Quartetto [© Thea Nishimori, 2009]

This story is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. I'm not saying all male singers, or even a few male singers in particular, are gay. Even though it would be really, really hot if this story were true. Which it isn't, since it's a work of fiction. But I guess I said that already.

The concert had been a success, as usual, and the four of us had retreated to the large ready room backstage to freshen up before the party. Thankfully, our manager, Diggs, had remembered to bring in a fresh tray of sandwiches, or we would have ended up drinking cocktails on near-empty stomachs. I raised my bottle of water in a mute toast to my co-stars before biting into my first sandwich, and observed the different ways in which we each unwound after a performance.

Cesare Ricci, our intrepid leader by default of being the oldest, was a quintessential Italian opera singer - big voice, big ego, but with an even bigger heart. The only father among us, he kept a mind-numbing quantity of photos with him wherever he went, mostly of his three daughters and lovely wife. He was dressed in a fresh suit, with even his tie already tied, and perched on the edge of the sofa with a plate balanced on one knee as he sipped his water. Had he seen me raise mine, he would have returned the gesture with enthusiasm and a flash of his famous smile, but at the moment he was preoccupied with Luc.

Luc Laurent, the youngest of us, was a handsome Frenchman who, unlike the rest of us, came from a non-classical background. In fact he was something of a pop idol, and his manager had tried to talk him out of joining our quartet; however, to the boy's credit, he wanted to be more than a piece of eye candy for screaming teenage girls, and was willing to work hard to blend his voice to the three of ours. Even now, holding an uneaten sandwich in one hand, he was asking Cesare for advice on how best to project a line in a certain song, which he felt he'd not done well enough during the concert. His passion for music was unrivaled, and being young (or at least, twenty-six seemed young to the rest of us) he absorbed information like a sponge. I smiled privately as I wondered when he would actually start eating his sandwich.

Well, perhaps not as privately as I'd thought. I caught a slight movement, and looked up at Johann Leitner, who was smiling back at me with a knowing expression. He was perched on the back of the sofa, popping the somewhat wilted grapes that had been set out before the performance, one by one into his mouth - his perfect mouth, out of which came the sweetest sound imaginable. He had been the only unknown performer recruited for our group, a real find in a Paris audition with many hopefuls. I firmly believe that our success is due to him in large part, for between his handsome face (which would cause most women to swoon) and his mellow voice, he had managed to receive more fan mail than even Luc. However, he had an oddly endearing habit of deferring to Cesare and me, since we were older and more experienced as performers. He had changed into a new outfit, too, but his tie was hanging untied from his collar, which gave him an uncharacteristically roguish air.

I'm Brian Douglas, the only American of our group, and a farm boy from rural Illinois who always feels like an unrefined boor among these genteel Europeans. My wife, Michelle, often reminded me not to slouch while doing on-camera interviews, but I know it comes from a subconscious desire to be less obtrusive, or at least to look smaller - which is not easy when you're a hulking six feet two inches. I have no idea how tall Cesare is, but I can easily put my chin on top of his head, which I proved at one photo shoot, much to his amusement. "Our American giant says, 'Come, listen to us, or else!'" he had joked. Both Luc and Johann are a good height, but I can still see over their heads without trying.

When we finally went out to the reception hall to mingle with our guests, Luc having hastily swallowed his sandwich, I had the same vantage point as I usually did. Not wanting to seem aloof, I found a small table in a corner to sit at, and was accosted by a few enthusiastic fans who had only kind words for our performance. After some polite conversation, they moved on to my co-stars, which allowed me to enjoy the fine cognac I indulged in after a good concert - provided, of course, that we did not have to travel at the crack of dawn the following day. The combination did not occur frequently, for we now had a hectic schedule that often left us confused as to which time zone, or even country, we were in. It was the price of success, and all of us, even Cesare, knew it was worth the time away from our families.

I noticed that Johann had broken away from a small crowd of adoring female fans, and was heading in my direction. Predictably, my heart leapt into my throat for a brief moment, and I inhaled deeply in an effort to appear calm before he approached. He caught a glass of white wine from a waiter as he gracefully crossed the floor, and settled down in the chair next to mine.

"To another brilliant performance," he said, raising it in the same gesture of salute as I had given earlier. I casually raised my cognac again, trying to smile easily, ignoring the thudding noise coming from my chest. If not for the ambient noise of the party, I would have worried that he might hear it, too.

"Any plans for tomorrow?" I asked, feigning indifference. We were staying in Los Angeles for a few more days, with an interview the day after, but tomorrow was a rare day of freedom.

"I'm not sure," Johann answered slowly, swirling his wine. "I would like to do some... how do you say? Place-seeing?"

"Sight-seeing," I offered, with a genuine smile. Johann's English was a great deal better than my French would ever be, and although he spoke with a slight accent, I was always impressed at how well he could communicate in a second language. Considering that he came from Austria and spoke German and French and a few other languages, and could sing in Italian, my own linguistic achievements were child's play.

"Sight-seeing," he repeated, tucking it into his memory. "Yes, I think it is nice to be tourist for a day. And you? You have plans?"

"Not really," I confessed. "I was thinking of sleeping in late, then venturing out to Chinatown for lunch."

"Sleep does sound good," Johann sighed. "It has been a hard month with the travel we do."

"No kidding! I can't wait until next month." Our concert tour would end soon, and we would have almost three uninterrupted weeks to spend at our respective homes around the globe.

"Yes, it will be nice to be home." Johann looked over at me with inquisitive eyes. "You miss your wife?"

"Well... yes," I answered, struggling not to blush. Not from the sentiment, but because I knew why my reply came out with a slight hesitation. The truth was still difficult to admit, even to myself.

"Of course, this is... more hard, when you have family," he said, glancing back at Cesare. The Italian was regaling a group of guests with an animated anecdote. Johann smiled as he turned his attention back to me, but I thought I saw a trace of sadness in his brown eyes.

"Johann," I began, careful not to tread on hallowed ground, "I know your parents are... no longer with us..."

He nodded, but his smile did not fade. "Such a beautiful way to put it. But I like better to say, they are in the hands of God."

"Of course," I answered, staring a bit stupidly at him before continuing. "But do you have any other family? Grandparents, cousins?"

He glanced quickly down at his drink. "No... but I have friends. Very good friends."

I felt bad for bringing it up, now that I knew. "Ah... Friends are important."

He looked back up and smiled. "Yes. I am happy to have so many wonderful friends. Joining this group has been a very good thing for me."

Knowing that I was included in his circle of friends made my heart, which had gradually slowed down to a manageable pace, quicken again. I almost missed what Johann said next.

"I have a very old, very dear friend, in Salzburg. Almost like family, like a... father to me. He is most eager to hear about my travels. He was the friend who... encouraged me, to go to the audition. He bought me the ticket to Paris, and said, 'Here, you must go - this is the chance for you!' And he was right. This was... the best thing that ever happen to me."

"I'm so glad you did, too," I affirmed, then blushed, wondering if he could hear anything more than pure appreciation for his talent in my tone. His smile did nothing to help my discomfiture.

"And I am glad for you, also, Brian." He took a sip from his glass, a wordless toast, and I did likewise, glad to find something to do to distract myself, to break eye contact with Johann, whose very presence now affects me so powerfully that I can scarcely breathe normally around him.