BHS Blogress Special Report: Ten Years of Stars Above

Ten Years of Stars Above

The whole thing started with a silly, harmless little role-playing game on the TV Tropes forum, though the fanfic didn’t officially start until almost a year later. I stumbled on it by chance; I did a search on TVT for Kagami Hiiragi from Lucky Star, my #1 Best Girl of Best Girls. Her name was in the title of the RP, and it had a small but dedicated page listing its tropes. Intrigued, I tracked down the forum thread and started browsing through the posts… and I was delighted to find that the person playing as Kagami had captured her character almost perfectly. On a whim, in hopes that I would get to interact with her, I joined in and started posting. Keep in mind, I had had some extremely negative experiences in group RPs in the past, so that I made such a quick decision to join this one should tell you something about the skill level of Kagami’s player. I was welcomed with open arms, and I spent a few months happily engaging in shipping shenanigans with the rest of the group. As I said, the thread was all very silly, comedic, and almost entirely plotless. In the meantime, I struck up a friendship with the Kagami player, Ashen Dream.

Then one afternoon in early 2011, I came home from my part-time job tired and irritable after a frustrating day. To blow off steam, I decided to introduce something to the RP that had never been seen in it before. I took the months-long running gag about Kagami and her twin sister Tsukasa being “the center of the universe” (because what little story there was up to that point revolved around them) and I made an honest-to-god plot out of it, complete with the sudden appearance of a horrible monster that attacked the twins, a development that was played for as much drama as I could get out of it.

Again, this was completely unlike anything that had been seen in the thread up to that point, a 180 from its usual insanity. It was my way of venting my frustration after a difficult day, so I expected it to be just a one-off thing. Instead, in the RP’s discussion thread, I was surprised to find widespread praise for my contribution, and a number of players asking where it was going to go from there. The seeds were sown. Ash and I began collaborating on future events, culminating in an epic battle against a ravenous horde of extradimensional monsters. After that, I thought I was done. This was around mid-March of that year.

And then Puella Magi Madoka Magica happened.

I’ve written before about the profound and personal impact PMMM had on me. I’ve written before about how despite hearing that it was “dark”, I checked it out anyway, both because buzz about it was growing and because some of my favorite people in the industry were involved in it. I’ve written before about how in a span of 48 hours, I went from mildly curious about it to counting it as possibly my most beloved anime series ever. The instant the credits finished rolling on episode 10 (the latest one at the time), I knew that I had just seen something that I would remember forever… It was the same feeling I had the first time I finished watching Princess Mononoke, a massive headrush of awe and new inspiration that’s only happened to me a handful of times. I was a devoted fan… and Homura Akemi (whom I remember initially dismissing as “just another edgy, emotionless type, a Rei Ayanami clone” when I started the show) was now one of my favorite characters in all of fiction.

So in the weeks-long interim between episode 10 of Madoka and episodes 11 and 12, caused by the devastation of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, I had to satiate my fervor for the series somehow. Introducing Homura into the RP seemed to me a natural step, so I did. Likewise, having her interact with Kagami struck me as totally reasonable… my two Best Girls kicking ass together? Of course! Never mind that PMMM is a dark psychological drama / cosmic horror series and Lucky Star is a slice-of-life schoolgirl comedy. Never mind that both series have almost nothing in common aside from sharing one voice actor (my beloved Emiri Katou) and revolving around casts of Japanese schoolgirls. I wanted it to work and Ash was game to try, so we resolved to make it work. And soon we found that not only did the two click together in the weird little story we’d developed… they had chemistry that neither of us could deny.

Many of the other players disagreed. They didn’t much like the darker tone we were pushing, or that having Kagami and Homura as a couple threw a wrench into their all-but-confirmed-canon relationships with Konata and Madoka, respectively, in their own series. This conflict with the other players eventually led me and Ash to part ways from the RP in August of that year, and that should have been the end of it.

And yet. The ideas we had come up with still had so much appeal. We had the basic workings of a potentially great story here, and we felt that it would be a waste to let our hard work fall by the wayside. I don’t recall exactly, but I’m pretty sure I was the first to suggest turning it into a fanfic. I do remember saying to Ash: “If we’re really going to do this thing, we need to go all in. This won’t be just another lazy mashing together of the two series… it needs to be epic, as awesome as possible.”

We talked it over for most of the following month, hammering out a rough path forward. Ash decided to write an original story called Nil based on the framework of the plot. Meanwhile, I resolved to take the plunge and go ahead with the first chapter or two of the fanfic, gauge the reaction from the readers, and decide what to do from there. Ten years ago today, I hit the publish button for Chapter One of Stars Above… a placeholder title which I thought had a nice ring to it. At the time, I had a very rough idea of where I wanted the story to go, but my approach was “make it up as you go and see what happens”.

That all changed when Ash emailed me with a new concept. We both knew that PMMM’s story was loosely based on Goethe’s Faust, she said… so what if we based ours on Dante’s Inferno?

I mentioned a few paragraphs back that there are rare and wonderful times when the dam bursts in my head, and a tidal wave of inspiration and ideas washes over me all at once. Ash’s email was one of those times: almost instantly, I had a real framework for the plot, I had my villains, and I had my ending. I’ve learned over time to trust my gut instinct as a writer most of the time, but this time that instinct was screaming at me: “This is perfect. Even if you plot for years, you will never come up with anything better than this, so go for it.

And the result, my friends, was Stars Above: thirty four main chapters, two spin-offs plus bonus material, three-plus years of work, 120% of my effort, and one of the proudest achievements of my life. It was the first time in ten years that I’d given my creative all to something that wasn’t Tasakeru, my original fantasy novels… that was almost unthinkable at the time, but look where it got me. We set out to make something epic, and by most accounts we succeeded.

In essence, the above paragraphs have been a very, very long introduction to prepare for writing about what Stars Above means to me, and about the surprising developments that happened over those three-plus years… so please bear with me, this thing isn’t over just yet.

Stars Above was a new experience in many ways. I consider myself a hopeless romantic in the dramatic sense, but in real life? Absolutely not. By most standards, I’m a very strange choice to write a story that was intended from the start to center around two characters falling in love. Many readers wrote in to marvel at how we were able to make the relationship work, but if I’m being honest here, speaking as the one who did the majority of the writing: I think I can attribute the success of Kagami and Homura—and all of the cast, really—to the strength of the characters. Talent obviously had something to do with it, but especially with the two main characters… I can tell you that their voices were always crystal clear in my mind, from beginning to end. I rarely ever had to wonder “Is this something she’d say? Is this something she’d do?” because I connected so deeply with them that my first instincts were almost always the right ones. I wrote with the kind of confidence I wish I could summon at will, and the words just flowed out of me until the story was done. Element after element clicked into place like puzzle pieces, and it all came together in ways I couldn’t have foreseen when I started.

On a related note, there’s Desideria, the Second. I’ve mentioned this in other places before, I think, but Desideria was not originally intended to be the story’s main villain. Ash and I wrote about half of the plot with the intention that she would be the second-to-last of the Demons of the Nine to die. She was to be the most visible face of the Nine, and thus front and center for most of the story, before being killed off in a spectacularly gruesome (but satisfying!) manner to make way for the Ninth to emerge as the true threat. Desideria herself derailed that plan; I always intended her as a thoroughly nasty character, but when writing her interactions with the heroines, I actually ended up disturbing myself with the depths that she sunk to. She was one of those rare characters who wrote herself and ended up going in a direction I never expected. Clearly, she struck chords with the readers, too: by the time we hit the halfway point, I was getting comments along the lines of “Desideria is a fantastic villain, but holy shit I hate her so much. I want her to die horribly.”

This, I realized, presented a problem. No matter what awful things the Ninth did, he would inevitably be overshadowed by Desideria, and the final battle against him would seem like an anticlimax by comparison. And yet, I already had her death scene planned out and foreshadowed… As I wrote to Ash in a panic, “We’re in trouble: Desi is a better villain than the Ninth will ever be. I’d have her kill him and take over, but I can’t cut her death scene. What do we do?” It took more than a month to think of a workaround for that problem, but was it worth it in the end? Hell yes it was. I got to have my cake and eat it too.

And oh, that final battle with her. On a frigid late-January weekend in 2014, during which our house was snowed in by a massive blizzard, I had a surge of motivation the likes of which I’d never felt before and haven’t since. In what I can only describe as a frenzy, I wrote something like a hundred pages of the finale in three days, working almost all day the whole time and only stopping occasionally for food and sleep. Fight scenes are normally the bane of my existence because I can’t stop myself from being self-conscious about them dragging, but this one! Once again, my gut instinct kept screaming “Go with this, go with this!” and the results… well, I reread Chapters 29 to 34 again quite recently, and I found myself amazed at how well everything worked. There are minor grammatical issues and things I’d tighten up, but all these years later, I’m still proud as hell that I pulled it off.

That last sentence really sums up Stars Above in a nutshell. For one of the only times in my life, I not only saw a project to full completion, but it turned out pretty much exactly the way I wanted it. I got my epic story, and I got my perfect ending. That so many people told me they got emotionally invested in the story, that over a dozen of them said the ending made them weep… well, I’d call those added bonuses, but that’s vastly underselling it. Stars Above was a gamble from its inception: a crossover between two beloved but radically different series. A continuation of one of those series, which many consider to have a perfect ending. A romance between two characters with almost canon love interests. A collaboration between two creative minds. On top of that, a story that contained mature content, which carries its own set of risks. I started out wanting to tell the story primarily for me (and Ash, of course), but expecting other people to care about it? I thought I knew better than to hope for that.

You all proved me wrong. Every one of you who told me the story touched you, every one of you who wrote in telling me to keep on going because you had to see what happened next… you all proved me wrong in the best way. Without exaggeration, you changed the course of my life. My crazy little idea from a silly little RP thread became something that I consider a personal masterpiece, something I’ll be proud of for the rest of my days.

When I hit the publish button ten years ago today, I had no idea what would come of it. And though many terrible things have happened in the decade since… Stars Above will always be a highlight of that time. I consider it one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Thank you to Ash, for lighting the flame. Thank you to Drake, my beta reader and my best friend, for giving me a fair evaluation of pretty much every word I write. And finally, thank you to all my readers, everywhere. Go forth, and if you remember nothing else I’ve written here, remember the Virgil epigraph I used to open the final chapter: “Omnia vincit Amor; et nos cedamus Amori.” For those of you who don’t know Latin: “Love conquers all, and we, too, must yield to love.”

“Ten Years – The Brightest of Stars”
“At Peace”

– BHS

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BHS Blogress Report: July/August 2021 – Bamboozled (But in a Good Way)

July/August 2021 – Bamboozled (But in a Good Way)

Well, the weeks certainly got away from me, didn’t they :P

As of today, I’ve finally finished and posted the Koikatsu cards for all ten of the core Sailor Senshi, with my beloved Saturn being the last (and most difficult). It’s a hell of an accomplishment, I think, and I’m proud as can be of my work. Knowing that people love my creations and are willing to support me to see more… well, that’s the dream. I got a thrill several weeks ago when I found that a Japanese artist on Pixiv had used my blank Senshi fuku to create their own Senshi OC. That’s exactly what I made it for, and it’s gratifying to see it put to good use.

I feel justified in taking another break after all the good work I’ve done. Originally it was just going to be for a week, but that would mean I’d be set to post my next release on my birthday, so since it’s right up at the end of the month, I thought why not start fresh in September. No, I am not finished yet, there’s still far more I want to do.

Madoka Magica news has been happening lately! I didn’t really comment on the announcement of the long-awaited fourth movie back in April… I know, I know, shock and horror. Other stuff was going on. :P Anyway, of course I’m thrilled. I don’t want to make any predictions or bring in any expectations; I just hope that SHAFT and Magica Quartet know better than to give us another enormous cliffhanger that leads to another near-decade-long wait for the next installment. As long as that doesn’t happen, I’ll be satisfied.

Then they followed that up with a surprise announcement at the end of June: that Magica Record Season 2 would be launching in a month. I’ll be honest, I’ve been a little turned off by MagiReco in general since they shut the English version down, but I figured there was nowhere to go but up after a somewhat uneven season 1.

And boy howdy, did they come out of the gate swinging.

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

I was expecting a relatively straightforward run-through of the story’s second act, with some allowances made for the (mostly minor) differences that season 1 had from the game’s plot. What I (and I gather most other people) did not expect was that the first episode of Season 2 would essentially be like a lost episode of the original series for the vast majority of its runtime! After season 1 took pains to remove almost all of Madoka’s appearances from the game in those same events, I was straight-up flabbergasted by her grand return to the small screen. Not just her, but Homura was back too, taking the game’s intro scene and expanding it into an absolutely gorgeous showcase for her, Madoka, and Sayaka working together. This, my friends, is how you open a season. Judging by the high-quality setpieces in episode 2, they seem committed to giving us a wild ride for the remainder of the run. And if you’ve played the game and know what’s going to happen in the third and final season, coming in December… if they keep this up, I think we’ll have a winner on our hands.

SPOILERS ENDETH

The other thing I want to gush about here is a series that as of last month now ranks among my all-time favorites: Zombie Land Saga. I am somewhat well known for how much I normally detest idols and idol culture, so it was surprising enough that I gave the first season a chance, and even more surprising that I liked it as much as I did. The second season, though? I’ve been telling pretty much everyone who will listen that ZLS season 2 is one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of how to do a second season right. It gave me everything I wanted and a ton of stuff I didn’t know I wanted, and its spectacular finale left me salivating for the inevitable season 3.

So enamored was I, in fact, that I talked Drake into watching the series again with me, start to finish… and later in July, I did the same thing again with another friend. In the space of two months and changed, I marathoned both seasons twice… and from there I gained a whole new appreciation for the show, its characters, and its peculiar genius.

Because you see, much like SHAFT did and continues to do with the Madoka franchise, Mappa manages to bamboozle ZLS’s audience, but in a good way. The show got almost no advertising, and what there was of it portrayed it as a generic “cute girls meet zombies” horror series, something like School-Live! That it was actually not just a comedy but an idol show only became apparent halfway through the first episode. The inherent ridiculousness of the (actual) premise won it a ton of fans right out of the gate: an insane and spectacularly hammy producer/talent manager forms an idol group made exclusively of reanimated dead girls, in order to “save” a prefecture that was basically Japanese flyover country… though the how and why of this plan of this, he refuses to explain. The first five episodes lean hard into absurd comedy, and they pull it off with aplomb.

But starting with episode 6, and this is where it gets brilliant, the show pulls a rug out from under the audience a second time, by starting to take the characters and their journey seriously. This is a much more low-key and subtle bamboozlement: without losing the comedic edge it’s built up, it starts introducing dramatic elements as it explores the characters’ backstories and gives them an astonishing level of depth. I’ve seen this happen to me and to two others now, and it gets me every time… before you know it, you honestly care about the girls of FranChouChou and you want to see them succeed.

The true message of the series, when it hits, is a powerful one. Far from being just about wacky zombie idol antics, it’s about following your dreams and reaching for the stars, even if the world is against you. Doing it because the world is against you… and that’s the other thing I think is special. As hard as Sakura and her friends try, they do fail sometimes, and fail often… hell, season 2 opens with the group having bombed a huge concert, become a laughingstock, and plunged deep into debt. However, they’ve proven in the course of two seasons that nothing will keep them down for long: not limited recognition, not emotional tragedy and trauma, not interpersonal friction, not lack of money, skill, experience, and/or venue, not just plain rotten luck, not natural disasters, not even their own deaths. It sounds like the weirdest thing, but in its own bizarre way, ZLS has become one of the most inspiring series I’ve seen in recent memory. It speaks to the part of me that’s always longed to get up on stage and perform, damn the consequences. I keep trying to describe it to people and they keep looking at me like I’m crazy, but I swear, it really is a phenomenal achievement, and one of the best anime in years. That the guy who stubbornly refuses to get into anything idol-related is telling you this should be proof enough. Come for the comedy, the adorable characters, and/or the wide variety of fantastic music… stay for the message. It’s worth it, I promise.

-BHS

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BHS Blogress Report: 2021, April – New Avenues

April – New Avenues

Well, when I least expected it, I found a new creative outlet. How about that.

I bought Koikatsu at the beginning of the month as an impulse purchase… I got an unexpected payday and it had been in my wish list for a while, so I went ahead and took the plunge.

What I expected was a dating sim/h-game with a robust character creator and a thriving modding community. I got those, sure… but I also got a massive virtual toybox filled with almost every anime character I’ve ever loved, the means to recreate the few that are missing, and literal millions of props, backgrounds, and special effects to play with.

If you’re reading this on DA, you’ve seen the results: all month long, I’ve been busily making scenes with the characters I’ve downloaded, both for my own enjoyment and for others. I’m making a concentrated effort to build up my skills with both KK and the CharaStudio add-on, with the eventual goal of illustrating as much of Shattered Skies as I can with it. To that end, I’ve begun the long and sometimes frustrating process of digging into the guts of the character models, learning how to alter textures, wireframes, and code… Some of them won’t be recreated without a lot more work and tweaking, but I’m really proud of what I’ve been able to learn in such a relatively short time.

As I’ve been telling people all month, the possibilities here are nearly endless. With thousands of character models from anime, video games, comic books, western cartoons, and movies at hand, and the skill to make more of my own… hell, I know at least half a dozen people who do commissions for KK characters on Patreon and make some impressive money for it, maybe I could turn this into a lucrative side project!

That’s not to say it’s all been a blast. Last Sunday in particular, I discovered that the process for converting one article of clothing into an accessory, without changing its model or anything else, is somewhat akin to learning Greek. After three hours spent with an experienced modder walking me through it step by step, I conceded temporary defeat in that regard. I do intend to pick up the more advanced modding techniques eventually, but until I truly understand the tools I’m using and the relevant terminology, I think it’s best if I just work with what I have. That still leaves me with a hell of a lot that I can do, though!

Anyway. This week marked ten years since the airing of Madoka Magica’s final episodes. It’s for that reason, I suppose, that there’s going to be a special tenth anniversary live event in Japan tomorrow afternoon. I briefly considered buying a ticket for the livestream… but then I found out that it would be happening at 4 AM our time tomorrow morning, and that settled that. Massive PMMM dork though I am, I’ve reached a point in my life where I just can’t disrupt my sleep schedule like that anymore. Hell, I stayed up past midnight tinkering with KK for a number of nights in a row earlier this month, and last weekend I paid for it, and hard. PMMM is a massively important and influential series for me, and I’m thrilled to think of what might be announced at this event… but I already slaved away to make my tribute back in December and January. I’ve shown my love of the series multiple times over, I think… I have nothing to prove by waking up at an ungodly hour to watch a live stream, and paying for the privilege at that. No, this is fine. I’ll see the news, whatever it is, when I wake up. In the long run, I know I’ll be happier for it.

-BHS

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BHS Blogress Special Report: You Are Not Alone

You Are Not Alone

Puella Magi Madoka Magica first aired ten years ago today. Of all the many works of media I’ve seen, read, listened to, or experienced in the last decade, only Steven Universe has had the same kind of massive impact and influence as Madoka Magica has on my life, and on who I am as a person.

I didn’t think much of it at first. I saw fan art flying around, but you always see that happening with whatever the hit anime of the season is. I was interested because it was magical girls, but I heard it was really dark, and I was afraid it would be some tasteless bloodbath gorefest. It was only when I heard that my beloved Emiri Katou, my favorite voice actress and voice of my girl Kagami Hiiragi from Lucky Star, was in the cast that I started to take notice. My interest picked up further when I heard that Yuki Kajiura, who had written two of my favorite anime soundtracks ever, was the composer… I love Kajiura’s music so much that I count her soundtrack for Noir as one of my favorite OSTs ever, despite the fact that I’ve only seen one episode of the anime. Both Katou and Kajiura… I decided it was at least work checking out.

I went in with tempered expectations at best. I distinctly remember my first impression of Homura being “Oh, great. It’s the show’s obligatory Rei Ayanami / Yuki Nagato clone. She’s going to be tiresome.” An early guess of mine as to the twist was, “It’s some kind of sadistic game they’re being set up to play, I bet. Like magical Hunger Games.”

And then episode 3 happened.

Within 48 hours of starting the series, it was one of my all-time favorites. When I finished episode 10, the latest at the time, I sat shivering in my chair, stunned, with tears in my eyes. I had that same feeling that I had when I finished Princess Mononoke for the first time: the absolute certainty that I’d just seen something that would change my life. My entire world felt upended. This wasn’t just my new favorite anime… it was something powerful and meaningful that spoke to my soul. An exquisite, devastating, almost perfect tragedy… but one with enough of a chance that it might turn out okay that I couldn’t despair. I couldn’t. There was still a chance. That’s a delicate balance to pull off, one that most dark series fail.

For the next month, my love for the series grew as I waited for the final two episodes. The Great Tohoku Earthquake had just happened a week or so before, and the last two had been delayed due to the sensitivity of the apocalyptic imagery. Understandable, I thought. I saw rampant speculation leading up to it: how painful would the finale be? Would they kill everyone off? Would the real-life circumstances force SHAFT to change it? Would it air at all?

And then, on Good Friday 2011, appropriately enough… the ending, at last. With that, Madoka Magica ascended in my mind from “excellent” and “mind-blowing” to “masterpiece”. I wept, as I do every time I watch the final episode. Endings are always hard to pull off, anime endings especially so, and hyped-up endings nearly impossible… and Madoka’s was perfect. Glorious. Victorious. Heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure. A triumph of hope from the depths of despair… and for someone who knew those depths, who felt trapped in them at that point in my life, seeing people who should have been lost overcome their pain and rise up stronger in the end… it meant more to me than I can express.

There’s more that I love about Madoka than I could say if you gave me a thousand pages: the masterful execution of its twist in episode 3. The intricacy of the plot. The depth of the characters. The gorgeous art design, which incorporates multiple mediums in order to portray a feeling of wrongness. The majesty of the soundtrack, Kajiura’s finest work of her career.

But the primary reason I treasure it, and will treasure it forever, is because of how close to my heart the story hits. As I’ve said, I’ve been in the depths of despair. I’ve been lost in the abyss, feeling like I’m worthless to the world and would be better off dead. I know all too well the feeling that the sun will never shine on me again. Madoka understands that feeling, the raw emotional agony of it. And likewise, I know the feeling of meeting someone for whom simple love or friendship seems too prosaic a word… someone who pulls you out of that darkness you didn’t know you were in and shows you light you never knew existed. I know the anguish of seeing people like that suffer, the all-consuming need to do whatever you have to do, go to whatever lengths you need to go, to save them like they saved you. Yeah, I know those feelings. That’s why Homura’s story speaks to my soul.

When Madoka Magica first aired, it was at a time when I needed both hope and emotional release, and it brought both. It’s continued to do so for ten years now. I’ve used the great words from the final scene on any number of occasions, during some of my darkest hours. The idea that someone would love the world so much that she’d make kind of the sacrifice Madoka did… I’ve never been a particularly religious person despite being raised in a Christian household, but after seeing that finale, I told people that I finally got it. I finally understood the idea of a loving and omnipresent God. A higher being always watching over you, no matter where you are or how far you go, with a love that’s absolute and all-encompassing… If people can find comfort in that idea, well, I can get behind that even if I might not believe the same way as they do. Yeah, there’s obvious Biblical symbolism there, but the series earns it in a way that very, very few pieces of media can ever do.

That’s what it comes down to, for me. That’s what makes Madoka different from all the clones that it inspired: it’s not about the darkness, it’s about the light at the end. It’s about hope overcoming despair, and love overcoming loss. I can’t think of many things more inspiring than that.

Of course, Madoka has had a phenomenal influence on my creative work as well. It was in September of 2011 that I started Stars Above, working off an intial frenzy of creative inspiration that still has yet to really peter out all these years later. I put three years of my life into that story, into writing something that I hoped would affect my readers as deeply as Madoka affected me… and I’m still damned proud of the results. Without Madoka and without Stars Above, I wouldn’t have rediscovered my love for the magical girl genre, and it goes without saying that Shattered Skies: The Morning Lights, my other hugely ambitious fan fiction project, wouldn’t exist without it. Without Madoka, I wouldn’t have made the dear friends that I have in this past decade… I wouldn’t be part of this community that I’ve given so much to, that’s given so much to me in return. It’s no exaggeration at all to say that Madoka Magica changed my life for the better. I can think of no higher praise than that.

Times have been dark, and the world seems to have grown crueler. But when I’m lost, I try to think of those words…

Don’t forget.

Always, somewhere,

someone is fighting for you.

As long as you remember her,

you are not alone.

-BHS

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