Ash looked away as his own emotions tangled. Everyone else had hated him. How could he expect her to be any different?
Tory swallowed and looked at Simi. "I’ve spoken to her so many times on the phone and through e-mails. My cousin Geary and I even named our expedition the Simi Project because Simi was the one who helped us find the location of Atlantis."
Ash’s eyes widened at something he’d had no knowledge of. Anger snapped to the forefront of his emotions as he wanted to choke the demon. "Simi did what?"
"You told me to, akri," Simi said from her place on the floor before she yawned loudly. When she spoke again, her voice was a perfect duplication of his. "Watch her, Simi. Keep her happy and make sure she has everything she needs and wants." Her voice returned to normal. "So that’s what the Simi did, akri. Just what you told me to do."
"That was for one afternoon."
"Akri didn’t say that to the Simi. You say make her happy so the Simi did. If you wanted me to stop, akri, you should have said so."
Ash raked his hands through his hair as he realized how much pain he’d brought to Theo when all he’d ever wanted to do was help the boy-that he’d exposed himself and revealed the location of Atlantis without meaning to. Damn it. "I know better than to interact with humans. How could I have been so stupid?"
Tory leaned over him, her face so sweet and inviting even though to him, right now, she was the greatest threat. "You can’t live alone all the time, Ash . . . or is it Asheron, Acheron or Apostolos? I don’t even know what to call you."
Call me yours . . .
It was such a stupid thought. And he knew better than to ever let that one out. He was owned body and soul by Artemis. "I don’t care which one you use. I answer to all of them."
"You must have a preference."
"Only his mama, Akra-Apollymi, call him Apostolos. Ooo and sometimes that Jaden demon man and Savitar who is always so nice to the Simi. He always brings the Simi good things to eat. But I think akri likes Ash best cause that’s what he tells most people when he meets them nowadays."
Ash gave her a dry stare. "Thanks, Sim."
"You’re welcome, akri," she said, oblivious to his sarcasm. "Now the Simi’s head hurts. Can I sleep on you where it’s comfortable until it stops aching so much? I don’t like the floor anymore. It hurts the Simi’s wings."
He held his arms out. "Of course you can, Simykey."
Smiling, she transformed and flew as a black mist onto his body to form a small dragon tattoo on his shoulder.
Tory narrowed her gaze on Simi’s form. "Now I know the secret of the ever-changing tattoo. You got anymore surprises for me?"
"I suppose that depends on what else I said last night. Damn. At what point did I pass out?"
"From your point of view, not soon enough I would imagine."
If he were able to get the sick lump of dread out of his stomach, he would have laughed at that. As it was, the best he could muster was a grimace. "You are taking all of this remarkably well."
She crossed her legs under herself before she shrugged nonchalantly. "What am I supposed to do? I mean it’s not like I have some precedent for dealing with this. I don’t know anyone who’s ever met a guy who turned out to be a god with his own personal demon. Inner demons, yes, but a tattoo that becomes a demon . . . no. Definitely off the grid."
"Actually that’s not entirely true."
She blinked. "What do you mean?"
"You should talk to your cousin Geary. Her husband, Arik, used to be an Oneroi."
Tory sat perfectly still as if she couldn’t believe what he’d just told her. Kind of funny to him given the way she seemed to be accepting everything else. After a brief pause, she asked a single question. "Arik was the Greek dream god?"
Tory covered her mouth with her hand. "So that’s why Geary gave up the hunt for Atlantis. That weenie! It was right after she’d met Arik in Greece." Her expression angry, she slapped at his thigh.
"Ow!" Ash rubbed the spot, grateful she hadn’t hit him any higher on his leg. "What’s that for?"
"Why didn’t one of you tell me?"
"It’s not exactly something we’re supposed to talk about with humans. Most of them aren’t as reasonable as you’re being."
"Yeah well, you do know this changes nothing." Her gaze showed every ounce of her determination. "I still intend to be the one who discovers Atlantis."
Ash froze as his own resolve set itself. In this battle, he was going to win no matter what. "Don’t be stubborn, Tory. Let it go."
"That’s easy for you to say. You don’t know the mockery my family has lived with because you told my grandfather stories that enchanted the imagination of his sons. Both my father and uncle gave their lives to find Atlantis and prove it’s there. I can do no less than to revive their reputations."
He cupped her face in his hand and tried to make her understand why she couldn’t do this. "They’re dead, Tory. Their reputations mean nothing to them."
Ash felt her clench her teeth as anger and grief flickered in her brown eyes. "They mean everything to me."
How could he make her see his point of view?
"You want to salvage your father’s reputation and I want to preserve mine. You and I are at war with this. No one can know ever about the Atlantis that was destroyed."
"You’re a god. Why would its location hurt your reputation?"
A twinge of hope went through him. "Did I tell you why I was in Atlantis as a human?"
Oh thank the gods that even drunk he’d had at least an ounce of self-preservation. Relief and joy poured through him. No wonder she was still giving him some respect.
And that was why he couldn’t let anyone know about Atlantis. "Why can’t you let this go?"
"Because I loved my father. I owe this to him."
Ash narrowed his gaze. "Would you destroy me in the process?"
Tory shook her head, trying to understand why he was so insistent. "You’re not making any sense. How could this possibly hurt you?"
Tell her the truth, Apostolos. Ash flinched at the sound of his mother’s voice in his head.
He looked up at the ceiling as he sensed her presence. You’ve been remarkably quiet throughout this, Matera. Why didn’t you tell me about your priestesses?
Why should I? Besides you knew I had to have worshipers to maintain my god powers at their current strength. Did you think the Daimons were the only ones who paid homage to me?
Yeah, stupidly he had.
Show her the journal, m’gios.
And if she betrays me?
She’s a human. I will kill her if she hurts you.
But he wouldn’t allow that and he knew it. I can’t, Matera. I don’t want to see her look at me like that too.
What if she doesn’t? What if she’s being honest and to her you are nothing more than a friend? Your past doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t matter to Savitar or Simi. You must learn to trust sometime, Apostolos. Don’t you think that maybe she’s the one person who won’t judge you over something that was done to you against your will? Give her a reason to abandon Atlantis. Let her understand.
He looked back at Tory, terrified of the thought of seeing the same pity in her eyes that Ryssa had held in hers. He liked the fact that Tory saw him as a normal human.
Then again, she now knew him to be a god and her treatment hadn’t changed. Maybe his mother was right. Maybe he could trust her.
"You can’t live in darkness all the time, kid"-Savitar’s words haunted him. "Sooner or later, everyone puts their ass in a sling. But you know what, most of the time you’re still laughing about it, grateful you had the fun that caused the injury."
It was true. Yet the one thing Ash understood to the depth of his soul was that a physical pain healed a lot cleaner and sooner than a mental one.
"Please don’t hurt me, Soteria," he whispered in Atlantean. Feeling sick with dread, he decided to trust in his mother. He held his hand out and used his powers to bring his backpack into his grasp.
Tory let out a nervous laugh. "You weren’t joking about those evil Jedi tricks, were you?"
"Not really." He reached to the bottom and pulled out the last journal. His stomach knotted to the point he feared he’d actually be sick, he handed to her. "I grant you the ability to read this fluently. But know that I’m doing this against my better judgment and I’m trusting you with something about me that no one else has ever known. No one. This is the secret I’m willing to kill to protect. Do you understand?"
Tory swallowed at the ominous note in his voice. What could it contain that was so appalling to a god? "I understand."
He put the backpack down on the floor. "I’m going to shower while you read."
She didn’t move until after he’d left the bed. Curious, she opened the book and gasped as she realized that she was able to read it as if it were English. She knew every letter, every definition. It was incredible and as she read, she saw the scenes as clearly in her mind as if she were watching a movie unfold.
At first it was just the intimate and innocuous details of a princess’s life until it started talking about her brother . . .
Ash let the water slide over his skin as he fought the pain and anger inside him. Tory would never look at him the same way again. Ever.
Why the hell had he listened to his mother? He should have destroyed every one of his sister’s journals.
I’m such an ass**le.
There was no denying the truth of him. He was forever tainted by a past he’d never wanted. In this moment he hated Estes more than he’d ever hated him before. That one foul bastard had deprived him of everything.
Even Tory’s respect.
Turning the water off, he stepped outside the shower to find her standing in the doorway, staring at him. Shame and embarrassment filled him at her silence as he reached for a towel to dry himself. He braced himself for her insults and anger. "I’m sorry I tainted you, Soteria. I had no right."
A single tear slid down her face as she approached him.
Ash tensed in expectation of her slap or insults. He deserved no less and he expected nothing more. So when she pulled him into her arms and kissed him, he was stunned completely.
Tory pulled away from his lips and wrapped her arms around his neck to hold him close as the true horror of his human life tore through her. And to think she’d dared to accuse him of not understanding what it was like to be mocked or humiliated. Thank God she had no idea of the depth of his sorrow that made a mockery of hers.
She couldn’t speak for the tangle of emotions that gathered in her throat to choke her. She was angry for him and heartbroken.
And in that moment, she realized how much she loved this man. Now Takeshi’s words made complete sense to her.
"Take care of him, Soteria. And remember it takes great courage and heart for a man who knows no kindness to show it to another. Even the wildest of beasts can be tamed by a patient and gentle hand."
She ran her hand down his smooth, perfect back as she remembered the stories of his beatings. They hadn’t even allowed his back to scar so that the thicker, scarred skin would help to shield him from the pain of new lashes. What had been done to him was so wrong . . . "I’m so sorry for what they did to you, Acheron. I’m so sorry."
Ash closed his eyes as he held her against him and breathed her in. "You don’t condemn me for it?"
"I’m . . ." He couldn’t bring himself to say the word whore to her.
Tory tightened her hold as she remembered his words about being broken the night before. This was what he’d meant by them. Pulling back, she cupped his face in her hands so that he could see her sincerity. "Nothing has changed between us. I don’t care about your past, Ash. I don’t. All that matters to me is the man in front of me right now."
"I’m not a man, Soteria."
No, he wasn’t. He was a god. Powerful. Humble. Kind and deadly. For the first time, she understood all the glimpses of him that she’d seen. "I know. But if you think your godhood excuses you from putting the toilet seat down, think again."
Ash laughed, amazed by her strength and humor no matter the situation. "I’m not used to anyone standing with me."
"I know. I was always lucky. My family would fight back the devil himself to keep me safe. I can’t imagine the strength it took for you to be alone in the world. To have no shelter from those out to hurt you. But I won’t abandon you. If I’m nothing else in my life, I’m loyal to those I call friend. And I’ll be more than honored to be your friend, Acheron, if you’ll let me."
Pain ravaged his heart at her offer and at a single truth he couldn’t deny. "I’ve never had a friend who knew all about me before." He didn’t count Artemis as a friend and that lack of knowledge was how Nick had ended up dead. Had he trusted Nick enough, just once, to introduce him to Simi, Nick wouldn’t have slept with her because he’d have known she belonged to Ash. It was a mistake that had cost them both everything.
"I know what you’re thinking, Ash," she said, stepping back to look up at him. "You have trusted me and I will never forsake you."
Time would tell.
She looked down and smiled warmly. "By the way, you’re very cute nak*d. Now get dressed. I have some questions for you."