(Author's Note below)
Tèa had read somewhere that the Kaiba mansion is one of the largest estates in the world; and considering what she knows of its current master, she isn't at all surprised . . .
. . . until she actually steps past the threshold and into the foyer and sees that – though the exterior is large and imposing and cold and notably uninviting – the interior is done in rich blues, burnt sienna, earthy moss green, and punches of gold that tempt and satisfy the eye.
The large foyer is decorated with minimalist portraits and a few Romantic statuettes. They beckon to be scrutinized and appreciated; and she can see there is a spray of flowers gracing the mantelpiece – a decidedly balanced arrangement of pink mink protea, purple Mokara orchids, and bamboo accented with earthy flax and eucalyptus, while smaller (though no less eye-catching) arrays featuring bird-of-paradise, vibrant daisies, and bold sunflowers are littering corners and tables and ledges throughout the areas in her field of vision. It is all displayed and presented with such an understated flair that Tèa can only describe the culmination as tasteful and eloquent without a hint of duplicity.
But then, perhaps she is allowing her prejudices to taint the experience. Seto did not build the Kaiba fortune from the ground nor was he the one who contracted the mansion. He merely inherited both then made the best of what he was given. She sincerely doubts Gozaburo Kaiba would have bothered with flowers or décor and how guests would interpret them. Then again, she can barely accuse Seto Kaiba of bothering with the same.
Shaking her head, the brunette follows the aged butler into a rather cozy sitting room and sits nervously upon a plush leather sofa that looks brand new and meticulously kept. The cushion is stiff under her bottom but comfortable enough – as if it has never been sat on or maybe it was, in fact, brand new.
She bites her lip and turns her head this way and that, noting the books on a nearby bookshelf – a few are in English, one or two are Russian - and the way the sunlight filtering through the French windows glares so brightly against the well-polished marble tile floor.
A clock is ticking somewhere in the next room, and her knees jump in time with the sound - a nervous tick that causes her heels to clack repeatedly against the seemingly flawless floor.
She jumps and very nearly falls on her ass at the sudden intrusion. Seto Kaiba is to her left, at an open door she had failed to notice upon entering. Distantly she wonders how he could have walked the five or six steps toward her without alerting her to his approach with such high quality shoes.
It is only after several seconds of tense silence that Tèa realizes he is not questioning but acknowledging as if he had expected her. Her eyes take in his expression, a strange mixture of impatience and fatigue . . . with a rather sizable hint of distaste, as if she were a bug mushed upon his pristine floor that he did not want to pick up.
She couldn't do this.
Flashing a quick smile, she twiddles her fingers nervously and bites her tongue against the words that want to leap from her throat. "Hi Kaiba. Look, I don't mean to intrude and you look like you'd rather be doing work so I'll just show myself out and –"
"Sit down." It is a command, a soft one; but she bristles, straightening her spine and meeting his eyes directly, chin up and shoulders back.
"I'm not one of your servants, Kaiba; and I'm not on your payroll. I don't have to follow your commands."
He steps further in to the room, and she notes for the first time his lack of trench coat. There are his shoulders - broader than she remembers - and here are his hands, held easily at his sides without imposing buckles or duel disc apparatus. Somehow, he looks approachable.
Or at least approachable, a marked improvement.
"I am well aware of that, Gardner," he says, his voice cutting a veiled insult across her consciousness, as if he can't believe she would condescend to entertain the possibility that he would ever hire her into his employ. "It wasn't a command."
She watches with wary eyes as he gestures to the couch she had previously attended, watches with weakening resolve when he settles himself in a bare wood chair across from the chaise.
"I, um . . . I came to speak to you. About what happened at Battle City." With some trepidation, she takes the steps to sit upon that hard leather, her eyes never leaving his. Her insides are shaking and she's fearful he'll throw her out any second; but his rudeness has relit the courageous fire, and she's bound to see this trial through.
His eyes narrow but he says nothing, merely nods his head for her to continue.
Swallowing, her voice breaks, "I . . . apologize." It was a teasing fly in her ear that she didn't know what was worse, humbling herself like this now or the events that had transpired to bring her here. "You . . . lost a helicopter because of me; and I never even tried to bring it up before now."
The smirk she has come to know and hate appears on his face. It is smug, judging, and cold all at the same time. "Apology not accepted." He stands in one smooth movement, all angles and seemingly flawless grace. All the better to sneer down his nose at her. "You should, instead, apologize for wasting my time."
Her vision is dominated by the wide expanse of his back as he strides away, still silent, overtly confident. She wishes she could kick his feet from under him. "WAIT, damnit!"
She doesn't expect him to stop, but he does, turning slightly to glance back at her out the corner of his eye, waiting. "That's not . . . I didn't mean. You are impossible!"
He snorts, and she gulps down her pride. Third time's a charm. "I'm sorry. You saved my life and lost an expensive vehicle in the process."
"So, you're here to offer me compensation?"
He can't possibly be serious. "No . . . actually -"
"Then I still will not accept your apology. Don't let the door hit you on your way out." He pauses, pretending to change his mind. "On second thought, do."
But Tèa is having none of it. She's made a decision, trekked all this way. She will not allow Seto Kaiba to foil her good intentions. "Now you listen just one second, Kaiba! I didn't come all this way to be turned down. I said I was sorry! What more do you want from me!?"
She expects him to ignore the inquiry, believes him incapable of answering anything without insult.
"I don't want anything from you, let alone more." A pointed stare, strangely devoid of malice, and then there is only his back – broad and straight – moving away.
And then it suddenly hits her. He doesn't want an apology because there is nothing she needs to apologize for. It was his decision to wreck his helicopter. It was his decision to save her life.
He doesn't want an apology, and all the time she has been trying to defend herself from his indifference, she has not allowed herself to realize he deserves nothing less than her heartfelt thanks.
Bowing her head slightly, she follows the few steps between her position near the couch to grasp at the material covering the small of his back. "I'm sorry." She grits her teeth, expecting rejection again; but he halts mid-step and his voice is almost as soft as hers (though gritty as ever),
"Gardner." His tone is a warning, the fisted hands at his sides, a promise.
"I'm sorry. I was rude to come here and expect you to be grateful for my apology when you deserved nothing short of my sincerest gratitude." She feels his entire body go even more rigid than usual, and she tightens her grip slightly in response. "Thank you, Seto Kaiba, for my life."
For a few spare moments, she believes he will turn and reply with one of his signature retorts, edged with poison thorns; but there are soft footfalls before a sweet face surrounded by a mop of raven hair rounds the corner. Mokuba looks too small in this big, near-empty house; but she bites her tongue and lifts her head to smile widely at the boy.
He brightens considerably before a transparent sort of confusion darkens his brow. "Tèa, hi! I didn't know you were here." His eyes shift to the older Kaiba sibling then the hand still clutching at Seto's shirt.
Tèa lets go without missing a beat, the hand coming up to push a few stray strands behind her ear to bring attention away from the slight flush marring her cheeks. "I –"
"Gardner was just leaving." Kaiba says, also without missing a beat; and though there is a sharp spike of irritation flaring beneath her skin, she nods in agreement before turning on her heel and finding her way out onto the drive.
She stands for a moment on the front stoop, looking up the (seemingly) miles high façade and smiling at nothing in particular.
Days later, it is Monday and school is back in session. Her morning is early and leisurely, and soon enough she is gone from the comfort of her home and opening her shoe locker to ready for the day. But instead of the typically shoes-only empty space, she finds a folded half-sheet wedged between the heels of her indoor shoes with her surname written in elegant script for her convenience.
Gingerly, she takes the little note between her fingers, reading the small letters that spell out, "Gardner. Keep this quiet." She grins slightly, the expression speaking three parts mischief and one part sweetness. Opening the front fold, her grin turns into a startled gasp and her free hand unwittingly comes up to cover the sound. For there, in bold print, is an impossibility in living color,
Thank you, Tèa Gardner, for mine. – S.K.
Author's Note: I'm BACK. For those not in the know, I lost my house again to the double whammies of Gustav and Ike during September 2008 - I'm finally mostly recovered materially and financially. And . . . In recent weeks, I've made plans to embark on a rather huge life journey so my time has been largely preparing for that. My other fics are still very much in the works but things have been slow going in light of other things.
In more positive news, I will be attending A-kon this year, so if you're going to be there and want to chat, drop me an email!