Her heart still pounding in her chest, Patrea Evergreen followed Justin, her beloved brother, out of the wooden stable. Though she had waited an eternity for this day, she could still scarcely believe it was real. She found herself wavering between wanting to shake him by the shoulders until his teeth rattled and wanting to hug him until he couldn’t breathe. Perhaps she would do both–in that order!

Patrea’s gaze roamed over her brother’s body, taking in the subtle changes that had been wrought by time away from home. He looked good, she thought. Fit, and in decent shape. Older, but then, of course, he would be. Still, it was all too easy to picture him as the gangly boy who’d disappeared so many years before.

Now, here he was, just as real as could be, standing in the shadows of a winter night. Not dead. Not begging for spare change. Not a child anymore.

He was wearing a dark hoodie and a pair of blue jeans that looked clean and fresh. When he dropped the hood so she could see his face more clearly, she noted his eyes were clear, his hair professionally cut, his teeth were even and white. On his jaw, a bruise was already darkening–a souvenir from Scott Vestry.

This wasn’t a homeless man, and that realization lifted some of the burden she’d carried all these years.

Patrea took a deep breath before speaking. In her line of work, keeping her language clear and cogent was paramount, and right now, she was a bundle of emotion—anger, relief, and regret—all combined into one. She stood, looking at Justin without saying a word until she trusted her voice not to break.

Feeling like a fifth wheel, Patrea’s husband, Chris, muttered that he’d give them some space. Patrea barely felt his kiss on her cheek, but appreciated that he moved far enough away to give her privacy, but stayed where she could see him for support.

Finally, Justin spoke. “It’s been a long time, Patrea.” His voice was soft and hesitant.

Patrea felt her anger rising up to push other emotions aside. She wanted to scream at him and ask him why he had left home all those years ago, but she knew that this wasn’t the time. Instead, she just nodded in agreement.

There was a long pause before Justin continued speaking. “I know I handled things badly and it must have been difficult for you…for everyone, really,” he said, his eyes not meeting hers. Patrea saw the shame in his face and softened a little bit more toward him. “I wanted to come back so many times, but I just didn’t know how to make up for the pain I caused. “

“We managed, but it wasn’t the same.”

Justin nodded and looked away, as if he was ashamed. Patrea couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy for him.

“Why now? Why did you come back?” Patrea asked.

Justin’s face softened as he looked back at her. “I missed my sister,” he said simply.

Patrea felt her heart soften. She had been so angry with him for so long, but now all she could feel was relief that he was back. Tears welled up in her eyes and she quickly wiped them away.

“I missed you too,” she said.

Justin bridged the distance to put his hand on her arn. “I’m sorry, Patrea. I know I hurt you and the rest of the family, and there’s no way for me to make it up to you, but I’m here now, and I’m so sorry.”

“Why now? Why here?”

“I followed the story of how Paul Hastings got what he had coming, saw your name tied up in it, and spent some time talking myself into coming around. I wasn’t sure you could ever forgive me. Was I right?”

Patrea felt her anger slowly dissipating, yet she was still hesitant to let go of it completely. Looking into Justin’s eyes, she said softly “It’s okay, family sticks together. We can start fresh. Come home with me. With us. Meet my husband and we’ll talk.”

Justin smiled and nodded. “I’d like that. I was hoping you’d help me go home.”

Patrea smiled too and the two of them stood in silence for a long moment, then she could hold back no longer. Saying his name on a sigh, she catapaulted into her brother’s arms, letting tears flow as his arms went around her, and she felt his body shake.

“Promise you won’t desert me again,” she wept into his neck. “I couldn’t bear to lose you a second time.”

Over her head, Justin locked eyes with his brother-in-law. “You won’t.”

When Chris nodded approval, Justin let his face drop into his sister’s hair, breathed her in.

“It’s so good to have you back,” she said through happy tears. “I can’t believe you’re actually here.”

Justin smiled down at her warmly and reached up to brush away one of her tears with his thumb. “Me neither,” he said softly before enveloping her in another tight hug.

It would take time for them to rebuild their relationship, but Patrea was hopeful that they could do it. As she walked back to the stable to check on her friends, a sense of peace came over her. She knew that whatever happened, she and her brother would always have each other.