A/N: Sorry for the length of time since my last post - RL hit kind of hard, and it's been difficult getting my head into the 'write space' again...

Despite the bone-deep weariness he felt, and the intense desire to get drunk and go to bed for the next several days, at least, Bobby never failed to enjoy and appreciate any time spent with Alex's parents. Whilst not going quite so far as to consider them surrogates parents, they were nonetheless like family to him. This was the selfless couple who, on his return to New York after two months spent recovering in the care of Jarod's own family, had taken him in and treated him like their own son. They'd cared for and protected him, and it was something he would never forget and always be grateful for.

Now, in the immediate wake of his own mother's death, Bobby felt a deep gratitude once more for their complete acceptance of him, and of his presence in their lives. As with Alex, Bobby didn't even want to contemplate what he would have done without them.

He found his mind wandering as he helped John Eames with the post-dinner dishes, and it wasn't until John flicked him lightly with the tea towel that he snapped out of his reverie.

"Thinking about your mom?" John asked gently, with great sympathy. Bobby smiled wearily.

"A little, but I was also thinking about how lucky I am to have you and Helen in my life as well."

John smiled as he returned his attention to the dishes waiting to be dried.

"The same goes for us as well, Bobby, and I can't begin to say how glad I am to see you doing a bit better. I know this has been a hard year for you."

Bobby sighed softly.

"Yeah... But it's partly my own fault. With Captain Ross, for starters... I should have known he'd have preconceived ideas about me. It was kind of stupid of me not to expect that, and yet it still threw me when he arrived, and I realised he was already more than half way to making his mind up about me. He's a good man, though, and a good cop. I guess I just wasn't willing to give him enough of a chance. I... I'm going to try and do better when I go back to work."

"That's a good resolve to have," John agreed. "What about the rest of it, though? I mean, you managed to keep your head on straight when Lexie was kidnapped, and I know damn well that that would have been no easy feat for you. And then you were held at gunpoint... Mike got into that brawl with the FDNY and managed to get himself threatened by the mob... and then there was the business with Mark Ford Brady. None of you have had a stellar year, have you?"

Bobby grimaced.

"It's been difficult," he conceded, and John uttered a short laugh.

"Difficult. Bobby, you are a master of the understatement. I'd say it's been more than difficult. More like damned near impossible. The point, though, is that you've come through it intact."

Bobby nodded, smiling a little in acknowledgement of that not so minor achievement.

"Yeah. We have."

John chuckled at the satisfaction in Bobby's voice before glancing at the closed door that led back through to the family room.

"You do realise Helen is probably quizzing Alex about when we can expect to hear wedding bells, and all that soppy rubbish."

"Not yet, sorry," Bobby apologised. "We already talked this out. Neither one of us is ready yet to dissolve our partnership, and if we get engaged, then there is no way the NYPD will let us stay as partners. I doubt we'd even be allowed to stay in the same squad."

"Ross doesn't know, does he?" John mused. "He doesn't know that the two of you are together."

"No," Bobby confessed. "We've worked hard to keep it under wraps. Deakins never cared because he was there with us when our relationship… evolved, and he knew it would only hurt our solve rate if he split us up. Ross doesn't understand that, and right now I don't think he'd have any problems splitting us up."

"Even after the talk that Alex, Mike and Jim had with him and Mike's partner today?" John wondered. When Bobby shot him an inscrutable look, John grinned crookedly. "What can I say? I'm a nosy bastard. Answer the question."

Strangely, Bobby felt no resentment in taking an order from John. He'd wondered at that many a time, when John had told him to do something because, more often than he would like now, he found himself battling a swell of anger whenever someone ordered him to do something – even if that something was perfectly reasonable. It was a deep-set response to the many cruel orders he'd had to take from Raines, Lyle or Sydney during his time in the Centre, when defiance had meant a beating, or worse. In the end, his anger was all he'd had, and he had clung to it ferociously. Unfortunately, he'd clung to it for so long as a lifeline that it had become almost impossible to let go of.

George Huang was helping him to work through it, but it was a slow and painful process, and in the meantime he had to be hyper-vigilant that his temper didn't get the better of him. With John Eames, though, it just didn't seem to bother him, and he wished he knew why.

"I won't really know how Ross decides to take it until I go back to work. Alex said he didn't dismiss it outright, so I guess that's a positive, at least."

"I've heard he's a fairly open-minded guy," John said. "And anyway, if he doesn't believe it, you have other options."

"They showed him and Wheeler and sim disc," Bobby said suddenly in a subdued voice. "I don't know which one. Alex wouldn't tell me."

"Ah," John murmured. "Right. I guess they felt he needed a little extra convincing. Well, that's not such a bad thing, Bobby."

"Maybe not. I just didn't want to have to worry about going back to work, and not knowing whether Ross will look at me like I'm some sort of… of freak!"

John snorted.

"You say he thinks that of you already, so why worry yourself about it?"

If Bobby had been eating or drinking right then, he felt sure that he would have choked. As it was, his eyes watered and he coughed hard in reaction to the blunt statement. When he finally managed to clear his vision, it was to find John watching him with an unapologetic gaze.

"Seriously, Bobby," John said, "you believe that Ross already sees you in that way, so why tear yourself up worrying about how he's going to look at you after hearing the full story, and seeing a sim disk? If you already expect the worst, you're not going to be disappointed, are you?"

Bobby frowned. John's words seemed harsh, but there was something there beyond the bluntness. He knew John was pushing him; he just wasn't sure what conclusion he was meant to reach. What he did know was that he'd spent too long being negative, and he was tired of it.

"I don't want to expect the worst," he said finally. "Alex said Ross didn't just dismiss it all... and I know he's a decent person. I have to believe he'll give me the benefit of the doubt, and not just decide I'm a... a lost cause."

"Ah, Bobby," John said with a sigh and a shake of his head. "One thing you will never be is a lost cause."

"Thank you," Bobby said with a wry smile. "Now I just need to convince Captain Ross of that."

"Your dad thinks your mom wants us to get married," Bobby said carefully as they lay in bed later that night, spooned together comfortably. Though he tried to make it sound like a casual observation, in truth he was trying to gauge her reaction and, subsequently, whether it was something she herself wanted.

Though he would have been reluctant to admit it, The innocuous statement from John had triggered upon unexpected desire deep within Bobby. Slowly, he was coming to realize that he wanted all the things that John and Helen Eames had. A loving partnership, a good home... All the things he felt he'd missed out on, until now. He wanted those things, and he wanted them with Alex Eames. He just didn't know if he was quite ready to sacrifice their working partnership in exchange.

"Hey, Earth to Bobby," Alex said teasingly. He came back to the present, blinking at her in confusion.


She laughed softly.

"It's okay. You asked me a question, and then went all spacey on me. Do you really want to know what I think of my mom's fairly obvious attempts to get me into a wedding dress?"

Bobby felt his heart sink a little at her tone but he maintained a stoic facade and watched her with anticipation. Smiling, she rolled over to face him, leaned in close and kissed him softly.

"I'm all for it, but in our time. Not hers. I love you, and I have no intention of rushing this."

And just like that, his heart lifted, and the weight of tension and worry vanished from his shoulders. He hugged her close, kissing her lingeringly before speaking.

"I don't want to rush it, either. I love you too, and I want this to last as long as possible. What did I do to deserve you, Alex?"

"That sentiment goes both ways, Bobby." She sighed as she settled in his embrace. "Maybe the answer is right here. Maybe it's that we deserve each other. And you know something? I can live with that."

Bobby smiled in the dark as he felt Alex give in to sleep beside him.

"So can I," he whispered contentedly.

Late Monday night.

Bobby awoke in a cold sweat, the beginning of a scream on his lips as he was jolted unpleasantly back into awareness. For long, terrifying seconds, he couldn't remember where he was, and his treacherous mind played cruel tricks, deceiving him into thinking he was back inside the Centre walls. Then, he became aware of Alex beside him, and he sagged with relief.

It was a regular occurrence for him, to wake up from god-awful nightmares only to believe, however briefly, that he was still trapped in the Centre. Until reality took over, he could still see the sterile off-white walls of the room that had become his only sanctuary from the torments visited on him by Raines, Lyle, Brigitte and Sydney. When he did finally remember where he was, the relief was so great that he didn't know what to do with himself. More often than not, he wept long and hard, both with relief that he was no longer a prisoner and with grief that it continued to torment him so badly.

A few times, Alex had been awoken by him, and a quiet talk had led to less eloquent but still plenty vocal activities. Those times Bobby appreciated more than anything. It wasn't just sex, then. It was balm to his soul, and the love he felt from Alex settled him better than anything else could.

This time, sadly, was not one of those times. Alex slept soundly on the other side of the bed, undisturbed by his nightmare, and Bobby was loathed to wake her. As much as he wanted the physical comfort, he would not willingly disturb her. He eased himself carefully out of the bed, and padded in the dark to the ensuite to splash some water on his face and try and rid himself of the spectre of his dreams.

He knew, of course, what was behind this latest nocturnal onslaught. That evening, Alex had arrived looking troubled, and had been extremely reluctant to talk. Knowing better than to push, he'd prepared dinner for them both and they had passed a pleasant enough hour exchanging fairly meaningless small talk. It wasn't until later on, while they were ensconced on the sofa watching reruns of Frasier that Alex had blurted out the news that had been bothering her all evening.

"Chief Boucher has ordered everyone in the squad to undergo psychiatric evaluation."

Bobby had felt himself tense at her words, even though he knew deep within himself that he had nothing to worry about. After all, he was still seeing George Huang on a regular basis, and he knew damn well that Huang would not hesitate to have him taken off active duty if he'd felt it necessary. So, his concern wasn't that he might be found unfit for duty. Rather, it was merely the idea of sitting in a room with a psychiatrist, and having to answer potentially difficult questions that he might not necessarily feel comfortable answering.

In short, the whole idea was bringing his memories of the Centre very much to the forefront of his mind, and he was at a loss to stop it.

Bobby wanted to weep out of sheer frustration. When they'd taken the dramatic action against Raines and Lyle, he'd envisaged an end to the nightmares. His distress upon continuing to suffer from them had been palpable. Over time, he'd come to reluctantly accept that nothing was going to rid him of the nightmares. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but once he'd accepted that fact, strangely enough it made the nightmares a little bit easier to bear.

Every so often, though, something would happen, or someone would say something, and it would trigger the memories all over again, causing them to fill his mind as though they'd happened only yesterday. That was when the worst nightmares happened, when everything was churning freshly through his mind, and he was unable to distance himself from those mental torments.

It was no surprise to him that his nightmares had been primarily about Sydney. Out of everything, Sydney was the figure that represented the most profound of his unresolved issues where the Centre was concerned.

Raines and Lyle were both dead; he'd made his peace, of a sort, with Miss Parker and he'd seen Angelo free of the shackles of the Centre. Miss Parker's father was a non-entity as far as he was concerned; the man never featured in Bobby's nightmares, as far as he could remember. Sydney was the only tormentor who he had yet to face since his dramatic rescue from Blue Cove.

It plagued his mind far more than he would ever willingly admit to anyone, even Alex.

Slender arms slid around his waist, and he sighed instinctively as Alex's warm body pressed in against his back.

"Who was it this time?" she asked in a voice that was still slightly muzzy from sleep. "Raines, Lyle or Sydney?"

Bobby couldn't help but smile ever so faintly. She really did know him so well.

"Sydney," he confessed without hesitation. He'd learned a long time ago that a nightmare shared was a nightmare weakened. Being able to talk through his night terrors was empowering, and went a long way to easing his psychological trauma and stress.

"Mmm," Alex murmured. "Tell me you dreamed about him getting sucked into quicksand?"

Bobby chuckled, a deep rumbling sound that vibrated through the both of them.

"Sadly, no. It was back… in the Centre, I mean. I don't remember what the simulation was… probably not important… Whatever it was had me terrified, though. I begged Sydney to stop it, I used the safe word…"

"Refuge," Alex murmured, and Bobby nodded.

"Yeah. Refuge. He ignored it… he ignored me… Just like when he put me in the focus chamber."

Alex hugged him fiercely. She knew that still tormented him. Not so much the near drowning, though that had been traumatic enough in its own right, but rather the way Sydney had so callously disregarded him. It was something that Bobby simply could not bring himself to forgive or forget.

"Are you worried about tomorrow?" she asked softly. "Because if you are, we can call George first thing in the morning. You know he could put pressure on the brass to let him do your evaluation."

Another sigh escaped Bobby's lips.

"No, it's okay. I can do it. I need to do it."

"You don't have to prove anything to anyone, Bobby."

"Yes, I do. I have something to prove to myself. I need to know I can deal with these little issues. I can't let everything that triggers memories of the Centre bring me to a screaming halt. I'd never function, if I did."

She nodded, knowing that he did not need her to argue with him, only support him.

to be continued...

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