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With Friends Like These

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It had been several weeks since Belinda had died, but the pain remained. No day passed without thoughts of her--without memories of her laugh, her voice--her eyes twinkling mischievously at him. She had been been beautiful. . . . She had also been an illusion. Real love, in Section, was always short-lived.

Walter was making his way back from Madeline's office now. He was somewhere in between insane rage and inconsolable sobbing.

He had come, until the last few days, to a point where he felt he understood his grief. The pain was constant, but it was outwardly manageable. When it had gotten too bad, as well, he could just go to Nikita. Somehow, just her presence was a comfort to him--sort of like a father looking to his daughter after the death of his beloved wife.

Nikita was, as she had been since her arrival, the main bright spot in his life--a reminder that humor and love *did* exist--even in this hell. She was the main reason he was still living, why he hadn't given up; she needed him, so he couldn't go yet.

She came by almost daily, too, knowing his need for comfort. She would stop by to look over his newest toys or to bring him some small snack she had discovered--whatever excuse she could find to be nearby when he needed her. Sometimes, it almost seemed to be a psychic link between them; she would show up just when he was the most despairing. . . . She was his personal guardian angel.

Of course, he had wondered about her motives when she had appeared yesterday, encouraging him to lie to oversight. Her visit had reminded him uncomfortably of her one betrayal--when she had been spying on him for Petrosian; he had felt a cold chill surround his heart, as he had wondered whether she was now acting for Operations--whether she had finally been corrupted.

Fortunately, however, that hadn't proved to be the case. She had, instead, obviously been pressured about his refusal and had come by to remind him of how much she needed him--to encourage him--not to lie--but to live. . . . It was a wonderful, Section-defying example of friendship.

Not all of his "friends," however, had acted so loyal lately. He glared at Birkoff, as he passed the young man on his way back to his area. Birkoff's betrayal had given real meaning to the old cliche', "With friends like these, who needs enemies?"

The young man looked up at Walter as he was passing, his brown eyes filled with pain and sorrow; it was a look his older friend ignored. "Walter?" He tried to catch him with his voice, but the man he addressed continued past without a look. "Shit," he muttered softly. He looked around but saw that he was not alone or unwatched. He reluctantly returned to his work.

Later that night, his anger still unresolved, Walter arrived at his car to find Birkoff sitting in the passenger seat. He opened the driver's door and got in, before closing it behind him; he didn't make eye contact. "How did you get in here?"

"I stole the u-key from you."

"There's something else you have to answer for," Walter mumbled. He looked at him. "What the hell do you want, anyway?"

"To talk," Birkoff said simply. Walter turned his head away, disgusted.

"Look, if you're angry with me, fine--tell me. I've had enough of the silent treatment."

The older man looked at him for a second. "You know damn well why I'm angry. What possible reason is there to talk about it?"

"So we can work it out?" the young man half-pleaded, half-explained.

Walter looked away. "I don't talk things out with Judas."

"Dammit, Walter!" Birkoff exploded. "I'm not Judas!" He took a deep breath, calming himself. "I did what I had to do--what I was ordered to."

His friend snorted, still turned away. "Is that excuse going to make you sleep better tonight?"

Birkoff's voice broke. "You think I sleep?" A variety of emotions passed over Walter's face, before he looked back at him. "D'you actually believe that I go to sleep unafraid of my dreams?"

Birkoff shook his head and looked out the car window before continuing. "I saw my first set of ops. die on a mission when I was *13*." He refocused on the older man. "Why do you think I have a reputation for being such a nightowl --for always being up? It's because I'm terrified of what I'll see, when I close my eyes."

"Birkoff, I . . .," Walter began.

The young man stopped him by shaking his head, staring out the windshield. "I used to try to see it all as some huge video game, y'know? I tried to tell myself it wasn't real, like someone was going to yell, `Cut!' and they'd all get up again." He looked back at his friend. "It worked, for awhile, too--full- out denial." He stared over Walter's shoulder, his eyes glazing. "Then Nikita didn't come back after the Shays' mission. . . . Just gone, y'know?" He refocused on Walter. "How could I deny that one?"

The older man had tears in his eyes. "You think I don't remember?"

"No, I know you do. That's why I'm telling you." He leaned onto the seat toward him. "I don't like all the orders I get given, Walter; I don't like a lot of them. I tried to save Belinda by changing her records. . . . It didn't work. If I'd known another way to do it, I would've."

"That still doesn't make cooking up that image of her to torment me okay," Walter argued.

"I *know* that." Birkoff shook his head. "I *hated* those orders, Walter, but I was afraid of the alternative--afraid what would happen if you didn't lie."

Walter leaned toward him menacingly. "If you think it was okay, because you were protecting me, . . ."

"No!" He shook his head emphatically. "It's *not* okay! *Nothing* I do seems to be `okay' anymore. *All* my choices suck! But if I have to do something underhanded--because of orders or on my own--to keep you or Nikita or Gail or Michael alive, I'm going to do it." He closed his eyes for a second and shook his head before refocusing on him. "You guys are the only family I've got left."

Walter blinked, realizing that he had failed--up to now--to give Birkoff the credit he deserved. Still, nothing the young man had said completely assuaged his pain. "Did you really think I'd fall for that thing--that I'd like it?"

"Personally? I was just hoping it wouldn't send you on a shooting spree." He half-smiled. "It wasn't my call, though. It's not like Madeline asks for my input on her mind games." He sighed, looking down. "I did hope it would help remind you that there were people here to stay for, though." He met the older man's eyes trepidatiously.

Walter didn't like all this, but he saw the honesty in the younger man's words. He half-patted his arm. "Okay, kid, you've made your point."

Birkoff smiled sadly. "Am I forgiven?"

"No," Walter responded gently, "but I understand."

The younger man smiled more brightly. "Close enough."

Walter gave a saddened half-grin himself and then sighed slightly, turning toward the steering wheel. "Wanna get a beer?"

Birkoff nodded and righted himself in the seat. "Sounds good to me." Walter drove them away from Section to his favorite bar. He was still hurt that Birkoff had helped use Belinda's image to try to manipulate him, but he knew that the line between friends and enemies here was a thin and fuzzy one; there was no avoiding that. He knew, as well, that the young man had been trying his best, in a perverse Section way, to protect him. Maybe, in the half life of Hell, that was the best any of them could hope for.