"Are you all right?"
The usually assertive senior officer appears not to hear Samantha, still standing frozen just outside the elevator and peering suspiciously around the CIC. Samantha takes a tentative step towards her.
"Lieutenant Commander Williams, can you hear me?"
Williams' head turns to look at Samantha. She doesn't look sick, or drunk, just very concerned and slightly wobbly.
"Of course, Specialist. I'm fine, I just . . ."
Her attention slides off Samantha's face onto something beyond her right shoulder. Samantha twists to look and sees only the same naked bulkhead that has always been there. "You just what, ma'am?" she prompts.
"Things keep moving if I don't look straight at them."
"Right . . ." This is either really bad or personal but completely benign. "Do you mean that objects physically relocate when your back is turned, or that your peripheral vision's gone all melty-swimmy?"
"The second one."
Samantha nods. "And can you see any extra colours?"
Williams looks back at Sam and frowns. "How'd you know that?"
Samantha leans in and lowers her voice. "I don't suppose, Lieutenant Commander, that you've spoken with any drell today?"
The minute flicker of alarm on Williams' face before her eyes narrow is more confirmation than Samantha needs, and she can't help beginning to grin. "Why?"
Samantha will not claim to have been in possession of any sort of survival instinct when she started to dance in place and sing under her breath, "You kissed a drell and you liked it!" She will also not claim not to have squeaked when Williams grabbed her arm and dragged her into the elevator.
Samantha sticks the landing of her stumble by crashing into the wall. "Please don't kill me!"
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said anything. I'll just go back to work—"
"Why are you singing?"
Samantha de-flinches enough to look at Williams. She looks angry, looming over Samantha with one hand on the wall, but she looks afraid in nearly equal measure. "Oh! Irritatingly catchy human pop song from the turn of the twenty-first. I changed the words, obviously, because—"
Williams shakes her head. "Just tell me what you know," she demands.
"I don't know anything!" Samantha objects. "Only that, well. Drell saliva can—With humans it can, erm—"
"Drell spit gets humans high?"
Samantha nods rapidly. "A little bit, yeah. Usually visual hallucinations and a spacey, floaty feeling that peak and wane within an hour or two after contact. Apparently the venom just—"
"Venom?!" Williams groans. "You've got to be shitting me. How the hell do you know all this?"
"Party on the Citadel just the before the retrofits; there was a game of spin the bottle."
Williams releases her gestural cage on Samantha and slumps against the elevator wall beside her. "Son of a—" Her hands come up in claws like she wants to strangle somebody and she growls before letting them fall back at her sides.
Samantha tries to smile. "I take it she or he didn't warn you?"
"He did not." Williams thumps her fist rhythmically on the hard wall and stares at the octarine highlights on the elevator door with resentment.
"It could be he didn't know either. If he'd never kissed a human before—it was a kiss, wasn't it? I mean a voluntary kiss?" Samantha's suddenly petrified she's committed more than a social faux pas.
"I guess," Williams says. "It wasn't forced or anything, we both wanted to. I just . . . didn't expect it." When she shuts her eyes she looks so forlorn; Samantha almost succumbs to the temptation to pat her awkwardly on the shoulder. The elevator starts descending without their instruction, presumably summoned by someone on a lower deck.
"It's not addictive or anything," Samantha supplies reassuringly, "not chemically."
Williams groans pitiably. Samantha bites her lip. "Do you want to sit down and talk about it or would you prefer that I go away and pretend none of this ever happened?"
Williams thinks about it. "Yes."
Samantha's mouth shapes the 'w' to ask 'which one' but hesitates before voicing it.
"I have to pretend it never happened, but first . . . I kind of wanna get it off my chest before I chicken," Williams explains. "If that's okay."
Samantha smiles to soothe her fidgeting uncertainty, trying to estimate how long she can afford to be away from her station. This isn't Williams the officer giving an order, it's Williams the intoxicated girl in crisis—a stranger to Samantha, but one she can't refuse to help. "Absolutely."
The elevator doors open on the crew deck.
"Starboard obs?" Williams asks. "That's usually pretty private."
"Wherever you'll be comfortable."
"I never understood before," Williams says once Samantha's fetched her a glass of water. "I mean I just could not comprehend it. Why would anybody want to have sex with an alien?"
Compared to Samantha's previous 'placating a high person' experience, this is a piece of cake. Apparently nights stuck babysitting friends of friends when they crawled under furniture at uni because the shrooms told them something scary was good training for something after all.
"Even if they're sophont, hell even if they're smarter than you, it's wrong. It's like having sex with a gorilla or something: they might look a little like a human but they flat-out aren't and it's wrong!" She's sitting at a right angle from Samantha at the curved end of one couch with her legs drawn up; Samantha mirrors her. "Except these days it's everywhere you look: humans with turians with quarians with asari with every fucking thing. . . I started thinking maybe I was the pervert—even just numerically, I was a freak for believing we should all stick to our own kind."
Williams takes a deep breath and on the exhale starts talking again. "And then I met this kid. I was still in Huerta Memorial, he came to visit another patient. We met over poetry, of all things."
She smiles at the memory and Samantha smiles with her.
"I was in the lounge flipping through a Tennyson collection Shepard gave me and suddenly this green guy in the next chair starts reciting 'The Lady of Shalott'! Said it was in an anthology of Earth poets he'd read once, months before, but drell remember things like . . . We started testing each other's recall on stuff we'd read or heard years back, cracked each other up a few times. He seemed like a sweet kid."
She fiddles with her glass. "We talked a bunch more times in the next couple weeks. I started looking forward to seeing him. Dunno when I stopped thinking of him as just 'that nice alien boy'." She pauses to frown and mull it over. "I do remember looking at his hands. First staring at, y'know, the fused middle finger thing, thinking 'that's so weird', and then looking at the rest of his hands thinking 'other than that, not bad'. At some point it lost the 'other than': he just had really nice hands. His face too, the whole shape of him, went from compellingly strange to just . . . compelling. Like the more I looked the more I wanted to keep looking. Those hands, though." She shakes her head and sips her water. "His dad was terminal, and in a lot of pain. One day I held his hand to try and comfort him—and it was the best hand-holding of my entire life."
Samantha smiles at the wry astonished joy on Williams' face.
"It should've been uncomfortable, not being able to interlace our fingers right, but it wasn't. Our hands fit. And the texture of his skin just . . ." Another head shake. "I think we both freaked out after that. I didn't see him again until after Udina's coup. When he told me his father'd passed I hugged him. Didn't even think about it. That was like permission. We kept touching each other—totally innocent, just hand on arm or upper back, knees bumping, pressing shoulders when we sat side-by-side. It only lasted a few days before the commander let me back onto the Normandy, but it was so sweet—I had to admit, I wanted more." Her face falls. "It snuck up on me somehow. Guess it always does. I must be as twisted as all the rest of them, 'cause I fell neck-deep in crush with a talking lizard."
Williams looks so despondent, slouching in her seat like that. Samantha's forehead creases. "Permission to speak freely, ma'am?"
Williams sips her water and gestures at their situation. "Of course."
"Well. . . he's not exactly a gecko or an iguana, is he? Your drell friend. No more than you're, I dunno, a pygmy marmoset. Less, actually, because drell aren't related to Terran lizards at all. It's just how the galaxy works: different planet, different lifeforms, different history—still people. On his homeworld scaly green critters got the hang of fire and language and on ours it was upright apes." Samantha shrugs. "I always thought drell look a bit like dinosaurs, myself—old pictures, that is. Without the feathers."
Williams shakes her head with escalating vigour over Samantha's post-script. "Sure, but isn't that even worse? Whether you think evolution is guided by God or completely random; we're from literally two different worlds. We're not supposed to knock boots or even want to."
"If that were the case, why'd we ever meet in the first place? I've seen analyses. Some biological similarities are expected—developing technologically complex cultures is tricky, some societies will solve problems the same way. Fine. But as a data set? The civilizations we've met so far cluster far tighter than mathematically plausible. If you choose to credit that pattern to God then I am pressed to conclude: God does not hate the idea."
Williams rolls her eyes. "I'm still tripping out after a couple of smooches, Traynor. That to me does not scream 'blessing'."
Samantha waggles her head. "Some would argue the opposite but I take your point." She pauses to consider her wording. "Might it help to try and think of this as an exception, rather than a need to change the rules?"
Williams frowns. "What do you mean?"
"I mean there's a difference between fancying an alien and fancying aliens. People are attracted to individuals outside their usual 'type' all the time; it doesn't mean you have to change your whole identity. If I realized today that I had a crush on a man I'd be shaken but it wouldn't mean I'm not gay anymore or that I never really was. It just means there's an exception for one, specific person."
Williams looks unconvinced and Samantha shrugs rather than pressing the issue.
"So what happened today, then? I assume that you saw each other again while you were off the ship."
Williams nods. "I went to break it off, whatever 'it' is. I had this whole speech planned about how he was a good kid but I was overwhelmed with the invasion and everything and I couldn't afford the distraction. Of course when I actually saw him . . ."
"I know that feeling," Samantha says with a twinge of bitter nostalgia, "better than I 'd like."
Williams sighs and rolls her eyes up towards the ceiling. "God, what do I do now?"
Samantha rubs her neck awkwardly. "I'm afraid I can't speak for God, but would you like to hear my advice?"
"Well, perhaps you've already done this, I don't know, but all the stuff you've just told me? Tell him."
Williams snorts and shakes her head. "Did I mention that he's almost ten years younger than me? I ought to be freaking out over that alone. I am freaking out over it, it just gets a little buried under 'my boyfriend the gila monster'. How about the fact he was just orphaned?"
"You want to not hurt him, that's good. But if you're holding something back because you pity him or because you don't think he's mature enough to handle it, then . . . That problem goes deeper than just demographics." Samantha scooches a little closer on the couch seat. "Don't you think that—I assume you know this fellow's name."
Williams laughs sourly and wags a finger. "There's the third problem. His name's Kolyat Krios."
"Krios, as in—Oh dear. That is awkward. Never mind." Samantha tries to wave it off. "Surely, Kolyat's as aware of these issues as you are, I mean after all you're an alien to him too. Don't you think it might be wearing on him as well?"
"I guess." Williams takes a look around the room. "I think the spectrum's finally back to normal."
"No more swimming?"
Williams signals 'a little' with her thumb and forefinger. "Can't say the psychedelic spit discovery's doing much to reassure me."
Samantha mouth-shrugs. "You could avoid open-mouthed kissing, I suppose, and be extra diligent about barrier protection. Maybe there's a counter agent? Venom gets in through any broken skin or mucus membrane, or at least that's what I've read. I only have the one kiss for personal experience."
"Makes sense," Williams says dolefully. She groans and pitches sideways on the couch seat. "Ugh, why does he have to be a good kisser? And why does he have to be green? Couldn't he be just one or the other?"
"Kolyat, Kolyat, wherefore art thou covered with scales?" Samantha says before she can stop herself and is very relieved when Williams laughs.
She turns her head to look at Samantha without sitting up. "Thanks for listening, Traynor."
"Samantha, please. I'm glad I could help."
"I'm glad somebody knew what was going on and didn't shout about it—and you can call me Ash." She sighs deeply. "Ready to have amnesia?"
"Just about," Samantha says, and stands up. "First I want to say. . . Whatever you decide to do? I hope you're happy."
"Thanks," Ash says, and smiles bitterly. "So do I."
Samantha takes pride in managing not to start whistling until she's most of the way back to her post.