The Last Dictator
The halls of Las Noches lay bleached in fire and blood. One could scarcely believe that less than two weeks ago, the very same structure had been a spotless testament to the genius of Sosuke Aizen. Hollows from all over Hueco Mundo flocked to his banner in the interest of self-preservation, a desire for the power he promised or even the primordial awe of a man like that descending into such a dead, blighted world.
Those same Hollows lay in so many pieces, the few that hadn't vanished. For all of Aizen's meticulousness, he had failed to consider just how deep the iron-wrought vein of dogged determination ran in Genryusai Shigekuni Yamamoto.
Cooler heads had not prevailed in Soul Society. Not even two weeks had passed since Aizen's elaborate betrayal and the armies of the Thirteen Guard Squads spilled across the spiritual border for his blood. Yamamoto could have waited. He could have taken a step back to assess the situation and plan accordingly.
The allure of the blitzkrieg won out. Caution and consideration only went so far in strengthening Soul Society, too long and it would play into Aizen's adroit hands. His course was clear. Set foot in the place where even Reapers feared to tread. Smash the traitors and the blasphemers before they had a chance to build the army of perfected Arrancar that hung over the Soul Society's collective head.
So Yamamoto had moved to decapitate the Arrancar army before the guillotine could fall. He who showed his hand first was not assured victory by any means, but fortune favored the bold.
Time, the old man felt, would vindicate him.
The invasion of Hueco Mundo was not a thing to take lightly. The option had been considered before, in the infancy of Soul Society's martial history, only to be quickly discarded as a fool's errand. A Reaper garrison in the wastes would only last so long before the native fauna overwhelmed them, while contributing a force any larger would leave the Society and the living world woefully undefended. The Soul Reapers could never hope to hold Hueco Mundo, which was why the blitz seduced Yamamoto so easily.
He had no illusions about the long term. This battle wouldn't end the Reaper-Hollow conflict. All of the strain and effort, all the military maneuvers—they were all the means of carrying out the afterlife's most elaborate assassination. It may have struck some petty, but what was the alternative? Staying his hand so that successive generations might learn Soul Society's justice was ponderous and cumbersome?
Yamamoto scoffed at the notion, would sooner die than allow that to pass. Ironic he had said that, given the nature of the operation.
But history would be kind to him in this decision, he knew.
History would not be kind to the three serpents who had made Las Noches their nest. That assumed history would remember them at all. Yamamoto was not a man to whitewash history, feeling that the past was past. He saw no reason to hide from his mistakes.
The man before him, on the other hand, did nothing but conceal his shortcomings.
The Thirteen Divisions struck while the iron was still hot, while Aizen had little more than pseudo-Arrancar and conventional Hollows to send against them. It wouldn't be a simple affair by any means, but Yamamoto would gladly take a patchwork resistance over an army of picture perfect Arrancar. The Reapers had been killing Hollows for so long that it ran in the blood. The common Hollow couldn't touch the seated officers. The occasional Menos did more harm in reputation than in deed. The botched Arrancar were barely worth a Lieutenant's time.
"Kaname Tousen," he spoke the name plainly, gravely. There was no reason to let his voice flow with contempt or scorn, as showing him that kind of consideration would be admitting he was worth anything more than a notch on his belt. Yet he would not, could not ignore all the man had done.
"Yamamoto," for his part, the blind ex-Captain nodded faintly in recognition. "I had not expected you to come to this place in person."
"This ends tonight, Tousen." His voice was matter-of-fact. No so much as a single notch could be found in his stony countenance, no weakness or handhold for a man like Tousen. "It is only fitting that it should end by my hand."
In the next room, beyond the great double doors that Tousen barred with his own person, the man who would be God lay dying.
Spires grew taller as the distance between his armies and the fortress-city shrunk. The fighting became uglier. Well-sculpted, almost-human things greeted the Reapers. A boxer held the Captain of the Eleventh at bay until he made the mistake of goading Zaraki into removing his eye patch. The blood-crazed Captain took the opportunity to shear him in half.
"I cannot allow that," Tousen stiffened visibly but had yet to draw his sword.
"Why do you persist in this foolishness?" Yamamoto's cane lay planted in its perennial place. Nothing moved or stirred, less a man than a statue.
"I cannot allow you to kill him." Tousen almost seemed to scoff. It should have been obvious. "This is the path of least bloodshed."
Yamamoto slit his eyes, daggers. "Is it?"
A harpy swooped through the skies, guffawing with malicious mirth. Captain Hitsugaya of the Tenth, long since tired of her dive bombing campaign, rose to the skies to greet her on the frigid wings of Daiguren Hyorinmaru. For all her boasts, he sent her plummeting toward the unforgiving sands within a tomb of ice.
"Don't try to sway me, old man." Tousen's voice resonated throughout the chamber, a blade.
"I have no need for such a thing." He didn't. "I would never have you by my side again, not after the things you have done. But I would have you see the errors of ways." Any other man might have made a remark about the hopelessness of Tousen seeing much of anything, but it went unsaid. Neither expected to move the other with anything more than power and spirit-steel.
"There is no mistake here, only the righteousness that you would destroy."
"Where is your righteousness, Tousen? Is it in the Lieutenants you and your comrades betrayed? Can I find it in blood you spilled for your master?"
"It is here!" Suzumushi leapt from its sheathe toward the old Reaper's throat.
Might makes right, then? That was something the old warrior could understand. There was no greater master of that discipline than Genryusai Shigekuni Yamamoto.
A windy baron held the entirety of the Second Division at bay with tornado gusts and blustery bravado. His dominion went unchallenged until a slight, young thing in a Captain's robe stepped forward to cut his lecture short with just two blows.
Suzumushi shrieked as it met Ryujin Jakka in its patient might. The old man had not even set his sword ablaze and Tousen's sword already wept for the flames.
"This is not a battle you can win."
"Justice never relents or retreats. How can I?" Even as he said it, he leapt away, giving his blade a chance to collect itself.
"You speak of justice, Kaname Tousen." He regarded the young man as a professor to student. "Tell me what you know of justice."
The blind man's face clouded in momentary confusion. Was this some sort of trick?
"Justice is not something for you or I," Yamamoto rumbled, taking his silence as silent consent to proceed. "We may observe justice being done, perhaps even carry it out if we are lucky, but we are not allowed to decide when justice is convenient, when we want to follow it." He gave the younger man a meaningful look, even if there was no hope it would be seen. "To think otherwise is a vanity."
A one-eyed ogre went shrieking through the Eighth Division with a bloody wail, even wounding its Captain with his strangely crescent-shaped blade, before Komamura dropped the blade of his towering bankai on the creature's skull.
"So says the tyrant." Tousen uttered the word like an obscenity. A moment later, his put his lips to work on something far different. "Way of Destruction #33: Blue Fire, Crash Down."
"You say it as if it's something to be ashamed of." Yamamoto didn't even feign concern as he swept his sword through the azure inferno, shattering and scattering it in countless directions. Each flam flickered and guttered in futility before finally fading into the cool night that lounged over Hueco Mundo.
"Of course it is! There is no glory in fascism."
"I agree," the old man sighed, thinking of all the Quincy that had died by his sword and his word. "But it is a necessary evil."
"There is no such thing."
"You are so young."
Shunsui Kyouraku faced him to spare his friend the trauma. He wore Kaien's face, a fact that he viciously exploited in his confrontations with the Thirteenth Division. Jushiro Ukitake had enough of that man's blood on his hands. Perhaps it would have been better if he had let his old friend bear that burden.
Tousen forced himself not to grind his teeth. "Don't pretend that age is synonymous with wisdom. There are few more decrepit than you, old Captain, and you fell under Aizen's spell easier than anyone."
There was truth in that.
"Better a fool than a blind man." He silenced the retort burning on his opponent's lips. "So that there is no mistake, mark my words: You are as blind in spirit as you are in body. You have allowed Aizen to take you by the hand and lead you down a path far from your precious path of least bloodshed."
"Nonsense," Tousen changed his stance, holding his sword to one side so that he might swing it in a wide arc. "Smash his limbs!"
The harlequin grin of Hueco Mundo's maddest mind greeted Jushiro Ukitake mere moments before what was perhaps the worst experience of his life. Unable to match the Captain in strength, the Arrancar flooded his grotesque lab with a vapor tailor-made to exacerbate the toe-headed man's pre-existing condition. He lay there, wheezing and retching as things inside him changed for the worse.
A half-halo of steel sprung to life in the wake of his swing. All at once, a dozen points of slender light shot forward to impale the old Captain. Each and every one failed to hit their mark, freezing in time against a Repulse before it sent them rocketing back toward the sender.
Fortunately, Kaname Tousen was well-versed in the flash step, vanishing from the line of fire to appear some distance away. And yet it didn't really matter. That he had avoided his returned strike was immaterial next to how effortlessly Yamamoto had deflected it in the first place.
He could almost feel the old man silently critiquing him with his sunken eyes.
"You confuse the world as it is for the world you desire." For all that had changed in Yamamoto's voice, it was impossible to tell he had been attacked on three occasions. "You speak of the least bloodshed as if it were a thing you have yet to achieve. What, then, is the Soul Reaper way?"
"Genocide," the word exploded from Tousen like a bomb. "Have you forgotten all the Hollows that have died by our swords? The extermination of the Quincy race? The men you once called comrades, who you sent to the executioner's block? You may speak of greater goods and one type of need outweighing the other, but that is the language of a murderer."
Yamamoto hated himself for what he was about to say, but it had to be said.
"Is Aizen so different?"
The scientist stood over the Captain with an appraising eye. He had never been allowed to study a Captain, not with the distance Aizen and his brood kept. He would love to see this "bankai" so many spoke of. The chance never presented itself, as thousands upon thousands of cherry blossoms flooded the room and swept the Arrancar away.
"You and he are worlds apart. He will move the world to save it. You would leave the world as it is so that it might continue to fester."
"He is but another wound." Yamamoto would couch it in his terms, if it helped the man understand. "The world will not accept him in its entirety. Some of my soldiers would have survived his war to continue the fight and people would not tolerate his leadership. If you had installed him in my place, you would only trade one warlord for another."
"He is not a warlord. He is a great man."
"There is precious little difference."
Mayuri Kurotsuchi was a genius, twisted and vicious to be sure, but a genius nonetheless. Weaving threads of Captain Unohana's spiritual pressure together with the best hardware the Twelfth Division had to offer had produced a cutting edge machine said to see through the illusory performance of Kyouka Suigetsu. That was theory, at least.
"The world needs a man who may stand apart from it," Yamamoto continued, fully prepared to grind Tousen beneath his conviction. "Aizen speaks of his own greatness. He couldn't possibly bear the burden he seeks. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
Tousen's mind coiled. "Spare me your ancient sayings. Even if I were to cling to that notion, it only proves your inadequacy as the man perched atop the world."
"You are wrong again. I serve. I serve the King, the Central 46 before its massacre, and all the souls of our two worlds. I am lucky enough to be surrounded by people who would draw the sword against me if I take a step from the true path of least bloodshed. The Thirteen Divisions exist to keep this world in balance, to protect the world at large from any imbalance that would throw it into bloody anarchy. Your Lord Aizen is one such anarchy."
"What good is this protection if the weak are not protected? Do the Quincy and Hollows not merit your loving care?" He spat the words like he was trying to get rid of them. Tousen was not a man well-versed in sarcasm, unable to turn over falsehoods in his mouth and grin about it. It was one of the many things that set him apart from Ichimaru and Aizen.
When push came to shove, Gin Ichimaru could not bring himself to cut down the Lieutenant of the Tenth Division. She felt much the same. Of course, he wasn't eager to throw himself on her Captain's eager sword, so he took the option no one foresaw. He turned tail and fled. Ichimaru washed his hands of the man who fancied himself Gin's master and walked out on a blood feud like it had never been. Pursuit teams were dispatched to hunt him down, but the former Captain of the Third had leaned his flash step exceedingly well.
"No, they do not." He wouldn't pretend otherwise.
"That is your injustice!" Tousen roared. "You are a barbarian, a relic of a dark age, and I take it upon myself to bury you in darkness." A dozen rings spun, shining silver-white. They went wide and an impenetrable gulf, black as pitch, rushed to fill the space.
Suzumushi Tsuishiki rose to challenge the eternal Captain.
They were called The Four Pillars of Soul Society at one time, the only four Captains in the history of its armed forces to hold that station for over a century. Yamamoto, Kyouraku, Ukitake, and Unohana—each peerless and perfect in one way or another. They each became a walking rabbit's foot. None of them could fall. If such a thing ever came to pass, it meant the end of Soul Society was at hand. The four of them were Soul Society's greatest treasures and deadliest weapons. When the plan was hatched to kill Sosuke Aizen, it was decided that as many of the Four would stand against him as possible.
"That is your failing, Kaname Tousen!" Yamamoto shouted without the luxury of his own voice, but he felt the words thrumming in his throat and sliding past his lips. He couldn't hear himself speak, but Tousen could. "The zanpakuto is a piece of the wielder's own soul. Yours is awash in darkness! It is all you see. It is all you have ever seen."
His bicep ran red with blood, spilled by an unseen, unheard opponent.
"You are young, so the inequities of the world threaten to bury you. You cherish the world so you want to save it. The same desire burns through us both. The only difference is that I have come to terms with how impossible a goal that really is."
When the blade next struck, a new scar appeared across his brow.
As it was, three Captains came before Aizen—Kyouraku, Unohana, and Kurotsuchi. The Arrancar who wasn't Kaien had done something to Kyouraku's sword. He couldn't draw it, use it or even release it. Yamamoto had trained him well. He did the best he could with hands and spells. But it was only so long before Aizen's sword carved something long and wicked into his chest.
"A peaceful world is a lie. If there should ever be a world of one, that man will tear himself apart eventually. The human race is in a perpetual state of war. We can't expect that nature to change in the next life. There is always a battle to be won and someone eager to win it. The best we can do is end these wars as swiftly and surely as possible, so that the next might be long in coming."
Yamamoto felt a length of steel bite into his calf.
"You refuse to understand, even now."
Kurotsuchi had never been known for fighting. He terrorized and tested but he was loathe to fight his own battles. He could, when the situation called for it, but he was woefully out of his depth against a man like Aizen. In spite of that, he rose to the occasion, forcing any number of poisons into the would-be God's lungs before he finally dissolved into something of ichor.
"I should have expected as much."
His forearm burned at the latest blow.
"Your zanpakuto and mine are fundamentally different. Yours is a thing of darkness, while mine shines with light. We are polar opposites. You see only the darkness of the world. I see the light. Mankind's capacity for violence is matched only by its desire for survival. They spring from the same source."
Years of long experience and his own observation of the former Captain's stance allowed Yamamoto to fend off the next blow, having predicted Tousen's next move perfectly. So young and easy to read. So like himself at that age.
"I see the souls that pass onto Soul Society when a Hollow is decapitated. The wheel of reincarnation continued turning when the Quincy race came to an end. Do you see, Tousen? Have you ever seen? There is a light in the darkness."
Yamamoto avoided the worst of the next attack by sheer stubbornness more than anything else, forcing his body into a flash step far beyond his body's normal capacity. He could almost hear his bones his creak, but it was necessary. The alternative was allowing Tousen to sever his fingers on his right hand. As it was, he escaped with an incision on his finger.
"I will show you that light, Tousen. I will allow you to see the beacon that is buried within my soul. Perhaps you will carry that lesson into the next life, so that you do not fall from the noble path for a second time. Hopefully, you will become the great man you were meant to be in the next life, if not this one." His sword shone, smoldering with power. "Reduce the whole of creation to ash, Ryujin Jakka! Light up this darkened soul!"
It was Unohana who stood before Aizen in the end, Unohana whose hands had only ever been meant for healing. But the world called on her for something else, something she regretted to express. It shouldn't have been a contest, but Kyouraku and Kurotsuchi had taken their toll. The final battle took them all across Aizen's palace, leveling more than a third of it before the falling king retreated to his inner sanctum, bloodied and poisoned and oh-so-mortal. He left Unohana in a state just as wretched.
"What do you see, Kaname Tousen?" Ryujin Jakka stood poised, waiting with baited breath. "What do you see now, at the cusp of the next life?"
Tousen's blistered, barely recognizable lips moved. Yamamoto couldn't make out what it was the other man said. It might not have been anything worth mentioning. Who knew what floated through the mind of a dying man. But there was one thing Yamamoto heard.
"Yes, what I do is terrible, but it is also necessary."
Ryujin Jakka fell in a blazing arc.