Everyone at the party had huddled around Ichigo when we arrived and asked him about his head. He just smiled and said he walked into a pole which no one really believed but didn't press further. The whole restaurant was booked by us for Akane's party so someone got a portable karaoke machine from somewhere and there had been people up on stage, singing, all through dinner. It was quite obvious some of those love songs were directed at Ichigo but he was too busy talking with the guys to notice. For once, I was glad my Carrot was a bit dense. I kept noticing the girls glancing at him during dinner and the guys shooting him looks of jealousy.
"What's wrong, Rukia-san? You were sighing," Yuki ruffled my head.
"Oh, it's nothing," I smiled at her. "This food at this restaurant is really delicious, Yuki-sempai. Good job!"
"Thank you," she leaned closer. "So, why did you and Kurosaki-kun arrive together?"
"We met each other outside," I replied and mentally cursed. We should've thought it through when he left the hospital…
"Huddle up everyone! It's time to cut the cake," Nobara announcement was amplified by the microphone in her hands.
We crowded around Akane and sang the 'Happy Birthday' song to her. I haven't been to a birthday party since entering high school so it felt a bit nostalgic.
"If your knife touches the bottom you have to kiss a guy, Akane," Nobara reminded cheekily while filming her friend.
"Eh, why did you have to bring that up," Akane complained and carefully cut the cake. As she cut the cake, her face was so serious that some of us laughed. All of a sudden, Matsumoto's hand shot out, pushing Akane's hand down and causing the birthday girl to gasp in surprise.
"She touched the bottom!" Matsumoto announced triumphantly.
"That's not fair!" Akane whined.
"Doesn't change the fact that you touched it, Akane," Nobara said while trying not to giggle. "Now, who's the closest guy to you?"
The people surrounding Akane were all girls while all the guys stood near the back of the crowd so it took a while to determine who was closest to the birthday girl.
"Looks like it's you, Kurosaki-kun," Yuki grabbed Ichigo's wrist and pulled him to Akane.
"Are you sure I was the closest one?" He looked around before our eyes met.
Well… this was awkward…
I gave him a smile which I thought was an encouraging one and avoided his gaze. It was just a small kiss, I tried to persuade myself. Nothing more… It won't even be on the lips...
"Akane-san looks like she really doesn't want to do this," Ichigo looked at her in hope but she just covered her face. "Let's just let her off the hook this time."
"Rules are rules. Besides, it's not like you have a girlfriend or anything," Nobara said while she zoomed in on their faces with her camera. "C'mon Akane! We're all waiting to eat the cake."
"I…" Akane peeped out through the gaps of her fingers before looking up at Ichigo. "Um… I'm so sorry," she slowly went up to her tiptoes and placed a kiss on his cheek shyly before quickly pulling away and hiding her red face behind her hands again.
"They suit each other, don't you think," Yuki rubbed her chin thoughtfully.
"Uh, yeah," I managed to squeeze out.
I take back what I said… I closed my eyes. Thinking it and seeing it were two completely different things. It wasn't the kiss that made me hard to breathe but rather the image of them being together.
The idea… it seemed… so right…
"Rukia-san, here, have some cake," Nobara passed a plate to me.
"Thank you," I mumbled making her look at me with a slight frown. I prodded the cake before eating it slowly, without really tasting it.
If Ichigo and Akane were together, he would be a normal university student. He wouldn't get abducted, wouldn't need to worry about learning self-defence… Akane is a kind girl. She would probably be able to be with Ichigo more and pay more attention to him. Ichigo wouldn't have to worry that his girlfriend would get into fights and get hurt.
Why did he choose me to be his girlfriend anyway? I never really asked him what he liked about me… He had always been quite popular and could probably get any girl he wanted.
"… Why me?" I sighed.
"Did you say something?" Nobara asked curiously.
"Oh, nothing," I quickly said and smiled at her. Akane just finished singing a song and came over to sit beside us. "Are you having fun, Akane-san?"
"Yes," she grinned and hugged us. "Thank you for organising this!"
"No problem," Nobara replied. "You better do something like this when it's my birthday."
"Of course," she nodded. "I'll hold you the best party you've ever had! And you too, Rukia-san!"
"Thank you, I look forward to it."
"Ah, Rukia-san, your phone is ringing," Nobara handing me my phone, which she was using to take photos before.
I took the phone and stepped out of the restaurant so that it was quieter. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," Ulquiorra replied.
"You brother is here."
"I'll get home straight away," I clicked my tongue and hung up.
Why did he come here? What was I going to do? I haven't found anything about who Nel's boss is or any new information that could help us… My brother won't be happy…
I stared at my lap, waiting for my brother to talk. Akane and the others were all surprised when I said I had to leave early but they didn't say anything despite their disappointment. As soon as I arrived home, I went straight to my brother. Fifteen minutes had already passed since I sat down in front of him but he hadn't said anything during that time. Finally giving in to the silence, I peered up at my brother hesitantly.
He was gently swirling his glass of red wine before taking a little sip. He caught me looking at him and I immediately went back to staring at my shoes.
"Rukia, look at me properly," he said after setting his glass on the table.
I sat up slowly before looking at him. His gaze raked over me and I fought the urge to look away.
"How's your shoulder?"
"Its fine now," I said hurriedly and pulled on my collar self-consciously.
"It throbs every now and then," I replied truthfully. "But it doesn't hinder my movements." I fidgeted under his gaze. "Nii-sama… Why did you come to Bunkyou?"
"I have a meeting with the head of the Bunkyou branch of Kuchiki Enterprise," he explained.
So it wasn't to see how Kings was doing, I let out a small sigh in relief. My brother seemed to read my mind.
"I entrusted Bunkyou to you," he said after seeing my relieved expression. "I have no intention to interfere."
I bit my lip, "I'll get to the bottom of this soon. I won't let you down, Nii-sama."
"How's that Kurosaki boy? I heard he was hurt as well."
I froze, "Uh… he's fine now. The bullet wound wasn't as serious as we thought."
"That's good," he nodded slowly with a blank expression. He seemed to want to say something else but then he picked up his wine glass again. "After my meeting ends, I'll be heading straight back to Karakura."
He nodded, "Before I forget… I need you to come back to Karakura during your holiday next month."
"I understand. I was planning on going back anyway."
"Good," he said. His tone signified the end of our conversation – if it could even be called a conversation – and I headed for the door.
"Rukia," I stopped and looked at my brother again. "What will you do if this incident happens again?"
"I'll make sure it won't happen again," I replied determinedly. "I'll get him more bodyguards or even become one myself so that he will stay safe." When I was met with silence, I looked at my brother. I found him looking down at his hands and it took me a moment to realise he was playing with his ring.
"Sometimes, just protecting them isn't enough," he murmured with a hint of regret. He looked at me and the sadness in his eyes had disappeared without a trace, "Don't underestimate the enemy, Rukia."
"Yes, Nii-sama," was all I managed to say. The memory of my sister resurfaced but I quickly pushed it away and left.
"Rukia-sama," Renji waved to me eagerly when I went back to the foyer. He was sitting on the sofas with Ulquiorra and a few other Kings' members. "I can't believe it's been a whole year since I last saw you! How have you been?"
"Fine," I replied simply.
"Man, being a bodyguard is more tiring than I thought," he was used to my cold reaction and continued to talk happily. "But I've gotten better at fighting. We should have a match next time! I'll beat you for sure."
"Dream on, Renji," I replied with a small smile. Sometimes Renji can be a bit annoying but right now I was glad for the distraction.
Renji froze before his eyes widened and he turned to Ulquiorra, "Woah, did you see that? She smiled! Holy crap, what has Bunkyou done to her?" He turned back to me, "Are you really Rukia?"
"Of course I'm me," I rolled my eyes and sighed. I talked too fast…
"Renji? Is that you?" Ichigo asked when he walked through the door. As the two guys had their little reunion, I checked my watch curiously.
"Ichigo, how come you came back so soon? The party still hasn't ended, right?"
"Uh, yeah," he rubbed his neck. "It was getting kind of boring so I told them I was getting a headache and they all made me come home."
He got bored? But he looked like he was enjoying himself when I left the restaurant…
"Woah, Ichigo, how did you get that injury?" Renji asked while studying Ichigo's swollen temple. "Did you get into a fight or something?" Everyone fell silent at his question and he looked around slowly with a puzzled expression, "What? Did I say something wrong?"
"It's a long story," Ichigo was the first to reply. "Someone tried to shoot me." And they succeeded in the end, I added in my head broodingly.
"Woah, what? Guns?" Renji looked at me with his eyes wide open. "You let him deal with Kings' problems? And let this happen to him? I thought you were the over-protective girlfriend type…"
"Renji," Ulquiorra interrupted him. "A lot of things happened and some things are just inevitable..."
"Yeah, of course, my bad," Renji rubbed his neck and laughed awkwardly. "I mean, she's strong but she's not a God."
"It's getting late… I'm going to go sleep," I stood up, startling them, and headed straight to the lifts. I leaned against the wall as the lift moved and rubbed my face tiredly.Sometimes, protection isn't enough…