I was nervous.
Okay, so nerves aren't unusual when you're a young paladin, especially not when you've met certain jumpers, but this was a different kind of nervous.
My finger hovered over the buzzer. The name tag still read the same, but if there were new owners, they could have neglected to change the name tag.
Okay, I told myself, On the count of three.
'Do you need any help?'
I whipped around, my hand shooting for the tether cable before I realised I'd left it at the house.
Stupid, stupid me.
I managed a smile at the woman, who was pulling a small trolley behind her. 'Nothing wrong,' I reassured her, 'Just...nervous,'
'Oh, an ex-boyfriend, then,' the elderly woman smiled and shuffled up the steps to the door. I stepped back so that she could get inside, and she was gone and up the hallway soon enough. I breathed a sigh of relief.
I turned back to the buzzers, and frowned. Could I do it, that was the question. Radar wrestled with Riley, the girl that had lied to protect herself. But the stronger one won out over the other.
I pressed the buzzer, and waited. I counted to ten, to try and soothe my nerves.
Half disappointed, half pleased, I turned back to the street. I could probably go to that little cafe—
I turned back to the buzzers. I recognised the voice, the bright, cheery voice that I'd hoped would always stay with me.
I half-ran back to the buzzers, and grinned.
There was a surprised silence. Leah didn't have any other siblings, and I was an only child. So there was only one person who had ever called her "Aunty Leah".
I grinned. 'Mind if I come up?'
There was a buzzing sound, and I pushed the door open. Leah lived at the top of the three-storey apartment building, and there was only the stairs. The trick to it was to not take the first flight two at a time, or in a rush. That way, you'd still be breathing by the time you got to the top.
Leah was waiting at her door when I got to the top of the last flight. She was smiling, and moved forwards, arms outstretched. I ran forwards, and we met halfway.
'Too bloody long,' Leah cried as we walked back to her unit, once the hugging and the crying was over, 'Four years! And you didn't once think to contact us in that time!'
'I got busy,' I defended, 'And after a while, it got...dangerous for me to call you.'
Leah shut the door behind us, and pointed to the couch.
I did as she said, and she went into the kitchen to make up some coffee. 'White, two sugars,' I called to her, and heard her chuckle.
'I haven't forgotten,' Leah stated.
It took five minutes for her to return with the coffee, and she sat on the lounge beside me, legs folded under her body.
'Okay,' she took a deep breath, 'Spill.'
And I did.
Everything, from the jumping to the paladins, from the discovery to the plan, from then to now. And Leah told me she knew about the jumping, because Mum had told her, and they'd wondered if that was where I had disappeared, because they managed to dredge up some old files on the computer about paladins.
'Where is Mum, by the way,' I asked, looking around. Leah grimaced.
'She went to work, and she'll probably be staying late. Your old man used to come 'round, too, once you took off.'
'Yeah? What's he up to these days?'
Leah regarded me carefully, and set the coffee mug on the table.
'Maybe I should show you,' she said carefully.
Try as I might, I couldn't dredge up any grief.
Sure, there was regret, and the thought that maybe, if I'd stuck around, this wouldn't have happened, but the man I remembered was a monster. Mum had had to take out a restraining order on him when they split, and he'd been an abusive drunk. He'd also been a gambler and an addict. So it sort of made sense to me as I stared down at the headstone in the ground.
'When?' I asked, keeping my voice low. Leah sighed sadly.
'About a year, now. Your mum took it pretty hard; he'd been half decent after you took off.'
'I doubt that,' I recalled the nights he'd come home drunk, nothing in his pockets. Mum had been relieved to be free of him when they split up, 'I'd have thought he'd stay the same until the last day.'
Leah fixed me with a sad stare. 'He didn't give up the drugs or gambling or drinking, but he did try to get the police involved, and tried to tear Sydney apart when you took off. He still cared about you.'
I stared down at the slab that covered the grave and shivered. 'Let's go,'
Leah didn't argue.
I left Leah's place in a good mood. Sure, it wasn't as good as meeting Mum again, but she'd told me that Mum might be home all day Sunday, if she was lucky. We were organising for it to be a surprise.
'Where have you been?' Dean demanded when I got back, 'We were starting to get worried.'
'Run into any Jumpers?' Liam grinned, and I managed a smirk. Radar was back.
'Damn,' Liam turned away, 'Junior's sleeping, so don't wake him up. He was freaking out when you were gone for more than an hour.'
'I just went to see—' I cut myself off. I'd been about to say "My aunty Leah", but my story was that I had no family left. 'Went to see old contacts, from when we were with Daniels.'
Liam smirked, 'Do they know anything about that kid he was after?'
'Nah,' I shrugged, 'They said it got shut down when he was arrested. Maybe someone took it up, who knows?'
'Yeah,' Liam rubbed his chin thoughtfully, 'After everything that happened...'
I've had my fair share of crazy paladins, and my fair share of dangerous jumpers. Jake Mannetje was just a kid pushed to the limit, as far as I knew. I'd had dealings with him once, when I was still working with Daniels about two years ago, but I hadn't heard anything about him since.
I hoped he was still alive, and safe. He was a nice kid, just caught up in the wrong mess.
Leah and I looked up as we heard the key in the door. I set my mug on the table as she gestured wildly.
'Go, hide somewhere!' she gasped, trying to compose herself on the couch. The door had opened, and I could hear shopping bags. There was nowhere left to hide...
I dove over the couch and pressed myself flat against the ground behind it.
'Hi, Ellen,' Leah smiled, 'Did you get the Milo?'
'Ugh, you have no idea how crazy the shopping centre is this time of a Sunday,' I knew the voice straight away, 'People everywhere. Took the checkouts girl twenty minutes to get through just my lot, too! They really need to train up their staff better,'
'Ellen,' I heard Leah set her mug on the coffee table, 'I've got some news.'
'Oh, what now?' I heard her voice getting closer, as if she was approaching, and tensed.
'You might want to sit down, Elle,'
There was a hesitant pause, and then I heard another person sit on the couch with Leah.
'Now, you remember what we looked up about Riley?' Leah asked. I slowly raised my head, making sure I was behind her. I saw her nod carefully, and Leah took a deep breath, her eyes flickering towards me briefly.
'Well, I had a call today,' Leah said slowly, keeping her face serious, 'I know what happened to her, now.'
Ellen, my mother, swallowed nervously, then braced herself before nodding. 'Go on. Tell me the worst.'
'Who said the news was bad?' I asked, cutting across Aunty Leah. Ellen gasped and whirled around, staring at me. She blinked in disbelief as I grinned at her.
There was a beat of silence, and then the shit hit the fan.
'You're in a good mood,' Junior noted. I smiled back at him as I folded my clothes into the suitcase.
'Am I not allowed to be happy?' I asked. He shrugged.
'Can I ask what's put that big, stupid grin on your face?'
'Yeah, you can ask. Doesn't mean I'm gonna answer,' I replied. Junior chuckled.
'Burn,' he sighed as I passed him, and he reached out and pulled me onto the bed beside him with his good arm, 'And here I was thinking it was just my presence, and the fact that this,' he waved his broken arm, still encased in the plaster cast, 'Gets taken off tomorrow.'
'Well, that's part of it,' I grinned up at him. He leaned down and kissed me gently.
'So, do I get to know the rest of the story?' he asked as he pulled away. I pursed my lips.
'That's top-secret intel,' I stated.
'Do I have to tease it out of you?'
'Do you want to tease it out of me?'
'What kind of a stupid question is that?' Junior asked. I chuckled softly, reaching up and wrapping my arms around his neck to pull him closer again.