**

Nine

**

Shepard felt freer than she had in months, like a stifling tightness around her chest had suddenly been removed, letting her take deep, gulping breaths of air. One collector base destroyed, one Illusive man comprehensively told to fuck off, one ship's crew saved, one team emerged from 'certain death'.

All in all, it felt like a damned good day.

Of course, there was the minor factor of a soon-to-be-coming invasion of cosmic horrors, but somehow that hadn't managed to dampen her spirits too much. She'd stared at the readouts or purloined Reaper data for a while, before turning to the others, who were gathered around, no doubt waiting for her to say something profound, and all she'd managed was to wave the datapad in the air and gleefully say,

"Who's up for kicking some ancient tentacled ass?"

Jack, of all people, had thrown up her hands and only said, "What, right now? You're fucking crazy, woman."

From her, Shepard took it as quite a compliment.

Of course, the adrenaline and flush of success would wear off in pretty short order, she was certain. But it had all been worth it to see Miranda start giggling at the absurdity of the situation, burying her face in her hands, her shoulder's shaking, until Shepard had started to wonder if she was crying. Before long the entire lot of them were laughing with something approaching hysteria, except for Zaeed and Samara, who looked exasperated and fond, respectively.

She'd checked in with her crew, who were traumatised to varying degrees from being kidnapped by the Collectors. By far the worst off was poor Kelly, who seemed to have taken a severe emotional battering from the whole experience. All Shepard could do was to give her a hug, and promise to be there if she needed to talk.

"Isn't that my line?" Kelly asked, surreptitiously trying to wipe away her tears.

"I think I know a thing or two about surviving horrible experiences," she just said, and told Kelly to call on her any time she needed talk. She wasn't sure how, but Kelly had managed to worm her way into the ranks of her 'friends' without her noticing.

The fish were all dead in her quarters, of course. They'd died when EDI had opened all the airlocks and spaced the Collectors. What was frankly worrying was that the hamster was still there, contentedly chewing on a stick of carrot.

"I know what you're up to," she told it, "Don't think I don't. I've got my eye on you."

"Squeak," the hamster said, innocently.

She walked around her quarters for a time, righting the books and datapads that had slid to the floor during the less-than-textbook docking with the Collector base. Some of the little ship models she'd indulged in were broken. She contemplated not bothering to replace them. She'd been in the military most of her life, and she'd never bothered to accumulate possessions. It had never been practical when you were posted on ships that only gave you a sleeper pod and a locker to call your own. The only real possession she'd cared for was a datapad with correspondence, music, and pictures stored on it, and that had gone down with the Normandy, over Alchera.

She'd searched the crash site for it, but hadn't found anything, of course.

Shepard was willing to admit that she might have gone a little crazy with the personal belongings with the unaccustomed freedoms allowed on a civilian ship. A lot of it was junk, for the most part. Except for the helmet, and the only photo she had…

She'd felt like a sentimental idiot when she'd done a cursory sweep of Cerberus's database for details on her old crew, copying the file photo of Kaidan Alenko over to a stand-alone frame. Of course, she'd still done it, and left it there to look at every time she sat down at her desk, which she did now, fingers moving of their own volition over the communications system.

Something occurred to her. "EDI?"

The AI's abstract holographic avatar sprung into being in the corner of the room. "Yes, Shepard?"

She frowned. "Are all our communications still being copied to the Illusive Man?"

"No, Shepard. Jeff had me strip those algorithms from the communications system immediately after your last communication with the Illusive Man."

Shepard felt her lips twitch into a smile. Trust Joker. "Thank you, EDI."

"Logging you out, Shepard."

With nothing to stop her, she regarded the dim-orange glow of the terminal screen with something akin to apprehension. Then she reminded herself that she and her crew had just kicked an ancient space-faring evil squarely in the balls, and if she wasn't going to do something rash and impulsive today, then she never would.

She opened the 'new message' screen and started writing.

Kaidan…

** The End **