GG: Dirk, I know this is a bit of a silly question to ask you, considering your reputation.
GG But you do have a plan for what to do after you arrive, right?
TT: Yeah, I got this.
TT: I'm almost there. Just keep your ass delicately under the radar for a few more minutes.
GG: Yes! A few more minutes! I can do this!!
TT: Yelling does not keep you under the radar, Jane.
GG: Oh! Ah.
GG: I suppose I'm a bit nervous. That's all.
GG: I am not myself anymore!
GG: And I can feel things happening outside of my home that
GG: Well, I don't believe I should be able to feel these things, but I do, Dirk.
GG: It's unnerving and I want to understand this, and as much as Roxy has been trying to explain things to me in the mean time, I'd rather have a friend here with me to talk me through this.
GG: This has already been a trying ordeal and I'd rather not sit around twiddling my thumbs willy-nilly any longer than I've already been.
GG: Fifty-two hours is a long time!
GG: I feel like I'm starting to go out of my head a bit here.
TT: The board can only go so fast, Jane. It's simple rocket science.
GG: Simple rocket science. Silly me!
TT: Okay, that came off as more of an asshole statement than I intended. My apologies.
GG: Granted. :P
TT: Fact still stands. I've had to refuel this piece of shit endlessly with nowhere to land but the ocean.
TT: You try being perpetually soaking wet and see just how much you can simultaneously garner some sick sort of enjoyment out of blasting through winter Washington airspace at forty miles an hour. God, it's cold.
TT: I haven't slept since before I left, and you know I don't actually understand how sleep happens other than dropping once I've achieved a shambling zombie state.
TT: So sorry if I'm being a dick, but take this as a distracted request to get off my ass for a few more seconds and be patient.
TT: I am juggling multiple vectors of planning here.
TT: Just need to circumnavigate these drones and we should hopefully be in the clear.
GG: Those are the giant red demon contraptions?
GG: Oh heavens.
GG: I would really prefer if you didn't get captured this close to my doorstep!
GG: Have they spotted you?
TT: It's chill. And I cannot agree more.
TT: Getting wrapped up in troll legal tape death matches with autonomous stand-in police bots at this point would really be the fucking icing on the shit cake that has been my past three days.
TT: It's fine, though.
TT: Not used to this, is all.
TT: Used to living in the middle of the goddamn abandoned ocean with no one around for five dozen hectares.
TT: Now I'm skirting the edge of troll suburbia and there are huge red mechanical centurions everywhere.
TT: Most of my former life was timed by monthly productions of carving them up for spare parts, not walking right past them and having them decide I don't exist as a threat anymore.
TT: It's fucking emasculating is what it is.
TT: Or whatever the opposite is, I guess, considering trolls are matriarchal.
GG: Perhaps you should pay attention instead of rambling endlessly for my benefit?
GG: Although I suppose it's for your benefit as well. You talk when you're nervous.
TT: Shit, hold on.
GG: Oh dear, I keep peeking out my window looking for you, but it is still the strangest sight.
GG: All that water.
GG: I'll never get used to it.
GG: I can't imagine living with this every day of my life.
GG: Doesn't it drive you mad?
GG: It probably did, a little bit.
GG: I'm sorry.
GG: Okay, it has been ten minutes, Dirk!
GG: Patience is not one my best virtues.
GG: Please answer me!
GG: Oh, I hate this.
TT: I need you to come down and answer the door for me.
TT: Leave the apartment.
TT: Bring the key and your weapon.
TT: Lock the door after you and come let me inside.
GG: I haven't been outside. You told me not to leave!
TT: I know. Fuck what I said.
GG: I thought the plan was to for you to fly in through my window?
TT: That was the plan. I've had to amend the plan.
TT: The plan keeps getting fucking ravaged by the complex organism of troll society shitting wildly in my direction every time I try to do anything with an ounce of forethought.
TT: Hurry up, Jane.
GG: What does the damn key look like?
TT: Rectangular. Flat like a hotel room key.
GG: Oh, here it is.
GG: How do you know what a hotel room key looks like?
GG: How many floors down is it? Oh dear.
TT: The resident list places you on the seventh floor.
TT: I think.
TT: I'm not as fluent in reading troll as I should be.
GG: Okay, I am on the fifth landing and descending!
TT: You locked the door?
GG: Are you okay?
TT: I'll be just peachy once my back isn't exposed.
TT: And when you're not stuck here with all these murdering assholes.
The thing is that she can feel them. The stairway of the hivestem is empty, but she can feel people through the walls like a weird sixth sense, all of them alive and breathing and absolutely invading her territory. This is her home. They're not allowed near her home. They're so close she can taste the scent of them in the air and it's had her skin prickling with quiet, urgent bloodlust for the past three days. She's exhausted. She wants to sink down and sleep forever, but when she tried to sleep last all she could dream were endless nightmares of murder and death. Jane isn't ready to try that again. Her hands shake incessantly.
Her grip on the culling fork goes white-knuckled. She's stronger than she should be. It takes effort to avoid the urge to rip open doors and jam the tines of her weapon into the soft grey flesh of a troll's exposed neck. She clutches the railing instead and breathes fast, taking the steps as quickly as her legs will carry her. She's puffing by the time she reaches the second floor landing, but Dirk has gone silent in the HUD feed of her glasses, and she refuses to let herself pause.
The front entrance is locked with three different kinds of latches, heavy things that don't even budge as she tugs on the interior handle. A patient minute of trying leads to nothing but a locked door.
GG: It won't open!
TT: It's probably a blood lock.
TT: Is there an octagonal growth in the middle of it? It'll look like it's made of skin?
GG: Oh god.
GG: I thought that was some kind of awful result in poor housekeeping!
TT: Press your thumb to it.
GG: Will it hurt?
TT: I don't know. I've never done it before.
TT: Never had the right chemistry.
It doesn't hurt. It tingles, cold and prickly like her thumb is asleep as she presses against the warm of the octagon. Nothing changes for a second, and then there is the slow, loud thunk as three separate magnetic locks come undone. It opens to a thin little landing, the waves lapping seven feet below the red doorway and the breeze salty and warm.
Dirk stands there straight as a ramrod, his sword in one hand and the rocket board held under his other arm. Jane doesn't need more than a glance to see how high-strung he is, paranoid and glancing over his shoulder once at the floating red skeletons of sentry drones slowly traversing the horizon. He's drenched from head to toe. One of Roxy's pink scarves is looped close around his neck. And he's grey. His skin soft and ashy and nearly the same alien color as Jane's own.
Trolls. They're both trolls. She can barely wrap her head around it, and it's been nearly three days already.
She moves forward to hug him but he catches her, his sword tipped back under his arm as he holds her away with his knuckles. "Not here. Inside," he says, and Jane can see the dim red words scrolling a warning along the inside of his shades.
He stands at her back shivering as she locks the door up behind him. They take the stairs in silence; the ever-present stink of trolls yards away is choking in the tight cramp of the stairwell. Dirk never speaks a word, listening with a soldier's intensity. Jane's hand aches from gripping her fork so tightly.
They're on the fourth floor landing and she's breathing hard again. He's all nerves and attention, sipping air fast and shallow. He looks exhausted. The bags under his eyes are deep and the tip of his sword waivers slightly when Jane watches it, the shaking of his hand transmitting down the long feet of the blade. And it's there that Jane realizes she doesn't want to kill Dirk like she wants to kill the other trolls in the building. She can feel their pheromones on her skin, demons as ready to kill her as she is ready to kill them. And she can feel Dirk too, but she doesn't want to flay him open and see what color he bleeds like she does to the others. He's a mess. He looks about ready to keel over, and Jane sets her free hand on his arm just long enough to catch his attention—to have him look her in the eye.
"You need to rest," she tells him.
"In your apartment." It's clipped but she hears the urgency there. They scale the last three flights in silence and Dirk stands panting next to Jane as she fiddles with the door key to get her rooms open again.
Inside, Jane locks the door up behind them and watches as Dirk sags out of attention. He sinks down to a crouch, sword and jet board left abandoned on the soft carpet. He's still shivering, soaked to the bone, and he wraps his arms around himself, his sharp troll teeth chattering. Jane steps to the other side of him and nudges the jet board out of the way to sit down next to her friend, leaving his sword untouched and within close reach of his fingertips. It's been hard to let go of her weapon these past days with the latent feeling of enemies pressing in all around. Dirk has lived alone in the middle of the ocean for his entire life. He doesn't have experience dealing with people. Jane can't imagine he doesn't feel that chemical urge to murder as strongly as she does.
What she doesn't expect is how warm he is. "You're burning up!" She sets both hands on his back, the fabric of his shirt soaked through and the heat of his skin shocking. He's fever-hot, and suddenly the shivers mean everything. "Good heavens, Dirk, you didn't make yourself sick coming all the way out here to pick me up, did you?" Jane lurches back to her feet, stepping over the carpet to the couch that is in exactly the same place as it was in her house, that looks exactly the same as the one she'd sat on with her dad so many times. She snatches up the pretty blue afghan she'd laid over the back of it yesterday.
His teeth chatter as she drapes it over his shoulders. "No, it's just a lowblood thing."
"What?" She knows that word and what it means, but being a troll is much different from picking up bits of their culture from conversations and guessing. She's never lived in the middle of their culture, never touched one to know if they were hot or cold. Dirk is the expert here.
He wraps the blanket closer around himself, gripping the corners with cold fingers and holding it closed in front of himself to trap more warmth. "I don't really understand the universe conjecture here, but apparently our text colors have decided what color blood we inherited when it reconstructed everything." He takes his sword before Jane can protest and slices a shallow line across the pad of his right thumb. Bright orange bleeds out, thick and opaque like acrylic paint. He licks it off. "I got the shitty end of the spectrum. Although that is really not the thing I take offense at about suddenly being exactly the oppressive conquering alien I've had to constantly fight to survive against for the entirety of my life."
Suddenly every slightly disturbing text from Roxy over the past three days makes sense, all the requests for Jane to jab her fingers bloody with her culling fork to see what color she bled. It hadn't been insane troll hormones. There had been a reason there and yet again Jane had ignored her friend's advice in the face of bold skepticism. She sits there next to Dirk, watching his orange blood drip down the joints of his thumb. His sword is uncannily sharp as she gives her left thumb the same treatment, pretty pastel turquoise welling up out of the tiny line of severed capillaries.
"Blue," Jane whispers to herself, holding it closer. It smells like her in a way nothing else has. The hivestem is swimming with the scent of hundreds of different trolls, and Jane sits on the floor in her apartment with her bleeding thumb two inches from her face, and she realizes she can count each distinct person on this floor just by breathing. Pheromones. Trolls are ruled by them. They are a second sight she hasn't let herself understand until this very moment. She can taste the scent of Dirk's blood in the back of her throat.
"That means you're an aristocrat. Nice comfortable pension to live off of and have fun with before Ascension. Cushy communal apartment. It also means you're more likely to want to kill anyone on the same level as you whenever they're in the vicinity."
Jane nods. "I've wanted to kill everyone in this wretched building since I woke up on the living room floor." She hasn't admitted that to anyone. For all that Jake and Roxy have been talking to her incessantly, texting and asking and transferring information, she had never told them about the absolute bloodthirsty rage that has been growing in her belly since day one. Of the heart-pounding moments curled up against her front door, listening and smelling and feeling the presence of an enemy so so close as someone passed by through the stairwell. Of the way her hand ached afterward from gripping her weapon so tightly, of the burn in her legs and lower back from straining against throwing the door wide open and attacking right there. She's been high-strung. She has not trusted a single thing her body has told her in three days, and Jane realizes as she watches Dirk bleed, that she is exhausted in ways she could not even begin to explain. "It's terrifying."
Dirk watches her. The red text in his shades has stopped scrolling and she can almost see the shapes of his eyes. He looks like a half-drowned rat. He also looks like he could plan the exact destruction of the world if he just had the right tools. "Do you want to kill me?"
"No." She can feel him next to her the same as she can feel the other trolls in the building, and he is the first troll she does not want to stab through the stomach and watch die. She loves him a little for that. It's the first time she's felt like herself since this nightmare new world began. "I'm so thankful that I don't."
He licks his lips, pensive for a moment before he eyes the windows, an idea working its way through his mind. His fingers are warm on her skin as he stands and takes her hand, two colors of blood on both of their palms. He's still watching the windows. "I need to show you something," he whispers, more spooked resignation in that one sentence than Jane has heard in Dirk's voice in a long time. He leaves his sword on the carpet, still holding the blanket around him. Jane leaves her fork behind for the first time in days. She follows silently as he leads her through this eerie exact replica of her house to just outside her bedroom door.
There are no windows here, the two of them tucked into the corner against the hinges of her door. Dirk sinks down again and slips his shades off the bridge of his nose. Red words flicker irately over the insides of them before he taps a finger to the corner of one lens and kills all power. No auto-responder. No one listening and constantly reporting back to Roxy and Jake. No windows for anyone to see in. This is just between the two of them, intimate with the privacy. Jane's heart pounds in her chest.
"Dirk, what is going on?" she whispers, feeling the conspiracy.
He sets his shades on the carpet, lenses down. In one moment of hesitation, Jane watches him weigh out the difference between his trust and his fear. This is a dangerous secret, and he is choosing her to tell it to. His hands shake. "I would prefer to keep this between us for the time being?"
Dirk is careful as he pulls Roxy's water-logged pink scarf from around his neck. At first Jane doesn't understand what the three little orange crescents on either side of his neck mean, but then he takes a breath and they flare ever so slightly, and something deep and animal in the back of her mind recoils in horror.
He has gills. He has gills and he shouldn't, and Jane flattens back against the wall of the hallway, a hand clamped over her mouth as she stares, teeth bared. It's wrong. It's wrong deep deep in the new alien parts of her troll brain, and she can't control the revulsion and the shock that washes over her face. A deep cicada growl rattles like a warning in her chest, unbidden and uncontrollable. Dirk flinches ever so slightly at that. He sits there like an animal ready for flight, his hands held up and between them, defensive even though he's left his sword behind on the living room floor. He knows there are new chemical instincts in her brain telling Jane that he is a mutant freak that doesn't deserve the air he's breathing. He's likely felt them himself, about himself. She sees it in his eyes. He's afraid, but he's dumped all his faith in her basket, trusting that she won't attack him despite it all.
She can't get the rumbling growl under control. Something at the base of her lungs is vibrating, her heart hammering with fresh adrenaline. That cruel, familiar urge to kill rises up in the back of her mind again, and Jane clamps her eyes shut, sinking back against the wall and away from him. The last thing she wants right now is to face this again. This murderous rage. She's so tired and it has been so many days of slowly shredding control, killing instincts defining her quiet moments, dreams caught in twenty minute naps of bathing in the blood of the people living just next door. She doesn't want to kill anyone. She doesn't want this. She just wants to be Jane Crocker, detective enthusiast and baking extraordinaire. She doesn't want to sit like a stranger in the corner of a house that she realizes no longer feels like her home, to have to battle alien instincts that are now a part herself, to fight not to murder a friend she would do anything for.
She doesn't even realize she's crying until Dirk touches her shoulder, leaning in closer instead of running away. He wipes the pale blue tears from her face. "I'm sorry," he says, his voice soft and open in a way she's rarely ever heard. There's a hint of guilt in it, and that sounds so strange in his mouth. "I know you've been ramped up on alien hormones you only have a slipping grasp of understanding for the past three days. This is really not the time for me to dump unsettling shit on you, but I need someone to watch my back, and you're the only one within miles that I trust. Skulking through troll suburbia has my nerves frayed to fucking hell, Jane. I can't do this much longer. If any troll outside of the four of us finds out about me, they are going to do everything they can to string me up by the gills until I bleed out. And I'm scared. I need your help here." He shivers all over, teeth chattering. His hands are warm but not as warm as they should be. He's still soaking wet, his eyes rimmed over in exhaustion and paranoia. He can't stop shivering and Jane watches him as he looks away, too uncomfortable with being emotional in front of her to keep up the eye contact. "I can handle a lot of things, but knowing that something about me is inherently different and also has a high likelihood of getting me murdered is not something I'm really excited about having to tolerate." And then he laughs darkly and swallows hard. "Which is ironic, considering. Society is a fucked up thing. I don’t know how you lived with it."
Hearing him admit that stings.
He's a wreck. Both of them are. Jane is exhausted, her hands still curled up into killing claws, but something about hearing Dirk talk like that, seeing him so open and vulnerable gets through the blood-haze that's clogging up her head. "No one is going to kill you," she whispers, dead certain. Even with that little murderous voice in her blood, she could never imagine betraying him. "Dirk, why didn't you tell me? I shouldn't have let you come here. I could have waited for Roxy to figure out how to send her occult window panes through the sendificator doohickey the same as Jake is. I don't care if it takes an entire month!" Jane presses her hands to her face, still breathing too hard, the smell of his bloody thumb in the air. But the instincts aren't taking over her head anymore. She doesn't want to kill him. She wants to protect him no matter what. "You should have stayed home!"
"And leave you canned up in a skyscraper with a phalanx of murdering psychos? That's a tall order of bullshit, Jane." He sits back, fidgeting despite the shivering because he knows she can take care of herself. Both of them know that. Jane doesn't need saving. But he'd come all the way out here anyway, three days on his jet board, three days of shitty eating and nowhere to land, three days of complete exposure to the elements and any troll that could happen upon him, with only Roxy's scarf to hide behind. He looks like a hollow alien representation of himself, wrapped up in her pretty blue blanket and shivering, eyes closed. She's never imagined him so small before.
Jane stands up. "Come on. You're never going to warm up soaking wet like that."
"I'm just going to get wet again," he mutters, his head already so full of the return trip that he isn't thinking about the present. He's done that as long as she's known him, and Jane shakes her head, frustrated but so glad for that familiarity. He hesitates until she nearly hauls him to his feet, her hands tugging at his arms. He's taller than her but she pulls him up and wraps the soaking scarf back around his neck again.
Jane puts him in the shower fully clothed, the water turned up hotter than she can stand it. Dirk just drinks the warmth in, sitting in the bottom of the tub and slowly flexing his fingers as he gets some heat back into them. She kneels at the foot of the bathtub, watching the window. All she can see is the endless water of the horizon, spiked through by red buildings like warning pikes. Nothing peeks in the window to spy on the mutant boy she has in her bathtub. She breathes in the humid air. "Why do you have gills?" Jane asks quietly, her words nearly swallowed in the noise of the shower.
Dirk shakes his head, but he leans back against the wall, a tired, guilty resignation in his posture. "I think I got Roxy's," he says eventually.
"Oh dear." Jane knots her fingers together. "That's right, she did say she had fins."
"Which I don't have," Dirk says, touching the smooth line of his jaw. "She didn't say it in so many words. I haven't either. Don't want this in text where someone can pick it up, regardless of her apeshit bananas encryptions. But something is weird about the way she phrases things, so I'm speculating that I'm right. It's still bullshit. My blood is too hot. Trying to breathe that water is like inhaling ice, and the salt corrodes my eyes until I can barely open them."
It's a mistake. Everything is a mistake. Dirk and Roxy weren't supposed to get their genes mixed up. The world wasn't supposed to come back this way, four hundred years in the future with the trolls still in power. Jane was supposed to wake up to regular Washington suburbia, everything right as she left it and Dave Strider and Rose Lalonde still alive. She wasn't supposed to wake up grey and alien. And Jane sits there watching the window, angry out of her mind as she realizes they went through the nightmare of SBURB to only get this in return.
"This isn't right. This has to be a dream."
Dirk looks at her. His yellow sclera are shot through and painful with orange, but she still sees the quiet jealous pity in that look. Jane is the skeptic. Dirk takes in every ounce of information and crunches it up until he can pick which path reality will take. His entire life has been endless plans and work, and here she sits in a new skin with the evidence in her very veins, and still she's somehow hoping that it's all a lie. He's never had that privilege. Doubting only lead to death for him. Suddenly Jane feels guilty for her naivety, her whole life sheltered in a way that her friends have had to compensate for since before the game even began.
"I'm sorry," she whispers as she crawls into the foot of the tub. The water is still too hot for her cool blood, but this end is dry. "It's not a dream. Wishing that won't help anything."
He reaches over, wet fingers wiping dried blood off her palm. She's never had a boy hold her hand more awkwardly in her life. "You have qualities other than doubting shit, Jane," he says, eyes adverted and his voice quiet as he puts his hands back in his lap, embarrassed. "You refuse to give up when you set your mind on something and you're damn headstrong. You're nearly as good a tactician as I am, which is seriously badass in my opinion. You understand people. I don't. You're logical, which, let's be honest, Jake could never hope to achieve. You can concentrate even if it's not to your attention, which Roxy always fucks up by soaking her brain with booze. You can take constant brainwashing and still not turn into a raving Batterwitch assassin."
"Are you going to list all my good qualities?" she asks with a smile. If there would be anyone who could enumerate them exactly, it would be Dirk.
"You're pretty," he adds, and both of them laugh.
Jane nods, breathing. She's a troll now and she is going to have to accept that. She's going to have to adapt and train up the parts of her that will protect her friends. She's been living with her brain in limbo for the past three days, trying to ignore all the strange new sensations through willpower alone. Denying them every time. That's not going to help, and she's scared, but at least she isn't alone anymore. At least she has someone to talk to about it, even if Dirk is in nearly as bad a way as she is. Her eyes flick to the window again but nothing has changed.
Dirk always has plans. Sometimes he works himself nearly to death to make them work. How coming all the way out here to pick Jane up fits into the plan, Jane isn't sure, but she's glad he it did all the same. His eyes are closed now, his black hair plastered to his forehead as he leans up against the wall of the shower, halfway to dozing.
"Are you going to sleep in my bathtub?"
He sniffs, sitting up again. "That was the plan. Unless you have somewhere else for me to sleep soaking wet?"
"If you aren't opposed to wearing ill fitting girls' clothes, I can lend you some of mine while I put yours in the dryer."
Dirk looks at her for a moment, considering. Then he nods and twists the water off. "Sure."
She sets a blue pair of too-big plaid flannel pajama pants and an oversized Jeff Foxworthy tour shirt at the end of the tub, then waits in the hall until Dirk dumps his sopping wet clothes outside the door for her. On the way back up from the laundry room she fishes his sword off the carpet before scaling the stairs again. He's standing in the hallway, the trousers too short and halfway up his grey calves, the shirt ridiculous in a way only Dirk can wear correctly. His hair drips into the towel looped around his neck as he stands there staring at his shades, still offline in his hands.
"Good to be dry and warm?" Jane asks as she steps up next to him, offering him his sword.
He takes it, fingers so expert on the hilt that it's hard to believe it's not a part of him. "Yeah. Reminds me how dead fucking exhausted I am, but it's nice to not be shivering like a terrified caged parakeet with a cat just outside the bars."
The analogy hits closer to reality than she'd expected, and Jane bites her lips, glancing at the window barely down the hall. They're trapped here in this apartment, hemmed in by enemies on all sides, troll society a threat to Jane just as much as it is to Dirk. She has no idea how to live in this world. The thought of giving up her humanity to be one of this alien hoard is more terrifying than anything.
"What are we going to do?" she whispers.
What can they possibly do? This isn't how it was supposed to work. This isn't what they were supposed to come back to. They are four kids in the wrong skin, lost in a world that's not supposed to be covered in water and occupied by an alien race. It's overwhelming just existing, just standing here with senses she shouldn't have telling her things she doesn't want. Jane can't think forward right now, can't think of how to fix this insurmountable obstacle. She can't imagine how it is for Dirk, the one who spent his whole life plotting to play the game in an attempt to get humanity a second chance. Now it's all in tatters. His eyes are hollow and dark with dead exhaustion, but still she can see the gears turning in his head. He'll never stop. He doesn't know how.
"Sleep," he says.
"And after that?"
"After that I need to touch base with Roxy and Jake and see how soon she can transport him out of the two hundred cubic feet of ravenous psychic squid flesh that's been twining around that Frog Temple like a cephalopod sex addict for the past three hundred years." He sags, scrubs at his eye with the back of one hand. "After that? I don't know, Jane," he whispers, his voice too quiet and too scared, too familiar to the last conversation they had in this hallway. All she can think of is how small they are. Four against the world, with Jake and Roxy scattered on the wind impossibly far away from them.
"After that we regroup," she says, certain. "And you take a few days off the manic planning. You cannot do everything. You are going to burn yourself out, mister!"
He nods, a tiny fond smile spreading slowly at that. He would work himself to the grave without her to stop him. "Yes, ma'am."
Jane narrows her eyes but he's not joking. She can see it plainly with his shades still in his hand. She's glad for that. She leans her forehead against his shoulder and sighs, all the exhaustion and the fear and the instincts and the pressure, all of it coming out in one frustrated rush of vocalization. It feels honest, like finally admitting this is too much to conquer by herself. Dirk wraps an arm around her. There's so much to do. So much. But now she's not alone. He's not alone. They can do it together. For the first time in three days, Jane believes that maybe she can do this if she only has her friends by her side.