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Story Notes:
This is my entry for the pretender forsaken SIM Summer challenge n°1.

Brown eyes opened silently in the darkened bedroom and he laid still under his duvet, trying to work out why he was awake in what was obviously still the middle of the night. The open window let in the coolness and silence of the world outside. The alarm clock by his bed blinked 4:23. Silly o'clock, Emily would call it... Go back to sleep, it was just a -

But it wasn't. No sweat on his brow, no drying tears on his cheeks, no tangled sheets, it wasn't a nightmare which had woken him up. Frowning slightly, Gem listened hard. Was that voices he could hear downstairs? Yes, one of them was definitely his Dad's  and the other... Way too low to belong to Emily, it sounded like...  The teenager's heart skipped a beat – could it be?

Practically running down the stairs, his bare feet thudding softly on the dark carpet, Gem halted just before the turn into the kitchen, where the light was on. Briefly closing his eyes, he tried to regain his composure, though why, he wasn't quite sure. It's just that, for some reason the moment felt very important and if the other man in the kitchen was who Gem thought it was, well, the idea of coming face to face with him was overwhelming. Imagine a teenage girl about to meet Zac Efron and you'll get an idea of the intensity of his feelings right now. So, back to composure.

Tentatively,  he took a few steps into the kitchen then stopped again, eyes widening, when he saw that it was indeed Jarod who was sitting on one of their shiny black bar stools, elbows resting on the red countertop. His carefully non-descript shirt and jeans, far from helping him blend in, looked blatantly out of place among all the bold colours and contrasts which Emily had chosen when they redecorated the room a few months ago. Time to leave our mark somewhere, she had said.

Although Gem was sure that he must have heard him come down the stairs – it was hard to catch his Dad by surprise- the Major kept his back turned to the kitchen door and seemed busy opening drawers and cupboards, making hot chocolate from the smell of it. Gem understood the offer of privacy and was grateful for it. It had been hard for them at the beginning, but they had managed to find a safe common ground on which to build a father-son relationship. And while it couldn't be described as straightforward -there were too many lines drawn, too many silences, too many words not spoken for that- it had grown into a strong bond of love.

His Dad knew the importance that Jarod held for him, knew how he craved his big brother's approval, and was giving him a few moments of privacy with his idol. Gem had told him once that he frequently used the "What Would Jarod Do" method to help him through tough situations. Why, his father had asked, visibly puzzled, aren't you a pretender in your own right? Yes, he was, but Jarod relied on more than logic, intuition and his genius to guide him. He also followed his principles, listened to compassion and justice and didn't shy away from sacrifice. It was not something they taught you at the Centre.    

More than three years had passed since the man he'd learnt to consider his older brother had risked his life and given up his freedom for him. Gem knew that a lot of things had happened to him in that time, and that three years were more than enough time for anyone to change, yet he had somehow expected the Pretender to stay more or less the same strong embodiment of persevering hope he had first met.  After all, Jarod had escaped fairly quickly from the Centre after being recaptured, and had been busy following his mother's trail all over Europe, while still playing tag with Miss Parker and her team – so busy, a nasty little voice inside his head whispered, that he hadn't found time to visit the three of them.

But Jarod had changed : he was leaner, his skin had turned an unealthy shade of grey, and an odd blankness now haunted his eyes. In fact, the man who sat in their kitchen couldn't have been more different from the champion who had rescued Gemini from the Centre. The confident man who'd told him over an ice-cream that life was gift, as if that was the key to everything. The teenager's throat knotted with anger and compassion. What had happened to Jarod? He tried to swallow past his broken illusions but failed, an odd little sound escaping from his lips before he could silence it.

Instantly, Jarod's eyes were on him, almost frightening in their focused intensity, and for a second, Gem was certain that the Pretender blamed him for everything and his heart began to crack. Soon though, Jarod's features softened into a tired smile and the emptiness in his gaze receded. Gem tried to swallow again, willing his heart not to disintegrate yet, almost daring to hope that he was forgiven. For the airfield fiasco. For having spent the past three years with their father and sister when Jarod had been alone and on the run. For existing and being what he was, a living reminder of the wrongness of the world.

The Pretender slid down from the high stool and stood, appraising the young man in front of him for a moment, a myriad of emotions swirling in his eyes. Gem fought the urge to lower his gaze and chose to look at his Dad instead. From behind the counter the Major was observing the scene, the steaming pan of milk seemingly forgotten in his right hand, probably wondering whether to interfere or not. Whose side would he take, Gem wondered.

"You've changed,"  Jarod simply said at last, a whole assessment hiding behind those three little words. Still, the teenager couldn't hear any condemnation.

"So have you," Gem answered sincerely, thinking that he'd never spoken truer nor sadder words in his life, "it's good to see you."

"It's good to be back," Jarod admitted with small nod, glancing at their father as he did so.

Back? Gem couldn't quite believe it yet. Composure, remember... He took a couple of hesitant steps towards Jarod, who seemed to be holding himself together only by sheer strength of will. There was a story to be told, the young pretender thought. The story of a victory so costly that this shadow of a man was all that was left of his brother... Hopefully they would have plenty of time for that, well, that is, if -

"You mean you're back, back?" Gem asked, knowing exactly what he was asking. Are you rid of the Centre? Have you found Margaret? Can we stop running now?

Jarod's features darkened for an instant, his jaw clenched and unclenched a few times, as if he was biting back some great pain and then the tension was gone. The Pretender's face was composed once more and with a smile he softly said :

"Yes, back back."

A genuinely happy grin spread on Gem's face as he closed the remaining distance to hug his brother. No, more than his brother. So much more.

"Welcome back, then, big brother."

His chin resting on Jarod's shoulder, he felt the frail body of his once indestructible hero stiffen then relax. Thin arms wrapped around him and hugged him tightly back, almost holding on to him. Everything was not alright, but they would face it, eventually, and together, as a family, they'd confront the pain and find a way to live with it. They were all on the same side. That was a lesson the Major and him had learnt years ago.

There was the sound of mugs on wood and a second later, two strong arms joined the hug.

"Welcome home, son," the Major's voice, thick with emotion, fell on them like winter's first snow, and for a while the kitchen was silent while they enjoyed their reunion.

Major Charles was the first one to step away, soon followed by Gem. Before the atmosphere could turn awkward, the Major poured the hot chocolates and Gem started recounting the first time he'd ever had one. Soon the warmth of shared stories filled the kitchen as they sat around the small oval table and this is how the rising sun and a rather dishevelled Emily both found them, many hours later.

But that is a whole other story... 


Chapter End Notes:
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