Birthdays had lost their sheen for Rita Calhoun when she turned thirteen and became a woman in her father's eyes. Ever since that fateful night, the approach of her birthday would bring a sense of despair and sadness that had nothing to do with getting older.
Her little sister didn't understand and for that she was grateful, and she was the only one Rita would smile at and say thank you for her birthday cake.
Over the years it got easier to ignore the day, though privately she always drank just a little more wine before bed. Any boyfriends she had tended to be casual so she had no problem not mentioning it to them, always conveniently busy on the day.
It really should have occurred to her that in this way, Sergeant Odafin Tutuola would be just as different from anyone else in her life; the detective in him knowing that her birthday was coming up, and also realizing why she didn't want to celebrate- he had heard about her father's actions, knew all the details.
Most differently though, he respected her feelings and didn't try to force his wants on her; even though organizing a big party as a distraction might sound like a good idea to some, he knew she wouldn't want that.
So while they were walking home from Rafael's 50th birthday dinner Fin couldn't help but remember the look on Rita's face when they were saying goodbye to Lucia.
"It won't be long and we'll be celebrating your fiftieth, darling!" Lucia trilled happily while pulling Rita in for a kiss on her cheeks.
Rita forced a smile for the woman who had taken her in like one of her own. "Lucia, you know I'm not one to make a big thing out of my birthday, unlike your son," she teased, hoping to divert attention from herself.
"Nonsense, fifty is a big deal! I'll bake the cake myself. Perhaps big enough for your handsome Sergeant to pop out and dance for you?"
Fin could feel the heat rising in his cheeks and Rita laughed. "Somehow I don't think even you could talk him into that, Lucia."
"Hey Baby?" he asked quietly and squeezed her hand to get her attention. When she looked over at him curiously he continued, "How do you want to celebrate your birthday this year?"
Rita swallowed hard and looked away, her gaze fixed on the sidewalk in front of them. "I don't really want to, actually. It's just another day of the year and I'm not six, so..."
Fin watched her face carefully, and nodded. He pushed aside the sadness that came over him that Rita had something so simple as celebrating her own birthday taken from her and forced a smile onto his face. "Sure, Baby. If that's what you want."
"It is," she repeated, and considered the matter finished. They turned the corner onto her street and Fin knew that somehow he would find a way to help her enjoy July 5th this year.
Over the next few months Rita and Fin grew even closer, spending more time together than apart. She felt like he understood her more than anyone else ever had, so when Summer was approaching and with it her dreaded birthday, she couldn't help but feel disappointed when he seemed to be planning something behind her back.
Lengthy text conversations with their friends, hastily ended phone calls when she entered the room, and knowing smiles from Lucia all led to Rita confronting her boyfriend one evening in late June.
"Okay, I know you're up to something and I just want to say that it really hurts you didn't listen to me when I said I didn't want a birthday party. I swear to god if I walk into a darkened room and everyone jumps out and says "surprise" I'll grab your gun and castrate you with it!"
Fin swallowed hard; he would never doubt that she would do that. "Baby please- no parties, I promise. I do have a little surprise for you, but it's not for your birthday," he said, with a slightly shaking voice.
Rita quirked an eyebrow and crossed her arms over her chest. "What are you talking about? You know I hate surprises," she replied evenly and cocked her head.
He rubbed his hand over the back of his neck nervously. "Don't be mad- I um. I booked us a trip. Not for your birthday! This is **not** a birthday trip. It's just a vacation and your birthday just happens to occur while we're away. Total coincidence."
As Rita stepped closer a small smile formed on her lips. "Total coincidence, huh?"
Fin nodded and started to think that maybe he would get out of this alive. "Yeah it's a total coincidence that we will be somewhere with no cell service or wifi so you won't be inundated with unwanted messages or phone calls... you can completely ignore the date if that's what you want. I... I hope that I didn't overstep?"
Rita reached out to slide her arms around her boyfriends neck, pressing up against him in the process. "I love that you did this... and you definitely didn't overstep. Thank you, Fin," she added in a whisper before capturing his lips in a kiss that she poured her emotions into; showing him without words how much she loved him too.
The morning of July 5th dawned much like the previous week for Rita: slowly. A light breeze kept the room cool which she preferred as it enabled cuddling from her surprisingly clingy boyfriend, at least in his sleep.
"Morning, Baby," he murmured into her shoulder when he was sure she was awake, tightening his hold on her middle lightly. Her back was pressed along his front and she leaned back into his touch as a sleepy smile bloomed on her face.
"Good morning Fin," she whispered happily and turned in his arms for a kiss which he eagerly provided. "Go ahead and say it, I know you want to."
His cheeks warmed in embarrassment. When did she learn to read him so well? "Say what?"
"Happy birthday. I know you want to say it so go ahead. I've made my peace with some things and think maybe this year I'll acknowledge it... though not at a Lucia Barba- level. Just a low key vacation to the Bahamas with you, maybe dinner. Possibly with cake, but no singing servers, okay?"
Fin searched her eyes for any hint that she was simply placating him but all he saw was happiness and love. He leaned in to kiss her again and whispered in her ear, "Happy birthday, Rita."
And as he kissed his way down her body her last coherent thought was, "It really is."