"Ugh, I hope I passed that test." Téa Gardner groaned, tossing her third-year physics textbook into her satchel. The school day had just ended for her and her friends, and she was looking forward to going home and just crashing at her apartment.
She'd spent the last week neck-deep in tests for every class-- English, Japanese literature, physics, psychology, home economics, physical education… EVERYTHING.
"I think my brain's about to leak out of my ears," Tristan Taylor commented, tossing his jacket over his arm and following Téa out the door. "You coming, guys?" He glanced toward Yugi Moto and Joey Wheeler, the two stragglers of their small group.
The two boys were heavily involved in an after-school duel, with Joey yelling whenever Yugi made a successful attack on the blonde's life points. A few guys were watching the duel with mild interest; however, Téa just wanted to grab an early dinner with the guys and head home for the weekend.
The early February sun was hovering low on the horizon and streaming right into the school, warming the backs of the few students still inside.
Téa stepped away from the doorway when Seto Kaiba rose from his seat to leave.
"Bye, Kaiba!" Téa called in her usual affable manner. Kaiba's only acknowledgment of her greeting was a slight grunt and a stiff waving of his hand. Téa just rolled her eyes and smiled, glancing back at Joey and Yugi.
Apparently, the duel had ended, as Joey, a frown creasing his face as if it belonged there, rose from his chair and gathered his cards.
"Man, why'dya bother with that snot-nosed guy?" he asked Téa with a snarl. Even though it had been over a year since Duelist Kingdom, and nearly seven months since Battle City, Joey still didn't think highly of Seto Kaiba.
He probably never would, Téa reasoned, but boys will be boys.
Okay, Joey was Joey. Tristan and Yugi treated Kaiba with respect-- though Tristan still insisted that Kaiba had something that wasn'�t natural crammed up one of his orifices.
The thought often made Téa giggle.
"Come on, Joey, he's really not that bad."
"Yeah, says YOU."
Yeah, Kaiba was a pretty uptight guy, but the others just didn't understand. He wasn't like them-- he wasn't a normal teenager. He was the CEO of a gigantic corporation, a genius, and… a brother. A brother in blood, really, but a father in nature.
Téa knew full well that though there was only a six year difference in Mokuba Kaiba and Seto Kaiba's ages, Seto being there for Mokuba in a fatherly way made all the difference in the world. Without saying it, Seto got the message across that he didn't want Mokuba to end up like him-- and he was trying his hardest to be a good role model and a good father for Mokuba.
Téa had to admire him for that-- if only because she knew what it was like to be an orphan.
Just before she'd entered Domino Junior High seven years ago, she'd gone with her parents on a trip down to Atami-- and gotten into a car accident.
Her parents had died, and Téa had lost her memory of them entirely.
In truth, she barely remembered anything about her life before Domino Junior High. Yugi was the only one who had known her from then, and from the moment she'd woken up in the hospital, he'd been at her side.
He'd been incredibly patient, never pushing Téa to remember him or the life she'd had before the accident. He was perfectly okay with starting all over again… though Téa had the feeling that she'd forgotten something very important about her relationship with Yugi, and he was still a bit sad.
For nearly five years, Téa had stayed in an orphanage. When she turned 16, she was legally allowed to leave and get her own apartment-- which was exactly what she'd gone and done. And then she'd entered Domino High, and… the rest was history.
Téa had managed though-- it turned out both her parents were very wealthy, and had left Téa a sizable sum that would get her through school. It was still a very lonely existence, but Téa pursued her dreams and strove to make friends wherever she could-- to fill in the void that the loss of her only family had created.
She'd met all sorts of wonderful people-- interesting people, too. People like Joey and Tristan…
"You comin' Téa?" Joey called from the doorway. Téa blinked, not even realizing how long she'd been staring off into space. Yugi cast a kind smile up at his friend, and she nodded.
"Let's go guys, I'm starvin'!"
Téa heaved a huge sigh as she fumbled with the keys to her apartment. She was exhausted, and now, stuffed full of food. She just wanted to collapse on her bed and go to sleep.
* RING! *
"Gah, my phone!" Téa thrust her keys into the lock and jiggled them incessantly, even as the phone kept on ringing. Téa didn't have an answering machine, so if she couldn't get to the phone in time--
"AH!" With one quick shove, Téa toppled into her modest apartment and dove for the phone while it was in the middle of its final ring.
"Hello?" Téa whispered breathlessly.
"Am I speaking to Téa Gardner?" a deep male voice asked.
Téa blinked-- the voice wasn't familiar.
"Y-Yes. May I ask who's calling?"
"My name is Darien Shields, I'm calling from Social Services."
"Social Services, miss. There is a pressing matter that requires your attention at our offices, so we ask that you come in as soon as you can-- now, if possible." Darien Shields cleared his throat, obviously uncomfortable with whatever he had to say next.
"What… kind of pressing matter?" Téa asked in a shaking voice.
Social Services? What the heck could they want with me?
"You were friends with Masami and Kyou Okui, were you not?"
"Were? Last time I checked, I still was."
The line was silent a moment.
"H-Has something happened to them? Are they all right?"
"Miss Gardner, I'm afraid that Mr. and Mrs. Okui have died. We need you to come to the Social Services offices because you were named as the guardian of their daughter."
She'd been a beautiful baby, and Téa was sure that at five years and ten months old, she was even more adorable.
But at such a tender age, innocent Arina had lost both her parents.
"Aunt Tee!" Arina cried upon seeing Téa enter the offices. The pigtailed brunette bounded over to Téa and immediately clung to her leg, squeezing as hard as her two small arms could possibly manage.
"Arina! Look at you," Téa forced a smile as she bent down to take a good look at the girl, "you're so big!"
"I'm almost SIX!" Arina grinned with a somewhat toothy smile. She was missing one of her front teeth, and it made the grin only more heartwarming. How she could smile like that after she'd lost her parents, Téa had no idea.
I don't even remember my parents, and somehow I still miss them… every single day.
"Are you gonna take care of me now?" Arina asked, her brown eyes widening with worry.
"We're gonna see if I can." Téa responded, picking Arina up into her arms. "We have to talk to some people and see if they'll let me."
"I don't wanna go to an orphanage!" Arina wailed suddenly, burying her head in the crook of Téa's neck. "They're big and cold and scary, and the ladies there are mean, and I like YOU, Aunt Tee, can't I stay with you? Mommy and Daddy had to go away, but they like you, and they won't mind if I stay with YOU!"
'Had to go away…'
Téa knew that the Social Services people wouldn't be so blunt and cruel to a five year old as to tell her exactly what had happened to her parents-- that they would never be coming back. But, if she brought Arina into her life… raised Arina as her daughter, then she would have to know the truth.
It wasn't just a matter of Téa's policy-- it was what the Okuis would have wanted.
[ Almost seven years previous ]
"Tee." Masami hissed, poking her 12-year-old friend in the ribs. Téa didn't respond, she just turned her nose up and ignored Masami.
She absolutely DETESTED the fact that the 17-year-old had taken it upon herself to "take Téa under her wing" at the Domino Orphanage. Téa's resentment could be attributed in part to Masami's usage of the dreaded nickname-- a horrible mispronunciation of her name that drove Téa batty.
"TEE." Masami hissed again, poking harder.
Téa wanted to snap Masami's finger off. Masami knew Téa hated that nickname.
But she only complained about it a few times. Téa wasn't the type of person to argue-- not anymore. She'd lost her parents earlier that year, and didn't remember them. Didn't remember anything.
She was afraid of bringing new people into her life, because it meant she might lose them someday, and she wasn't ready for more heartache. She had enough to last her a lifetime, even if she couldn't remember the people that she'd lost…
There was that Yugi boy, though.
Ever since Téa had awoken in the hospital, he'd been by her side. He'd told her that they'd been good friends in elementary school, and were assigned to the same junior high.
He was a nice kid. But…
"What, Masami? You know I hate that nickname." Téa grimaced, finally turning and facing her friend. The two of them had been cleaning the orphanage's main hallway, but Masami had stopped working a good five minutes ago, leaving Téa with all the scrubbing.
"That guy in the doorway." Masami pointed not-so-subtly, a grin blossoming on her face.
Téa rolled her eyes. "Whatever."
"Oh, come on, don't tell me you don't think so." Masami grinned, rubbing her soiled rag on the wood panels halfheartedly. Her gaze was still drawn to the older boy in the doorway, speaking with the orphanage director.
A single blue duffle bag was slung over his shoulder, and his hair was horribly unruly, ebony bangs falling into his eyes, some almost hanging past his nose.
Téa thought he looked like a mop.
"I don't think so." Téa growled, "I don't LIKE boys."
"Oh, I forgot," Masami said in a singsong voice, "Tee's too YOUNG for boys. Geez girl, grow up."
"You grow up! Stop calling me Tee!"
"No," Masami shot back, "it's cute."
"I don't like it."
"I don't care." Masami only smirked.
'Why can't stupid Masami just leave?' Téa wondered murderously. She knew that no one ever adopted the older kids, and the orphanage just served as a shelter until they were 16, but Masami was one of the few that opted to stay until she was 18, and through with high school.
It was hard leaving the orphanage when you had nothing to your name, no place to call home, no family to love you. A lot of the kids that had left the orphanage at 16 --the first chance they got-- and ended up on the street. Or worse, dead.
Téa wasn't sure what she would do when she turned 16, but she was sure she wouldn't last that long if Masami kept annoying her.
'If I could just get her to shut up…' Téa thought. She glanced at the boy in the doorway, who was glancing around the place, looking a bit lost.
Téa frowned slightly wrinkling her nose. She really didn't like boys that much. The ones at the orphanage were so annoying and gross. But there were never any OLDER boys-- just younger ones. Maybe this one would be different.
Masami certainly seemed to think so.
A grin blossomed on Téa's face as she tossed her rag back into the bucket, and she sprang to her feet.
"Tee! What are you doing?" Masami squealed, grabbing onto Téa's left pant leg.
Téa got up and cast a toothy grin at Masami, who was staring at her with wide eyes.
"I'm going to talk to him. You think he's 'hot,' don't you?" Masami's grip on Téa's legging went slack, and she watched with bug-eyes as Téa walked up to the new boy and promptly asked him if he was there to stay.
"…Yeah, for a while, I guess."
"Good! My name's Téa, and the girl over there staring at you with her jaw hanging open is Masami. She's 17, and she thinks you're hot."
The new boy quirked a grin, first at Téa, and then at Masami, who blushed scarlet and started scrubbing the floor furiously, doing her best to keep her gaze averted from the duo in the doorway.
But you could tell she was glancing at them out of the corner of her eyes, wondering what was going to happen next.
"She does, does she?"
"Mm-Hmm." Téa nodded affirmatively, "You guys should talk. Masami likes to talk a lot."
The young man laughed, and soon Téa was smiling too. Okay, so this guy wasn't half bad. Especially if he went along with the plan and got Masami off Téa's back.
"I'm Kyou. You're Téa, right?"
He pronounced my name right!
Téa was thrilled, and nodded jubilantly, "And that's Masami, like I said. Come on, I'll go introduce you to her properly."
"All right." Kyou smiled, and the two headed towards Masami, both wearing bright smiles.
[ Present ]
So Téa had been the direct force that put Masami and Kyou together. Slowly but surely, the two had grown deeply affectionate for one another, and by the time Masami was 18 and Kyou 19, they were ready to leave the orphanage and strike out on their own… together.
Not two years later, Téa heard that Masami and Kyou had gotten married and were expecting their first child.
The orphanage director was kind enough to let Téa go to the hospital even in the dead of night, when Masami finally gave birth-- to a healthy, bright eyed young girl.
[ Five years ago ]
"We want you to be the godmother," Masami said not ten minutes after Téa walked into Masami's hospital room.
"W-Wha? Come on guys, I'm only 14."
"We know, Tee." Kyou grinned, having adopted Masami's nickname for Téa, "But… you're the best friend either of us have ever had. If it weren't for you--"
"Oh, don't say it! Don't make me regret it!" Téa sighed over-dramatically She'd kept in touch with Masami and Kyou over the past few years, and during each contact, they hadn't hesitated to tell her how grateful they were to her for forcing them to meet.
"But still," Masami continued in a quiet voice, glancing down at baby Arina with tender eyes, "Téa, if anything were to happen to us, you'd be the first person we'd trust with Arina."
Téa was silent a moment, "I still think I'm too young, but you guys know I could never turn you down. And she is pretty cute."
The small group laughed, and embraced tightly to seal the deal.
[ Present ]
"So it doesn't matter that I just turned 18 this past August?" Téa was asking Mr. Shields.
He shook his head.
"You're of legal guardianship age. And their paperwork names you as the child's godmother. The Okuis didn't have any living relatives, and the only other option, if you couldn't adopt Arina, is to send her to an orphanage."
Téa shook her head vehemently. "No. That's not an option."
Life at the orphanage hadn't been HORRIBLE, but it was far from being a bed of roses. And Téa had been 11 when she first came to the orphanage. Arina wasn't even six yet. She didn't understand what had happened to her parents, or how drastically her world was going to change.
'How my world is going to change…'
"It'll take a few weeks for all the papers to get processed, but legally speaking, the girl is your daughter now."
Arina glanced up at Téa from her lap, blinking.
"You're going to be my new mommy, Aunt Tee?"
"Looks that way, Arina. Do you like that idea?"
"Yeah! Aunt Tee is fun!"
"Okay!" Téa smiled at Arina, and then shifted her gaze back to Mr. Shields.
"Where do I sign?"
Téa took Arina home that same night.
She'd sat the young girl down with a bowl of her favorite ice cream, and explained to her that her Mommy and Daddy weren't going to come back from where they'd gone. But they'd gone to a better place, and they were there together, so they wouldn't be lonely.
It wasn't exactly the most realistic way of explaining things, but to a girl as young as Arina, it made sense. After a while, she'd allowed herself to cry, and Téa with her.
The two had spent the night curled up under mounds of blankets in Téa's bed. After six stories and two dead flashlight batteries, they'd finally fallen asleep.
The next day, Téa realized she had her work cut out for her-- she had to get Arina enrolled in a new school as soon as possible, and she had to speak to the executor of the Okuis' will, to see what would be going to Arina, and what, if anything, would be sold in an estate sale.
The Okuis had done pretty well for themselves, and Arina, despite her current situation, was still a very lucky little girl.
All her things from her old house with her parents would be moved up to Téa's apartment. Téa wasn't sure how she could fit everything, but she had to make due with the space she had.
By Sunday night, everything had been taken care of for the most part, and Téa was just as exhausted as she'�d been when she came home from school on Friday.
She never could have imagined how drastically her life would change in the course of a single weekend.
Téa had gone from being a normal --okay, somewhat normal, considering her friends-- teenage girl to a mother in a matter of hours that Friday.
"Excited about tomorrow?" Téa asked Arina as they finished up dinner. Arina was fond of macaroni and cheese, and Téa was willing to make whatever Arina asked for, since the poor girl had lost everything she'd known.
Being so young, she didn't fully understand the scope of what had happened, but… she knew that Téa wasn't her "real" mommy, and that everything she knew would change.
"I guess. Are the kids here in Domino nice?"
"I'm sure you'll make lots of friends tomorrow, Arina." Téa smiled. She'd enrolled Arina in Domino Elementary, the same school that she and Yugi had attended when they were younger. It was an excellent school, preparing the kids for Domino Junior High and Domino High, both well-reputed schools, and both institutes Téa herself had gone to.
Téa only hoped that the atmosphere at the elementary school was still as welcoming as they had been back then… at least, what little of them Téa could remember.
Still, Téa was uneasy that night when she went to sleep.
The only problem, of course, was that Domino Elementary wasn't that close to Domino High. Téa and Arina had to take a special express bus to get to the school, and even then, the older girl was worried about being late.
She still had tests to take for final exams…
'God, what am I thinking? Exams-- I'm a mother now!'
She had to explain her new situation to the school administrators. She only hoped they would understand…
"Mokuba, you're going to ace that math test, right?"
"Not even a question, Set-- hey, Téa!" Téa blinked as Mokuba approached her with a grin on his face. Not far behind, Seto Kaiba stood with a strange expression on his face.
'Of course they'll understand.' Téa realized, glancing up at Seto Kaiba. He too had been thrust into parenthood all too early, and the school allowed him to continue his education and still care for Mokuba…
"Hi, Mokuba." Téa smiled at the ebony-haired 12-year-old, his hair in disarray. He reminded her vaguely of Kyou, which brought pangs to Téa's heart. Kyou was… gone.
There never would be a "Chibi-Kyou," or any boy to be brother to Arina.
Being an only child was tough, and Téa knew it. Mokuba…
Mokuba and Seto both were extremely lucky guys to have each other.
"Who's the kid?" Mokuba peered down at Arina, who hid behind Téa's leg.
"Baby-sitting?" Seto Kaiba had approached the trio, an eyebrow raised in query. He knew Téa didn't have any siblings.
"…Not exactly." Téa grinned though. "It's okay, Arina. These guys are my friends."
Arina snuck a glance out at the Kaiba brothers, while Mokuba grinned at her.
"Hi!" He thrust a hand out to her, startling the younger girl. "I'm Mokuba. What's your name?" Mokuba had heard Téa say the girl's name, but he wanted to have Arina introduce herself.
"Hi…" Arina responded softly, raising her hand slightly. Mokuba grabbed it and shook it heartily. "I'm Arina." She giggled after a moment, shaking Mokuba's hand back in the same exaggerated fashion.
Seto rolled his eyes and Téa smiled, but they kept quiet.
"Nice to meetcha, Arina. This is my big brother, Seto." Mokuba gestured up at Seto, who favored Arina with a slight smile. She stared up at him, her eyes wide, until she turned to Téa.
"He's HUGE!" she whispered, pointing up at Seto.
Téa tried to suppress her laughter, but she couldn't. At over 185 centimeters, Seto Kaiba *was* rather intimidating… There probably wasn't a single person he DIDN'T look down on-- literally.
"Is this better?" Seto squatted on his knees, now only a few inches or so taller than Arina.
"Heehee. Yeah. Hi." Kaiba shook Arina's hand, which was a good three times smaller than his, if not more than that. The tiny brunette settled for shaking Seto's finger, instead.
"You're new here, huh?" Mokuba asked Arina, and she nodded.
"Aunt Tee said she went here, and that it's supposed to be real fun."
"It is! And I go here too, so we can hang out!"
"Really?" Arina asked in a wide-eyed whisper.
Mokuba nodded, "I'll show ya the ropes!" In an exaggerated stage-whisper, he added, "And I'll tell ya where to get the best-tasting pudding at lunch, too."
"REALLY!?" Arina looked about ready to glomp Mokuba, excited as she was. Téa was glad Arina wasn't so scared about starting a new school. Even if Mokuba was six years older than Arina, he was being very polite and nice. They seemed like good friends already.
"Yeah. Hey, the bell's about to ring, so lemme show you to your class! Come on! Bye Big Brother, bye Téa!"
"Bye Aunt Tee!"
The two children scurried off as the bell rang, kids pouring in from all sides. Téa started to walk back to the sidewalk with Kaiba, glad that everything had gone well.
"Tee?" Kaiba smirked.
"Don't ask." Téa grinned, waiting a moment for Kaiba to dust off his pants and rise to his feet.
"So who are you baby-sitting for?" Kaiba asked after a moment. Téa stopped walking and took in a deep breath.
"I'm not." She responded. Kaiba turned to look at her, wondering what the expression in her eyes meant. Seto Kaiba made it a habit to know people's facial expressions-- they often revealed their weaknesses. But at that very moment Téa was impossible to read.
"Then…?" Seto prompted, an eyebrow raised in question.
'It's now or never, girl. I have to get used to this. Arina is my little girl now.'
"She's my daughter."