I’ve written tens of thousands of words of fanfiction for various fandoms, and I’ve always found myself drawn not to the main romantic leads, but to the secondary Beta Couples. While the main pairings were doing the eternal dance of unresolved sexual tension will-they-won’t-they, the supporting characters would partner up with an incredible amount of ease. Sometimes they’d even wind up married or have kids before the main couple had even kissed! How I Met Your Mother has a great scene that visualizes this: while the main characters aimlessly make jokes about Canada, a couple in the background meets, gets married, gets pregnant, watches their kid graduate college, and grows old together.
In a nutshell, that’s the Beta Couple. Just add in Cylon copies, flash-forwards, Reaver fights, and straight-up magic when this archetype shows up in science fiction and fantasy.
When romantic stakes are part of a story alongside the quests and wars and heists, writers tread a tricky line between setting up two attractive, compelling romantic leads who seem like they would be great together, without actually giving them a happy ending—emphasis on ending. In many of these TV and book series—you see this more often in serialized stories—the main pairing’s potential to be great is what keeps people turning pages and tuning in, but you still need to do something with all that pent-up energy. As a ’shipper of these particular love stories, I was rewarded in seeing the Beta Couples experience all of the emotional beats of a love story. For Valentine’s Day, I’m revisiting seven of my OTPs (One True Pairing) whose relationships made waiting for the main pairings to get their acts together that much more bearable.
If Serenity’s walls could talk, they would tell some tales about the UST pulsing in that ship, from Mal and Inara circling each other warily to Simon cluelessly missing every gorram hint Kaylee is throwing his way, to Jayne… well, what happens in one’s bunk is best left there. Except, of course, for the ship’s happily married first mate and pilot. While “Out of Gas” gives viewers a glimpse into their first meeting, and Zoe’s amusing disdain for Wash’s truly unfortunate mustache, for the most part we see their relationship already firmly cemented. That unquestionable foundation allows for storylines tackling much more compelling issues than whether their marriage will survive out in the black: Wash’s jealousy over Zoe’s unwavering loyalty to Mal after the war, for one, or their debates over whether to bring a child into the ’verse and raise him or her on a spaceship.
It used to be that Beta Couples, as foils to the obstacle-ridden main characters, had fairly smooth sailing. Not so with many of these examples, but especially poor Wash/Zoe, torn apart by the cruel hand of Joss Whedon. The only consolation is that in the post-Serenity comic books, Zoe gets her wish, of meeting her and Wash’s beautiful child, fulfilled.
Helo/Athena (Battlestar Galactica)
While Starbuck and Apollo were secretly hooking up, breaking up each other’s marriages, and cathartically beating the shit out of each other in the ring, a less… tempestuous romance was brewing elsewhere on Galactica. Well, technically it started on the Twelve Colonies, as Karl “Helo” Agathon had always crushed on Sharon Valerii before the Cylons blew everything up. A Number Eight down on Cylon-occupied Caprica used this crush to her advantage, gaining Helo’s trust and then seducing him. But little did she know she would fall for him! It helps that she gets pregnant with his child—the new life growing inside her prompting unexpected empathy for the humans, who she helps with information about the Tomb of Athena. This will later become her callsign, the way she distinguishes herself from fellow Number Eight and Cylon sleeper agent Boomer.
Despite discovering her humanity, Athena’s Cylon background threatens their relationship over and over, from being told that their daughter Hera died (when she was instead spirited away to be raised by a human couple), to Sharon voluntarily dying so she can infiltrate the Cylon resurrection ship, to Boomer barging back into their lives to seduce Helo (!) while Athena is bound and gagged in the closet, forced to watch (!!). Yet, despite all of this, this little family makes it through.
At ReBoot’s start, the only potential couple was Dot, diner owner-turned-commander of Mainframe, and Bob the Guardian, because they were the only adults in the series. When Bob gets thrown into the wilds of the Web, the writers needed somewhere to put that romantic energy. Enter Matrix and AndrAIa: Dot’s kid brother Enzo and his AI sprite buddy, lost in the Games when they were mere children and rapidly aged up thanks to Game-hopping from system to system. By the time they return to Mainframe, they’re in their mid-20s and very much bonded for life. (Losing your eye and fighting the User for constant survival will do that to you… though even they need a reminder of their love when a jealous spat almost gets AndrAIa killed.) This Beta Couple’s love doesn’t even develop in the background, it develops entirely offscreen. And, who’s to say that seeing her brother find happiness in the darkest of times doesn’t inspire Dot to finally act on her feelings for Bob…?
Willow/Tara (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Seasons 4 and 5 of Buffy establish that the Slayer has a pretty crappy track record for relationships—whether vampires cursed with souls or military men threatened by her strength, either way, they’ll leave. But while Buffy is fumbling her way through one-night-stands and struggling to balance a relationship with sudden adult responsibilities, something beautiful is quietly building in the background: Fledgling witch Willow forges a friendship, magical partnership, and eventual relationship with fellow witch Tara. If anything, their love is frustratingly too much in the background: Likely due to the series airing in the late 1990s, the mere whisper of Willow being with another girl was scandalous enough, so it took the grief of “The Body” for them to actually kiss for the first time. Never mind that in the dozens of episodes leading up to this moment, viewers saw them share a bed and adopt a cat together, and saw Tara lay naked while Willow painted her back in a vision and murmur things like “I am, you know… Yours.” while suggestively blowing out candles.
Unfortunately, because of Whedon’s track record, these two were not to make it to a happy ending together. But for the time they were together, Willow had more romantic stability than almost anyone else on the show, aside from other Beta Couple Xander and Anya.
Accidental engagements to princesses and splitting into two forms are the fodder of main couples, but while John Crichton and Aeryn Sun have their hands full, their shipmates are going through their own romantic dramas. What initially starts as a purely casual relationship between con artist Chiana and warrior Ka D’Argo transforms into something more meaningful, as each begins to have an effect on the other: His sense of honor begins to reshape her gray morality, while she pushes back against his expectations of a lover and wife. Chiana helping D’Argo reunite with his son, Ka Jothee, helps to implode their romantic relationship in more ways than one, yet this Beta Couple is able to recover—first by rebuilding their friendship, then trying to trust one another to be something more again.
Of course Echo, the Doll able to retain memories of her many personalities, would get romantically entangled with Paul, the cop following her growing trail of botched engagements and trying to rescue her pre-Dollhouse self, Caroline. It’s almost poetic yet also incredibly predictable. That made it an even sweeter surprise to watch, apart from the Echo/Paul cat-and-mouse chase, Dolls Sierra and Victor slowly be drawn toward one another. Even as their memories are wiped again and again, and they return to the Dollhouse as blank slates, they retain fragments of connection to one another: he soothes her following an outburst prompted by past trauma; they sleep holding one another in the same pod; and they eventually kiss, sealing the kind of chemical memory that can’t be erased by a mind wipe. Even when a jealous client has Sierra programmed with the personality of Priya, supposedly in love with only him, she returns again and again to the face she can’t even remember but that she knows she truly loves—Victor’s.
Another series that invokes the flash-forward, Dollhouse later sees Victor and Priya, out of the Dollhouse, having had a child together. Unfortunately, they wind up on opposite sides of the war in the series finale “Epitaph Two,” with Victor allied with the other former Dolls who regularly program themselves with a bevy of tasks, slotting memories in and out as needed; and Priya having retreated to farm living, hoping against hope that their son will never want to follow his father. All this before Echo and Paul ever get the chance to be honest with one another about their feelings.
Raoul/Buri (Protector of the Small)
What makes Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series so brilliant is that while it centers on an entirely new protagonist—Keladry of Mindelan, the second would-be lady knight—it brings back all of the beloved cast from the Song of the Lioness series. Sir Alanna herself is only glimpsed here and there, reflected by how Kel is kept from interacting with her predecessor, but Alanna’s dear friend Sir Raoul takes Kel on as his squire to keep an eye on her. Squire, the third book of the series, sees Kel training for her Ordeal of knighthood, a trial that could leave her mad or dead, but also occasionally distracted by such romantic dramas as crushing on her best friend Neal, dating the sweet Cleon, and also perhaps developing an attraction to Neal’s cousin Dom?
It makes for a confusing Midwinter, already a romantic holiday, so Kel doesn’t think twice when perennial bachelor Raoul asks her advice on who he should bring as his date to a family party. She instantly suggests his friend Buri, who shares his disdain for parties and other frippery, and, best of all, won’t get any “romantic notions.” Later, Kel gets attacked by the father of one of her fellow squires, only for Raoul and Buri to come charging out of his bedroom, half-clothed, to rescue her.
Next thing you know, they’re together. Easy as that.
Who are your favorite Beta Couples?
Originally published February 2018.
This list helped prompt Natalie Zutter to start rewriting her Raoul/Buri fanfic from 16 years ago; it’s happening, slowly, in the background of her daily life, just as it should be. Talk OTPs with her on Twitter!