let's just see where the wind takes us."

I didn't mind in the slightest.

Satoshi crossed Akabashi Bridge and started to follow a small path going upstream, along the city river. There was more water in it than usual, probably a result of the rainy season, and I could hear the gushing sounds of its strong currents. There were no streetlights in this part of the city, so I could only rely on the glow seeping from the faintly illuminated windows of the surrounding houses and the occasionally hidden moon to see my path. That said, my eyes eventually became fairly used to the darkness. Past a gnarled knothole in an aging wooden fence, past a curiously constructed sake bar with a traditional ball of interwoven cedar leaves functioning as a customer chime from the eaves, past the front of a rundown public bath with a "closed" sign lying on its side, we walked slowly through the city night.

Embankments had been constructed on both sides of the river, and they looked something like large stone walls. A good number of trees were planted in a row along the edge, and among them were some that curved out above the water's surface, almost as if they were flinging themselves out of the procession in the hopes of finding sunlight. I suddenly stopped and placed a hand on one of those roadside trees. Its surface was abundant with stiff bumps and protrusions, and its leaves resembled a shiso's in size. It was a cherry blossom tree. I bet this was a popular spot for cherry blossom viewing, and these well-kept streets almost certainly become lively in the flower blooming seasons. At this moment, however, only Satoshi and I walked along them, and these trees which have already discarded their blossoms wouldn't even be recognized for their true nature without a closer look. It seemed a bit sad, but what can you do? Time moves on.

I lifted my hand from the tree trunk and asked, "So, what's wrong?"

Satoshi hadn't called me out for a walk to simply enjoy the night, of course.

Sure, our friendship had gone on for some time, but it wasn't all that deep. We rarely ever made plans over the weekend, and when we went home together, it was usually only because we finished up at school at the same time. The fact that Satoshi had called me out like this almost certainly meant that he had something he needed to talk about, and not only that, it also meant that it was either too urgent to put off until tomorrow or too confidential to talk about around prying ears at school.

The Satoshi I knew often beat around the bush, but tonight, that wasn't the case.

"I'm in a difficult situation," he said as he started to walk once more.

"I don't want anything to do with trouble."

"Trouble, huh? At the very least, I can say with certainty that I'm in a troublesome spot, but the most troubling part of it for me is that you have absolutely nothing to do with my situation."

Unable to comprehend exactly what he was trying to say, I frowned slightly in response. He shrugged and continued.

"In other words, the trouble for me is that I need to ask you for your help, Houtarou, even though you have absolutely zero stake in it."

"I see. If I were to go along with your request—"

"—it would go against your motto, 'If you don't have to do it, you won't.'"

What Satoshi was saying was correct in principle, but I had already rushed to finish my yakisoba to join him in the city. Had I intended on turning him away without even listening to his story that had nothing to do with me, I would've probably been washing the sauce-covered frying pan right now at home instead.

"Well, you can tell me what's going on at least."

Satoshi nodded. "You're too good to me. You remember that the student council president election was held today, right?"

"Yeah..."

Although it had happened mere hours ago, I had already managed to forget. After school ended, we casted our votes for the next student council president as the term for the previous one, Muneyoshi Kugayama, came to a close.

At Kamiyama High School, this election period was set to last for a week. During that period, the candidates put up posters all throughout the school grounds, made the case for themselves during school-wide assemblies, and debated one another over the intercoms via the broadcasting club. All of that came to a close yesterday, and today was when we voted.

"Do you remember the candidates?"

I racked my mind for the answer to Satoshi's question. "There were two... no, three people I think."

He returned an almost sad smile.

"I was going for names, but to think you didn't even remember how many people there were. The correct answer is two, though I guess you'd have to pay attention to know that. Our school is bursting at the seams with strange clubs, but the student council doesn't really stand out in comparison."

"That's true. The candidates were both sophomores, too."

"You remember that, huh? It's only natural they were sophomores. The freshmen just got here in April, and the seniors are going to be busy taking tests now."

I guess hearing the reason did make it pretty obvious.

"It was a face-off between Haruto Obata from Class D and Seiichirou Tsunemitsu from Class E. You might think everything ended after the voting, but I was actually one of the people tallying the votes."

I wasn't that interested in how the Kamiyama High School student council president election worked from behind the scenes, but his statement certainly piqued my curiosity. The jack-of-all-trades Satoshi Fukube is involved in a variety of clubs and groups, just for the hell of it. Specifically, he was a member of the Classics and Handicrafts Clubs and had been involved with the general committee ever since he was a freshman, now, even unceremoniously serving as its vice president. No matter how out of touch I was with the organizations in our school, even I remembered that there was an election administration committee as well.

"What happened with the election?" I asked.

Right as I did, Satoshi smiled. "Of course, it's the election administration committee that's responsible for the ballot boxes and vote counting. I was in charge of the oversight. Among the school rules governing school elections, there's a regulation stating that there has to be at least two students overseeing the vote counting process. The rules say that the only qualification needed to be met for this job is not being one of the candidates or in the election committee. So apparently, you used to be able to apply for it. Now, though, it's become a custom to delegate that job to the general committee president and vice president. I guess it would be a pain to have to search for people to do it every time."

Although he explained it so smoothly for me, it was precisely that lack of hesitation that made it so suspicious. This was Satoshi we were talking about, after all... As if picking up on my doubts, he quickly continued.

"I'm serious! I'm not lying. Not one bit!" he insisted repeatedly.

"Fine, fine. So?"

"There was a problem with the counting."

I see.

"At present, Kamiyama High School has 1,049 students, that is to say, 1,049 eligible voters."

When I first enrolled, there were 350 freshmen split among eight classes, so Satoshi's number seemed pretty reasonable in you counted all three grades.

He let out a forced sigh. "So, we totaled the votes... and we found out that there were 1,086 submissions."

"How…?"

It slipped from my mouth before I realized it. I'd understand it if there ended up being fewer votes than students. Some of them might've abstained, after all. But more? Satoshi nodded gravely.

"I have no idea. Taking into account the absent students, the ones that left early, and those who just didn't want to vote, I wouldn't really care if the total number of votes was any less, but if the number is more than the possible limit, you can't chalk it up to just a simple mistake."

He paused for a second and then continued.

"Someone did this out of spite."

I said nothing in return.

Just as Satoshi had said, judging solely by the information I had at the moment, I found it hard to believe this situation came about due to a simple error. Saying it was out of spite seemed like a bit of a reach, though, and it was probably more likely an impulsive prank or something like that. What did seem certain, however, was that somebody had somehow diluted the votes.

"In reality, the final tally showed that the difference in votes closely corresponded with the number of blank votes, and if the illegitimate ones were all blank, then that meant, of course, that the result wouldn't have changed anyways. The problem is that there isn't any wiggle room with this—if it was proven that something against the rules took place, the election administration committee would have to hold another election. I don't really care who put in the illegitimate votes... Though I can't even begin to comprehend the culprit's reason for doing this, I doubt I'll even be able to figure out who did it in the end. What I have to figure out is how he was even able to cast those votes in the first place."

"..."

"The most troubling part of this is that because the management of the official ballots was so half-assed, anyone could've created new ones. All you had to do, after all, was mark the paper with the official stamp, and you could find that lying around in the council room. But how did they manage to slip those ballots in with the rest? There's a hole somewhere in the Kamiyama High School student council president election process. As long as we continue to leave it unsealed, this kind of thing will continue to be possible, and conversely, even if future elections manage to go off without a hitch, we'll never be able to be certain that there wasn't an illegitimate vote submitted somewhere."

"Makes sense."

"I've thought about it a lot myself, but I hit a dead end no matter where I go. That's why, even though I didn't want to, I called you, Houtarou."

Satoshi broke off.

If that's was all he was going to say, then I pretty much got the gist of the situation. I scratched my head and looked up at the moon peeking through the clouds before dropping my gaze down to my feet.

"It looks like I should be getting back now," I said.

The small path continued straight along the river and passed by two bridges. We headed upstream, but how far did it continue like that? I suppose it was already too late to go on an adventure to find the source, though.

"You're going home..." he said, sounding as if he'd almost expected it, "I guess it was a bit too much to ask for, after all."

It wasn't that I thought he was asking for too much; the only problem was that he’d made a mistake. I'm sure he was fully aware of that himself but wanted to put it out there anyways.

"Well, sometimes telling others is all it takes to help yourself understand it better, so I don't mind listening at least. I'd appreciate it if you could leave that for tomorrow, though. I have dirty dishes waiting for me back home, and if I don't take care of them soon, the whole house will end up smelling like sauce."

"It might be a little too late for that."

He had a point. I should open all the windows the second I get home.

A light approached us from the front. It was a bicycle heading in the opposite direction. Until it passed us by, neither of us opened our mouths.

Satoshi finally broke the silence.

"Tomorrow won't work. I need an idea by tomorrow morning."

"Considering that you need to post the results by the end of the day at the latest, I guess I can understand. That should be the election committee's job, though."

A small sigh escaped my lips, and I continued.

"I knew you joined the handicrafts club and general committee for the kicks—something I personally can't understand for the life of me—but I was a little surprised when I heard you became the vice president. I thought you did the general committee activities partly for fun, so I never expected that you of all people would accept an official position. Did something change your mind?"

"Yeah... I guess you could say that."

"I see. I'm not sure if I should congratulate you or not, but that aside, just because you've taken on a role full of responsibilities like that doesn't mean I too want to get involved in any of its problems. Or are you telling me that it's my obligation as a student in our school to help maintain the soundness of our election system?"

He returned a conflicted smile.

"I'd never be able to say something totalitarian like that... Someone like me's much more suited to a bureaucracy."

"I'd say so. A nighttime stroll is certainly an interesting setting for a conversation with Satoshi Fukube, but if it's for a consultation with the general committee vice president, leave it for the committee room."

Satoshi didn't seem all too ruffled by my response, but replied with a hint of loneliness, not necessarily in jest.

"You sure don't mince your words, do you."

It's true that I may have been too harsh, but Satoshi had only himself to blame. If he refused to talk to me without a facade, then I had no choice but to reply in kind with my own—one of rejection of responsibility.

As I thus concluded my theory of the facade, I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye and started to speak.

"So? What are you hiding?"

"Hiding? What do you mean?

Putting aside Satoshi's story of the mysteriously increased votes, two things didn't add up. The first point was what I mentioned earlier: namely, why did he come to me for help? The second point, however, was even more fundamental.

"Don't play dumb. This whole thing should be the election committee's problem. Thinking about it... you should've had nothing to do with it in the first place, Mr. General Committee Vice President."

According to Satoshi's story, the general committee's president and vice president were responsible for nothing more than the simple oversight of the election. The illegitimate votes were certainly a major issue, but why was Satoshi the one trying to solve it? He had remained silent about this point.

To think that Satoshi, self-proclaimed natural denizen of bureaucracy, would rise above his post and pure-heartedly try and unravel the problem plaguing the election system for the sake of justice... I refused to believe it. I suppose it was theoretically possible that he had intervened as a member of the general committee in order to get around the restrictions holding the election committee back, but I was just as ready to crumple that delusion up and throw it out with the rest of the burnable trash on collection day. Satoshi himself said that, since becoming a sophomore, he had changed, but I found it impossible to accept that it was a change that drastic and fundamental. That's why when he, someone who always joked around but never uttered even a word of complaint, called me out at night to ask for help, I knew there was more to the story.

"What i'm saying is that you're hiding the reason why you yourself want to solve the mystery."

Satoshi smiled faintly.

"I just can't win when it comes to you."

I smiled as well.

"I'm glad you've come to terms with it. You shouldn't even be surprised at this point."

"I guess so. I thought I could hide it from you, but so much for that."

Satoshi jumped out a couple steps in front of me as if dancing to some rhythm and then turned around to face me, walking backwards as he spoke.

"I'm sorry I didn't tell you everything from the start, Houtarou, even though I came to you for help. I don't blame you for getting mad. It's not really something I needed to hide, but you know..."

Although I wanted to tell him I had no idea what he was talking about, we've already known each other for a long time now. As vexing as it was, I had the feeling I did.

"The administration committee president is—how can I put this lightly—not really the kind of person that others tend to feel fondly about," said Satoshi as he put his hands together behind his head. "He acts all high and mighty, considering he's on a high school committee, you know? I'm not really sure how to put this... He's the kind of guy that just isn't satisfied without telling someone to 'stop messing around,' even if they're working hard like always. His favorite phrases are: 'Don't go deciding everything for yourself' and 'Figure it out yourself;' I heard them five times already, just today."

I knew there were people like that, but this was the first time I've heard of one my age. If his descriptions were in fact accurate, I'd imagine he was worst case scenario for someone like Satoshi to deal with. He continued.

"Though, you were right, Houtarou. I didn't have anything to do with him."

"Which means... it looks like someone else was involved."

"Sharp as always."

Satoshi gave me a thumbs-up.

"It was a freshman member of the election administration committee, from Class E. I don't remember his name. I probably heard it at some point, but I don't remember. He was a really energetic kid, always saying 'Right away!' when someone asked him to do something. I don't think we would've gotten along, but I could tell he always did what he was supposed to... well... tried, at least. He was pretty short; looked like a middle school student."

"I can see where this is going."

"Can you? Well hear me out until the end, at least. For one reason or another—maybe he was really efficient or his class worked hard to finish quickly—he was the first person to make it to the vote tallying area in the council room. After he got there—and if you ask me it was the president's fault—he messed up the proper procedures."

Satoshi put his hands out in front of him and gestured as if holding an invisible box.

"You probably know this already, considering you voted as well, but in Kamiyama's elections, everyone casts their vote by placing their ballots into the designated ballot boxes. Those boxes are then taken to the council room and—and this is the important part—opened in front of the overseers. Mr. Class 1-E opened the box up before the overseers came and spread out the votes in the middle of the table."

I thought for a moment and then said, "I don't think it's that big a deal, though..."

"Me too. The overseers' sole job is to make sure that the boxes are completely empty, first before taking it to the classrooms to vote and then after taking out the votes, before the tallying begins. I did confirm that Mr. Class 1-E's box was, in fact, empty, so in reality, you could argue that we did actually follow protocol. But the election committee president insisted that there was no way to know for sure that he didn't dilute the votes while the overseers weren't present."

I see.

"Putting aside the mistake committed in the procedure, I have a really hard time believing that he was the culprit," I said.

"Everyone else felt the same way. Even I did. But apparently the election committee president didn't. Everything else went according to protocol, so there wasn't any chance for someone to mix in the illegitimate votes with the rest. That's why he decided that the fault couldn't have possibly lain with anyone else, and of course, verbally lashed out at the freshman."

Satoshi suddenly paused for a brief moment and then softly added one more thing.

"The freshman was crying, you know."

So that's what it was...

What it all boiled down to was: Satoshi wanted to prove there was another point at which it would've been possible to mix illegitimate votes in with the rest, even though no one had asked him to, all for the sake of some nameless underclassman who had been verbally abused far beyond the justified amount for his minor mistake.

Completely taken aback, I could only offer this in response:

"I swear... you never change, do you? Always playing the hero in the shadows."

He smiled hesitantly back.

"Give me a break, I just got a little angry, is all. Besides, if you don't mind me making excuses, it wasn't like I felt it was absolutely necessary to rely on your insight. I thought it would've been simple enough for me to handle alone, but I was wrong. It turns out our elections are surprisingly foolproof."

"Didn't we have a similar conversation the last time we went on a nighttime walk like this?"

"Yeah... that was back in our last year of middle school, if I remember correctly. Man, that brings me back."

I stared at Satoshi Fukube. Overall he looked frail and somewhat unreliable, and yet, his expression alone was brimming with confidence—the same Satoshi I've always known.

He wasn't particularly kind or gentle, nor did he even have a strong sense of integrity. In my opinion, however, what he did have, even if it didn't show on his face, was a stronger than normal hatred of the unjust and unfair. Even for things I dismissed with a "Well, that's life," he would furrow his brow and do everything in his power to fix what was within his reach.

That aside, however, I guess I could understand where he was coming from. It wasn't that he was telling me to figure it out as part of some investigation to help return the general committee and Kamiyama elections to a state of normalcy, but rather, he was asking me to help him give the election committee president a good one for the sake of a crying freshman.

Part of me grew a little irritated wondering why he didn't tell me that at the start.

A gust of wind blew through the town.

Part 3

The path following the river ran up against the wooden fence surrounding a residential house and turned at sharp right angle. We continued to follow it and eventually arrived at a small three-way intersection. The road that stretched to the left and right had a traffic line running down the middle, unlike the one we'd been walking along up until that point, and the entire stretch was brightly illuminated by streetlights. I didn't normally come around this area, but if my memory served me right, if you went right and continued through the residential district, you'd find my old Kaburaya Middle School. If you went left and continued in that direction, you'd eventually reach the downtown area.

We stopped walking and Satoshi looked at me as if asking which way we should go. I was a little worried that someone might start asking questions if we ended up wandering all the way over to the downtown area, but part of me was hesitant to go near Kaburaya for some reason as well. It'd probably be a good idea to go left and then turn onto a different street before hitting the main area. I started to walk and Satoshi silently followed next to me.

"So," I said, restarting the conversation once more, "as far as you know, there were no possible opportunities for anyone to mix in the illegitimate ballots?"

Satoshi suddenly grinned and muttered a barely audible "I really am sorry" before exclaiming in his usual, unaffected voice, "That's right! I really have given it a lot of thought, but in the end, I can't find any real holes in the system, especially considering it's been the same for so long. If I had to say for certain... it's not that I don't consider it a possibility, but I get the feeling that chasing that line of thought will only lead to a dead end."

I wanted to ask him why he thought that in detail, but considering I didn't even know how the student council president election process worked in the first place, I probably wouldn't understand his reasoning. It'd probably be best to get him to explain everything from the start.

"From the beginning, please."

"Okay. Where's a good place..." Satoshi said, his arms crossed and head tilted deliberately in contemplation. "That sounds about right. To start with, it's important to remember that the ballot boxes have locks on them. Also, like I told you earlier, a third party has to confirm that the boxes are empty first before students cast their ballots and then again before the committee counts them."

"You can cast a ballot even while the box is locked, right?"

"Of course. It should've been locked when you voted as well."

I figured that was the case, but I just wanted to make sure.

"The election administration committee took the ballot boxes out of storage and brought them to the council room yesterday after school. The storage room was the one on the first floor of the special wing, so I'm sure you know which one I'm talking about. It also has mops, wax, and the like. Anyways, by yesterday, the paper ballots had already been bundled into a stack for each class with a rubber band holding them together. After school ended for the day, the entire election committee and the overseers gathered in the council room, and the member in charge of distributing everything handed the boxes and ballots to each classes' representatives. I'm sure you're already aware of this, but there are two election committee members—one boy and one girl—in each and every class. That meant that in the council room, there were two members times eight classes times three grades—forty-eight students—plus the two overseers for a total of fifty students, all packed in there like a can of sardines."

"Sounds cramped."

"Pretty much. After getting the ballot boxes, they had us confirm that each one was empty, and then the committee member in charge of the key locked them. After each box was locked, the members waited with them on standby. Once that had finished for all the boxes, the committee president gave the call for each of them to return to their classrooms."

I had seen the boxes and ballot slips, of course. The box was made of worn, amber-colored wood and looked sturdily put together at first glance. The word "ballot box" was written in bold characters along the side. The paper ballots seemed to be cut from simple printer paper. The one I used earlier today didn't even have straight edges. I did remember there being the election administration committee's stamp, but I don't think there was anything like an identification number to tell it apart from the rest.

"You know what the election committee members did in the classrooms, right?" asked Satoshi.

"Yeah."

Once in the classrooms, the members placed their ballot box on the teacher's podium and wrote the candidates' names in chalk on the blackboard before handing out the paper ballots. As each of the students finished writing their choice—be it one of the candidates' names or nothing at all—they walked up to the front of the room and individually dropped their slip into the box. Each time this happened, the election committee members drew a tally mark on the paper in their hands to record the total number of votes.

I didn't really want to interrupt Satoshi's story, but I needed to ask him something just in case.

"Do the election administration committee members also have to take into account the number of absent students?"

Satoshi shook his head and said, "From what I've heard, they don't. Apparently, only the total student body count and the total number of votes are important."

I see. I guess some students not showing up to school wouldn't really impact their job, now that I think about it.

"The rules state that after thirty minutes, the members should cast their own votes and then take the ballot boxes back to the council room, but in reality, many of the classes finish much faster than that. After all, once everyone in the class has finished, there's nothing more they have to do, so they can pack up and leave. This part goes against the rules a bit, but there's nothing we can do about that considering it's pretty much a custom at this point."

I suppose if every ballot box was brought back to the council room at the same time, it'd slow down the process as well.

"As a result, the committee members trickle back into the room and check off their grade and class on a list to show who had returned. The person in charge of the key opens their box, and the member empties out its contents onto the table. There were several tables arranged into a cross shape, and we used that to tally the votes. We don't have to return them to storage until tomorrow, so there wasn't any rush. Once the overseers confirm that the box is indeed empty, they place them in the corner of the room. Once all the ballots from every class are on the table, they mix them around so that no one knows which one came from which class and then divide them among ten or so designated vote counters. The counters then place the votes into one of three trays—in this case, marked either "Haruto Obata," "Seiichirou Tsunemitsu," or "N/A." This part goes pretty quickly. The votes are clipped together in groups of twenty and then exchanged with another counter to confirm whether the counting was done correctly. Once both counters finish checking it, the overseers will verify it as well."

"It certainly is thorough."

"I know, right?"

I had no idea why he sounded so proud. We literally just finished talking about how he had nothing to do with the election administration committee.

"After doing that, we wrote down the total numbers on the whiteboard. From start to finish, the whole thing probably took about forty minutes. Just as we were about to record the victor, however, someone pointed out that the final numbers seemed off, and everything after that was pure chaos."

I thought I heard something like the low growl of an engine. All of a sudden, a sports car sped furiously past us on the small modest road. Satoshi glared at it as its tires screeched around the corner and then eventually let out a sigh.

"Everything I told you just now was exactly as it happened, but because there were so many people watching the ballots on the table at all times, I can't imagine it being possible to tamper with anything. That means that the illegitimate votes weren't added during the tallying... And that means the only possibility I can imagine is that they were added to the ballot box from the very start, right?"

"It does look that way, but—"

"But what? I already told you this, but there are about forty-three to forty-four students in each class in Kamiyama High School. There were forty illegitimate votes. If the culprit had only focused on adding them to one box, that'd nearly double the amount it had compared to the other classes. We weren't really focused on the amount of votes that came out from the boxes, but I'm pretty sure everyone would notice if there were twice as much."

I agree. What if it wasn't twice as much, however?

Considering he had been thinking about it ever since school got out today, Satoshi had already considered the possibility.

"It'd be impossible for all of the illegitimate votes to be in one class's box. Then how about if it were split between two classes? We'd still probably notice. Three classes also seem a bit dubious. If they were divided among ten classes, then each class's total would go up by a measly four votes. That'd probably be unnoticeable."

"That might be true, but that then raises the question of how someone would be able to find the chance to slip illegitimate votes into ten ballot boxes."

"Yeah," Satoshi said as he nodded. He then added with a disinterested expression, "Though, honestly speaking, I'm pretty sure the culprit is in the election administration committee."

"I thought you wanted to help out that Class E freshman."

"I don't think it's him. It's just that I can't imagine it happening any other way. Only the election committee dealt with the boxes."

It's true that the committee members move the boxes around, so it'd be simple for them to secretly drop in some votes, but...

"So according to your theory, Satoshi, several election administration committee members colluded with one another to add the illegitimate votes by each putting in a little bit at a time? Sure it's not outside the realm of possibility, but do you really believe that's what happened?"

"That's why I said that line of thought led to a dead end. One or two members is one thing, but I find it impossible to imagine nine or ten being involved in this."

After saying that, Satoshi clapped his hands together and continued.

"So basically, I have no idea where to continue from here. There's no guarantee that someone used a trick to pull it off, but if we assume there is one, I have no other choice but to figure it out, to confirm the shadowy existence lurking within the election committee. If we assume there is no shadowy entity, then we have no further way of figuring out where and how the votes became so skewed. We have until tomorrow morning, but tonight, I want to start from the ground up and flesh this situation out into a proper whodunit. After all, because I had no one else to turn to, I ended up calling you, Houtarou."

Part 4

Red lights illuminated the night time city before us. Satoshi and I stopped walking at the same time, and we briefly lost track of our conversation as our eyes were held captive by the warm glow. It felt almost as if there were something foreign mixed in with the wind; maybe it was only a figment of my imagination. As he continued to stare at the lights, he suddenly started to speak, his head not moving an inch.

"You hungry?"

I wordlessly stared at the red paper lantern, "Ramen" written in black along its side.

It hadn't even crossed my mind that there might be a trap in a place like this, still so far away from the downtown. O' good children, run quickly on home into your beds now and dream sweet dreams for the night in Kamiyama City is dark and full of terrors.

"We shouldn't give in to evil."

"That's true... Evil things aren't good."

Three minutes later, the two of us were sitting shoulder to shoulder behind a narrow counter. The only things on the menu were regular chashu, and wonton ramen, as well as gyoza, rice, and beer. I ordered the regular ramen, saying, "I didn't really have a normal dinner," to justify it, and Satoshi asked for wonton ramen and a bowl of rice. The shopkeeper had a thick chest and a face the color of sandpaper, and there was a towel tied around his head. As we gave him our order, he responded in a booming voice seemingly coming from the pit of his stomach, "Comin' right up!"

Oil seemed to permeate all throughout the interior of the small shop, and the wallpaper, probably white originally, took on a yellow tint as well. It was only that way from age, however, and not from a lack of cleanliness. There had been another customer, but he passed by us on his way out, so the two of us were the only ones there. I took a sip of cold water from the cup in front of me and suddenly let out a small exhale. I knew we had been walking around during a hot season in a hot place, but I didn't realize I was this thirsty.

"Have you been here before, Houtarou?" asked Satoshi, who had taken to fiddling around with a pepper shaker as he lacked anything else to do.

"No. You?"

"Nope. It's my first time here. I had no idea there was something like this all the way here. It's just that you walked into the shop so confidently... I was sure you were a regular."

"You were so quick when you said we should go in... I was sure you always came here."

Probably hearing our conversation, the owner responded with a bellowing voice, "Come on now. You two won't regret it."

As I zoned out, becoming faintly aware of the light buzzing sound from the ventilation fan attached to the counter, Satoshi started to grumble to himself.

"I don't really care about the culprit... but I wonder why he did it."

"Who knows."

"The student council president doesn't even really do anything in the first place. All he pretty much does is speak as the student representative at events. I'd understand if the culprit got angry at the election because he wanted a change in the school regulations somehow, but what does he think he gains from throwing a wrench in the process?

The only way to know that would probably be to ask the person himself. That said...

"If you’re fine with guesses, I have a couple," I said.

"Let's hear it."

"He loves elections, so he wanted to do it again."

"How intriguing."

"He hates elections, so he wanted to watch it burn."

"I see."

"He thought student autonomy was a farce and wanted to pose the question on the election's relevance to the student body."

"Terrorism, huh?"

"The candidate he backed wasn't done preparing, so he wanted to buy some time for him."

"The deadline for that had already passed, so that's a no."

"He didn't like the election administration committee president, so he ruined the election to watch him go pale."

Satoshi snickered. "The scary part is I can't really rule that out. At any rate, I guess we don't know his motives. The terrorism one has a certain charm to it, though."

"It could even be a love charm, too."

The owner took out a tied bundle of chashu from the fridge, surprisingly large considering the narrow size of the shop. He took out a kitchen knife and said, "Special service for the students." I guess he was planning on giving us extra. I couldn't wait.

I suddenly asked something that had been on my mind.

"You said there were forty-eight members in the election administration committee, right?"

Satoshi returned the pepper shaker to the rack, rested his cheek on his hand, and responded, "Yeah. Three grades with eight classes each, and two from each of those classes."

"Yet, you also told me that only ten students did the counting."

Satoshi swiveled around on his bar seat to face me somewhat.

"Even with ten counters, that's only about 100 votes per person, so it's plenty possible. Besides, the counting process eats up a lot of space. If we had everyone do it, we'd need the gymnasium."

"How's it decided who does the counting?"

"Um..." He crossed his arms and mumbled. "Within the forty-eight members, half of those are the box carriers. They take the ballot boxes to the classrooms and come back with them when the voting's over. Their jobs end after they open the boxes and pour out the votes, so most of them go home when that's over."

"They didn't stay and watch?"

"Some of them did. The Class 1-E freshman was one of the members that stayed, but it's not like any of them are obligated to."

"You said there were also members in charge of the key and box distribution?"

"Two people take care of the box distribution. Like I said earlier, that includes the person who was in charge of distributing the paper ballots."

"Are the boxes already assigned to a specific grade and class from the start?"

"Nope, the boxes were each handed out to whoever was closest in line. The paper ballots were different, though. The students announced what grade and class they were in and then received their respective stack."

In Kamiyama High School, there were approximately forty-three to forty-four students in one class, though of course that number wasn't always consistent. Having too many or not enough ballots were both concerns, so they probably counted the total number of students in each class beforehand. Naturally, there'd be too many voting slips as a result of the students who were absent or had left early, but that surplus itself had nothing to do with the problem of the illegitimate votes cosidering that the total number of votes exceeded the total student body count.

"Is it also the box distributor's job to make the ballots?"

Satoshi tilted his head in thought.

"All I did was oversee the process today, so I don't know. What I can say, though, is that there's no way any one person could make over a thousand ballots. I imagine that there were a number of people that split up the work. They cut the paper and marked it with the election committee president's stamp."

"That stamp's the problem. The illegitimate votes had it too."

"That's right. Just like I said at the start, it'd be simple to forge the ballots."

The only reason this whole debacle became about illegitimate votes in the first place was because they had the president's stamp on them. Had there been nothing on the votes that were mixed in, they'd be accepted simply as random, foreign objects. It was necessary to have made the illegitimate votes ahead of time, so if I think about the culprit in this vein, I might be able to come up with something.

—This was what Satoshi wanted to know. In order to restore the dignity of Class 1-E's John Doe, he didn't want to figure out the culprit's name; he wanted to figure out how the illegitimate votes were mixed in with the rest. Of course, it goes without saying that knowing who the perpetrator was would be ideal, but we had neither a list of names nor the manpower or authority to get one in the first place. The most rational way to go about this seemed to be not trying to do the impossible.

"What about the people in charge of the key?"

"There's only one key, so only one person. He closes all twenty-four locks before the elections and opens all twenty-four after it.

"Sounds like he has a lot of free time."

"He does. Maybe it's the perfect job for you, Houtarou."

I wonder about that. Those kinds of jobs make you wait on standby for an excessively long amount of time precisely because there's so little to do, and on top of that, there's a lot of responsibility involved as a result—sounds like a strange way to waste your energy. I'd want to tap out.

"So, within the forty-eight committee members, twenty-four are box carriers, two are box distributors, one is the key carrier, and ten are counters."

"Aside from those, there's the president, the two vice presidents, and the two members who write stuff on the whiteboards."

"So that leaves 6 people without responsibilities."

"Some people took care of various chores and the clean-up. I don't think they have anything to do with it."

Satoshi leaned up close to me.

"With this, we have a general idea of what all forty-eight people we in charge of. This might be a promising lead."

"Who knows. It might get us nowhere, but our conversation just now proved to be a huge help."

"Oh? Why is that?'

Before me sat a bowl of ramen exuding the sweet fragrance of soy sauce. The noodles were thin and wavy and the broth was the deep, dark color. There were two slices of chashu, two pieces of bamboo, and in the center of the bowl was a thick pile of green, freshly boiled spinach.

"One bowl of ramen!"

I took one of the disposable chopsticks and broke them apart with a clean snap. I gazed down upon the chopsticks, beautifully separated with a clean edge, and responded.

"It helped shorten the wait."

"Go ahead and eat. Don't wait for me."

"Will do."

Thank you very much.

The shop owner wasn't lying when he said we wouldn't regret coming here. There wasn't anything special about it compared to other soy sauce-based ramen, and if anything, it was a bit salty, but it was precisely that aspect of it that made it so satisfying as to befit the dish. I had never seen spinach added as well, but all it took was one bite to make myself wonder why I hadn’t. In addition to that—and I couldn't decide if it was for better or worse—the soup was inexplicably and excessively hot. As Satoshi's wonton ramen came soon after, I exclaimed, "Ouch! That's hot."

"Damn, seriously!" agreed Satoshi in the form of a small cry as he brought the noodles to his lips. He wolfed down around half of it as if in a trance, and then stopped moving his chopsticks to glance furtively at me, looking like he was checking to see if I had slowed down..

"By the way, and this is unrelated, but—"

The noodles were delicious... I've never been this fully aware of the taste of ramen. I don't think it was even the taste itself. Maybe the texture?

"Are you listening?"

"Yeah"

"These wontons are amazing."

"Gimme one."

"Back off. But yeah, did you know? Apparently Chitanda was talking about running for student council president."

My chopsticks stopped for a moment and then resumed.

"News to me."

Satoshi blew on the wontons a couple times to cool them down and then swallowed them in a smooth gulp.

"I guess she was pretty popular back at Inji Middle School, and she's from an important family in Jinde, after all. Her grades are amazing, and she's really likable. Rumor has it that even the head instructor was seeing if she'd run. She made a name for herself during the string of culture festival incidents, and that was only magnified when the news of her participating in the Living Dolls Festival got out. All that's really missing is her club activity track record."

It's probably true that being the Classics Club president didn't do much for you in that department.

"I'm not saying I know everything about her—"

I picked up the hot tangle of noodles and held them over the bowl to cool them naturally.

"—but I don't think she's the kind of person capable of doing what a student council president needs to do, practically speaking."

"It was Mayaka who took the helm with the anthology, too. But that's no different. Some would say that if the president was well liked by others, that'd be enough; all you'd have to do is support them in doing those things."

Something like a decorative portable shrine, huh? It felt like him calling the student council president a purely symbolic entity was something of a joke, but considering we did have the domineering election committee president as an example, I couldn't exactly rule out what he said as being a possibility.

"Well, she ended up not running."

"Yep. Just like you said, Houtarou, apparently Chitanda didn't feel she was the right person for the job. That said, it looks like she was interested in if being the student council president came in handy after graduating."

"Came in handy... like for a recommendation?"

I heard that being a student council president made getting college recommendations simple. Though, I couldn't for the life of me understand why she'd be considering running for president with college entrance exams in mind.

Satoshi chuckled and waved his hands dismissively.

"I doubt it."

"Yeah."

"Apparently it was more along the lines of the experience representing Kamiyama High School helping her when she inherits her family's estate."

I ran out of noodles. I wanted to pick up the bowl and drink the broth, but it was still too hot. I absentmindedly gazed at the owner washing the dishes and the large pot of boiling water.

An heiress, huh? The world she lives in is so far removed from that of common sense. Even though I've come to bear witness to the circumstances that have enveloped her, even now, I can’t fully grasp it. When I try, I can't help but be astounded that something like that exists in this day and age. To Chitanda, however, that very word, "heiress," was her reality.

"Yeah..." muttered Satoshi with soft indifference as he slurped down the wonton ramen, "I wonder what I should be."

After a second failed attempt to pick up the bowl due to its combined weight and heat, I spotted some spoons next to the pepper shaker. I took one immediately and scooped up a mouthful.

"How about a lawyer?"

"A lawyer?"

Satoshi's voice burst out crazily as if someone had told him there was a mythical creature nearby.

"Haha, where the heck did that idea come from?"

The ramen in this shop has certainly piqued my interest. I'd have to try the wonton ramen next time if that's what it did to Satoshi. I had scooped up so much broth that it looked like it'd easily flow over the edge of the spoon, so I tilted it back and forth to empty it a little.

"'Cause you're a hero in the shadows."

"According to you..."

"A lawyer was just the first thing that came to mind. If not that... then how about a hitman? Striking down evildoers with a single blow under the veil of the night."

"Ha... ha..."

With a dry laugh, Satoshi returned to his wonton noodles. We had been eating at pretty much the same pace, but he still had his rice left. It looked like we'd be here a while longer.

A pair of flushed faced men in business suits walked into the shop that formerly only had the two of us. The owner called out, "Welcome!" Likely drunk, the men yelled in purposely obnoxious voices:

"Two bowls o' ramen!"

"An' two pints. Ya have any snacks?"

I felt like I heard Satoshi mumble something amidst the instantly lively shop interior.

"I hadn't considered that option... Interesting."

I wonder if I had inadvertently brought a hitman into this world.

Part 5

As we left the shop, the lukewarm breeze of a June night blew by, gently rocking the red paper lantern back and forth. Satoshi had tried to pay for my meal, calling it a consultation fee, but I shot down his attempt. A consultation fee... can you believe it?! The nerve of this guy sometimes. This part of him wasn't good in the slightest. It was a good thing I had the foresight to stash away a couple thousand yen notes before coming.

The loose change in my shirt pocket clinked delicately together with every movement I made. Satoshi looked all around him and then peered down at his watch.

"It's gotten pretty late. I guess we should head home soon. Sorry for calling you out at a time like this."

"I don't mind. I mean, all I have to do at home is wash all the dishes and the entire bathroom."

"You're mad, aren't you..."

"Not at all. If we're going back, could you walk me home? It's too scary to go alone."

This joke went over surprisingly well with him.

This last April, Satoshi found himself visiting my house due to an unexpected series of events. It wasn't like he made any more visits after that, so I imagine he wouldn't remember the exact streets to take in order to get there, but I'm sure he knew the approximate direction.

"Okay, let's go, then," he said, starting to walk before I did.

It looked like it'd be a pretty easy walk to my house from the ramen shop using the sidewalk along the wide road. The soft glow of the streetlights brought the vivid lights of winter to my mind and caused me to remember the ever encroaching summer. A small police car drove by along the traffic-less street, and although it gave me a small scare, it continued by without stopping to reprimand us for being out so late.

"I've been thinking," I started to say, "no matter how much I try to imagine when it was possible for someone to put in the illegitimate votes, I always find myself at a dead end. Due to the fact that the boxes were examined, I can't possibly imagine that the ballots were set there in advance. Besides, any box that had forty more ballots added to it would easily stand out from the rest and splitting that across ten ballot boxes would require a lot of help."

Although I was merely repeating what Satoshi had told me earlier, he nodded back in earnest.

"Exactly. I can't get any further than that."

"Then we have no choice but to change our approach."

From where did the votes that exceeded the total student body count come from?

At what point were they mixed in?

Suddenly, Satoshi blurted out, "I see."

"This is just a guess, but what if the ballots were on the table from the very beginning?"

"Really?"

That theory of mine was all it took to tragically deflate Satoshi's enthusiasm.

"No, that'd be impossible," he continued. "Of course, that's as long as if there weren't any unseen ballots on the publicly scrutinized table."

"I doubt there were any unseen ballots. What if there was an unseen committee member, however?"

Satoshi scrunched his eyes.

"You mind if I ask what the heck you're talking about?"

"Not at all."

The sidewalk crossed in the front of an abandoned gas station. The desolate appearance of the concrete structure's unoccupied vastness invited a strange feeling of unease.

"From what I've heard so far about the election process, there are two big flaws. If I took advantage of them, I'm pretty sure even I'd be able to mix in some illegitimate votes."

Although I assumed he was going to say something, Satoshi was dead silent. Maybe he was trying not to interrupt. Whatever the case, I continued.

"The first one was the checkpoint for the committee members who were bringing back their ballot boxes from the classrooms. After that was the confirmation by multiple people to make sure that the boxes were empty and that the ballots were bundled in exact groups of twenty. However, the verification for each returning member's 'grade and class' wasn't done in the same way. If what you said was correct, then that part of the process was done by the individual."

According to Satoshi, the committee members trickle back into the room and check off their grade and class on a list to show who had already returned.

"The paper they marked likely only listed the class names with a circle or cross or whatever next to them. Although it's the same election administration committee, I doubt they all remember each other's faces. Had even I, hypothetically speaking, gone to the council room with the Class 2-A box and checked off my class, I probably wouldn't attract much suspicion."

Satoshi's low mumbling voice seemed stuck in his throat.

"You might be right about that, Houtarou... Sure enough, no one confirmed that the person who left with a certain box was the same person who arrived with it."

"The ballots are the important part, however. Strictly speaking, it doesn't matter who carries the boxes; that has no bearing on the election. The class list was also only for the express purpose of making sure that all of the boxes had returned."

"That's true," Satoshi nodded, deep in thought. "The ballots are the important part. This flaw that you pointed out is by no means minor, but it still doesn't answer the question behind when someone could have added the illegitimate votes."

"That's when the second flaw becomes important."

I tried to imagine what took place today after school, when, before the elections, the election committee members received their boxes—sturdily constructed boxes made of worn, amber-colored wood.

"You said that the boxes weren't assigned to any class in particular before handing them out."

"Yeah, I did."

Earlier, he had told me they were each handed out to whoever was closest in line.

"Is that a problem?" he continued.

"Distributing the boxes randomly isn't a problem in and of itself. The same thing goes for having the committee members check themselves in after returning to the council room. If you combine the two, however, what do you think would happen?"

Satoshi crossed his arms and stared up at the cloudy sky as he silently walked. He was about to collide with a telephone pole, so I tugged on his sleeve to move him out of the way.

"So what you're saying, Houtarou, is that one of the students who returned to the council room with a box might not have been an election committee member? I'm not so sure that has anything to do with the boxes being randomly distributed, though..."

"You're a little off. That's not what I meant to say."

It wasn't like I was trying to quiz Satoshi or anything, so there was no point in withholding the answer. The reason I repeated my question was so I could say everything properly in order without having it end up convoluted in my head.

"What I meant was: the election system wouldn't be able to account for the votes, even if a student who wasn't an election committee member carried in a box that wasn't assigned to any classes."

After a moment of bewilderment, Satoshi's eyes grew wide.

"Unbelievable, Houtarou, that's not simple to pull off, you know?"

According to my understanding of the Kamiyama High School student council president elections as Satoshi had explained it, there were countless measures in place to prevent the mismanagement and incorrect counting of the ballots. If you assume, however, that a fake election committee member brought a fake ballot box, there were no countermeasures to stand in his way.

"Wait, hold on." Satoshi threw out his opened hand, palm facing me. "Isn't that a little strange? It's true that the election committee members don't have armbands or anything like that, so it'd be pretty easy to pose as one, but what would they do about a box? I don't know how long they've been in use, but I know for certain that they're old. They're not the kind of thing you could whip up overnight. If a student came in with some generic, old box, it'd be difficult not to notice."

He paused for a little and then continued.

"Moreover, it'd also be bad to assume that the culprit stealthily carried his ballot box into the room, added the illegitimate votes into the mix, and then left as if it didn't concern him. After they're completely emptied, the ballot boxes are collected and then piled up in the council room. It's impossible to get away with something like that unless you have a proper box."

"That's right. Essentially, as long as there was a box aside from the twenty-four used in this year's election—an amber-colored box with a lock and the words "ballot box" written along its side—it'd be possible."

"Where would you find a box like that?"

Where? Well...

"Probably in the storage room on the first floor of the special wing."

After all, that's where the ballot boxes were supposedly kept.

Wearing a visibly irritated expression, Satoshi stamped his feet on the ground with every step he took.

"That's where we had the boxes for this year's election—not your supposed ones."

I also grew irritated. Who's to say that there were only exactly twenty-four ballot boxes in the storage room? Why wasn't it getting through to him? As I thought this, it suddenly dawned on me. I see. It wasn't Satoshi's fault he didn't understand. These were family matters.

"A postcard came for my sister."

"Wha—" Satoshi stared at me, dumbfounded by the sudden change in conversation. "Oh, yeah. Uh, how's she been doing?"

"Good. Thanks for asking. She went back to college, so she's not home at the moment, and yet a postcard arrived at the house for her. What a hassle. I'm going to have to leave it in a place I remember until she gets back."

"Why don't you just forward it to her...?"

The shock convulsed throughout my entire body. Of course, it was all so simple. Why don't I just forward it to her? How did I not see it before?

"Houtarou?"

"Oh, sorry. I was just a bit surprised. Getting back to the subject at hand, that postcard was a notice about her class reunion."

Satoshi looked unsatisfied, as if wanting to ask how mentioning that was getting back to the subject at hand.

"Um, listen..."

"It was for class 3-I."

A large RV, blasting energetic hip hop from its windows, drove past us. Satoshi opened up both of his hands in front of him and started to fold his fingers down one-by-one. A, B, C, D...

"So that's what it was. Nine classes..."

I nodded.

"Kamiyama High School having eight classes per grade is something that's only the case right now. Previously, it had nine classes, and possibly at some other point, it even had ten. It's possible that next year it'll have seven classes, and eventually six after that."

"I see. It was so obvious. The number of students... number of children is changing, but the school continues to exist as is."

We recognized ourselves as existing in Kamiyama High School. That wasn't incorrect, strictly speaking, but the thing was, however, the school continued to exist without a single regard for our existences. There was a point at which there were nine classes in a single grade, and that time had student council elections as well. Judging by the ballot box's worn state, it'd be safe to assume they've used those boxes all the way since then.

I can’t imagine they'd throw away the extra box. It was possible, after all, that Kamiyama would once again enter an age of nine classes per grade.

"In the storage room on the first floor of the special wing sleep the ballot boxes from an age when there more students than there are now. The culprit knew that, took one of the boxes, put the illegitimate votes in it, posed as an election committee member, and then carried it to the council room."

"He didn't write anything on the list of class names. Although the box should've been locked, and it had to have been opened by the key the election committee member was in charge of."

"There's only one key after all. It makes sense that all the boxes would be opened by the same one. Check the pile of ballot boxes in the council room first thing tomorrow, and if there are indeed twenty-five, that'll be your proof. There was no time to return it, after all."

If you were to realize that extra ballot boxes existed as a relic of Kamiyama's past, it wasn't all that difficult to see through the trick behind the illegitimate votes. Because I had an older sister who came from the same school, I was able to see Kamiyama High School as yet another thing in within the flow of time, however for Satoshi, who only had a younger sister, he was late to realize that fact. That's all there was to it, but even then, it left a bad taste in my mouth. Even though I thought I would've been already all too familiar with the passage of time, it was almost as if I were being told, "Maybe you don't truly understand the meaning behind it after all."

"I was too fixated on what was in the box... Something was missing,” Satoshi muttered under his breath.

I shrugged in response to his strangely contemplative comment, and the movement caused the coins in my shirt pocket to clink delicately together.

Part 6

From what he told me later on, Satoshi informed the general committee president of the hypothesis we put together that same night, and the president told the election administration committee president in turn. It seemed that the election committee president was suspicious of the freshman from Class 1-E all the way to the bitter end, but because they did in fact count twenty-five boxes in the council room, by then, he stopped being so obstinate.

The hole in the system was sealed and the election held once again, resulting in Seiichirou Tsunemitsu stepping up to assume the position as the new student council vice president. In his acceptance speech, given over a schoolwide broadcast during lunch, there wasn't a single mention of that trouble that had previously transpired.

We don't know who casted the illegitimate votes. In the words of Satoshi himself, "Figuring that out is the election committee's job. I have nothing to do with it."

I was wholly in agreement.

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6: Even Though I'm Told I Now Have Wings