As she took in Daniel’s horrified expression, Alex realized that her reaction would have fit better if he’d pulled a knife and held it to her throat. She straightened up and dropped her hands, her face burning.
“Uh, sorry. Sorry! You, um, caught me off guard.”
Daniel’s horror shifted into disbelief. “Wow. I didn’t think I was moving that fast, but maybe I should reevaluate.”
“I just… I’m sorry, what was that?”
A shade of impatience crossed his expression. “Well, I was about to kiss you.”
“That’s what it looked like, but… why? I mean, kiss me? I don’t… I don’t understand.”
He shook his head and turned to lean back against the island. “Huh. I really thought we were on the same page, but now I kind of feel like I’m speaking English as a second language. What did you think was going on here? With the dinner date? And the sad little candle?” He gestured to the table.
He walked toward her then, and she forced herself not to back away. Confusion aside, she knew her wild overreaction had been rude. She didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Even if he was a crazy person.
“Surely…” He sighed. “Surely you’ve been aware of how often I just… touch you.” He was close enough at that point to reach out one hand and brush his knuckles along her arm in demonstration. “On the planet I come from, that kind of thing signifies romantic interest.” He leaned toward her again, his eyes narrowed. “Please tell me, what does it mean on yours?”
She took a deep breath. “Daniel, what you’re processing now is a kind of sensory deprivation reaction,” she explained. “It’s something I’ve seen before, in the lab…”
His eyes widened; he backed out of her space. His expression was totally flummoxed.
“This is a valid response to what you’ve experienced, and it’s actually a very mild response, under the circumstances,” she continued. “You’re doing remarkably well. Many people would have had a complete nervous breakdown by this point. This emotional reaction might seem similar to something you’ve experienced before, but I can assure you that what you’re feeling right now is not romantic interest.”
He regained his composure as she explained, but he didn’t seem enlightened or reassured by her diagnosis. His eyebrows lowered and his lips tucked in at the corners like he was annoyed.
“And you’re sure you know my feelings better than I do because…”
“As I said, I’ve seen something like this before in the lab.”
“‘Something like this’?” he quoted back at her. “I imagine you saw many things in your lab, but I’m also sure that I’m still the best qualified to know when I’m experiencing romantic interest.” He sounded angry, but he was smiling and he was moving closer while he spoke. “So if your only argument is anecdotal…”
“That’s not my only argument,” she began slowly, unwillingly. These weren’t the easiest words to say. “I may have been… absorbed by my work, but I wasn’t totally oblivious. I know what men see when they look at me, the ones who know what I am… like you do. And I understand that reaction. I don’t disagree with it. Your brother’s animosity – that is a normal, rational response. I’ve seen it many times before – fear, loathing, an eagerness to assert physical dominance. I am the bogeyman in a very dark and scary world. I frighten people who aren’t afraid of anything else, not even death. I can take everything they pride themselves on away from them; I can make them betray everything they hold sacred. I am the monster they see in their nightmares.” It was a version of herself she’d come to accept, but not without some pain.
She wasn’t unaware that outsiders, people who didn’t know her, saw her as a woman rather than a demon. When she needed to, she could make use of her ability to appear delicate and feminine, as she had with the walrus-y hotel manager. It was no different from her ability to look like a boy. Both were deceptions. But even those outsiders who saw her as a female didn’t look at her with… desire. She wasn’t that girl, and that was okay. She’d been born with her own gifts, and you didn’t get everything.
He waited patiently while she spoke, his expression neutral. She didn’t think he was reacting to her words strongly enough.
“Do you understand what I’m saying?” she asked. “I am intrinsically incompatible with being an object of romantic interest.”
“I understand you. I just don’t agree.”
“I don’t understand how you of all people can disagree.”
“First, but not entirely to the point, I’m not afraid of you.”
She exhaled impatiently. “Why not?”
“Because, now that you know who I am, I am in no danger from you, and I never will be unless I change into the kind of person who should be.”
Her lips screwed into a half-pursed frown. He was right… but that wasn’t really the issue.
“Second, still tangential, I think you’ve been spending all your time with the wrong kind of man. A hazard of your particular work, I’d imagine.”
“Maybe. But what is the main point you’re dancing around?”
He got into her personal space again. “How I feel. How you feel.”
She held her ground. “And how can you be sure what you’re feeling? You’re in the middle of the most traumatic experience of your life. You’ve just lost your whole world. All that’s left is a brother you don’t completely trust, your kidnapper-slash-torturer, and Arnie. So it was probably fifty-fifty on whether you’d attach yourself to me or to Arnie. This is pretty basic Stockholm syndrome stuff, Daniel. I’m the only human female in your life – there aren’t any other options. Think about it rationally; think about how inappropriate the timing is. You can’t trust feelings born in the midst of severe physical and mental anguish.”