River looks around her apartment one final time and nods; everything is ready. Doc's Serrice Ice is nestled between Kaidan's Moosehead Lagers and the turian brandy with the unpronounceable name that had, nevertheless, come highly recommended by Victus himself. A bottle of red wine that is, frankly, beyond her taste buds, is breathing beside them on the bar, mostly for Miranda, though River suspects that Jack will have at least a glass, if for no other reason than to irritate the other woman. Underneath is a truly astonishing array of various liquors from across the galaxy, and in the corner, flickering in the brightness of the light coming from the wall of windows in the bar-area, sits a holographic tree.
Her chest tightens for a moment; the tree is nothing like the ones she remembers from her youth. No, those had been, as her mother was fond of calling them, real trees, cut from the forest that surrounded their house, and decorated with precious ornaments passed through the generations. She knows, at one time, the Season of Giving had gone by many names, and there are still people who refer to it as whatever their family chose to celebrate – Ash had always called it Christmas, but Kaidan celebrated a different holiday.
The tree, River knows, is from Ash's Christmas. The candles that light the mantle of the fireplace behind her are from Kwanzaa, but the candles on the other side of the massive fireplace, lighting the mantle in the other room, are from Hanukkah. They aren't the only holidays she has represented in the room, but they are some of the more dominant. Earth had always kept the individual traditions rather separate, but the colony worlds, like Mindoir, formed their own sort of holiday. In their founding years, there simply were never enough of any one religion or holiday to hold any sort of official celebration, so they were often lumped together. The Season of Giving had been adopted throughout most colony worlds, and it was something that the other races were, while not completely comfortable participating in, at least able to enjoy without feeling as though they were infringing on human culture.
More importantly, the galaxy-wide holonet channels that catered to humans adopted the Season of Giving, giving her the perfect excuse to hold this party.
After so many years, it feels strange to have this party for less than the entire crew, but she's been assured, repeatedly, that those who weren't invited wouldn't have come anyway, given that they had been gifted seats of honor (and one even invited to participate) in the night's event.
The door chime pulls her away from her thoughts, and she gives the room a final, surveying glance before nodding. This time, there is no Glyph to help prep, and she's pleased with the results. The door chimes again and she rushes to it, unsurprised to see the half-shaved head of the Psychotic Biotic, her biotic varren, and her genetically perfect girlfriend; naturally Jack has no patience.
"Took you long enough," the younger woman grumbles with a hint of a smile on her full, red-painted lips.
"Ignore her, Shepard," Miranda says, and River takes a moment to appreciate the way Miranda's new bobbed hair draws the attention to her face. "She was up too late, rewatching the entire season to make sure she knew who to bet on."
"Did someone say bet?"
James Vega comes in the still open door, a six-pack of beer in one hand and a bottle of tequila in the other, Steve Cortez in tow.
Jack and James launch into a good-natured argument about which of them has on the tackiest sweater, a truly difficult choice, in Ella's opinion, as James' is in 3D, with a stuffed reindeer protruding nearly half a foot in front of him, while Jack's looks to have once been a modest cardigan, albeit in a terrible quilted design, it's now nothing more than a handful of strings holding up a vaguely-cardigan-shaped bra with a single button between her breasts. Miranda is out of the running altogether, her sweater long enough to be considered a modest dress over a pair of leggings and boots, with a large tree in the center of it. The metallic poufs on each corner of the design, obviously meant to be ornaments, should make it as absurd as James', but somehow she manages to pull off looking merely incredible and festive at the same time.
Steve's cardigan looks like it may have once been the twin to Jack's though his hasn't had quite the alterations hers had, and while it's something to behold, he, too, manages it with a certain sort of class that immediately makes it less ridiculous.
Their argument is stopped short when they are all momentarily stunned by the slightly limping form of their helmsman. Utterly blinding in a white three-piece suit completely covered in red and green designs. At first glance, it appears to be trees and wreaths, but after all these years, River knows him better than that. A closer examination proves that, yes, only about half of the green designs are trees. Scattered amongst them are green outlines of the Normandy, and the red wreaths are interspersed with red relays. She ducks her head to hide her smile as Jack and James start in on her pilot.
River feels conservative in comparison to her squad. She'd taken inspiration from countless holos online, and paired a simple black sweater with a festively decorated skirt – in other words, she admits to herself, she's wearing a skirt of fucking ribbons and bows, in bright metallic pinks and greens, while her teammates have shown up taking 'ugly sweater' to the next level.
Garrus and Tali are the next to arrive, and while sweaters aren't necessarily usual for turians or quarians, both of them are giving it a go, which delights her. Ken and Gabby show up immediately behind them, and the four of them most likely traveled together, given the closeness the four have displayed recently (something she tries truly hard not to think about – there are things about Ken that she never wants to know, and it's hard enough to imagine that Gabby might see something worthwhile in him as a partner, but that the four of them – well, River won't judge, but she doesn't want to picture it, either). Gabby's sweater has Ken's input all over it – rather literally. What looks like a plain, conservative sweater the younger woman probably had in her closet has been defaced with a pair of gloves, most likely Ken's, over her breasts. Bright, glittering letters underneath invite them to 'feel the joy'. Ken, meanwhile, has an old Earth myth on his chest, its robe pulled open, with the words 'Season of Giving' over the man's genitals. River stifles a laugh with great difficulty.
There's a great deal of clamor in the entry way, as those who have arrived are speaking to and over one another, exclaiming over each other's outfits, and Kaidan walks into the hubbub with a grin. "I thought I was going to miss it," he says, smiling broadly at Joker's atrocious suit.
Javik bowed out of the evening, which is a pity to Ella; she'd hoped to introduce him to the wonders of the program tonight, but Liara convinced her that he wasn't ready, and River respected that. Sam and Diana, an unlikely pair if she's ever seen one, are the last to arrive, and River escorts them to the bar, where the large screen is already tuned to the correct channel. Positions are gratefully assumed, and she smiles to see Kaidan laid out on the sofa, his head pillowed in Jack's lap, with Miranda leaning against the sofa, propped on cushions on the floor between Jack's legs. James takes the other end of the sofa, one hand snaking up the leg of Kaidan's jeans to wrap around his ankle. Steve mirrors Miranda between his partner's legs, his left hand slipping around James' ankle, while Kaidan absently runs his fingers through the short, sleek bob of the woman in front of him. The other four form something of a dogpile on a nest of pillows and blankets in the center of the room, and River smiles at them as she takes her spot in the corner of the smaller sofa, legs stretched out along it as it runs perpendicular to the screen. She throws a pillow on her lap and Joker drops his hat to the floor as he settles between her legs, his bare head resting against her shoulder, hands clasping hers around his waist. Sam and Diana drag the two reclining chairs into the nook between the sofas and settle in with their drinks.
Silence falls in the room as the opening notes of the theme song chime through the speakers, and River dims the lights.
On-screen, the cameras pan the audience, and she stifles her shock – in the front row of the section reserved for the Normandy's crew sit Liara and Javik. The asari is wearing a wide smile, and Javik has on his perpetual sneer and ubiquitous armor as his four eyes peer throughout the audience. Behind them, the crew of the Normandy are cheering wildly as the salarian announcer comes through the doors.
"Welcome beings," he cries, and the audience silences, "to the Season of Giving special edition of Dog or Not!"
The last three words are echoed by the entire audience, and all of those in her apartment let out something resembling a giggle at Javik's sneer as he mouths the words.
"I'm Meagor Kurosa, this year's host of Dog or Not, and with me today I have some incredibly special judges!" Kurosa points to the cordoned-off section and the Normandy's crew stands and cheers. "Dr. Liara T'Soni, science officer of the Systems Alliance vessel, the SSV Normandy, and paleontologist, discovered the plans for the Cruicible that saved our Galaxy from the Reapers earlier this year." Liara stands and accepts the applause. Kurosa moves down to the being beside her. "Commander Javik, the last known Prothean, also of the SSV Normandy, and an instrumental part of the final destruction of the Reapers."
Javik sneers, and Kurosa, perhaps having heard that Javik considers salarian liver served raw to be a delicacy, backs away slightly. It's nothing but laughter in her apartment. He turns next to the krogan beside Javik, and River feels a swell of pride. "Urdnot Grunt, Commander of the highly esteemed Arhlakh Company, and also a former crew member of the SSV Normandy SR-2."
There's another pause, and this time, the entire crew of the Normandy stands. "And assisting our noble judges," Kurosa manages, "is the enlisted crew of the SSV Normandy. Normandy crew, is there anything you'd like to say to galaxy?"
As one, her crew (including Grunt, though not Javik nor Liara) stand and shout, "Shepard rules, Reapers drool! KNEEL BEFORE JAVIK!" They proceed to prostrate themselves before the surly Prothean, which makes a hint of a smile tick up one side of his mouth.
Kurosa looks horrified at the display and hurriedly moves away to introduce the contestants.
Of course, he reaches the first one and takes another step back. Urdnot Wrex is still a mountain of a krogan, even more battle-scarred than he had been when River met him all those years ago. She remembers the first time the crew had done this, the long-running jokes, and smiles.
Maybe the galaxy isn’t perfect, maybe there’s still a lot of work to be done, but right here, right now, she’s happy, surrounded by those she loves, watching more of her loved ones on a galaxy-wide broadcast, showing everyone, of all species, that the Normandy’s crew is capable of more than just destruction. As a picture flashes on the screen of a large mammal that even she isn’t sure is a dog or not, she settles in to watch, laughing with the others as Wrex proclaims every animal, even the varren, as a dog. And for the first time, she believes that everything really will, someday, be normal.