Music joke explanation: The 'f' commonly printed in classical music scores is an abbreviation of 'forte', or 'loud' in Italian.

"This dress," said Jared, tearing off a strip of gold lamé, "Is disgusting."

The chorus froze, eyes darting from Jared to the conductor for instruction, but none came.

"And where the hell is Tony?" he said, gesturing to the empty chair where his jilted lover was supposed to be, "We need to run the duet."

"Family emergency," the conductor said testily, "We've called in the understudy, he should be here any minute."

Jared tore the ribbons from his hair and stomped on them, bangs falling prettily into his gloriously shadowed eyes. "This is unacceptable," he said, swiveling with one hand on his hip, "Maestro, I'll be in my dressing room."

The conductor watched him go, the orchestra craning their necks from the pit as Jared's heels clicked off stage. And dropping his baton on the score, Maestro excused the chorus for the rest of the night, and if anyone needed him he'd be smoking out back by the dumpster.

Jared plopped in front of the vanity mirror. On top of his $18,000 fee, he required the entire dressing room to himself, so that musicians were forced to sit on their cases, as well as two assistants for his personal needs: dry-cleaning, coffee runs (Blonde Roast, two pumps), and the care of his toy poodle, Francesca. A specially ordered steak arrived, lightly braised on a bed of white truffles, and opening the styrofoam container he gave a little whistle and set it on the floor for the dog to eat.

"Ugh this make-up itches, where's the cold cream..." he muttered, pushing aside hair products until he found the jar of WHORE-B-GONE. One his assistants sat in the corner, trying to entice Francesca to eat.

"Jared?" said one of the girls from Wardrobe, knocking softly, "I have some dresses for you to look at."

He sniffed, and dabbed cream on his cheeks. "Come in."

"You're gonna kill it tomorrow night," she said, shutting the door behind her, "They sold out weeks ago, and they would have sold tickets for the dress rehearsal-"

"Please, I hate these crappy towns," Jared cut in, wiping his face with a towel, "I can't get Chinese food at 3 a.m."

" you want to buy Chinese food?" she said, standing him up for her measuring tape.

"No, but that's not the point," he said, sucking in as the tape wound about his waist, "If I were in New York, I could."

"Well money's money. By the way have you heard about Tony's mother?" she said, tutting as she measured his shoulders, "Poor guy, it's just awful, and right before opening night. Some of the girls are passing around a card to sign."

"Mmm yes..." said Jared flatly. Tony had a great voice, but all the dramatic flair of a Methodist prayer breakfast, and frankly Jared could have wished for a better co-star. Francesca whined at the steak, and he frowned in the mirror until Dog-Sitter hustled to see what the matter was.

"So who's the understudy?" he asked, pulling the first dress over his head.

Wardrobe's eyes lit up. "Ackles? Oh you're gonna love this guy," she said, bending down to fold the hem, "I saw him do 'Samson and Delilah' last month."

"As who?"

"Samson." said both girls in unison.

"Was he any good?"

"He did the whole thing shirtless." said Dog-Sitter, who was down on her hands and knees cutting up the poodle's steak with a plastic knife. She blushed under Sam's level gaze and ducked her head. "Well, he did..."

Jared rolled his eyes. "I mean does he have any technique?"

"Oh yeah, all the notes were there," said Wardrobe, talking around the pins in her mouth, "And the boy can act, none of this stick-your-hand-in-the-air-til-you-run-out-of-lines business."

"Where did he study?" asked Jared slowly. There were only a handful of great music conservatories, most of them in the Northeast, so it was possible they'd run across each other at some point.

"Um, Texas State University?"

A nasty smile toyed at the edge of his mouth. "Right."

The harpist, a standard issue blonde in ten pounds of fake silver jewelry and half as much eye make-up, was about to zip up for the night, when a young man stopped her backstage.

"I'm sorry, did rehearsal let out early?" he asked, "They called me in last second."

He must be in the wrong theater. she thought, eyes flicking down and then up again more slowly. As a rule, opera singers waddled from one end of the stage to the next and never saw the sun, big globs of mayonnaise poured into a tuxedo. This guy looked like a prom king. He smiled at her hesitation, his hand warm on her arm, and she nearly sprouted a third ovary.

" can ask the um, thingy, the conductor..." she said, swallowing hard, "but it didn't sound like we'd get to the third Act tonight. Are you in the orchestra?"

"No, tenor," said Jensen, putting down his bag and fishing out the score, "I know you're on your way out ma'am, but could you run this one spot with me?"

"Look it's late-"


She looked back at the empty stage. Everyone was on break, and the dirty dishes at home could wait another ten minutes. "Well okay, since you said please."

"I'll get these back to you toot sweet," said the girl, weighed down with dresses, "I think Ackles just got here, so we'll run the last act whenever you're ready." Jared said nothing, waving her away in irritation as he inspected his reflection.

She'd picked out a lighter dress for his death scene, a Lola gown in layers of white tulle that whispered like crepe paper. He scratched behind the dog's ears. "One more night Francy," he said, "Then we'll be on a plane out of this hick town."

An ice cooler stocked with champagne sat beside several flower vases, and he poured himself a generous measure. Draining the glass he poured himself a second round, and decided against re-applying his make-up for the last act. The understudy could take him bare-faced.

Bubbles ran up the side of his champagne flute, glittering in the soft light, and from far away he could hear the faint ripple of the harp.

"A quell'amor, quell'amor ch'è palpito..."

A tremor cut thru him, though he had heard this song a thousand times. Unlike the professionals he'd trained with, this voice had a lingering touch, like walking into the ocean on a summer's night, warm, unexpected...inviting.

His free arm hung down, heavy with the champagne bottle, and he listened to it drip ice water onto the carpet until the song ended. There was something wet on his face, but he brushed it away. "How strange..." he said to himself, not knowing where this melancholy came from.

Once he arrived backstage, the conductor smiled toothily and took Jared's arm. "Feeling better?"

Jared peered at the stage. They had already changed out the scenery for the third act, a four-poster bed beneath a cone of light, with filmy curtains wafting in the breeze. He ran a hand over his dress, and found he was sweating. "Where's the rest of the cast?"

"The orchestra only has enough time on the clock for the final duet," he said, placing a hand over his heart, "It's purely for me pumpkin, that last scene is hell for counting."

"Fine," said Jared thru his teeth, "I'll be right out."

"Great! Oh, and uh..." said the conductor, snatching something from the props table and dropping it in Jared's hand, "Don't forget this."

He gave Jared a reassuring pat, and walked away. Jared looked down at the little blood capsule, no bigger then a vitamin and labeled CHERRY FLAVOR. He considered putting it back, his teeth would be a mess by the time they finished, when he heard the orchestra tuning, and popped it into his mouth on his way to the bed.

Jensen glanced over the score, penciling in the conductor's last minute changes. He was so nervous he barely took it all in, and stopped listening altogether when he caught a glimpse of Jared across the stage.

He had Jared's career memorized: Julliard at 15, Curtis at 18, dropped out at 20 to sing 'Salome' at La Scala in Milan (and boy what Jensen would have paid to be a fly on the wall during that Dance of the Seven Veils), came back to sing in New York, then fell out with the company after sleeping with the conductor, his wife, half the brass section, and Phillip Glass, who later complained about Jared falling asleep halfway through.

He retained enough popularity to command a high fee, but Jared had lost most of his friends in the business. Jensen normally didn't pity the divas, but then again Jared was so young...

"Take some time here," said the conductor, pointing at one of Jared's passages, "And I'll bring you back in tempo...there."

"Awesome. So, Tony..." said Jensen, a note of eagerness in his smile, "Think he'll be out tomorrow?"

"That depends."

"On what?"

The conductor turned and nodded to the oboe to tune the orchestra. "On if you can sell it tonight."

The house lights went down and the strings started up, a thready pulse to set the mood. The bed was surprisingly soft as Jared sank into it, leaning back on the pillows with one hand pressed against his forehead, too weak to stand while ironically belting out a string of high notes that rattled the window panes.

Biting into the capsule, he let some of the stage blood leak from the corner of his mouth, coughing dramatically into a lace hanky. Where the hell is he? he thought, and squinted at stage right. If the intern wasn't here to sob quietly in the next five seconds...

And then on cue, a hand beckoned from the shadows. The darkness hung between them, the voice floating upwards like smoke, and though Jared knew there were at least fifty other people underneath the stage, the rest of the world suddenly seemed very far away.

It was a long string of Italian full of promises and happy hopes for the future, and ultimately boiled down to Don't Go. Jared found himself choking up, and was glad to not be wearing eye make-up.

He's probably ugly, Jared thought to himself, as Jensen took a step forward, Some chinless choir boy with dark gums and a pornstache.

Jared bunched up the lace at his throat. He didn't know what Texas put in the water, but clearly they needed to relabel it to PIECE OF ASS. Glowing under the spotlight like a roadhouse angel, high cheekbones, soft green eyes, pillowy lips, and a body so firm he probably bruised concrete just by sitting on it.

Jensen stood next to the bed. There had been no time to block the scene, and that was always the bitch of doing an Italian opera in America. Nobody knew what the hell you were singing, not really. Everything had to be expressed thru sound and grand gestures, you had to move with...purpose.

Tony had always been very chaste onstage, barely taking Jared's fingertips in his hand, and had foregone stage kissing for a weird shoulder hug to avoid smudging his make-up. But Jensen stepped right up and took Jared in his arms, one hand around his waist and the other lost somewhere in the crinoline. He trailed Jared's face with slow eyes, seemingly without a thought for anyone else in the room, and began to sing.

Is this acting? Jared thought, drawn in. Jensen looked down at him thru his lashes, his eyes shining, the words pouring out effortlessly. He came to a break in the song, which was usually Tony's cue to roll his gaze heavenwards and curse the gods, but instead Jensen bent closer.

I've got blood on my mouth. Jared thought, pressing a hand to Jensen's chest, but not pushing very hard, There's no kiss in this scene, there can't be, I'm supposed to be sick.

Jared looked away. He couldn't see Jensen's face, but he felt his breath, skating over his collarbone, his mouth brushing Jared's bared throat as they sang a desperate plea, their whole bodies humming in perfect counterpoint, "Morir sì presso a tergere, il mio sì lungo pianto" (To die so soon, yet shed my tears so long)

And then, thumbs digging into Jared's hips, Jensen lifted him off the bed, falling back against the mattress with miles of white satin spilling over him, and Jared planted neatly between his legs. It was impossible to tell off-stage with that dress, and Jared nearly lept out of his skin when their hips touched, his right hand curled over Jensen's heart.

Jensen bit back a smile as a blush worked it's way up Jared's face, this next line was his favorite.

"Dividerti morte non può da me. Ah, vivi, o un solo feretro m'accoglierà con te." (I will not share with Death. Live, or there will be one coffin for us both)

He traced the line of Jared's jaw, wistfully. The song was too short, soon the lights would cut out, Jared would climb onto a plane, and this happy moment would be a memory.

Jared took Jensen's hand, turning his mouth into his upturned palm, trying to read his face. Everything he'd lost in New York was there, love, assurance...respect. If this was acting, it was completely unfair, and no amount of money would mend it. But if this was destiny...

He just didn't know. The orchestra swelled, and soon, too soon, came his final line, echoing thru the hall like a dark pronouncement, and this time his tears were real.

"Oh cielo, e spenta. Oh mio dolor" ( Oh Heaven, it is over. Oh my sorrow)

The brass bellowed, the tympani thundered, and with a final crash the music ground to a finish. They stayed there, a frozen tableau, unresolved.

Jared had stopped breathing, the blood pounding in his temples, but only for a moment. Closing his fingers over Jensen's wrists, he drew him up in a rough embrace and pressed his lips to his, hungry and vicious, blood smeared until both their faces were a red horror. It took Jensen a while to realize the music had stopped, and, after some time, yielding at last, his mouth opened under Jared's, and the stage went dark.

Jared pulled away finally, panting. Jensen fingered a red smear on his dress.

"I got your dress all dirty," he said, embarrassed, "Think they'll us sing together again tomorrow?"

Jared leaned in with a sly tilt, whispering, "You trying to get away so soon?"

One of the chorus girls in the audience blushed, looking down at her score. "Is that printed in the music?"

"Sure it is," said the stage tech next to her, pointing at the music, "See? It says 'f'."

She glared at him, while the two men continued to thrash onstage. "That's not what the f stands for."