A ROAD LESS TRAVELED

Danny Ross arrived back at his office to find a message from the Chief of Detective's office on his message machine, requesting that he present himself upstairs immediately on his return. He allowed himself the luxury of a small groan, knowing that no one could possibly hear it. 'Request' was polite terminology for 'get your ass upstairs now', and he knew he would get a proverbial ass-kicking if he didn't comply. Schooling his features into a practised look of indifference, Ross headed back out of the squad room.


Darren Boucher was almost as new in the job as Ross, having taken over the role of Chief of Detectives from Bryan Harris only a month before Ross was appointed to take over captaincy of the Major Case Squad after Deakins retired. Ross didn't really know the man personally when he took over at Major Case, but he did know his reputation. Boucher was as honest as they came, but he was also very much old-school and Ross knew he preferred the old 'nose to the grindstone' style of detective work that had worked well enough in the past but only worked now when coupled with the type of psychological profiling that Bobby Goren was accomplished in.

That wasn't to say that Boucher was against the psyche side of police work; he was well known to be open-minded towards new techniques, and had never been known to oppose any new style of policing, provided it was given an ample period of trial first. There was something about Boucher, though, that every time he was called to see him, Ross couldn't stop himself from feeling uncomfortably like a schoolboy who had just been caught smoking behind the gym.

He hated it, but it also had him wondering whether that was at all how Bobby Goren felt every time he demanded to see him about a case. The realisation was something of a jolt to the system, and he once again was forced to acknowledge that, by his own behaviour, he must have helped to make it an easy decision for Goren not to tell him about the Centre.

Ross barely kept himself from grimacing as he rode up to the fourteenth floor in the elevator.

The Centre. He couldn't help but wonder at the legitimacy of it all, even after watching that... what did they call it? Even after watching that sim disc. Even though the visual evidence they'd presented appeared to be beyond argument, Ross's logical mind tried to rail against it. Despite knowing the depths of depravity that humans were capable of sinking to when it came to their fellow men, Ross struggled to accept that there had been an entire organisation out there that had been dedicated to the types of degeneracy that Ross knew his own mind would have difficulty imagining.

Of course he knew about the several months during which Bobby Goren had gone missing. Just about everyone in the NYPD knew about it, and had heard at least one of the numerous stories circulating to go with his mysterious disappearance. The story that Ross had personally subscribed to was the one that Logan had mentioned earlier in Central Park, that Goren had finally snapped and gone crazy, and joined his mother in the Carmel Ridge psychiatric residence. That was one of the more sympathetic rumours. There had been others circulating that were far worse and far more damaging to Goren's reputation. Those were rumours that Ross had never and would never repeat. Love or loathe the man, no one deserved to have their character and reputation torn to shreds in the way that some cops had tried to do.

Of course, then Goren had resurfaced and, despite the strength of the rumours about him, had been back at work as though nothing had happened. Now, Ross knew the truth... at least, as far as Logan, Eames and their former captain presented it.

He walked into the outer office of the Chief of Detectives, his mind awhirl as he tried to focus. The last thing he needed right then was for Boucher to pick up on his distracted state and want to know what was wrong. Above all else, whether he really believed what he'd been told or not, he couldn't break confidence and tell anyone what he had heard or seen. That much he was confident of.

Taking a moment to gather his thoughts, Ross approached Boucher's personal assistant. She glanced up as he walked in, and offered him a pleasant smile. That smile, more so than anything she might have said, calmed any fears that might have been playing at the edge of his thoughts. If she was smiling, then whatever Boucher wanted couldn't be too unpleasant. At least, that was the theory he was working on, and he was going to cling to it for as long as humanly possible.

"Good afternoon, Captain Ross. Chief Boucher asked that I send you in as soon as you arrive. Please go ahead."

Ross nodded.

"Thank you, Jen. I don't suppose you know what it's about?"

The smile turned apologetic.

"Sorry, Captain. It's not for me to say, and I do like my job, if you get my meaning."

"Of course," he murmured, somewhat abashed. "Sorry."

He crossed the floor and, with a single knock on the closed door of Boucher's office, let himself in.


He entered a moderate sized office that was furnished modestly. Each time he found himself in this office Ross couldn't help but quietly appreciate the lack of excess displayed by the latest Chief of Detectives. It was a good example to all of the officers under his command that he refused to waste money on any sort of extravagances. The man didn't even have his own coffee maker at his disposal.

As he walked in, he noted another man seated in one of the chairs across from Boucher. He was an older man, civilian by all appearances, and he looked completely at ease where he sat.

"Captain Ross, come in," Boucher greeted him. "Have a seat, please."

Acknowledging the as yet unidentified man with a slight nod, Ross seated himself in the remaining empty chair. Any relief he'd felt upon entering the room was gone, and he found himself sitting stiffly on the edge of the seat. Boucher eyed him with mild amusement.

"You can relax, Ross. You're not in trouble."

Slowly, Ross sat back, although he couldn't quite bring himself to relax completely. Boucher nodded.

"Fair enough. I'll get to the point, shall I?"

"I'd appreciate it, sir," Ross said. "I do have a lot of work to do, and we are temporarily undermanned."

"Right. Goren is on compassionate leave, isn't he?"

"Yes, sir. His mother's funeral was just this morning. I took the liberty of letting him take all the time he needs. It... hasn't been an easy year for him."

Boucher nodded thoughtfully.

"No, I don't suppose it has. I heard he doesn't adapt to change all that well. Had issues with Deakins retiring...?"

Ross's thoughts went briefly to the harrowing story he'd heard earlier that day, and he couldn't help but think that the idea that Goren couldn't cope with change was so wide of the mark that it almost wasn't even in the same ballpark.

"Actually, sir, he's adapted to the change of command quite well. Unfortunately, he was disadvantaged in that I took over the squad with pre-conceived ideas about him and his methods. If there has been any trouble, it's as much my fault as anyone's."

Boucher's eyebrows lifted, and he exchanged a brief glance with the silent stranger in the other chair.

"That's extremely generous of you, Ross. But nonetheless, that isn't actually why I called you up here. It's come to my attention that it's been well over twelve months since the detectives in your squad had their last psyche evaluations."

Ross wasn't quite sure whether to be relieved or not when he realised where Boucher was headed with the conversation. On the one hand, psyche evaluations were generally nothing to be worried about, but it concerned him that it should come up now when Goren was at a very low ebb, with his mother's passing and the trauma induced by the Brady case. Yes, he knew more about that than Goren had been willing to share, although he had yet to learn just what had happened during Goren's final meeting with Brady. Something told him that he probably didn't really want to know.

"And when did you want the squad to have these evaluations?" he asked, quietly proud of how even he managed to keep his voice relatively even.

"I thought they could take place next week," Boucher said. He motioned to the other man. "This is Doctor Gray. He's been employed by the NYPD in his capacity as a psychologist to evaluate your detectives. It was thought that bringing in an independent doctor might reassure the detectives being evaluated that there's no hidden agenda. We just want to ensure they're all fit for duty. It's completely regular and, as I said, your squad has actually gone past the due time for an evaluation. So, I trust this isn't going to be an issue?"

"No, sir," Ross said. "I'm sure it won't be."

"Very good. Doctor Gray will be back next week, then, and I'll expect you to give him the time and space he needs to do his job. Doctor, if you'd care to see Jen outside my office, she'll put into process arranging a visitor's pass for you for next week."

Gray nodded agreeably, rising to shake hands firstly with Boucher, and then with Ross.

"Captain. I shall look forward to working with your detectives."

Then he was gone, leaving the Chief and the Captain alone.

"Sir, about Goren," Ross said once the office door had closed. "I don't think it would be of any benefit to put him through an evaluation so soon after his mother's death."

Boucher shook his head.

"Rubbish. Probably the best time for it. It'll give him a chance to talk out any issues he might have, in addition to getting the evaluation out of the way."

Ross blinked, taken aback.

"Sir... This is Robert Goren we're talking about. He's not exactly going to be forthcoming with a complete stranger about his recently deceased mother. If anything, I think forcing him into it too soon will only cause him to clam up."

"I understand what you're saying," Boucher conceded, "but I want this evaluation to take place, and Goren won't be an exception. Even if you have to call him in from leave next week, he will undergo the evaluation, the same as his colleagues. Is that understood?"

Ross felt sick to his stomach at the order, and wasn't entirely sure why.

"Yes, sir. He won't like it, and I can't guarantee what the result is going to be, but I'll make sure he takes it."

"Look, Danny, try and make him understand that we're not trying to stitch him up here. It's standard procedure that detectives undergo regular evaluations. It's past time for your squad, and it'll benefit everyone to get it over with sooner rather than later. It isn't a make or break for anyone's career, least of all Goren's. It's just procedure. All right?"

Ross let his breath out in a rush, thinking for the first time since walking into Boucher's office that maybe it wasn't anything to be too worried about.

"All right."


That evening,
Manhattan, New York City

Sydney sat by the window of the little café as dusk fell, indulging in his favourite pastime of observing passers-by as he sipped his coffee. It was fascinating, watching so many different people in such a compacted environment. Not that New York wasn't big enough, of course. It was more that people seemed to be drawn en masse to the city in general, and to specific locations within the city in particular. He didn't see himself as part of that throng; he was drawn for entirely different reasons to the masses that were, for the most part, after entirely commercial pursuits. He loved to watch, though, sometimes for hours at a time. It was a luxury that he'd only had since the destruction of the Centre's base of operations in Blue Cove, and the Triumvirate had made the decision to cease pursuit of Bobby Goren.

Distracted momentarily from his chosen activity of people watching, Sydney found himself reflecting once more on the disastrous decision to pursue Bobby. Everyone, himself included, had completely underestimated the lengths that both his colleagues and Jarod would go to in order to free Bobby from the Centre. The assault on the Centre to free the Pretender, coupled with the stunning destruction of the facility, was unprecedented, even for Jarod. Then, as if the loss of so much research hadn't been enough, the Triumvirate had sent Lyle and Raines to New York to reacquire Bobby, only to be returned in body bags.

That had truly stunned Sydney. For all the times that someone had tried to kill either of those two, and had failed, it had seemed that killing them was next to impossible. And yet, a small group of NYPD officers, operating more or less as vigilantes, outside the boundaries of their authority, had succeeded where so many before them had failed. Raines and Lyle were dead, killed in the process of attempting to reacquire Bobby for the Centre. It was shortly after that turn of events, that the Triumvirate had finally decided to cut is collective losses and wash its hands of Bobby.

What truly amazed Sydney, though, was that Bobby had been allowed to live. Every other adult Pretender who had been living outside the boundaries of the Centre, with the exception of Jarod, had been executed long ago once it had been decided that they were no longer of any use to the Centre. It beggared belief that Bobby had been given a free pass, and Sydney wondered even now if there was some ulterior motive behind the decision.

Still, it was irrelevant. He was, as far as he was concerned, on permanent sabbatical from the Centre, and he had no intention of ever going back. Too many lives had been destroyed by that place, and it was time to remove himself from it entirely. Maybe, by doing so, he would be able to reconcile with Jarod, whom he hadn't heard from in nearly two years.

A discomforting sensation descended on him, and lingered deep in his gut. His last contact with Jarod had been a deeply unpleasant phone call, in which Sydney had been reminded starkly of his failing when he'd unthinkingly placed Bobby inside the focus chamber, and Bobby had drowned. He couldn't recall Jarod ever being so angry with him before, and he remembered with a chill the warning of what might happen should he ever attempt to make contact with Bobby again. It seemed that warning was well justified in light of what had happened to Raines and Lyle.

And still, Sydney couldn't help himself. He'd bided his time for approximately eighteen months before finally giving in to his insatiable curiosity, and moving to New York City. He'd found a small, nondescript apartment, and had set about tracking his former charge's movements. It wasn't an easy task by any means, given how wide-spread Bobby's job as a detective seemed to go, but he discovered quickly enough that certain activities could generally be relied upon.

He'd found that if he sat on a bench at a bus stop each morning at approximately eight o'clock, an average of four or five days out of seven he could observe Bobby arriving at One Police Plaza. At least half of those times, he could be seen carrying coffee and some form of pastries into the building. More than half of those times, he arrived with his partner at his side, and that was something interested Sydney greatly.

To the uninterested observer, and perhaps even to some moderately interested observers, Bobby Goren and Alex Eames appeared to be just your typical cop partners. Sydney, however, keenly noted the way that their hands brushed as they walked together; or the way that Bobby's hand lingered slightly longer than necessary at her back as he ushered her through the doors into One Police Plaza. More than once, he'd observed them standing outside the complex of an evening, and then he would be likely to witness a stray touch to her hair, or a less than innocent look from her to him, coupled with a similar returned expression. Sydney was a master at reading body language, and Bobby Goren and Alex Eames were shouting out for all to see that there was far more to them than just an ordinary police partnership. They were, for all intents and purposes, a romantic couple.

Sydney couldn't help but smile to himself. He doubted that their relationship was permissible, at least as far as them remaining work partners went. They were subtle enough about it, though, that they were probably able to fly under the radar and go mostly unnoticed. He supposed that as long as their... what did they call it? As long as their solve rate didn't suffer, no one probably cared.

So Sydney had continued to observe Bobby and, by default, his feisty partner, for the better part of four months, now. He considered it quite an achievement that he had managed to do so, and stay undetected by Bobby. He had no doubt that had Bobby discovered his presence, he wouldn't have hesitated to initiate a confrontation. Both Jarod's warning and Miss Parker's slightly smug words of advice told him he needed to take seriously the threat that Bobby would quite likely visit some serious harm on him if they came face to face again.

Yes, Sydney took that very seriously, and yet he still couldn't help himself. He needed to see Bobby face to face, and talk to the other man. He wanted to understand the experiences Bobby had had since his release from the Centre. He wanted to talk to Bobby and get an idea of the methods that Bobby had employed to cope with the after-effects of his time in the Centre. He wanted to know, he needed to know, and he was certain that if Bobby would just give him a single chance to explain, that he'd understand and be willing to cooperate.

He was a fool. Sydney knew that. Deep down, he knew he would never find forgiveness with Bobby, and even deeper down he knew he didn't deserve any such forgiveness. It wasn't going to stop him from trying, though, and damn the consequences.

"I know that look," a familiar voice said, startling Sydney out of his reminisce. "It's the look that you always get when you're about to do something phenomenally stupid."

He looked up with confusion that quickly morphed into irritation.

"Parker. What are you doing here?"

Miss Parker seated herself without waiting for an invitation.

"Apparently, I'm here to stop you from doing whatever it is that you're thinking of doing. And I'm guessing it probably involved Bobby Goren. Would I be right?"

"It's lovely to see you, Parker," Sydney said flatly, in as unfriendly a tone as she had ever heard from him. "Now, please leave. I don't need you to babysit me."

"I'm not here to babysit you," she said bluntly. "I've been sent to bring you back. You've been recalled to the Centre, Sydney. It's time to go."

He blanched visibly at the order.

"I'm not going."

"You don't honestly think you have a choice, do you?"

Frustration filled Sydney's face.

"I have things to do here, Parker. I can't leave. Not when I'm this close."

Her eyes narrowed suspiciously.

"This close to what?"

In a gesture that she strongly suspected was involuntary on his part, his gaze flickered to the street outside just briefly before he discreetly lowered his head under the pretence of looking at a menu. Frowning, she followed his gaze and realisation dawned a moment later she cursed softly as she spotted Bobby Goren walking past with Alex Eames, the two of them hand in hand. Fortunately, the two kept walking and neither of them so much as glanced in at the coffee shop. Miss Parker took just a moment to note with interest the obvious relationship between the two before pushing that information to the back of her mind and rounding on Sydney angrily.

"You stupid fool. Jarod warned you, and I warned you. If Bobby finds out you're stalking him, what do you think he's going to do? What do you think his partner will do? Damn it, Sydney…"

"I have a right to see him, Parker!" he burst out. "He is my responsibility, and I have every right to be here!"

Parker stared at him incredulously before leaning across and speaking in a low voice that was edged with menace.

"You listen to me, and you listen well. You have no rights where Bobby Goren is concerned. You lost any right to have anything to do with any part of his life when you let him drown."

"That was an accident," Sydney muttered sourly.

"No, it was negligence," Parker snarled. "In the end, you were no better than Raines as far as Bobby was concerned, and if you don't take seriously the warning he gave, then you deserve everything you get."

The two colleagues stared at each other, neither one so much as blinking. Finally, unsurprisingly, Sydney looked away first.

"That's what I thought," Parker said icily. "Get a clue, Sydney. Bobby doesn't want to see you. Not now, and probably not ever. If you can't understand or respect that, after everything you did to him, then there is something seriously wrong with you. Now, get off your ass, get your bags packed and get back to Blue Cove before Daddy decides to send a sweeper crew after you."

Sydney looked out the window again, but Bobby was gone.

"Damn," Sydney hissed. Finally, he looked back at Miss Parker in frustration. "What do they want? Not Jarod again, surely?"

"No, not Jarod and not Bobby," Miss Parker answered. "Sydney, the Triumvirate wants to start a new Pretender program."

Sydney stilled very suddenly, staring at her with a look in his eyes that she couldn't read.

"They want to start from scratch? That will take years! And what about the children?"

"Daddy mentioned orphanages, but I got the impression that it wouldn't stop there."

Sydney sat back with a thud. Part of him wanted to embrace the opportunity with open arms, and ignore all the failures of the past. This could be a chance for a new beginning, and grand new successes. Except… He couldn't push Bobby's accusing stare out of his head. From the moment Bobby had woken up back inside the Centre, right up until that moment when he'd had to tell Bobby that Raines had been given full control over him, he'd done nothing but betray Bobby time and time again. He knew, right then and there, that he could not do that to another child. What conscience he still had would not allow it.

"I can't go back," he said again, this time for a different reason.

"Do you really think you have a choice?" Miss Parker asked. Sydney glowered at her, his irritation back with a vengeance.

"What do you want, Parker? Are you here to take me back? Or is there another reason you bothered to come all the way to New York, rather than just sending me a text message?"

She stared at him with that piercing gaze that seemed to penetrate right through him. It was a gaze that had made many a man tremble where they stood.

"I want to stop it, before they ruin another child's life. Orphan, not an orphan, it doesn't matter. The Pretender program should have ended with Jarod, but then they went that step too far and took Bobby. Now they want to start the whole goddamned cycle all over again. Enough is enough, Sydney. It has to end. We have to end it before it starts again, Sydney."

"And you think we can achieve this?" Sydney asked. He didn't want to come across as sounding amused, but he couldn't help himself. The idea that two people whose lives were bound intrinsically with the nightmare that was the Centre could put a stop to a Triumvirate directive was, at the very least, laughable.

"We can't," Parker conceded, "but Jarod could."

Sydney let his breath out in a huff.

"I haven't had any contact with Jarod for nearly two years, Parker. He's ignored every attempt I've made to reach out to him. I have no idea where he is."

Parker let out a soft huff, a small sound that fully embodied her disdain.

"You know it's your own fault. As much as I hate to say it, though, I haven't heard from him, either. He's disappeared completely off the radar, and I really thought that if anything was going to draw him out, it would have been the rebuilding of the Centre in Blue Cove. But he doesn't know about it; does know but doesn't care; or he has been around and he's been so careful that no one has noticed."

"He's certainly capable of the latter," Sydney mused, "and I find it hard to accept that he could know about it, but not care. We have to assume the demolition of the old building was as much his idea as anyone's, so I think we need to work on the assumption that he either isn't aware that it's been rebuilt, or that he does and he's been extremely cautious not to set off any alarms."

"It doesn't really matter which one it is," Parker said in a bored voice. "The fact is that we don't know where he is, and any messages you've sent either haven't reached him or he's ignored them. So that leaves open the question, how do we get in contact with him?"

She knew what he was going to say before he said it. Indeed, she'd anticipated it.

"We need to talk to Bobby," Sydney said, and the sudden gleam in his eyes turned her stomach. She'd known well enough that having to raise this matter with him would inevitably result in him using it as an excuse to contact Bobby.

"No," she corrected. "I need to talk to Bobby. You need to stay well away from him."

"Parker..."

She laughed, although there was precious little humour in the sound. She knew she shouldn't have felt incredulous at his stubborn determination, and yet she was.

"You just can't help yourself, can you?" she said, staring at him as though she'd never really seen him before. "All the warnings, and after what happened to Raines and Lyle, and you still think you can get away with confronting him? Don't you get it, Sydney? He might kill you! And if he doesn't, it's a fair bet that his partner will. Now, as much of a pain in the ass as you are, I don't particularly want to see you killed. So for your own sake, and my sanity, let me deal with this. Let me talk to him."

Sydney looked back out the cafe window with an inscrutable expression on his face.

"I don't want to hurt him, Parker. I never wanted to hurt him."

Parker's expression softened, and for a brief moment she looked as much like her mother as ever.

"But you did, Sydney," she countered softly. "We all did, but you? He trusted you to protect him, and you didn't. Maybe one day he'll find it in him to forgive you, but he's never going to forget that you betrayed his trust."

"What do you expect me to do, Parker?" he growled in frustration.

"I expect you to get your ass back to the Centre, and do what you can to find out about the plans for the new Pretender program, so that we can pass the information on to Jarod when he surfaces. You need to be on the inside, Sydney and besides, you want redemption? This would be a good start."

"And what are you going to do?" he asked. There was a bitter, resigned tone to his voice, and Parker felt a strong sense of relief that she seemed to have finally gotten through to him.

"I'm going to wait for the right moment to contact Bobby, because I think he might be our only chance of reaching Jarod. If it's Bobby who contacts him, he'll accept that we're not just trying to trap him again. At least, I hope he will."

"All right," Sydney conceded finally. "All right, Parker, you win. I'll go back. I just have some business to wrap up here in the city before I do."

Parker's eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"What business?"

He saw the look on her face, and a wry smile touched his lips.

"Relax, would you? I've been working as an art dealer. How do you think I've been making a living? It's not as though the Centre has been especially forthcoming with a liveable wage. I had to survive somehow."

"Of course you did," she retorted. "Fine. Wrap it up, and get back there as soon as you can. I'll be in contact with you once I've talked to Bobby." She stood up to leave, and then hesitated. "Don't get any ideas about trying to contact him before you go, Sydney. Trust me when I say it would not be a good idea."

He smiled benignly at her.

"Have I ever lied to you, Parker?"

"No, but you've never been completely honest with me, either," she said. "Just do as I ask, please. I was happy to bury Raines and Lyle. I don't want to have to bury you."


to be continued...

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