A ROAD LESS TRAVELED

A/N: Surprise - no, I have not forgotten about this piece. I apologise to anyone who had given up on it ever being updated, let alone finished. All I can say is that last year was a nightmare. I hope this year I can rediscover my muse, and get prolific with the writing once more.


"Before anything is said," Bobby stated once they were ensconced with their coffees, "I want to make one thing clear. I'm not committing to doing anything. Do you understand me, Sydney? I've agreed to listen, and that's all. And if I see even one other face from the Centre, I will shoot you."

"Even if it's me?"

Mike and Alex were on their feet in an instant, ready to draw their weapons at a moment's notice. Miss Parker held her hands defensively, and spoke in the dry, sarcastic tone that Bobby remembered so well.

"Relax, people. I'm not here to cause trouble. Just to see that the good doctor doesn't get himself shot."

"He's been trying really hard," Mike growled. "And for the record, we're not too thrilled to see you, either."

"I'm crushed," she retorted. "Can I sit down, or would you prefer to just open fire?"

"Don't tempt me," Alex warned. "Just sit, before we change our minds."

Miss Parker smirked as she sat.

"Do you always let her do the talking, Bobby?"

He didn't so much as crack a hint of a smile.

"I don't owe you anything, Miss Parker, so do yourself a favour and don't insult my partner or my best friend." He looked to Sydney, and his expression hardened minutely. "You have until I've finished my coffee to talk. After that, whether or not I choose to act on what you tell me, I am going to walk out of here and I never want to see you again."

It was as blunt as Bobby could have made it, and Sydney looked for all the world as though he wanted to argue. To his credit, though, he didn't.

"I understand," Sydney said in what Bobby easily recognised as a well-practised conciliatory tone.

"The sad thing is, I think you probably do, and yet it wasn't enough to keep you away from me." Bobby shook his head. "I don't want to get into that. Just tell me what you know."

"That would be where I come in," Miss Parker said. She explained what little she had been told by her father, and confirmed that Sydney had been recalled to the Centre to head the new program.

"And you agreed," Bobby said. Though his words might have been toneless to the untrained ear, those present could all sense the scorn. Sydney offered a thin smile.

"I'm afraid I don't have the resources to say no Triumvirate and stay alive beyond a week. My best chance is to go along with it, and see that none of the children are abused."

"Too late," Bobby said, shifting in his seat with increasing agitation. "From the moment they're taken away from their parents... their families... it's already too late. It has to be stopped... before it can start again."

"The Pretender program, or the Centre?" Miss Parker asked dryly. "Because you do realise that the Blue Cove base has been rebuilt and is fully operational? Your little demolition attempt didn't achieve anything in the long run."

"Brigitte," Bobby said bluntly, and was immensely pleased that he could say her name without flinching. Miss Parker quirked a smile at him.

"True. I sit corrected. Even so..."

"It bought us the time we needed to get Bobby to safety, and give him time to recover," Mike cut in tersely, "and if I'd had my way, none of you would have been warned."

Miss Parker raised an eyebrow at him.

"You do know that you would never have found him if it hadn't been for me?"

The look on Mike's face was uncompromising and, surprisingly, it was Alex who broke the impasse.

"We didn't come here to argue about who owes who." She looked pointedly at Sydney. "You approached Bobby. Why? What do you expect him to do about this?"

"We're hoping that, at the very least, you can contact Jarod," Sydney admitted. "I've not heard from him in... well, not for a while."

"Since before I came home to New York, to be exact," Bobby clarified, and Sydney nodded in reluctant concession.

"Yes. It would seem that Jarod was more deeply affected by what you went through than I thought he would be."

"If you're surprised by that, then you're not half the psychiatrist that you think you are," Bobby said coldly. "He trusted you to do your best to protect me. Instead, you betrayed me, and more than once."

Sydney frowned, then.

"Aside from the focus chamber..."

"You let Raines cut me open and plant a tracker on my rib!" Bobby hissed, pain and rage in his eyes at the memory. An uneasy laugh escaped Sydney's lips, but the look in his eyes was very much akin to a cornered rabbit. His laughter faded quickly at the hostile look directed at him.

"I didn't realise you remembered that," he said.

"I didn't, at first," Bobby admitted. "When I did, it didn't take long to remember that Raines did it to me, and you let him."

"It was not a decision that I had any control over," Sydney insisted. "You must understand that, Bobby. I would never have put you through that if it had been in any way up to me."

"I tried telling myself that," Bobby mused. "Both after it happened, and when I remembered. I could have almost believed it, except... you broke your word over the one thing you told me was inviolable."

"I'm sorry, I don't understand..."

"Refuge."

Silence reigned and again Sydney looked like a deer caught in headlights. Bobby went on softly, with obvious forced calm.

"When I first arrived at the Centre as a child, the very first thing you taught me was 'refuge'. You said that it wouldn't matter what the situation was. The moment I said refuge, everything would stop. I was never naive enough to believe that applied to Raines, but I trusted you to abide by it. You betrayed that trust, Sydney, more time than I can count."

The silence was intense, almost palpable. Then, Sydney broke the impasse and dropped his gaze.

"I know, and I am sorry."

Bobby relaxed very minutely, and the expression on his face was deceptively passive.

"Maybe one day I'll be able to accept that apology, but not now and not for a very long time."

"I understand," Sydney conceded, though Bobby quietly suspected that for all his supposedly great comprehension of the human psyche, Sydney didn't really understand at all. He set his coffee mug down deliberately on the table. It was empty.

"Unless you have any other significant information for me, I'm going to get up and walk out of here now, and I meant what I said." He stared intently at Sydney, silently grateful that he managed to avoid flinching. "I don't want to see or hear from you again. Not directly. Not indirectly."

"Never say never, Bobby," Sydney chided very lightly in a condescending tone that raised Bobby's hackles.

"I will never be manipulated by you again," Bobby said in a cold voice. "Miss Parker. Please, say hello to Angelo for me."

With that, he turned and walked out of the coffee shop without so much as a glance backwards.

Miss Parker was smirking when Alex, Mike and Sydney looked in her direction. She ignored Bobby's fellow detectives, and instead focused on her long-time colleague and friend.

"You keep hoping there's some sort of emotional tether between you but even if there was, Bobby cut it clean a long time ago. Sooner or later, you are going to realise that you have no hold on him anymore."

Sydney looked uncomfortable as he sipped at the remnants of his own drink.

"I concede that as an adult, Bobby has no particular attachment. However, the child he used to be..."

"Is also long gone," Alex cut him off sharply. "The only good memories he has of the Centre from when he was child are of Jarod and Angelo..." She paused, glancing at Miss Parker. "And of you." She turned her attention back to Sydney before Parker had a chance to respond. "Nothing that you did to him has ever caused him anything but nightmares, so don't even think that you have any sort of bond with him. He wasn't kidding when he said he never wants to see or hear from you again but in case it wasn't clear, let me reinforce it." An instant later, Alex had her gun out and was aiming it right at Sydney's head. "Contact him again, and we'll give you the same treatment we gave Raines and Lyle. Understand?"

"Perfectly," Sydney said dryly. Alex nodded.

"Good. Mike? We're leaving."

Mike was already on his feet, and had his jacket back on. He eyed Sydney and Parker with the interest of a child watching the bug he was about the squash.

"If you feel like ignoring us, go right ahead. I could always use the target practise."

Then, with a lop-sided grin, Mike ambled out of the coffee shop behind Alex.

"You don't think they were serious, do you?" Sydney asked Parker with a nervous laugh. She barely cracked a smile.

"You don't think so? Then go ahead, ignore them. But don't expect me to be at your funeral."

Sydney's laugh vanished, and he grimaced.

"I think I won't wait until tomorrow to leave. I think I'll return to Blue Cove tonight."

Miss Parker's smirk widened a little.

"I think that's a damned good idea."


Alex wasn't remotely surprised to find Bobby on the roof that night. In all honesty, she'd expected it. It had become something of a reflex for him over the last twelve months. Whenever something upsetting happened that he struggled to get his head around, he invariably ended up on a roof somewhere. He didn't brood, although Alex suspected that some might interpret it that way. It was more that he was able to regain his focus almost like meditating.

There was something about roofs in general that Bobby found liberating. They didn't make him feel claustrophobic or trapped. They let him think his way through complexities without unwanted pressure. She understood that, and usually chose not to interrupt. Tonight, however, was different. Tonight, he had on his mind a problem that she was determined not to let him deal with alone.

Alex approached slowly, making more noise than she ordinarily would so as not to startle him. As she neared him, he glanced back and offered both his arm and a half smile. She stepped willingly into the embrace. After all, it was after midnight and cold.

"How are coping?" she wondered softly. Bobby gave a non-committal half shrug.

"Considering the circumstances? Better than average. It all feels a little surreal, actually. All the ways I imagined meeting Sydney again and this didn't even come close."

"You always expected to see him again, didn't you?"

"Yes," Bobby admitted honestly. "I knew he'd turn up sooner or later, that he wouldn't be able to help himself. I'm actually surprised that he took this long."

"Do you think he'll do as you ask and stay away now?" she asked. Laughter, short and bitter, rumbled through him.

"I doubt it. What really annoys me is that he's put me in a position where I might well need to contact him. He's a cunning bastard, I have to give him that."

She met that with silence, digesting his words slowly. She knew she wasn't misinterpreting what he was saying, and the potential implications burned deep.

"You're going to act on what they told us, aren't you?"

Bobby's shoulders slumped a little, though whether that was out of relief or in dejection, she couldn't be sure.

"I'll contact Jarod but I can't step back and leave him to deal with it. I can't turn a blind eye, not to this."

"Damn him to hell for dragging you back in," Alex said bitterly.

"The worst part is, he believes he's doing the right thing," Bobby muttered. He considered that, and then shook his head. "No, the worst part is, he did do the right thing. As much as I hate him, I would have hated him even more if he'd kept it from me and I found out about it later, when it might be too late to stop it."

Alex chewed lightly on her lower lip, knowing she had to ask the question and wholeheartedly wishing she didn't.

"Can't you let this go, Bobby? Sure, contact Jarod, but then just step away from it. They've left you alone since we dealt with Raines and Lyle. Do you really want to jeopardise that?"

"Of course I don't want to, but this isn't about what I want. I cannot look the other way, knowing a whole new generation is at risk. How could I look at myself in the mirror if I did?"

"I know," Alex sighed. "I had to try, though. Do you have any idea how you'll put a stop to it?"

"Not a clue," Bobby admitted. "My first step will be to get in touch with Jarod. Then I'll probably have to submit my resignation to Ross."

Alex went rigid beside him, horrified by his words.

"Robert Goren, don't you dare! After everything you went through to get your shield back, I will shoot you myself if you do that!"

The pain in Bobby's eyes was palpable as he spoke.

"Alex, even though Ross knows, he can't be expected to cover for me like Deakins did. I don't know how long this will take, or how long I might have to be gone for. Even if he was willing, it'd eventually get back to the brass, and then it'd be his head on a plate. That wouldn't be fair to him, not after the way he's had our backs... even when I didn't deserve it."

Turning, Alex hugged him fiercely.

"He understood, Bobby. I won't say he wasn't pissed off, but he understood. Listen, just promise me that you'll at least talk to Ross before making any decisions. Please, Bobby. For me?"

He regarded her seriously in the darkness.

"I half expected you to say you wanted in."

"I won't say the thought hadn't crossed my mind," Alex conceded. "But I also know that you wouldn't accept it, and I don't feel like having a fight with you over it. Besides, I know you're not disrespecting me. I know that you believe I'm capable. This is about you needing to know that I'm safe. Right?"

Bobby nodded, looking relieved that she understood his unspoken anxieties.

"Right. Thank you."

"Well, that goes both ways, pal. I need to know that you're safe, too. Or at least, as safe as possible."

Silence fell between them for a long while. When Alex spoke again, it was in a voice that was choked with emotion.

"I'm scared, Bobby. I don't want to lose you again."

"You won't," he assured her. Even as he promised, though, he couldn't help but wonder if he was making a promise that he wouldn't be able to keep.


In the wee hours of the morning, once Alex had gone back to bed, Bobby sat at his laptop and tapped out a simple, yet pointed email. The laptop was of special design and built from scratch by Bobby himself. Even Alex, with her tech-savvy mind, had been unable to work out how to use it, or to even get past the security. It was a constant source of amusement to her that once upon a time, Bobby had struggled with basic computer technology but now, he was suddenly capable of building his own super-computer.

Joking aside, the computer served a dual purpose. It allowed him a secure way to contact Jarod and it also gave him a relatively safe means to check on Centre activity.

Contrary to apparently popular belief, and the little show he'd personally put on for Sydney, learning about the proposed new Pretender program had not been that big of a shock to Bobby. He'd been intercepting occasional emails over the last five or six months between Mr Parker and a Triumvirate go-between and while nothing specific had been outlined, there were sentences here and there that had made Bobby wonder. There had been nothing definite, though, and certainly nothing that Bobby felt he could interpret as confirmation. Now, however, there was.

After a quick perusal of the email, Bobby hit send. The email would go through thousands of independent servers before reaching its destination, ensuring that even if someone intercepted it, there would be no chance of tracking it to its source. If, by chance, someone did manage that, they find themselves being directed to an internet bar in Northern Alaska. Bobby was taking no chances.

He didn't need to wait long for an answer. It arrived on his screen within minutes, and the promptness of the reply put a smile on his face. It was as simple as the question, but it told Bobby everything he needed to know. Jarod would be in New York within the next twenty-four hours, and they would work out what to do together.


At the same time that Bobby Goren was reading Jarod's reply, Danny Ross was busy putting his own skills and intellect to use. A little-known fact about him that was regularly over-looked was his self-professed knowledge of computers, programming, and some pretty remarkable hacking skills. He assumed most people believed he was overstating his own abilities, and that generally suited him fine. Everyone could think him a computer luddite. Ross knew the scope of his own talent, and he relished challenges.

A challenge was what he faced now. He'd been at it for nearly four hours and every block he struck only made him more determined.

The Centre was an enigma to Ross that seemed like it surely belonged more in one of the horror films his eldest son loved so much, rather than a real life town, and yet the evidence was irrefutable. He had seen with his own eyes the footage of Bobby Goren's abduction from within the walls of One Police Plaza and he'd seen the sim disc and all the abuse it detailed.

Precious little effort had uncovered Jim Deakins' original report that Goren had taken extended, open-ended leave of absence. Ross vividly recalled the wild rumours that had circulated at the time, but he also recalled stories of Major Case detectives who had erupted in rage whenever they overheard anyone making jokes about the absent detective.

It had seemed unbelievable that a whole squad could be so defensive over a man who'd won a reputation as the NYPD's resident kook, but Ross had witnessed it with his own eyes not twenty-four hours ago. There could be no doubting the regard in which Goren was held by his fellow MCS detectives.

He had enough evidence to satisfy any doubts but still he continued to search. Though he'd not reacted at the time, Sydney's last words before leaving the squad room had struck a deep chord. The Centre was starting the Pretender program again. To Ross, that meant one of two possibilities. Either Goren was again at risk, or it was a new program with new children. He suspected it was the latter, if only because Logan had been fairly calm on returning to the bullpen.

Ross quickly discovered how disturbed he was by the concept of children being locked away and stripped of their identities. He thought of his own sons; imagined them locked up and experimented on in the way Goren had been, and he felt pure rage. It had prompted him to start digging and now, hours later, he was still digging. For what he wasn't entirely sure. He just hoped he'd know it when he saw it.

He was at risk of losing the battle against sleep when his programming slipped past the firewall of a heavily secured mainframe. The next thing he knew, he was wide awake and staring at highly confidential documents that detailed unspeakable experiments on human guinea pigs, both children and adults alike.

"Sons of bitches," Ross muttered as he sat back in his chair. Even if he hadn't considered himself involved before, he was now. He only needed to imagine either of his own sons in the clutches of these people, and it was enough to set his blood boiling.

Ross scrolled through the files he'd uncovered, sickened by the quantity as well as the content. It horrified him that an agency of any kind existed with enough power and influence to be able to carry about heinous experiments over such a prolonged period. If this was what Goren had been subjected to, no wonder his colleagues were so protective of him.

Aware that he could be putting himself at risk, Ross set the computer to download the worst files, along with any other evidence he thought might be relevant. He had no idea whether it would ever be used, but he wasn't going to risk coming back later to find it had all been deleted beyond recovery.

Most of the files seemed to be fairly clinical synopses of experiments that either had been conducted in the past, or were scheduled to be conducted. There were, however, what looked like journal entries and they all had one of two names attached: Sydney or Raines. All the dates, Ross noted with trepidation, fell within the time frame when Goren had been missing.

Curiosity took hold, and Ross opened one entry that was labelled "Sydney".


After a long period of rebellion, Bobby has suddenly started cooperating again; and not just with me but with Raines, as well. While I am relieved by this, I can't help but wonder what pressures might have been brought to bear on him without my knowledge. His entire countenance now is similar to when he was recaptured after his escape attempt...


Ross started. Goren had escaped, only to be recaptured? He could only imagine the despair that the other man must have experienced. He read on, feeling increasingly unsettled.


I am concerned, but Bobby refuses to talk to me about anything beyond the simulations I set for him. Trust is certainly an issue at the moment. There is little I can do, though, if he won't speak to me. At the moment, I must limit my observations to what I see only, and I fear an incident may have taken place similar to that which occurred between Bobby and Kyle as children. If I find that is the case, I may try to finish Raines off myself, if Miss Parker doesn't get to him first.

I have found, over the last few days, that I must take care that Bobby is aware of my approach. Startling him has resulted in near-violent reactions. I am truly afraid of what this all means and find myself extremely reluctant to dig further...


Ross shut his eyes, feeling icy waves sweep down through his body, one after another. He was not a fool, and he hadn't been promoted to captaincy of the Major Case Squad for no reason. He knew what the journal entry was intimating. At some point during his captivity, Goren had been sexually assaulted, if not outright raped. If that wasn't bad enough, the suggestion was there that it had also happened during Goren's time there as a child.

Turning away from the computer and pouring himself a healthy shot of whiskey, Ross contemplated all that he'd uncovered and felt his respect for Goren grow exponentially. To survive all of that and not lose his mind or turn into some degree of psychopath, Goren had to have a phenomenal strength of will. Ross couldn't help but admire him for simply surviving, let alone being able to reclaim his life and career. He knew he was still far from having an in-depth understanding of Robert Goren, but he was certainly closer than he'd been since taking over the Major Case Squad.

Slowly, Ross's thoughts turned back to the events of the day. That shrink, Sydney, had clearly had an agenda in taking the risks that he had in order to get close to Goren. He didn't presume to know what that agenda might be but he fervently hoped that he could encourage Goren to talk to him tomorrow, because if Goren was intending to act on what he'd been told today, then he was going to need the backing of his captain in order to ensure he had a job to come back to.

Then and there, Ross quietly vowed to himself that he would give that support, no matter how difficult things got.


to be continued...

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