“Morning, commander,” Kaidan said, looking up from his coffee.
“Morning, Ka- lieutenant,” Shepard replied, sitting down at the table in the mess.
As usual, Shepard took the seat across from Kaidan, set down her coffee and breakfast rations. As usual, she took the datapad from where she’d been carrying it under her arm and placed it beside her meal. And as usual, she looked up at Kaidan and gave him a private smile, meant for his eyes alone.
Kaidan returned that smile, held her gaze as long as he dared before she finally blushed a little and lowered her eyes to her datapad.
How many mornings had they done exactly this, he wondered? He had lost count of the days before the Battle of the Citadel in which they had both stumbled into the mess around the same time, eaten their first breakfast of the morning together and gone over the assignments for the day. But since that battle, however – since that night before Ilos, actually – Kaidan had been painfully aware of how many mornings had passed like this. Since they had left the Citadel behind and gone out on their current assignment of looking for geth holdouts, it had been six. Six such mornings had passed, and this made the seventh.
As much as Kaidan loved the ship, loved the feeling of freedom and anticipation of traveling to a new place, loved the camaraderie of this crew that was more like family than military, he had to admit that he really missed the Citadel. There had been few opportunities there to catch Shepard alone, but there had been opportunities. There, they had been – well, sort of off-duty. While here, there was nothing but duty.
Kaidan frowned as Shepard tucked her hair behind her ear and looked down at her datapad. Her hair was getting a little long these days, growing out of its short, regulation cut. It tended to fall into her eyes more often, and the result drove him crazy. It reminded him far too much of the way she looked when her hair was in her eyes and her face was slicked with sweat and shimmering with biotics and she looked up at him as they were…
Kaidan cleared his throat, caught between a desire to allow the memory to play itself out in his mind and the need to keep said memory from stirring… Well, he did need to stand up here eventually and clear his plate. There were other crew at the end of the table and he didn’t want to give them a sight to remember.
“Is something wrong, lieutenant?” Shepard asked, looking up at him in concern. Her hair was slightly damp still, and her skin looked flushed. She’d probably just come from the showers, he thought. The notion made him even more aroused. Clearly, he wouldn’t be standing up for a few minutes now.
“Nothing, ma’am,” he replied, his voice a little hoarse. “What’s on the agenda for today?”
“Another sighting of geth,” she sighed and shook her head. “This outpost is a little remote, so we probably won’t reach there until the afternoon – not that you can tell morning from noon or night,” she added.
Kaidan nodded. He knew what she meant. The only reason they kept a twenty-four hour schedule on the ship was to keep the crew’s biorhythms in synch. After millions of years on Earth, humans tended to get a little crazy if not on a Sol-based schedule – even an artificial one.
“Any news of the Reapers?” he asked quietly. The whole crew knew about the Reapers – hell, they’d been there to shoot one down at the Citadel. Still, everyone found the subject troubling, so Kaidan avoided bringing it up too casually.
“No,” Shepard frowned. “This looking-for-geth thing is getting on my nerves.”
“Well,” he said, “if that’s what the Council and Alliance wants…”
“Then they’re idiots,” Shepard said decisively. “However,” she added, seeing Kaidan frown at her glib dismissal of her superiors, “there may be evidence of the Reapers at one of these geth outposts. Next time, let’s take Tali along with us and see if she can’t recover some data.”
“Garrus won’t like being left behind,” Kaidan told her.
“Yeah,” she agreed. “Well, he’s had his fun recently. I still can’t believe he didn’t go back to C-Sec after all.”
“When I could follow you around as we search the galaxy for Reapers?” a voice said from the hallway. “Why in Palaven would I return to C-Sec now?”
“Because you told the commander you were going to,” Kaidan said as the turian joined them at the table. Garrus shrugged.
“I said I was going to apply for Spectre training,” he said. “But I think I need more field experience first.”
“You mean you want to shoot geth without writing a report about it afterwards,” Kaidan told him.
“Exactly,” Garrus nodded.
“You’re a little reckless, you know that, Garrus?” Kaidan asked, his lips quirking in a half-grin.
“You’re a little officious, Kaidan, did you know that?” Garrus’ voice sounded equally amused.
Shepard looked from the man to the turian with a smile. Kaidan noticed and frowned at her.
“What?” he asked.
“You two sound like brothers,” she chuckled.
“Brothers?” Garrus blinked.
“I had two brothers,” Shepard told them. “They acted just like you guys when they got together. Only they used to run around in the woods with sticks instead of guns.”
Kaidan and Garrus looked at one another doubtfully.
“Oh my God,” Shepard said, looking down at the datapad, her eyes widening in surprise. “How did I miss that?”
“Miss what?” Kaidan asked just as Garrus said, “What’s the matter?”
“Huh,” Shepard said, bemused. “Today is April eleventh.”
Kaidan looked at her expectantly. “And that means…?”
“Happy Birthday, Shepard.”
Shepard looked up, as did Kaidan, Garrus, and the other few crew sitting in the mess. Liara walked in carrying something before her on a tray. Behind her came Doctor Chakwas and Joker. Shepard blinked at them.
Kaidan’s heart sank. “It’s your birthday?” he asked, frowning.
“What’s a birthday?” Garrus asked. “My translator isn’t quite getting this.”
“Liara,” Shepard said as the asari set the tray before her. “How did you…? God, *I * didn’t even remember. How did you know?”
“I looked up your files…” the asari turned a slightly deeper shade of blue. “I remember seeing the day you were born. For the asari, it is not a date we celebrate – we have so many years, you know. We only celebrate our decades. But I learned from Doctor Chakwas that this is a celebration for the humans, and…”
“And what the doctor is trying to say,” Chakwas finished, “is that she planned this for weeks. She brought rations from the Citadel and everything.”
“Did you bring booze?” Joker asked.
“That is against Alliance regulations,” Liara said, her face growing troubled. “I did not think… Should I have?”
“No,” Shepard said, smiling at her. “This is fine. More than fine. Are those strawberries?”
“It is a small cake,” Liara said, looking both embarrassed and pleased at the same time.
“Shortcake,” Doctor Chakwas corrected her. “She made enough for everyone to have some.”
“Liara, thank you – so much,” Shepard stood and to everyone’s surprise, the commanding officer of the Normandy crossed to the asari and gave her a hug. When Shepard stepped away, Liara ducked her head, turning an even deeper shade of blue than before.
“You are welcome,” the asari murmured in her soft voice.
“So you humans celebrate the day you were born?” Garrus asked. “That seems rather individualistic.”
“It is,” Doctor Chakwas agreed, “but when we’re dealing with an individual like Shepard, it seems appropriate, too, don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” Kaidan muttered, looking at the cake in front of him. He was suddenly feeling like a complete jerk.
“Hey, it’s okay,” Shepard chuckled, laying a hand on his shoulder. “I forgot, too. Well, hell, let’s eat this cake. It looks fantastic. Nothing like sugar and caffeine to do a body good in the morning, eh?”
“You’re having another cup of coffee?” Garrus asked. “How much of that stuff do you drink a day?”
“Way too little,” Shepard told him just as Kaidan said, “Way too much.”
“There is no such thing as too much coffee,” Shepard told Kaidan. “Certainly not for a biotic. We burn through everything so fast.”
“I wish I could try some,” Garrus said, looking down the table to where the other crew members all had mugs of their own. “The way you humans drink the stuff, I guess it must be good.”
“Ohh,” Shepard nodded as she poured herself another cup. “It is .”
“You shouldn’t try coffee, Officer Vakarian,” Doctor Chakwas warned. She was cutting slices of cake and laying them out on plates. “To a turian or quarian, with your dextro-based physiology…”
“Yeah, I was afraid of that,” Garrus grumbled. “Well, looks like its protein rations for me again.” He slapped his thighs as he rose from the table and turned to the cupboards.
“I’m so sorry, Garrus,” Liara said. “I didn’t even think…”
“It’s okay,” he told her. “Just one of those weird quirks of nature.” He sniffed. “The strange thing is, it all smells so good. Too bad it would be poison to me.”
“I’m sorry, Garrus,” Shepard said, laying a hand on his armored shoulder. “Next time we’re in port, we’ll find some better rations for you and Tali.”
“I’m fine,” he assured her. “Besides, this isn’t about me. This is about your day of being born, right?”
“Apparently so,” she agreed.
“So how old are you now, Shepard?” Joker asked, gingerly seating himself at the table and digging into the biggest slice of cake he could find. “Fifty? Seventy?”
“Joker,” Doctor Chakwas chided, “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that you never ask a lady her age?”
“Is that true?” Garrus blinked. “But didn’t Shepard ask Liara her age when we first met her?”
Shepard chuckled. “You’re right, that was a little rude of me. It’s sort of an outdated human custom not to discuss one’s age. But I don’t mind answering the question. I’m thirty as of today.”
The humans looked at Shepard and gave her a nod or other motions indicating understanding. The two aliens, however, just stared at her in surprise.
“That seems young,” Liara said. “You’re just so… I looked up your age, of course, but I still have a hard time believing it.”
“You’re thirty?” Garrus blinked. “If you were a turian, you could retire if you wanted to.”
“We humans still have some kick to us in our twilight years, Garrus,” Kaidan said, wryly.
“How old are you?” Garrus asked him.
“Thirty-two,” Kaidan replied. “Thirty-three in a few months.”
“I had no idea I was working with such veterans,” Garrus said, his tone teasing.
“And yet I’m older than the two of you combined,” Doctor Chakwas said, raising an eyebrow. “There now, that’s it for the cake. Do we have enough coffee?”
“Enough for the crew or enough for me?” Shepard asked.
“Good point,” the doctor chuckled. “I’ll start a fresh pot.”
“So you’re really three decades old?” Garrus asked Shepard.
“God, Garrus,” Joker laughed, shaking his head. “Way to make the woman feel old.”
“I didn’t…” Garrus broke off, his mandible drooping by the sides of his face.
“Yes, Garrus,” Shepard said, her lips quirking in amusement. “I’m thirty. To compare, in human years I’m considered…” She stopped and thought about it. “An adult.”
“You’re young , Shepard,” Doctor Chakwas told her.
“Relatively speaking,” Shepard said. “If I’m lucky, I have over a hundred years left.”
“Only a hundred?” Liara frowned, and suddenly looked worried.
“Well,” Shepard shrugged. “I know that sounds bad when you’ve already seen a century, but don’t worry. I plan to make all those years count.”
“I don’t doubt that, Shepard,” Liara said, her brows drawing together.
“Come on, now,” Shepard said. “Eat some of this cake. No one gets to be sad on my birthday or worry about how many years any one species has left. Seriously, Liara,” she said more quietly, picking up a piece of cake and handing it to the asari. “I know it doesn’t sound like a long time to you, but I’m here now. That’s what counts. That’s what we’re celebrating: life – not how long it lasts.”
“Yes, Shepard,” Liara said, swallowing and taking the offered plate. “You’re right. Thank you.”
“Thank you , Liara” Shepard replied. “This was very kind of you.”
“I’m just sorry I could not find a primitive torch to put in the center of the cake,” Liara told her. “But Doctor Chakwas assured me that you would prefer that I not adorn the food with a fire hazard.”
Shepard only barely stifled a laugh. “That was probably for the best,” she agreed. Then she smiled. “You’re a good friend, Liara.
“A good friend,” Liara repeated, dropping her gaze to look at the cake.
“Is something wrong, Liara?” Shepard asked her, ducking her head to try and look into Liara’s eyes.
“Not at all,” Liara said, raising her gaze once more. “I just… Happy Birthday, Shepard.”