Special thanks to Lailey for essentially writing the ending bit of this after I'd given up on it.


Just Paint

Max had always been the Nothing Special kid. The other three Lightwood children had their respected suffixes—Alec was the Oldest, Jace was the Adopted One, Isabelle the Girl. But Max was just Max, last in the line, often forgotten. Nothing special.

The middle two had never taken much notice of him. Isabelle was seven years older than him and Jace eight, and once he got past the stage where they could make him do whatever they wanted, they no longer had any use for him. He was always too young for whatever it was that they were doing, and by the time he grew old enough they had moved on to something else. Isabelle always treated him with something close to contempt as well; she had never quite gotten over his ending of her seven-year reign as Youngest of the Family.

By the time he was old enough to fully realize their existence, they were never really home anyway. They were much too popular for their own good and had worked together over the years to develop quite the fan base, any of whom would be delighted to have one or both of them spend the night. It wasn't surprising; Jace, Angel Boy, had his smooth charm, and Isabelle had her long dark locks and her "bite me" attitude, and both seemed to have been born knowing those unwritten rules of society that Max could never quite pick up on. They had been part of the "in crowd" since elementary school and didn't appear to be losing their status any time soon. Max and Alec certainly didn't mind much if they weren't home, as both preferred a more peaceful setting and neither Jace nor Isabelle were the kind of characters to which one could apply the word "quiet". The only one who might care about their absence was their father, and Max wasn't sure he even noticed.

Robert Lightwood, single parent, worked two jobs to support his family and still had trouble making ends meet. He often left before the children woke in the morning and rarely returned until long after Max was in bed for the night. Max couldn't remember the last time he'd actually done something memorable with his father, even though Robert kept promising that someday they would find a way to make time for some father-son bonding moments. Alec once said that their father could be waited on hand and foot and still work himself nearly to death, trying to forget his wife.

Max couldn't remember his mother. Isabelle, on one of the rare occasions that she actually remembered that she had a little brother, told him that Mrs. Lightwood was the most beautiful woman alive, tall and regal with raven-black hair. She told him that she had been the most wonderful mother anyone could ask for, that she was sweet and kind and gentle and never forgot to tuck her children into bed at night and to sing them each a special song.

Izzy's description didn't sound at all like the mother Alec had told him about. If she was so perfect, why did she leave them for another man when Max was only two months old? If she always remembered to tuck in and sing to her children at night, how was it that the only communication they got from her was a Christmas card on the years that she didn't forget?

Isabelle wouldn't answer when Max asked her.

He sometimes pretended that he had a mother. He would lie on his bed, listening to Jace's loud music if he and Izzy were home or the silence of the house if they weren't, and play out scenarios in his head of what his mother would do with him. Some days she took him to the zoo and pointed out the best exhibits, listening to whatever he wanted to say about them. Other times she brought him to the beach and taught him to swim, and when they were done she bought him ice cream. And sometimes she just sat on the end of his bed, happy to hear whatever Max wanted to tell her, asking about his day, rejoicing with his ups and sympathizing with his downs.

And then he'd realize that it was late and he should get himself dinner, and the fantasy would disappear in a puff of dust.

Alec was really the only constant in his life. He often said that Max reminded him of himself; though in the way he said it Max wasn't sure if that was good or bad. They were both loners, both had trouble making friends. Alec was the only one of the three who didn't have constant after-school activities or invitations to an admirer's party. He never said much, never did anything stupid like Jace and Isabelle seemed fond of doing, and Max had never seen him wear anything that wasn't black. He was the father that Max never had, made sure that his little brother had shoes and shirts and three square meals a day, got him to school in the morning and to bed at night. It was Alec's bed that Max crawled into when it stormed, Alec that he went to for math help. And it was Alec who convinced to him give school another try time after time when Max threatened to quit.

Max had never liked school. He was born a perfectionist and developed a terror of failure at an extremely young age. They sent him to school a year early, partly because Robert didn't know what else to do with him and partly because Alec kept finding him in his room, teaching himself to read Little House on the Prairie. He was scrawny for his age anyway, and quiet, and had an aversion to people and public places. Often bored in class because he tended to read ahead, he kept bringing home notes that said could do better if he applied himself and very shy; has trouble making friends. He was mostly ignored—quiet kids generally are—no one really took the time to get to know him. Still, they weren't cruel, and though he didn't enjoy it much he endured.

And then came third grade. That was the year he got glasses, owing to the fact that Alec had noticed him walking into walls and tripping over the cat more than usual. That was also the year that the new boy moved in from France.

Jonathan was older than most of the kids in the third grade. He lived with his father, he told them, and the two of them traveled around a lot, so they didn't have much time for proper schooling. But he was smart, smarter than the teachers gave him credit for, and sly.

He held a certain sway over the other students, being from another country, and soon established himself as a sort of lord over the classroom. Most of the kids were in awe of him, and those who weren't quickly learned to be. He never blacked anyone's eye, but he had other, quieter ways of exacting punishment. Nasty notes, typed and unsigned, found their way onto desks and into bags. Shoes and jackets were quietly taken from the coatracks and relocated to bathrooms and hallways and once the roof. And yet Jonathan always seemed to be somewhere else when the deed was discovered, often reading or studying his math books. The teacher adored him because he was quiet and never fought. He read well and was quick at math, and if you stayed on his good side he wasn't too bad.

Max could never get on his good side.

Jonathan had it in for Max from the beginning. Max didn't know why, or what he had done, but no matter what he did or said he could never make Jonathan like him. He tried being quiet and staying out of the bigger boy's way, but Jonathan never left him alone.

At first he made an example of him. Don't be like this kid or this will be you. The kids who had never been friends but never quite enemies either now avoided him like the plague. And even after he felt that he had proved his point, Jonathan still picked on him. Max was easy to provoke into tears anyway, and had what Alec liked to describe as "a foot-shaped mouth", and Jonathan used this to his best advantage. It was Max's shoes that were always missing, Max's papers that mysteriously found their way onto the floor in pieces, Max's books that turned up in the oddest places.

And somehow, Jonathan had figured out that Max's mother was a sore spot. He'd picked up on the way that Max watched the other kids get picked up by their mothers after school, the way that his eyes drifted wistfully over the rows of parents who had come to see the third-graders' terrible rendition of Alice in Wonderland. And once Jonathan had noticed something, he never let it go. He began making digs at Max—"Going to go home to your mommy, Lightwood?" "Gonna get your mom to sign your slip?". He even went so far as to make a "Mother club," which made cards and paper flowers for the members' mothers. The teacher thought it was the sweetest thing and encouraged the effort, never knowing that she was helping in the further isolation of Max Lightwood.

He bore it in silence for a good while. On the first day he went to school Alec had told him that if he just ignored the bullies they would give up and go away. But Jonathan, far from conceding defeat, only seemed to see this as a personal challenge and redoubled his efforts.

Max knew he shouldn't let it get to him. He knew it shouldn't let it matter. But home alone in bed at night, with the refrigerator making noises in the too-quiet dark that only reminded him that he was alone, he cried. He couldn't help it.

Sometimes when he cried he imagined how his mother, who in his mind always sat in the living room reading or writing, would come in and sit on the edge of the bed. She would ask him what was wrong, rub his back under the covers and listen to his story without having something else to do or somewhere to go. And when he finished she would kiss him and tell him it would be alright, everything would be alright, she would take care of it. And then the next morning she would go to the school and she would make sure that Jonathan never came near her son. Because that's what mothers do. They take care of you. They watch out for you. And they make sure you know that you're never alone.

Maybe if he imagined hard enough, it would come true. Like the magic tricks in the books he read, where you close your eyes and hold your breath and count to three. Maybe if he opened his window, she would come in like Mary Poppins. But she never came. No matter what he did, no one ever came to ask him what was wrong, why he was crying. No one—

"Max?"

Max lifted his head disbelievingly at the sudden weight against his legs. For a wild, heart-pounding moment he thought that he had somehow managed to make his wish come true—then he recognized the dark shape on the bed.

Alec.

"Max, why do you have your window open? It's the middle of February and you'll freeze to death." He leaned over to shut the window and in the light from the streetlamp outside caught the tear tracks on Max's face. "Is something wrong?"

Suddenly, now that someone had asked what was wrong, Max didn't know how to answer. Probably Alec would just tell him he was being silly. So instead he said, "I just had a bad dream. It's nothing."

He could feel Alec smile.

"Max, you're a terrible liar, you know that? Come on, tell me what's wrong." When Max didn't answer, he said more seriously, "Whatever it is, Max, if it's this important to you I swear it's just as important to me. I promise."

Max sniffled. "I miss Mom."

That hadn't been what he meant at all, but once it was out he found that it was exactly what he'd wanted to say. Alec was looking at him curiously, obviously waiting for more of an explanation, so Max said in a rush, "No one's ever here with me at home, Jace and Izzy are always somewhere and they pretend that I don't exist, you're either at football practice or locked in your room, I haven't seen Dad for more than five minutes at a time in forever, and I just thought...well, I thought if Mom was still home, she might be around with me at least sometimes."

He took a deep, shuddering breath and searched his brother's face for a reaction.

Alec looked surprised; then, as he realized what his brother was saying, he looked sad and a bit regretful.

"Come here, Max." He reached over and scooped his brother up as easily as if he were a kitten.

"Max… You know Dad's working for our sakes. And Jace and Izzy are just at that age-"

"I know, I know," Max interrupted, and then immediately wished that he hadn't."I just don't like being alone." he whispered, studying his folded hands intently and avoiding his brother's gaze."I wish… I wish I could have someone here. At least for more than a few minutes. Just to talk."

"Max," Alec started, and then seemed to rethink what he was going to say. "Max, I'm sorry. But I'm here now. What is it that you wanted to talk about?"

Max opened his mouth, then closed it again. Somehow he didn't want to tell Alec about the troubles at school. Big, strong Alec for whom life seemed to go perfectly, did he really want to hear about the petty third-grader problems of his baby brother? But his mouth was operating faster than his brain did, and even while he went through all the reasons that he should just shut up, he blurted out, "Jonathan."

Stupid, stupid, stupid. But now Alec was looking at him quizzically and he knew he had to finish the explanation. "Jonathan..he kind of...he makes fun of me."

"He does what." Alec's voice was flat, in a dangerously calm kind of way.

"He pushes me around, sometimes, and...steals my stuff. Rips up my homework. And he...he knows Mom's not here. And...that it bothers me." There. It was all out. He glanced up from his hands in time to see something that looked suspiciously like rage cross Alec's face.

"Tell me everything," he said, and his voice, while still dangerously flat, was shaking. "Everything you remember."

So Max, half-scared of this new, angry Alec, told him everything. Every poke and prod and leg stuck out into the aisle to trip him, every stolen item, every after-school ridicule. Alec's face became increasingly stony, and he looked as if he'd dearly love to teach Jonathan a lesson in manners right then and there.

"He won't stop,"Max finished, and was embarrassed to find that he was near tears. "He's always there, waiting for me. No matter where I am. I just want him to stop."

"Then he'll stop," Alec said tightly.

"No, he won't. I've tried everything—the teachers won't believe me."

"Oh, he will. Trust me. Or I will have a personal talk with him. No one screws with my baby brother."

He smiled then, a tightlipped, angry smile but a smile nonetheless. "You get some sleep now, buddy. You have school tomorrow."

Max smiled too, and Alec tucked him back into bed and rubbed his back until he fell asleep.

Alec missed his first two classes to drive Max to school the next morning. Max was still upset, and a little frightened to go back into the school building, but there was a sort of calm in the car. He knew that Alec would take care of everything.

Once at the school, Alec deposited Max in a chair just inside the main office lobby. "You wait here," he said, and disappear into the office.

It seemed like forever that Max sat there. He twisted his hands together, watching his knuckles turn white. He could here low voices coming from behind the door, voices that hummed and rose higher and higher in argument until Alec shouted, "My brother doesn't lie!"Then more low voices, back and forth and furious, as the clocked on the wall ticked away nearly an hour,

When Alec came out, he was grinning. "Transferred."

"Really?"Max's eyes widened and he stopped fidgeting. "Me or him?"

"Mr. Jonathan Morgenstern will be attending Miss Eckley's class until the end of the year, under strict supervision. He won't come near you again."

And with that he left, leaving Max to go to class and barely believe his good luck.

True to Alec's word, Jonathan did not once bother Max for the rest of the school year. Max suspected that Alec had done more than transfer the boy, judging from the terrified looks Jonathan threw him occasionally from across the hall. Still, he didn't want to break the enchantment by inquiring. He was happy enough as he was.

His grades, which had been dropping under Jonathan's attack, suddenly took an upward turn. There were two reasons for this; Jonathan was no longer bugging him, and Alec began making a conscious effort to stay home and help him with his homework or, sometimes, just make sure he knew that there was someone there with him. The rest of the year seemed to fly by, and one day Max flew home to Alec with good news.

"Jonathan's moving back to France!"

Alec, who had taken up cooking for the family, dusted bread flour off his hands and hugged Max. "That's fantastic."

"I know!" Max danced around the living room and tripped over the cat before finally settling on the couch. "I'll never have to worry about him again."

Alec took off his apron and sank down next to him. "Max."

"What?"

"I need you to listen to me, Max, and I need you to listen very carefully." He paused until Mx gave him his full attention. "I can't bail you out of every difficult situation, Max. Eventually, you're going to have to learn how to deal with the Jonathans of the world on your own. And believe me, there are many, many Jonathans out there. People who will be jealous of you, who want nothing but to watch you burn."

"Why?" The question came out whinier than Max had intended. He mentally kicked himself.

"Because everyone has their struggles, Max. Some of them don't deal with them well. Some of them would like to pretend that their troubles don't exist, that all they are is good deeds and talents. But that's wrong.

"Because people are built on their flaws, struggles, and how they overcame them. Not their talents or good deeds." Alec looked at Max carefully. "Talents and good deeds are paint."

"They are?"

Alec nodded. "Your life and your victories over your inner and outer demons are foundation. It's not who you are. It's what you do."

Max picked at the edge of the couch. He thought he could understand some of what Alec was getting at—that it didn't matter that Mom wasn't there as much as it mattered how he reacted to it.

"So Max, yeah, you have this uncertain future ahead of you. And there are some idiots who will judge you based on who you are because they still haven't accepted that they're more than paint. But all they can do is chip yours." Alec patted Max's head. "Because that's all they know. Shallow paint. They can't shake your foundation, Max. That is yours and yours alone."

Max looked at him, digesting what he'd said. Then he smiled.

Alec got up to go back to the kitchen. Just before he got to the door, he turned back. "I love you, Max, you know that, right?"

Max nodded.

"And Max? I'm always going to be here for you."