You hold your breath during the final scene of the last episode of the season, waiting. Three minutes left. There is still time--things might still work out. But then the credits are rolling, and Alex and Lee are still assigned to other partners with nothing that has happened between them even mentioned, let alone resolved. A small murmur of disapproval hisses through the bar. It’s the closest thing to open criticism of the Powers That Be that you have ever heard, but you are so distracted by what is happening--or rather, what is not happening--on the screen that you’re not as shocked as you ordinarily would be. Alex and Lee have been the heart and soul of “On the Streets” for the past fifteen seasons. And they have not even had a conversation with one another since Lee had been forced to shoot and kill Alex’s brother, a notorious drug dealer. But that had been five seasons ago, and anyone should have been able to see that the time has more than arrived for the two of them to get back together as friends and partners.
I could do it better, you think to yourself. I could fix them. Then, horrified at allowing that thought to float into your mind, you take a swallow of your drink and try to focus on what might happen in tomorrow’s Show--a sitcom called “Marley in Between” that you don’t much care about one way or another. And right now, you are glad that you don’t.
You suddenly hear a whisper to your left. “I can’t stand what the Powers have done to this Show.”
You turn sharply to the woman sitting next to you. You cannot believe that she would dare to say anything out loud against the Powers in a public place like this--letting subversive thoughts creep into one’s own head is bad enough. Just watching a Show with a group of people can be dangerous. Since all discussion about any Show is directly forbidden, it’s generally considered safer to watch alone. Even so, you care enough about “On the Streets” to risk seeing it at Charlie’s every Thursday with a few other people. You all usually just watch in silence, without speaking to one another; still, it’s nice. Yet that doesn’t mean that you are foolishly looking for trouble. Nobody dares to challenge the Powers outright, because nobody would ever be willing to risk the consequences of being banned from watching the Shows forever.
“Keep your voice down,” you hiss at her, looking around nervously. “You don’t know who might be listening.”
She ignores you, and you see now that she’s had more than a couple of drinks. “It hasn’t always been this way.”
She’s much older than you are. You know that you should not keep talking to her--it is altogether too risky for both of you. But you are feeling miserable about Alex and Lee, and there is something about this woman that makes you want to hear more of what she has to say. “What do you mean? What hasn’t always been this way?”
She takes another gulp of her drink and has enough sense to lower her voice when she sees the bartender glancing over at the two of you. “My mother’s mother was a child during the Era of Peak TV. Those were golden years, a time when there were many, many more than seven Shows on at a single time. People had devices that let them watch whenever they wanted, not just only one and always every evening at 8:00 P.M. They could watch their Shows over and over, as much as they liked. People watching discussed the plots and the characters. They argued about what they saw, and they tried to predict what might happen in the future. They talked about what was wrong with the way the Shows were being written, and how everything could be improved.” She looks at me, and you are startled by the intensity of her expression.
You cannot wrap your mind around what she’s saying. “How did . . . what about the Powers? How did those people dare . . .”
“It wasn’t like that then. The Powers had to answer to the people watching their Shows--they were called ‘fans.’ They paid attention to the fans, and they even changed stories because of their reactions. It was only after the Third Great Shipper Wars that the Powers seized total control. They forbade any activities that they considered ‘fannish,’ and the fans were all forced into hiding. Some say that they’re gone forever, but I don’t believe it.” Her voice is little more than a whisper now, and you stain to hear every word.
You pause, trying to understand what she is saying. “Do you mean . . . you think that there are fans out there, fans talking about the Shows to each other?”
The woman smiles a little bitterly. “Yes, I do think that. Some say . . . some say there are even some fans who actually write their own stories about Show characters.”
Now you know that this woman cannot be telling you the truth. Discussing the Shows in groups is incredible enough. But people who write their own stories, in flagrant disregard of the Powers? You know that could never be the case. You glance at the woman sympathetically, shake your head, and turn back to your own drink.
The woman turns toward you, grabbing your arm. “I’m telling you the truth. There may be people out there who can help fix this situation between Alex and Lee. There have to be. I am too old to seek them, but perhaps . . .” Her voice is a shade too loud now, and you see the bartender about to come over to us. Knowing that there isn’t much time, you make a sudden decision.
“Does anyone know how to find them?” Your eyes lock in on hers. You know you sound a bit desperate, and you realize that this woman is most likely delusional. But if there is any chance of helping Alex and Lee, you want to know about it.
She jots something down on a piece of paper and presses it into your hand. “Go see this woman,” she whispers. “You’ll be glad that you did. Go after dark, and don’t tell anyone.” She pushes herself off of her stool and staggers out of the bar without another word.
You stare at the piece of paper. Mary Sue, 115 Gottington Avenue. For some reason, the very sight of that name makes you thrill with delight.
The door at 115 Gottington Avenue opens quickly at your gentle tap; you are not prepared for that, nor are you prepared for the sheer beauty of the woman standing there. Oddly, you cannot quite decide if her hair is ash blonde or jet black or ginger, wavy or straight. You don’t know if her eyes are gray-green with flecks of gold or blue as the Pacific Ocean in sunlight. What you do know, however, is that your breath catches at the sight of her, and you find yourself wanting to tell her secrets that even your closest friends do not know about you.
“Yes?” Her voice is music, and an unaccustomed feeling of warmth washes through you.
“Are you Mary Sue? I . . . um, someone told me to come talk to you.” It sounds lame to your ears, but somehow you know that this woman will require no further explanations from you.
And she does not. “Why don’t you come in and tell me about it?”
So you do. You tell her everything, grateful finally to be able to put your deepest feelings into words. You talk about “On the Streets,” and how much better a Show it is than any of the other seven. You talk about Alex and Lee, how suspicious the two of them were of each other at first, how they became grudging partners, then friends, then the flickering of something more that causes you to lie awake nights, aching and imagining the two of them together and happy forever. You talk about how opposite they seem--Alex: dark, quick, funny, haunted by the past; Lee: blonde, educated, bookish, rebelling from controlling parents--but how they just get each other as nobody else gets either of them, heal what's broken in each other, and how together they make each other better than they ever could be apart. You talk about their rift, the one that still, five years later, has not healed. Finally, you whisper what you have never been brave enough to say out loud before.
“I don’t think that the Powers really understand how much we need Alex and Lee to be together on this Show. I don’t know if they’re ever going to change anything, ever. And it’s ruining everything.” You close your eyes, waiting for the explosion of denial to issue forth from Mary Sue. Nobody ever, EVER says anything negative about the Powers.
The explosion never comes. Instead, Mary Sue is smiling at you, causing another throb of that same wonderful, warm feeling. Her smile is like nothing that you have ever seen before; you never want her to stop looking at you with those knowing, laughing eyes.
Mary Sue regards you carefully. “You are describing an OTP.”
You stare at her. “An . . . what’s that?”
“An OTP is the couple on a Show that you consider your One True Pairing. They’re the characters that you feel are destined to be together, the ones that distract you from everything else going on.” Mary Sue looks at you expectantly, a little smile curling her lips.
“Yes!” You can’t believe how true everything she’s telling you is. “That’s exactly what Alex and Lee are!”
“Beware, loving an OTP is fraught with peril. The Third Great Shipper Wars were fought over precisely these issues, and, as you know, they ended badly for all concerned. Shipping has been abolished by the Powers, and loving an OTP as you love yours must be done in complete secrecy.” She looks at you soberly and a bit sadly.
Your heart sinks. “Can anything be done? Will the Powers truly never allow Alex and Lee to be together again?” You can hardly believe that even the Powers could be so cruel.
Mary Sue hesitates. “Alex and Lee were separated because the Powers realized--too late--the chemistry and OTP potential that they share. But there are . . . ways, if you have enough courage to take that path. Do you?”
You have never done anything especially courageous in your life, but you would do anything to bring Alex and Lee happiness, peace, and love. “I . . . I’m not sure. What would I have to do?”
Mary Sue looks at you steadily. “You must go to the Tropes.”
Mary Sue’s story seems incredible to you: the Tropes were common plot device that once helped move stories along because they felt so familiar. Because they could be relied on to be present in the minds and expectations of their audience, they gave writers ways of solving character and plot problems more easily. That, according to Mary Sue, was one reason why there were so many Shows in the old days. Now there are only seven a year, and sometimes nothing really ever happens over multiple episodes. Since every scene in every show must be certified by two expert Powers committees as satisfactorily original, sometimes the story itself suffers: originality is often a surprising hindrance to plot.
“But,” Mary Sue continues, “the Tropes can still be found, hiding in the darkest corners of the land, ready to help when a situation is dire enough and viewers are brave enough to wield them. It’s a risk that only you can decide if it might be worth taking.”
You speak firmly before you even fully realize that you have decided anything. “I want to meet the Tropes. I have to do this. Please take me to them.”
Mary Sue nods, looking at you with so much pride and approval that you nearly burst into tears.
You and Mary Sue travel silently through the darkened streets, finally coming to a door in an alleyway that looks like a delivery entrance. Mary Sue raps a quick series of knocks, waits a moment, and then raps another quick series. The door swings open, and the two of you enter.
You gasp at the group before you. Never have you seen creatures like these before, and you are not sure what to say or do. Luckily, you sense that Mary Sue is beloved here, and she efficiently explains everything that you had told her about Alex, Lee, and the troubles that the Powers that Be are letting continue in “On the Streets.”
The room is silent when Mary Sue finishes. She waits for a beat, and then addresses the group. “You all know what needs to be done. Do we have any volunteers?”
Two people stand up immediately--one of them is sobbing and seems to have either just been in a terrible car wreck or been dragged for miles behind a train. One arm and one leg are in casts, and his body is covered with cuts and bruises. The other keeps her arm around him at all times, even as she speaks to the group. “We’ll do it. We can help.”
Mary Sue smiles at them. “Thank you, Hurt and Comfort. What would you like to do?”
The banged-up one--you presume that he must be Hurt--speaks now. “Alex and Lee are cops, right? Why don’t we have Alex get shot and be hovering near death? That would certainly make Lee drop everything to be there, wouldn’t it? It’s a classic.” The Tropes in the room murmur approvingly.
You like this--it would work, you know. Lee would never let Alex go through anything like that alone. It's good. And yet . . .
“I’d like something that would get them to talk, really talk about what’s happened between them,” you find yourself saying. “I don’t think they’d be likely to do that in a hospital, after a scare like this. It would be great for crying and hugging, but not so much for talking.”
One of the Tropes pops up, gasping for breath but looking triumphant. “Exactly! Hurt/Comfort doesn’t have the subtlety that you need. I can help. Sorry I’m late, I was . . .”
“WE KNOW!” The room full of Tropes shouts with one voice.
The Trope continues speaking, ignoring the outburst. “Why not just trap Alex and Lee in a defective elevator? It’s simple, it’s clean, and there’s no way it won’t lead to a great conversation. We could keep them there for hours. How about it?”
The crowd buzzes excitedly, and Mary Sue holds up her hand. “Quiet, everyone. Thank you, Stuck in an Elevator. What do you think about that idea?” Mary Sue turns toward you inquiringly.
You hesitate. “That sounds pretty good, but . . . it wouldn’t be all that exciting, would it?”
Stuck in an Elevator looks disgusted. “Exciting? Who needs exciting? They’ll work everything out, they’ll realize how much they mean to each other, and they’ll talk about EVERYTHING. What more could you want?”
Before you can respond, another Trope leaps to her feet. “Talk is great, but what about talk AND sex? Isn’t that better? I can give you both!”
Stuck in an Elevator glares. “Oh, come on! Nobody is going to buy Forced Bed Sharing with a couple of cops. How would you possibly get them to share a bed?”
Forced Bed Sharing appears confident. “Easy peasy! They can be going to a conference, and when they get there, there’s been a mistake and they have to share a hotel room with only one bed. How about that?”
Stuck in an Elevator looks scornful. “A conference? These are COPS. What sort of conference do you think they’d be going to? A donut conference?”
“That’s an offensive stereotype!” Forced Bed Sharing looks furious. “And anyway, it doesn’t have to be a conference. They could be on a stakeout, and a snowstorm rolls in. They’re forced to go to the only motel in town, and there’s only one room left with only one bed. It’s simple, and it always works!”
Before Stuck in an Elevator can respond, another Trope jumps up. This one looks considerably younger than the others. “Everything you do would be, like, cooler if it happened in high school. Why don’t we turn Alex and Lee into high school students? Alex could be an awesome comic book geek, and Lee could be totally popular. They wouldn’t cross paths, and then something would happen to make them fall in love. It’s way better than anything else I’ve heard.” She slouches and rolls her eyes for emphasis.
Mary Sue’s lips twitch a little. “Thanks, High School AU--we’ll keep that in mind. But we probably should deal with this problem in the regular canon time and space before branching out to AUs.” High School AU glowers at her and sits down.
You nod absently, your mind racing at the idea of Alex and Lee in high school. It would be sort of amazing . . .
One by one, the other Tropes make suggestions. Crack wants Alex and Lee to watch a marathon of Star Wars movies together. Kid Fic thinks that Alex should adopt a toddler, and Lee could help raise it. Dark Fic wants to put the whole show into a zombie apocalypse and let the characters fight to the death for survival. You are fascinated by everything you hear.
Finally, the Tropes seem to be finished, and Mary Sue is speaking to you once again. “You must now make a decision. How will you repair the problems between Alex and Lee?”
You are puzzled. “Me? I thought . . . I mean, the Show belongs to the Powers . . . What can I do? I just watch what they show me. I don’t write anything.”
Mary Sue is looking at you gently. “You do not write now, that is correct. But you can write. You can fix this. Remember, I told you that you would need courage. Do you have that courage? Can you create your own story about Alex and Lee?”
Your head is whirling. “I . . . only the Powers can do that. I can’t . . . we don’t . . . nobody does that.” You suddenly think of the old woman who gave you Mary Sue’s name and address in the first place. She had said that there were still fans out there, fans writing their own stories. You had not believed her, but now, suddenly, you do.
Mary Sue is watching you, apparently privy to your unspoken thoughts. “Some people do do that. These are the fans, the brave ones, those with the courage to stand up to the Powers that Be, to heal broken characters and make canons whole again. It has always been so: in ancient times, the Iliad and Odyssey were Homer’s fan reaction to the stories he had been told, and later Vergil wrote The Aeneid as fan fiction of Homer’s works. Fans have told each other tales around campfires. They have mailed homemade magazines to each other to share their stories. In the days of the Internet, they formed communities to read and write about the characters that they loved. The Powers have forbidden such activities, of course. They have banished the Tropes and destroyed the Internet, but they could not destroy the spirit of the fans. If you have the courage to write, we will make sure that your stories are read.”
You suddenly feel taller and very solemn. You can do this, you realize. If others are suffering the way you have been over Alex and Lee, you owe it to them to help. “I want to do this. Tell me--what should I do?”
Mary Sue hands you a small device with a keyboard and screen. “This is a laptop. You know how to type--just let the story come out of you. The Tropes that you have heard from today all stand ready to help.” You see them all nodding, watching you expectantly.
You take the laptop, brushing your hands against the keyboard, feeling a thrill of electricity shoot through you at the touch. You consider everything you have learned from Mary Sue, every suggestion that you have received from the Tropes. You type the first couple of sentences:
As two shots ring out in the dark alley, Lee screams at the sight of Alex crumbling to the ground. How can this be happening?
Hurt and Comfort exchange pleased looks; incredibly, Hurt actually looks happy for a brief instant. You frown. Is this too melodramatic? You erase what you have written and start again.
Lee is startled to see Alex in the elevator--what about taking the stairs, to keep in shape? They both shrug and are careful not to make eye contact. Surely they can stand to be in the same elevator together for the short ride from the precinct to the indoor parking garage.
Hurt sobs as Comfort soothes him, Forced Bed Sharing groans, and Stuck in an Elevator looks triumphant.
It has begun.