Title: The Gift of the Written Word
Author: Verisimilitude9
Medium: (Fanfic/Fanart) Fic
Theme: Literature
Genre: Friendship/Romance
Version: (Anime, Manga, PGSM) AU Magnoliasverse
Rating: (G - NC-17) PG

Notes: Thanks muchly to Ten for the once-over.

It was, in his opinion, due to the fact that while he was at the Home, books were one of the only sources of solace and refuge.

It had not been a place where friendships came easily. Children without parents, abandoned, oftentimes shuffled in and out of broken homes, lost and unfound, didn't have the carefree innocence of their familied counterparts. He didn't have a particular length of wall in a house lightly marked with pencil lines on white paint to show how much taller he grows every year on his birthday. He didn't have a tire swing hanging on an old tree in the backyard, or old, raggedy stuffed animals that were loved and kept for years through hundreds of washings and patchings. There were no guarantees, no eyes that always warmed with love whenever they gazed upon him. But in a story, one could always get a glimpse of a world that was different. It was a way to get away from the gray monotony of the everyday routine, an escape from the matron's lectures and the psychologist's nosy questions and the tasteless chicken surprise that was for dinner.

Darien loved books, and held the highest respect and regard for the written word. And it just seemed natural to give a book as a present to a person he considered a friend.

I. Lita Green

He could remember her arrival at the Home; it is one of his clearest and earliest memories. He was five, and had never known any home but this state-funded institution for lost and misplaced children. It was just after lunchtime and he was about to go outside with the others when he saw her, a three-year-old spitfire with wild red-brown curls and hands clenched in defiant fists- no finger-to-finger linking for her and the social worker bringing her in. The latter, a burnt-out wisp of a woman with dark shadows under her eyes, sighed loudly as she tugged on the little girl's wrist. "All right, Lita. Let's go see the matron, and then you'll be able to have a nice lunch, hmm? Aren't you hungry?"

"NO. I'm NOT hungwy." The words were childishly forceful and recalcitrant, but there was a hint of fear and loneliness in the new girl's green eyes. Her pink sweater was faded and a size too big. For all her bravado, her face was pale and her lips were pressed together to keep them from trembling. Darien, with an orphan's acumen, knew instinctively that the newcomer was terrified, and though he couldn't yet understand it fully, admired her for hiding it.

It would be about a year before he actually spoke to her for the first time. But after that, they were fast friends, and in the four years that followed, as the volunteer staff and social workers and other residents changed with the winds and the seasons, they remained the same- alone, courageous, unadopted and steadfast. Whenever either of them faced a grievance too heavy to bear alone, they'd tap each other's wrists with their fingers as a signal, and meet outside by the peach trees to share their troubles, pain halved in the face of support.

Darien would get adopted a year or so before Lita's next-of-kin was discovered. The first Christmas where he'd had an allowance to save up, he bought her a copy of E. B. White's Charlotte's Web. She opened the green-and-red wrapped present and, to his discerning eye, fake-scoffed at the picture of a girl holding a pig on the cover, and then smiled and shrugged and said that she guessed she could read it if he wanted her to.

Ten years later when he was helping her pack in preparation for a year's study at the Culinary Institute in New York, he saw her slip a worn, dog-eared children's classic into her travel bag, and read the gratitude in her eyes. Lita was now eighteen, tall and buxom and capable and no longer so wary, but the book she kept- a tale of lifelong friendship, of simple, homey things that mattered the most, of unpretentious folks who valued loyalty and honesty more than any number of accolades- hinted that certain things could be counted on to always be the same.

II. Mina Atherton

Darien was twelve and established as the Sultan of Swat for his Little League team when she joined, a pretty blonde cherub of a girl with a smile like a sunny day. To be completely honest, she looked more like the type to play with Barbies rather than balls and bats. As she tried and failed to stuff more of her long hair underneath her cap, several of the boys on the team laughed. But she kept a smile on her face as the coach boredly introduced her as Mina Atherton.

"So, y'all have an opening for a pitcher?" she asked with almost laughable naivete, glancing at the faces of the veterans on the team, whose expressions ranged from bemusement to curiosity to downright contempt. Jamie Elmer, thirteen years old and the one who usually pitched for their games due to seniority and the fact that his dad was friends with the coach, skulked forward with a scowl.

"Look here, we don't need no sissy girls on the team anyway, and you're out of your mind if you want to pitch. You probably don't even know what direction to throw the ball."

At that, Mina raised her chin, all smiles and charm vanishing under a face of fierce determination and resolve, and just then, cleats and cap and blonde hair and all, she looked like some sort of warrior. "I'll show you guys," she said, sweet voice at odds with her grim face. "Three pitches. Your choice of hitter. If he hits, I'll leave. If he strikes out, I'll pitch at least half your games, and maybe help you win, too."

This declaration was greeted with laughter, but some instinct had Darien stepping forward and picking up a bat. He gave her the smallest of smiles and stepped up to the plate. Three dizzying fastballs later, the other players were no longer laughing.

Eight years and thousands of pitches and hits later, they would meet in the park for one last scrimmage. After playing in the Little Leagues, he had gone on to coach the team the last two years, and now, as he was preparing to leave for college, it was her turn.

"So, do you have any tips for me?" she asked, now a slim, pretty girl of sixteen who pitched for her high school softball team. "As far as coaching Little League, surviving high school, anything wisdom you might want to impart upon a friend before you go?"

He chuckled and batted at the brim of her baseball cap, and surveyed her familiar face, one that could always give a smile to cheer someone who was down in the dumps. Picking up a bag from the bleachers where he'd set it, he handed her a book. Pollyanna.

"Read this," he told her. "Keep smiling and stay positive and go after what you want. Just do what you do best and you'll always be loved for it."

Darien wasn't around when Mina changed the life of a grieving boy from New York visiting a relative for the summer and found love in the process. But he heard about it secondhand and knew that she followed the advice.

III. Amy Anderson

It was natural enough that he was given the task of escorting one of the new freshmen in high school around the building on the first day. He was a junior, a member of student council and the national honor society, and in the case of this particular student, whose name already came up in the school district newsletter on a regular basis for scholastic awards, it was almost a test. Gifted students often had trouble finding a balance: the dilemma of finding a grade and class level that challenged them without limiting their social and emotional growth. It was not often the case that a fourteen-year-old trigonometry student had the worldly-wise air of her sixteen-year-old counterparts, and Amy in particular was shy and reserved.

Darien, after a glance at her schedule and another at her carefully controlled, tellingly pale face, gave her an encouraging smile and pointed out the fact that they would have math class together, and made a point to sit next to her for the first class. She was a newcomer, in a way, much like he had been when he'd first moved into his adoptive parents' house and had a firsthand taste of a world outside of the Home. She sat down demurely next to him, peering around the room with diffident curiosity through a fringe of blue-black lashes, and with an efficiency he could appreciate, already had a sharpened number two pencil ready, poised over a blank college-ruled spiral notebook, the moment the teacher walked towards the chalkboard.

They would study math together once a week, and for all her shyness, he'd never known anyone who spoke so effectively when she did talk. Every word was carefully weighed, and every movement bespoke precision and organization. It was easy to talk to Amy, because she listened and offered honest, logical feedback untampered by typical dramatic teenage reactions, and in her endless, patient quest for knowledge, she observed everything around her and remembered it in minute detail, often bringing his attention to little things that he'd missed that would change everything. In her solemn eyes and the shadow behind her smile, he also saw a hint of sorrow and loneliness that reminded him of himself. It was easy to befriend her for that, if nothing else.

It was, he figured, a big-brotherly sort of thing to do to get her a set of C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia at the end of the school year. He stopped by her locker, and with an easy grin that had several older girls sighing in envy, handed her a bag from Borders. She peeked inside, and then looked up at him in surprise. After a moment, without a word, she smiled a genuine smile, one that looked less strained and out of place than usual, and it was thanks enough. With her high intelligence, Amy would already know the premise of the books, and understand the intention behind the present.

A year after that, in the park where he'd coached Little League for two summers, he'd find a more confident, more carefree Amy reading through a copy of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader during her break on her shift as one of the lifeguards at the swimming pool. Maybe in reflection of the theme of magical worlds that existed for those who had the faith to believe in them, the emphasis on innocence and love and trust triumphing over darkness, Amy laughed more easily nowadays and found it easier to let down her guard. Darien swam laps and watched another of the lifeguards, a sandy-blond fellow a grade below his, lean back against her fingers as she smoothed sunblock over his back and shoulders. For a moment, his quiet math class seatmate linked her fingers with the boy's, and true contentment- the kind that came from a soul who learned not only to question but to believe- shone in her face.

IV. Trista Mason

They were like peas in a pod in a lot of ways: self-contained, highly intelligent, well-respected by their peers and motivated to succeed. It was inevitable from their first day in high school together that they'd run in the same crowd, and almost expected that they'd have an almost-dating-type-but-never-quite relationship. Trista Mason, whose blouses and trousers were always perfectly pressed and whose dark hair shone like polished obsidian against her striking, olive-skinned face, was a perfect companion and counterpart. She was the treasurer to his student body president, the homecoming queen to his king, and by all rights they probably should have dated.

They had plenty in common- a quietly authoritative manner, an excellent GPA, a preference for drinking their coffee black- and enough differences to make it interesting- his captaincy of the varsity baseball team versus her interest in fashion and jewelry design, his lashing sarcasm versus her more cold and brooding anger, his preference for Italian food versus hers for Japanese. And yet, the issue of dating had never been broached. Except for once.

It was a friendly question on his part, before their senior homecoming dance where they'd been crowned King and Queen. She looked quite lovely in black silk, and he'd grinned as he fastened a corsage of white flowers around her wrist, where it lay a nice, delicate contrast to her smooth, tanned skin. "You look nice," he'd said. "I'm a lucky guy tonight. Maybe we should do this more often."

Trista smiled her slow, enigmatic smile and shook her elegant head. "No, I don't think so. We fit together too well."

"What's that supposed to mean?" he asked, unoffended but curious. "Hypothetically that is what makes for good relationships, isn't it? I don't know of anyone I get along with, better."

"That's the problem, Darien," she said slowly as she pinned a spray of matching white orchids on his lapel. "We're too alike in temperament, and both of us need something different. You can't be together with someone you 'get along with' well, who wouldn't be good or right for you." She looked up into his face, and for a moment he thought some sort of emotion flickered in her eyes. "I care for you a great deal, but we wouldn't work together that way." Then she stepped back, and she was simply Trista again- composed, stately, a tall and sophisticated girl in a black dress. "Let's get going, shall we?"

They would part ways at the end of the year, with him going to Harvard for business and her going to Cal-Tech for Engineering. But he made a point to go with her to the airport, and pushed a book in her hands as she prepared to check her luggage.

"Here. Something for you to read while you're on the plane." He didn't doubt that she's read it before, but a good book was a good book, and A Tale of Two Cities was just about the perfect length for a several-hours-long flight.

She glanced at the cover, smiled, and shook his hand warmly. "You'll find your own Lucie Manette, Darien. And you'll deserve her, too."

He kept her words at heart and walked with her until they reached the security checkpoint, and then watched until she vanished through the gate.

V. Raye Harcourt

It was his first week in Manhattan and he'd already lost count of the number of times he'd gotten lost. Sure, he might have been class valedictorian in high school, might have graduated from Harvard with honours, but he was just not accustomed to the big city life and its constant state of chaos. After taking the wrong subway, and then missing his stop when he managed to find the right one, Darien swore at the rain that had started falling outside and ducked into the nearest open building.

He found himself in an art gallery, feeling completely out of place amidst the high, coffered ceilings and varnished teak floors. It was structured almost like someone's home rather than the usual collection of rooms with statuary on pedestals and pictures on walls, and he found himself walking through slowly, taking in brightly woven tapestries and art glass bowls on hand-carved coffee tables. It was vibrant and yet tranquil somehow, radiating an atmosphere of class.

The click of high heels on the wooden floor had him looking over, and he saw a young woman in a black pantsuit walking towards him, her jet-black hair clipped back with red jeweled combs, an expression of polite curiosity on her face. "Looking for something?"

"I'm just lost, I'm afraid," he laughed self-deprecatingly. "I ducked into this place because it's pouring outside. It's my first week here in New York, and I'm still getting used to it." Manners recalled him for a moment, and he shook his head at himself. "I'm being very rude. I'm Darien Shields, by the way. I'm the newest gopher on Wall Street."

Her ruby lips curved upward in a smile, and he noticed objectively that she was quite beautiful, around his age or perhaps a year or two younger, the sheen of Manhattan sophistication all over her personage. "I'm Raye Harcourt," she proffered a manicured hand. "I've lived in New York all my life, and I'm the manager of this gallery. It's nice to meet you."

The last name rang a bell, but he didn't mention it as she led him in and with a graciousness that one didn't expect from a New York socialite who was the daughter of a senator- now that he managed to remember the origin of her name- poured him a cup of Earl Grey and took a half-hour of her time to do nothing but give him a crash course in the ins and outs of the city's subway system.

He made a point to stop at her gallery periodically and grew to know her- a puzzling mix of stark cynicism and impulsive generosity, grace and temper, and when it was her birthday the next year, he made a point to drop by on her lunch break, shook hands with her fiance, and handed her a book wrapped in white paper.

She slit the tape with an antique letter opener and unwrapped it slowly, and then looked up at him with a wry smile. "A Little Princess. You know, I read this as a little girl, and didn't really understand the point of it then."

Darien let out a single exhaling chuckle. "You're a classy lady. You'll get it if you read it again. Nice to meet you, Jake. You're a lucky man."

VI. Serena Sterling

She'd always existed, not too far away. The girl a few doors down with her hair up in pigtails, singing as she jogged home from the park. She bounced when she walked and practically glowed with innocent good humour and he never exchanged more than a few words with her at a time, because really, how DID one approach someone who reminded oneself of nothing so much as a colourful butterfly who was glad to exist just to add a tiny bit of beauty and joy to the world?

She talked to him now and again, sometimes laughing gleefully, sometimes pouting and tearful at the ill nature of others, and he'd always enjoyed listening to her. Serena Sterling was much like her name- all goodness and peace and purity- and he never had anything to say back to her.

He thought of her at the oddest moments, a smiling, wide-eyed face framed with platinum blonde locks lingering like a photograph in his subconscious through years of college and a distance of hundreds of miles. He didn't really reflect on why he'd think of her, why it was important not to forget her, and really, it would be acceptable to call her a friend if she'd lived in the same neighbourhood as him for seven years, right?

It was fate that had him accept a spare ticket to a Broadway show and it was a coincidence that she would happen to be performing that night. He had idly leafed through the programme and blinked at the familiar name, and then when the curtains had risen, he almost had to bite down a gasp of surprise. The woman in front of him was beautiful, expressive, alien and enchanting and yet familiar all at once- warm emotion and colourful contrasts and the tiniest hint of a Southern drawl in her voice as she recited her character's acerbic lines. It was a whim to buy a bouquet of red roses for the leading lady.

It was her nature to thank him for them and invite him, her face lit up with candid friendliness and childish excitement, to coffee the next day. It was a natural progression to renew their acquaintance after that- two kids who had been fated to meet in a new town, with new lives- and the most normal thing in the world for him to ask her out to dinner a month or so after that.

It wasn't completely expected for him that they'd fight, that she'd cry over something he'd said and he'd snarl inwardly over her more foolish moments, or that somehow, before he knew it, he craved the glow in her eyes whenever she looked at him like a man in the desert might crave the rain.

And so it was, that some fifteen or so years after he'd first laid eyes on Serena Sterling, after eight months of dating, thousands of kisses, scores of small arguments and countless memories that meant more to him than gold, he brought a book with him when he went over to her apartment on their usual Wednesday night dinner.

"Is that dessert? No?" she'd grabbed the bag with a laugh and an impulsive movement characteristic of her after kissing him. "A present! Ooh, can I open it before we eat?"

He smiled down at her, suddenly nervous, taking in the mismatched furniture and Chinese takeout boxes and the lights of the city shining through the window behind her. This book would be the most important, and he couldn't be sure what she'd think. But he took in the moonlit blonde hair, the smile she had just for him, and held the bag open for her.

It was an illustrated book of fairy tales, a beautifully crafted volume with gilt-edged pages and title pages done in calligraphy, something that a person would buy to keep for years, to read to children who would be born in the future. Darien watched, heart beating a trip-hammer rhythm somewhere in his throat, as enchantment and wonder and joy flitted across Serena's face as her delicate fingers flipped through the pages and her beautiful eyes took in the pictures of happily-ever-after: Cinderella trying on a glass slipper, Sleeping Beauty opening her eyes after a hundred years, Thumbelina gaining her fairy wings. She reached the back of the book, where there was a single line of text.

"And they lived happily ever after," she whispered as her eyes fell to a small, glittering object taped lightly to the page. Diamond and pearl and white-gold glinted up at her in a flash of brilliant promise and her breath caught in her throat. When she looked up at him at last, tears running down her face and her lips curving up in that smile that he loved, he had his answer.

Darien didn't consider himself a man of many words, or the innovative type. Books were a fairly typical gift, really. But they were a constant, a way to express his thoughts and feelings, and when he did give someone the gift of the written word, the other person always seemed to understand the intention. Support. Encouragement. Care. Respect. Admiration. Love.

It all felt like part of finding one's place, of souls like disparate parts easing together and fitting into the world. He had come a long way.