Owen jumped awake when his trailer door slammed open. When his eyes opened, though, all he saw was his co-star, Chris. Chris came bearing gifts, too - a steaming cup of coffee not from the catering tent but from the coffee shop between his house and the studio. Owen recognized it from the smell alone, more sugar than caffeine and pure sin for a man who made a living from his looks and body.
“Wakey wakey, eggs and bakey!” Chris chirped as he spoke, as if the pancreatic bomb disguised as coffee wasn’t enough of a clue that something was up. Chris wasn’t a cheery guy, especially not in the morning. Whatever this hour might be, Chris tried not to see it if he could avoid it.
Owen groped for his phone. According to his cellular provider, this hour was six o’clock. “Why are you on set this early?” He groaned and let his head flop back, hitting the wall behind the couch.
Chris cared nothing for his pain. “Because Drew, director extraordinaire, was struck by a muse at four thirty. Either that or he took the really good acid last night. No, I don’t know why. He called everyone in, and I do mean everyone, but somehow he seemed to think it was enough to tell me to call you.” He set Chris’ coffee on the table in front of him with a flourish.
The slight stabbed at Owen, somewhere just south of his heart, The injury could only be minor at this point; Owen had built up enough scar tissue he almost didn’t notice anymore. “They think we’re fucking.”
“Whatever. I’m married. As long as Kasie knows I’m faithful I don’t give a crap what the fangirls think, and it keeps them entertained so who gives a shit?” Chris smiled that megawatt grin of his. “And hey, it means you don’t wind up with one of Ryan’s little creepers giving you your wakeup call, so it’s a win all around. Come on, let’s get up and start the day. Maybe we’ll get out on time for once.”
Owen swallowed his complaints and rolled off of his couch. He’d never been much of a morning person and he wasn’t about to start now. At the same time, he didn’t expect Chris to sit there and listen to his usual morning whinging. No one deserved that kind of nonsense.
He shuffled the few steps over to the bathroom and crept into the shower stall. At least he’d made it this far. He soaped up and washed himself as quickly as he could, not wanting to hold production up any longer than he had to. He had no idea what bug had crawled up Drew’s ass in the wee dark hours, but he was already on the director’s shit list this week thanks to one of Ryan’s stunts going wrong. He didn’t want to make things worse for himself.
He hopped out of the shower and rummaged for something his character, Ace Wilder, would wear. Wardrobe might have him in something else today, depending on which scene they were shooting, but he’d found it saved time just to wear his character’s clothes around. It worked out better for his wallet too, but he didn’t like to talk about that.
He didn’t think twice about changing in front of Chris. They’d lived in each other’s pockets long enough to have seen everything anyway. Chris didn’t even raise an eyebrow, just scrolled through messages on his phone.
“You’ll love this.” Chris sipped from his own coffee as he read. “Evidently Marcel Blau opened his mouth again. According to him, entertainers should keep their mouths shut about social issues and just perform. ‘Said the actor, known for roles such as the villain in Something Borrowed, no one wants to hear about this sob story or that problematic director. No one cares. You just make yourself look a fool.’ Says the guy who’s been the public face for a campaign for a candidate who’s an actual white supremacist.” He shook his head, eyebrows only slightly raised. “Does he think we don’t know?”
“Probably.” Owen snorted. “Whatever. He’s just trying to make himself relevant and get people to cast him in ways that don’t have people pulling their kids away from him in autograph lines.” He combed his damp hair, but didn’t put too much effort into it. The hair people would do whatever they wanted with it anyway. “You ready?”
“Yeah, you bet.” Chris rose to his feet, the epitome of grace as always, and they headed out of the trailer and onto the production lot.
A few members of the crew waved. Owen waved back, but a knot formed in his stomach anyway. He used to be on good terms with most of the crew, but then Ryan started opening his mouth. He’d noticed a certain chill - but what was he supposed to do? He couldn’t follow people around and force them to like him.
He pushed the worry out of his mind. He could only control the things in front of him. If people saw Ryan, and the way he behaved, and chose to believe him anyway - that was on them, not on him.
He and Chris presented themselves to the director, Drew. Drew’s gray eyes burned with a manic fever as he looked them both over. “I can’t say I’m surprised you showed up together. It’s probably overkill. Owen, we won’t need you for a few hours. My inspiration was for that scene between Chris and Ryan - the one where they’re fighting a horde of drones. We won’t need you for that scene at all. I think your character is off - wait, I’ve forgotten where he’s supposed to be.”
Owen plastered a vapid smile onto his face. I’ve got top billing. The fact that Drew can’t remember what my character is supposed to be doing doesn’t matter. “He’s escaping from captivity.” Again.
“Right, right. Maybe we can find a way to include Ryan in that too. The producers want to give him more screen time. They think the fans want it. Why, I don’t know. Anyway, there’s fans lined up outside, why don’t you go meet and greet or whatever?” He waved his hand and turned to Chris, already forgetting Owen’s presence.
Owen kept his dippy little smile in place. He might be furious. He might be ready to punch someone. He couldn’t let it show. He got paid the same no matter how much time he spent on camera, and he couldn’t afford to trash his reputation even further.
He shuffled out into the light yet again. The production lot was already hopping even before seven in the morning, but that was the way things rolled around here. He stopped to get himself a breakfast burrito from catering and ambled over toward the little trio of pop-ups where the studio let fans visit.
The show, Dark Warriors, was known in the industry for its unusual openness with fans. The producer, Jim, had figured out early on that the fans were what kept the show going. They were the ones who kept the ratings up, the ones who showed up to conventions. Fans kept the show’s name in front of mind, and for free, when PR didn’t have much to work with. For the most part, Owen agreed with him.
He loved the fans. He loved their passion. He couldn’t help but be flattered by the fact that people got up early enough to be on set even earlier than the actors, just to catch a glimpse of them arriving on set. If they wanted to get an autograph or whatever, he’d give it to them for free.
As he neared the fan holding area, an excited scream rose up from the assembled enthusiasts. He grinned. There was no mistaking him for Chris, or for Ryan. Neither of his colleagues was Hispanic. Neither of them had his brown skin, or his dark wavy hair. He stood head and shoulders taller than they did, too. As soon as they saw him, the fans knew who he was, and so the excitement was for him. The producers could mouth whatever about Ryan being good for ratings, but they couldn’t take this away from Owen.
Not that he grudged Chris his fans. The way things had been going on this set lately, Owen simply felt perfectly comfortable taking what appreciation he could get.
A production assistant appeared beside Owen, almost as if by magic, and supplied him with a fine-point Sharpie. He thanked her, remembering that her name was Veronica at the last minute, and turned back to the crowd. The first person in the line was maybe fifteen. The older of his half-sisters would only be a little younger than she was, and he had to swallow past a lump in his throat when he thought about Silvia.
The girl gazed up at him, moved beyond words for a long moment. “My god, you’re even taller in real life!” she squeaked, when she finally remembered how to speak.
Owen laughed and took the little journal she held out. “I get that a lot. What’s your name, sweetheart?” He didn’t wink or flirt, even if the studio wanted him to. He had to behave a certain way out at clubs or whatever, but he wasn’t going to drag the fans into that stupid charade.
She told him it was Lisa, and he wrote his thanks to her for coming out to the set on the blank page. As he wrote, he told her how much it meant to him to have her there. Maybe it was hokey, and maybe the words all blended together in his head because he’d said them so often over the past four years.
Whatever. Every time he did this, the vast majority of these fans went home and poured out these heartfelt declarations online, talking about how much these encounters helped them and made a difference in their lives. He’d gladly speak the same words over and over, if it helped someone out.
He did the same thing again and again, although for different people. One young kid of maybe eighteen told Owen how he and his character had given the kid the courage to come out, which was kind of funny because the studio demanded Owen stay closeted. A middle aged woman told him how he’d given her the strength to leave her abusive husband. Others talked about how he’d inspired them to stay in school, go back to college, whatever. He couldn’t understand how someone like him could be so much to so many, but their words burned away his resentment from the sound stage earlier.
Not every fan under the pop ups was enthusiastic about his presence. A small but visible minority took a giant step back once he showed up among them, and Owen wasn’t surprised to see they were wearing mostly-homemade tee shirts with Ryan’s face on them. He treated them as graciously as he could without violating their clear desire for him to stay away.
He took his time with the people who did want to interact with him, and it took him about an hour to get to the middle of the pack. By that point, a stick-thin young woman in a Ryan tee shirt approached. Owen stood up a little straighter, because he wanted to be welcoming to this person. She might be one of Ryan’s fans, but she still watched the show.
“Excuse me, do you know if Ryan will be coming out today?”
Her voice didn’t match her body at all. She rasped the words out with all the harshness of a five-pack-per-day habit of forty years or more. Maybe she’d been ill lately, Owen didn’t know. He forced a smile for her. “I honestly couldn’t say. It’s going to depend on this scene he’s working on with Chris. It’s a choreographed fight scene, with lots of moving parts, so —”
She bared her teeth in a vicious snarl. “You’re keeping him from us!” A handful of her comrades nodded or murmured encouragement.
He didn’t know where she’d been hiding the knife. He never saw it. All he saw was a flash of silver. He took a step back, pushing fans away from the clearly deranged person, and brought up his left arm to block her.
The cut burned more than anything else. She hissed, like a cat would, when she realized she hadn’t done anything serious.
“Put the knife down and we can talk about this.” Owen held his hands out. Blood dripped onto the dusty ground.
“You need to just die so he can have top billing!” She raised the knife again and brought it down into his arm.
He grunted and bit into his lip, pulling his arm back to his belly. A thousand fears stabbed through his brain. What if he lost the hand? His career would be over in a heartbeat, and he wasn’t stupid enough to think he’d saved enough to live on into his eighties. Hell, he didn’t have enough to cover hospitalization for something like that. What if she went after the crowd?
Another woman, this one in a shirt with Owen’s face, got the assailant into a full nelson hold. “Is someone going to call the cops or what?” She spat the words out, even as the attacker struggled.
That got action. The rest of the fans jumped to life, most grabbing their phones. The kid who’d been inspired to come out because of Owen stripped off his own shirt to use as a bandage. Veronica the PA got on her walkie talkie to call studio PR and security.
A few people helped Owen’s savior restrain the attacker. None of them were people in Ryan shirts.
It only took a few seconds for help to arrive. The police wanted Owen in an ambulance, but the studio insisted he go to the hospital in a private, unmarked vehicle. EMTs weren’t so sure about that, given how much he was bleeding, but now that Owen had a chance to calm down a little he agreed with the studio. He could still move his fingers, although it hurt, and the absolute last thing he wanted was a scene.
They settled on a private car with a police escort, and he wound up at a local hospital within minutes. Just as he’d expected, while the injury was painful it was also minor. They put him on IV antibiotics for a few hours just in case the knife was contaminated in some way, but otherwise they stitched him up and were willing to let him go by three o’clock.
He expected the studio to send someone almost as soon as the doctors were gone. He didn’t expect Jim, the show’s executive producer, to be the one showing up. He almost asked for an emesis basin, but he couldn’t show that kind of weakness here.
Jim looked at him for a long moment. “This is some kind of trouble you’ve gotten yourself into.”
Owen closed his eyes for a second. “She stabbed me, sir.”
“I’m aware. I’m not saying she didn’t. And you were kind of between a rock and a hard place. If you’d defended yourself the headlines would have read Six foot three action star beats up fan. As it is, instead, it says, Dark Warriors hero needs to be saved by girl.” He heaved a deep sigh. “Either way, it’s not good.”
Owen fought down panic and fury. Sometimes it could be hard for him to distinguish between the two. “What would you rather I have done?”
“Not that. If it was Chris, whose reputation is better, it might be one thing. But it was you.” He licked his lips. “We’re going to have to bring on a bodyguard. This thing with you and Ryan - it’s affecting our bottom line.”
Owen sucked in his cheeks. He hadn’t been the one to start the “thing” with him and Ryan. He also knew the studio didn’t care. They’d already made it clear whose cart they were hitching their horses to. It wasn’t Owen’s.