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Missing You

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There are times when I still find your music in my soul/
There are days I think I see your face/
Many nights the twilight wind sounds so much like your voice/
Maybe I'm just missing you today.

-Dana Lyons, "Kevin's Song"

When the telephone rang, her outstretched hand trembled. At the other end of the line was the same breathy French-accented voice as always, calling for 'Josephine'. Like any other day, any other mission.

"Yes."

"Come in."

"Michael... I can't." Her voice broke on the last word. It was pointless to argue anyway, he hadn't heard a word she said. The line disconnected with a sharp click even as she struggled to clear her throat.

For a long moment she stood there, the receiver in her hand, the buzz of the disconnected line a counterpoint melody to her jumbled thoughts. She considered calling him back, begging - no pleading - to be released from this assignment. One finger hovered over the phone. Should she? Could she?

With a sickening twist of her stomach, she realized it would be useless. He wouldn't allow her to beg off; even if he did, they wouldn't. And she would have exposed another frailty to be exploited.

Instead of dialing, she turned off the phone, cutting off the repetitious computer voice reminding her monotonously to hang up. A voice that sounded eerily like the other mechanical voice that still haunted her days and nights. She suppressed the impulse to shudder.

As tempted as she was to hurl the telephone through her patio windows, she carefully, deliberately laid it down on the bar. They may have re-initiated surveillance. Better to be careful. Always careful.

She retreated to her bedroom to change. Black never seemed so appropriate.

***

She entered Section unwillingly. Not that she ever came in happily; but today was worse than usual.

Approaching Command and Control, her steps lagged. Comm was a hive of activity, as always; Simon and Andrea and Carlos were doing their best to handle the multiple missions and incoming intelligence that was Section's daily work load.

In the midst of the commotion his chair sat empty. Whether it was an almost superstitious fear to be so close to one so recently dead or a reluctance to appear insensitive, the black seat sat vacant and still.

For one brief moment she had a vision of Birkoff in that same seat; rolling smoothly and swiftly from computer station to computer station, his fingers flying over the curved keyboards he preferred, snapping questions and orders to his staff, processing all the various information relayed over the radio channels from the multiple missions he was supervising.

She could see him.

The vision wavered. She blinked, her eyes burning; when she reopened them, the chair was in the same place, frozen and silent. She stepped forward, drawn as a nail to a magnet, and ran her hand over the worn leather of the seat.

Cold, so cold.

She extended a finger and ran it over the keyboard, seeking... what? His presence, some essence of his life.

Whatever she sought, it was not here. Perhaps she would never find it; weren't they all ghosts already?

***

There were eyes on her, burning on her back. Turning around, she met Walter's gaze. Even from across the expanse of the center hall, she could see the concern and the pain in his eyes, carved into his worn face. He seemed to have aged years, rather than days.

Dear Walter, who had told her only hours after Birkoff's death that everything would be all right. Walter, who had seen his share of death and destruction and yet still retained his childlike belief that a hug would set everything back to normal.

Walter may be able to regain his equilibrium, she thought, but she doubted if she ever would. Something had broken within her; the sensation was akin to the first time she had killed a man. In her heart, in her mind and her soul, something was very very wrong and she wasn't certain it would ever be right again.

She stroked the keyboard with a fingertip one last time. And on the subject of things broken...

Pulling herself up to her full height, she firmly controlled the spasms in her stomach, refusing to consider the possibility that he would not let her set things right.

She took a final glance around Comm; at the scurrying operatives Birkoff had trained so carefully and so thoroughly. You did good, Birkoff, she thought, hoping beyond hope that he could hear her thoughts. They'll be fine, we'll be fine. Tears prickled at the back of her eyes. God, I hope you're fine, too.

***

She had walked down this hall a hundred times, a thousand times; had knocked on the door, just as she was doing now.

"Come." His voice was muffled by the thickness of the metal.

She swallowed once, trying to force down the fear and the hurt and the sickness that roiled in her stomach. Then pushed open the door.

His face was set, expressionless, when he raised his eyes from the computer terminal in front of him. "The briefing is in 20 minutes."

A queer sort of terror caught in her throat. How can I explain? How do I apologize for refusing his comfort? With all the losses in his life, Michael was perhaps the only person who could understand her impulse to hide like a wounded animal. Her need to pull away from his offered embrace, to retreat to the darkness of her unlighted quarters, to shed her tears of pain and rage and loss where the prying eyes of Section could not observe.

"Michael, I -" Her voice cracked and broke again. Closing her eyes, she willed her vocal cords to behave.

He sat, silent and unmoving, waiting for her to regain control. Part of her cried out for him to get up, to hold her and comfort her. But a tiny voice in her mind recited reminders of her recent behavior; her coldness and inability to accept his love. Small wonder the man is unsure about consoling you.

"May I sit here, with you, until the briefing?" Her voice was thin and reedy, but at least she had managed a complete sentence.

His lucid eyes were still locked on her face when she reopened her eyes. She saw something shift within their pale depths, come and gone too fast to decipher.

He nodded. "Of course." His voice, always soft, was barely above a whisper. She sat down, pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her shins. Michael returned his attention to the computer; reading and adjusting a profile, she assumed by his sporadic typing.

The silence between them had eased into something comforting; warm and gentle like a blanket. Unbidden, a tear trickled down her cheek, then another and another. Tears she had not shed since that horrible day.

Rotating the chair, she surreptitiously wiped her face. He moved so quietly, like a cat; his delicate warm touch on her shoulders startled her. He offered no platitudes, no easy words of comfort; only his large capable hands on her, offering silent comfort and support.

She turned her head and rested her cheek on his right arm. His breath stirred the loose tendrils of her hair as he pressed his lips to her temple.

The painful constriction around her heart eased slightly.

The disembodied voice from Comm broke the quiet. "Michael, your team is assembled for the briefing."

His hands fell away and she rose from the chair, smoothing her clothes and keeping her eyes lowered.

He discreetly tucked a tissue in her hand and she erased the traces of her tears, nodding her thanks. "That," again she had to stop and clear her throat. "That was very Birkoff-like." She forced herself to raise her eyes to his face.

A tiny smile lifted one corner of his mouth. "Very."

She glanced over his countenance carefully. She had been so caught up in her grief that she hadn't considered how Michael was handling the loss.

He had stepped back to his desk, retrieved his disk and shutting down his laptop. His face was lowered and the shadows played on his angular features, disguising any nuances that would clue her to his emotions.

"Michael?"

He looked up; his pale eyes were a flash of light in the dimness, reflecting back the meager illumination of his desk lamp.

She felt suddenly uncomfortable, pressing him for information he would not want to give. But the realization of her selfishness - even in grief - troubled her more and she plunged on. "How are you feeling?"

His jaw tightened minutely and she knew she had struck a nerve. His lips parted - please don't hand me the old 'I'm fine' line, she thought - and as if he heard her plea, he paused and reconsidered what he was going to say.

"He was a good man." With that brief declarative sentence, Michael moved authoritatively to the door, obviously attempting to end the discussion.

She reached out and caught his arm. There was the echo of a previous conversation in his response; a remark she had regretted for months. "Yes, he was," she agreed. She tightened her fingers until Michael met her gaze. "And so are you."

She wanted to apologize: for the various hurtful comments over the past several months, for her refusal to accept his comfort recently, for so much. But the words never left her lips. They stood silently, eyes locked on each other. She felt the air around them tremble with the unspoken messages sent and received.

Michael was the first to break the connection. Exhaling slowly, he stepped back. She let her hand drop from his arm and a small smile curve her lips.

Courteously, he opened the door and allowed her to exit first.

"Thank you," she said softly; and didn't mean for holding the door. His hand touched hers, palm sliding past palm in a secret caress they hadn't shared in -weeks? -months? -much too long.

She led the way to the briefing table, her steps faltering only slightly as they approached Comm. The black seat still in the same position, as if Birkoff had only stepped away momentarily. Concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, she continued on to the briefing area. Michael's hand brushed hers again as they began to seat themselves and she took comfort and strength from the brief contact.

Operations walked in, turned on the holographic screen and began describing their newest target.

And life - such as it was - went on in Section.