Good. He knew firsthand how awful it was to be alone in a hospital. No one should be stuck like that.
Getting out of the car, he locked the door, then retrieved his stuff from the trunk.
Nick hesitated. “Where do you think I should put the keys?”
“Under the mat on the front porch. You can text her and let her know where they are.”
Ash broke out with a cocky grin. “I know.”
Laughing, Nick did what he said. He was on his way back to the street when a weird wave went through him. He thought he’d imagined it until he saw the way Ash stood on the pathway, tense and alert.
“You felt that, didn’t you?” Nick whispered.
Ash gave a subtle nod.
“What is it?”
“I’m not sure.” Ash moved closer to Nick as if to protect him. “And honestly, Nick, that’s what concerns me. It’s not often I don’t have an answer.”
You should have killed him.…
Those echoing words came like a subtle breeze that was so light, Nick wasn’t sure it was real.
You have to take your place.…
“Do you hear that?” he asked Ash.
The air around them went perfectly still. Like standing in the eye of a hurricane.
Before Nick could react, Acheron used his powers to teleport them from Casey’s house, into Nick’s bedroom in his condo. The quickness of it disoriented Nick to the point that he thought he’d hurl.
Choking on bile, he forced his stomach to back down. “Next time, warn a brother before you snatch him around, Ash. That stuff’s harsh and I’d hate to barf on your expensive boots.”
“Yeah, and I’d hate to have to kill you for it, too.”
Nick started to respond until he looked up and realized that for once Acheron wasn’t wearing his opaque sunglasses. He was immediately assaulted by two simultaneous and shocking truths about his friend.
One … without those sunglasses on, Acheron was absolutely beautiful. His every feature was perfectly sculpted like a major work of art.
But what really slapped him hardest was Acheron’s eyes. There was nothing human about them. They swirled with a deep glowing silver … like mercury in a centrifuge. Nick had never seen or heard of anything like them. Those weren’t the black, light-sensitive eyes of a Dark-Hunter.
They were the eyes of something far more powerful and ancient.
“Dude,” Nick breathed. “What’s the deal with your eyes?”
The sunglasses returned immediately to cover them. “Sorry about that. You okay?”
No, he wasn’t. “What are you, Ash? Really?”
“The last of my kind on this earth. You know that.”
Yeah, but … “Did all Atlanteans have eyes like yours?”
“Why do they swirl?”
A tic started in Ash’s jaw, letting him know that Ash was extremely self-conscious about them … which must be why he always kept them covered no matter how dark it was.
“Why are your eyes blue, Nick? Bad genetics. Your eyes are as much an anomaly as mine. Just more people happen to share your mutation.”
Suddenly, he felt bad for saying anything. “I’m sorry, Ash. If you want the truth, though, I think they’re cool as all get-out. Can I see them again?”
“I’m not a specimen in a museum, hung on a wall for your amusement.”
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
Ash held his hand up in irritation. “I know, Nick. I do. But I’ve taken a lot of grief over them through the centuries. You’ve no idea … and it is a serious hot button for me.”
And Ash wasn’t as calm as he appeared. Nick made a mental note of what he’d said in the car about his temper. Whatever he did, he didn’t want to push Ash over the edge.
“I still think they’re awesome.”
“That’s because you haven’t had to deal with the negative aspects of a deformity people have never understood.”
In that moment, Nick had an epiphany of what Ash’s childhood must have been like. Ancient societies had been even less tolerant of people who were different than modern-day high schools. And for whatever reason, Ash had been raised without his parents to protect him.
Oh yeah, his past s-u-c-k-e-d.
“Did your brother have eyes like you?”
Ash shook his head. “His eyes were the same color as yours … it was how people told us apart at a glance.”
Oh yeah … That’s right. Ash had told him that he was a twin, but Nick had forgotten that. “Is that why you hated him?”
“No, and I’ll let you in on a secret. I never really hated my brother. I hated myself, and I took that out on him, and I blamed him for things that weren’t his fault any more than they were mine. When you’re in that kind of extreme mental anguish and absolute agony that you can’t escape no matter what you try, you turn your hatred outward, because it’s a lot easier to focus your hatred on someone you don’t have to look at in the mirror. And my brother was just an easy person to blame since he was everything I wanted to be—respected, intelligent, skilled, a natural leader—and I couldn’t stand that I walked in his shadow as a lesser being.”
Nick scowled. “You tell me these things and I just can’t wrap my head around them. You’re Acheron Parthenopaeus—the baddest of asses … the feared and beloved leader of an army of immortal protectors. You’re wealthy beyond dreams and you have the most epic powers of anyone I’ve ever heard of. I’d kill to have one tenth of your looks and build. How could you ever look at yourself and find a flaw? Seriously?”
“Because I’m not the same person now that I was when I was human. I’ve changed in ways you can’t begin to imagine, and in the end, what I’ve learned is that childhood is what you spend your entire adulthood trying to get over. And when it’s a bad one, no amount of success or wealth will ease the vicious, hating voices that linger long after your tormentors are dead and buried. You carry that hate with you everywhere you go. It’s why I keep telling you not to listen to the ones who attack you. Don’t get that never-ending soundtrack started. It’s the most self-destructive thing you can do to yourself.”
Those heartfelt words withered something inside Nick, but not in a bad way. They reached him in a way nothing else ever had before. “Ash?”
Nick cleared his throat. “Do not … and I mean do … not … take this the wrong way, okay?” He wrapped his arms around Ash and hugged him. “I will always be your brother,” he whispered in Ash’s ear. “And I won’t ever hate you.”
Only then did Ash hug him back, and it was awkward enough to let him know that Ash had neither given nor received many hugs in his extremely long life. “You’re such a strange kid, Nick.”
Laughing, Nick released him. “So everyone tells me. But I like being strange and different … most days anyway.”
Ash gave him a sad smile. “You have a great heart. Don’t ever let life change that.”
“I don’t plan to.”
But even as he spoke those words, Nick had a bad feeling that his change wasn’t ultimately in his hands. That fate would move forward whether he wanted it to or not. Ambrose had tried and tried to keep him from morphing into the Malachai.
Each time he’d failed.
According to his future self, this was their last shot to save all of them. No more do-overs.
If Nick screwed up again …
His mom, Bubba, Caleb, Kyrian, and everyone he held dear would die. He and Ash could become bitter enemies.
And Nick would destroy the entire world and everyone in it.
That thought had barely finished before he heard a blood-chilling scream echo from the living room.
That scream shredded Nick’s nervous system like an electrical torture device as he ran from his bedroom to the living room with Ash one step behind him. From the shrill tone and raw panic in it, he was expecting to find blood on the walls and at least ten or twelve dozen armed men attacking his mother.
So the sight of her wailing alone in the living room brought him to a stop so sudden, Ash collided with him. Terrified he’d missed something in his haste, he turned around frantically, trying to find the demons or whatever had her so torn up.
But they were the only ones in the room.
Without warning, she grabbed him into the tightest hug he’d ever had. Dang, for a tiny woman, she was strong.
“Ma, you’re killing me. I can’t breathe.”
Instead of her loosening her hold, she tightened it more as she cried against his chest.
He looked helplessly at Acheron.
To his credit, Ash didn’t react at all to his mother’s insane hysteria. With a nonchalance Nick envied, Ash tucked his hands into his jacket pockets. “Call me crazy, but I’m assuming by all of this that she heard about your little incident tonight.”
Stepping back, she cupped Nick’s face in her hands and turned his head from side to side to inspect it. “Are you hurt at all, baby?”
“I think you might have bruised a rib or two just now.”
She rolled her eyes irritably. “Not from me, boy! When that animal attacked you. Did he hurt you?”
“No. I’m all right.”
She glared at the blood on his clothes. “Who was bleeding?”
“Not me. Promise.” Much, anyway.
Only then did she release him and go to Acheron. She grabbed him in an equally fierce hug even though she barely came up to his waist. “Thank you so much for seeing my baby home and staying with him until I got here.”
Wow, Ash looked even more uncomfortable and uncertain with Nick’s mom holding him than he’d been when Nick hugged him a few minutes ago. That man really wasn’t used to open affection. He reminded Nick of a puppy being held by a small child. While he tolerated it, it was obvious he’d rather be getting a root canal or colonoscopy.
With a ragged breath, she let go of Ash and turned back to Nick, who stepped away before she seized him again in that tight anaconda grip. “That’s it,” she snapped. “Tomorrow you’re getting your license, and I won’t hear any argument from you about it. I’m not having you walk anywhere else, ever again. From now on, you drive my car anywhere you need to go and that includes school, you hear me?”
Was she nuts? It would take him twice as long to drive to school, and then he’d most likely have to park even farther away than what their condo was. “Ma, it’s just around the corner.”
“I don’t care. It’s not worth the chance.” She broke down into more tears.
Cringing, but knowing he had to do something to calm her down, Nick forced himself into her anacondic hug range and held her against him so she could squeeze all the blood to his head. He looked helplessly at Acheron.
Ash shrugged. “Don’t cut those pernicious eyes at me, kid. Kyrian’s the one who had the mom and all the sisters. Maybe he can tell you what to do for her. I’m clueless.”
“Oh stop. Both of you.” His mom stepped back and pressed her hands against her face as she finally calmed down. “I’m well aware of the fact that I’m a basket case, okay? I can’t help it. Neither of you has any idea what it does to a parent to find out something bad happened to your baby when you weren’t there to help them. It’s like the universe sucks all the air out of your lungs and you can’t breathe again until you see for yourself that they’re okay. It’s an unimaginable hell.”
“I’m not saying anything, Mrs. Gautier. I have no problem with your mothering at all. More power to you.”
Nick held his hands up in surrender. “Stupid ain’t on my forehead and I don’t want to get grounded. Cry all you want, Mom. Anytime.”
She let out a sound of supreme irritation and then scowled at Nick’s new clothes. “What are you wearing?”
Nick looked down as a bad feeling went through him. With all the crap that had happened, he’d completely forgotten to change.
I am screwed.…
“Clothes,” he said hesitantly.
Not his smoothest comeback. It was like throwing a grenade in a nitroglycerine factory. “Whose clothes?”
“And where did you get them?”
She hissed in anger, making his stomach shrink tight in Pavlovian expectation of her overreaction. “Nick, you look like some lowlife hoodlum up to no good and out to get into trouble! Good boys don’t wear solid black on the street. For that matter, why don’t you just grow your hair down your back and pierce your ears and other body parts so that everyone will think you’re nothing but no-account trash with no one who cares about you?”