Shepard woke up with her face pressed to the mattress, pinned down by a warm body.

Some people liked to curl into the warm space. Garrus liked to plaster himself to the coolest thing in the bed, which was her. He ran hot, she ran cold, so he slept naked and she wore actual clothes and socks.

She didn't mind. It should bother her, or rather, people would think it should bother her, being half pinned. Anyone else half pinning her would get an elbow to the torso and a headbutt to the face, followed with some choice words and a tight grouping of shiny new holes depending on how pissed off she was.

This was different.

This wasn't a submission hold, this was... Safety given form. Hard flesh and muscle like a turtles shell, like a promise.

Sheperd told herself to stop skimming Jacks private messages when she visited Aria, the purple prose stuck around too long. Also nosy but mostly the prose thing.

If she turned her head a little, she could see the clock.

Three am.

Whhhy was she awake at three am? It might be the eternal night outside but she tried to keep a roughly twenty-four hour schedule. Everyone else could do what they liked, and she was certain that Joker took uppers and slept when they were docked.

Something had woken her.

She took a breath, slowly, listening to the room.

Something had woken her, and now she was extremely alert, world not quiet slowing into sharp and coppery flavored focus, but still.

"What is it?" Garrus asked, voice low and alert.

"Did you wake up first?"

"No, you woke me up, " he said, and she could feel him stretch, the metallic clink as he picked up her pistol for her.

She held her hand up, and let her fingers curl around the grip.

I Then I he got off her, to grab his own gear. Starting with pants.

He didn't ask what was wrong, just got ready for it.

Shepard stoodup and held the gun in both hands, stretching back and up until her spine popped. The room looked fine.

The fish hadn't killed each other. She punched the 'feed' button as she went past. Looked out the door into the tiny buffer hallway between her bedroom and the elevator.

Felt rather than heard Garrus fall in behind her.

"EDI?"

"Opening with Karo-Kann," EDI said.

"Is that a code that no one told me?" Garrus asked, tilting his head.

Shepard hit the elevator controls, leaning on the wall. "Not that I know?"

"Pawn to Cee six," droned the AI, without even the slightly feminized accent. Unisex and dull. "Pawn to Dee-four. Pawn to Dee-Five."

"At least the elevator works?" Garrus said. "In so much as you can call this working?"

"I keep having this dream where I kick back some useless scrap metal and find enough of a functioning, fast express elevator that we're able to upgrade this piece of crap."

"That must be why you smile in your sleep," he said, chuckling. Tensing as it slowed, stopped.

"You feel it too?"

"There's something very wrong," he agreed.

You didn't get to old age by doubting your instincts. You could be trusting if you were well armed, but no guns in the 'verse could save you from a bad feeling ignored.

****

Empty.

The mainroom was empty. Or it looked empty at first.

"Kelly?" Oh, this was not a room that should be empty. The command center of a ship shouldn't be empty unless it was docked and they'd finished the maintenance, and the cleaning crew hadn't finished just yet.

The shielding was up, at the helm. She could see it. "Check the lab."

"On it."

It was also quiet, except for the ongoing drone of the AI. Chess commands?

Shepard resented chess in general, broad strokes. not the game itself but the people who played it and insisted on seeing the world in black and white squares.

Seeing pawns as expendable, dying to protect a useless king.

"Knight takes pawn at E Six."

Yes, that was not something that would give her the warm fuzzies. There were a lot of people out there that considered her and the rest of her crew pawns on a good day.

A tap, and..Okay, good, the computer was still working. She could see where they were and they were...

Adrift?

Oh,goody.

"Garrus you got anything?"

It was was generally not good when you were asking a yes or no question.

She turned, and he was backing out of the lab.

Gun down.

"You're gonna want to see this, commander," he said, finally. "I found the crew."

*****

"Mordin, I understand you are very excited right now," Shepard said, slowly. "But you need to...Take a breath. A long slow breath, and try try again."

"Never seen anything like it!" he said, again. But he must have heard her on a subconscious level. "have yet to determine the cause, or way to reverse it. if total essence of self and experiences remain, then no need to reverse. Could be useful. Further study required."

"I'm glad you're happy,"

"Thrilled!" Mordin said.

"But you're happy because between the ages of two and six for you are apparently just past puberty," Shepard said.

"Translated to the solar years that your species uses, I am currently five," Mordin said.

He was shorter like this.

Same markings in different colors, and the eyes were dramatically different...

Funny, she almost never saw children, particularly not alien races.

Salarians apparently had several color shifts before they hit ten.

Kelly, who had been a fat little baby apparently, was chewing on a thermal clip.

"Is that safe?" she asked out of the corner of her mouth.

"Oh, yes," Mordin said. "Very safe. She can't hurt it."

"I can always find more clips," Shepard said, reaching to take it. "People are harder to replace."

Mordins hand shot out to stop her. "Inadvisable. Subject is teething, and the screaming wakes the others."

Shepard sighed. "Kelly, do you remember who you grew up into?"

"If her brain has regressed, possibly not. Possibly. Fascinating. Further study needed."

Shepard exhaled. Put her hands over her face for a moment. Take it in stride. Babies could smell fear. Maybe that was dogs.

"This stage in human development, neural pathways not set. Memories may be fluid."

Shepard decided what she'd just heard was 'fifty-fifty'. "And it affected everyone? Why not us?"

Mordin paused. "Of course. You have not realized yet. You've lost at least-" he paused, scanning her. "Seven years."

She blinked.

She didn't feel younger, but then, when had she ever felt young.

She looked at Garrus, arched an eyebrow.

"Fortunate not younger. Cerebus cybernetic implants still fused to spine. Much to large to be in body of anything under sixty percent of your height," Mordin added. "Answers question. Physically younger. Memories intact."

"Then why is Kelly, not... Talking?"

"Teething. Distracting. Brain at that age still growing," Mordin said. "Might as well be drunk."

"Cellular... age reversal but..."

And then she was running, out of the lab, towards the helm.

****

"That was impressive," Garrus said. "Could have done without smashing your face on the console."

Shepard sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose, tilting her head back. She'd stick med gel up in there later. "He was falling." Babies had soft heads, Joker had brittle bones. Best not to see if they canceled each other out or magnified the results.

He was about... Waddling age. She'd let Mordin be more specific.

"This is the first time I've ever seem him clean shaven," she said. "Want to place bets on what's causing this?"

"Seems like a roundabout attack so I'll go with fifty creds on crazy salarian," Garrus said. "Since Mordin just about doubled his life expectancy.

"Probably the safe bet," she agreed. "I'm going to go gather up the rest of the crew, see who else..."

She trailed off and Garrus waited, because she never lost a train of thought just set it aside to free up her hands for attack.

"Black concedes defeat," EDI droned.

Shepard handed Joker to Garrus and got up.

And then was running again.

"Commander?"

"Don't follow, just, take him to Mordin," she said. "I have to go hope Jack's old enough to have some sort of emotional regulation."

"Why do you need the beam generator for that?"

"I'm making a shortcut," she said, shouting over the hissing crackled of metal turning into hot red rain dripping down the empty shaft below.. "And I've never had a good enough reason too until now. Take him to Mordin, alright? Then come on down and scrape me off the walls if she's gone nova."

Then it was just a step to drop down.

Call it express.

The speaker crackled.

"Commander, I'd like to request that you don't let yourself get killed by a baby," Garrus said. "I'd feel duty bound to avenge you."

She rolled her eyes.

"Don't roll your eyes." And the click of the microphone being turned off.

She snorted, instead, and moved forward carefully, down the stairs. Turning. Seeing darkness and no crackle of bio-energy.

And letting out a breath at the same moment the sobbing stopped and turned into the silence of someone holding their breath.

Shit. Jack wasn't even her real name, was it? No, that was what she went by, and it was physical, not mental but if she'd been sleeping, probably having nightmares...

"Jack, it's okay," she said. "No one's here to get you."

There was probably a precise moment in her life, she decided, where she'd made the decision that resulted in this... And she didn't know what it was, and she'd probably do it again, because generally her ideas all seemed good at the time.

"Do you want to go and play with the other kids?" Shepard tried. "You don't have to just watch through glass, anymore, Jack."

Huh. Wow. She was.. Really wedged in there.

And looked.. Not great.

The tattoo's were ... Well that amount of pigment had been meant to stain a much larger area of skin. Much much, and it was.

Well the colors were vibrant but it looked like Jack's skin was more sensitive at the moment she was wadded up and scratching at her arms.

Smeared makeup and wide, bloodshot eyes.

Shepard reached out and took the shaking girl carefully. None of the clothes fit right. That was fine, they'd get her clothes. "Hey, I know you're upset, it's okay," she said.

"You sound like you're not being plastered to the walls."

"Go check on Grunt."

"Wait, why do I have to check on Grunt?"

She didn't answer, just kept humming as Jack started to cry again, confused and afraid and apparently too young to quiiiet turn that into anger.

"Yes commander."

*************

Jack was old enough to talk when she calmed down.

That just.. Took a while. Long enough that Shepard was considering giving her the drink she was asking for except... Except even if she had the memories of a full life of drinking and violence, her brain was developing... Again, and mucking it up with chemicals... Bad idea.

Garrus kept making a strange, chattering noise. Turian babytalk.

At this rate Grunt would be mimicking it back, soon. It was actually a little frightening, how much like a children's toy a baby Krogan looked.

Well, they used to be born in big batches, right? Litters. So of COURSE they looked like puppies.

"I like him better like this," Garrus said. "Not as useful in a fire fight, but... Look at him."

"If he remembers this when he grows back up, he might be honor bound to kill you," Shepard warned.

"And Jack'll be safe to be around when she comes to with ruined tattoos and the knowledge you've seen her cry?" Garrus said.

"Least she's out of diapers," Shepard said, not mentioning the soiled pants she'd already tossed. "He's really not a pet, you know."

"They grow quickly, he will be, larger within eight days," Mordin said as he handed her another jar of oily salve to rub into the drying rashy areas of lifting ink. Like a sunburn. Flecks of dried and colorful skin kept coming up on her palms.

"How much larger?"

"They double in size four times in the first four months."

"Huh," Shepard said.

"Very small brains at this size. Unlikely he will remember his treatment," Mordin added, reaching out and rubbing Grunt's head.

Samara was down a level, dealing with the crew there. She'd have to be told to send up food. A lot of food.

****

"How do you want to deal with Tali?"

Shepard thought about it.

She wasn't an infant, thank goodness, but she was tiny, and the helmet was at a strange angle on her head.

And she was frightened, and taking up lap space. Shepard had given up and taken a seat on the floor to make room for both the floppy suit and Jack and Tali.

"It is hard to move like this, commander," she said. Her voice sounded higher, like this, and muffled because her mouth wasn't near the communicator anymore.

"At least you don't think you're dreaming," Jack said. "Or itch."

"The suits are very precisely calibrated to our bodies," Tali said. "It's not a matter of belt tightening, there are ports that must line up. and I can not move in this, and it is claustrophobic. When the helmet is on crooked and field of vision is restricted it is unpleasant."

Tali was the most afraid. Shepard Didn't blame her, and at least they were close enough to Illium to get a smaller suit quickly. For a price.

Getting a room clean enough to let her change was a problem, but it was a problem Shepard gleefully delegated to Dr. Karen, who was about fifteen and pimply and working very hard at not being an airhead while carrying Thane on her back in a papoose pouch.

Joker was in pain. The supports in his legs, in his arms, had been implanted at a young age, and they were designed to grow with him. Which was good, or he'd be dead.

And they had been designed to be.. Reset-able, but only after death and harvesting and...And they'd folded back down, at least, but his arms and legs looked bruised.

And so help her, if Miranda took his hat one more time, Shepard was blasting her tiny body out the airlock. She had to untangle from Tali and take Jack with her to go over and break up the dispute.

"I did ask him first!"

"You cannot ask while you are taking it! And it is his hat!" Shepard said, taking it back. "And between the pain and the pain killers, he's not up to you being unable to control your emotions and reactions!"

This was the real problem all over. Toddlers acted like toddlers even when they should know how to act. It was brain chemistry and stress and not entirely Miranda's fault, and Shepard had to keep telling herself that.

"She doesn't!" Miranda yelled, pointing. "She's.. She's MEAN!" There was a foot stomp in there somewhere.

"I'll show you mean!" Jack yelled right back.

Shepard winced. "Jack, what did we say about inside voices? If you're going to shout in my ears I'm going to put you down."

Jack stopped and looked worried.

"Nyah, the baby," Miranda said, sticking out her tongue.

Tiny frozen piece of space trash, Shepard thought. No one would ever know.

Except her. Dammit.

She knelt and carefully untangled Jack. "Jack, listen I have an important job for you."

"I want a job! I'd do a better job than her!"

"Miranda, do we need another time out?" Shepard said. Dealing with children felt a lot like dealing with, anyone else really, you just had to lean down more to get to eye level.

If anything, it was a little easier, because she'd taken all their guns away, and their tiny little faces were extremely transparent.

For example, Mirandas face was turning red. Did that a lot.

Shepard ignored her. "I want you to make sure that Joker here is okay, okay Jack?" She said. "It's an important job, because I have to go help Tali now, alright?"

Joker was chewing on the hat again, studiously. He was teething on top of all the bruises and the pain, but he was still HIM. That meant right now she was getting a concerned look. Please don't leave me with the crazy women... Girls. Please.

Shepard ruffled his hair, and reminded her self she shouldn't. "Jack'll make sure no one takes your hat. Jack, you can do that, right? You can protect everyone from being hurt when they're too little to stop it, because you're stronger than that, aren't you? Just like you're strong enough not to loose your temper."

Jack's jaw was setting, and Shepard pondered if the woman would be upset about this later, or show gratitude with a grunted dismissal. didn't matter.

Right NOW, this would probably work. Probably.

"You're the strongest person here. You're not going to let a setback like being four again stop you, right?"

And that settled that, more or less, because Joker, who could cruise along the walls, suddenly had a protector that would scoop him up and carry him to safety while glaring at Miranda.

*********

"That noise didn't sound natural."

"Oh, shut up, you've been making sounds at Grunt for the last two days that I've never heard before," Shepard said.

"They at least sounded natural."

"Are you jealous?" Shepard raised an eyebrow.

"Didn't you give me a speech about not cuddling the krogan, because if he recalls it when he grows back up he might be insulted?"

"Thane might be embarrassed but it's his own fault from coming from a species that is this damn cute as babies," Shepard said. "And for being the youngest one on the ship, apparently." She managed NOT add 'and look at his little toes!' but only just. "Anyway, he's damn near a newborn."

"He'll still remember it- did you just bop his nose?"

"I may have. Look, he likes it," she said, repeating it. "Makes his little legs go like crazy."

"Maybe he's trying to escape?"

"No, no, a loud sound scared him earlier and it's a totally different little panicky series of squeaks," she said. "Plus his eye rolled up and his face swelled. Like a little pufferfish. Who's a little pufferfish?" Bop. Bop.

"What's a pufferfish?"

"They swell up when threatened, and are said to be tasty. Or they used to be before all the fish died. Also, extremely toxic so.. Perfect comparison except for all the water," she scooped Thane up and tucked him onto her shoulder.

He fell asleep almost at once.

"You're good at that," Garrus said. "Do you ever..." He trailed off a moment. "Does it bother you I can't give you children?"

She arched an eyebrow. "Could ask you the same thing," she said, pivoting on her heel, back and forth because that seemed to be a good way to keep Thane asleep.

"I hadn't honestly thought about it until this."

"I had."

"And?"

"And I don't think blood's thicker than water," Shepard said. "This crew is my family, everyone on board, and it's got nothing to do with blood. I don't need to know that a kid's got my smile and your eyes to think of him or her as ours." His head tilted, and she lifted her free hand to cut him off, before patting Thane on the back. "And when we fix this, save the universe, stop the reapers once and for all, get everyone back where they need to be, we can have a serious discussion about, all the rest of the details. I just need to finish this first, to see it through."

He nodded. "I know. I just... Wondered if you even let yourself think past finishing this."

"Sometimes," her lips curved. "I've thought about all the 'thank go we're alive' sex I'd like to be having the day after, for example."

"You'll have to settle for 'thank god all the babies are asleep' sex this week, I think."

"Which will have to be very quiet," Shepard nodded in agreement as she spoke. "And after that... I don't know. Assuming everyone survives? Take the Normandy out to the Shadow Broker, see what there is to do. Change my name and tell everyone I died so they never call again."

"That'll piss someone off," Garrus said. "Dying didn't get you out of anything last time, they'll just ended up bringing back a few abandoned dead human corpses until they know to look for a woman with a pulse."

"Maybe they'll go bankrupt first," she said. "Anyway, hush. I'm dreaming," of a world where I survive this mess.

****
When Grunt got too big to carry easily, he took to curling around Joker, who in turn used him as a pillow while Jack angrily ground crayons down to nubs.

It wore off.

Slowly.

Miranda at fourteen was worse than Miranda at five, but at least Shepard felt more comfortable sending her to her room.

Thane got too big to carry, and Shepard studiously avoided cooing over him learning to walk all over again. Grunt got massively fat, which Mordin said was normal enough, then a growth spurt got him back to full height in a day or two.

Though he was still very prone to naps.

Joker was...

Well, he was in pain, but glad to be talking again, and VERY glad to have enough body mass for a morphine drip that he got to control.

Shepard, for her part, could feel those missing years coil back around her bones like a faint cold, but it might have been an actual cold from all the drooling little creatures.

Someday, she hoped it would make more sense. Maybe if she survived, if they all did, she'd come back to that stretch of space and circle till it happened again. Study it.

Or maybe not.