THE CASE OF THE THIRTEEN CAPTAINS
In the day that followed the attempted murder of Vice-Captain Hinamori and the arrest of Captain Hitsugaya, it seemed that a darkness lay heavily upon Seireitai. Even my Captain drank his wine with an air of bitter frustration and stern effort. As for those more closely affected by the affair -- Vice-Captain Matsumoto, for instance, who trembled with frustration at not being able to assist her Captain, or the Vice-Captains Abarai and Kira, who had known Hinamori in her youth and remained her dedicated friends and colleagues -- their anger and vexation hung like a storm upon the air.
Captain Unohana called my Captain to her side. Naturally, I accompanied him.
"It may be pure supposition on my part," she began, her marble brow barely touched by the shadow of a frown, "but I believe that someone is attempting to assassinate Hinamori."
My Captain's eyes widened, then narrowed. I was reminded of those moments when the first light of the morning sun would strike him as he lay groaning upon the floor, though on this occasion he did not whimper piteously for mercy. "Now what makes you say that, Retsu-chan?"
Captain Unohana, her lips tightening slightly, stepped back to reveal a table covered with various bouquets, boxes of chocolates, flasks of wine, bunches of grapes, shoujo manga, and fluffy teddybears. "Poisoned," she said, smacking down my Captain's hand as he reached automatically for the wine. "All of them."
I gasped. "But who could have delivered so many things without being noticed?"
Both Captains gave me an approving nod. "You have put your finger on it precisely, Vice-Captain Ise," Captain Unohana stated. "None of Fourth Division have been able to pinpoint who left these at Hinamori's door. A few of them gave confused and contradictory stories of seeing various different people leave them -- Captains, Vice-Captains, and others -- but in all those cases, the person involved was elsewhere at the time and could substantiate their alibi. Despite the most strenuous of questioning -- up to and including my own Vice-Captain -- I have been unable to determine who is responsible for these."
"What poison is it?" my Captain asked.
Captain Unohana shrugged. "A wide variety, but including the one which was used in the attempt to poison Captain Ukitake earlier."
My Captain frowned thoughtfully. "Can you keep this quiet for the moment, Retsu-chan? Possibly even put it around that Momo-chan's doing worse?"
"Easily enough," Captain Unohana agreed. "I will simply have all her friends thrown out of my Division, board up her window, order a coffin, and inform my subordinates that they are on no account to tell people that she is on the brink of death. That should do the job."
"I see." My Captain nodded. "I'll, ah, leave you to your work."
The Captain of Fourth Division smiled gently. "Thank you for your assistance, Kyouraku. I shall remember this next time you call on me for hangover remedies. Now if you will excuse me, I must release my Vice-Captain from her chains."
My Captain led the way out with admirable vigour.
Back in his office, he flung himself down in his chair and brooded, hands folded upon his chest, hat tilted over his face. Accustomed to his changeable moods, I made to leave the office, but he halted me with one upraised finger.
"Sir?" I queried.
He frowned. "Nanao-chan, I need a list of all the books that Hitsugaya recently withdrew from the Archives. Also everything that anyone's withdrawn for, oh, the last year. And while you're at it, have those books of Hitsugaya's been returned yet?"
I cast my mind back. "I do not think so, sir. Indeed, I believe that was one of the things which he was raving about from behind the bars of his cell. He was hideously tormented by the thought of library fines."
"I see. In that case -- can you, hm. Find them, hide them elsewhere in Hitsugaya's library, and parcel up some others for Rangiku to return instead, in such a way that it looks like her fault?"
"Sir," I began. "I --"
He raised an eyebrow.
"-- will be back in a moment," I declared.
Five minutes later I had the data he wanted. Flash Step methodology is sadly limited by those who exploit it solely for combat purposes. Positioning Rangiku's wine bottles on top of the books for her to return was an established method for drawing her attention to things, and I could be confident that she would send them back to the Archives in error. After concealing the Archive volumes amid a complete set of Your Zanpakutou And You: A New User's Guide, I returned to my Captain with a feeling of conscious virtue, and firmly removed the winecup from his hand.
"Ah." He regarded the stack of papers with less than obvious enthusiasm. "Well done, Nanao-chan. Now, firstly I am going to have to go through these, and then secondly . . . hm. Perhaps we should reconsider this. Firstly, you are going to go through these and let me know precisely who has been borrowing the books which Hitsugaya has lately been taking out. And secondly, we are going to split up. There will be two different targets to guard."
"Sir?" I queried.
"Firstly, Rangiku-chan. It is possible that our attempted murderer will assume she is deliberately concealing the books. Probable, in fact. Secondly, Hitsugaya's office."
"It would make more sense, sir," I said without much hope, "for Matsumoto to be in the company of a female fellow officer."
My Captain raised himself to one elbow and looked upon me with horror. "Nanao-chan! How could I possibly expose you to the dens of vice and alcohol which Rangiku-chan frequents?"
"But you go there yourself, sir," I pointed out.
"Precisely," he declared, "which is why I know just how inappropriate for you they would be. Now. Research, research." He waved a vague hand at the documents.
I sat down and began to go through the data.
Half an hour later, I coughed loudly to rouse my Captain from his sleep. He sat up with instant vigour and wakefulness, muttering something about is it dawn already, Jyushirou, which I am quite certain that I did not hear.
"Sir," I informed him, "I have some results."
"Ah." He leaned his elbows on his knees and regarded me intently. "Say on, Nanao-chan."
I adjusted my notes. "Of the books and scrolls which Hitsugaya borrowed, a high percentage were also borrowed by Captain Unohana, Captain Tousen, Captain Kurotsuchi, and Captain Ukitake."
My Captain sank back onto the couch. "Exactly as I expected."
I leaned forward, concerned. "Sir, surely you cannot mean that one of those could possibly be the criminal?" A thought struck me. "Well, of course Captain Kurotsuchi could easily be a criminal of the most appalling and depraved type, but --"
He waved a finger at me. "My Nanao-chan, trust me when I say that I believe I finally know what is going on. The only reason that I do not tell you my full deductions on the matter is that . . ."
"Because you fear that I am not a good actor and would give it away," I suggested.
"Of course not," he said firmly.
"Or because you are concerned that we are being observed or listened to at this very moment?"
"I do hope not." His eyes softened darkly as he regarded me. My spine stiffened in response.
"Or because you still have several possibilities in mind and are still waiting for evidence before you declare that you were certain all along."
"How can you suspect such a thing of me? But leaving that aside," he said hastily, "let us establish our plans to lie in wait for the criminal."
It was night, and I lay concealed within the rafters of Tenth Division.
After a somewhat complex arrangement in which I had apparently chastised my Captain for incomplete reports until he went off drinking with Vice-Captain Matsumoto -- an entirely unthinkable state of affairs, as I would certainly never let him go off drinking with the reports incomplete -- he had staged a public exit, while I had theoretically returned to Eighth Division for the night. However, careful use of kidou and a certain amount of climbing had allowed me to crawl into the junction-space between ceiling and roof, and I now lay there and endeavoured not to sneeze.
Accompanying Matsumoto to dens of vice and iniquity had never seemed so enticing.
My Captain had been sure that whoever was behind this would seize the opportunity to enter by stealth tonight, with Hitsugaya and Matsumoto so conveniently out of the way, and I could not argue with his logic. I had cast a quick eye over the books in question to examine their relevance, but could find little that seemed of use in such volumes as Arrancar: A Creator's Guide, Vizored: How To Make Your Own At Home, or Meddling With Mod Souls, all by one Urahara Kisuke.
There was the sound of quiet footsteps in the corridor. I lay there silently, watching through the loophole which I had contrived in the ceiling.
Matsumoto Rangiku stepped into the room.
How irritating. She must have managed to free herself from my Captain's clutches (a matter which can prove fraught with difficulty) and returned to complete some work. But even as I formulated that thought, it struck me how very unlikely such a thing was. After all, how often did Matsumoto return voluntarily to work, let alone late at night? And what was the likelihood of her doing so when alcohol was involved?
She scanned the shelves quickly, the moonlight streaming through the window turning her hair a beautiful shade of silver-gold. Her eyes fell on the books which I had returned to their position, and I heard a quick intake of breath. She leaned forward, bosom swaying, to remove the books.
Surely not. Surely it could not be the case that my colleague and friend, Matsumoto Rangiku, was behind all of this?
There were two possibilities. Either it was the case that Matsumoto Rangiku was a traitor and attempted murderer, or this was someone cunningly disguised as Matsumoto Rangiku. No doubt a wig and a false bosom would cover many of the parts of her anatomy which I could see from my location in the ceiling -- as, after all, Matsumoto Rangiku had a bosom that few in Seireitai could match. All I needed to do was leap down and wrench these away in order to uncover the criminal's true identity.
She straightened and turned around to put the books on Captain Hitsugaya's desk.
It was the perfect moment. In a single lithe motion I leapt down from my position in the ceiling, and as she spun round I wrenched open the impostor's robe to expose the deceitful imposture.
I was forced to admit, at that moment, that they certainly looked real. However, even the most skilful of visual illusions could not deceive the physical sense of touch. I grasped what lay in front of me, intending to prove its falseness before taking the criminal into custody.
"Nanao," gasped the person whose bosom felt strangely real to my fingers, "I never knew you felt this way." Her arms closed round me, trapping me against her, and her mouth descended on mine.
There was a cough from the door. "If I'm not disturbing anything --" my Captain's voice broke in.
I stamped down hard on the foot of the person who was embracing me, and broke free while she was squawking. "Captain!" I declared. "Arrest this person! She is not Matsumoto Rangiku!"
My Captain hesitated, eyes drawn as though magnetically to the impostor's open robe. "But, Nanao-chan, she certainly looks like Rangiku-chan . . ."
"Impossible," I stated firmly. "Matsumoto Rangiku would never bother embracing me while," and I pointed, "there is an untouched bottle of wine on the desk there!"
For a moment all was silent.
Then a flash of light came through the barred window. I stood there, confused, as it seemed to fling my Captain across the room, casting him to the floor. In that long moment of terrible silence as he lay there with a long gasp, dark blood staining his pink flowered robe, I saw the full mechanics of Hinamori's attempted murder; the long blade, now retracting through the gaps in the window's bars, could only have belonged to one man in Seireitai. Captain Ichimaru Gin.
But all this was lost as I flung myself to my knees beside my Captain, my eyes fixed on the stain spreading across his robe. How could I now face the remainder of my days in Seireitai without him? How could I live without the best, the wisest man I had ever known? How could I . . . Tears welled in my eyes as I bent over him, uncaring alike of the fiend with the sword outside, and the imposter standing before us.
"My Nanao-chan . . ." he whispered, one hand coming up to touch my face. "Don't cry . . ."
I looked up at the tall figure standing over us. "Who are you?" I demanded, my hand sliding within my robe to grasp my blade. "I warn you, whoever you are and however you have disguised yourself, you will pay for this!"
The impostor laughed, and as she did, her body and face changed to those of a man: Captain Aizen stood there, his blade drawn and lying against my throat. "I fear, Ise Nanao, that you will not have the opportunity."
I gasped. "Captain Aizen!"
"Indeed," he said calmly. "I must congratulate you and your soon-to-be-late Captain on his deductions. It must have taken great skill to penetrate my disguise and realise my true identity and track me here. Few would have the ability to pierce the veils of illusion in which I shroud myself."
My Captain gasped, his breath barely audible. "Then -- the appearance of Rangiku . . ."
"An illusion, yes."
"The bosom . . ."
"Using Momo-chan . . . to poison Ukitake and Hitsugaya-kun by telling her that it was a cough medicine or something of the sort . . ."
"The books from the Archive . . ."
Captain Aizen smiled. "It has been a worthwhile experience to exert myself against you, Captain Kyouraku. You have a full understanding of what has taken place. But I fear that the game is now at an end."
His hand tightened on his zanpakutou hilt, and I realised that my death was at hand.
In a swirl of blades my Captain came to his feet, as swift and sure as though he had never been wounded; his twin zanpakutou slipped from their sheaths to block Captain Aizen's own blade before it could cut me down. He stood between me and the criminal in a flowing motion whose smoothness could only excite my stunned admiration, and I must confess that it was not until that moment that I realised that the smell emanating from his stained wound had not been the odour of blood, but had instead been the fragrance of triple-matured plum wine.
"I don't think so," he said.
Aizen blinked, taken aback. His free hand moved to straighten his glasses. "Kyouraku? But --"
"Not only have you attempted to poison my friend," my Captain intoned darkly, "and succeeded in poisoning another Captain -- not only have you used and attempted to murder an innocent girl -- but your assistant managed to puncture the flask of wine I keep for emergencies. Sousuke-kun, I am most disappointed in you."
In a blink of motion Captain Aizen vanished, retreating outside via flash step methodology. In a second blink, my Captain and I followed him, each stepping to one side as we came out of the Divisional door to avoid the flash of steel that would have impaled us had we been a second slower.
"Looks like Ichimaru's still watching," my Captain said cheerfully.
Captain Aizen faced us, his zanpakutou still drawn. "I hope you do not think that you can win this, Kyouraku."
There was a crash from a nearby roof, and a great many flashes of extremely gaudy and public lightning.
"Actually, I do." My Captain smiled. "Tell me, would you back Ichimaru against Jyushirou? Because I don't believe that I would."
I frowned. While my Captain's confidence was no doubt justified, and his bringing assistance could only be applauded, I felt that we might have difficulty in taking Captain Aizen into custody. Not only was he a dangerous opponent, whose charming reluctance to engage in public combat against other Captains meant that he no doubt had unsuspected depths, but his ability to masquerade as other people possibly covered a wider facility with illusions. How, indeed, could we assume that the apparent Captain Aizen standing there conveniently in public view was actually --
What was so important that Captain Aizen had been prepared to risk everything to come back and get it?
I had total confidence in my Captain's ability to grasp my thoughts and to react to my actions. Without hesitation, I turned to face back into the office that we had just left, and began the incantation for the Flame Cannon kidou, my hands raised to target the desk and the library.
Twin gusts of wind knocked me to one side as Captain Aizen flung himself past me into the room, and my Captain followed him. There was a thunderclap of detonation as the two of them, tangled together in a firm grip -- that is, Captain Aizen had a firm grip on the books, and my Captain had a firm grip on him -- burst through the wall on the opposite side, tumbling together across the street on the other side, in a whirl of tearing clothing and muscular action. I followed apace, speeding after them, to come to a halt as they faced each other, regaining their feet -- except that they were now both the same. It seemed that two copies of my Captain faced each other, identical alike in muscular build and pink robes, each maintaining a grip on the other's clothing.
(The straw hat, it seemed, had come loose somewhere in the tussle.)
"Nanao-chan!" one of them ordered. "Stay back!"
No doubt this was how he had attempted to send poisoned items in to Hinamori Momo, disguised under a similar illusion. But how was I to tell the difference between the two? The physical likeness was visually perfect, down to the smallest detail of my Captain's carefully tended stubble, as was the scent of wine, and I could only assume that were I to touch him, I would find the same tactile precision that I had undergone while testing his imposture of Rangiku -- just as her plump yet yielding breasts had swayed within my hands, so similarly I would no doubt encounter firm yet supple muscles under these circumstances.
Ah. Of course. There were certain reflexes which no sufferer could ignore, certain habits which are programmed into so many of us once we have become accustomed to our daily life. With a few murmured words, I activated the kidou for a light fog. It swirled around the scene, dimming the buildings around us to shadows, and clung to my clothing moistly. The two Captains still stood there, focus tightly on each other.
"Nanao-chan --" the other began.
And it was at that moment that I saw it in the Captain who had first spoken -- the fatal compulsion, the habitual twitch only known to the lifelong wearer of spectacles, the suppressed movement of a hand to wipe at smeared glasses. Without a word of warning, I launched my most powerful binding kidou at him. He shrugged it off, of course, but the fraction of distraction was sufficient for my own Captain to bring him to the floor and subdue him, a knee on his chest and hands locked round his throat.
It was with a heart free from care that I wiped my own glasses, and summoned Second Division to take Captain Aizen into custody.
On the following day, my Captain once more reclined in his office, having received the assembled plaudits of the Gotei 13, and regarded the piles of work on his desk with an air of serene confidence. "My beautiful Nanao-chan," he began, "no doubt you are wondering what the motivations of the two Captains were."
"Indeed, sir," I agreed. "I find myself uncertain why Captain Ukitake was targeted."
My Captain waved a careless hand. "Sousuke-kun knew that Jyushirou would offer the plums to Hitsugaya-kun. The plot was targeted at him all along. He persuaded Momo-chan that they were in fact soaked in cough medicine, and tempted her to offer them anonymously as a gift. Of course, once the poor girl realised what had been done, her days were numbered. He attempted to murder her while simultaneously incriminating Hitsugaya once again."
This had indeed been confirmed by the awakened Hinamori Momo, who had recovered from her coma. She was appalled by the cruel manipulation which her Captain had inflicted upon her, and her constant entreaties to be allowed to "talk to him in private" were sympathised with by those guarding his cell, but could not be condoned, no matter how frequently she swore that she really wasn't going to pound his head through the wall and do something unspeakable with a pair of pruning shears.
Captain Hitsugaya had, of course, returned to duty with Matsumoto's support. I had not been able to confess to her how Aizen Sousuke had taken on her appearance, as I did not want to outrage her modesty with descriptions of how he had allowed himself to be stripped and then taken me in his arms while clothed (or rather, unclothed) in her appearance. Fortunately, she was too busy assisting her Captain to ask for details on this point.
"And what is to be done about the two Captains, sir?" I inquired.
My Captain adjusted his hat. "Currently under heavy guard in the Tower of Penitence, watched by Second Division, restrained, collared, and chained. I think we need have no fear, since the last escape under such conditions a hundred years ago by Urahara Kisuke was surely an aberration."
His words relieved my pressing concern concerning the potential for escape. "In that case, sir, concerning your outstanding reports . . ."
He gazed up at me with a pained expression. "My Nanao-chan, I have just saved Seireitai, foiled two murderers, and resolved a case which has baffled the greatest minds of Soul Society!"
"Precisely, sir," I said crisply, "which is why I was attempting to inform you that I have completed them for you and they require only your signature."
His fond gaze lingered upon me. "And might my Nanao-chan pour me a little wine as well?"
"Alas, sir," I said without regret, "Captain Yamamoto awaits your attention in the main room, with what I believe is a new case that requires investigation."
In a swirl of robes my Captain rose to his feet and bounded to the door. Naturally, I followed him.