A/N: This first chapter was supposed to be a one-shot, but Saul-in-my-head (how scary is that, my muse comes to me as Artie's actor) decided to make it a series. So picture this as sort of a flash-forward, before you see the "One year ago..." subtitle at the beginning of chapter two. While I've never seen absolute proof, I suspect that Artie and Claudia live at the B&B, so that's where they live in my world. This mostly came from watching the way not only the characters, but the actors themselves interact... I can definitely see where Artie gets the "devoted dad" trait from.
Disclaimer, spoilers, and such: The characters aren't mine and this isn't for profit; I'm merely borrowing them for my own personal enjoyment. Any enjoyment had by others is purely coincidental. This chapter is not particularly anywhere within the show's timeline, except that it is set after 2x01 with a significant spoiler for the resolution of Claudia's part in the season 1 cliffhanger. There may be minor spoilers for everything prior to that, but they're going to be things that aren't crucial to any of the episodes' main plots.
Special thanks to my beta reader, Alex Kade for making time in a busy schedule to read through this whole mess, for being ready with ideas when I didn't know which way to go, and for saving my poor readers from death by drowning in commas!
Special thanks also go to D.M., the "Artie" in my own life, for choosing, ten years ago now, to become the family that I grew up without. I love you, big brother!
Claudia breathed a deep sigh of relief as she closed the door behind her. Finally, finally, she was safely ensconced in her lair, her sanctuary... her bedroom. She didn't even want to think about the long, hard day the team had just gone through. She wasn't even sure what had happened to Pete and Myka, only that Artie had torn through the building hollering. By the time she found them, purple goo dripped from everything in a fifteen-foot radius, Myka's now-purple shirt was torn and bloody from what turned out to be a shallow but long gash across her back, and Artie was giving Pete a lecture in the most unsettling low tone Claudia had ever heard, while Artie clutched his left arm, trying not to be obvious about it. All three were pale, as if they'd literally just been through hell. When Claudia had asked what happened, Artie merely shook his head with a shudder, and ordered her to clean up. He sent Myka back to Leena's to have her cut bandaged while he stayed and helped Pete and Claudia with the cleanup. Claudia tried to think of a time when Artie had seemed that angry, or that frightened, and nothing came to mind. Whatever stunt Pete – it had to be Pete, right? – pulled, it must have been way more risky than anything she'd ever thought to do.
She'd kept watch on Artie as they'd cleaned up the mess, concerned at first but relieved when he began to rotate his arm, working the soreness out of the muscles. Probably hurt his shoulder smacking Pete upside the head, Claudia rationalized. She didn't want to know what really happened, if it had scared Artie so badly. All she knew was that today she realized, in a way she hadn't before, that danger didn't just lurk outside the warehouse; it was inside, as well. Claudia drew another deep, cleansing breath as she leaned against the door, peering around her bedroom. Everybody else was still downstairs washing the dinner dishes, probably having all kinds of fun, but as scared as she'd been when she saw the mess today, she just couldn't take any more togetherness. She flung herself onto her bed, leaning over to yank Ted, her stuffed bear, out from its place, hidden between the bed and nightstand. What would happen if one day, her whole family just... didn't come home? Maybe it would be better to detach now, before that could happen. At least then it wouldn't hurt when the inevitable abandonment came later, right? Claudia gazed into the ancient brown bear's eyes.
"Maybe I shouldn't have come back, Ted. What if the only person I can trust really is myself?" she asked the bear, feeling the tears sting her eyes at the thought. She knew a good cry was coming, but it hadn't quite arrived, so she simply stared at her closet. Artie's own closet was just the other side of hers... she'd learned not to rant to herself while getting dressed in there, because he could hear her surprisingly well through the wall. Behind her, she didn't have to look to see the door leading to the bathroom she and Myka shared, Brady Bunch-style. She'd always wondered how six kids could function in one bathroom... it was hard enough just sharing with Myka, even with her being gone so much. Though, she thought, it wouldn't be nearly so hard if Myka went off to retrieve an artifact one day, and came back dead. Claudia burst into tears at the thought. Yep, there it was, all the fear and uncertainty and misery that had been lurking beneath the surface, right out in the open, in front of God and everybody... well, God and Ted anyway. Thank goodness for small favors, she thought, just before she realized she was hearing the steady thud of somebody climbing the stairs.
Crap. Of course somebody was coming up now... probably to check on her, she realized, swiping at her cheeks and holding her breath, anything to turn off the waterworks. As an added security measure, she grabbed the corner of her bedspread and rolled over, pulling it over herself like a sleeping bag. The light was still on, but maybe she could pretend to sleep. She fought to even out her breathing as she heard the door slowly creak open, just a little, just enough for someone to look in on her.
"I haven't forgotten it's Friday night," Artie said, causing her to jump slightly. Crap. Friday night, also known as "Claudia-night" in Artie's weird little world. Claudia sighed quietly as Artie continued. "I need to run a shower, see if I can get the rest of this neutralizer off before it starts to itch. But I expect to see you in my room, in half an hour."
"Okay," Claudia answered, pressing her face toward her bear, hoping that the muffled sound would cover over the unsteady tone.
"And don't think I don't know you've been crying, Claudia," Artie added, as he closed the door behind himself. Crap, crap. He was like Mrs. Frederic, only more annoying. Not that Claudia would ever let on that she actually liked Artie's fatherly devotion. Yeah, some of his nurturing gestures were a little... unique. The bedazzler event came to mind, for example. But the Friday evening Claudia-night tradition... everyone knew how much she loved that one, no matter how hard she tried to maintain a cool, distant exterior.
Claudia lay still for nearly twenty minutes, breathing deeply and pulling herself together emotionally before beginning her own Friday night ritual. With an efficiency borne of habit, she got up at the last possible minute, pulled on her purple pajamas, then washed her face. She grabbed her nail file and a polish color, dropping them into the pocket of her pajama pants. Finished getting ready, she opened her door and peered down the hall, being sure Artie's door was open and waiting for her. She ducked back into her own room to grab her pillow and Ted, before peering both ways down the hall again. Nobody knew about Ted's existence; Claudia had an elaborate ritual of moving him around the room, making sure to tuck him away in the dresser on cleaning day and the bookcase on laundry day. She'd planned on keeping him a secret forever, but tonight, she was feeling just a tad clingy. Besides, she rationalized, Artie had given the bear to her years ago. Surely he assumed she had him tucked away somewhere.
Seeing the coast clear, Claudia clutched her pillow against her chest, concealing the bear as she closed her bedroom door behind her and slunk down the hall. She quickly glanced around Artie's bedroom, making sure nobody else was there, before she practically leaped into the room and swung the door shut all in the same motion. Artie's bathroom door was still closed.
"Okay, I'm here," Claudia called out, alerting Artie to her presence as she threw her pillow onto "her" side of the bed and crawled under the covers, resting her back against the darkly-stained wood headboard.
"Almost done," came the muffled reply. The cookies and hot cocoa were already sitting on the nightstand, waiting for Claudia-night to begin. She wondered if he'd remembered the little marshmallows this week... not that they were important, of course. But it was always anybody's guess if he'd remember, or if they'd get lost in the chaos of his mind. She thought to lean over and peek, but just then, the bathroom door swung open and Artie emerged, his weary, gentle smile already working its magic on her injured heart. Artie climbed up on the bed and sat in his place, covers pulled over his legs to ward off the autumn chill. One arm snaked around her shoulders as the other hand pushed a cocoa mug into her grasp. He had remembered the marshmallows, she noticed with a smile, allowing herself to relax just a little bit.
"So how is Claudia doing this week?" Artie asked, taking his own cocoa and sipping gingerly at it, testing the temperature. Claudia shrugged in response to the question.
"Scary day," she said. Artie nodded. "I don't even know what happened, and it scares the crap out of me." She glanced at him, wondering if he would talk about whatever had happened at the warehouse. Artie shook his head.
"I don't even want to think about it long enough to talk... and I certainly don't want you to be stuck with that nightmare. You've been through enough in life." Most days, Claudia would take offense to that kind of answer, but today... today she really did just want to be protected from all that is scary in the world.
"We almost lost Myka today, didn't we?" she asked. Artie sighed and nodded, and Claudia's tears came back full force, catching them both by surprise. Artie quickly set his mug down and took hers from her, putting it back in its place on the nightstand before his arms wrapped fully around Claudia. Most of their Friday nights were spent trading sarcastic remarks as they rehashed the prior week. The number of times Claudia had admitted to the pain and fear he knew she lived with every day, Artie could count those on one hand, and still have three fingers left. Two fingers left, now, he mused as the young woman burrowed face-first against him, seeking refuge from the storm stirring in her heart. Artie instinctively held her close with one arm, the other hand reaching up to brush her hair away from her face as he rocked gently.
"I'm right here," he said softly near her ear. "I don't have any illusions of immortality, but I'm doing whatever it takes, every day, to be right here for you, for as long as possible. I even eat salads now... without a fight. Leena probably thinks I'm possessed, or something." Claudia chuckled at that, between sniffles. She knew how much Artie hated lettuce, but a couple weeks after her arrival, right around the time she'd first gathered up her nerve and expressed her unending fear of abandonment, he'd begun to choke them down, making the most hysterically funny faces as he did. He'd taken to walking more, around the warehouse, too. And Claudia knew he must have dropped a few pounds, since Leena had traded all of his pants for new ones a few months ago. Claudia hadn't said anything, didn't want to make a big deal of it, but it completely shocked her that Artie would go to that kind of trouble, just for her sake. Nobody had ever done anything like that for her... not since Joshua had looked after her when she was little. And, she supposed, her parents... Joshua must have learned self-sacrifice somewhere, after all. Claudia wasn't even sure she remembered her parents, most days. And Joshua's sacrifice, while she would never forget it, was years ago. But Artie's... this was real, right now, and something about that touched her, heart and soul. A box of tissues suddenly appeared by Claudia's arm. She drew one hand back and took a few tissues, wondering when she'd wrapped her arms around Artie.
"I always assumed if you were all here, or at the warehouse, that at least here you were safe," Claudia explained, sniffling between syllables. Artie hummed in reply, still rocking gently. "I— I never really thought that... that it might not... you know." Artie nodded.
"Life is like that, sweetie," he said softly. "People die, and it's, it's not fair... the world would be better off without some people and then they go and live to be 90, while somebody truly amazing only gets 20, 30 years. It's not... it can happen any time, to anyone, and I don't say that to frighten you, but it's reality. The only way to conquer our fear of it is to face it, accept it, and learn to live within it. Why do you think I insist on this Claudia-night tradition... I already foolishly lost one chance to know you, and I missed out on getting to be the person who guided you through childhood to become this amazing young woman. I don't... my life is better for having known you, and I want to be sure I make use of that gift while I have it. This is how you live with the uncertainty, Claudia, sweetheart. You make time to sit and talk, you treasure your family, even when they drive you nuts. I grumble and I complain, but I, I enjoy watching you work every day, I love seeing what you're going to come up with next. You are the most exasperating... but I love you, Claudia. And on days like today, when things damn near do go to hell in a handbasket, I wonder if I've... did you even know that?" Artie finally fell quiet, peering into Claudia's eyes for a moment before he drew her back into his hug, realizing that eye contact was too intense for the already-vulnerable girl.
"Yeah, Artie," Claudia replied, suppressing a chuckle. "Kind of figured that one out when you came to Switzerland to get me, even though it kinda looked like I sold you out, pulled a Benedict Arnold, all that."
"You know, the interesting truth about Benedict Arnold-" Artie began, but stopped when a small hand appeared in his field of vision.
"Dude, heartwarming moment here. Save the history lesson for later." Artie chuckled, then breathed a thoughtful sigh.
"You wouldn't... I would have... even that wouldn't... wouldn't have made me stop loving you," he said, stuttering through the words more because he wondered if they were the right ones, than because he was thinking of too many things at once. He was rewarded with Claudia's arms snaking around his shoulders in a childlike hug. "Besides," he continued, a mischievous gleam in his eyes, "if you had joined forces with MacPherson, you wouldn't have waved at the security cameras; that's not your style. You would have done it in such a big, bold way that there'd be no question as to who was responsible, but it wouldn't have been that simple." Claudia snickered at that as she sat back, slapping at Artie's arm playfully before she pointed towards her mug. In response, Artie touched the mug, then grumbled to himself.
"Our cocoa's gone cold... let me just..." he said, his words degenerating into mumbling to himself as he took what looked like a steel swizzle stick out of his nightstand drawer. Claudia watched in fascination as each drink began producing steam as he stirred gently.
"What was that?" she asked, an expression of awe and reverence for both Artie, and for whatever tool he'd used.
"No, no, no history lessons, remember? Heartwarming moment here."
"Artie!" Claudia whined, taking the warm mug he offered her before reaching over him to grab a cookie. "Ooh, frosted snickerdoodles!" She began licking the frosting and cinnamon-sugar off her cookie, her unanswered question forgotten.
"Claudia, why... you're getting crumbs..." Artie fumbled for a napkin as he fumbled for words, not that a napkin was going to do much to stop the crumbs that were already raining down on Claudia's lap and into his bedsheets.
"Relax, old man, I'll brush them off before I leave."
"Why must you lick the topping off the cookie before you eat it, anyway?" Claudia paused mid-lick, then shrugged in response.
"Probably the same reason I separate the mixed vegetables before I eat them." With that, she devoured her cookie in two bites, then set her half-finished cocoa on her nightstand.
"Yeah, why do you do that? It all ends up in the same place anyway," Artie pointed out.
"I don't know, Artie, why do you put hot sauce on your egg but you freak if it gets on the biscuit?" Claudia raised one eyebrow pointedly, getting a resigned chuckle out of Artie in response. "So what's up in Artie's world?" she asked, pulling her manicure supplies out of her pocket and setting to work on filing her nails. "You seemed kind of pensive at dinner." Artie hummed in response.
"Scary day, like you said... worried about H.G. Wells..."
"Yeah, not buying it," Claudia said, never looking up from her nails.
"Didn't think you would. I don't... I've worked at the warehouse for a lot of years, and this is the first time I've felt like I'm part of a family, instead of just an agent doing a job that consumes your whole life. It's... hey, isn't that the bear I gave you just before-?" Artie tugged on the ear that had begun to peek up above the bedspread, pulling Ted free and holding him up to see.
"Just before Joshua disappeared, yeah."
"I can't believe you kept it all these years."
"Ted's one of the few things I managed not to lose in all the chaos. I still can't sleep without him."
"What else did you manage not to lose?" Artie asked, despite the sneaking suspicion that he might be opening an overly-emotional can of worms. Claudia, on the other hand, seemed entirely unaware of his uncertainty, scrutinizing her nails carefully before setting down the file and picking up the nail polish.
"Myself," she answered, bobbing her head slowly in a gesture that Artie recognized as deep thought. "And you."
"What about Joshua?" Claudia shrugged in response.
"I'm glad he's not dead, if that's what you mean. But it's different. He still expects a little girl. I don't know, Artie, it's like the Joshua I knew is gone, somehow... or the me he knew, maybe." She shook her head in confusion at her own feelings, and Artie leaned back to avoid the hair flinging toward his face.
"I think I still expect a little girl sometimes, too," Artie said softly, as if he were confessing his deepest sin. "But you're not; you've grown into this, this capable young lady, and... I should treat you more like an adult." Artie frowned in confusion when his companion merely shrugged noncommittally, as if his words bothered her. "What, what's wrong?"
"What? No. Nothing, nothing's wrong."
"Claudia..." Artie said warningly, waiting somewhat patiently for her to answer. "Take a chance, trust me," he added when her silence persisted.
"It's just that... I spent a lot of years just trying to survive, and that's not nearly as easy as it sounds, believe me. I kind of... I'm only nineteen and I'm already burnt-out on being a grown-up. Sometimes I think maybe I need that, to let somebody else be overprotective, and take care of things."
"And..?" Artie prompted, sensing there were just a few more words longing to escape.
"And... I kind of like it. Even when I'm yelling and complaining and totally not listening. I love you, too, you know." Artie blinked, twice, before he grabbed Claudia in a bearhug, pressing a kiss to her temple. Claudia squealed in response "Hey man, nail polish, way worse than cookie crumbs!" Artie chuckled as he turned loose, allowing Claudia to settle back into her usual Friday night position, nestled sort of between Artie and her pillow, with his arm protectively around her. "Not that I don't like..." Claudia said, falling quiet as the fear of vulnerability again got the best of her.
"I already know you need a little time to be the kid in the family and develop some roots, before you can handle being a grown-up full-time," Artie said quietly. He tilted his head towards hers, as if he were about to tell her a big secret. "And I know you like my hugs, too." He wondered for an instant if it was just a little too much open honesty, but shelved that thought when he felt the tension leave his young companion's muscles. The pair sat quietly for a few minutes, simply soaking up one another's presence, and allowing themselves time to process the depth of trust they'd just shared.
"So," Claudia began when she felt more calm and collected, as she worked on her second coat of polish. "Were you there Tuesday morning when I was cataloging stuff, and Pete grabbed Julia Child's candlesticks off the desk?" Claudia giggled at the memory, and Artie's eyes widened as he realized what must have happened.
"No, I must have missed that... did you get it fixed? What happened?"
"Yeah, it's fine. I turned away because the auto-vac was freaking out again, and before I could stop him..." Claudia dissolved into giggles again, leaning more fully into Artie's fatherly embrace. In spite of his belated concern for everyone's safety, her laughter was just a touch infectious, and Artie found himself chuckling also.
"Did he pick them both up?" Artie asked, getting a nod out of her in response. "Oh no... not at the same time?" Claudia's giggles only intensified as she nodded again.
"At first, you know, he's just hopping around the room talking like Julia Child, something about butter, but then he grabbed that sword on the wall, and he told Myka she'd turned into an onion and he was going to sautee her."
"But you got it fixed?" Artie asserted, his chuckles not fully masking his concern.
"Well you may have noticed Pete didn't try to dice anybody up at dinner," Claudia pointed out. "We women can handle ourselves, you know. He put the candlesticks down when he went for the sword, and I was just cataloging the whole shipment. I know how to counteract it. Except..."
"What? Except what?" Artie asked, his concern completely overtaking amusement at this point. "You got the batter, right?"
"Well it would have taken too long, and Myka wouldn't let me throw beer batter on a recovering alcoholic anyway, for some crazy reason, so..."
"What did you use?" Artie asked, peering suspiciously at his young friend.
"Well... I remembered the potato salad upstairs," She explained, even as he began grumbling and complaining. "It was really nasty, Artie, it was starting to ferment, and – "
"It's supposed to do that! The recipe is called 'fermented sauerkraut potato salad' for a reason! You threw my potato salad on Pete? That takes almost a month to – it better have worked!" Artie snapped, his voice escalating to match his frustration level before he put both hands up in a gesture of acquiescence. "Did it work?" he asked, much quieter and calmer now. Claudia nodded.
"Yeah, except then he was standing in the middle of the office with fermented potato salad all over the place, and we had to clean that up. But other than that, it was fine. Tomorrow, I'll see if the security camera caught it. You've got to see it for yourself."
"Well, at least he didn't put candles in and light them," Artie said, chuckling again at the new thought.
"Oh crap, that would have been so much worse... or better."
"If you have a morbid sense of humor," Artie retorted, getting only an expression of "duh" from Claudia in response. Yeah, he realized, it would be just a tad funny, as long as nobody got too badly hurt in the process. That was one of the things Claudia had introduced into his life, a sense of humor, however warped. He sat quietly for the last little bit of their time together before bedtime, enjoying the opportunity to simply be with his surrogate daughter.
"You about ready for bed?" Artie asked after a long stretch of quiet togetherness. Claudia yawned and nodded. "You think you're going to have nightmares tonight?"
"No, I'm good," Claudia answered. She knew Artie didn't quite believe her because she was so good at pretending to be okay when she wasn't, but she really did feel better after a couple hours spent curled up on his bed.
"You sure, because... well, if you do get frightened, you know you can come in and pull out your bed anytime, right?" he asked, pointing across the room at the armchair that folded out into a Claudia-sized bed.
"Goodnight," Claudia said, rolling her eyes as she slipped out of his bed and padded toward the door.
"Goodnight, Claudia," he replied. His smile faded into curiosity when she paused, hand on the doorknob, and then impulsively doubled back for one more childlike hug before bed. Artie chuckled gently, not terribly surprised that she needed just a little more for the road, so to speak, after the hellish day. "I love you," he said softly, pressing a kiss to the side of her head, just above her ear.
He was rewarded with a very small "Love you too, Artie," from his young companion right before she picked up her bear, and made her way to her own bedroom. Artie slipped out of bed to set the cookie tray on his desk, safely out of reach until he could carry it downstairs in the morning. He pondered Claudia's recent improvement in bonding and trust, after the whole fiasco with MacPherson... it had been such a miserable thing to live through, to watch her cope with, but tonight he realized that the growth he was seeing, had been worth it. Artie turned off the light and found his way back to bed in the pitch black of night, snuggling into the blankets to ward off the autumn chill. His eyes drifted shut, then popped back open suddenly, as he sat back up, brushing more crumbs out of the bed, smiling in spite of his annoyance. He'd already missed the opportunity to have a normal family. Getting this second chance to play daddy with Claudia... yeah, that's worth having to put up with crumbs in the bed, he thought just before drifting to sleep.