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the real thing

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Cassie is the only one he ever asks.

Maxxie likes to draw his friends while they're themselves. It's like taking photographs. Once you warn a person that you're going to take one, they smile as brightly as they can. He doesn't want the fake smiles. He wants the real thing. He wants Michelle, pouting when Tony runs off to flirt with someone else. He wants Jal, playing her clarinet and looking happy just being herself, with her jeans and her baggy shirts. He wants Chris, trying to get Angie to smile. Those pictures make him happy. Watching his friends makes him happy. And he wants to have that happiness with him, always, whenever he looks at his drawings.

Cassie he has to ask, though. Cassie always smiles. Her smiles are never real. It doesn't matter whether she knows if Maxxie is drawing her or not, she always wears the same expression; she always has the same smile on her lips, the same desperate longing in her eyes. The smile – it’s one you only ever find on photographs. Maxxie thinks he may hurt her if she catches him drawing her and he didn't warn her. She might feel pressured, or stalked. She's so fragile. He doesn't ever want to hurt her.

So he goes to her, one day during lunch break at school. No one's sitting with her, like on most days, and Sid is off with Tony and Michelle somewhere, Jal's last class got cancelled and she went home already. Maxxie doesn't want to know what Chris is doing.

"Hey, Cassie."

"Heeeey. Maxxie. Wow. Wow, are you... do you wanna sit down?"

"I wanted to ask you something."

"Oh. Oh, yes, yes, totally." She looks up at him with a bright, too bright smile and her eyes are huge in her face.

"Do you. Um. Would you mind if I asked you if I could draw a portrait of you?" He clutches his drawing board under his arm a bit tighter and doesn't know himself why he's so nervous. It's just Cassie. Sweet, unreal, not-from-this-world Cassie. If there's one person you needn't ever be scared of, it's her.

She looks at him for a moment, dreamily, then sighs and her face turns into a full-on beam, lightened up like a match in the dark. "That's... wow, that's really, that is so nice of you. To ask me, I mean. You've been drawing the others all the time."

He tries to smile back. "Yeah. Kind of."

"Excellent. Totally. Like, really." She beams again, gets her bag. He notices she leaves her plate and that she hasn't eaten a single fry off it. He doesn't mention it. It's none of his business.

"Where do you want me to sit? Or is anywhere okay?" She asks, looking around. She focuses on him again, and her eyes are deep and dark when she beams.

He makes her sit on the brick wall the group sometimes flocks around, sits down a few inches away from her. He starts drawing without telling her he is, and gets her overall posture on the paper, before he starts all the wrinkles in her clothes and the shadows the sun and the trees cast. He leaves her face till the end, he always does.

"Are you okay?" he asks, draws her arms a little more muscular than they are, because that's just how the light makes them seem.

"Me?" she smiles brilliantly. "Of course. I'm totally okay. I feel good. I've eaten breakfast this morning."

He returns the smile uneasily and draws the scarf around her neck. "That's good. Great, really. You didn't eat any lunch."

"Oh, that. Yeah. Yes. I. There was no time, really." She rubs her upper arms like she's cold.

Maxxie doesn't want her expression on the picture to be uncomfortable. He doesn't want the frozen smile either. He wants... something. He wants more. But he doesn't know her very well. He doesn't know anything about her at all, except that she usually hangs out alone and sometimes, with Michelle and Sid.

"You don't know what to ask me," she says suddenly. Her smile is sad, now. "You think about it, but you can't think of anything. But that's okay. I don't really know what to ask you either."

"It's not -"

"You're very handsome. You should ask someone to draw you some time," she says softly. "I like your eyes. They're very sincere. It's like, when you look at me? I see that you think I'm weak. It makes me think that if people would tell the truth like this always, we might all know ourselves a little better..."

"I don't think you're weak," he says and starts with her locks, falling softly around her face which is just a formless cloud as of yet. He thinks she's vulnerable and... and that she needs to be protected, maybe even from herself. But what he thinks really doesn’t matter.

"Why did you want to draw me?"

He catches her gaze, and there - her eyes are curious, really curious, for once not covered with the fake happy gleam she always manages to fool people with. He looks up once, twice, to catch that curious gaze, the slight lift of her left eyebrow. He decides to tell her the truth. "I think you're very beautiful."

She closes down immediately and he knows for a moment that he's lost her again. "You should have drawn Michelle. She's much more beautiful -"

"She's pretty," Maxxie interrupts, starts with her nose, the shadow it casts on the right side of her face. "She's very pretty. I like to draw you better, I think. I like to draw beautiful people."

"Is that why you never draw Tony?"

The paper crunches between his fingers. Maxxie wants to stop drawing, because the next few lines are harsh and too defined for her softly-lined face, and he knows he's ruining it. But he can't stop. He doesn't answer.

"You like Tony, don't you?"

"Yes, Cassie. I like Tony."

"Do you love him, too?"

He tries her lips, but fails, because she's guarding her face again, big, bright smile, and he'll never be able to catch her expression correctly while she's only showing a poor copy of herself. It's hard to breathe, suddenly, hard to concentrate.

"Do you love Tony? Like they do? Everyone loves Tony." She smiles brilliantly. "He's... oh, he's really amazing, isn't he? He's like, sweet, something really sweet, and they all fly to him and get caught and they're like butterflies, all so pretty, all so very pretty, and he... he's..." She stops.

Maxxie has stopped drawing, is biting his lip so hard it hurts. "I don't love him."

"But that's not why you don't draw him." And then - her smile, her little mouth with the lightly protruding teeth - turns into something mischievous, something like an almost-smirk, like she knows things no one else knows.

Maxxie catches it, just in time, hurries to put it on the paper, just the right curve of her lips, the way they make her seem like she's got a secret that's all hers.

And then he’s finished.

"I don't draw him," he answers after a long pause, and takes the drawing board down, looks at the completed picture. "I don’t draw him, because I can't see him. And I don't draw illusions."

Cassie smiles again – the special smile, the impish one - and takes the drawing board from him, gives it a quick glance before she hands it back to him, leans over his shoulder to whisper, "Looks real to me," gently into his ear.

He glances at her, fake smile back in place, and at the picture, a short snap of the real her.

And it is, and it's beautiful.