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The colors have been around for as long as she can remember. She didn’t always notice them, but she knows they were there because she remembers the first time they changed.

Janis is, to her knowledge, the only person in the world who knows Regina’s secret. Or at least she’s the only one who remembers. Their parents know, of course, because how could they not? Regina’s father knows too, that’s for fucking sure. He’s the one who started all this bullshit. He’s the reason that even after everything, she doesn’t hate her. She hates what she did and she hates what she’s become, but Janis has never, could never, hate her.

That steaming April morning, when the seasons had just begun to change and the air had that smell of damp soil and new growth, she remembers holding her hand. They were always holding hands back then. They never thought it was strange, before. They were best friends and they loved each other and nothing was strange about that. Their parents gave them looks, Janis’ knowing and Regina’s worried, but nothing was strange . They were always like this. People had taken to calling them ReginandJanis because they were always together, always one unit, constantly in motion but never moving apart.

They got into trouble a lot in those days, but their parents never really got mad. How could they?

Like the time when they were six seven and Janis watched Fried Green Tomatoes and had to be taken to the ER because no, most people can’t successfully reach their hand into a wild beehive without taking proper precautions. ReginandJanis were given a lecture about treating nature with respect, but once Janis was deemed okay the whole thing was put to rest. (Except Regina still doesn’t really eat honey anymore.)

Like the time when they were both ten and Regina broke her arm falling out of the tree beside Janis’ window trying to sneak in after lights out like she’d done a hundred thousand times before. Janis’ dad screwed some two-by-fours into the trunk for a ladder and put a support under the main bow so that it wouldn’t wobble so much and they were only ten but Janis’ parents sat them each down separately and explained what sex was and that someday they would need to be safe about it and to be honest they didn’t really understand what that had to do with the window but it was awkward enough to prevent either of them from asking questions. (And even then, when Janis listened to Regina screaming in pain and held her hand the whole way to the hospital and was more scared than she’d ever been in her life, the colors still didn’t change.)

Like the time when they were eleven twelve and they met Karen and ReginandJanis tried to bleach the brunette’s hair so that they could all match but ended up just turning it a bright orange and their moms just sighed and took them both to a salon and told them that this was coming out of their allowance and they weren’t allowed to dye their hair again until they were sixteen and Janis’ mom said that just because they didn’t match didn’t mean they didn’t complement each other beautifully. (Janis still secretly wants to match because Regina is the most beautiful girl in the world and she only wants to be worthy to stand next to her.)

That morning, before everything, Janis crossed the street to knock on that big green door and walk her best friend to the bus stop, just like she did every morning. Her dad always said lady or gentleman, didn’t matter, but “you should always be chivalrous to the person you love” and her dad was the smartest person she knew. He was a scientist and when they watched documentaries together he would always add his own facts, even if sometimes they were silly and made up.

But this was a real fact and Janis loved Regina desperately so she would be chivalrous and hold her hand while they walked to the bus stop. And Regina loved Janis too, she told her so that very morning. Took her hand like she always did and said “Jay, when we get married promise we’ll never fight like my parents?” And Janis frowned and hugged her friend tight and whispered the promise into her ear. Felt it as Regina released a shuddering breath and murmured her love and pulled back to give her a sweet kiss.

Everything was sweet back then, when they were innocent and unaware of the harsh world that awaited them. It was not their first kiss of course, because they had always, always known that they were made for each other. The sky is blue and dogs chase cats and ReginandJanis were built to fit together like a jigsaw puzzle like stacking dolls like two halves of one soul. At four five they knew this and at twelve thirteen they had never wavered in their devotion. Their world is yellow and pink and bright and it always, always has been.

That was the last good day for three years.

That night, Regina would come to Janis’ window crying. She would climb over the rigid frame right into Janis’ bed (which had long since been moved against the exterior wall for this very reason) and Janis would do her best to comfort her best friend as she sobbed that her dad was going away for real this time and it was all her fault. He had left once before but then Regina’s mom had been pregnant with Kylie and he came back and no one talked about it.

Another baby wasn’t going to fix this though. He said he was leaving because of her. That he was leaving because “this has gone on long enough” and “they’re too old now” and her mother “won’t even try to fix her” and Regina didn’t even know what was so wrong with her that he couldn’t be around at all unless it was fixed. Janis didn’t know either and she didn’t know how to make it better but she knew that she would be there, no matter what.

By lunch the next day, she would understand.

“Did you hear Regina George’s dad left because she’s a lesbian?”

“REGINA GEORGE IS A DYKE?!”

“Wait so Regina and Janis are both virgins because they’ve only slept with each other and that doesn’t count, right?”

Regina hadn’t come to school that day, so Janis was left to the wolves on her own. She did her best to quell these rumors, but it got harder as the more she had to defend Regina the more embroiled in the rumors she herself became. But Janis loved Regina. So much. So she would be chivalrous like her dad always said and she would take the brunt of the storm so that Regina could mourn in peace.

“I am a space alien with four butts!”

She didn’t know where it came from but it sure shut them up. Briefly. Janis could take being the brunt of a joke. She could. She would be a space alien and she would fucking love it if it meant that Regina was safe.

Except by the next day, space alien had become SpAce DyKe keyed into the already chipped paint of her locker and someone had started a petition to have her banned from the locker room.

But it was fine. It was fine because no one was bothering Regina and that’s all that was important. It did hurt. A little. But it wasn’t important because Regina was safe .

Regina abandoned her.

“If he thinks I’m fixed he’ll come back Janis I’m sorry I’m so sorry Janis I love you I’m sorry.”

And she still didn’t, couldn’t, hate her. Because she understood. Janis had loved Regina for her whole entire life, and Janis knew Regina as well as one person could know another person. So she understood, and just hoped and hoped that Regina would come back soon.

Regina didn’t come back.

The bullying had been fine when she was protecting her, but the day Regina joined in was the day Janis broke. She could see the pain in Regina’s eyes when she told Janis that she couldn’t come to the party, but despite that pain she still said it and it hurt worse than anything had ever hurt in Janis’ entire life and that’s the moment they change. It’s the first time the world is black.

On the day of Regina’s birthday, over the sound of screaming preteens and thudding pop music coming from across the street, Janis asks (begs) her mom to go to a different school next year. A month ago she knows the answer would have been a resounding “no,” and “you two will work it out,” but when she glances desperately at the window where the shadows of a dozen cars can be made out through the curtains, she sees her mother’s face soften. She doesn't answer right away but says “I’ll talk to your dad,” and takes her to the mall and that’s enough for now.

June passes in a melancholy trudge of dark grays and dull silvers. The day after the party her mom makes a ton of calls and eventually finds an art camp that will allow her to join late just so she won’t make herself more miserable wallowing around the house. She knows they’ve talked to Mrs. G and she knows that Mrs. G has talked to Regina, has even come over to assure Janis that Regina will come around soon, she’s sure, but Janis knows Regina as well as a person can know another person and she knows that Mrs. G hardly knows her daughter at all so she just cries and cries until she falls asleep on the lap of the woman who had always been her second mother. Mrs. G comes with them to drop her off at art camp, hugs her so tight and says she’s sorry and she loves her. Janis remembers Regina’s words from that muggy spring day and has to clench her jaw so very tight to keep from crying again.

Her mom and dad and Mrs. G help her unroll her sleeping bag on a top bunk and put most of her clothes for the next six weeks in the little two-drawer night stand with her name on it, the rest remaining in her ugly pink suitcase that she tries hard not to think of as Regina’s hand-me-down. And then they’re gone and she’s left in a cabin with eight other girls and one boy who apparently had absolutely refused to go to the boys’ camp and be forced to “room with those testosterone-laden stench bombs who wouldn’t know emotional depth if it kicked them in the balls.”

The other girls are nice, really nice. Some are in painting electives with her, a lot of them are in theatre, and one girl is really into felt crafting which is weird but Janis is the last person to talk about weird so she befriends her anyway. By the end of the first week, they’ve all become good friends. Even their counselor, Miss Mandy, is really cool and Janis feels like someone must be looking out for her to put her in this cabin.

Within the first couple of days someone has innocently asked Janis why she came late and they end up spending the night sitting in a circle taking turns sobbing to each other about their worst days and their biggest fears and their coming out stories and they cry for so long that Miss Mandy has to go get the assistant head counselor to help calm them down.

By the second weekend they’ve taken a vote and decided that the “Shawnee” sign hanging on the front of their cabin is appropriative and disrespectful so they nab it off the wall with a big stick and bury it in a hole under the cabin and when Miss Mandy discovers it missing they tell her it must’ve been a storm. (They’ve been really lucky to have such nice weather all summer.)

Felt girl (Amanda) turns out to be really great at woodworking and gets special permission to use the wood-burner to make them a new sign. Except she’s so quiet and demure that the counselor in charge of the crafts room during free-period leaves her to her own devices and doesn’t notice as Amanda writes “SPACE GAYS” in big, swirling letters and bolts out before anyone can see. When she presents it proudly to the cabin that night, everyone cheers, even the straight girls. When Amanda shyly hands the sign to Janis and says she should be the one to hang it, she feels a sense of peace wash over her that she never thought she’d feel again.

They wait until Miss Mandy is asleep and sneak outside. Two of the girls who do cheerleading lift Janis just high enough that she can reach the roof and she kicks and shimmies until she can pull her full weight up. They toss up the sign after her and she slithers on her belly until she’s hanging over the very front of the cabin. It’s dark and she has to feel around for a while before she finds the screw that had held the previous sign in place, but she finds it soon enough and hangs the new one by a string. She hears quiet squealing from below her and looks down to see all of her new friends grabbing at each other trying to keep themselves together and she thinks she has never felt more accepted in her life and she doesn’t doesn’t doesn’t think about a time when that might not have been true. Not at all.

Getting off the roof is more trouble than getting onto it was but eventually they all make their way into the cabin as silently as possible, and when Miss Mandy inevitably wakes up they say they had to go to the bathroom. She definitely doesn’t believe them but they’re all accounted for and uninjured, so she lets it go for the time being.

When everyone wakes up in the morning it’s pandemonium, and by the end of the third week, all of the cabins in their age group have brand new handmade cabin signs.

That same week, Janis starts really talking to the boy in their cabin. His name is Damian and in his own words he is “the gayest bitch for miles” and she thinks considering where they are that’s saying something. She finds out his parents sent him here because he was being bullied too, except he doesn’t seem to care at all. She feeds off of his confidence, and by the time six weeks have passed, not only has her technique improved dramatically but so has her self-esteem. The days fly by in a whirl of sky-blue and grass-green.

Her dad comes alone to pick her up and says nothing about her new plumb-purple hair. He does tell her that they tried so hard but her dad is between projects and there just isn’t a way for them to afford private school for her this year. He asks her if she wants to try homeschooling instead. She stares at her reflection in the side mirror for a long time as she thinks it over. The summer has been such a reprieve that she thinks about telling him she’ll just suck it up and go back, but then she catches sight of her dark roots peeking through the new pigment and grits her teeth instead.

They end up working out a system with Mrs. G, who takes Janis to the library every weekday morning so she can do online school and then takes her home at midday so she can paint in the garage until her mom gets home from work. Janis is content with this system, but she isn’t happy. She hasn’t been happy since leaving Damian and Amanda two months ago. They write to each other at least once a month, but it isn’t the same. Damian lives pretty close and they hang out once or twice, but the school year still passes in an ugly murky brown.

When she finds out that although they went to different middle schools, Damian technically lives in the North Shore district, she is very briefly yellow again. It fades quickly when she thinks of homemade lemonade stands and glitter paint spilled on the garage floor and hair that is gold, gold, gold.

She takes a long time to decide if she wants to go back. There’s Damian and human interaction and art classes with someone who isn’t also a licensed therapist, but her dad got a full-time job at Northwestern back in April and had promised private school this year.

In the end, Damian convinces her and she shouldn’t be surprised. “Don’t let them do this to you. Don’t let them control your life like this.”

So she goes to North Shore for freshman year, and it goes about as well as she expects it to. She learns to be quick and sharp with her words and aims the fiercest barbs at the three girls who had at some point become known as “The Plastics,” though she never speaks to them directly. She still doesn’t hate Regina, even if she acts like she does sometimes.

She’s hard because she has to be, but she doesn’t really care anymore what people say. She didn’t so much before, either, but now she has clothes and hair and a smirk that all make her feel like she’s in charge of her own life. Her art is good and she has teachers now that can help her enter competitions and she wins . She wins a lot. She puts all of her prize money into a bank account so that when it’s time for college she won’t have to rely on in-state tuition and she can just go. She doesn’t know where but she knows she needs to go.

Janis is a mess of conflicting emotions. She sees her, occasionally. She’s lost weight. Janis tries and tries not to worry. Tries not to think about how Regina is clearly hurting because Regina hurt her . But she’s too skinny and her smile is too wide and her eyes are dead and though she tries not to be, Janis is so scared for her. When they eventually make eye contact in the hall, Regina is so startled to see her she stops in her tracks. But Janis walks right past like she doesn’t notice, and when Regina’s little worker bees ask what’s wrong she hears her laugh all wrong and say she thought she smelled weed and then the click-clack of heels walking away. Janis feels like old denim, all frail and dull and gray.

Her art suffers for it, no matter how hard she tries to use the emotions creatively. Janis’ art has always been a bright swirling mass of color that looked beautiful up close and glorious from across a room and dull colors just don’t work for her. She finds out that the color thing has a name and that she gets it from her dad and so she figures if she can make colors with emotions then she can use her love for her dad and her mom and Damian to paint. She tries, but it’s not the same.

The year passes and no one carves rude words into her locker or anything but she never really makes any new friends either. Damian is attached to her hip and she talks to Karen if they have a class together and she gets along okay with the other art weirdos but other than that no one will really talk to her. She still doesn’t hate Regina but she also can’t physically be around her and she won’t say she isn’t bitter. They throw passive aggressive comments in each others’ direction whenever the opportunity arises like somehow through all of this they’ve become enemies for real. Janis thinks about psychology and defense mechanisms and wishes she could go back in time.

She spends her first year of high school murky and brooding, but with the sticky sweet yellow of hope still clinging to her like smoke. Then she and Damian go to camp again and everything is sky for just a tiny little while.

Sophomore year arrives and her curls are no longer purple because the bleaching was killing her hair, but by September it’s grown enough that the blonde at the bottom and brown at the top is kind of a cool look so she never cuts it off. When Gretchen sees her she scoffs, but she thinks that Regina has just a bit of softness in her eyes right before she snaps, “Shut up Gretchen it’s all over insta, ombre’s a thing right now.” Two days later Gretchen has bleached her tips and Janis isn’t really that mad about it but she still goes home and (screw her cuticles) turns hers red.

The whole fucking year is red.

Her dad dies in January, right before school starts again.

Car accident.

It’s been one of those unsettled winters where everything freezes and melts and freezes again and the black ice is so bad the news is warning people to stay home after dark but dad has to stay late at the school and doesn’t leave until well after eight and.

She’s out of school for another week and will have to make up her midterms, but she doesn’t care. She doesn’t feel anything and for the first time in her life, she can’t see any colors.

Mrs. G is over pretty much constantly, sticks little Kylie on the couch next to Janis while she cleans and cooks and tries with various degrees of success to get Janis away from the TV.

She spends the days watching documentaries and imagining his voice chiming in with extraneous facts at inappropriate times and pretending that she can’t hear her mom crying in their bedroom and pretending that this wouldn’t be a lot easier if Regina was here.

She doesn’t retain most of the information from the shows, but one time when she isn’t completely dissociating, she does manage to watch almost a full NOVA special about the human brain. It’s interesting and for a little while, she stops thinking about the two empty holes in her heart.

There’s one part of the show that sticks out. That humans can make up memories to fit an assumed history, which she remembers because it makes her laugh and she can’t quite explain to a curious Kylie how she fucking wishes she could just change her memory. And then she laughs again because she realizes that she’s seen it happen, actually. En masse. Didn’t the whole school collectively forget that Regina’s the girl whose dad left because she’s gay and remember Janis as the lesbian with a dead one? Then she’s thinking about Regina again and Regina’s not there and she should be there and she’s not and- Janis misses the rest of the documentary.

She doesn’t want to go back to school but her mom and her therapist say the routine will help. She goes back and it’s… fine. People are weirdly nice to her; even the lunch lady won’t let her pay for the food she has no intention of eating. Still, she finishes the year through muscle memory alone and stays as far away from the plastics as she can. She’s never hated them for taking Regina away from her, but the thought that she should probably start is what eventually brings the colors back and makes things red again.

Time feels like it’s stopped for Janis, but it doesn’t stop for the rest of the world. Summer comes just like it always does, except Janis’ mom can’t afford camp on only one salary so she spends the long, muggy days in a sort of burnt orange making shitty paintings because it’s too hot to be red and no one can paint when they’re orange and she can’t feel anything anyways.

By the time junior year arrives, she’s frustrated and angry and so steeped in rebellion and fury that she’s ready to snap the head off the next person who so much as looks at her wrong but then.

Cady.

Cady is a breath of fresh air in a world so full of oppressive smog she hardly remembers what the sky looks like. She loves animals and the way she talks about Kenya makes Janis think of her dad and for once it doesn’t hurt. She’s pretty and soft and her eyes are the biggest brightest eyes she’s seen since-

Janis wonders if maybe moving on is possible. They invite the girl to sit with them at lunch and... she can almost forget Regina. Almost.

Cady is heading toward their table looking so pretty and sweet and pretty that Janis forgets to breathe for a second. She’s focused way too hard on an arm that is so tan and glowing glowing golden gold- Pink. A pale hand is wrapping itself around a bony wrist and Janis just knows her life is about to be fucked again.

Cady looks at her in confusion as she is dragged to sit with the three meanest girls in school and there is nothing Janis can do because every time she’s within five feet of Regina she feels the need to vomit or faint.

It’s all downhill from there.

This winter is red too, but by the time spring comes she’s black and empty again and not caring is better not caring is better stop stop stop stop st-

“All junior girls report to the gymnasium immediately! Immediately!”

She’s so angry. She’s so so angry and… sad. She’s so sad. And lonely. And she misses Regina. Yes after all this time, fuck you Dumbledore.

She pulls the most ridiculously middle-school-boy move of all time and hits hard and fast and right where it hurts. And when Regina stalks out of the room with Cady chasing right after she’s so fucking satisfied she could cry, but then she feels awful pretty much immediately and the tears are very real. She pulls it together as quickly as she can and starts to make her way in the direction Regina ran so she can suck it up and apologize because she’s the bigger person goddammit. She makes it to the entry hall just in time to hear the sickening screech of brakes being slammed and then an impossibly loud wail from Cady who is screaming and screaming for someone to call an ambulance and

Everything is black.

Literally.

She wakes up in the nurse’s office and is told that she fainted and will have to wait for someone to pick her up. Except her mom is working and her other emergency contact is Mrs. G and obviously she won’t be available and oh god.

Oh god.

The nurse holds her hair back rather tenderly as she pukes her guts out into a trash can and she stays there for an hour until the busses line up at two-fifteen. She can hear everyone chittering nervously as they make their way through the halls and she even hears a few complain that they should’ve got to go home early. Like Regina getting hit by a bus, like Regina dying was only worth anything if they got something out of it. Vultures.

When she goes outside the sight of the busses makes her nauseous again and she decides to just walk home.

The distance between two places always seems so much shorter in a car. It takes her nearly two hours to walk home and when she gets there her mother is frantic, “I went to the school to pick you up and they said you’d taken the bus but I got home and you weren’t here! Jesus Christ Janis where have you been?! ” Janis knows her mom is just worried for her and obviously she’s heard about what happened so she was already worried before and Janis didn’t mean to make it worse but everything is black and she wasn’t thinking and she doesn’t know what to say so she just cries again.

“Oh honey.”

They go to the hospital that night and Regina’s still in surgery but she’s not dead not dead not dead so they hug the girl’s devastated mother and tell her “anything you need” and they take a tired and confused Kylie home with them and her mom sets the girl up on the couch while Janis runs to her room before she completely breaks down because this is not the revenge she wanted this is not what she fucking wanted.

Janis cries inconsolably for days. When she can’t cry anymore she lays in bed and doesn’t move. When her abs start to ache from lying still for so long she sits on the couch and stares absently at Nat Geo. Her whole body feels like it’s fallen asleep, like when you lay on your own arm for too long and it feels cold and lifeless and like it’s not even attached to you anymore.

It’s Cady and Damian showing up that finally jumpstarts her heart again. Cady cries and apologizes and Cady is the kind of person who means it when she apologizes so Janis only takes a moment and a deep breath and lets it go. She’s lost too much and it’s been so dark lately, she’s willing to be bigger if it means a little bit of Cady’s unique blend of pale yellows and deep deep greens that had drawn her to the girl in the first place.

She doesn’t go back to school for a week, but as soon as she’s allowed she goes to the hospital where a stern voice in a white coat says something about “blood transfusion-trauma-ribs-pelvis-cervical vertebrae-lucky to be alive-careful eye on the side effects of a hydrocodone/methocarbamol interaction-if she starts to have trouble breathing you need to get a nurse immediately.” She can’t hear everything over the constant ringing in her ears but what she does hear is enough to fuse her eyes to Regina’s broken body for hours and hours until her mom picks her up after work. And if she asks the girl’s nurse a little desperately if he’s going to be watching all night too neither her mom nor Mrs. G says a word about it.

On the day Regina is meant to be brought out of her medically induced coma, she agonizes for hours over whether or not to be there. Mrs. G tries to encourage her, saying she’d made it this far and Regina might not say it, but she would be thrilled to see Janis when she woke up. It was the first indication Janis had had that Regina still cares about her at all since that moment in the hallway freshman year.

Eventually, she decides that she isn’t ready to face Regina just yet, and anyways the doctors say she’ll be in and out of consciousness and probably won’t even realize who’s there and who isn’t. When she is ready, she wants them to be on equal footing, not disoriented or drugged or delirious from sleep deprivation (she hadn’t gotten more than two or three hours since probably mid-March. Since Cady started pulling away and Janis started feeling dark dark dark dark d-)

She isn’t ready, but even if she were, despite what Mrs. G says Janis doubts Regina would really want to see her. She is the reason the girl ran into the street in the first place, after all, and the guilt eats at her more and more every day Regina stays asleep and small and so fragile. It was mean and she knows it was mean and yeah Regina has been mean for years but Janis knows Regina better than anyone. She knows that, as much as she loves Mrs. G, this is the first time that she’s treated her daughter like anything other than a means to validate her own insecurities since her husband left. She knows that it’s for that reason her own mother still maintains a relationship with the girl she practically raised, even if she mostly tries to hide it from Janis and has always taken her daughter’s side. She knows that Regina has nobody else.

So though she hears the words, she finds it impossible to believe that Regina would be happy to see her after Janis took away her father and her second home and her safe place and nearly got her killed .

Regina wakes up and Janis doesn’t go see her but the thought of wide blue eyes and a chest rising and falling independently is enough to make the black fade to gray fade to a dark navy blue.

It’s been a long time since whispers followed her around every corner like dust trailing a comet, but come Monday morning they’re back in full force. She doesn’t listen closely enough to hear exactly what they’re saying, she learned that lesson a long time ago, but she imagines it has something to do with her making Regina George run in front of a bus. Cady is in tears at lunch and Janis barely has time to process that Gretchen and Karen are sitting at their table before Cady is in her arms. A few months ago she might have swooned at the action, but right now she can hardly pull her mind away from gold and pink and the memory of a memory that tastes like sweet and tangy Italian ice on the hottest day in June.

No, she won’t go down this road right now. Instead, she pets Cady’s hair and asks gently what’s the matter even as her eyes remain glazed and her voice so soft she can barely hear it over her own rumbling thoughts. She gets a muffled sob in return, and that grabs Janis’ attention enough for her to look helplessly in Damian’s direction, but she only gets a concerned shrug in response so she asks again.

Finally, Cady pulls her head away from Janis’ shoulder to wail “They think! I pushed her!” she cries. “I wouldn’t! I wouldn’t do that to anyone! Not even Regina!”

Janis isn’t sure what to do with this. Obviously, she knows Cady wouldn’t do that, not the girl who’d grown up learning how to care for every creature she encountered with the gentleness of a baby deer, but she can’t help the cold sweat that breaks out across her neck and shoulders at the idea of someone hurting Regina deliberately. She doesn’t say anything about it, it isn’t Cady’s fault she’s still hopelessly in love with the girl that used to live in her worst enemy’s body. She just says, “Shh, honey. I know, it’s okay,” and keeps stroking long red hair until the shuddering stops.

When Cady finally calms enough to pull away she asks, “You’re not mad at me?” This throws Janis, and her confusion must read because when she asks why she should be mad, Cady only throws a look to Damian and shakes her head.

“Nevermind.”

Janis is learning to trust people. She is learning to have friends other than Damian and she is learning to forgive. So she pretends that she doesn’t see the look and when Damian shakes his head she pretends to be focused on fixing Cady’s mussed hair. She only just came out of the hopeless black when Regina woke up and she thinks that if she goes back she might not come out again, thinks the colors might go away altogether like they did once before, and she thinks that Damian probably knows that so she puts her trust in her two best friends and hopes that whatever is going on they only want to protect her.

Regina may be awake and Janis may be out of the black but it’s still weeks and weeks of indigo before anything happens to change it. She tries not to listen to the rumors, she really tries. But the longer Regina is gone the bolder people become and soon enough they’re talking openly about her and it gets harder.

Somehow Janis has gained a Gretchen and a Karen in this time, and it’s really fucking weird. The two had been spending most of their time with Cady but when it became clear that the other girl would not be returning to lead their pack, they had to find a new alpha to trail behind. Apparently, that’s Janis. She ignores them for the first few days, but she is who she is and that is someone whose patience wears easily.

“What?!” she finally snaps. Gretchen and Karen visibly recoil, but they recover quickly. Practice, she guesses. Gretchen seems to know what she means and at least has the grace to look embarrassed.

She opens and closes her mouth a few times before finally answering, “We- we don’t have a whole lot of friends.” Janis pauses at that. She’d never really considered that. Everyone was afraid of the plastics but no one actually liked them. Still,

“Why is that my problem?”

Karen just smiles dopily but Gretchen looks shy before responding, “We don't want to abandon Regina and like, find a new friend group while she’s gone or something. You know I’m very good at keeping secrets so I’ve never told anyone this but Regina actually has a lot of abandonment anxiety and if she came back and we’d found other people she wouldn’t… she wouldn’t handle it well, I don’t think.”

Janis looks at her incredulously. “So you, what, thought you’d hang out with the person she hates most in the world instead?”

Gretchen gives her a look like somehow she’s just said something completely ridiculous and off the wall but Karen is, surprisingly, the one who fills her in.

“Silly, Regina doesn’t hate you. You’re the only person in like, the whole school that she even likes! When Gretchen wrote that mean name in the burn book she didn’t talk to her for like a week and then the book went missing until like, two months ago when Mrs. George found it.” Gretchen looks sheepishly away from them, but Janis is so far from giving a shit.

“What do you mean she… likes me? Since when!?” she demands.

“Since always! Everything Regina does is always two things. When she didn’t defend you from Shane and Drew and the others it was because she was scared they would turn the rumors around on her again. When you didn’t come back to school in eighth grade she cried in the bathroom every day until, like, October and-” here Gretchen cuts the other girl off.

“Karen maybe Regina wouldn’t want us telling her this.”

But Karen just frowns at her friend and scolds “She’ll never do it herself and she’s been miserable for three years because of it. She literally died, Gretch. She’s scared, I know, but this has gone on long enough. Janis, Regina has been in love with you since you guys were five, she never stopped and she has spent three and half years trying to apologize for the way she treated you and then chickening out because she doesn’t think she deserves your forgiveness. Whether or not you choose to is up to you, but this will never end until you have all of the facts,” just as she finishes the bell rings. “Oh, I have APUSH! Toodles!”

Gretchen and Janis stare after the girl in a daze.

“That’s the most intelligent thing I’ve ever heard her say,”

“Karen Smith takes APUSH?”

Finally, Gretchen breaks what is becoming an awkward silence, “She’s uh, great at memorization. She just doesn’t, like, tend to think very critically.” Janis nods like this makes any sense and then clears her throat.

“What she said, uh, is that… true?”

Gretchen looks unsure. “I shouldn’t tell you. But I mean she has a point, Regina needs the help. I’ll just say, she does, like, defend you. Like, pretty often, actually. I um, I have gym. See you later, Janis.”

Janis is in a daze all through English. She learns nothing about Animal Farm other than “communism is bad” which on any other day she would be happy to debate, but today she can’t bring herself to do more than stare at the words CHAPTER 9 for thirty minutes while the rest of the world moves around her.

When the bell rings and everyone gets up to leave, Janis shakes herself out of her stupor and begins packing up. She doesn’t notice her peers moving around her like she’s an inconvenient rock in a fast-flowing stream until one of them murmurs “ freak ” to his friend as they pass her desk and she freezes. She has no desire to hurt him, though once she might have dumped her coffee all over his head. No, she stops because she realizes that it’s been a really really long time since anyone called her a name to her face. She had always been aware of the staring and the whispers, though in recent years other weirdos had taken her spot as the token punching bag and she hadn’t actually had anyone approach her since… she can’t remember. Janis thought back to Gretchen’s words. Could it be true that Regina had been protecting her? Had she been scaring people into leaving Janis alone? She decides to chew on it later because suddenly she has a spark of hope in her miserable life and she needs to fucking paint it before it disappears again.

Damian comes to find her when she doesn’t show up to last period. He doesn’t say anything but she can feel his eyes boring through the back of her head and into the canvas that she is studiously ignoring him to stare at.

Eventually, he looks down at his phone and she goes back to not thinking about pigment that is not strawberries or ocean or gold gold gold gold gold gold gold…

Damian must’ve texted The Shining twins because it isn’t too long before she hears a breathless gasp from the door that adjoins the two art rooms. It makes her jump, she always makes sure she can see the front door and people who sneak through the back are shitheads.

No, Gretchen and Karen are not shitheads because they didn’t know, she reminds herself.

Janis.

But they can be shitheads for other reasons.

She determinedly does not look behind her but she does begin to clean up because clearly no more work will be getting done today.

Damian must be able to sense her frustration because he says “Cady’s on her way” with a tone that implies she will not be going anywhere until the redhead appears. She takes her time putting her supplies away and moving her easel to a corner where it isn’t immediately visible and won’t be bumped by anyone. When Cady finally shows up she says nothing, but the others get up to leave so clearly something has been planned. Janis is confused and annoyed but she knows Damian and she knows that protesting will do absolutely fuck all so she pouts after them to Gretchen’s white Liberty.

Gretchen does not shut up for the entire fifteen minutes it takes to fight the rabid throng battling to leave the building as quickly as possible, pile into her car, and drive to their destination. Janis isn’t sure if it’s nerves or if it’s a purposeful tactic to distract her so she won’t notice that they’re driving to the hospital, but either way, it works. By the time she realizes where they’re going, it’s too late to throw herself out of the car.

Damian grabs her by the arm and drags her towards the entrance, staring straight ahead and ignoring the death glare she’s boring into his skull the whole time. When they make it inside, the receptionist smiles like he recognizes them and as her friends drag her towards the elevators Janis realizes that he probably does. Even Damian seems to know where he’s going.

“You fucker, you came to visit her?” she growls up at him because, hello? Loyalty?

“He came with me,” Caddy chirps from her other side. “Moral support. And it ended up being fine, didn’t it Damian?” He nods as they come to a stop outside of a room Janis hasn’t been to before. They most have moved Regina from the ICU after she woke up.

“Yes. It was a very nice visit. Just like this one will be, right Janis?

“I’m confused.”

Damian sighs dramatically like it’s somehow her fault that she doesn’t understand why he suddenly doesn’t hate Regina’s guts? “Janis my darling, my love, my-”

Gretchen cuts him off, thank god. “She needs you Janis.” That gets her attention, just like she’s sure they all knew it would, the jerks. “She’s in a lot of pain, and the medication is doing more for her honesty than her body. She’s been asking for you non-stop since she woke up.” Janis feels the world gray at the edges and tries not to cry for the girl she knew. She tries not to think about another hospital in another time in another life watching pink plaster wrap around and around and around a broken arm while she tries to coax a smile from teary blue eyes. She may love Regina, but she has by no means forgiven her. She doesn’t want to feel sympathy or empathy or what the fuck ever. She wants to hate her. She wishes she could hate her. She still doesn’t hate her.

She goes into the room.

Regina is asleep in a position that doesn’t look at all comfortable. Because of the various tubes and casts and braces, she has to be on her back, but Regina has never been a back sleeper. She’s always slept on her side, one leg pulled up to her chest, the other extended far enough for her toes to poke out of the blanket and get cold so that she can complain until Janis lets her press them between her calves and as perfect as Regina has always appeared she does not sleep on her back because Janis always sleeps on her back and if Regina sleeps on her side then her head fits perfectly on Janis’ shoulder and-

Janis doesn’t realize she’s crying until Regina groans and forces her eyes open. “Ugh Mooom,” she moans, “You’ve been crying for like a weeeeek, m’fiiiine.” Janis tries to pull it together but the fact that the pins drilled into her head means the other girl can’t even turn to see that it is not her mother in the room only makes her sob harder. Regina sighs and says, “I’m sorry mommy, I know you’re scared but I’m okay. It hurts but I’m gonna be okay.”

Janis hasn’t heard Regina speak kindly to her mother since they were children and her parents hadn’t started fighting yet and Mrs. George hadn’t begun leaning on her only child as an emotional crutch to her own insecurity. She’s surprised enough to stop crying, which seems to make Regina relax so she takes deep, calming breaths until she thinks she can probably get some words out. But before she can say anything, the voice of her once best friend comes again, this time so small and broken that Janis aches .

“Is… have you... heard from Jay yet?” Janis finally understands why everyone has been giving her these looks all week because this Regina is the one she’s loved since she could string enough of a sentence together to say so. They’ll have to talk about everything, but for now, Janis can pretend if it means that Regina will feel a little less awful. She’s a fucking mess and she’s sure she looks the part, but she moves around the bed until she’s within Regina’s eye line. It takes a minute for the other girl to comprehend what she’s seeing. Janis isn’t sure what she’s expecting, but it isn’t for Regina George to burst into tears at the sight of her.

Janis stands in shock for a long moment before carefully moving to sit on the edge of the bed, avoiding the Foley bag and the big ass tube attached to a needle in Regina’s arm and a heart monitor clasped precariously to her index finger. She flounders for a second, not sure which parts are okay to touch when all she wants is to take Regina into her arms and hold her safe and tight like she used to. Regina lets her struggle for a minute before saying, “my hands are a little scraped up but they’re fine.” Janis looks up to see her smirking despite the tears and can’t bring herself to feel annoyed.

“You’re such a jerk,” she whispers, chuckling despite how choked up she is.

Regina can’t quite make eye contact with her but she says, “I’m pretty sure the proper term is ‘soul sucking fart mouth.’”

She can’t help but laugh at that because, “Yeah, not one of my best."

“Better than a space alien with four butts.”

Janis only laughs harder. For a second she forgets where she is and who she’s with and she’s yellow again and the room tastes just a little bit like watermelon Lip Smackers. “Listen!”

Regina starts to laugh too but makes an obvious effort to stop herself and Janis sobers.

“Sorry,” she says. “Hurts to laugh.”

Janis shakes her head and tells her not to apologize but “we have to talk, Regina. If this is just you hopped up on Percocet then fine, but if this is how it’s going to be then we need to talk.”

For a minute she thinks she’s ruined everything. Regina stays silent and Janis waits and waits and it’s when she’s finally tensing to stand up that the girl finally speaks. “Jokes on you,” she says. “I’m not even on Percocet.” Janis sighs, because uh, not the point (also because she remembers side effects of a hydrocodone methocarbamol interaction if she starts to have trouble breathing you need to-)

Regina doesn’t know that she saves her from drowning when she keeps talking. “Jay, I need you to understand how unbelievably sorry I am. I need to apologize and I will, I swear I will, but not when my head is full of cotton candy and I might fall asleep at any second, okay? I promise ,” she says and Janis should protect her heart and walk away but as much of a hardass as she pretends to be, she hasn’t really changed any more than Regina has.

Instead, she sniffs and grabs Regina’s pinky with her own, holds on tight and says “Don’t do this to me again, ‘Gina. I can’t take it again.” She sees the blonde’s jaw wobble and reaches out to brush her thumb across a slightly sweaty forehead and murmurs, “Don’t cry baby, you’ll hurt your ribs.”

She sits there until Regina gets her breathing under control again, and then suddenly it’s six and the nurse is coming to remind her that it’s time to go. She brushes the lightest kiss across Regina’s knuckles and finally stands to leave. Neither of them says anything, but Janis looks her in the eye and sees something that gives just the slightest bit of oxygen to the ember of hope she’d been carrying since she spoke to Karen and Gretchen. When she gets back to the floor’s waiting area she’s surprised to see the fantastic four all still there.

“Um. Hey?” her friends (question mark?) stand as one mass and move towards her so quickly she has to take a step back to avoid colliding with them. “Whoa, chill guys. Let’s go, visiting’s over.”

She doesn’t look back to see if they follow as she walks to the stairwell. She hears at least two sets of feet echoing on the concrete behind her and they get to the main lobby just as the elevator dings to reveal Gretchen and Karen strutting towards them in their matching wedge sneakers. She turns and leads them back out to Gretchen’s car and no one says a word. They all pile in and this time Janis takes the front seat and Cady squishes in the back between Karen and Damian. It’s Gretchen, practicing her newfound sense of personal autonomy, who finally asks,

“Well? You know we can’t let it go Jan.”

“It was tits. Don’t call me Jan.”

The next few days are weirder than the previous ones, if that’s possible. Gretchen and Karen keep following her everywhere, and now either Cady or Damian or both are with her most of the time too. It’s like they’re trying to form a human shield around her and she appreciates that they care but she’s kind of suffocating for it.

“Is someone going to tell me what’s going on or am I going to have to shove you four in a janitor's closet and lose the key?” She feels Cady tense at her shoulder and feels bad but seriously .

“We should tell her,” says Karen. Gretchen opens her mouth to scold her but Janis cuts in before she can.

“Don’t yell at her. She’s right. Whatever it is, I would rather know. It can’t be worse than anything else I’ve ever dealt with at this godforsaken school.” Janis sees Damian grimace and immediately wonders what could possibly be worse. She moves her gaze between Cady and Damian and wills one of them to crack. Damian has been dealing with her moods for years but Cady is still innocent and weak and it only takes a few moments for her to cave.

“It’s my fault, Janis I’m sorry. Everyone just kept saying that I pushed Regina and I didn’t but everyone just kept saying it! Shane kept trying to get me to admit it and it just came out Janis I’m so sorry.” Cady seems genuinely upset but Janis still has no idea what the fuck is going on.

“What the hell are you talking about, Caddy?” She feels a hand on her other shoulder and looks over to find Damian giving her his softest look before turning back to Cady.

“I told him that Regina ‘walked her own damn self in front of the bus’ and now everyone thinks she did it on purpose because of what happened in the gym. Someone started a rumor that you two had been secretly dating since middle school and she tried to kill herself because she was heartbroken.”

That… is the stupidest fucking thing she’s ever heard. And she says so. “What kind of melodramatic moron came up with that shit? What like women are so incapable of managing their emotions that, even if we had been dating , we just, what? Off ourselves at the first sign of negative emotions? I’ll kill Shane. I’m killing him today. He’s going to die.” She spins and stalks off to do just that, not noticing that half the hallway is staring at her or that an unfortunate freshman drops his books in his scramble to get out of her way. She is fucking furious and everything is bright white and red and honestly? It feels really good.

Regretfully, she doesn’t get to kill Shane Ohman. Damian and Cady pull her into the art room before she gets very far, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum tottering not far behind. They sit her at a table and give her some paper and a Sharpie like she’s five and needs to be kept occupied while the grownups talk. And it doesn’t even work because within seconds Karen has wandered over and stolen the marker in order to draw a mustache on her finger but she draws it on the wrong side and has to twist her entire arm to get it over her lip and finally Janis snatches the Sharpie and grabs the girl’s other wrist to do it herself because Jesus fucking Christ.

“Get up.”

“What?” she looks up to see Gretchen standing above them.

“Get up,” the girl repeats. “We’re leaving.”

Maybe it’s just this weird-ass day but Janis is genuinely not comprehending. “Leaving where?”

“School. We’re all leaving, let’s go.”

“Wha-” but Gretchen has already turned to Karen.

“Karen we’re going to the nurse and you need to cry.”

“Okie!” she beams. Janis turns to the other two and Cady just holds her arm out for Janis to take, which she does. The five of them exit the art wing and head towards the nurse’s office and sure enough, as soon as they’re within shouting distance Karen bursts into tears. Janis is bewildered, but when Cady elbows her she manages to produce a despondent, albeit confused expression.

Damian does the talking because patriarchy, and within ten minutes all five of them are being excused to go visit Regina who “may not have much longer.” For the record, Regina is far from death’s door and actually sat up for the first time today, according to the near hourly updates Janis has been getting from their moms. But a little medical miracle never hurt anybody, she guesses, and it’s kind of cool to have like, a group of friends who could pull this off. As they walk out into the warm spring air she almost doesn’t notice that things are... weirdly bright and blue.

They all pile into Gretchen’s car again and this time the trip is full of jokes and laughter as an indignant Damian has to show Cady what a vine compilation is and Janis and Gretchen fight over control of the radio even though without traffic it’s literally a five-minute drive to Highland Park. This time when they walk into the lobby it’s with Starbucks for everyone, including a cotton candy Frappuccino for the receptionist who looks like he might cry at the gesture.

Mrs. G is at home resting and Janis’ mom is supposed to be sitting with Regina today. She assumes Damian would have texted her their plans, so when the older woman doesn’t meet them at the elevators she feels her gut twist with anxiety. They reach Regina’s room quickly and the door is closed, which doesn’t help her growing worry. She has to stand on tiptoes to see through the window in the door, but the sight that greets her is enough to assuage her fear.

Regina is sitting up. Rather stiffly, but she’s sitting, which might be the most amazing thing Janis has ever seen. Her mom is sitting on the bed right next to her, twisted in an unnatural position as she tries valiantly to work blonde locks into some semblance of combed without straining Regina’s neck.

Janis feels like she could cry, but is interrupted by the day nurse excusing herself as she moves around the group and into the room.

The past few days have been emotionally exhausting beyond measure, but the second the door is open and Janis can see Regina sitting up and grinning at the nurse and already looking so much better than last time she was here, her world is pink again. Just like that, without a real apology or conversation, without either of them really saying anything, Janis sees her and she just knows that Regina has finally, finally come back and everything is just… pink.

She hopes it’ll last.

The days Regina spends bedridden are long for everyone. A few days after the group’s second visit she has a bad reaction to her meds and has to be taken to the ICU for two days, and Janis’ mood declines rapidly with every hour she doesn’t get a positive update.

After the scene in the art wing hallway, people have stopped talking shit around her almost entirely and some even bodily throw themselves out of her path when they see her coming. Damian says her face looks scary and Karen asks why she stopped smiling, but she doesn’t care.

Her world is pink when she’s six blocks away, but the seconds she leaves that stark white room everything is gray gray gray gray gr- you get it.

She kind of understands the appeal of this, now. Of everyone fearing the ground you walk on. She’s never considered herself a mean person exactly; a little abrasive sure, but not mean. But the way freshmen jump at her voice and even most upperclassmen part the hall for her to storm through is almost addicting and while Huey, Dewey, and usually some flavor of Louie trailing behind her everywhere is still extraordinarily annoying, having a pack makes her feel powerful and safe. She’s spent so long making herself small that this brief taste of confidence is invigorating as fuck. It’s a fuschia emotion, which she hates, but anything is better than the taste of mud and concrete.

She goes to see Regina nearly every day, sits with her even when she spends the whole afternoon asleep. When she’s awake, they talk about school gossip and hospital gossip (Regina has been trying to convince her day nurse to ask the receptionist out) but they avoid serious topics. Regina teases Janis for taking her place as HBIC and Janis laughs so hard she cries, and then she just regular cries because she’s missed her so fucking much. Spring Fling comes and goes and Janis spends the whole evening at the hospital. She begs the staff to let her stay late so they can spend the night watching early-2000’s cult classics, even though Regina tells her to go every half hour and every half hour Janis has to shove a piece of popcorn into Regina’s mouth and shush her obnoxiously.

Damian, Gretchen, and Karen come by as a group on their way to the school, the girls each on one of Damian’s arms and their outfits impressively coordinated. They take pictures with Regina in her pink silk pajamas and with Janis in her Mario sleep shorts and stage crew t-shirt and it’s the best night either of them has had in weeks.

Years.

Halfway through She’s the Man , Regina gets fed up with Janis trying to find a position on the small couch where she’s able to be comfortable and still see the tv and orders her to move it closer. Janis is, by nature, argumentative, but she bites her tongue and obeys Regina without comment, pushing the sofa across the small room so that she can sit with its back to her left and Regina to her right. She’s still terrified to touch her, but Regina dangles her arm and clears her throat pointedly until Janis takes her hand, resting them both on top of the bed so that she’s the one reaching and Regina can lay comfortably. The other girl rolls her eyes but says nothing and neither of them lets go until Janis has to get up to change the disk.

It’s nice (it’s always nice) but when Janis finally has to leave, there’s tension. Ever since that first night, her exits had been slightly awkward, but this thick silence is new. After a long moment, Regina breaks it.

“Um, so, my doctor is switching me to outpatient next week,” she says. “I'll still have to come in for PT, but not until my pelvis heals more and until then she feels like a car ride should be safe, so. I’m going home.” Janis nods but isn’t really sure what to say. Is Regina telling her that their time is coming to an end? Does she want to move their visits to her house? “I’ll be put on different meds when I leave.” Oh.

When Janis exits the hospital she looks up at the sky and wishes, not for the first time, that she could see the stars in suburban Chicago. She thinks she can make out the reddish glow of Mars, but that could just be a plane.

She’s quiet in the car and ignores her mom’s concerned looks. Instead, she texts Cady and asks how her competition went. She gets a “!!!!!!” in response so she guesses it went well. They’re already home by the time gets another one,

                     Today 9:37 PM

                                   how’d it go???

      !!!!!!

                    Today 10:02 PM

     Aaron and I are gonna sneak
     into sf you in?!?!?!

She thinks about it, but she doesn’t have the energy and anyway she has nothing to wear.

She tries not to think about how it would feel like a betrayal, because Regina herself had tried to get her to go a million times tonight and had told her a million more not to be sorry because it’s not Janis’ fault she was missing her favorite night of the year.

She is sorry though, and it is a little bit her fault and the thought of having left Regina in a hospital bed just to go dancing really doesn’t appeal to her and actually makes her kind of nauseous.

                         nah. gonna just go to
                      bes. text me if anything
                     interesting happens tho
                                               bed**

     Ok!!! Have s good
     night!! And I will!!!

Her mom had said nothing the whole ride home and by the time they get to the house, Janis feels super guilty. She’s been ignoring the tension between them since last January. Her mom has been walking on eggshells around her because she knows how much she's hurting, but Janis knows that her mom is hurting too and they really need to talk about this. She knows that that needs to start with a conversation about Regina, because while she knows that her mom is still the only real parental figure in the other girl’s life, she doesn’t think her mom knows that Janice is okay with it.

She follows her mom into the kitchen and sits at the little round table while the older woman begins to empty the dishwasher. They’re both silent and tense until Janis finally works up the balls to say, “Just ask. I know you want to. It’s okay.”

As if she’d been waiting for this moment for months (and she probably had), words begin to spill from her mother like water from a spigot.

“I just want to know you’re okay, Jay. I love Regina like my own kid, you know that, but you are my kid and she hurt you. I don’t want to see you go through that again. You’ve been so happy the past few weeks and I didn’t want to ruin it, but honey if she’s only talking to you because of what happened-”

“Then when things go back to normal we’ll stop,” she interrupts. “I’m not an idiot, Mom, I know how this goes. But… she seems so much like her old self. You don't see her every day at school. She’s been miserable too. I haven’t seen her laugh for real since 7th grade. And even if this is all I get…” she has to stop for a moment as her throat closes up, not used to having real conversations about her emotions. “I miss her so much, Mommy. Even after everything. Even if it takes another three years. I don’t have a choice. It’s like- I don’t even know how to explain it. I’m just… hers. Does that make any sense?”

Her mom has long since stopped with the dishes. It’s probably the most words she’s strung together in front of her mother since she was 12. She gives her mom the time to digest and waits while she comes to sit across from her at the table. The woman chews her lip for a while, staring at wood that had been chipped, gouged, and dyed from years of art projects and homework projects and just for fun projects. Janis looks at a spot that had been stained a dark blue when Regina had spilled the easter egg dye one year and she waits.

Eventually, her mom sighs. She nods her head and says, “Yeah baby, it makes sense,” and Janis knows that she’s talking about her dad and has to fight back the tears that she knew would come but was still not prepared for. Neither of them says anything for a while, each woman caught in her own memories of the man.

“She wasn’t there,” Janis says after a long few minutes. “He died and I had you but you were hurting too and I needed her, but she wasn’t there. I never hated her for what happened in middle school, but… that was harder to get over. But then… I thought when I went back to school I would get a ton of shit, and people definitely stared at me but no one said anything. Like, a few people said they were sorry or whatever but nobody said anything bad. Someone even prepaid my lunches for the week, did I ever tell you that?” her mom shakes her head. “Yeah, someone paid for me to have a hot lunch every day that week. It was weird. Super nice, but really weird. People aren’t nice like that at North Shore.”

“Maybe everyone’s just growing up, Jay.”

“Maybe if it were anywhere but here. People don’t progress at that school unless someone gets hit but a fucking bus.”

She rambles a little more, tells her mom about the conversation she had with Gretchen and Karen and how they’re somehow friends now, and it occurs to Janis that the first rumor that had gone around about her in years was that she broke Regina’s heart and made her run in front of a bus. And that makes her think that everyone must have found it very easy to believe that they were together in the first place and she wonders if Regina knew the whole time. If she knew that Janis took on the bullying to protect her and then did her best to return the favor for years after, to the point where although they openly showed animosity towards each other, the entire student body thought they were actually secretly in love.

And well, weren’t they?

“I don’t have a choice, Mom. I just have to wait and see,” she says with finality.

Her mom sighs in acceptance and doesn’t argue any further. She gets up to hug her and they say goodnight before going their separate ways, her mom towards the stairs and Janis towards the garage. It was the longest and most adult conversation she’s ever had, and though she’s completely drained she knows that there’s no way she’ll sleep, there are too many colors swirling around and she can never sleep until she settles on one.

She’s been staring at a blank canvas for like 45 minutes when her phone vibrates on the tool bench and she groans at her stiff muscles as she gets up to answer it. Before she can make it another step, it buzzes again. And then again. Oh lord. By the time she picks the thing up she has like eight messages, all from different people and not all from numbers that she has saved in her contacts.

The first three are from a shiny new group chat where Damian has sent a video of what looks like Cady standing on the stage in the gym and Karen and Gretchen have responded with varying degrees of keysmashing and emojis. If she had any more tears to cry in her exhausted body she might be losing it at the speech her friend gives, or at least laughing at the way Mr. Duvall keeps trying to get her to stop, but she and Cady have already worked things out and she knows this is just for everyone else’s sake and she really doesn’t think she can physically cry anymore for at least another month so all she does is smile tiredly.

She reads the other messages, various “have you seen this?!”’s from the art crew with the same video attached and one “ur kind of scary but katie heron said ur nice so sry for writing space dyke on ur locker in middleschool.” She still doesn’t know who that is, but she also finds that she doesn’t really care very much.

The messages are still pouring into the groupchat, but it’s mainly the girls freaking out and Cady saying that she was possessed the whole time and remembers absolutely none of it. Regina is probably asleep because there’s no way she would have nothing to say to this.

Just as she has the thought she gets a text, separate from the chat, from the head bitch herself.

                     Today 11:32 PM

     Have you seen it?

                                          oh yeah.

     It was a good speech

                                             it was

     Janis?

                                             yeah?

     I’m sorry. I know we said
     not yet and it doesn’t
     really count over text,
     but I’m sorry.

Janis groans and puts her phone back down without responding. She grabs a pot of black acrylic and goes back to the blank canvas in the middle of the garage. She stares at it for a long minute before unscrewing the lid of the jar and hurling the entire contents at the fabric.

It feels liberating for like a split second but her arm is barely fully extended before she regrets it. Acrylic may not be the most expensive medium but it still costs money and now this canvas is ruined and she’ll have to stretch and gesso another one, the patience for which she absolutely does not have right now.

The paint slides down the canvas like inky slime. Her throw was only slightly angled so the pigment landed across the canvas like a Miss America sash and now as it drips it bisects the surface into one sort of smeared black triangle and one that is still pristine negative space.

Janis stares at the paint, dripping more slowly now, and a small smile stretches her cheeks as yellow creeps in through every crevice and she finally gets an idea.

Three weeks later, Regina has been moved home and their visits have completely stopped. Janis isn’t sure if she’s supposed to go over or not, and she hasn’t heard from the other girl at all. She hopes that this isn’t the end, but she’s been prepared for the worst since the beginning so now she’s only bracing. It’s the last Monday of the semester and she’s just gotten home from school when someone knocks on the door. She’s still finishing up a few pieces for her junior art show and is more than a little annoyed to be interrupted before she can get to work on them. Her mom isn’t home though, so she gets up and stretches before moving through the mudroom and to the side door that anyone who knows to knock instead of ringing the doorbell knows to use.

When she gets there, she can’t say she isn’t surprised and the tiny part of her that’s never wavered in its hope just lets out a sigh of relief and opens the door wider.

“Regina.”

“Jay.”

“I didn’t expect-” she starts, wondering if maybe she forgot something.

“I know. I didn’t… I didn’t want you to like, come up with an excuse not to see me, so I figured I’d just… come whenever I worked up the courage. Thanks for not slamming the door in my face.”

“I wouldn’t.”

Regina grimaces, “You have every right to. You have every right to run, that’s why I was so scared that you would. I know that you’ve been being nice to me because you feel guilty and I know that whatever I say today you have every right to keep on hating me. But you deserve an apology. Whether or not you accept it is up to you, but regardless you deserve one. And... and maybe I need this too. Please, Janis?”

It sounds kind of rehearsed, but not insincere. It sounds like Regina had laid in bed for hours practicing what she was going to say. A not insignificant part of Janis wants to say no, to let all that work and agonizing over the right words be for nothing. Nothing Janis had ever said was the right words, after all, why should Regina get that luxury?

But a larger part of her, the part that had kept her by Regina’s side for weeks, the part that had opened the door just now, is so tired. She’s exhausted and honestly, she just wants Regina back. After almost three years, she’s done with being angry and she’s ready to come home. She looks at Regina and takes note of how heavily she’s leaning against her walker and holy shit did she walk here alone? She ushers the girl inside and thinks that whether this talk goes well or not, she has to consider them even on a scale of pain.

They move into the living room and Janis helps Regina sit on the hard decorative sofa, knowing that all of the soft cushions in the family room would quickly make the injured girl achy. She places cushions behind her for support and puts two more under her arms before pulling a chair around so that they’re facing each other straight on and Regina won’t have to twist at all. When she’s finally settled, she looks up and Regina’s eyes are so soft it makes Janis’ stomach clench. The girl hadn’t protested once at being helped and Janis wonders if that’s a product of the accident or if it’s just because it’s her.

“I don’t deserve you, Jay.”

She blinks. “No, you don’t, but for some reason I still care about you so let’s get this over with.” The words are meant to hurt, a product of three years of high school spent in constant defense mode. She does get a little pleasure in watching the blow land. Janis knows that her actions in the past five minutes pretty much prove any harsh words she might throw to be insincere, but she can’t help but get a few jabs in before Regina apologizes and she knows she won’t have the wherewithal anymore. Regina still takes a shaky breath and Janis is a little proud of her for the way she swallows it and powers through. She watches as Regina reaches into the pocket of her cardigan and pulls out a folded piece of paper.

“I um, wrote down what I wanted to say so that I wouldn’t forget anything. I thought about just sending you the letter but… Um, I’m not going to read it, mostly because it’s hard to look down, but, just in case.” She’s rambling and Janis lets her babble for a minute before finally giving Regina a small encouraging smile. The other girl lets out a breath and grips the paper so tight she crumples it.

“You don’t need an explanation. You know why I did what I did.” Janis nods. She hates it but she understands it. That’s something she made peace with a long time ago. “I regretted it almost immediately. The look on your face… I've never forgiven myself for that. I don’t think I ever will, to be honest. And then the day of that party. My dad was gone and you were gone and it was the worst day of my life. I realized if I could only have one of you there that day I would pick you over and over again.”

“Why didn’t you? I held on hope for… a long time. Too long, really. I would have forgiven you.” she sees tears well up in the blonde's eyes, but she doesn’t comment on it.

“You were gone. I left my party and went to your house but no one was there, and then the next day my mom took you to camp. And then you weren't in school. I tried to come see you a few times, but our moms wouldn't let me. They said you needed time and so I gave you time. And then you were back but you wouldn’t talk to me but I don’t blame you. I had changed a lot. I cried a lot that year you were gone, Karen was there a little but… you know Karen. Gretchen joined our group and I think she knew that she was just filling a space meant for someone else. She never replaced you and she knew it. She tried but well, you’ve seen how she acts,” Janis nods. Desperate, broken, trying to fit a mold instead of just being herself. She knows the feeling. “So like, yeah. She wanted to bleach her hair to match me and Karen but I wouldn’t let her.” Janis feels something welling in her chest and clears her throat to make that nonsense go away because no thank you.

Instead, she sifts through Regina’s many jumbled words and picks something to respond to.

“You did change. You were really, really skinny. Actually, you’re still too skinny. And there was something in your eyes that was just… gone. That scared me more than anything else had because if you were gone then what was the point? For a while, I thought you really were, especially this last year. That’s when I finally let go of any hope that we’d ever come back together.”

Regina bites her lip and nods thoughtfully before huffing out a laugh. “God we’re so fucking melodramatic.” Janis blinks, and then she laughs broadly and it feels good. They are fucking melodramatic but when haven’t they been?

“My point is,” Regina continues, “I never stopped regretting what I did, not for a second. And I never replaced you with Gretchen,” Janis hadn’t even realized that was something she’d been worried about until Regina assures her it isn’t true. “I've always wanted to fix things, but I didn’t think you'd want to speak to me and I don’t think Damian would have let us anywhere near each other.” Janis snorts. “And um, yeah, that’s mostly everything. Except for an apology,” here she stops to take several deep breaths before continuing. “I’m sorry Jay. I’m so, so sorry. You did nothing to deserve what I did, and you did nothing to deserve the bullying that came after.”

“Well,” Janis says, “in fairness that wasn’t really your fault.”

“Um, I'm pretty sure someone started the rumor you were gay because of what I did, so it’s definitely my fault.”

“I did.”

“What?”

“I told everyone I was gay. I didn’t know it for real at the time, other than that I loved you. But you had already missed a bunch of school because of your dad and everyone was saying that he left because you liked girls. So I said I was a lesbian space alien with four butts. Not my finest moment, I’ll admit, but it took the attention off of you and that’s all that mattered.”

“You… what?”

“I’m surprised you didn’t know that. Karen was there.”

“And she didn’t help?”

Janis shakes her head, “What was she supposed to do? She did go get a teacher once everyone started chanting ‘space dyke.’”

“I can’t believe she never told me.”

Regina .”

Regina sighs. “I know. Um, thank you for telling me. I’m still sorry though, even if you don’t think it was directly my fault, it was still because of me so I’m sorry. And I’m sorry for what I said in the gym, before. I panicked when I saw you get up. I just… I’m sorry for everything you had to go through. I’m sorry you felt like you had to be homeschooled. I’m sorry for the names people call you. I try to stop them but I’m not sure how effective that is when I'm not around. I’m sorry you spent every summer for three years exiling yourself to art camp and I’m sorry for what we lost. That’s… what I'm the most sorry for. I’m sorry for robbing us both of the childhood we deserved.”

That’s... a lot. “I’ve waited a long time for this,” she murmurs because she can’t think of anything else to say. She doesn’t know if she forgives her quite yet, but she did indirectly cause her to get hit by a bus, so she figures she at least owes the girl a complete conversation. “I think… I think we’re even. I’ve loved you for so long I don’t have any concept of what it’s like not to, and that’s okay now. Before, I wanted you to hurt. I wanted to hurt you like you hurt me and I thought that would make everything better. But then you did get hurt and it… didn’t feel good. At all. And you died. You literally died and fucking nothing is worth that. So I guess on some level, we’re even.”

Regina is gaping at her like she’s insane and maybe she is but she’s so fucking tired. “You just… you died, ‘Gina. I don’t know if I can forgive you yet, but I’m done with this… this fucking feud or whatever. I’m over it.”

Regina tries to nod and winces when she can’t. Instead, she says, “I can live with that. Even if you never do, I’m tired of not being able to make eye contact with you in the hallway. I want to hang out with you and Karen at the same time again. I want to be friends with Cady for real. I’m so tired of being tired.”

That’s a mood. “Okay, so let’s agree to just, put everything behind us? I think… until we’re at school again it’s going to be really hard for me to trust that this is real. It's going to be hard to trust you in general, but this is a good start, I think.”

Regina’s grin starts off small and unsure, but she doesn’t seem to be able or want to stop it from stretching her cheeks wide. After a moment she frowns again though. “We should talk about Cady.”

Okay, so they’re just doing it all today, that’s fine. “I told you, I wanted you to hurt. I… I never hated you, but I hated you. Does that make any sense? I just… wanted you to go away and stop making me hurt just by existing,” she swallows, “it was all me. The whole idea to have her like, infiltrate you guys and then bring you down was my whole idea. The Kälteen bars were my idea too, but Damian wanted to put Rogaine in your face cream so you’re welcome.”

She’s surprised when Regina laughs genuinely at that. It’s the first time Janis has heard her laugh in weeks, her broken everything mostly preventing the jarring movement. She has to force herself to stop pretty quickly but keeps giggling for like, a long ass time and it’s adorable. “That’s…. Tell him I said that’s fucking hilarious and I would’ve been so upset but I’m almost disappointed you didn’t.”

Janis doesn’t quite know how to respond to probably the most shocking statement she’s ever heard in her life so she just says she’ll pass along the message and Regina powers on.

“I like Cady. I’m sorry for corrupting her. She’s such a good person and it kind of infuriated me. We talked when she came to visit, but I guess I need to give her an un-drugged apology too.”

“She won't accept it. She feels too guilty.”

“Still. I should make things right. With Aaron too.” Janis doesn’t argue anymore because she’s right, she should.

Just then Regina’s phone rings. She reaches blindly into her other pocket and pulls it out. “It’s my mom, do you mind if I?” Janis shakes her head but makes no move to leave and she listens to the one sided conversation disinterestedly. “I’m at Jay’s house; Yes really; Because it was time, mom; I can walk; It’s like a hundred feet mom, it’s no different than the distance between the parking lot and the hospital.” Janis would let this continue but it’s getting late and she still has a ton of work to do, and now that things are… okay? she doesn’t mind admitting that she’s kind of worried about Regina’s safety too.

“Tell her I’ll walk you.” Regina looks up, confused, and then understanding dawns.

“Are you sure?” Janis nods and Regina seems to lose some tension that Janis hadn’t even noticed until then. It occurs to her that crossing the street alone now must be fucking terrifying for the other girl and that last persistent bit of murky orange doubt vanishes.

“Do you need to go now?” she asks.

“No,” Regina says, frowning. “But probably before it gets dark, I need to take my meds around then.” Janis is completely taxed from yet another huge conversation and she imagines that Regina isn’t faring much better, but she really does need to get some painting done. When she tells Regina, the girl’s frown deepens. “Well, I mean we could go now, the house should be open. I don’t think I locked it when I left.” Janis nods but as tired as she is she’s also kind of loving the ease that flows between them now that the air is cleared and Regina isn’t stoned out of her mind on the best cocktail of her life. She isn’t quite ready to say goodnight yet. Just in case.

“Or… you don’t have to if you don’t want to. But, you could come sit with me? If you want? I need a live model anyway and you’re already here so it would be easier than getting Damian or Cady over during finals week. Wait, are you taking finals?”

“No,” Regina says. “I’ll have to do summer school so I can graduate on time next year. But, I don’t mind sitting if you… if you need the help.” She sounds so unsure of herself and Janis’ heart breaks all over again for the wild and courageous girl she’d grown up with.

Janis tells Regina to wait where she is and drags the straight-backed chair she’d been using through the mudroom and maneuvers it down the steps into the garage. When she turns back to get Regina, she’s startled to see the blonde standing in the doorway.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you, I’m just supposed to do five to ten minutes of movement for every hour I’m resting.” Janis walks over to the stairs and holds Regina’s hands as she carefully makes her way down the two wooden steps.

“Well, in that case, you can stand while you model,” Janis grins. Regina gives a shy smile in return and it feels really really good to share this moment.

Conversation flows as easily between them as it had in the hospital. It isn’t long before Regina gets tired and has to sit down and after that, they completely lose track of time until Janis notices Regina shifting restlessly and realizes that it must be time for her medication.

“Are you in pain?” she asks. Regina winces like she should be guilty about it and Janis rolls her eyes. “Don’t be like that, you can’t help it and you did tell me when you needed your meds. I’m sorry for losing track of time.”

“We can’t keep going in circles like this every time something happens,” Regina says decisively. “We both lost track. It’s fine, we’re right across the street. We can… we can finish tomorrow, right?” Janis grins and nods and then that’s that.

Things are fine, for now, and Janis goes to sleep in a hazy pink fog.

Finals week flies by. Thanks to Regina, she’s finished her figure drawing project just in time and is just putting a layer of varnish on her portrait painting before the junior/senior art show tomorrow when Damian and Cady come storming into the art room. Damian is poised to start yelling about something but they both catch sight of the piece she’s working on and it’s Cady who sighs and says “Another one, Janis?” Janis shakes her head and deliberately says nothing, determined not to be embarrassed by this.

Damian also says nothing and being the amazing best friend that he is, immediately distracts them all with his only slightly delayed rant on everything wrong with the senior showcase, which he is assistant stage managing this year. “I hate it. Why do people even become stage managers?! Only someone with a personality disorder would think that this is fun! You’re in charge of ev-ry-thing! I can’t handle this kind of pressure!” Janis is only half listening as she continues her careful varnishing.

She knew that her collection this year had a theme, but she hadn’t really given any thought to it being weird until Cady had said something and now she’s fighting off a wave of self-consciousness. Things are mostly good now, but she really really hopes that Regina isn’t planning on coming tomorrow.

Of course Regina comes. She shows up to school for the first time in almost ten weeks in a Philadelphia collar and with her mom , just to come to Janis’ junior art show. She’s almost touched enough to not be upset. Almost. Because now she’s going to have to explain to Regina why four out of her six paintings are of her.

Janis can feel eyes boring into her back from the general direction of the corner where Cady has been sitting all day, but when she glances over the girl is bent down and texting furiously. A moment later she feels her phone buzzing and knows that she must be messaging the groupchat. She chances a glance back at the Georges and sure enough, Regina is struggling to hold her phone straight in front of her face while she types a response. Janice is too anxious to see what they’re saying, but she trusts Cady implicitly and she and Regina are… getting there. She can’t help but smile as she watches the blonde fumble with her phone, and she can’t tell if the exasperated look is for her fine motor struggles or for whatever Cady is saying. Both, probably.

She keeps an eye on the two blondes as they move slowly through the other artist’s collections. Mrs. G keeps up a steady commentary, chatting happily with each young artist and desperately trying to engage her daughter. As the two move closer, Janis’s blood pressure increases. She wishes Damien were here to talk her down, but he’d been kicked out a few hours ago after he’d tried to start a live auction in front of her display and now she’s left alone to contemplate every window as a possible exit.

She looks to Cady and her friend gives her the sweetest smile ever and a thumbs up that makes her feel like she could lift cars off of a dozen babies or something and she has another brief moment of what if … but it fades when she looks back towards Regina. The girl is close enough now for Janice to see the little wounds where the pins of her halo had been removed yesterday. She remembers cleaning the pin sites, leaning in close and smelling Regina’s body wash as she did her best to wipe away dirt and crust as gently as possible which, in retrospect sounds disgusting but at the time had been like, weirdly intimate? The memory is a sort of soft amber like the glow of a lamp late at night when you’re fighting off sleep to finish the best part of a great book and with it her heart settles and she goes back to greeting potential patrons.

The next half hour or so goes like this.

Janis is in the middle of discussing a price for her only landscape painting when she feels an unmistakable presence behind her. She shakes the elderly woman’s hand politely before taking a breath and spinning on her heel to face her doom. But Regina isn’t looking at her, she’s looking at herself. It should be a familiar sight, herself and Janis, six years old and covered in chocolate ice cream. It’s a direct copy of a famous-within-the-family photo that has been sitting on the George’s mantle for over a decade, which Janis had spent hours painstakingly replicating with the intention of gifting it to Regina’s mother after the show. To its left is the landscape that Janis still can’t believe she actually just sold holy shit , to it’s right is the painting of Cady, Damian, and herself that had won a prize at State last marking period, and beside that is the figure drawing that Regina’s already seen, only now it’s been covered with flowers in pretty pastel watercolors.

The final painting on the far right is the one that Gretchen and Karen had seen when they ambushed her that day. It’s an extreme close up of the brightest, bluest eyes, framed by wisps of golden hair and just the hint of a freckled nose peeking out of the bottom of the canvas. Though the face isn’t visible, the eyes are unmistakable to anyone who’s seen them before. Regina spends a long time looking at a year of Janis’ life before finally turning to her. She’s openly crying, and all Janis can think is that there’s no mascara running down her face and that it’s the first time since she was twelve that she’s seen Regina George without makeup on.

Regina says something but Janis is too distracted staring at her freckles to hear.

“Sorry?” she says, looking up into bloodshot eyes.

Regina clears her throat before croaking, “I thought you were supposed to have six.”

Janis nods dumbly before turning. Most of the student work has been hung on standard office dividers, but for this piece Janis has borrowed a flat from the theatre department and draped black muslin over it. This painting is her baby; she had wanted it to stand out, and it does.

The canvas is divided in half diagonally, with a black background at the top dripping into white at the bottom. The liminal center splices the face of a young girl in half. The top right shows the girl's eyes, glaring hard as steel and hidden behind dark makeup. Her skin is flawless, other than the hint of a sneer in her scrunched nose and eyebrows. The bottom left, the part covered in paint drips and smeared pigment, shows the distorted lower portion of the girls smiling face- blonde hair, freckles, and just the corner of an eye that is so blue blue blue. The piece is dark, creepy to look at, and by far the best thing Janis has ever made. She’s extremely proud of it and the only reason the old lady had bought her landscape was that she had refused to sell this one.

Regina stares at it for a long time, and Janis stares at Regina. Mrs. G comes over at some point, but for maybe the first time ever restrains herself from intruding. Regina had gained the room’s attention the moment she walked in, and Janis can sense eyes on them from all directions as their peers wait with baited breath to see how The Queen will react to this obvious call out. Except it’s not a call out.

It’s a love story in twenty-four by thirty-six inches.

Janis gets more worried the longer that Regina goes without responding, but she stands her ground and refuses to look around to see how many eyes are watching. Regina still can’t move very well, but after what feels like a lifetime she takes a careful step back and turns to face her and Janis knows what’s going to happen the second their gazes lock. Though before the intent behind those eyes had been less cobalt and more sky, she’s seen this look a hundred thousand times.

She’s ready for it, but that doesn’t stop the way her heart practically rockets itself from her chest or the way tears spring to her eyes or the little half-sob that erupts, unbidden, when a pale hand reaches up to grab her cheek. She returns the gesture without hesitation, grabbing each side of that perfect fucking face and kissing the life out of the girl she’s always loved. Neither of them hears the gasps or the cameras (or the one suspiciously masculine squeal) that surround them, each lost in the other as though no time had passed at all and Janis is running violet and yellow through a field of grass and she’s ruddy cheeks jumping into a pile of orange yellow green and she’s chasing fireflies and skinning her knee and they never went stargazing before but damn if she doesn’t see those too.

Regina is the one to finally break away, and it’s with a wince as she leans too far forward and strains some abused muscle or another. Janis shouldn’t be surprised to find eyes as red as her own but she is and it’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen. It makes her want to rip up her collection and start from scratch with nothing but the color of Regina’s precious life to work with because Regina is alive and she’s here and they’re finally, finally home and if that means that she’s red from now on then fine, she’s used to it anyways.

Janis wishes her dad was here. She wishes they hadn’t lost so much time. She wishes that tomorrow weren’t the last day of finals so that she could stay home and not deal with the inevitable backlash of this perfect moment. But if she’s learned one thing, it’s that wishing gets you nothing but empty gray and black. You have to take what you want, find the blue and gold and pink and just… just fucking kiss them in the middle of the gym on a Thursday afternoon and hope the rest works out.

So she does.