Julian Storm stood on the wooden porch of the old homestead, arms folded over the railing, watching his daughters play in the front yard. Hayley would be arriving any time now. Typically, his younger sister had insisted on catching a taxi home rather than allowing him to collect her from the spaceport.
The family as a whole had been shocked to learn that his sister had failed to return from shore leave. At first, her superiors had believed her to be simply AWOL but Julian had known there was more to her disappearance than that - his sister wouldn't just up and fail to return without a good reason. Not long after, her status had been changed from AWOL to MIA which struck the family as patently ludicrous - how could she be missing in action whilst on leave? Then came unconfirmed reports that her CO, Shepard was also missing. Further enquiries to the Alliance regarding his sister's welfare were met by a wall of impenetrable silence. Julian threatened to take his concerns to the media, the Alliance threatened him with extremely dire consequences unless he ceased his enquiries. Shocked as he was by such tactics - the Alliance was there to help them wasn't it? - he agreed.
Instead, he took some time off from work, travelled to Elysium where the Normandy had last been in port and made some discreet enquiries, helped along by the flashing of some large wads of credits. The last anybody had seen of either his sister or Shepard had been when they'd exited a club popular with soldiers. It was like they'd been swallowed up by a black hole. Frustrated by his lack of progress and the stonewalling by the Alliance military, Julian returned home, sick at heart by the thought of never seeing Hayley again. His daughters, Jessica and Chloe, both five wanted to know when Aunty Hayley was coming to visit them because they missed her so much.
Julian, hating himself even as he did it, lied to his girls. He told them that Aunty Hayley was on a very special mission, out helping the Spectres. Jessica and Chloe oohed and ahhed, suitably impressed.
Then, barely a week ago, when he'd all but given up hope, a transmission from the very edges of Council space landed in his vidmail inbox. It was his sister, looking wrung out by whatever had happened to her, and she was alive. Alive and coming back home. Julian made sure that the girls and his wife were safely out of earshot before letting himself break down in relief.
Julian stood on the porch of the old homestead, arms folded on the railing as he watched the girls playing in the front yard. They were both wearing their Sunday-best dresses and had even consented to having little pink bows tied in their blonde hair. Julian checked his watch; she'd be here soon enough. Even as he glanced at the time, he heard the humming drone of an airborne taxicab as it descended from the cloudless blue skies and angled down towards the road outside the house.
Even before the vehicle had fully settled to the ground, amid a plume of dust, the girls were running towards it, yelling exuberantly.
"Aunty Hayley! Aunty Hayley!"
Julian wasn't far behind them.
Hayley paused only long enough to pay the driver and remove her duffel bag from the rear seat before she swept her twin nieces into a firm hug. "How are my two favourite girls? I've missed you so much!"
The taxi departed, kicking up another swirl of dust and leaves. Hayley barely noticed, caught up as she was with her nieces. They smelled of baby shampoo, talcum powder and the pure innocence of childhood.
Julian arrived then and she stood to meet him. Brother and sister hugged one another, as her nieces clung to their Aunt's legs.
Julian took his sister's bag as she walked towards the house, clasping a child's hand in each of hers. Julian walked behind them as they headed inside, a little stunned by his sister's appearance. She was twenty-seven but looked about five years older; whatever she'd been through had left a mark on her.
"You finally found time to paint the house?" she called over her shoulder. Julian nodded. He'd painted the house himself, hoping to distract himself from her disappearance. The double storey wooden structure was painted white with green trim on the gutters and window shutters.
"Jess, Chloe? You two go on inside, we have grown-up things to do," Julian told his daughters.
"Awww!" they cried in unison.
Hayley smiled, "It's OK. I'll be inside shortly." She smiled as the girls ran inside.
"They've gotten so big since the last time I saw them," she observed, turning back to her brother.
"Hayles, what happened to you?"
She shook her head, strands of hair flying around her face. "I never want to think about...that again. Ever. I know you must have been worried out of your mind but I can't talk about it."
Julian nodded as though he understood everything. He wished that he did.
Hayley slipped an arm around her older brother's waist as they walked to the house.
"You know the old piano?" she asked as they stepped inside the coolness of the house.
"You been keeping it tuned?"
"Of course. I even find time to play it occasionally."
"Remember how we used to sit and invent our own tunes?"
Julian nodded silently. Hayley took him by the hand and led him deeper into the house, past the family holograms and into the family room, dominated by the grand piano.
Hayley released her brother, walked to the Steinway, pulled out the stool and sat. She shuffled over a bit to make room for her brother.
"Stool feels smaller than I remember it."
"Maybe your butt just grew too big?" he quipped.
Hayley smiled and resisted the urge to shove him to the floor. She didn't want to set a bad example for the girls after all.
Wordlessly, Hayley placed her fingers on the ivory keys and began to play. After a few seconds, Julian joined in. She was home. Finally, she was home.
A/N: The 'piano scene' has been in my mind as an ending scene for a while and it came out roughly the way I envisaged it. I also want to extend my gratitude to everybody who took the time to read this and comment on it. I'd thank you all by name but I'm too lazy. :P