Flashfic entry written for Empath Eia. Thanks to Scathachdhu for beta and drunken moral support.

Playing By Heart

The war that nearly destroyed Karakura affected Sado and his friends in different ways. They found their roles in the battle, some of them nearly dying in it. They won somehow, though when asked how they'd managed to do it, none of them were quite sure how to answer. Afterward, they returned to normalcy in different ways. Ishida focused on his sewing preparing to get into a top university, while Inoue and her fairies took to volunteering at the Kurosaki Clinic on weekends. Ichigo split time between protecting the town from the usual brand of hollows and trying desperately to prop up his sagging grades.

Sado took to playing in a band.

It had been an idle pastime, before life got so strange and Sado found himself growing distant from his friends who had no spiritual sensitivity. Kentaro spun wild tales of girls and fame to Sado, Ikki and Masi. Sado just liked to strum his guitar and play along with them, able to feel a part of something larger without having to reach for unnecessary words. Lately, he found himself doing it more often. After climbing a learning curve, it turned out that they had actual talent. Enough to get a gig at a local teen club, at least.

"It'll be great!" Kentaro raved at the end of their first practice after they landed the performance. "We'll rock the house, and get all the girls in the whole town!"

"Will they have to wait in line?" Ikki smirked.

"I don't know about you, but I can handle more than one at a time," said Masi. Sado said nothing.

"The important thing is this is a great opportunity. That means promotion," commanded Kentaro. "Tell everyone you know! If we get a big crowd—well, this is just the beginning for the Stone Sausages!"

"I still think that's a weird thing to call a band. Why did you have to go for an English name?" Ikki asked.

"Girls love English, duh." Kentaro rolled his eyes.

Sado still said nothing, and took the long way home after they separated. He wasn't so sure he knew how to promote anything. It sounded like it would involve more words than he tended to use, and he wasn't sure if he wanted everyone he knew to see them play. He didn't have stage fright, but this was their first live performance. He felt that some things should be practiced, perfected, before presenting them to the most important people.

He could think of one person he wouldn't mind watching, though. The bell over the door tinkled as he entered the clinic. Karin looked up from the desk. "Oh, hey, Chad," she said. "Looking for Ichigo?"

Sado nodded. "Is he here?"

"Upstairs." She jerked a thumb toward the ceiling. "He's been there all day tying himself in knots over his calculus. He's still not caught up on things, but I guess all this shinigami-on-the-side business keeps setting him back. I told him to ask those Soul Society people for a salary if he's gonna keep doing it, but he wouldn't listen."

Sado hesitated. "I won't disturb him then."

"You sure?" He nodded. "Okay," she said. "I'll tell him you stopped by."

"Thanks," Sado said, and proceeded home, lightly thumbing chords with his fingertips as he went.

-

"—all I'm saying is that if you see Hollow slime flying toward you, you should duck."

"Shut UP, Rukia," Ichigo growled as they stepped through the wall of his living room. His body lay prone on the floor next to Karin and Yuzu, who'd calmly continued playing cards when he'd gone off with Rukia to answer the alert.

"Welcome back," Karin said. "Ichi-nii, get back in your body before you get ectoplasm on the carpet."

Yuzu grinned. "Rukia-chan! Will you stay a while today? You don't have to go back to Soul Society so soon, do you?"

"Certainly, Yuzu-chan." She sparkled before elbowing Ichigo in the side. "You heard your sister. Climb back in."

"All right, all right," he grumbled. In a moment, he'd resumed control of his body and sat up. He pulled his cell phone out of his back pocket as Rukia settled down beside his sisters and Karin re-dealt the cards.

"Expecting a call?" she asked.

"Not really." He shrugged. "I was just hoping Chad would've called me back while I was out getting slimed. I've been trying to talk to him since you said he stopped by last week but he's always off somewhere."

"There's school," Yuzu pointed out.

Ichigo ran a hand through his hair. "I know, but something's bugging him lately. I can tell. I figured I'd talk to him alone, but he always leaves as soon as class is over."

Rukia picked up her cards and frowned at them, probably trying to remember what the little symbols meant. "Maybe he's nervous about his jig."

Ichigo blinked. "His what?"

"His jig," she repeated, then rolled her eyes in a gesture of exasperation at his stupidity. "A musical performance? Apparently he is in a band now."

"It's a gig, dumbass."

"Oh."

"What's this about a band? And how do you even know?"

"I happened to be standing on top of a telephone pole when I heard his friends discussing it with him," she replied. "I had planned to say hello to him as I was patrolling for Hollows, but they seemed quite engrossed in the topic, so I left after a few minutes. The overly excited one kept going on about their first gig."

"No one ever tells me anything," Ichigo grumped. "When is this thing?"

"How should I know?"

"It's this weekend," Karin said. They all turned to look at her. "There was a flier up on the message board at the park and it had their picture on it," she huffed. "It's not like I keep track or anything!"

"Good. You can tell me when and where, then."

"Are you sure, Ichi-nii?" Yuzu spoke up. "If he hasn't told you, maybe he wants to keep it a secret. He might be nervous if you're there."

Ichigo considered this for a moment. "Then I'll stand in the back," he said. "But he's my best friend. I'm gonna go there and support him. Even if he has no clue I'm there."

"Absolutely." Rukia nodded approvingly. "Friends should be there for each other." She lay down her hand of cards. "King me."

"Rukia, this is poker, not checkers."

"What's the difference?"

-

Backstage at the club, Sado strummed quietly at his guitar while Kentaro tried—and failed—to badger the others into wearing the new costumes he'd had his little sister sew for them. He had already tried to convince Sado, who merely stared back at him implacidly until Kentaro walked away.

He had made a concession to the occasion by purchasing a new Hawaiian shirt to wear onstage, though. It was bright pink, orange and green.

A few minutes ago he'd peeked out the curtain to look at the small stage and the dance floor that was filling up with teenagers. Rock music was playing over the loudspeakers until they were ready for their set and a few people were already dancing. Sado didn't see anyone he knew personally, though a number of his bandmates' friends were there.

"Hey." Sado looked up to see Ikki standing there, looking tense but smiling. "You ready, man?"

Sado nodded.

"Me too," he said. "I think so, anyway. This is it, for real! People who actually paid to see us! Well—they paid to be in this club, and we're here!"

"Mmm," Sado said.

"My mom even wanted to come. Can you believe it?"

He fingered the coin around his neck. "Yes."

"Anyway, it's time to go on in a couple minutes." He grinned. "We're gonna be stars, Chad."

Sado walked a few people to look out through the curtain once more. "Ah."

-

Ichigo tapped his foot impatiently and glanced at his watch. Trust Rukia to get lost, even though she'd sent a hell butterfly with the message that she and Renji would be late.

"Don't be so nervous, Kurosaki," Ishida said from his left. "Don't you trust in Sado-kun's skills?"

"Of course I do," Ichigo snapped. "And I'm not nervous. I just wish they'd get here already."

"I'm sure they'll be here soon, Kurosaki-kun," Orihime chirped. "They're probably just getting dressed for the occasion!"

"Yeah." He glanced sideways at the two and made no comment on the appropriateness of their outfits. It wasn't that they were bad; they were...nice. A little too nice, honestly. Ishida in crisp, tailored white, Orihime in a blue dress, both outfits made of fine fabric with complicated embroidery here and there. A little formal for a casual club like this, but he wasn't gonna be the one to tell Orihime her outfit was wrong.

He squinted, noticing for the first time little crosses on the neckline of Orihime's dress. "Are you guys wearing matching outfits?"

She beamed. "Ishida-kun made them," she said, and squeezed his hand. "Aren't they cute?"

"Uh-huh," he murmured.

"Ah, there you are!"

Ichigo snapped his head around in the other direction at the familiar voice. "Rukia," he said. "It's about ti—WHAT ARE YOU WEARING?"

"Impressed?" She grinned. "I did some research on your internets to find the appropriate garments."

"Yeah," the freakshow beside her nodded. "What are you staring at?"

"You," he said simply. Rukia looked only slightly deranged. She was wearing some kind of dark blue tank top and baggy pants—weird to see on her—but they seemed to be made out of rubber, and she had stupidly huge goggles perched precariously on her forehead.

Renji, on the other hand...Ichigo's vision swam. If he'd ever made a list of things he never, ever, ever wanted to see, Renji in skin-tight pants, fishnet stockings and what could only be described as a man-corset would never have made it on the list--but only because Ichigo's imagination didn't reach such horrible depths.

"What's wrong with what I'm wearing?" Renji asked. "All your modern clothes are stupid-looking anyway. Rukia said this was fine and she's spent plenty of time in the living world."

"And you listened to her?!" Ichigo gaped. "How can you be comfortable in that?"

"Oh, hush. It's not like he's ever been afraid to show a little chest. You men." Rukia rolled her eyes as if to indict the entire gender and Ichigo bristled; he wasn't the one dressed for some fetish-club rave.

"I think he looks very creative," Orihime said, only sounding a little hesitant. "After all, it's good to experiment with fashion!"

"Man..." Ichigo shook his head. In a t-shirt and jeans, he was the only normal-looking one in the group. "Just...pretend not to know me when we're inside, okay?"

-

The crowd didn't like the Stone Sausages as much as Kentaro had assured the rest of the band, but that was okay with Sado. He wouldn't really know what to do with girls' underwear anyway, and the thought of it just made him blush.

They did seem to enjoy the music fairly well, though. No one threw anything at Kentaro during his overly enthusiastic introduction of the group, and there was cheering at the end of the songs. People seemed to be dancing, too. Sado didn't pay too much attention to what was going on offstage, though. He just focused on the chords, the strumming, and rhythm.

The fact that he hadn't gotten a haircut in a while and his bangs drooped over his eyes helped.

They were all a little sweaty by the time they finished, gave their bows and left the stage. "Did you see them?" Ikki yelped. "They like us!"

"They really liked us," Kentaro said, beaming. "I think this calls for some rejoicing, guys."

"Later," Masi said, stowing his drumsticks in his back pocket. "My girlfriend's here. I promised I'd come see her right after."

"Fine, fine," Kentaro said. "But after practice this week, we PARTY. Drinks on Ikki."

"Hey!"

Sado paused as his friends went their separate ways, several of them to cheering friends or family. He wasn't sure where he should go. He wasn't tired yet, but this was not usually the sort of place he went on his own. He would have been welcome with any of them, but though they were friends, they weren't close the way he was with his other friends. Bonds of blood were not so easily forged. He wondered if maybe he should've told Ichigo about the show after all.

He was still wondering as he walked along the edge of the crowd when he heard it. "Hey! There he is! Sado-kun, over here! Over here!"

He turned to see Inoue, Ishida, Ichigo, and a couple of cosplayers that, when he blinked, miraculously became Kuchiki-san and Renji.

"CONGRATULATIONS!" Inoue hurtled toward him, wrapping her arms around him in a tight hug. "It was wonderful! You did so well!"

"Yeah, good job, Chad," Renji said.

Rukia nodded. "I could almost be persuaded to enjoy modern music the way your quartet played it."

"It's a band, Rukia," Ichigo said. "Hey, Chad. Nice show."

Sado stared, stunned. "How did you...?"

He smirked. "A guy has his ways."

"I heard you talking about it," Rukia said.

"She told him," Renji followed up.

"Shut up." Ichigo scowled. "Holding out on us, huh, Chad? Ready to ditch us for fame and fortune?"

"No!" Sado protested. "I did not want to bother you."

Ishida rolled his eyes. "You know, Sado, for an intelligent man you can be remarkably dense at times."

Orihime rested her hand on Ishida's arm. "What Ishida-kun means is that of course we want to be here. We're your friends. Even if we're doing other things...some things are just more important."

"So, wanna celebrate your first gig with something to eat?" Ichigo asked. "Someplace quieter?"

"And we got dressed up for the occasion." Rukia sounded disappointed.

"Yeah, and you're gonna have to get dressed down before we go out." Ichigo turned to her. "I'm not gonna be seen with you guys in those freak—I mean, they're really not traditional dining wear here. Um."

"We can go back to my place, Kuchiki-san, it's not far," Orihime said, taking her hand and leading her away. "You still have some clothes there from the last time you visited."

"And I'll be able to manage...something...for Abarai," Ishida said, pushing his glasses up his nose, and followed.

"I guess they'll catch up with us," Ichigo said. "Ready to go?"

"Ichigo." Sado stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "Thanks."

"Hey. No big deal." Ichigo shrugged. "Some things friends just do. Don't be stupid."

He walked away, toward the exit and the nearest burger joint, and Sado followed, because his friend was right, and because sometimes it was better to be with the ones one cared about than to be alone.

And because playing guitar did always make him hungry.