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America’s (Daytime) Sweethearts

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The producers have been putting Steve off for three years, too ratings-shy to risk a leading man's popularity on a major gay storyline. Oh, they've thrown him the odd bone, like that gay one-night-stand subplot—which of course turned into an HIV-scare subplot straight out of Sweeps Week '98. But the only romantic partners they've allowed for his character are women, Steve's personal—and very public—bisexuality be damned.

He doesn't stop asking, and doesn't stop hearing 'no'...until Soap Opera Digest's readers vote him "Outstanding Hero" for the second year running. With fan-army ammunition in his corner, he escalates to demands, and the producers finally relent and set the writers' room to brainstorming storylines.

There are no half-measures once the show runners commit. They stack the odds in his favor with a massive return-from-the-dead/amnesia/romance A-plot that takes two months of setup, introducing a mysterious vigilante and a string of suspicious arsons for Steve's character to investigate. On top of that, they pull off the casting coup of the year by landing daytime's hottest gay actor to play his love interest.

When Another Universe's head writer shows him the storyboards, Steve is so happy he almost violates her strict no-touching policy with a bear-hug. He settles for patting the empty air near her shoulder and saying, "This is amazing," about twenty times.

Debra glares his hand away and says, "If you blow this storyline, I will give Roger leukemia just to make you shave your head."

"Sure," he says. He can't stop beaming.

She crosses her arms. "This is not my joking face. Look at me, Steve. This is your one and only chance. If the ratings tank because you can't produce believable chemistry with goddamn Bucky Barnes, we're sticking Roger with female B-plot romances for the next decade, and you'll never play gay again."

Steve flinches.

Okay. Great. No pressure.

~

It was a dark and foggy night on the docks, the faint lapping of simulated waves echoing in the moonlit shadows. Roger parked the Port Cove Bay Fire Department SUV in the alley next to the burnt-out shell of Chardonnay DeMilo's boutique molecular gastronomy restaurant—one of the hottest destinations for the town's fashionable elite, until eight hours ago. He pulled a flashlight and a thick arson investigation file out of his gym bag. Pensively he flipped through the pages, studying the large-type crime scene reports on the arsonist who had struck five times in the last couple months.

A clatter brought Roger's head up sharply. He glimpsed a figure entering the ruined building through a shattered window, torn police tape waving in the breeze from an off-screen box fan. Roger reached for the radio, looked at the file again, and then his jaw clenched with resolve. He cautiously slid out of the vehicle and followed the trespasser through the window, flashlight clutched in his rugged hand.

"This building is off limits by order of the Port Cove Bay police," he called into the dim space. Shafts of moonlight streamed through charred holes in the roof, reflecting off standing pools of water from the fire hoses earlier that day. He stepped around them, squinting into the shadows. "I assume this is your handiwork. Does visiting the scene of your own crime get you off, you sicko?" Something scraped to his right, and Roger turned, his flashlight sweeping the scorched walls. "Show yourself, you coward!"

Out of nowhere, a figure in black tackled him and drove him to the ground. They rolled, struggling for dominance with flailing fists and manly grunts. Roger lost his grip on his flashlight, which slid a few feet before inexplicably going out.

"You spineless bastard," Roger snarled, "You'll never get away with this!" But the other man had the advantage, and when they came to a halt next to a fallen chandelier, shimmering in the low lighting, the masked man was on top of him.

The stranger crouched over Roger, pinning Roger's wrists and holding him down as they both panted for breath, their sculpted chests heaving. The man leaned closer, settling his weight over Roger's hips to hold him in place, his long-sleeved tee torn to expose one burly, muscled shoulder. Roger gasped and squirmed, then gasped again, looking down between their bodies.

The masked man said, "I know you," in a gravelly voice, then leaned down further and took Roger's lips in a hard kiss.

For a moment Roger allowed the intimacy. The chandelier behind them twinkled, and dramatic music that would be added in post-production swelled. Then with a roar, Roger arched up, wrenched a hand free, and shoved the man's face away. His assailant rocked back into a particularly bright shaft of moonlight, and the mask fell away.

Roger gasped anew, voice throbbing with heartbreak as he said, "James?"

"Who the hell is James?" the man in black growled, before the credits rolled on the Friday cliffhanger.

~

"Fifteen," Steve grunts through the final bench press, and then pants for breath as Bucky helps rack the bar safely.

"There's no prize for breaking the speed record," Bucky teases, and Steve huffs, glad his flushed face can't get any redder. He moves to the spotter's position while Bucky adds ten pounds to the bar and reclines on the padded bench. Steve gets the bar in position and keeps a close watch as Bucky starts his reps, guilty and delighted to have an excuse to be this close to him. He's been crushing from afar for years, and Bucky is even more charismatic and handsome in person.

And he looks absolutely criminal in a tight blue muscle tank.

"Looking good, that's it, you got this, you got this, good form, keep it up," Steve says, eyes glued to the pull and flex of glistening muscles. The studio gym is mostly empty at 6 p.m., Janice pounding miles into the treadmill and Kyle doing cool-down stretches on the mats. Even still, Steve's a little embarrassed how breathless he sounds, his encouraging words synched with Bucky's puffed exhalations and upward thrusts.

Sure enough, he hears a snicker from Kyle's corner—and it turns out his face can get redder. Wonderful. He flashes Kyle a middle finger, hears an answering laugh, and then it's time to lean over Bucky to guide the bar back to the rack.

Kyle heads for the locker room, snapping his towel at Steve's ass, still laughing. Bucky retaliates swiftly, scoring a stinging hit on Kyle's thigh that sends him hurrying out of range. "What's up with that asshole?" Bucky asks, and hands Steve a jump rope.

Steve shrugs innocently. "He's probably just jealous. His last major storyline was ten years ago, when his evil identical twin murdered him and stole his identity. Somehow, the twin character never caught on with audiences, so he's been a supporting role ever since."

Too late, Steve recognizes the uncomfortable parallel he’s just drawn to Bucky’s situation: What if the fans don’t take to this recasting of James? What if they reject Bucky just like they rejected Kyle’s evil twin? He fumbles for the right words to apologize, to take it back, but Bucky snorts with delight.

"The bad storyline cul-de-sac! Man, this one writer on Steed in the Summer had the biggest hard-on for evil clones. He pitched it for me every single month. No way in hell."

"Yeah, 'cause clones would be the logical choice on a dude ranch," Steve agrees, and hastily changes the subject. "What about when you came out of that coma with a multiple-personality disorder for three months?"

"You watched that?" Bucky asks, pulling the rope taut behind his back, arching his spine appealingly.

"Watch it? I was there for some of the filming!"

Bucky blinks then grins. "That's right! That was while you were guest-starring! We had a couple scenes together, didn't we?"

"Three," Steve says too quickly, and wipes his face with a towel to hide his mortification. These past five days rehearsing, shooting, and hanging out around the set with Bucky still don't quite feel real. This easy banter between them is threatening to blow his crush up to epic proportions. "They were just crowd scenes, though. The last one was Marissa-Anna-Sophia's wedding."

"Where you got murdered by the Serial-Killer Rodeo Clown, who stashed your corpse in Aunt Jezebel's pantry for a week!"

Steve groans at the memory. "A slowly decomposing corpse. Not my most celebrated role, but it was a paycheck."

"Tell me about it. I once had a walk-on part as a murdered altar boy—a nude murdered altar boy."

"Yeah, on freaking CSI. Bragging much?"

Bucky rolls his eyes and eases out of the stretch, which Steve is grateful for—it was more than a little distracting. And then Bucky bends over to touch his toes, right in front of him. "Okay, worst daytime storyline you've ever had, go," Bucky prompts.

Steve can't make himself look away from Bucky's latest pose—he knows he's being a total creeper right now, but he can't help it—so it takes him a few seconds to come up with an answer. "Aside from being clown-bait? Uh...accidental incest." Bucky makes an inquiring noise, so Steve explains, "It was my first arc on Unfinished Valley. I was Magdalena Johnson's bastard half-brother, which we only found out after a night of prom sex in a limo."

Bucky straightens up and shakes the sweaty bangs off his forehead. "I remember Unfinished Valley! I must've auditioned for half-a-dozen roles there. I never saw that arc, but I did catch you sword-fighting a Spanish duke in defense of your mother's virtue. You had this stoic-faced jaw-clench that was just epic, with 'hero' written all over you."

"Glad I made an impression," Steve says faintly. Between Bucky's stretching and compliments, his heart rate's staying firmly in the red. "Okay, your turn. Worst daytime storyline."

"The Shark Week tie-in on The Garden of the Whispering Heart. They sent my character yachting in a hurricane, the boat capsized, and I was stranded in a life raft for over a week of filming."

Steve has to protest that one. "Are you kidding? That arc had some of the best cliffhangers ever!"

"Sure, the writing was solid," Bucky says, "but none of the writers thought to ask if I got seasick before the show runners greenlit the big water tank. I spent two hours every day drenched, shivering, and puking into a bucket between touch-ups, all while trying to act terrified of remote-controlled shark fins, and shaking my fists at the heavens, screaming, 'Why, God, why?'"

"I thought the prayer scenes were really touching," Steve says, and immediately feels exposed.

Bucky eyes Steve for a thoughtful moment. "Fan of my work, huh?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Steve sighs. Because if Kyle, and Shirley in Post, and literally everyone in Makeup have picked up on it by now, there's no way Bucky could have missed it.

"Hey, I'm flattered. And also, likewise. It's a real pleasure working with you—and I don’t just mean the kissing," Bucky says. And then he winks at Steve and starts swinging his rope in a figure eight.

That has to be flirting, right? And not just the casual flirtatiousness Bucky's been doling out to every gaffer and PA on set for the last week. Because if it's real, then Steve is totally asking him out right now.

He's eighty percent sure Bucky means it...or seventy percent...or sixty? When the odds keep stacking up against him, he can't help but overthink it.

In front of the cameras, they have phenomenal chemistry. The producers are so thrilled that they're rushing out teaser commercials and promo stills before the arc starts airing in another week. Steve's real problem is their off-screen chemistry, and this crush that's harder and harder to keep a lid on. Because if Steve makes a pass, and Bucky turns him down, it could torpedo their on-screen chemistry. And as tempting as his many fantasies of Bucky are, Steve can't jeopardize his career on the longshot that Bucky might say yes.

So he smiles politely, says nothing, and jumps rope. He'll get over it soon. He has to.

~

The show's theme music faded out on an interior shot of Roger's modest living room, where Roger paced furiously.

James appeared in the doorway behind him, dressed in a clinging PCB Fire Department tee shirt and sweatpants, long bangs hanging damp and tragic across his forehead. "Roger," James said fiercely.

Roger spun around and forced a smile. "James. I still can't believe you're here. Is it really you?"

"I don't know. Because of the amnesia, I'm not sure who I am. But seeing you makes me remember a few things. A jungle, I think. And stone ruins?"

"Yes," Roger exclaimed, "the Incan temple in Peru! That's where you died three years ago—I mean, we assumed you were dead after you fell into that pit of poisonous snakes while saving your step-cousin from a cult of snake-god worshippers! How did you survive?"

"I'm not sure. There's not much in my memories at all...but I was drawn to this town, to Port Cove Bay. Drawn to you, I think." James extended a trembling hand to Roger, naked passion in his eyes, but Roger leaned back, face stoic, jaw clenched.

Roger asked, "You remember me? You remember what we used to mean to each other?"

"No," James admitted. "But I know what I feel for you now; that I would burn this entire town if anyone stood between us. I know we've always felt this way for each other."

"Don't you see, James, we were brothers!" Roger turned away and leaned heavily against the billiard table, his handsome face marred with anguish as the steadicam pressed in for a close-up. "Or near enough. You were my best friend ever since grade school. Our childhoods were a blur; we were sent away to different boarding schools for eight years, yet met again as men what felt like only a year later. After that, nothing could separate us, not the Quake of 2009, not the cave-in at the abandoned mine shaft during the Blizzard of 2010, not even the rash of poisonings when old Mrs. Fowler tried to scare that fancy new cupcake shop out of business. Don't you see, James, we've only ever been best friends. And once you get your memories back, I'm sure you'll feel just like you used to."

"I know how I feel about you," James vowed, "and nothing is going to change that. I don't need any old memories to know what you mean to me now. Or to know who's responsible for causing my amnesia."

James turned away as well, braced against the long mahogany wet bar. They stood with their backs to each other, holding the pose dramatically for ten seconds to allow edits for a commercial break.

Roger whirled around. "James, are you saying you know who's responsible for your amnesia?"

"I do," James announced. "I followed him here to this town. As you know, I've been sleeping in an empty shack on the edge of town for the last two months, unsure what my name was or who my dreams were about," he said, for the benefit of viewers who missed last week's episodes, in which Roger searched for James in every back alley and dive bar in town. "But what you don't know is that I've also been prowling the streets of Port Cove Bay at night, fighting crime and hunting for the man who stole my memories."

Roger grabbed the lid of the Steinway grand piano, weak-kneed with surprise. "James! You don’t mean— You're the Port Cove Bay Vigilante?"

"I am," James said, and shook his morose hair from his eyes.

"But the police think the vigilante is behind all those arsons. Tell me it isn't true, James!"

"Of course it isn't true, Roger! How could you even think that?"

"Then tell me who is, James! Please! Tell me who is behind it all!"

James squared his shoulders and looked out the large bay windows, recalling some terrible truth. "His name is Malachai Thorne. His sole motive appears to be destroying everyone and everything good in this town."

"But what motive could he possibly have?" Roger demanded, and then froze.

James froze as well, brow creasing with confusion, like an actor who had just blanked on his next line.

"I mean," Roger blurted awkwardly, "aside from destroying everyone and everything good in this town."

"I...don't know," James stammered, then cleared his throat and continued more confidently, "but I need to find him before he accomplishes his mission of destruction. I went to the site of the restaurant fire last week looking for clues. I need to get back out there and keep looking."

"No, James! You can't!"

"I want nothing more than to stay here with you, Roger, but I must go. The sun is setting, and this town needs me."

"But the police are after you; you're a wanted man! I can hide you here, if you'll just give this up, forget you were ever the Port Cove Bay Vigilante!"

"I can't, Roger, can't you see? You're all I have. You...and my revenge." He gazed mournfully at the tablescape of sculpted bonsai trees.

Roger turned away, fists clenched, jaw stoic. "If you go out there tonight, James, don't ever come back here again."

James put his hand on Roger's shoulder, and the two of them stared into the orange lights and leaf gobos dappling the windows, an unnamable yearning shared between them.

~

When Steve exits the Another Universe studio and steps into the parking lot, he finds Bucky loitering against the side of the building. He straightens off the wall and slaps Steve's shoulder, then fakes like he's going to muss Steve's hair so Steve has to dodge away.

"Took you long enough," Bucky says, and looks him up and down with an exaggerated leer. "Is all this for me? Or for them?" He jerks his thumb toward the mob of young men and women pressed against the fence, waving and calling their names.

"Oh wow," Steve says. Their arc started airing last Friday, and the producers have been giving each other high fives all week, but it's still startling to see the usual fan numbers quadrupled like this.

"Come on, hotshot, let's go press the flesh."

Bucky slings an arm around his shoulder, forcing Steve to stoop slightly, and drags him toward the fence. Gordon nods at them from his golf cart, one hand resting on his taser, and gives them the all-clear to engage with their fans. And they really are their fans. Steve might've assumed they were Bucky's diehard followers from his popular run as Trevor Lockmann, heartthrob pediatrician by day and secret male escort by night on Urgent Care. But they're waving the promo stills of Bucky and Steve together, the one where Steve's face is streaked with soot, and Bucky's gloved hands are fisted in Steve's leather jacket as they stare longingly into each other's eyes.

Steve clears his throat as he signs the first one, smiles into a young woman's camera while she films her interaction with her 'absolute favorite dreamboat, you don't even know.'

These kinds of fan interactions always make him self-conscious, but the studio PR rep's voice drones in his head, reminding him to give every fan a positive experience. So he tightens his core, flexes his biceps, and keeps smiling for another selfie. Next to him, Bucky works the line like he's asking every man and woman to go steady, five thousand megawatts of charm radiating from his pores, the blinding smile and dimples that Steve's been sighing over for the last five years used to devastating effect. Steve would swoon too, if he were on the receiving end of one of those smiles.

...which he basically is, every day on set so...his crush isn't fading anytime soon.

Steve signs his ninth poster—it'll take another ten minutes at this rate—and feels Bucky's arm slide around his waist. The fans in front of them sigh en masse, and Bucky bumps Steve's shoulder and says, "You're giving me a ride to the cast barbeque tonight."

"Sure," Steve says automatically, then looks down into Bucky's self-satisfied grin. Steve usually sees that look after Bucky's beguiled the PAs into fetching him another latte from craft services. "Uh—"

Bucky explains before Steve asks, "Because you know the way to Penelope's house, and there's no sense in both of us adding to the L.A. traffic. Obviously." He squeezes Steve tighter and turns his dimples on the crowd, who are filming and cooing as though they're baby pandas in the zoo. "How about a kiss for our fans, baby?" he asks, loud and carrying.

The screams are deafening.

Bucky looks up at him, lips curled and eyebrow cocked in challenge.

Steve hesitates, a poster crumpling in his hand. Be professional, he reminds himself. Give the fans a positive experience, and keep his thing for Bucky totally professional. Steve nods and adjusts his stance to afford better photo angles, then leans in and kisses Bucky for three (amazing, perfect) seconds.

Bucky pulls back with a dreamy sigh and beams at their admirers, who are fanning themselves and frantically uploading, judging by the chorus of notification pings around them.

"Thanks," Bucky says, voice low so Steve has to lean in closer to hear. "Now hurry up so we can get out of here. I want to see you handle that Mustang up in the Hills." He gives Steve a slow, dark smile before retreating from his embrace to continue working the line.

Oh yeah. Steve is definitely blushing in the Instagram vids after that.

~

Flames ripped through Christian St. Riverwind's modern-art gallery, melting paint dribbling down the faces of portraits in a mockery of tears. Amidst the billowing clouds of dry ice smoke, James grappled with Malachai Thorne in a titanic life-and-death struggle of good vs. evil, two powerful men trading blows and body-throws. Outside, the PCB fire engine pulled up, sirens wailing and lights flashing. Captain Roger Grant began coordinating his crew's efforts to extinguish the flames with oversized gestures, but when he caught a glimpse of the two men fighting inside, he grabbed an axe and leapt heroically through the burning doorway to intervene.

Despite Malachai Thorne's arm wrapped around his throat, James roared, "I'll kill you for what you've done to me! All of your nefarious schemes end here, Malachai!"

"James!" Roger shouted, and swung his axe in a well-telegraphed move at James's opponent. Malachai Thorne ducked and released James, who immediately lashed out with an impressive high-kick. Roger joined the fray, working with James to drive the tall villain closer to his own flames.

The epic battle lasted over multiple commercial breaks. Malachai Thorne boasted with sneers and maniacal cackling how he would bring his plan to fruition and destroy the fashion empire of Jessica & Jasmitha Chestermain once and for all. In the final segment, Malachai Thorne grabbed a conveniently located gas can and hurled it at Roger. Roger's uniform came alight with CGI flames that would be added in post, and he fell back, stripping off his turnout coat and beating it against the floor to put it out. And then the ceiling partially gave way, massive styrofoam beams crashing down between them, trapping Roger in a corner of the burning room.

With James distracted by the collapse, Malachai Thorne knocked him down, turned tail, and ran out a back door. James bellowed his fury and gave chase, only to pause in the doorway, looking torn with indecision, before turning back to call for his would-be lover.

Flames flickered just in front of the cameras, appearing to cover the beams, and roiling smoke threatened to suffocate Roger before the fire reached him. Roger lifted the hem of his thin, white tee shirt to cover his mouth, baring his washboard abs and iliac furrows, and he flexed deeply with each breath as he collapsed slowly to his knees.

James shouted, "Roger, Roger!"

"James, you have to get out! Just go, get out of here," Roger called, and coughed weakly.

"No! Not without you!" James yelled back. He made an impressive show of tugging at one of the beams, back bent as he heaved with all his strength, but he made no progress.

Just as all appeared lost, Roger's fire engine crew arrived, spraying water at the flames and shouting for James to stand back. As soon as the flames were mostly extinguished, James leapt over the beams and caught Roger up in his arms. Roger hugged him and then pulled James into a deep and passionate kiss that burned hotter than the CGI flames still rippling along the ceiling above them.

~

"Cut!" Leopold yells, and they break the kiss reluctantly.

The two steadicam operators step back, and Bucky helps Steve to his feet, stirring up wafts of dry ice. Steve sneezes into the crook of his elbow.

"Sexy," Bucky smirks.

Steve shoves at Bucky's shoulders, although not hard enough to push him away. He's too greedy for that. "Bite me."

"Maybe in the next take. Think they'd notice?" Bucky offers. Then he glances at Steve's tee shirt and bursts out laughing.

Steve looks down and groans. The firemen extras had caught him with the hose spray, and his shirt's gone clinging and transparent. "Oh, come on. Why does it always have to be white? Does wardrobe really hate me that much?"

"Mmm, if you ask me, they probably like you that much. You're totally the T&A in this scene, buddy—my dude in distress." Bucky tweaks one of Steve's peaked nipples through his shirt, and Steve yelps and slaps Bucky's hand away.

"You're a real romantic, Barnes. Remind me to thank Debra for my upcoming smoke-blindness storyline. It'll save me from having to look at your ugly face all day."

Bucky just smiles and eases a little closer, his hands settling on Steve's waist.

Around them, the crew is busy mopping up the water and restaging the styrofoam for another collapse—for the moment, no one's paying attention to them. "Hey, Buck," he says, and bites his lip. He knows better than to ask, but Bucky's touch is light years beyond professional, his hands sneaking under Steve's shirt and over his ribs. If Steve's reading this wrong, he may as well retire from the human race. "Would you, um, want to get dinner with me? Tonight, or whenever?"

Bucky's eyes widen, his grip tightens, and he demands, "Wait, does this mean you're finally admitting you're into me?"

That isn't the answer Steve expected, but it isn't a rejection either. "Yes? If you're interested?"

Bucky gives an elaborate eye roll and declares, over-dramatic and way too loud for privacy, "Four weeks, Steve! Four excruciating weeks I've been hitting on you! Do you realize there's a freaking betting pool on us? That I lost ten days ago? I didn't think anyone could be so oblivious!"

Embarrassed, Steve glances around. The lighting director is watching avidly from the light board, and the script supervisor might be filming them on her phone.

And Bucky isn't done causing a scene. "I thought you'd never find the balls to—"

"Oh my god, will you shut up," Steve blurts, and has to grab Bucky's face and kiss him to make him stop talking. He kisses and kisses him, again and again, with Bucky's hands sliding greedily against his skin, heedless of their audience…until a guy from Wardrobe brings Steve a dry, white tee shirt, and Makeup has to touch up their faces for the second take.

~

Two hours before their wedding ceremony was to take place in front of a green screen of the Eiffel Tower, Roger knocked lightly on his groom's door and let himself into the luxurious hotel suite. There were heaps of rose petals on the bed, but no sign of his lover. Roger called his name, and when there was no response, he stepped in front of the full-length mirror, allowing the camera to pan over his form-fitting tuxedo and immaculately styled hair before zooming in on a note taped to the glass.

Roger Grant
You will suffer this day. But not as much as your betrothed will suffer. Deliver the foundling heir of the Chestermain fortune to me in one month's time, or James will face the consequences.
— Malachai Thorne

Roger clutched the note to his chest as tears of anguish welled in his eyes. And then, with the passion that had just earned them Soap Opera Digest's award for "Favorite Super Couple," he raised his fists to the heavens and screamed, "Why, God, why?"