"Here you go, Dee." Tad wrapped her stiff fingers around the hot mug before perching on the coffee table in front of her. He'd had to promise an explanation and a cup of coffee to get her to his condo.
Delia sipped her drink in hopes Tad's miraculously sobering coffee would help clear her head. Her eyes darted around the living room she'd decorated. "Where's the broody bastard?"
"At a hotel. I told him he wasn't welcome here until he apologized to you."
"So that'd be the fifth of never, huh?" She took another long sip and set the mug on the table. Her temples still throbbed, but she wasn't letting him off the hook. "It's explanation time, Taddy."
Tad nodded. He'd stood up to his brother for the first time in his life over this, but when it came time to telling Delia dread coated the back of his throat. He had to tell her, though. He couldn't disappear on her without a reason. It would kill her.
"I'm an alien," he said, voice flat and low.
"No." Delia leaned forward and dragged her nose along the curve of his neck. He didn't smell like alcohol or marijuana. "You were born in Wisconsin."
Tad smiled ruefully. "I've never been to Wisconsin."
"What? I don't… what do you mean you've never been to Wisconsin? There are documents. Pictures. Tons of awkward school photos. You in a bow tie with this awful haircut and Kool-Aid stained teeth."
"They are fakes. My entire identity is a fake."
"Okay." She blew out a breath and settled back against the cool leather cushions. She could handle this. Ethnicity and citizenship didn't change who Tad was, though they were going to have a long talk about lying. "So, do you need to get married or something? Has someone found out and blackmailed you? Dad's lawyers can fix anything, I promise."
Tad squeezed her knee. He thanked the gods he'd been assigned to her study group that first day of school. He couldn't have asked for a better companion. Leaving her behind was going to break his heart.
"I'm not from this planet, Dee. I'm… I guess you'd call me an extraterrestrial."
Delia froze in place. She stared at Tad until her eyes felt like raisins. The rapid rise and fall of her chest was the only indication she was still alive.
She jerked forward as if shoved. Blinking moisture into her arid eyes, she flicked the end of his nose. "You know as far as birthday jokes go, this ranks somewhere between the time you made me believe you'd given all my shoes to charity and the year with the geriatric stripper."
A broad smile lit Tad's face. He chuckled, reached out to tug on one of Cordelia's curls. "You have to admit, Dee, it was pretty funny."
"His teeth fell out during the lap dance."
"Yeah." Tad chuckled. "I know."
"But this isn't a joke?"
Tad's smile slipped. He shook his head slowly, regret heavy in his dark eyes. "No, it's not."
Delia sank deeper into the cushions and pulled her knees to her chest. The hem of her gray dress brushed the top of her bare feet. She traced the outline of a merlot stain on her skirt. "What if I don't believe you?"
She wanted to. Brutal honesty, despite the pretty lies surrounding them, had been the main tenet of their friendship, or at least she thought it had been, but he'd lied about his brother. Being an alien explained his behavior when they first met. He'd been painfully awkward and hadn't understood a single pop culture reference. She'd assumed he'd been sheltered by overprotective parents, but since they'd recently died she hadn't brought it up. She wished now that she had.
He nodded. He'd expected her skepticism. He held open his left eyelid with his left thumb and forefinger. Before Delia could ask what he was doing, he plucked out the tinted contact lens he'd worn since entering Earth's atmosphere.
"Freaky." Delia shivered at the sight of the milky pink pupil. Little wonder why she'd never seen him without his contacts. "I can see why you'd want to hide that, though it would be perfect if you did horror movies."
Tad popped the drying lens back in his eye. "The lens is more for protection than camouflage. Our planet is not as close to our sun. Our eyes cannot handle the light."
"Our?" Delia's head cocked to the side. "Travin's really your brother? You're both aliens?"
"Yes. He is my older brother."
"He does know that being an alien isn't an excuse for being a dick, right?"
Relieved by her calm acceptance of his true nature, Tad slipped off the table and plopped onto the couch beside her. The springs groaned, he sank and slid until Delia was practically in his lap. "You know that scar I told you was from a car accident when I was seven? Vestigial tails are removed on a child's first birthday. The incision became infected and didn't heal properly."
"And if I need more proof?"
Tad flexed his fingers before framing her face with his fingertips resting on her temples. As he exhaled, a flash of warmth moved from his fingers to her head. The buzz she'd taken great pains to maintain for ten years vanished. For the first time since dropping out of college, she was stone cold sober. It sucked beyond belief.
"What did you do?" Thoughts zinged in her cleared head. Memories of her mother, laughing and cheery one minute then bitter and malicious the next, flittered through her mind. She remembered the weeks after the accident and her father's steady withdrawal; recalled the phone calls and visitors and rumors. "What in the hell did you do, Tad?"
"It was never the coffee, Dee. My healing ability is nothing compared to Travin's, but it is enough to sober you up."
"Well, undo it!"
Her fists clenched as flashbacks of fights with her father returned with startling clarity. She'd started acting out in public to get his attention, and when the tabloids had started likening her to her mother, he'd sent her to an all-girls school in France. She'd spent a year on her best behavior, but he'd been out of the country for her homecoming. That was the day she'd given up on changing the public's perception of her.
"I'm sorry, but I can't." Tad wrapped long fingers around her small fists. "Do you believe me now?"
"Yes, damn it." She forced the memories into a corner of her mind and concentrated on taking slow, measured breaths until the tension faded. She was pissed at him, God, how she wanted to strangle him. They'd been apart for days, though, and being angry at him sapped all her energy. In the morning she would throw a tantrum and break all his favorite dishes.
Delia snuggled against Tad's heat and bumped her skull against his. If she ignored the fact that he'd lied for years, she could deal with his non-earthling status. "So how'd you end up on Earth? Your spaceship crash or did you run out of gas?
"On Arekshar, it is customary for the sons of the reigning ruler to spend a period of time on a primitive planet so they learn to handle problems using their wits. It is supposed to make us appreciate the advances made by our ancestors."
Delia's lips twitched. "So you came to Earth."
He grinned, kissed her temple. "I thought Travin was going to faint when Father told us about it. You lot are positively archaic." Her sharp elbow was bruising his ribs, but he didn't want to move. He was going to savor every second they had. "Father sent one of his advisors to set up identities for us. Travin and I set out, went our separate ways, and I met you."
"Arekshar." She rolled the name of his planet around her mouth. It was a clucky, heavy word. Her tongue didn't trill the way Tad's did. "What galaxy is it in?"
"What your scientists call IC 342. Close enough for Mother and Father to keep an eye on us, but far enough away to force us to be independent." He chuckled at her gaping mouth. "I suppose close is a relative term."
Her jaw snapped closed so hard her teeth clacked. Dread curled in her stomach, but she shoved it to the side. There were so many questions she needed to ask. "Travin isn't the only genius, is he? Compared to the rest of us, you're beyond brilliant, aren't you?"
Tad had never been the brightest kid on Arekshar. It was one of the reason's he'd enjoyed life on Earth. No one expected him to be a great philosopher like his father or to randomly spout mathematical theories like his mother. On Earth, all he had to do was memorize lines and look pretty. An eidetic memory helped with one; good genes helped with the other.
"Call it more evolved, if it makes you feel better."
"Jerk." She gasped, slapped his shoulder. "When I was struggling in that damn atmospheric chemistry class, you laughed and played video games. You could have helped me!"
"And blown my cover?"
"Yes!" Her hand thwacked his shoulder again. She'd struggled for every passing grade in the class. It had made her doubt her own intelligence and her decision to get a degree. To think that Tad could have helped her out at any time!
"Sorry," he said, sounding anything but.
Anger fading, she settled back against him and rested her cheek over his beating heart. He'd brushed off the slightly irregular beat as a murmur. How many small lies had he told? Was anything about their friendship real?
"I lied about what I am, Dee, but never about you and me. Father encouraged making connections with humans, but I didn't expect friendship. I hated lying to you." He ran a hand over her stick, gelled curls. "Everything you and I did, everything I said, that's real."
"'S not nice to read minds."
"Even if I could, I wouldn't need to. I know you, Cordelia."
She couldn't argue with his logic. Tad knew all of her secrets. Of course, it was only fair she learned his. "You said 'sons of the reigning ruler' earlier. Does that mean you're really Prince Thaddeus?"
He groaned at the name the advisor had chosen. "Thaddeus isn't my name, but it's the closest thing they could come up with. We don't use the term 'prince' either. It would be hard to explain my title, but I am the second son of the regent. Travin will wear the crown upon my father's death."
"Explains the attitude." She blew a raspberry at Tad when he clucked his tongue. "Your advisor set you up as rich little orphans. You became an actor and His Royal Jackassness is a condescending, billionaire recluse. I think you kinda missed the mark on being normal earthlings."
She didn't dare ask a few of the more important questions buzzing around her brain. After twelve years of lies, why was he coming clean? She'd die before she sold him out to the 'razzi or the government, but wasn't he the slightest bit worried about exposure? Had Travin approved the declassification? She doubted it.
Tad was leaving. It was the only explanation that made sense. He was going back to his planet, so it didn't matter if she took out a four-page ad in every major newspaper. Tears stung the corners of her eyes, a lump welled in her throat. She'd been angry when she'd kicked him out of her life, but she'd never imagined it would be a permanent separation. They always managed to gravitate back to each other. What was she going to do when he left the galaxy?
"Everything okay, Dee?"
She blinked back the tears and pasted on one of her mother's patented smiles. It felt like her stomach had been filled with lava and her skin stretched too tight across her bones. She silently cursed Tad for sobering her.
"Yeah," she said, voice trembling. "Just thinking of all the ways I'd like to maim your brother."
"I swear I'm fine, tail-boy." Her arms snaked around his waist. She memorized the cadence of his heart. She'd put off goodbye for as long as he let her. "Tell me all about Arekshar. Don't leave out a single detail."