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A Grief Observed

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So far, it had been an evening where that one, eternal question of life kept being asked: "Why?" . . . At times, it seemed to be the only thing Walter was capable of saying.

He murmured it once more, as he held onto his beer. He had given up on any attempt at stoic machismo; his eyes were red from the constant stream of tears that flowed quietly down his cheeks.

Birkoff and Nikita looked at each other briefly across the small table they shared with their friend in the corner of the dimly-lit bar; they didn't know what to say to him. What was there to say, anyway? "She took one for the team"? "She was `acceptable collateral'"? . . . No. All the Section-type excuses were obviously bullshit. Belinda had been a calculated casualty in an ongoing, meaningless power struggle. . . . What possible excuse could suffice?

Nikita put her hand on Walter's arm and patted it. "I'm sorry, Walter."

"It's not fair," he whispered hoarsely at the table.

"You're right," Nikita murmured soothingly to him, as she rubbed his arm through his black leather jacket. Although it was warm in the bar, Walter was still chilled; he half-thought he might always be.

He finally looked up at her. "We would've been married by now." He shook his head in disgust. "I've been here . . . what--35 years?" He wasn't referring to the bar. "I've helped that worthless son-of-a-bitch in every way he's wanted. I can't be allowed a *little* happiness?"

She opened her mouth to speak but couldn't quite find the words. She paused again before saying, "I'm not sure they want any of us to be happy."

"You're too damn right about that, Sugar." Walter picked up his beer with his other arm and swallowed the remains of his drink.

Birkoff looked around the side of the booth and caught the bartender's eye. He motioned to him with his head.

The bartender nodded and started toward them. He probably would have served the young kid, if he had wanted it, since he was obviously a friend of Walter's, even though he felt sure his i.d. must be fake; he just looked too damn young to be 21. So far, though, it was only the blonde and Walter who seemed to be drinking--Walter faster than most.

He reached the table and got his first real look at his long-time customer; the woman had bought all the drinks up till then. Walter looked like Hell. "Wasn't this s'posed to be your wedding day?" The blonde and the kid gave him looks which said this was a bad topic. "What happened? She stand you up?" He tried to joke him out of it, but the blonde's eyes burned holes through him; he was glad she didn't have a gun.

Walter looked up at his old acquaintance. "She died, Vince."

Vince's eyes widened, all attempts at humor evaporated. "Jesus! What happened?" He found himself leaning on the table.

Walter focused downward, looking both grief-stricken and angry. Nikita continued watching her friend but answered. "Car accident. . . . She died this afternoon." Her hand ran down to grab Walter's, as she tried to convey her strength to him.

"Jesus . . . oh, Jesus, Walter, I'm sorry." Vince was having trouble keeping himself from knocking the kid out of the way and sitting down with them. He tried to pull himself together. "Look, whatever you guys want, it's on the house. . . . Jesus, Walter, I'm sorry." They seemed like the only words he could say.

"Yeah, thanks Vince." Walter, still staring at the table, took his hand away from Nikita's; he needed to clench his into fists to be able to keep up pretenses with Vince, and he didn't want to hurt hers--especially the one she fired with. "Can I get another beer?"

"Yeah . . . yeah, sure. I'll bring it over in a second."

Nikita watched Walter and then addressed Vince. "I'll come get it." Walter wasn't up to pretending with civilians, right now. She scooted out of the booth to follow behind the man.

Once they were at the bar, Vince drew the beer and handed it to her. "So, they never got married?"

"No. She died before the wedding."

"God," he sighed, looking at the bar. "I liked Belinda, too. She was so full of life . . . of spirit. She was the only woman I ever saw him with who could keep up with him." He sighed again and then refocused on her. "How do you two know Walter, anyway?" They seemed an odd combination.

Nikita gave him a half-smile. "He's an old friend of the family." She picked up the beer. "If you don't mind, I'd like to get back to him."

"Yeah, yeah, sure." Vince was lost in his thoughts again. "Jesus."

Nikita missed, of course, what happened in her absence. As soon as she left, Birkoff took a deep breath. He didn't quite have the courage to tell Walter what he was about to, but the older man had a right to know; he decided to just force himself through it. "Walter . . . Belinda gave me a message for you."

The older operative's head popped up; his eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What do you mean?"

From the look in Walter's eyes, Birkoff was half-afraid of being clobbered, but he forged ahead. "She," he took another deep breath, "Walter, she knew she wasn't coming back. . . . She told me she loved you . . . and that dying on the happiest day of her life wasn't such a bad thing."

Walter exploded, ignoring Belinda's message to focus in on Birkoff. "You knew?" He took him by the lapels of his shirt and tugged him to within a half-inch of his nose. "You little weasel--you knew she was going to be . . .?"

His words were broken off by Nikita, who arrived back to see Walter about to inflict some serious damage on Birkoff.

She had put the beer on the table quickly and was now reaching in to cover one of Walter's hands, her other hand on his shoulder, holding him off. "Whoa!"

"He knew, Nikita." Walter was ready to begin either sobbing or beating Birkoff to a bloody pulp. "The little creep *knew*."

Nikita had managed to maneuver herself back into the booth beside Walter, while still holding his shoulder. "It's not going to help if you hurt him. . . . Let him go, Walter."

The older operative had practically torn holes in Birkoff's t-shirt with his clenched fists. His fingers flexed for several seconds before he let go, pushing Birkoff back into the booth with great force.

The young man righted himself slowly and remembered that he was supposed to be breathing. Walter's eyes were still fixed on him. He took a deep breath. "She was in abeyance from the time you met," he said quietly.

Walter's eyes got wide, as he felt himself going more deeply into shock. "Why?"

"I don't know." The computer specialist shook his head, at a loss to explain Section's motives. "Her last efficiency review or something."

Walter shook his head, as well, numb. He stared at the table.

"I'm sorry," Birkoff whispered. "I tried to change it. They caught me."

Walter focused deeply on him. "Who did?"

Birkoff swallowed. "Operations," he whispered softly.

The older man began breathing more quickly.

"Walter?" Nikita murmured.

"I need to do it, Nikita. For all of us."

She turned his head toward her. "*No*. All you'll do is get yourself cancelled." He wasn't listening. "Where would any of us be without you, Walter?" she continued softly. "We need you. Without you, none of us has a friendly soul to turn to. . . . We'll all just be *stuck* here without *any* relief."

"There isn't any relief *now*," he argued. "We're," he lowered his voice at her look, "we're just their pawns. They're *playing* us, Sugar; they give us the illusion of affection and then take it away. *You* know that. We're like lab experiments to them; they're watching us all the time just to see how we react."

None of them noticed the goateed man observing them from the other side of the room.

Nikita's eyes got red. He was voicing most of her beliefs. "I know, Walter. I know, . . . but it's not going to get any better if we let them win. We've got to pull together just to get through."

"I'm not sure I want to get through," he returned, staring down at his hands on the table.

Nikita put her hands on his. "I know, Walter. I've felt the same. But if we all give up, there's no one left. I mean, who's going to look after the morality of things--Madeline? *Michael*?"

He shook his head. As much as he wanted to do it, to free them all of Operations, he knew it wouldn't really change anything; someone else would just take his place. . . . At least there were some people he was still hanging on for, too. Even though none of them could replace Belinda, they needed him; maybe they could get him through.

He laughed very slightly, after these brief musings, slightly encouraged but in no shape--or mood--to argue with Nikita's evaluation of her former trainer; he took her hands. "You've got a point, Sugar."

When they had all fallen silent for a minute, Birkoff spoke again. "Walter, I'm sorry. I wanted to protect her. . . . I couldn't."

The weapons expert took in a deep breath and turned from Nikita. "I know, kid. . . . You tried. It's Operations' fault, not yours. That evil old bastard's playing all of us."

They fell silent. It was obvious he was right, but there was little to say in response.

When the show seemed to be over, the goateed man made a few notes and smiled to himself, as the three friends tried to remember Belinda the best they could . . . and hoped that, somehow, they could avoid her fate, while keeping hold of their souls.