Backstage is cool and dark. Leela waits for Linda to call her name, waits for her cue to join Fry and Amy in front of the cameras.
Her heart is pounding in her throat. Her palms are sweating so much she wants to wipe them on her dress. She would too, if Amy hadn't warned her it would leave a mark.
The acoustics back here are off. They distort Linda's trill tones and shallow laughter, bounce them around like dice in a cup, and Leela's heart is bouncing too, because any minute now she'll have to get up on that stage and give the performance of her life. Any minute now she'll see the truth of what they did to Fry in that hospital.
She's not ready.
"And now for the moment you've all been waiting for!" Linda's voice booms. "The reunion of our historic joint victors! The star-crossed lovers whose cross-species romance captivated us all: Philip J Fry and Turanga Leela!"
A man dressed all in black appears, holding a clipboard. A cigarette dangles from his lower lip, and voices are squawking from the headset clipped to his ear.
"That's your cue," he says. "Gets out there, mutants girl."
He puts a hand square between her shoulder blades, and shoves her out into the lights.
The heat is ferocious. Leela can feel sweat beading on her forehead, can feel her dress sticking to her waist. She wants to throw up.
There are two red couches facing each other across the stage. Linda is sitting on one of them, smiling inanely. Amy sits next to her, legs delicately crossed. The purple swelling around her eye is visible even from here. There is a clear foot of space between the two women, and Leela could analyze that, could look for meaning in it, but then her eye slides over and all she can see is the boy standing in front of the opposite couch.
He's thinner than she remembered. His hair has been combed back from his face and he's wearing white – a stark, startling white that reminds her of hospital bedsheets. But he's standing on his own two feet, a bouquet of white roses clasped in one hand, and Leela can't see a scratch on him.
He doesn't look like Fry. This boy – clean and whole and unmarked – can't be Fry. Fry is a boy who bled out on dirty ground, whose torn fingernails dug into her palm when the two of them made their final pact. He lay limp on the operating table when the doctors cracked open his chest, not even breathing. He was broken. He wasn't this Fry. This Fry has the unreal quality of a television star; the kind of sterile, pristine perfection that suggests he was just pried out of his packaging. He doesn't look real.
Maybe he's not. Maybe he's some kind of mutt, or clone, or something. Who knows what they really did to him in that hospital?
Leela takes a step, and then another.
Fry smiles at her. Or at least, she guesses he smiles at her. His mouth twists upward and he half-raises the bouquet of roses, but the distance and the glare of the studio lights make his eyes look blank, and it gives her chills.
She takes another step.
And then -
"Hi," Fry says, like they just met at breakfast or collided in the stairwell. Like they're not The Star-Crossed Lovers of this year's Games. Like the last time she saw him he wasn't technically dead.
It's so stupidly, blithely oblivious it couldn't be faked. The Gamemakers would never script something so awkward.
Then he tugs at his collar with his free hand, the way he always does when he's nervous, and -
It's him. It's really him.
Leela hits him with her whole body, driving the air out of his lungs. Fry makes a little "oof" of surprise and staggers back, but he doesn't fall. His arms come up around her instead, and then he's holding on like to let go would be to drown.
The audience goes nuts.
Leela doesn't notice. She doesn't remember running across the stage. She can't think.
Fry's face is buried in her hair and he's mumbling against her neck - "Leela" and "I missed you" and "Leela" again, the words bubbling up and falling over each other. Either he's happy or he's so overwhelmed his brain has short-circuited and he's just babbling at her. Leela doesn't really care. She's busy running her hands over him, assessing the damage. She can't feel any scars or bandages. There are no damp spots where he's bleeding through his clothes, no hissed intake of breath when she touches the site of his wounds. She tugs his shirt open at the neck, looking for the place where the throwing-star hit him, or the vertical line the doctors cut into his chest. She finds nothing. Sure, the skin is new and pink-looking, but he's not the Frankenstein's monster she was expecting. He seems -
"Le - Leela?"
Fry breaks into her thoughts, his voice unnaturally high. Laughter roars all around them, thundering in her head, and Leela suddenly remembers that they're standing in front of an audience. And she just tore Fry's shirt open.
She lets go quickly and takes a step back, trampling his flowers. He must have dropped them.
"I had scars," Fry says. "But they came this morning and lasered them all off."
Leela nods dumbly. She's not sure what to say.
Desperately, she reaches for the advice Amy gave her.
Show them you're not a threat. Show them you're just a stupid kid who was so crazy in love she didn't want to live without her boyfriend. Act your ass off, and maybe Nixon won't kill us all.
She needs to play the love-struck teenager. To convince the world her actions in the Games were stupid, not subversive.
Instant wound-inspection isn't romantic. It's the behavior of someone still in the arena, someone still planning and assessing, focused only on survival. And she hesitated too long before she ran to Fry. That wasn't romantic either.
She looks at Amy, silently appealing for help.
To her surprise, it's Linda who saves them. The interviewer turns her insipid smile on the cameras and awws.
"Oh, don't be shy!" she coos. "You can kiss him. We can all see how much you want to!"
Kiss Fry? In front of everyone? Leela feels her cheeks burn. Some combination of anger and disgust flares up inside her. She can't just kiss on command, she's not -
But they're staring at her. A thousand pairs of eyes and at least six different camera lenses. It's worse than the hidden cameras in the arena – so much worse – but she doesn't have a choice.
So she swallows back how violated she feels and forces a smile instead, hoping the flush in her cheeks looks like embarrassment. She fixes the buttons on Fry's shirt and takes a deep breath. Then she shuts her eye, leans forward, and presses her lips to his.
She intends to just hold them there, to ride out the cheers and hide how sickened it all makes her. But Fry pulls her in and kisses her back with more enthusiasm than she expected, and she forgot how this felt, forgot the heat of his mouth and the fluttering feeling that unfurls in her stomach, and the way his presence grounds her when she feels like she's about to break apart and scream.
She gives into it.
Fry knows what he's doing. He's better at this than she is, which doesn't make any sense – his life was even more devoid of romance than hers, until the Games – but it's instinct for him in a way it isn't for her. Maybe because he doesn't think so much. It's a cruel thought to have about someone she cares about, Leela knows that. But that doesn't mean it's not true. To love someone the way Fry does takes a special, short-sighted kind of recklessness. He can give her everything and make it seem simple, because for him, in the moment, it is. He's not capable of holding his feelings for her and the truth of the Games and the need to lie in his head all at the same time, so he chooses to hold onto the one he thinks is most important.
If they were both like Fry, she thinks, they'd both be dead.
But if they were both like her, they'd probably be dead too. The only reason this kiss is halfway convincing is because Fry cares more about her than about the tightrope they're walking.
Which is why one of his hands is now fisted in her hair and the other has settled too low at the small of her back, and his teeth are tugging at her lower lip in a way that is unmistakably hungry.
This is why she can't be reckless too, Leela thinks bitterly. She has to be cynical, has to stay half-outside the moment. Because now Fry is being too convincing as a teenager who is crazy in love and almost died, and that's not what the Gamemakers want. They wouldn't have dressed her in this little-girl outfit and made Fry give her flowers if they wanted the audience to think this thing between the two of them is physical.
It's supposed to be a love story. It's supposed to be a fairy tale.
So she disentangles herself from Fry and blushes as furiously as she can. It seems to restore her innocence in Linda's eyes – the blonde goes from looking shocked to laughing uproariously with the audience. Amy allows her a tiny, approving nod.
Fry looks bemused – then realizes what he was doing and who he was doing it in front of, and burns bright red. "Sorry," he mouths at Leela.
The real Leela would wave this off and tell him to just cool it in front of cameras next time. But the lovey-dovey Leela the Gamemakers want could never be so short with her boyfriend, so she takes Fry's hand and squeezes it instead – a gesture she hopes will hit the sweet spot between forgiving and bashful. It seems to work for the audience, but a faint frown line appears on Fry's forehead and stays there as they sit down.
He knows her better than she thought.
But that's a concern Leela can't deal with right now, because the screen behind them has come to life, flashing lights, and a drumbeat is pounding in her ears.
Linda is talking in the direction of the cameras.
"We'll be interviewing the lethal lovebirds later, so stay tuned for that! But first, let's remind ourselves how they got here."
They're going to recap the Games.
Fry tightens his grip on her hand, like he's drowning again, and Leela doesn't even try to pull away. The sick feeling has returned. She wants to run, to melt away somehow or shut her eye.
It starts off okay. Linda recaps the contestants for the audience, briefly profiling each one. Then there is a segment where the mentors are asked to evaluate their new tributes. Leela hasn't seen this before, but she's not surprised when Amy calls Fry "sweet" and predicts he'll make an alliance to survive in the arena. Or that Amy's assessment of her is "hard to figure, but definitely one to watch".
This is followed by some shots of the tributes in training, and then the interviews, which have been heavily edited. They use a different camera angle and mostly stay close on Leela's face, keeping the plunging neckline of her dress out of shot. She talks about her mom and what an honor it is to be in the Games, but everything else from her interview gets cut. Fry fares even worse. His interview was a disaster no amount of artful editing could save, and it shows. He walks out on stage, tells the story of how he wound up in the 31st Century, and is cut off before he even gets to his comments about the orphanarium. A handful of highlights from the rest of the tributes are crammed in after that, to make it look less conspicuous, but the damage has already been done.
No-one who saw the interviews the first time round is going to forget what Fry said. Fry can't forget what he said. He starts tugging on his collar again, palpably nervous. It takes a sharp look from Amy to make him stop.
Linda recaps the odds and walks the audience through the specifics of this year's arena, and then . . .
Leela freezes, cortisol racing through her system.
She's on a podium, cold sunlight blinding her, and if she moves before time she'll be blown sky-high. If she moves too late, the other tributes will rip her limb from limb.
Look around, look around, notice everything.
The Cornucopia is gleaming in the sun. Food. Weapons.
Get ready. Now. Now.
FOUR. THREE. TWO.
Fry is twenty feet away from her. Closest to the Cornucopia.
Too close. He'll be a target. He can't fight.
She's not supposed to care.
The cannon cracks and her world explodes. There's a knife in her hand and she can't remember how it got there, doesn't care, because everything is blood and screaming and . . . blood . . . and if Fry didn't run fast enough some of the blood is his, but she can't think about that now, can't think about anything . . .
Something touches her ear, and Leela snaps back to herself.
Her whole body has gone rigid. The tendons are standing out in her neck. She's forgotten how to blink. The screen in front of her is showing the bloodbath at the Cornucopia. There's a soundtrack, and the audience keep whooping.
And then she realizes the person touching her ear was Fry. He was twisting one of her curls around his finger, gently tugging on her ear lobe. Trying to bring her back, before the cameramen noticed she was gone.
She blinks, and he smiles.
"Hey," he murmurs.
"I'm okay," Leela murmurs back, trying not to move her lips.
Fry doesn't say anything, just nods.
Leela feels a sudden surge of affection for him – a warmth that makes her feel more exposed than she did when he was kissing her. It's strange and disorienting. She doesn't know what to do with it, so she pushes it away and sits up straighter, forcing her attention back to the screen.
The bloodbath has ended and the Careers have set up camp at the Cornucopia. The Gamemakers are now cutting between scenes of Leela's breakdown and the other lone tributes. Fry makes his alliance with Jrr. There is infighting among the Careers. The highlight reel gathers pace, as the Gamemakers leap between events Leela witnessed firsthand and footage she has never seen before. The evisceration of the Decapodian boy is just as grisly the second time around, but the sight of the mutts attacking Fry and Jrr is a fresh horror that quickly drives it out of her mind.
Next to her, Fry's heart rate sky-rockets as he watches the mutts close in on him on the screen. Leela is still holding his hand and she can feel the pulse jack-hammering in his wrist.
She squeezes his hand. Fry squeezes back, so hard his knuckles glow white.
Don't look, Leela thinks desperately. Don't look, it makes it worse.
But he can't look away. And she can't either.
The mutt's jaws close on his leg and it throws him. It tosses him ten feet at least and he lands hard – and unconscious. He doesn't see Jrr rip into the mutt with his teeth. He doesn't see his friend start to eat the thing's raw flesh.
But the real Fry – the one sitting beside her - sees it now. He bends forward abruptly, dry-heaving, and Leela tightens her grip on his hand. She's not sure what the Gamemakers would think if Fry threw up in the middle of his victory interview, but it's never happened before and it seems safer not to risk it.
Behind them, on the screen, the action moves on. The Amphisobian girl is burned by a pod of exploding acid. The Careers lose most of their food to another one. Fry's temperature rises higher and he becomes dehydrated, which the Gamemakers discuss dispassionately.
When the building collapses on her Leela looks away, unwilling to relive the experience. But Fry leans closer. Her hand is still in his, but it's like he's forgotten he's holding it. He watches, apparently bewildered, as they are reunited onscreen. As Leela works to bring down his temperature. As they talk about dead family members and receive parachutes, and as Leela and Jrr talk about him. His feelings for Leela, his friendship with Jrr, the need to keep him alive whatever the cost. He watches it like it's all new information – which to him, it probably is. Not just the conversations Leela had with Jrr while Fry slept, but their own interaction too. Without fever and blood loss clouding his mind, it all looks different to him.
He can see it for the first time. He can see the connection between their romance and the sponsors sending them food and medicine. He can see Leela's stiffness and discomfort as she tries to play this game, the way she holds back and calculates each move ahead of time.
His frown tells her he's figured it out at last. She used his feelings to keep them alive, and now he knows it.
His fingers twitch and he pulls away from her. Not by much. The cameras might not notice it, but Leela does. She tightens her grip, tries to pull him back, but it doesn't work. His hand sits in hers like a caged animal.
He won't even look at her.
Leela keeps her grip on his hand, keeps her expression neutral, because the cameras are trained on them both and she can't afford to stumble – can't afford to be anything other than a girl in love. One of them has to keep up the pretense. Hurt and confusion are written all over Fry's face. The hurt is obvious when screen Leela clumsily manipulates him into a kiss – but then she kills Jrr to save him, stops him from drowning, stays with him when he starts bleeding to death. She leads the mutts away from him when he falls unconscious. Crawls back to him with the burnt skin peeling off her hands and refuses to win without him. Leela tries to imagine how it all looks to him, what he must imagine her motivation to be.
On the screen, they're being air-lifted out of the arena. For the first time since the highlight reel began, Fry doesn't seem to be thinking about anyone else. Leela, Jrr, and the tributes they killed are all driven out of his mind by the sight of his own lifeless body. Leela realizes too late that this, too, is new information to Fry, that he doesn't remember what happened to him. He doesn't know what's coming when the whine of the bone saw starts up.
Leela grabs for his hand again, desperate to stop him seeing it, but she's too late. The medical team crack open his chest. The cameras zoom in on the immobile muscle of his heart. And in the present day, Fry's eyes roll back in his head and he slides off the couch with a thunk.
It's unprecedented. No Victor has ever fainted while watching their own highlight reel. It causes pandemonium, and when it becomes clear Fry can't be immediately revived, the entire interview has to be cut short. A clip show – Ten Most Memorable Deaths or The Glorious History of the Games, something like that - goes out instead, and Fry is spirited away to his room to recover.
Leela is permitted to return to her old Tribute suite, where she's been living with her mother.
Food is sent up to the suite, and another stylist comes to undress her. The fact that this stylist takes away her dress and shoes, and leaves her with only thin silk pajamas to wear, doesn't escape Leela's notice. She could try to run but she'd freeze on the streets, if she didn't cut her feet open first.
Even if she could run, where would she go? The whole world knows her face. Her door unlocks from the inside, and her hands are free, but Leela is under no illusions. She's a prisoner.
If Munda has similar thoughts, she knows better than to voice them. She rhapsodizes about the food instead, and tries to get Leela to sample each dish. Warm goat's cheese and slivers of strawberry on a bed of baby leaves. Lamb balti with fluffy white rice. Buggalo ribs in a sticky honey glaze. There is more food here than two people could eat in a week. Leela picks at a salad, sickened by the extravagance of it all, and then pleads tiredness, so her mother will let her go to bed early.
She knows she won't be able to sleep, but it feels like rest when she pulls the covers over her head. Not being watched, not having to talk to anyone, not having to look at anything but the dark behind her eye . . . that feels like rest.
The food is taken away. The lights dim. Her mother goes to sleep.
Leela lies still, waiting.
The alarm clock on her bedside locker is glowing a sickly green – 02:37 AM – when Fry knocks at the door. The sound is soft – his knuckles barely bruising the wood – but Leela is up in an instant. She crosses the carpet and opens the door, tugging him inside before the camera can sweep the corridor again.
She puts a finger to her lips and Fry nods. He's still wearing the white suit from his interview, though it's wrinkled and dirtied from the floor. Obviously nobody felt like removing it while he was unconscious.
Leela pulls on two pairs of bedsocks, one on top of the other, then tiptoes over to where her mother is sleeping and snatches up Munda's lumpy home-knitted cardigan from the arm of the couch. Her mother snores on, oblivious.
They slip out of the room while the camera is facing away from them. Leela doesn't think they'll make it down the corridor before it pans around again, but it turns out they're not going that far. Fry only hustles her the two steps across from her own door, then pushes down on an innocuous section of wooden paneling on the opposite wall. The wall slides apart at his touch, then he and Leela step inside and it glides smoothly back into place.
They are standing in a dimly-lit stairwell. The walls are padded and the carpet under Leela's feet is so thick she sinks in it up to her ankles. In here, all sound is muted – as they start to climb, Fry's dress shoes are as silent as Leela's socks.
She can smell old food and spilled cleaning products. This is the staircase the staff use, she realizes. They have a whole set of corridors the maids and cleaners use so they won't cross paths with the tributes. The Gamemakers pretend their gleaming Tribute Center runs on automatic, but this is the reality behind it - people scurrying about like rats inside the walls.
It creeps her out and she unconsciously climbs faster. When Fry pushes open the escape door to the roof, cold air blasts in and makes her shiver.
They're on top of the Tribute Center. Leela can see the heli-pad the hovercraft take off from, far away to the west of the building. Here on the east side though, there's nothing to see. Just a warren of vents belching steam from the kitchens floors below. Fry tugs her forward, into the maze of vents, and Leela warms instantly. The air here is moist and swampy, and between the creaking of the vents and the clanging noises from the kitchens, it's hard to hear. Which is perfect, she realizes. A bug wouldn't last five minutes up here. Intentionally or not, Fry has found the one place the Gamemakers can't listen in on them.
She curls her toes up inside her socks, bobbing back and forth on her heels. Up here, alone at last, she doesn't know what to say to Fry. He's tugging at his collar again, avoiding her eye, and Leela suspects he doesn't know how to break the silence either.
"Did Amy tell you to bring me up here?"
"No. I just wanted to talk to you alone somewhere, before we have to go on TV again. I thought we should. Talk, I mean. About the Games, and everything. Us, I guess."
Leela pulls her hands back into her sleeves and balls the fabric into fists. She feels exposed in the cold night air. The sky above them is black and clustered with stars. When she looks up she feels dizzy, like she's falling into it. The stars in the arena weren't real, she realizes suddenly. That sky was just a projection. Anyone who had ever seen the real night sky would have known it – it has a density the one in the arena couldn't hope to imitate.
The real night sky – the endless, unfathomable depth of it – is faintly terrifying.
"Leela?" Fry touches her elbow. "Um. Can you . . . can you say something? That would be great."
"I don't know what to say," she admits. "I don't know where to start."
Fry chews his lip.
"You were faking it," he says at last. "In the arena. All that love stuff . . . you were faking it to get us sponsors."
Leela nods. She doesn't trust herself to speak.
Fry gives a stiff, jerky little nod of his own.
"That's what I thought," he says. "I mean, that's what I figured. When I watched it back." He shoves his hands in his pockets, staring miserably at the ground. He laughs. There is no humor in it. "You saved my life though. Those sponsors got us food. Medicine. They healed your wrist, and they made me better when I was sick." He hesitates. "I think it was worth lying, for that."
"I never . . . I never meant to hurt you." Leela stumbles over the words. "I wanted to keep you safe. I owed you that."
For the first time, Fry looks confused.
"You didn't owe me anything," he says. "What would you owe me for?"
Leela stares at him.
"You came to find me," she reminds him. "In the arena, after that building fell on me. And -" - heat surges into her cheeks - "- you let me take that medicine for my mom. From your orphanarium. When we were kids."
They've never spoken about it out loud before. Sometimes she wonders if Fry even remembers.
"You needed it," he says simply. "Your mom needed it."
As if the world he comes from would ever see it like that.
"And I came to find you in the arena," he continues. "It's not like you asked me to."
Leela gives up. Sometimes Fry behaves in ways that contradict everything she knows about the human race. And arguing about it doesn't help her make any sense of him.
She settles for saying something honest instead. Fry might not agree, but she does owe him that much, at least.
"I would have died without you."
Fry laughs. It comes out sounding weird and strangled, but it's still a laugh.
"Leela," he scoffs, "I watched it back, remember? You were just saving me, over and over again. I must be the most pathetic Victor in history. I got shot, I got mauled, I nearly drowned -"
"You made people like me," Leela interrupts.
"You made people like me. Before you came to find me, no-one cared about me. I wasn't interesting. The love stuff . . . it made me interesting. It kept me alive."
"Then it kept me alive too."
Fry can be stubborn when he wants to be. Leela had forgotten that about him.
"Fine," she says, somewhat churlishly. "It kept us both alive."
They stare at each other.
Fry breaks eye contact at last and sits down, pressing his back against the metal of the vent in an attempt to get warm.
"Are you cold?"
She's aiming for normal, but the question comes out sounding sharp. They're not in the arena anymore, Leela reminds herself. She doesn't have to be hyper-aware of every drop in Fry's temperature.
Fry doesn't seem to mind though. He just shivers.
"I feel cold all the time now," he admits. "Since . . . you know." Since I almost died. He doesn't have to say it. "The doctors said I'm fine," he continues. "But it's like . . . it's like I don't remember how to be warm. It's stupid."
"It's not stupid."
Leela sits down beside him. Her shoulder is pressed against his and their arms are touching. Despite what he says, Fry feels thankfully, blessedly warm. The cold must exist only in his head.
There is another long silence, but this one is less awkward. It feels more like a rest – a recovery period they both need before they find the strength to tackle anything else.
Leela tilts her head back, staring up at the sky.
"I forget," she says softly.
"I forget." Her fingers knot around each other. Her throat feels dry. "You feel cold all the time? I forget. I wake up sometimes and you're not near me and I think -"
Her voice falters.
When Fry reaches for her hand, she flinches. He goes to pull away, but -
The word is hoarse and quiet, little more than a whisper. Leela isn't sure how it escaped her throat. It happened too fast for her to stop it.
To her surprise, Fry's hand finds hers again. He unknots her worried fingers and winds his own around them.
"So what happens now?" he murmurs.
Leela sighs. She feels tired all the way down to her bones.
"We pretend," she says wearily. "We pretend we're in love. Pretend we're just two stupid teens who don't know how much trouble we're in."
Fry looks at her.
"We don't have to."
"We don't have a choice," Leela rebuts. "If we don't do what the Gamemakers want – what Nixon wants – he'll kill us. Or kill everyone we care about. Kif, Amy, my mom. We have to protect them, Fry."
"But – he can't do that," Fry says uncertainly. "We're Victors."
Leela doesn't know how to respond to that. The truth is that yes, their status as Victors affords them some protection. But there's no way to be sure of how far that goes. If President Nixon wants to kill them, their popularity won't stop him. He'll turn the public against them, make it look like an accident, find some way.
Eventually her silence seems to answer Fry. He swallows.
"What if we can't do it? What if -"
Leela grips his hand tightly.
"We don't have a choice," she reminds him.
There is another long silence.
Fry doesn't say anything but she feels him nod, and the action eases some of the tension in Leela's chest.
"Are you going back to bed?" he asks at last.
"I don't want to."
"Maybe . . . maybe we could stay here for a while. We could look at the stars. Uh, as friends." Fry shoots her a hopeful, sidelong look. "I could tell you their names. I bet they never taught you about stars in the sewer."
Leela looks up again, lets herself fall up into that dizzying, endless black sky.
This moment matters. She can feel it in her jangling nerves, in the part of her that suddenly wants to run. But she can't do it anymore. The old her would have turned Fry down, but the new Leela is too altered - too damaged by the arena and everything after - to push him away. She can keep him at a distance, but she'll never be able to sever this bond between them.
So why is she fighting it?
She lets her head fall onto his shoulder. Swallows past the lump in her throat.
"I'd like that."
A / N : That's it, folks! This story ends here. As this AU is based on the Hunger Games book trilogy, there are going to be two sequels following the outline of Catching Fire and Mockingjay. They'll be posted as new stories. The working title for the next installment is Glory and Gore and the rating should be T, so if you're not one of the people who has me on Author Alert, keep an eye on the main fandom page. I'm hoping to start posting within the month. I work two jobs though, so I might not get it up as quick as I'd like.
Before I go - I want to say a huge, huge thank you to everyone who stuck with this story, especially the anonymous reviewers I couldn't reply to, and all the people who took time out of their day to leave me really detailed, in-depth feedback. You're super, and I appreciate every one of you. :)