Title: Ranking

Summary: Ichigo gets diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. He doesn't tell anyone.

"Kurosaki-san, why did you come to me with this request, three weeks ago?"

The orangette shrugs, eyes on the intimidating desk dividing doctor from patient.

"Just had a feeling, I guess," he says with a shrug. "Better safe than sorry."

Ryuuken's gaze is intent, calculating, void of emotion, before he looks back at his papers, sighing.

"Your... Feeling, was correct," he says after a moment. "You have stage four brain cancer... I'm sorry."

Ichigo huffs a weak laugh.

"Well, good to know, I suppose," he says, running a hand over his face.

"There are things we can do, of course, to combat the spread, but the fact is, Kurosaki-san, you're dying."

"..." The teen is quiet a long time, then,

"So how long have I got left? Without treatment, I mean."

Ryuuken glances at the scans.

"A year, maybe two." The older man pauses. "I'll call your father-"

"No!" Ichigo shakes his head fervently. "No, don't call him. I don't- I'd rather he didn't know."

Ryuuken arches an eyebrow. "You are a minor, Kurosaki-san. I could be sued for medical malpractice if I didn't inform your father."

"I wouldn't, and he definitely wouldn't," Ichigo says simply. "And it's not like I'm going to be taking any treatment- I don't want it."

The Ishida frowns.

"You have no interest in prolonging your life?" He asks. "Do you care so little for yourself?"

Ichigo shrugs.

"The girls wouldn't take it well," he says. "Dad wouldn't either. I don't want to put them through all of that, especially with what Dad's got to deal with already..." He shifts, eyes finding the window behind Ryuuken's head.

"It's my problem, and if I'm going to die from it anyway, I might as well be selfish this once."

There's a beat of silence, then a heavy sigh from the doctor.

"I'll give you something for the headaches you'll be getting, if you haven't already," Ryuuken tells him, pulling put a pad. "I'll take you to the pharmacy downstairs to have it filled. You'll return in two weeks for a check-up."

Ichigo smiles slightly and nods. "Yes, sir."

Ryuuken sighs.

"What do you plan to do?" He asks, standing.

The teen blinks, mimicking and following the doctor out into the hall.

"I don't know. I might actually do my homework, piss Ishida off and take the top spot-" he grins. "That would be fun, actually. Might take him down a couple of pegs."

"You really think you'll be able to steal the top place from Uryuu?"

Ichigo chuckles.

"I have an IQ of 168," the teen tells him. "I just don't like attention... But if I'm dying... Fuck, why not?"

"Language, Kurosaki-san." Ryuuken stops in front of the pharmacy. "And please, inform me if you manage to fulfill that goal. Uryuu needs some competition- Moshitara-kun."

A boy maybe three years older than Ichigo appears behind the counter, looking harried.

"Sorry, Ishida-sensei, I was just cataloguing the new arrivals. What can I do for you?" The man's eyes keep straying to Ichigo's face, but he doesn't ask.

"I need a prescription of acetaminophen filled," Ryuuken says, passing forward the paper. "Quickly, Moshitara-kun."

The man bows and hustles into the back, leaving the pair on their own once more.

"I'll leave you now," Ryuuken informs the orangette. "I have another appointment. Moshitara-kun will give you the necessary medications. Take one every four hours at the least."

Ichigo bows. "Thank you, Ishida-sensei."

Ryuuken doesn't answer, and Ichigo is left alone.

"Ah, Kurosaki Ichigo, is that you?"

Moshitara looks uncertain, and Ichigo's eyes narrow.

"Who're you?"

The other man snorts.

"Figures you wouldn't remember me," he says. "Moshitara Benjirou. You kicked the shit out outta me and my friends for knocking down an offering at some little shrine, once."

"... That sounds like me," Ichigo admits. "That mine."

Moshitara nods, handing over the paper bag.

"What stage are you in," he asks, and Ichigo almost flinches.

"Four," he says shortly. "Don't spread it around too much."

The man's eyes widen.

"Shit. You just found out?"

Ichigo shrugs. "I had a feeling," he admits. "Just had to make sure, ya know?"

"So that's why you haven't been out fighting recently- I know this stuff because my brother's still running around," Moshitara adds at the other's look. "He says you haven't been around as much anymore."

"Yeah, I've been getting dizzy spells and chronic headaches."

"I'd be surprised if you hadn't- here you are, come back when you finish this up and I'll give you a new bottle."

"Thanks, Moshitara."

"Call me Benji. Everyone does."

Ichigo smiles.

"See you around, Benji."

"Sure thing."

Ichigo leaves.

-SOH-

His head won't stop throbbing.

It's sharp, and nearly constant, and fucking irritating. He can't concentrate on anything anymore, and Ryuuken says it's only going to get worse?

He's already taken his pills- the bottle's rattling at the bottom of his bag. But it's not helping, and his head still hurts.

"Kurosaki-kun!"

Ichigo looks up at his name to find the teacher staring at him expectantly.

"Sorry, sensei, I didn't hear the question." His brow furrows and he rubs at his forehead with his thumb.

"Are you ill, Kurosaki-kun?"

He winces at a particularly nasty throb.

"Just a headache," he grits out. "It'll go away."

"Perhaps you should go to the nurse, just in case."

Ichigo knows an order when he hears one, and even if Ochi-sensei is a pretty laid back woman, she won't hesitate to use the steel in her arms from years of judo.

With a nod, he rises, collects his things, and leaves, pointedly not meeting the questioning eyes of Chado or the bewildered eyes of Orihime.

He also makes a special point not to catch Ishida's gaze, but he doesn't have to know they're on him, ever-calculating.

Ichigo's ranked number nineteen.

-SOH-

"Onii-chan, look what I found!"

Ichigo looks up from his pet project to see an excited Yuzu holding up a record.

"It's Mom's!" She tells him excitedly. "A vintage copy of Help!"

"The Beatles?" He asks, interest peaking. "Nice."

"Come down, I want to play it and I can't work the record player."

"It's not that hard," says Ichigo, but he's already on his feet and following her downstairs.

The record player is ancient, but free of dust thanks to Yuzu's tender care. He plugs it in and sets the record in place, puts the needle down, and presses play.

"Help! I need somebody! Help! Not just anybody! Help! You know I need someone, help..."

Yuzu claps her hands delightedly and reaches out to catch her brother's shoulders.

"Dance with me!" She orders, and Ichigo chuckles.

"Fine, fine." He lifts her and spins, leaning forward until they're dancing cheek to cheek.

"Help me if you can, I'm feeling down, And I do appreciate you being round. Help me, get my feet back on the ground, Won't you please, please help me..."

It's fun, and childish, and Ichigo hasn't danced with his sister since Masaki was alive.

Just for the smile on her face, he resolves to do it more often.

Eventually Yuzu can't breathe and Ichigo's too dizzy to keep his balance, and they land in a heap on the living room floor.

"You know, you're getting awfully clumsy, Ichi-nii," Yuzu remarks playfully, nudging at his shoulder. "You keep tripping over stuff that isn't there."

Ichigo stiffens, but he tries to smile, anyway, nudging back with his elbow.

"Well, maybe if you weren't so heavy I could have spun you longer," he tells her, making her squeak indignantly. "Maybe you should lay off taste-testing all those meals."

"You don't say things like that to a lady!" She cries, tackling him to the ground.

Soon enough, it turns into a tickle fight, and then they're rolling on the floor, laughing stupidly at absolutely nothing at all.

The door clicks open.

"Wah, my son and daughter are having a beautiful family moment-!"

Karin kicks Isshin in the face before Ichigo can get up, which he appreciates, because the next dizzy spell sends him careening into the couch.

"Onii-chan?" Yuzu sounds alarmed, but he waves her off, forcing a chuckle.

"I guess our dancing left me more out of breath than I thought it would," he says, forcing himself up again. "I think I might take a nap, actually. I'm tired."

Pressing a kiss to Yuzu's cheek and hugging Karin to his side, he steps carefully over Isshin's twitching body and makes his way upstairs, leaning heavily against the wall.

"What's wrong with him?" Karin asks, and Yuzu shrugs.

"He's probably catching a cold," she says. "I told him to put on a scarf this morning- I'll take him some tea later if he's still not feeling well."

"My Yuzu-chan's such a good girl!" Isshin declares, leaping to his feet. "She takes such good care of her brother! Wah, Masaki, our children are growing up too fast!"

Karin slams him in the face again, but Yuzu, for once, says nothing, eyes intent on the corner her brother has rounded, out of sight, out of mind.

Ichigo is ranked number seventeen.

-SOH-

"You're taking your time, getting these refilled," Benjo remarks as Ichigo leans against the pharmacy counter. "Doesn't it hurt?"

"Hurts like hell," Ichigo says bluntly, rolling his neck. "But I try to bear it. Don't wanna die an addict, you know."

"A noble goal, but, dude, if it hurts- Ichigo?!"

Ichigo can't see anything, the pain is so overwhelming. His knees buckle, his hand slips on the counter, and he collapses to his knees before it stops, color flickering through the black and returning his sight.

"I'm fine! I'm fine." The teen tries to pull himself to his feet.

"You most certainly are not fine," a cold voice says, and a cold hand catches his bare shoulder, pulling him to his feet. "I told you three weeks ago that the cancer is progressing more quickly than I originally hypothesized."

"Yeah, I know- it doesn't happen all the time, promise." Ichigo looks up into Ryuuken's face and smiles, not in the least intimidated by the severe look on his face. "Just once in a while."

Ryuuken glares.

"Moshitara," he barks. "Give Kurosaki-kun a month's worth of Exalgo."

"Yes, sir." Benji hustles and Ichigo sighs.

"It's not all the time, sensei," he tries to say, but Ryuuken cuts him off.

"You're father's noticed your unusual behavior," he says ruthlessly. "How long do you think it will take for a doctor to notice his son hiding something as important as brain cancer?"

"I've had better days," Ichigo says flatly. "Today I was going to sleep, but then I remembered I had a meeting with you and I had to refill my prescription, but if I had just been able to sleep-"

"You're going to have to tell them-"

"Not yet." Ichigo sighs and rubs a hand over his face.

"I can't- I haven't told anyone, yet," he admits. "I- I can't."

Something in Ryuuken's mouth softens, though his eyes are still intense as they take in the sickly teen.

"You are young," he says finally. "And not equipped to deal with this alone. Tell somebody, even if it isn't your family. Do not bear it alone."

Ichigo's lip quirks.

"I'll think about it, Ishida-sensei," he murmurs.

"That's all I ask."

Ichigo is ranked number fourteen.

-SOH-

"There's something wrong with Kurosaki," Ishida says one day. They're at Urahara's, the safest place to be to discuss their current, most troubling topic.

Ichigo.

"Maybe he's just sad," Orihime offers, slurping peanut butter off her spoon. "I mean, he probably misses Rukia, and he knows that you've had to pick up the extra calls, Uryuu."

The Quincy shakes his head. "It's more than that," he says, picking at his own ramen. "He's... Clumsier than usual. His movements are slow, his reaction time poor. The usual crowd that used to pick fights with him leave him alone, or they act like he's a... I don't know. A child? They treat him gently."

"His grades have been getting better," Chado adds thoughtfully. "His ranking's been getting higher and higher since he started acting so strangely. He's been writing all the time, too, in those notebooks of his."

"Karin-chan has mentioned that her brother has taken to sleeping as much as he can," Urahara notes from his own place. "That's usually a symptom of depression."

"But it's more than that," Ishida says frustratedly. "He can't focus, he doesn't eat, he gets nauseous and can't stay in class. He can't do anything in gym anymore without fainting-" Ishida cuts himself off with a growl of frustration. "He keeps showing up at Ryuuken's hospital."

Urahara frowns. "Why would he be going there?"

"I don't know!" Ishida explodes. "No one will tell me, and I'm certainly not suicidal enough to go through Ryuuken's papers. But he's there every two weeks- and he's been going for at least two months."

The blonde purses his lips but says nothing.

"We could always just ask him," Orihime offers. "He's not much good at lying to you and Chado-kun anyway, Uryuu."

"It might be the easiest way to find out if anything's wrong," Chado admits. "We should give it a try."

Ishida doesn't think it'll help, but he nods anyway, eyes on his food.

Urahara stays quiet for the rest of the afternoon.

Ichigo is ranked number eleven.

-SOH-

"Tatsuki, what are you doing after school today?"

The girl looks up from her book and meets puppy eyes.

"I- nothing. Why?"

"Will you take a walk with me?"

Ichigo asks like he thinks she'll say no, and it makes something in her heart ache,

"Of course," she says, and her voice is gentler, though she doesn't really know why. She swings her bag over her shoulder, and lets him take her elbow and lead her out.

"Where are we going?" She asks once they leave the building.

"Just the river," he tells her. "I have something... I have something to tell you."

Tatsuki feels something akin to dread flood her mind, but she shoves it away.

"Ichigo, I'm not going to put up with any cryptic shit," she says flatly, voice steady. "Tell me what's going on."

Ichigo almost flinches.

"Just wait until we get to the river," he says softly. "I... I just need until then, and I'll explain."

She gives him a long look.

"Until the river," she agrees reluctantly. "And then you spit it out."

"I promise."

They walk in silence after that, shadows in the crowd, and soon enough, Ichigo's leading her to a bench by the water.

"We're here," she says pointedly, and Ichigo lets out a deep breath.

"Yeah." He gives her a careful once-over.

"You've noticed I haven't... Been myself?" He asks, looking away.

She takes him in, his too-skinny frame, the dark circles under his eyes, and thinks of the way his hands haven't stopped shaking for at least a month, and how his knees keep buckling at odd moments. She thinks of the way he keeps occasionally slurring his words, keeps having to be excused from class because of headaches and vomiting and fainting, and she nods.

"Yeah, I think everyone's noticed," she says.

"There's... There's a reason for it."

"I was hoping you'd be telling me that reason, actually," Tatsuki points out, sounding just a bit testy. "Or else I'll consider this a wasted trip."

Ichigo snorts, but his smile's weak, half-hidden by the hand his chin's cupped in.

"I've got cancer, Tatsuki," he says quietly. "Brain cancer."

She freezes. A stone forms in her stomach and drops into her feet because no, this can't- he can't be serious.

"You're lying," she says, but the words are hollow.

"Wish I was," he says, trying and failing to smile. He sighs and looks away.

Tatsuki takes a deep breath, emotions fluctuating wildly.

"How far along?" She demands, voice cracking.

"Stage 4. I found out four months ago."

"Shit." Tatsuki feels her lip quivering. "Shit, Ichigo. Shit. Shit!"

She doubles over, clutching at her own shoulders.

"How long have you got?" She asks, staring at the ground between her feet.

"At least eight months. Maybe more. I probably won't make it to high school graduation." He pauses. "I'm not getting treatment. There's no point, really, when all it'll give me is a couple of extra months."

"Shit. Fuck!" Tatsuki sits up and throws herself into his chest, wrapping her arms around his thin frame and letting out something between a sob and a whimper.

She's crying into his shirt, weeping, actually, and he can't do anything about it except hug her back, putting as much strength into it as he can manage.

"I'm sorry," he whispers. "I'm so sorry."

"Does anyone- does anyone else know?" She croaks after a little while, and he shakes his head.

"Ishida's dad's the doctor that diagnosed me, but besides him..." He trails off. "You're the only person I've told."

"What about your sisters? Your dad? Orihime?"

"... I can't."

And Tatsuki gets it, she does. He doesn't want his family or his friends to hurt, but then-

"Why me?"

"..." Ichigo slips back slightly, face turned away.

"You've always been stronger than me," he tells her after a moment. "I couldn't- I couldn't do this alone."

She swallows. "Feel better?"

Ichigo smiles weakly.

"I could do with another hug," he admits. "And maybe some ice cream."

Tatsuki leans forward into him again, a watery smile on her lips.

"I've got both, back at my house," she says, settling her chin on his shoulder. "Wanna call your Dad and tell him you're staying at my place?"

Ichigo buries his nose in her neck.

"I think so," he says. "I can't- I know it's too much, but-"

"It's okay. I think... I think it'll be okay."

Ichigo is ranked number eight.

-SOH-

Ichigo has his first seizure in Ryuuken's office. One minute he's completely fine, the next he's on the floor, twitching and choking and spasming in ways that humans shouldn't be able to move. He doesn't remember it, but when he wakes up, his head is in Ryuuken's lap, his face sticky with tears and dried sweat.

"I'm gonna die," he murmurs, fingers curling tightly into Ryuuken's dress shirt.

The older Quincy doesn't seem perturbed by this revelation; he just runs thin fingers through orange hair comfortingly, eyes on the teen in his lap.

"You're going to die," he agrees. "But are you going to die alone?"

And Ichigo, for the first time since his mother's death, curls up into a ball and cries.

Ryuuken doesn't say a word, and lets him spend the night on the couch in his office.

Ichigo is ranked number six.

-SOH-

Yuzu's waiting in the living room when he comes school one day. No one else is home- Dad's at some conference for the weekend and Karin never comes home before dinner unless she has to- and no one else is there to see him trip over his own feet and fall into the table.

"God, I'm so clumsy-"

Yuzu cuts off his excuses, words close to a shriek.

"Why do you have painkillers, Onii-chan?"

Ichigo stops, taking in a tear-stained face and a quivering lip.

"I-"

"Because I found an empty bottle of Numorphon in your bathroom when I got home from school," she continues ruthlessly, ignoring him. "And I know you're not the type to do drugs. So, what is my big brother, who was almost completely healthy last time I checked, doing with drugs given to cancer patients halfway to fucking hospice?"

Ichigo winces at the curse. His sister is livid.

"I didn't want-"

"What kind?" She demands. "How far along?"

The orangette sighs. "Brain cancer," he says at last. "Diagnosed in stage 4. Nothing can be done. I'm going to- to die, soon. Within the next year and a half."

To his surprise, Yuzu doesn't burst into tears, or start screaming. Instead, she goes very pale. Her eyes narrow, her hands become fists, and her jaw clenches as she tries to process what he's just told her.

"How long ago did you find out?" She asks, more quietly than before.

"Six months ago."

"And... Dad? He knows?"

Ichigo shakes his head.

"Only Tatsuki, my doctor, and now you." He shifts, looking away. "I didn't want to cause you pain."

"You idiot." Yuzu marches up to him and hugs him tightly, eyes squeezed shut. "You stupid, stupid brother." She pulls back. "I- I'm going to make your favorite, okay? Beef stir-fry and chocolate pudding for dessert. I- when are you going to tell Dad and Karin?"

Ichigo shifts uncomfortably.

"I... I don't want to, if I can help it," he admits, and Yuzu's eyes narrow.

"You can't hide this forever, Ichi-nii," she points out. "Dad's going to notice eventually- he's probably already noticed, come to think of it."

"I know." Ichigo sighs. "I know, I just don't..." He rubs a hand over his face. "Not yet."

Yuzu gives him a long look, hand wrapped around his wrist.

She sighs.

"Okay," she says simply, letting go. "You'll tell them on your own time. I'll keep your secrets."

"That's all I ask."

Ichigo is ranked number five.

-SOH-

"Do you still sing, Ichigo?"

"Hmm?"

Tatsuki and Ichigo are sitting on the roof of her apartment, slathered in tanning oil to the point where they are, for all intents and purposes, frying. Ichigo's in nothing but boxers, and Tatsuki's not much better, in only shorts and a bra.

"Do you still sing?"

"All I can think to sing is melancholy," he says after a moment. "But yeah, I still sing sometimes."

"Sing me something."

"I told you, everything I remember is too sad."

"I don't care. I want to hear you sing."

Ichigo's quiet a long moment, long enough for Tatsuki to think he's ignoring her, when he speaks again.

"I think I have one."

"Good."

"On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair, warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air..." He starts, closing his eyes. "Up ahead in the distance, saw a shimmering light, my head grew heavy and my sight grew dim, I had to stop for the night..."

Tatsuki listens quietly beside him, arms pressed against his, and she wonders how much longer he'll be like this, how long it will take before he can't talk, can't walk, can't think. How long before he can't eat on his own because his motor skills are so far gone he can't hold a spoon and aim it at the same time?

She shouldn't think about it. No, she won't allow herself, so instead of letting her mind wander to such horrible topics, she rolls to lie against his side and listens to him sing, and for a moment, she thinks his hands stop shaking.

Ichigo is ranked number four.

-SOH-

"My son has asked me why you keep wandering around the hospital," Ryuuken says at their next appointment. "I wasn't aware you'd met with him in the hospital."

Ichigo shrugs, playing with his shoelaces.

"I didn't think it was a big deal. I told him I was meeting up with Moshitara."

"He didn't believe you."

"I know. But I don't want Inoue trying to fix me. She's the sort of person who might think she's helping and might accidentally wipe my memories."

Ryuuken makes a noise of surprise. "She has this ability?"

"Inoue has the ability to reverse things to a time that they were whole," Ichigo explains, checking if his laces are an even length. "If she did that to my brain, however, besides the fact that the tumor would just grow back, I would lose important pathways I've gained over the years that this damn thing was developing. I'd lose my memories of everything for at least the last four years."

"How do you know?"

Ichigo shrugs.

"Genius, remember? I analyzed her ability when I could still see it working."

"Hn." Ryuuken looks at the file before him- he can tells someone's touched it, and he has a good idea who, but he decides Ichigo doesn't need to know. "Are your medications working?"

Ichigo grimaces.

"Not really," he admits. "Everything still hurts. My blackouts are getting worse, too."

"Your hand still shake? Are you nauseous?"

Ichigo nods. "More so than before," he says. "And I keep... My mood swings are insane."

"How so?"

"I'll be happy for a while, and then something small will happen, like I've run out of shampoo or something, and I'll start thinking about how nothing is going right for me and the brain tumor and suddenly I'm sobbing. Then I'll dry my hair and get under the covers for bed and I'm content as a cat. I don't think I've ever cried so much in my life as I have in the past five months. It's embarrassing."

"Yes, because the fact your dying isn't a good enough reason to cry," Ryuuken says dryly, uncapping a pen. "I'm prescribing you morphine, for the pain. You'll need it injected."

Ichigo darkens.

"I thought the injected stuff was only for hospice-ready," he says, and Ryuuken gives him a sharp look.

"I told you a year, maybe two," he says. "And then I saw how quickly it was developing. You'll be lucky to reach the eighteen month mark, Ichigo."

The orangette looks up at that, eyes wide with surprise.

"Why are you looking at me like?" Ryuuken demands. "Your lifespan comes as no surprise-"

"No, it's not that, it's just-" Ichigo sits up. "You called me Ichigo."

Ryuuken holds his gaze a moment, an eyebrow arched regally, before looking back at his papers.

"I feel that we know each other well enough to go by first names," he says curtly. "You may me Ryuuken, if you wish."

Ichigo stares a moment longer, then breaks into a smile- a real one.

"Thanks, Ryuuken."

The Quincy shifts, but doesn't reply.

Ichigo is ranked number three.

-SOH-

Ichigo's high as a kite when Urahara drops into his life again, stumbling beside Yuzu as the shop for groceries.

"Kurosaki-san, good afternoon!"

Ichigo actually flinches at the happy-go-lucky voice, and Yuzu stiffens beside him.

"Who is he?" She asks, and he shifts so he's leaning against her.

"Urahara Kisuke, a friend of mine."

"Kurosaki-san, how are you? I didn't expect to see you here!"

Ichigo gives him a smile, but he's glassy-eyed and he fucking knows it.

"I'm fine, Urahara-san- I didn't expect to see you here, either, actually." Ichigo points at Yuzu. "This is my sister, Yuzu."

"It's nice to meet you, Urahara-san," she says warmly, before turning to Ichigo. "I need to go find a decent bunch of bananas, but I'll be right back."

Ichigo shoos her off with a dopey grin and turns back to Urahara.

"So, following me again?" He asks, stumbling a little bit in his attempt to lean against a telephone pole.

"Perhaps," Urahara admits with a nod. His gaze is assessing, raking over Ichigo's too thin face and shaking fingers.

"Why?"

The blonde shrugs.

"I discovered, through some research of my own, that you have been quite ill, for quite a long time," he says carefully, and Ichigo stiffens.

"You- who told you that garbage?"

"No one told me. I read it. In a file. A file in the care of one Ishida Ryuuken."

Ichigo blinks.

"You were stupid enough to go through Ryuuken's papers?" He murmurs. "And he didn't notice?"

"He probably did, actually," Urahara remarks thoughtfully. "He's that sort of man."

Ichigo swallows, throat suddenly dry, and the blonde's gaze softens to something akin to sympathy.

"Why haven't you told anyone?" He asks. "Your father, your sisters-"

"Yuzu knows," Ichigo interrupts. "And Tatsuki. And Ryuuken, obviously. And Benji- the pharmacist."

"But you haven't told your father, or Inoue-san or Ishida-san or Chado-dan," the shopkeeper points out. "Why?"

Ichigo sighs.

"Orihime would try to heal me," he says, looking away. "Ishida would get angry. Chado... Well, to be honest, I don't know about him. He'd probably be the best support a guy could have- he'd bend over backwards for me. I don't want that. And Dad and Karin..." He trails off.

"Why Yuzu?"

Ichigo huffs a laugh, crossing his arms.

"She figured it out on my own," he admits. "She found an empty pill bottle. Confronted me about it when I got home- ugh." He presses a hand to his eye, suddenly unable to focus, and sways, prompting Urahara to reach out and grab his shoulder.

"Sorry, sorry." Ichigo straightens, hand on the telephone pole. "I'm not used to the morphine yet-"

"Morphine?" Urahara repeats disbelievingly. "If you're on morphine, why are you even outside? You should be in bed, resting-"

"I already sleep too much," Ichigo interrupts. "If I stop getting out of bed, I've as good as stopped living. I refuse to spend my last few months in my bedroom." He pushes off from the pole and finds himself balancing properly.

"And as for telling Dad," he adds, turning away. "I'll tell him, before the end. He's been suspicious for so long, anyway."

"Come visit me." The invitation, the order, is out of Urahara's mouth before he can stop it. Ichigo stops, though, looking over his shoulder expectantly, so he forges on.

"You won't be able to see anyone, once you die," he says, and by the looks of shuttered acceptance on Ichigo's face, he knows that. "You won't remember after a while. Let them say their goodbyes, at least- they won't have the chance to welcome you, after all."

Ichigo seems to think it over, before nodding sharply.

"Fine," he says simply, and he ambles away to where his sister has been glaring at them for the entire conversation.

Urahara doesn't realize his hands are clenched into tight fists in his pockets until he gets home and they start to ache.

Ichigo is ranked number two.

-SOH-

Two nights before he goes to Urahara's, he gives Yuzu his notebooks- the full, written version of his last year and a half before he became human. He knows she's reading it, because every time she comes in to wake him for dinner or a shower, she looks paler, more concerned.

She doesn't force him to take her to the shop. She does, however, call Tatsuki, who's the only person outside of a hospital besides Yuzu herself who knows how to handle his seizures- which are only growing more and more routine in his day-to-day life.

"Just in case, you need someone there," Yuzu tells him quietly when Tatsuki shows up just before he walks out the door. "You're only getting weaker, and I don't want you dead before you absolutely have to die."

Ichigo laughs at that, pointedly ignoring the way Isshin looks up from his newspaper.

"Yeah, yeah," he says, ruffling her hair. "See ya tonight, Yuzu."

Tatsuki takes him on her boyfriend's motorcycle, a low-riding American Harley that growls menacingly as they cruise through the streets. He leans forward, putting his lips to he ear, and shouts over the motor,

"I'm gonna tell my Dad and everyone tomorrow."

"Finally think it's time?" She shouts back.

"I haven't got much time left," he explains. "I can feel it- otherwise I never would have agreed to something so stupid as a meeting like this. So, tomorrow it is."

Tatsuki smiles sadly, even though he can't see it.

"I'm proud of you," she tells him. "Left here?"

"Right down to the end of the street."

They pull up in front of the little shop where Urahara's already waiting, smoking from a long pipe and looking oddly sober.

Well, Ichigo can't have that.

"Buck up, getaboushi," he orders as he floats over, stuck in the place between pain and stumbling numbness. "This is a party, as far as I'm concerned."

Then he steps inside.

There are probably twenty people waiting for him in the relatively spacious living room, not including staff. To his surprise, Rangiku's the first to jump on him, squeezing his face into her chest with the force of her hug.

"Ichigo, I've missed you!" She cries, letting him go. "It's been so quiet without you around to rile up the captain."

Ichigo chuckles. "Yeah, I suppose it's pretty boring." His eyes slide over to Shinji and he frowns.

"Hey, Hirako. What happened to your hair?"

"Got it changed. What happened to yers? It looks like a squirrel nested in it."

Ichigo runs a hand through the shoulder length hair, tangling it in beads and knots that shouldn't really be there.

"Rough night," he says cheekily. "Pretty girls keep me up past my bedtime."

Tatsuki snorts at that and Ichigo grins before clapping his hands together.

"Okay, I need sake, and I need conversation," he says, reaching for his bag. "What have you all been doing? What's been going on? Give me details and stay awhile, I've got nowhere to be- ow, Jesus Christ!"

He suddenly has a armful of squirming Yachiru, flat on his ass on the floor as she tries to hug what's left of life out of him.

"Hello," he says mildly. "You're crushing me."

Yachiru looks up. "Something's off about you, Ichi. You feel different."

"My medication makes me lazy," he tells her. "I have trouble focusing."

"'Cause your sick?"

"Yup."

"You don't seem sick."

Ichigo glances up into the harsh, accusing eyes of Rukia.

"I have my good days," he explains with a shrug. "Today's a good day. Tomorrow might not be."

Ukitake leans forward.

"Kisuke-kun didn't quite explain what it is that's ailing you," he says cautiously. "Can it truly not be healed by human medication?"

"I have a tumor in my brain," he says, sitting up. "It could be treated, depending on the stage, but I was diagnosed too late."

"What about Orihime?" Renji asks, and wow, he's pulling a Byakuya face. "Can't she help?"

Ichigo shakes his head.

"It would only come back," he says. "It was always meant to be there, so her reversing it wouldn't do any more than give me a couple of extra months and a permanent case of amnesia."

Zaraki snorts.

"This thing's messin' with your brain, then," he says. "What's it doin'?"

"Black outs, headaches, trouble walking and talking, personality changes, occasionally seizures." The teen shrugs. "I'm in permanent hangover mode, basically. On a bad day, I end up walking around like a newborn calf, which I'm pretty certain my sister's caught on tape."

Tatsuki snorts. "I have video, too- of that time you took out that foreign exchange student, remember?"

To everyone's surprise, he laughs. "Oh yeah, I forgot about that," he says fondly. "It's okay, though. He was a prick."

Conversation continues along this vein until dinner. By that point, Tatsuki's befriended Yachiru and Shinji, and Ichigo's settled between Byakuya and Rukia. Then, of course, with dinner comes a bout of nausea and the topic of his family's brought up.

"So, Kisuke says ya haven't told them yet," Shinji says as Ichigo picks at his food. "Yer family, 'n' Inoue-chan 'n' the others."

"Yeah... I'm telling them tomorrow," Ichigo admits. "I didn't want to worry them, before, but now that it's so close to the end..." He shrugs. "I figure Karin, Inoue, and Chado have an idea, and Dad and Ishida definitely know I'm sick with something serious, but I doubt they've guessed cancer, you know?"

His phone buzzes and his pocket, and he curses.

"That'll be Ryuuken," he says, looking up at the group. "Mind if I take this?"

Urahara waves him off.

"Go, talk to your doctor," he says pleasantly. "We're not going anywhere."

Ichigo smiles and rises unsteadily to his feet, slipping out to the back of the store with the phone to his ear.

"He looks bad," Shinji says bluntly. "Is he even supposed to be outta bed?"

Tatsuki sighs. "He should be in hospice. But he refuses to spend his last days in a hospital room. He says that'll be what really kills him."

"Why didn't he tell his family?" Byakuya inquires. "Doesn't he know the pain will only be greater the later they're told?"

Zaraki snorts.

"His not telling them is an act of selfishness," he says flatly. "The only act of selfishness he's ever had the balls to perform. Can ya imagine how bad off he'd be, knowin' his sisters are countin' the days 'til he kicks it? He woulda died quicker than anythin' if that were the case." He leans back, letting Yachiru crawl into his lap.

Byakuya looks thoughtful- or at least, as thoughtful as he can look, and subsides.

"He looks like a corpse," Renji says hollowly. "I didn't expect him to look so sick- he's always pulled through before..."

"Why is he even ill?" Rukia demands. It's the first time she's spoken all evening. "He's never come in contact with anything that could give him cancer, and yet it's developed so quickly!"

Urahara shakes his head sorrowfully.

"Ryuuken thinks it's been growing since before he became a shinigami," he tells her gently. "Not to mention cancer ran in his mother's family. It's likely he would have gotten it later in life, if he hadn't now."

Rukia swallows hard, then rises.

"I'll be right back."

She slips out after Ichigo, and Shinji winces.

"That's gonna end badly," he murmurs, and Byakuya nods sagely.

"It will," he agrees. "I'll go make sure my sister does nothing... Inappropriate."

"You make it sound like she's going to feel him up, taicho," Rangiku says slyly, a smirk playing on her lips.

Byakuya gives her a blank stare.

"I wouldn't be surprised if she did," he says, deadpan. "However, I'm more concerned that her violent temper may become too much for Kurosaki. Arisawa-san, please remain on standby until I return."

"Sure thing, Kuchiki-san."

Byakuya nods and gracefully rises to his feet, following the other two out into the backyard.

There's the quiet murmur of conversation- well, not really quiet. Rukia was being relatively loud, her words terse and consciously restrained, while Ichigo's replies are quiet, soothing, calm. Byakuya stops just out of sight, just within earshot, and listens.

"You're being an asshole about this all, Ichigo," Rukia says finally, her words rising with her exasperation. "Why can't you just let all this stupid shit go? Why are you acting like death's your only option?"

Ichigo sighs softly.

"Because it is, Rukia," he says softly. "You know this is inevitable. Even without the cancer, I'm human. Fifty, sixty years and I'd be dead anyway. You have to except-"

"No I don't!"

Byakuya moves before he can think, his shunpo bringing him to Ichigo's side in a moment and his own reflexes catching Rukia's fist before it makes contact.

"Control, Rukia," he says coolly as Ichigo staggers back, his delayed reaction unable to make sense of Byakuya's catch. "You'll hurt him."

The sound of Ichigo collapsing makes them both turn to find him shaking and twitching, head pulled all the way back as he chokes for air.

Byakuya's eyes widen.

"Arisawa-san, we require your assistance!"

Tatsuki's out in a moment, he kit open and her hands on Ichigo's face. Byakuya pulls his shocked sister out of the way, fingers tight on her shoulders.

"This isn't something anyone can overcome," he murmurs into her ear, and though he can't see it, he knows her eyes are filled with shock, fear, and pain. "Not even Kurosaki Ichigo."

Shinji and a few of the others are watching now, from the doorway, all looking grim and horrified in equal measure.

Ichigo is ranked number one.

-SOH-

It's Saturday. He'd told them all to come- Ishida, and Inoue, and Chado, and even Keigo and Mizuiro. They're waiting for him downstairs, with Tatsuki and Yuzu and Karin and his Dad, and Ichigo doesn't think he can do this.

But he has to.

Taking a deep, calming breath, he shuts his bedroom door behind him.

The dizziness starts halfway down the stairs. He stumbles a bit, but manages not to fall, leaning heavily against the wall for a moment before straightening.

"I... Um..." He can't think of words. His head is too clouded with the morphine he took only an hour previously. "I've asked for you all to come here because... Because I have something to... Tell you."

The edges of his vision are fading out, going black, but he forces himself to keep looking at the group.

"I... Uh... I've been sick a while, as you've probby- probably noticed..." It's like looking through a toilet paper roll, and his line of sight's only shrinking. "I have... I've had... Cancer. Brain cancer. Pretty- pretty bad. I-"

He swoons, head smashing against the wall behind him. People are screaming, his Dad's ordering for Ishida to call the main hospital, and Ichigo...

Ichigo hopes this isn't the end.

-SOH-

When he wakes up, he smells antiseptic, and all he sees is white.

"I'm at the hospital?" He rasps, throat dry.

"You wouldn't wake up." Oh, shit, that's his Dad's voice. "So we brought you to the main hospital. Yuzu already explained everything for you. Ryuuken is taking care of you personally."

Ichigo turns his head slowly to face his father. Isshin's eyes are on his son's thin face, unusually serious.

"I'm dying," he murmurs, unnecessarily, but Isshin nods anyway.

"You are."

He doesn't ask why he wasn't told- he probably understands better than Ichigo himself. But he does sit with him until his sisters get back, before excusing himself to talk to Ryuuken. Karin cries- it's the first time Ichigo's seen her do that since their mom's death- and slides into the bed next to him. Yuzu copies her, slipping under the sheets on his other side, mindful of the machines and wires, and soon enough he's drifting off again, partially out of exhaustion and partially because of the good drugs flowing through his blood.

When he wakes again, Yuzu and Karin are gone, and Ishida's sitting by his bed, his face a composed mask.

Ichigo is high.

"So, I beat ya," he says casually, making Ishida jerk and glare at the orangette.

"Beat me at what, Kurosaki?" He inquires, but his words lack their usual snark.

Ichigo's heart hurts.

"Took your ranking," he slurs. "At school. Uryuu, you're number two, now. I beat ya."

Ishida's eyes narrow.

"Is it really that important?" He asks, pointedly ignoring the use of his first name, and Ichigo half-shrugs.

"It was a personable... Personal goal." Ichigo's brow furrows. "... 'S gettin' harder to talk."

"You're on some pretty strong painkillers," Ishida points out. "Not to mention the lethal tumor growing in your skull."

"... Doesn't help much, really," the orangette agrees. "Where're... The others?"

"Chado was around earlier. Orihime just left. Tatsuki and your sisters will be here in a little bit."

Ishida's lips are pressed together, but his chin's quivering. His eyes are wet, and God, Ichigo just feels horrible.

His hand moves on its own accord, and Ishida's cheek is cool against his palm.

"I'm sorry," he whispers, and that's it. Tears roll down the Quincy's face silently, and his own hand reaches up to cover Ichigo's.

"You're so stupid, Ichigo," he breathes. "You should have taken the damn treatment."

The orangette doesn't reply. He just lets his hand fall and watches his friend cry.

-SOH-

Ichigo's dead by the next morning. There's sobbing and screaming from the girls, and Isshin's pretty close to tears himself. Ryuuken locks himself up in his study at home until Uryuu barges in and demands what right he has to mourn before breaking down on his carpet. Ryuuken ends up taking care of his own son for the first time in three years, and it's enough to keep him busy until Ichigo's funeral.

There are shinigami there, of course, but there are others, as well- people that surprise Ryuuken. He sees younger students from Karakura High, thugs dressed, for once, in tidy button-downs and ties, even a pair of geisha dressed in black kimono, their white-painted faces streaked with tears and their lips black as night. Children Ryuuken recognizes from his rounds at the local boys' home and old women from the nursing home he sends interns to sit side-by-side, as sorrowful as the rest.

"Ichigo tried to do his best for everyone." Yuzu's voice rings through the near-silent crowd, because it's time to talk about him, to acknowledge why they're all here. "He protected what he thought precious, and did what he thought was right. He was my big brother, my best friend, and he will always be around to protect us. That's what he does best."

And, Ryuuken finds as his son leaves his side to greet a red-eyed Orihime, he might even believe her.

Everyone else seems to.

-SOH-

A/N: So, I started writing this a while ago, after my aunt's death, and decided recently to come back to it. I'm sorry for any mistakes or inaccurate renderings of brain cancer- I was just trying to get some feelings out. Not my best work, but, yeah. I hope someone else can appreciate it.