I expected to see Aislinn when I walked into English, but all I saw were groups of people stood around talking, and Jen sat waiting for me. She gestured for me to sit next to her but I ignored her and walked over to Nate.
"Where's Ash?" I asked.
"I was about to ask you the same thing," he replied. "I thought she would have walked with you from tutor."
"No, she was one of the last people out," I told him.
"Are you talking about the new girl?" asked someone behind us. I turned to see Gemma, a girl I had never even talked to before, watching us. I nodded. "Jen cornered her outside tutor and then she stormed off. I followed her to try and get her to come to lesson but she yelled at me and walked out the gates."
"Shit," I muttered. I turned back to Nate. "Do you have any idea where she might have gone?"
"Not a clue," he replied.
"I think Jack Kingsmill was outside the gate. She might be with him," said Gemma.
"Uh, okay, thanks." I knew what Jack was like - anyone who met him was instantly his friend. I mean yeah, he was a great guy and everything, but I didn't want him anywhere near Aislinn. Not until I knew what was going on with her.
"Tell sir I'm ill or something," I muttered to Nate, turning around and walking back out of the room. I kept my head down, not wanting to meet Jen's eyes. I still couldn't believe what had happened earlier: Of course she's not better than you. You're my world. Where in the name of hell had that come from? I couldn't even remember saying it, just the words coming out of my mouth.
"Gabe? Where are you going?" I ignored her, walking quickly down the corridor and out of the door onto the hard courts. When I got out of the gate Ash and Jack were nowhere to be found.
"Shit," I muttered. They could have gone anywhere.
"Aren't you supposed to be in school?" I looked up and saw an old woman glaring at me.
"I'm looking for a friend," I replied.
"The redhead girl with the weird green eyes?"
"Um, yeah. Have you seen her?"
"She was with a boy," the woman told me, shaking her head. "They went down the alley by the new offices."
"Okay thanks," I said, smiling at her. She regarded me suspiciously for a second more before walking off muttering to herself.
As I headed towards the new office block, I tried to figure out where Jack had taken Ash. I knew that on the other side of the alley was mainly a residential area but it was a whole network of roads and cul-de-sacs. The only chance I had of finding them was if they came back the same way and I bumped into them.
I looked up, suddenly aware that I was at the alley, and almost jumped out of my skin.
"Gabriel? What are you doing here?"
"Ash? Are you okay?" asked Jack. I could tell he was right behind me, but I didn't turn around. I nodded. "If you're bored we can leave, I mean, I know it's not that interesting-"
"No, it's not that," I told him quickly. "I just... I can't believe this much beauty can really be in such a small space." I turned to face him. "It's amazing."
"Come with me," he said, smiling, taking my hand and leading me further down the path and into the shelter of the willow trees. When we emerged on the other side of the tunnel of branches I stopped, stunned. We were stood in a tiny little square of the garden, underneath the branches of an old ash tree. Unlike the rest of Jack's garden this corner was neat and organised, with beds of roses surrounding the huge ash.
Although it was utterly stunning, it seemed artificial compared to the wild, untamed beauty of the rest of the garden. There were roses of every colour, but I was drawn to one small rose bush right in the corner. These flowers were small but exquisite, such a pale pink that they were almost white, but much more naturally beautiful than the larger red and white roses surrounding them.
"These are my favourites too," Jack told me. I reached out and stroked one of the blooms lightly, feeling the velvety texture and breathing in the delicate scent that my touch had released.
"They're..." I struggled to find a word good enough to describe these radiant flowers.
"It's a shame I can't grow more of them, but they don't sell. I only keep them here because I couldn't stand to get rid of them. People prefer the more traditional colours, like red and white."
"You sell them?"
"At a little market. Not here, obviously, but in a market in a little town a few miles away. That's what I keep them for. I prefer the rest of the garden though. It's much more natural."
"So how come you have this place anyway?" I asked, turning towards him again.
"It used to be my mother's," replied Jack. "We used to come here every weekend and help her with it. My father wanted her to make the whole thing into a rose garden because he didn't understand why she found it so beautiful. When she left I knew that unless I took charge of it then he would probably either flatten it all and hire people to grow the roses or he'd just sell the land. This is the only place where I still feel close to her. It helps me remember, and forget."
"When did she leave?" I asked quietly.
"Seven years ago, when I was nine and my little brothers were three. I didn't really understand what was going on, but I had to pretend that it was all okay for them."
"That must have been so hard for you." He shrugged.
"I had to do it for them."
"I know how that feels," I murmured. He smiled at me, then sat down in the shade of the ash tree and patted the ground next to him. I rolled my eyes and sat next to him.
"So, do you have any brothers or sisters?" asked Jack.
"Both," I replied. "Older brother and younger sister. Malachi and Adina."
"How old are they?"
"Mal's twenty one and Adi's six," I replied, smiling slightly.
"Do they look like you?" asked Jack. "Because my brothers look like little mini versions of me, it's quite sweet."
"No, they don't look like me at all. They both have very blonde hair."
"What colour eyes do they have?" he asked. A perfectly innocent question, but it brought back all of the confusion and pressure that I had, at least temporarily, forgotten about. I suddenly became immensely interested in a ladybird on a piece of grass when I replied.
"Blue." I think Jack heard the change in my voice because he abandoned that line of questioning.
"Do you wanna go to the cinema with me this weekend?" My head jerked up.
"Um, do you wanna go to the cinema with me this weekend? There are some really cool films showing at the moment, and they do really good popcorn, and I thought it'd be nice for you to have something to do. I mean, it's okay if you don't want to, I totally understand, or if you have plans with someone else or something that's totally fine-"
"I'd love to go to the cinema with you," I interrupted him.
"Yeah, it sounds like fun. It'll be good to be able to get out of the house and be with a friend."
"Right, yeah," muttered Jack, looking away. His brown eyes met mine again for a second before moving back to his shoelaces. As I struggled to figure out what I'd said to upset him he abruptly stood up. "We should probably be getting back, last lesson is almost over. How are you supposed to be getting home from school?"
"Someone's picking me up," I replied. I wasn't any more specific than that, as I didn't want to mention the fact that that someone was my grandfather's lycan manservant.
"I'd better get you back then." He pulled me to my feet and we walked quickly back through his garden and out of the old gate. As soon as we were outside of the protection of the rowan trees I felt as though my troubles were about to engulf me again, but Jack didn't seem to notice my discomfort as he locked the padlock and led me back through the streets.
"Jack? Are you okay?" I asked him when the silence started to get to me.
"What? Yeah I'm fine," he said quietly. I grabbed his hand and spun him round to face me.
"No you're not. What's up?" I demanded.
"Just… Just thinking about my mum," he replied. "I've always felt like it was my fault, and talking about it just brought back all the memories, you know?"
"I'm so sorry. You could have just said you didn't want to talk about it, I'm really sorry if I upset you," I told him. "I know what it feels like for a parent to leave, but trust me it's not your fault." I smiled and hugged him, wanting to squeeze out all of his sadness. I felt his tears making my shoulder damp and I hugged him tighter, trying to stop the shaking sobs and make him feel better. "It's okay, don't worry, it's okay," I murmured. "Don't worry, I'm here for you, it's okay."
"Thanks," he said thickly, pulling back and wiping his eyes on his sleeve. I took his hand as we carried on walking and he smiled at me with red eyes. "Sorry. I shouldn't burden you with my problems."
"I don't mind," I replied honestly. "I'm always here for you to talk to." He smiled again and squeezed my hand.
We were about to walk down the alley when Gabe practically walked into us.
"Gabriel? What are you doing here?" I asked.
"Oh, uh, well I was looking for you," he replied. He glanced down at our joined hands and I felt Jack's grip tighten.
"Well, you know, you walked out of school on your first day, and it was sort of my fault," he muttered.
"It wasn't your fault," I told him.
"Yeah, it was. I should have told Jen to back off."
"Don't worry, I get it. She was getting protective over her boyfriend. It's not a problem."
"Ex-boyfriend," he corrected me. "And either way, I'm sorry."
"It's fine," I said. "Anyways, it helped me make a new friend." I smiled at him.
"Ash, don't we need to get going?" interjected Jack. "You said you're getting picked up and last lesson ends in five minutes.
"Oh right yeah, of course. Gabe, are you going back that way? You can walk with us if you want." I heard Jack mutter something but I ignored him.
"You skipped a lesson on your first lesson? Aislinn, I expected better of you," said Uncle M.
"Something wasn't right about her," I insisted. "The way she just controlled him like that. It's not normal! And I swear her eyes went silver, I'm sure they did."
"I know you're trying to come up with an explanation for his behaviour but there might not be one. Mortals are notoriously unpredictable. Anyway, that is not what we are talking about here; we are talking about you skipping a lesson. There is no excuse for it, and it will draw attention to us, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid."
"And so you should be," replied Uncle M. He nodded to me, then turned and left the room.
"Are you in trouble?" asked Adina.
"Were you in here the whole time?" She nodded. "You're not supposed to listen to other people's conversations Adi, it's not polite. But yes, I am in trouble."
"Why did you skip a lesson?"
"I don't know," I replied. "I was in a bad mood, and I shouldn't have done it."
"Why were you in a bad mood?"
"Because a Mortal girl said some nasty things, but that shouldn't have made me walk out of school."
"Why didn't you just put a Cast on her?" asked Adi, frowning.
"I haven't Declared myself yet, Adi," I reminded her. "And even if I had, we're not supposed to do Casts in front of Mortals, let alone on them. It would draw unwanted attention. Anyway it's not nice to put Casts on people because you're angry."
"But it would make you feel better."
"Not for very long. Afterwards it would make you feel bad."
"Why? Mortals don't matter," said Adi. I stared at her, too shocked to say anything.