There were days so steeped in happiness, they were like the perfect ending to a well-loved series. It was Han and Leia kissing before Kylo Ren screwed up their happily-ever-after. It was saving the galaxy, recovering the lost treasure, and rescuing the princess all at once, and Walter Chen clutched every second to his heart, wishing he had the power to slow down time. But this wasn’t a book or a movie. This was his life, and he wanted to remember the details so he could savor them whenever his anxieties overwhelmed him.
Today was the opening ceremony, often called the booting ceremony, for his manga comic to begin filming for television. It was how Chinese productions asked for blessings before shooting began. The production company, the stars, and the creators got together. Media was present, and everyone joined in the celebration. He didn’t even care that he was standing in the back of the soundstage, barely visible behind the lighting crew. He knew they thought he was an unimportant cog in the vast machine that was television.
It didn’t matter because he’d been the first cog. What had started as a fever dream, then drawn in desperate breaks from his barista job, was now about to become a television show, and he thanked everyone he met for their part in his good fortune.
“Yaz!” he said as his agent stomped up to him on her impossibly high heels. “Can you believe this?” he said, gesturing expansively around the set.
“No, I can’t!” she snapped. “It’s un-freaking-believable. I’m going to put a stop to it right now.”
He blinked. She didn’t sound giddy happy like he was. In fact, her brows were lowered, as if he’d just killed her favorite purse Chihuahua, Louis. “Um, what?”
“Come with me,” she said, gripping his arm in a vise hold. “We’re going to talk to the director right now.”
Walter stumbled after her, doing his best not to sideswipe makeup artists, costume designers, or (God forbid) any of the on-camera talent. The female stars were so thin, he was afraid he’d accidentally snap their bones. Then Yaz grabbed director DuYi’s arm and hauled him none too gently around.
“Did I or did I not negotiate for the creator to help with casting? Who plays what part is very important to Walter, and he has the right to give his input. He knows where the story is going. You don’t.”
DuYi blinked at her, understandably confused. He’d just finished toasting the production’s success for the eighth time. Her demands were completely at odds with the tone of the ceremony, and it was taking him a moment to adjust. “Miss Yaz,” he said, “of course the creator was consulted. Did you get some champagne?”
“Really?” Yaz said as she pulled Walter forward. “Look around,” she instructed Walter. “Did you choose any of these people? Did you?”
“No, I didn’t, but it’s—” He was going to say not important. Casting was a great deal more complicated than who would be the best actor to play the role. Especially in China—where this production was being filmed— actors were chosen because of political ties, fan engagement on the Asian version of Facebook, plus a zillion other factors. Honestly, Walter was too happy to argue over casting.
His agent didn’t give him a choice. “He hasn’t been consulted on anything!”
The director frowned, first at his empty champagne glass, then at Walter. “Who is this?” he asked.
There it was, the deflation to his happy balloon. The director didn’t even know who he was.
“This is Walter Chen.” And when DuYi still didn’t recognize him, Yaz snapped out in frustration, “The creator of Winter Wolf’s Reign. The man who wrote the manga that you’re taking to television!”
DuYi’s eyes widened as he looked down at Walter. He blinked several times, as if he couldn’t believe that the short, bespectacled guy in front of him was the geek who’d created the story adored by millions of fans. “You’re not Touko Chen.”
Walter shook his head. “That’s my cousin. He helped with the anime, but the original manga is mine.” Everyone stood there as they realized what had happened. Walter’s agent had given him casting input, but that honor must have gone to his cousin by accident. Oops.
“Uh, well, um…,” the director said, obviously sweating. “But you got the check, right? Those were sent to the right place.”
Yaz rolled her eyes. “Of course we got paid. I made sure of that.”
“Well, then, it’s all good.”
No, actually, it wasn’t all good. Walter was a quiet man, but that didn’t mean he was unimportant. He was about to say as much when Yaz started in on her I’m-shocked-and-appalled routine. She gasped, pitched her voice into a furious growl, and even managed to push out a few tears as she demanded recompense for their error. It was one of the reasons she was a great agent.
She’d just gotten started with the “I am horrified that a director of your reputation—” when DuYi broke in.
“No, no! Of course we understand. Mr. Chen knows that he could not select the stars. That was explained to you, yes, that the principals were already selected? But of course you have the choice for the remaining roles.”
“What roles?” Walter had already seen the list of the actors and parts. Everyone was assigned.
“Um, uh….” DuYi rubbed a hand over his forehead before he snapped his fingers. “Shan Ru, the drunken student who becomes a wolf. His role has not been assigned.” He made an expansive gesture to where the kung fu actors were drinking and laughing together. “You may pick the man for that.”
Yaz snorted. “He isn’t important. He only has a few lines.”
“But he is in almost every episode. He provides an excellent balance for the hero.”
The director was throwing him a bone, but what he didn’t understand was that Walter was still writing the manga comic. If he liked any character, he would create a bigger role for the guy. But he never got the chance to speak as Yaz narrowed her eyes at the group of fighters.
“They’re stuntmen,” she drawled. She sounded like she was calling them prancing clowns. Then she looked at him. “Walter’s a martial artist too. He could probably do just as well. Plus, he acts.”
Walter absolutely did not act. He wrote, he drew, and he practiced a weird form of kung fu because his aunt had paid for the lessons. That did not make him a stuntman, by any stretch of the imagination. He was about to say that when DuYi clapped his hands with a cheerful grin.
“Excellent! Walter will work out with the men. He can tell me who will play the drunken student tomorrow.” Then he sauntered off, speaking rapid Chinese to the clutch of fighters.
Meanwhile, Walter spoke in an undertone to Yaz. “I can’t fight with them! They’ll kick my ass.”
“Nonsense,” she said, patting his arm. “Just throw a few kicks and look critical. This is about appearing to be good instead of actually—”
“Getting my ass kicked by real martial artists?”
She frowned at him. “Well, yeah. Don’t get your ass kicked. I’m going to squeeze out more money from them for screwing up with the casting.” She gave him a wink. “Try to have fun. This might take a few hours as I round up the right people.” She sauntered off toward the lead producer.
That left Walter standing there when a costume girl came up and handed him a gi while making gestures toward a back area that was covered with mats. When he looked, he saw the stuntmen pulling off their street clothes. Some of them were obviously unhappy with the change. They hadn’t planned on working out on the day of the booting ceremony, but DuYi had ordered them to, and now they were looking at him with expressions ranging from annoyed to gleefully evil.
Oh hell. These pissed-off guys really would kick his ass. Fortunately he’d learned early how to deal with bullies. It wasn’t a foolproof tactic, but it might help him out here.
He wasn’t a great martial artist, but he was a kickass comic. He’d learned young that if he looked funny while doing stuff, people would laugh. And laughing people—even if they were laughing at him—didn’t usually hurt him too badly.
That was his plan. He’d spent a lot of time learning moves that looked ridiculous and still managed to get him out of trouble. He’d suffer a few bruises along the way, but that was better than the pummeling that would likely happen otherwise. With a weak smile, he found the bathroom and changed. Then he stepped onto the mat to face a dozen guys who really were not impressed with his lack of muscles, size, or general intimidation factor.
“Um, hi, guys. Look, this wasn’t my idea. DuYi just thought we could, you know, hang out a bit.”
Silence. Either they didn’t understand English or they didn’t care.
“Um, well, okay. I’ve had some champagne, so I don’t know how good I’ll be.” He mimed drinking and gestured over to the main area. Again, no one cracked a smile. Hell. These guys were major hardasses. “So what are we going to do?”
A big guy stepped forward and greeted him with a quick bow. “We begin with throws,” he said in English.
“Okay. Hi, my name is Walter.” He held out his hand to shake.
“I am Kong.” And wasn’t that a really obvious name for the man? He had anvil-sized hands and shoulders as broad as some beds. He took Walter’s hand in his, and instead of the warm handshake Walter expected, he bent his knees and threw Walter across the floor.
Oh yippee. It was going to be one of those sessions. Fortunately he knew how to roll into the throw so that he landed without too much damage. He did that now, landing on his feet with an aw-shucks smile.
“You got me there. Nice throw.” He searched their faces, looking for someone who showed that he understood English. No one gave him the slightest clue. The next guy approached. He was not as big as Kong, but his hands looked just as strong. He bowed, introduced himself as Teng, and also threw Walter across the mat.
This time he was ready. He even managed to defend against the first grip, but Teng was fast and switched tactics midgrip. Walter went flying toward the cardio equipment, barely managing to avoid braining himself on the elliptical machine.
“Ha-ha. Nice throw,” he said as he rolled to his feet. What these guys didn’t realize was that he was memorizing every single one of their names. He doubted he had any real casting control, but anyone who was an asshole just to be an asshole was not getting his vote for any part. It was the only revenge he had, and he gleefully embraced it as he got tossed from one side of the soundstage to the other.
Some guys were nicer than others about it. Some were downright cruel. And though Walter might have successfully defended himself against a few, he chose not to make the effort. Instead, he poured on the drunken stumble. It was the only way for him to save face—by claiming he was drunk. Plus, it gave him time to hope they’d start laughing.
They did, some with more cruelty than others. He kept memorizing their names while he stumbled “accidentally” into the cardio machines, the fake trees of the set, and even one of the makeup tables.
He was getting pretty beaten up. His ribs were already aching with bruises, not to mention his legs. He wondered how long it was going to take until they got tired of this. He sure as hell was. So this time he drunk stumbled into one of the fake trees of the set. It had hard pointy branches, and he let his gi get caught while he twisted and fumbled to escape. He put his best comic confusion into the work, and sure enough, Kong’s laughter boomed across the soundstage. Walter had already guessed that the guy was the leader, and pretty soon everyone else was chortling too.
All except for one young man. He’d never introduced himself, but he watched everything with dark, serious eyes. Now he stepped up to unhook Walter’s gi.
“You are free now,” he said in slow, careful English.
He was, but Walter exaggerated his movements just enough that he was caught again, much to the hilarity of his audience. Excellent. But the man standing next to him didn’t break a smile. Instead, he leaned into the problem and gently disentangled Walter again.
Walter swayed, catching himself again.
“Please stand still.”
He did and was unhooked.
“Now you are free—”
He raised his arms too far and caught his sleeve this time. To the side, everyone was holding their sides with laughter. Everyone except the man with the dark, serious face who stood patiently beside him, unhooking him as if trying to save Walter from further embarrassment.
Walter actually felt bad for the guy, but his antics kept the tormenters off him. So, in a way to make amends, he held out his hand.
“My name is Walter.” Then he tensed, ready to be thrown now that his gi was free. But the man didn’t do it, though he could have easily tossed him halfway across the room.
“My name is Bing Wen Hao.” He nodded. “Please, I wish you to teach me.” He spoke the last part in an undertone only loud enough for Walter to hear.
Walter reared back with an embarrassed laugh that wasn’t fully faked. He had no idea what this guy’s deal was. Too bad too, because Bing flashed him a smile that was camera-ready gorgeous. High cheekbones, cute dimples, and a steady gaze that suggested honesty. Walter didn’t trust it, of course. He’d learned young that actors were good at their trade. They could fake sincerity better than anyone. And so he snorted as he pretended to reel into the tree again. “Bing? Like a Bing cherry? I’m sure there’s a joke there, but I’m too drunk to think of one.”
“No matter,” Bing said with a shrug. “They have thought of many.” He glanced over at the others, who were losing interest now that Walter wasn’t falling on his ass anymore.
Poor guy. It seemed he’d been the butt of a few jokes too. Walter could relate. Now that he was standing still for a bit, he could feel the ache building in his body. He stopped himself just short of groaning. He was going to pay for today’s “workout.” In the meantime, Bing looked up at the others and spoke rapidly in Chinese.
Kong frowned but shrugged, then waved at Walter. “Bye-bye, Walter,” he said in a singsong voice. “Come back anytime.”
Jerk. It was clearly an invitation to get his ass kicked again, but he was supposed to be a drunk American, too stupid to know subtext. So he smiled and waved as the others wandered away. Before long, everyone else had left the workout area.
Kong had remained the longest, his gaze heavy on Bing, who simply stood there like a Chinese man of mystery. It was a cliché, but Bing personified it to a T. Eventually, Kong shook his head and disappeared too.
Walter waited for a few moments, then finally exhaled in relief. The head tormentor was gone.
Bing patted Walter’s arm. “Kong can be kind, but his father has disciplined most of it out of him.” Walter dropped down on the mat. “One of those dads, eh? I have one too, but he gave up on me a long time ago. My two older brothers got most of the heat.” They also got the coveted biomedical engineering degrees, whereas all Walter had ever wanted to do was draw comics. That was him, the comic genius/disappointment. “
Kong’s father is the grand master who trained all of us, but he makes sure that Kong is the very best.”
Kong wasn’t the best person. That, obviously, was Bing, who dared be kind to the American. “Kong is old enough to be responsible for his own actions.”
Bing smiled. “In China, we can never escape our parents.”
“In America, we can run very far away from them, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, they forget about us.”
Bing smiled, and they shared a moment of connection. It was really nice, given that for the past hour, he’d had to smile through an ass-kicking. But as the seconds ticked by, Walter realized Bing seemed to be waiting with him, even though he probably had better things to do than babysit an abandoned American. Hell, given his looks, he probably had a dozen more fun things to do, with better-looking people. “If you have to leave, I’ll be fine. My agent is around here somewhere.”
“I am hoping I can convince you to teach me,” Bing responded. Walter laughed. “Teach you what? You guys are way better than I am.”
Bing waited a moment to answer. In fact, he waited an uncomfortably long moment, his steady gaze dark on Walter. Then he squatted down beside him. “I do not believe you are any less talented than us. And you are certainly well trained, though not in our style of kung fu.”
“I’m trained in Monkey kung fu.”
“A fine discipline.”
Wow. He sounded like he meant it.
“But what you did here?” Bing continued. “That did not come from your teachers. That you figured out on your own. I wish to learn it from you.”
Walter leaned back. “I… um….” Just how much had he figured out?
Bing extended his hand. “Will you teach me?”
“Teach you what?”
“How to fall as if drunk. How to land on your face without hurting your nose. How to land against the wall with such noise and yet stand up without bruises.”
“Oh, there are bruises,” he said. “Believe me.”
Bing nodded. “Please. Will you teach me?” His expression was so earnest that Walter knew he was going to give in. It was disconcerting, really, because the man was so gorgeous, and yet so simple in his approach. Everything he said was spoken clearly, without any subversion, without a shift of the eye or body—none of the usual tells of someone who was distracted or lying. It was as if he was exactly as he appeared—a gorgeous guy with singular focus who sincerely wanted to learn.
It was flattering to be the focus of such a man. And a little bewildering to a guy who was used to being discounted.
“I can show you what I do,” Walter finally said. “It’s not that hard.”
And so Walter spent the next hour teaching while Bing earnestly mimicked him, flowing in and out of patterns of movement. Walter adjusted how Bing walked, landed, even stood. And in the end….
It didn’t work.
Bing couldn’t fake being drunk. He couldn’t even credibly fake a stumble. It was impossible for him to fall smoothly, as if he’d been off balance. The man didn’t have any comic timing. Not in his body, and not in his language either. He was earnest. He was kind. And he never failed to give Walter the respect usually reserved for heads of state or religious icons. And Walter was no Gandhi or Mother Theresa. After an hour of it, Walter punched Bing in the shoulder.
“Dude, I just made a joke. Crack a smile, will you?”
Bing turned and gave him a brilliantly warm smile—one that showed off his dimples, that made the light catch his eyes just right, and had little Walter perking up with interest. Then, a second later, the smile was gone, replaced by Bing’s habitual mask of respect.
“Um, wow. That was….” Sudden. Weird. Unsettling. “You were so happy there for a second….”
“I am happy,” Bing said quietly. “I am sorry I am such a bad student.”
Walter reacted immediately. “You aren’t a bad student. You listened, you tried, you—”
“I can’t do it like you do. It does not look real.”
That was true. There was no sense in denying it. “I don’t think you’re a comic actor, Bing. With practice, you could learn it so that people couldn’t tell you were faking, but it isn’t natural for you. You’re the brooding intense guy, not the comic relief. That’s good, by the way. It means you’re a leading man— not the supporting character with the weird face.” If Walter was ever going to make it in movies—which was not on his list of wants—then he’d be the funny-looking guy who brought in the laughs but never, ever got laid.
Bing nodded, his gaze downcast. “It doesn’t matter. I am not likely to get a role anyway.”
Well, hell. Walter wanted to help him, but the role of Long Wei required someone who was naturally funny. Someone who could appear drunk but still fight. Someone who wasn’t quite as good as the hero— physically or morally—but was appealing nonetheless. It required a comic actor or someone who was so stiff as to be made a laughingstock. The role could go either way, but Bing would be a disaster at both.
“I’m sorry,” Walter said gently.
“One day, maybe.”
Walter smiled. “Yeah. Sure.” But he knew that good roles were hard to come by, and no way would Bing just walk into a dark, mysterious character role. That required connections and money. If he had to guess, Bing had neither.
Meanwhile, Bing surged gracefully to his feet. When he extended his hand, Walter gripped it and allowed himself to be pulled upright. “Do you wish to change? We have a bathing area—”
“God, yes. We Americans don’t smell nearly as pretty as you. At least I don’t.” Bing, on the other hand, smelled fantastic. How was it that even his sweat smelled sexy?
Bing smiled, and this time the look was natural and easy. Better yet, it touched his eyes with a haunting kind of yearning. As if, when unguarded, Bing had a core need that reached through his eyes to grip Walter right in the gut. It was both beautiful and sad, and it completely captivated Walter.
“This way,” Bing said.
Walter blinked, still caught by the beauty of Bing’s eyes. “What?”
He led Walter into a basic locker room. Both of them stripped down before stepping into the stalls. Walter tried to be respectful—hell, he tried to be completely private with his lust—but Bing was beautiful. The man had a sculpted torso, rippling muscles, and a golden tan that made Walter’s mouth water. His hair was dark, his smile genuine, and the way he moved filled Walter’s head with desire.
Better yet, he caught Bing looking back. Walter didn’t have a physique like a god—not like Bing did—but he was muscular and reasonably fit. It was only natural to preen a bit. But it didn’t last long.
While Bing wrapped a robe around his body to hide himself, Walter covered himself with a heavy towel and then a robe, both knotted to hide his erection. Bing noticed, of course. The man seemed to be hyperaware of him. He had to know that Walter was interested. Hell, Walter was nearly dripping with desire.
They headed together for the shower stalls. They walked side by side, and when Bing took a quick darting look at Walter, the side expression was so mesmerizing that Walter stumbled, this time not on purpose. Bing caught him. Of course he did. He was that fast, that smooth. And while they stood there practically nose to nose, Walter took the risk.
With a slow, deliberate movement, he stretched up on his toes and pressed his mouth to Bing’s. The kiss was slow and sweet. He didn’t fumble. He pushed his tongue between Bing’s teeth and teased him. Ducking in and out, he murmured a low sound of appreciation, and he gripped Bing’s shoulders hard enough that he could feel the play of the man’s muscles.
He felt Bing’s breath catch and rejoiced when Bing opened his mouth and angled his head. He practically sang in ecstasy when Bing’s tongue darted forward to play back.
Yes, yes, yes!
Walter’s blood surged and his erection stiffened painfully. He got his weight under him and began moving Bing behind the curtain toward the shower wall. They were going to do such things to one another—
Bing tore himself away from Walter, scrambling sideways. And though his breath heaved, the word had been torn from him in a desperate whisper. And then it was repeated, even quieter.
It took a moment for Walter to adjust. His robe had fallen open, and the towel had unwound to drop onto the tiled floor. He was standing there painfully erect while the man of his dreams appeared to be holding on to the wall for support.
Well, that didn’t seem right.
He took a moment to steady his breath. Then he straightened as best he could, though his erection was still straining forward like a Bing-seeking missile. “Um, okay,” he said. “Did you… um… need something?”
Like maybe a condom? A statement of devotion? A medical report? Anything that would suggest they could pick up again where they’d left off?
Walter knew that wasn’t going to happen. He could see it on Bing’s face. Still, a part of him—the hard and horny part—was holding out hope.
“I am sorry, Walter,” Bing said stiffly. “There has been a… misunderstanding.”
Yeah, so he gathered.
“I… I date girls,” Bing said. “I am not gay.”
Walter almost said Are you sure? People could be into both girls and guys. But even more than that, Walter knew his kisses, and his gaydar was pretty good. No one kissed like Bing without being into it. And if that was true, then Bing was at least bisexual.
He didn’t say any of that. Whatever the truth of Bing’s sexuality, the man had said no, and there was no point in trying to logic anyone into bed. No meant no, regardless of the reason. Though Walter could admit to being very disappointed.
He covered up as best he could and backed away. “My mistake,” he said, hating the desperate rasp to his voice. “I was confused. My bad.”
He hadn’t been confused. He was pretty sure Bing was the one who was in denial here, but again, there was no point in arguing. Bing would face his sexuality when he was ready. Walter just prayed he was around when Bing finally decided to do some exploring. In the meantime, he needed a shower.
A cold one.
He backed out of Bing’s stall and headed to the next one. He flipped the water onto icy, and he forced himself under it. When he was finally out and dressed—while Bing was still in the shower—he called Yaz, who was still in discussions with the producer and director. Apparently she’d spent the past two hours negotiating on his behalf and now wanted him in the conference room to finalize details.
“And hey,” she said, just before hanging up. “Did you decide on who’s going to play Long Wei?”
Walter smiled. He knew just the person. “Kong will make a great buffoon. Give him the role.”
“And there’s another character I want to lay in right now. We’re going to be seeing a lot of him.”
Typical for Yaz, she didn’t miss a beat. “Sure thing. Who?”
Walter lowered his voice. He didn’t want anyone else hearing what he was about to say. “There’s someone who’s going to be important next season.”
“Okay. Who is it?”
“He’s called Red Wolf. And I’m giving Bing Wen Hao the role. Can you make sure that happens?”
“Red Wolf. Bing Wen Hao. Got it.” She paused. “The studio will want control of the character. You won’t be able to spin him off into a movie or novels without their permission.”
“I know,” Walter said. That was the standard arrangement, but it was more important that Bing get the role now. If Walter wanted to write an origin story for him later, well… he’d just deal with that then.
Walter hung up, then finished dressing and called into the shower. The water was still running, but he was sure Bing would hear him.
“My apologies, Bing, but I must rejoin my agent. I wish you the best of luck. I hope that next time I am in China, we will be able to work out together again.” He kept his voice polite without any of the longing he felt inside.
The water abruptly shut off. “Yes, Walter, that is my hope as well.”
The words were completely professional, but would the man step out from behind the curtain and say something else? Better yet, would he do anything else? Like grab Walter and drag him into the hot, wet shower?
Walter waited, his heart pounding in his throat. God, how he hoped….
The shower kicked back on. No Bing. No sudden illicit sex in the back of a soundstage. Walter was being dismissed.
Not a surprise, and yet the disappointment cut deep. Fortunately, Walter knew how to handle painful emotions. He planned to pour all of his hunger into creating the role of Red Wolf. If he couldn’t give Bing the kind of hot sex they both craved, then he would give him the role of a lifetime. That would work out for Bing, at least. And Walter would get to fantasize about his hot Chinese god and call it work.