Chapter One

He stared at the grey concrete building. For over six years he'd spent more time in that building than he had in his apartment. He'd enjoyed some of his greatest triumphs and suffered some of his worst failures in that building. He knew the building and many of the people who worked in it as well as he'd known anything or anyone in his life. He started as he realized he'd never stayed in a place or a job as long as he'd stayed at this place and with this position. He'd certainly never allowed anyone to become as close to him as he had Alex Eames. In the past six years she'd become something considerably more than a partner, something more than a friend, something less than a lover. It was, he realized with another shock, the most important relationship in his life outside of the one with his mother, and by far the best. "And in the last six months," Robert Goren thought. "I've almost destroyed it."

He leaned back against the building behind him. It was still early, and the streets not yet filled with people. He wasn't due in the office for another hour, but sleep largely eluded him the previous night. Now that he stood across the street from One Police Plaza, he couldn't bring himself to enter the building. Bobby sighed and ran a hand through his graying curls. He'd hoped that returning to work would help him, would fill the terrible emptiness that came after his mother's death. But the only things filling the void were fear and doubt. "I don't know who I am," he thought. "I'm not sure I even know…" He sighed and shifted his leather binder from his right to left hand. "The only thing I've ever been sure of is work…and now," he thought. "I'm not sure of that…"

He took a deep breath and walked across the street. He dreaded facing the other members of the Major Case Squad. He had no idea of any of them knew what passed between him and Mark Ford Brady. He was fairly certain that the prison guards had kept their silence about what happened in Brady's cell; one whispered that Bobby could have saved the state the cost of execution. Ross knew only that Brady had some connection to Bobby's mother, and that the condemned man ruthlessly exploited that connection. His captain apparently thought that Frances Goren was one of Brady's victims, and gave no sign that he knew Bobby might be the killer's biological son. Alex knew a little more, but not much. "Mom was his victim," Bobby thought. "I'm sure of that…Her visit to that shack…Something happened…It triggered a breakdown…Frank said she was never the same…But…can I trust anything Frank said…"

He reached the front door. Bobby pulled out his badge and ID and showed them to the security officer. As he rode the elevator to the eleventh floor, he considered Ross' warning that he might be returning to work too soon. "But I have to get back," Bobby thought. "I have to know if I can do this…And…And I owe Eames…At the very least…I owe her…"

The elevator opened, and Bobby propelled his body into the hall. He hesitated at the entrance to the squad room. At the early hour the room was largely empty with only a few people scattered at desks. Bobby saw a weary looking Mike Logan seated across from a young woman Bobby didn't recognize—he guessed it was Logan's temporary partner. Both were dealing with piles of paper work. A wave of guilt swept Bobby. He knew Logan and other detectives had taken up the slack of his absence, and he'd read enough between Alex's words in their few conversations to recognize the Brass was pressing on Ross. In the days after his mother's funeral, Bobby tried to ignore the news, but headlines and bulletins seized his attention and jostled his conscience. There were reports of a nasty and powerful new variety of heroin on the streets, a bank heist in the Bronx, the shooting of a young officer in Brooklyn, and the disappearance of a thirteen-year-old boy on the upper West Side. And those were the cases that managed to make the papers.

Bobby sat at his desk and surveyed his surroundings. His reference books sat at one end of the desk, and Bobby was surprised to see that the volumes showed signs of use or at least of being disturbed. The Santa Mug's replacement, still unmarked and dazzlingly red and white, sat on Alex's desk, which held several neat piles of folders, files, and papers. (Alex once wryly described her desk as an example of "organized chaos"; Bobby responded that his desk must be "disorganized chaos" in comparison.) Bobby clicked on his computer and began dealing with the emails, phone messages, and paper requests that had accumulated in his week away from the office. He worked quietly and efficiently; only the messages of consolation slowed him, and there were blessedly few of them. There were requests for interviews from the press and from the FBI and other agencies. Brady's massive and detailed confession broke many cold cases, and the families of the killer's victims and Bobby's superiors hailed him for getting Brady's confession. These accolades made Bobby feel like a complete fraud. He'd never looked at Brady's "gift." Alex gently told him that the document didn't mention anything about Frances Goren, although it appeared that several sections dealing with Brady's activities in the early 1960s were heavily edited. Bobby couldn't understand why Brady sent him the confession. Was it an attempt to reach him from beyond the grave? A perverted gift from a demented and demonic "father" to his supposed "son"? Was the absence of information about Frances Goren a continuing torture or an attempt to protect her and her son from public examination? Had Brady sent Bobby the document as an acknowledgment that the younger man, no matter what his biological makeup, was a good man? Was it an act of penance, designed to bring some peace to his victims and their families? Bobby had no idea. All he knew was that the confession resulted in the end of years—even decades—of doubt for many families, and the lionization—rightly or wrongly--of Captain Danny Ross, Detective Alex Eames, and Detective Bobby Goren.

Bobby stared at a sheet of paper. It was a note from the parents of one of Brady's more recent victims. "Thank you," it read. "Now we know where our Mary is. We can bring her home and bury her. We won't wake up and go to the door in the middle of the night to make sure she's not trying to get home. We won't stare at young women in the streets and think that they're our daughter. Thank you."

Bobby rubbed his eyes. "I should've gotten some coffee when I came in," he thought. "Maybe I shouldn't have come in at all…"

The warm, rich smell of coffee reached him, followed by a subtle scent of lavender.

"Hey," Alex said softly. "Welcome back." She placed a large coffee on Bobby's desk.

"Hey," Bobby answered tentatively. "It's…it's good to be back…I think…" He smiled weakly. "Thanks." He raised the coffee. "And…and for helping me through the funeral…and after. I'm sorry…I…I wasn't…" He struggled for the words.

"It's ok." Alex sat across from him. "You had a good excuse."

Bobby stared at his desk. "Maybe," he whispered. "But you were terrific…and I…I wasn't really there, I guess." He glanced at her shyly. "It was good of your family to come…I…I didn't expect anyone…and there were all those people…" He rubbed his hands along the edge of his desk.

"And then you called me last week…and kept in touch with me…even when I…" He looked up at her again. "Thank you, Eames."

"Like I said," Alex said brightly. "It's not a big deal. It's not like you were rude or anything, Bobby." She leaned closer to him. "Actually, I thought you were very considerate…very nice…to everyone…"

Bobby shuffled several papers. "It's…I feel like abandoned you…the Squad…You had to deal with the fallout from… Brady…"

Alex frowned at the mention of Brady's name, and Bobby's hesitation in saying it. She didn't know the details of her partner's confrontation with the killer, but from the evidence of their previous encounters with Brady and the contents of his scrapbooks, Alex had pieced together the horrible conclusion that Frances Goren was one of his victims. She strongly sensed there was far more to the story—that Brady's possible attack had something to do with Frances Goren's fall into mental illness, that Brady sought some connection between himself and Bobby—but Bobby steadfastly refused to discuss the case. For the past week, he'd been away and dealing with the ripples of his mother's death. As Alex dealt with the ramifications of Brady's "gift", she was alternately envious of and grateful for Bobby's absence—envious that he didn't have to deal with the storm and grateful that he was away from it. It broke her heart to see how the storm's last waves buffeted Bobby this morning.

"Yea," Alex said gently. "But I wasn't in the trenches dealing with Brady…and didn't have to deal with my mother's death at the same time."

Bobby concentrated on the papers before him for several minutes, and Alex feared she'd crossed some line. But when he looked up at her, gratitude filled Bobby's eyes. "You're being very generous," he said. "But then…you're being you." He smiled sadly.

Ross appeared at their desks. "Good to see you back, Detective," the captain said. "We've missed you. But don't push it, all right?"

Throughout the morning, several detectives greeted Bobby warmly. Alex watched him respond with barely disguised surprise and felt the uncomfortably familiar sensations of sadness and bewilderment at Bobby's reaction. "How," she thought. "Can a man so bright who reads people so well know so little about how people feel about him?" She chewed on her pen and studied her partner. His face was drawn, but the circles beneath his eyes weren't quite as dark as they were in the previous week. He was wary and guarded, but his body no longer vibrated like a tightly wound wire. "He's here, at least," Alex thought. "And he seems to want to be here. There's been times in the last nine months when he's acted as if he not only didn't care if he was here but as if he didn't care if he kept his job or not. He's here, and he's trying to reach out, at least for Bobby."

For the past six months the ground shifted constantly beneath Alex's feet, and she imagined that Bobby's footing was even more treacherous. She was convinced that Bobby had been as tortured by the Gages as she had been. After the attack on her, he reached out to her in small, tender moves that warmed and broke her heart—she remembered waking in the hospital to seeing him sitting next to her bed with his left hand clutching her right and his right arm stretched out over her body. And then Bobby's mother became physically ill, and he reeled like a yo-yo, one moment rushing to Alex for help, the next lurching away from her. Alex missed the ease of their professional relationship, but missed the ties of the personal one even more. She had friends, but not so many that she could lose one, and she certainly couldn't afford to lose this one. After their bruising—especially for Bobby—encounter with Mark Ford Brady and the death of Bobby's mother, Alex feared her partner might not return to Major Case or to the NYPD.

She studied Bobby carefully across their desks, trying not to make her scrutiny too obvious. She was grateful for his return, but wondered if he was coming back too soon. Her contact with Bobby in the week since his mother's funeral had been sporadic, with scarcely more than a few words passing between them and just frequently enough to let Alex know that Bobby was still among the living and the sane.

It took only a little prodding to get him to leave the office for lunch, although he did insist on buying. It took more effort to get him to speak to her. After receiving short mumbled replies to queries about his health, the weather, and New York baseball, Alex went for the direct approach.

"I'm glad you're back," she said quietly.

Bobby moved his fork. "It's good…At least I think…It's good to be back."

Alex popped a black olive from her salad into her mouth; Bobby had taken the green ones. "Yea…and not just because of the paperwork and that you eat the parts of my salad that I don't like. Although Logan has made a couple of remarks about our desks becoming fire hazards."

A smile haunted Bobby's face. "We might be able to pass inspection now."

"Do you," Alex asked, encouraged by his response. "Want to talk about anything?"

For several moments Bobby ripped at his napkin. "There…there's not much," he finally said. "Thank you…Your family…for coming to the funeral…It meant a lot."

"My parents got your card," Alex said. "They were surprised you got it out so quickly."

"I…I'm glad they got it…I wanted to get the thank you cards out…And I needed something to do…" He stared at the remains of the napkin. "I…I didn't send you one…It…it seemed silly…to send a card to someone…so…" His voice caught in his throat.

Alex reached tentatively across the table to rest her hand on Bobby's. "Yea, especially to someone sitting across a desk from you."

"There were so many people at the funeral," Bobby said softly. "I…I apologized to the priest and the funeral director…I'd told them there probably wouldn't be many people…And the church…" He shook his head. "It…It was nearly full…It looked like all of the Squad was there…"

"They do appreciate your work," Alex said gently. "And the way you take the flack from the Brass…and the Captain…"

His napkin lay in shreds on his plate. "It's just…none of them knew her…"

"They know her son," Alex said.

They walked silently back to the office. As they slipped in the door, Mike Logan met them.

"Brass and an FBI guy in the Captain's office," he said. "And the temperature seems pretty cool."

Bobby winced slightly.

"Maybe it doesn't have anything to do with us?" Alex said hopefully.

Logan shook his head. "Someone heard Goren's name…and the Captain keeps looking at your desks."

Bobby sighed. "Thanks for the headsup, Logan." He looked at Alex. "I don't suppose we've got a good reason to get out of here?"

"Nope…sorry," she said with a grim smile. "And it's too late…They've spotted us…"

Ross stepped out of his office; he looked nearly as grim as Alex. "Eames, Goren," he said professionally. "If you could step in here…"

They shared a wary look as they entered the captain's office.

"You know the Chief of Detectives," Ross said quietly. "And I think you know Captain Don Cragen of SVU. This is Special Agent Stephen Warren of the FBI."

Bobby and Alex acknowledged the Chief of Detectives with a cautious nod. They believed he fell on the side of James Deakins in the not so hidden divisions in the department created by their former captain's resignation, but both viewed all of the department brass with suspicion. Neither knew Cragen beyond seeing the sad-eyed captain at various departmental events, but his reputation was good, especially with Deakins. Warren seemed to lack the arrogance and stubbornness of the worst of FBI agents and to have the calm and professionalism of the best of them.

"Great job on the Brady case, Goren," the Chief said.

Bobby stared at his feet. "Detective Eames…Captain Ross…deserves a great deal of the credit, sir." Alex noted that both Cragen and Warren appeared impressed by Bobby's humility. "I…I just happened to be there," Bobby said.

"I'd say you were more than there," Warren said. "There have been attempts to get Brady to talk for years."

"I…I think he was just ready to talk…Maybe everyone else softened him up…" Bobby looked around the office. "Is that what we're here for?" He couldn't quite keep a desperate edge from his voice.

"No," the Chief said. "Although I was afraid Warren might be part of a force trying to get you to the FBI." He glanced at Cragen. "It's a current case."

Cragen sighed. "You might have heard about the disappearance of a thirteen-year-old boy on the upper West Side," he said. "His name is Michael Flynn. His father is George Flynn."

"Ah," Bobby said quietly.

"The psychologist with the rather extreme views on parenting," Alex said in a tone that indicated she didn't agree with those views.

"Yes…Controversial views, as I guess you both know," Warren said. He lifted several files from Ross' desk. "The Bureau doesn't believe the father's views have anything to do with the kid's disappearance. And we're involved mostly because Flynn caused a ruckus." He glanced at Cragen. "This is the Manhattan SVU's case…We know it…It's not within the FBI's jurisdiction, although the Bureau will help as much as it can."

"There may be nothing to warrant bringing you in," the Chief of Detectives said as apologetically as he ever sounded. "But I want all the bases touched. Flynn knows people, and he's pulling strings to get the best assigned to this case." The Chief looked at Bobby. "And you're the best…" He walked to Bobby. "I'd appreciate your assistance in this case, Detective. And I'd welcome the chance to talk to you about your future with the Department."

Bobby reddened and stared at his shoes. "Thank you, sir…but I'm where I want to be…"

The Chief nodded and left the room, leaving an uneasy silence.

"I take it," Bobby said quietly. "That this cooperation among departments and squads isn't entirely voluntary?"

Ross and Cragen shared a wary look. Warren fought off a smile. "You may be as smart as your reputation," the agent said. "Truth is Mr. Flynn…or Doctor Flynn, as he insists on being called…"

"Even though his doctorates are only honorary degrees," Bobby said.

"Yea," Warren said. "To say he's difficult is an understatement. He called the Mayor's office and the head of the Bureau here in New York minutes after he reported his son missing." The agent shrugged. "But if it was my kid and I had those connections, maybe I'd do the same."

"SVU has, of course, already started the investigation," Ross said. "And there's a possibility that Michael Flynn isn't missing at all…"

"Flynn and his wife are in the middle of a nasty separation," Cragen said. "My detectives have already established that Michael was very upset by it and told some of his friends that he wanted to get away from both of his parents. We're following that and other leads."

"Flynn," Bobby said. "Doesn't want to think…or doesn't want people to know…that his son would run away…

"Not good publicity for a man who tells America how to raise its kids," Alex said.

"No," Cragen said. "My people can deal with the boy's disappearance…But I can always use more good people…and if it appeases Flynn…I'd be grateful for the help…"

"And the FBI's resources are available to you," Warren said. "I need to get back to the office…but I'll leave you these files…They deal with some similar cases. If something else comes up, I'll contact you immediately. I know the Bureau and the NYPD don't always mesh, but I'm not one of those territorial guys. And I'll let my bosses and yours know we're working together." As he moved to leave, Warren turned to Bobby. "A pleasure to meet the man who got Brady to confess, Detective. I look forward to working with you."

"Brady," Cragen said after Warren departed. "Was a nasty piece of work."

"I'd rather discuss this case," Bobby said quickly.

"My people are aware of the situation," Cragen said. "And ready to work with you."

"But not necessarily happy," Alex said. "Just let them know we just want to catch the bad guys. "We aren't looking for headlines."

"Unfortunately," Ross said. "Headlines have a way of finding this squad."

Cragen nodded. "I'll let my people know that. I need to get back…"

"We'll be there ASAP," Alex said.

"Good," Cragen said. "Thank you, Detectives…Captain…I hope this is all an overreaction…Maybe young Mr. Flynn is already back home…"

"I'm sorry," Ross said as Cragen left. "I didn't want to give you a case for a while…especially a tough one that may be a political minefield." He addressed both Alex and Bobby, but both knew he spoke to Bobby. "You can say no."

Bobby stiffened. "I'm back," he said quietly. "That means I take whatever the job throws at me." He started to leave, but hesitated when he reached the office door. "But…thank you for the option, Captain."

He didn't see the worried looks that passed between his partner and his captain.

End Chapter One