Thanks to everyone who read and reviewed, especially those who have stuck with it since the beginning. This is the last chapter (which is why it took me so long to decide how I wanted to end it), so I hope everyone enjoyed.
I did get a question about Claudia checking herself into a mental institution in the last chapter…according to Myka and Pete's research in Claudia, that is what she did. Which, since people aren't generally grabbed off the street and institutionalized, seems reasonable.
She was twenty, and she had people to spend her birthday with.
"Claudia, what's taking you so long? I need you to—"
"La la la, I can't hear you!" Claudia interrupted, scowling the general direction of the voice. She would have people to spend her birthday with if her boss would let her out of here, anyway. But no, couldn't have that. In fact, Artie had had her running around all day: rewiring the autovac, moving three of her inter-warehouse terminals for 'ease of access' purposes, doing inventory on the kitchenware isles—seriously, there were multiple kitchenware isles, and for some reason Artie seemed to think that they all needed to be inventoried now—and there was a mostly-illegible post-it up in the office instructing her to either defragment or set fire to his computer. Why he couldn't do whichever it was himself, she didn't know. And granted that setting fire to it would be doing the world a favor given that it was like five years old, but that would make a mess, and Artie would make her clean it up, and the last thing she needed was yet another thing to do.
"Aren't you done yet?" Artie demanded, coming around the corner scowling. "You've had five hours. And I found Fernand Point's fork hanging half off its shelf. Do you know what could have happened?"
"Point's fork? Seriously?" She shook her head and flicked the nearest identification card—paper; this aisle hadn't been updated with screens yet which meant that that was probably next on her never-ending list of things to get to—and then turned to face him. "Isn't it time to go back to Leena's?"
"You let Pete and Myka leave over an hour ago."
"I'm still here."
"A, you're my ride, as scary as that is, so you have to still be here, and B, you'd live here if you could. Come on, Artie, I want my chocolate cake!"
"I—what—how did you know about that? It was supposed to be a surprise!" He scowled. "Did Pete tell you?"
"What? No." Although it was a little surprising that he hadn't said anything, now that she thought about it. The only 'happy birthday' she'd gotten thus far had been in a short email from Erica. "Dude, today is my birthday, and I was at the store with Leena when she was buying the ingredients. It's not really rocket science."
He still looked unhappy, and she shook her head. "So now that it's not a surprise, can you stop trying to…distract me…or whatever it is you've been doing all day? After all, you can still surprise me with your present." She paused. "You did get me a present, right?"
Artie heaved a sigh and then turned. "Well, I guess we might as well get back to the B and B then. But make sure that you pick up right where you left off tomorrow. And put in an order for new screens, too. I know we don't have enough in stock to do this entire aisle."
Claudia sighed. She was a freaking mind reader sometimes. "Okay, okay, but right now, let's go."
He fished his keys out of his pocket and held them out. "Go start the car; I need to get a few things from my office."
Leena, who Claudia sometimes suspected actually was a mind reader, was calling the others down for dinner just as she and Artie entered, and Claudia threw her jacket aside, ignored Artie's complaint that she could at least hang it up, and headed for the table.
Leena had outdone herself with the chicken pot pie, and Claudia grinned when Pete pinned her in her seat afterwards as Myka and Leena cleared the table. Artie unpacked his computer—Claudia hadn't even realized that he'd brought it home with him—and Joshua's sleepy face appeared on the screen just as the two women returned, Leena carrying a cake.
"Happy birthday to you," Myka and Leena began.
"Happy birthday to you," Pete and Joshua joined in. "Happy birthday, dear Claudia, happy birthday to you."
"Artie, you weren't singing," Myka hissed at him as they finished and Leena set the cake down in front of Claudia.
"I don't sing."
"Well, that's true," Claudia agreed with a grin. "I heard you in the shower yesterday, and I totally thought that Leena was killing the cow for dinner herself."
"You do realize that I can have you doing inventory for the rest of your life?" Artie threatened.
"And that would that be unusual how?"
Joshua interrupted before Artie could respond, obviously fighting down a yawn. "Happy birthday, Claude, but I really have to get some sleep. We have a big presentation for potential new investors tomorrow, and if I fall asleep halfway through, Dr. LeFevre will murder me. Enjoy your party. And I swear that your present will be there by next week. I forgot how long international shipping can take."
She grinned. Usually they talked in the mornings because that worked best with the time difference; she was surprised that he'd stayed up this late just to sing her Happy Birthday. "No worries. Good luck with your presentation, and I'll talk to you again soon. Love you."
"Love you too. And thanks, I'll need it." He reached out, and the screen went blank a moment later.
"Hurry and blow out your candles," Pete said, nudging the cake closer to her as Artie moved his computer off the table. "Before all the wax drips down on the frosting. Here, I'll help."
"You will not." Myka tugged at his arm, pulling him backwards. "It's her birthday."
Claudia took a deep breath and blew, managing to get most of them. At least for a moment, and then they sputtered back to life. "What—are these artifact candles?"
"No, no, just re-lighting," Pete said, holding up his hands as Artie spun on him. "You haven't seen them before?"
She hadn't had a real birthday cake in a couple years, and the ones her foster parents used to pick out had mostly come from supermarket bakeries with a pack of standard candles, taped on top. So no. She shrugged, making another attempt to blow out the candles, only to meet with the same results. "Maybe if we dunk them in water before they light up again, that'll keep them out." Because otherwise she wasn't sure how they were going to get to her cake.
Leena went for a glass of water, and between the five of them, the cake was de-candled on short order.
"Pete, keep your fingers out of the frosting!" Myka exclaimed as they finished.
"What? I was just getting the last candle out."
"By scraping off an entire frosting flower with it?"
Claudia grinned as Pete licked his lips rather than responding. "You know, you're three candles short."
"What do you mean?" Leena frowned at Artie. "You told me that she was twenty."
"She is." He paused, turning to look at her. "Wait, aren't you?"
"My ID says I'm twenty-three." At least the one she'd acquired in high school did, although it was about to hit its fake expiration date. Her real, legal driver's license did say twenty.
"What ID?" Artie asked with a frown.
Oops. Maybe a fake ID wasn't an appropriate thing to mention in front of two Secret Service agents and…well, technically Artie was a Secret Service agent too, but he was also kind of…. She shook her head quickly. "Nothing. Never mind. It's time to eat the cake, now, right?"
Judging by Artie's expression, she was going to hear about IDs again in the future, but Leena's near-magical production of ice cream and plates a moment later neatly distracted everyone. Presents appeared as they finished their cake—and Pete stole Myka's discarded icing—and Claudia grinned at the pile. She hadn't had presents that she hadn't bought for herself in years either.
Pete's, wrapped in the brightly-colored cartoon character paper, were easy enough to pick out, and she grinned as she unwrapped three new DVDs. All comedy, judging by the descriptions, and two of which she hadn't seen before. "Wicked. Movie night tonight?"
"Heck yeah. After all, we've still got half a cake to finish."
Myka's present was as easily identifiable by the precise wrapping job as Pete's were by the paper, and Claudia grinned as she unwrapped a new mp3 player.
"I know that your old one broke, and I figured that you needed a new one for when you were doing inventory," Myka said with a quick smile.
"No. No, no, no, not in the Warehouse." Artie shook his head quickly. "I've told you this before a hundred times; you have to be totally focused on what you're doing or…things…will sneak up on you."
"So I'll install a rearview mirror." Most of the time she couldn't totally focus on only one thing anyway. And this player was way nicer than her old one had been. "Thanks, Myka."
Leena had obviously coordinated with Myka because she gave Claudia a gift card for an online music store—Claudia was fine getting her music the illegal way, but they did sell guitar picks and some other stuff too—and a much nicer set of headphones than the ones that came with the player.
Artie's idea of giving a present was shoving it at her while muttering under his breath, and Claudia frowned as she tore at the paper. "You do know that the point of the tape is to hold the wrapping closed, not to laminate it in place, right?"
That got an eye roll, and Pete was starting to pull out his pocket knife when she finally managed to tear the paper away and pry the small box inside free. In it was a pendant with matching bracelets and earrings, and she pulled out the pendant to look at it more closely. She didn't know what kind of stone it was, but it looked really cool.
"It's…." Artie cleared his throat awkwardly. "I mean, people—girls—women—like jewelry. Right?"
Artie was kind of hopeless and old sometimes, but she liked her present, and Claudia grinned and fastened the pendant on quickly. "It's great. Thanks." It looked like she was going to have to take a few links out of the bracelets before she could wear them without risking losing them, but she could do that tomorrow and switch out her earrings then as well.
"All right, movie time," Pete announced as Claudia shut the box again carefully. "Everybody come on. And bring the cake."
Myka started to clean up the wrapping that littered the table, but Leena waved her aside with the assurance that they could do it later. Which sounded just fine to Claudia, and she took the rest of her presents up to her room before heading back to join the others around the television. Only to find that they'd commandeered all the cushioned surfaces. Well, technically there was a spot between Pete and Myka on the couch since Artie and Leena had taken the chairs, but given Pete's habit of irritating Myka in the middle of movies and Myka's habit of retaliating with some form of violence, it wasn't a spot that Claudia wanted to take. She flopped down on the floor instead, tucking an arm under her head.
"Hey, hey, hey, no lying down until you put the movie in," Pete protested.
Claudia rolled her eyes and grabbed the top DVD, shoving it into the player. "Just don't eat all my cake before I get a second slice."
"What cake? I don't see any ca—ow! Myka! You're mean."
"Children, please," Artie said before Myka could respond. "Claudia, if you're going to lie down there, at least use a pillow. Here."
Claudia took the one he offered with a quick smile, scooting back into place as the previews began to roll. When she'd first started searching for Artie, all of her thoughts had been centered on getting Joshua back. She'd never really thought about what might happen after. Most days it hadn't even really occurred to her that there would be an after. But while she could do without Joshua being all the way in Switzerland, it wasn't like she never got to see him or talk to him. And all things considered, being here with Artie and Myka and Pete and Leena…. She glanced back at the four of them quickly. It was pretty great. Home.