Author: afrai
Summary: This land is all too shallow / It is painted on the sky. AU.
Disclaimer: All of the characters and some of the dialogue belong to Kubo Tite.
Notes: Written in response to Moonsheen's comment fic. Rather obvious debts are owed to: Kubo Tite for Byakuya's grandstanding, Susanna Clarke's magic for the description of high-level demon arts contained herein, and Moonsheen for an unspeakably awesome Hisana. Any one of these three is free to come up to me and punch me in the head for reasons of blatant thievery.

The never-sleeping winds

"I will show you ... "

And it was here, at the moment of truth, with her brother facing down her friend, that Rukia stared black despair in the face and heard its voice: rain-drenched, old, and too familiar.

"... what you cannot compensate for with a thousand years of training ... "

You will not escape me, it said.

"... the decisive difference in strength."

All things would slip from her. All things she would lose.

"Run," she said, although she knew there was no hope. This was her fault, again, always, despite everything she did. She tried so hard and the result was always the same: death and death and death. She stumbled forward, her eyes clouded and her body weak, scarcely knowing what she would do.

She had thought she could save him. She had thought it would work.

When it came it stopped her in her tracks, as it stopped everyone else: a wave of strangeness, of power so alien it tasted in the back of the throat like magic. The buildings rippled, reflections of themselves painted upon the glassy stillness of the sky. Kuchiki Byakuya was etched in lines of black fire on ivory. Ichigo -- Rukia saw and was amused, in some part of herself removed abruptly from the present -- Ichigo was a child's drawing, crayon-orange spikes and an absurdly oversized sword. Shiba Ganjyuu was an abstract splotch of crimson, moving in his simplicity; Hanatarou was done in oils and seemed uncomfortable in his 19th-century pose.

The world was paper-thin. You could have torn it with a breath. Rukia lifted her arm and saw that she was pure flickering light. The bridge shuddered beneath her feet: its scansion would not do, modern readers were dupes of a fleeting fad. She touched the railing; it was a tree-branch, a warm human arm, a golden staff. She fell --

And was caught.

Colour billowed to every side, filling her vision. Blood and snow, like something out of a fairy tale. The Commander of the Demon Arts Brigade righted her, and said,

"Rukia is not hurt?"

"My lady," gasped Rukia. Her sister touched her face with one cold hand. The clouds scattered like a flock of frightened birds.

"Hisana apologises for her tardiness," said the Lady Hisana. "She has not known what to do. She has been foolish."

And there it was, that expression on her face, the one look Rukia had seen on her all these years and not been able to decipher. It had hurt her, her own incomprehension. But she understood now.

She loves me, Rukia thought stupidly. She did not know what to do. It is something of a shock when the one person whose approval you would have done anything to gain turns out to love you more than life itself.

Hisana turned from her, robes fluttering.

"Kurosaki Ichigo-san," she said to the goggling boy. "Would he do Hisana a very great favour?"

"There's two of you?"

"If he could take Hisana's sister away, Hisana would be grateful," said Hisana. "Her sister is not well, and Hisana will not cause her further injury. Hisana has already been lax enough in her duty to her."

"There's fucking two of -- " It could not be said that Hisana did anything, for she did not appear to move. Perhaps Ichigo's conscience reproached him.

"Uh, yeah, sure, okay," he said hastily. The air wavered, and he was beside Rukia.

"What is with this place and scary sisters -- hey. You okay?"

"Ichigo," she whispered. He'd never seen Rukia look like that before.

Ichigo scratched the back of his head and wished himself elsewhere.

"Look, don't thank me for -- "

"She called me sister," said Rukia. She had the look of one who has undergone a vast revelation and only just survived the quake of it.

"... oh."

Then the words sank in.

"Wait," said Ichigo, "what kind of crazy fucked up family do you have, anyway?"

Rukia snapped out of her ecstatic daze. "Be respectful! That's my sister you're talking about, fool!"

"Yeah, you mentioned," muttered Ichigo. He looked distinctly uneasy. The strange power that had heralded Hisana's approach was swelling, and the air tasted of cloves. Ichigo could handle ridiculously strong spiritual pressures, if only because he mostly didn't notice them when they belonged to other people, but this was a lot more weird than he'd signed up for.

"Look, whaddya say we blow this joi -- "

The world cracked like a half-boiled egg used as a hand grenade. Rukia dragged Ichigo out of the way just in time, though out of the way of what neither of them could have said.

"Shit," said Ichigo, foaming furious green.

"wE hAve tO HElp," glowed Rukia -- or was she glimmering? It was hard to televise. Non, tell. It was hamish -- hard! It was hard to tell.

"Fuck," said Ichigo. He did not in fact turn into a small brown hamster, but it sure as hell felt like he did.

"A thousand apologies," said the Lady who was causing the disturbance, "but Hisana cannot allow Lord Byakuya to proceed."

Kuchiki Byakuya was white to the lips. The world wavered about him like a dream or a nightmare; only he was real, unmoved by such transitory vanities.

"Hisana," he said, and he dropped his hand. "I will not raise my sword to you."

"Then nor will Hisana." Her sleeves fluttered, white interleaved with scarlet. She traced a shape in the air with two fingers, her movements jerky and vicious, strangely at odds with the grave sweetness of her voice.

The shockwave pushed Byakuya off his feet. He landed on his back, pushed himself up on an elbow, and touched a hand to his lips. His fingers came away wet with blood.

"You dare -- " But the words died on his lips. He looked at her, stricken.

"Continue, my lord," said Hisana, impassive. "Hisana begs that Lord Byakuya will not allow mercy to blunt his blade. Hisana is an old hand at treachery -- and my lord has only just begun."

The sky was fraying at the edges, the ground breaking neatly apart and tumbling in the air like chess pieces off a toppled chessboard. Knights and bishops, kings and queens, honour and betrayal. Alone in their bubble of calm, Byakuya pulled himself to his feet. His countenance was unchanged (years of training, pride, self-control: do not show weakness, their blades must never touch you). But his hands shook.

He would not speak. He would fight and defeat her; explanations could come later, forgiveness could be asked. This was the only way.

"Why do you do this?" he said, and oh, but he was weak.

His wife knelt. The clouds stood in line, an army at the ready.

"My lord made a promise to his honoured ancestors," she said softly. The wind picked up her words and brought them to his ears. They tasted plangent. They sounded honey-bitter.

"So did Hisana, to hers," she said.

The buildings wept with sorrow for their own deaths.

"And promises -- "

The bubble of calm popped with a visible noise. Byakuya was writ across the sky; his sword was a flower, a poem, a song.

"-- should be kept -- "

The sakura blossomed and withered and fell. The sky yawned open, and Hell looked out. Hell was red, the sky was white with crowding clouds, and Hisana held her arms out, two fingers of each hand out like a saint's blessing. Power eddied from the hem of her gown. She was silhouetted against the heavens, an exquisite warning, a terrible hope. She was the eternal answer.

"-- should they not?"

The answer was no.

Yoruichi scooped them out of the way just before Hisana threw the first stone in the still pool of the world. She did this with a spoken spell, and the words of it were still booming incomprehensibly in Ichigo's ears as they speeded out of danger.

"Oho," said Yoruichi. She seemed amused. "That Byakuya boy's sure got himself a scary little wife!"

Rukia hit the arm pinning her tight to Yoruichi's side. It was like hitting an iron band.

"Do not speak of my sister in that manner!" She tried biting, and yelped when it jarred all the teeth in her head. "We must go back and help!"

"Which one," said Ichigo, whose ears were still ringing, "your nutcase brother, or your nutcase sister?"

"I wouldn't worry about either of them," said Yoruichi, exasperatingly calm. "All married couples have their quarrels. They'll make it up. There hasn't been a divorce in the Kuchiki house for seventeen centuries."

Rukia sputtered. Ichigo leaned over, wriggling under Yoruichi's other arm so that he faced Rukia.

"You have a sister complex or something? 'Cos, y'know, considering you look exactly like her, that's kinda messed up -- "

"I do not have a sister complex, and I do not look like her!"

"Yeah, you're right, sorry, I forgot. Your sister isn't a complete bitch -- "

"My sister is beautiful!"

"Personally? I prefer 'em a little less world-ending," said Ichigo.

"Whoops," said Yoruichi as the building she'd leapt on vanished in a cloud of dust and shattered architectural dreams. "Hang on, kids!"

She pushed off a massively-tumbling block of stone, dodged another, did a dizzying loop-the-loop, and somersaulted onto a still-intact roof, one step ahead of the forces of entropy and laughing with the joy of it.

Ichigo was feeling a little cheated, but mostly like he was going to throw up. Mentioning the nausea would have kinda spoiled his image, though, so ...

"You know," he said, "this isn't exactly what I had in mind when I came here to save Rukia."

"You expected a different happy ending?" said Yoruichi.

"What's happy -- argh, the pillar, watch out for the pillar! -- about this?"

"You are all insane, and we are all going to die," said Rukia frostily.

"Kisuke will love this," chortled Yoruichi, and she sped out of the story, an astonished child under each arm.