Author's note: Story #2 for Gail for Fan the Vote; this could be considered a sequel to "Fire", but it can stand on its own. This is set after "The One That Got Away."
Little known fact about Clayton Webb: I collect postcards. Not just any kind of postcard, but those of skylines. From Saigon to Sydney, Los Angeles to London, my collection spans the Earth -- a way of remembering what I've seen and what I've yet to see. I organize the postcards in a black leather covered album after each trip, albums which I store in the back of my bedroom closet, next to the shoebox which contains all of the accumulated spare change I've collected over the years. For this past trip, I've brought back postcards of London and emptied my pockets of a few pounds and shillings.
I paste the last postcard into the album, close the cover, and am about to stash the album away, when I hear a knock at the door. Carefully, I put my glass aside and stand up. A quick glance at the clock -- it's just after nine in the evening. A little late for unexpected company, but then, I think wryly, all company is unexpected these days; I have not told anyone -- not even Sarah -- about my return to DC. She thinks, as does my mother, that I'm in Tokyo, that I have been there for days. I admit Tokyo is wishful thinking; it's one of the few major world cities missing from my postcard collection. One day, I think, but truth be told, Tokyo isn't a hot bed for terrorist activity. Instead, I have to content myself with heading to Malaysia -- via Singapore -- in the morning.
I glance briefly through the peep hole and then open the door.
"Rabb," I say shortly.
He stands there, his dark eyes stormy, and his hands jammed deep into the pockets of his blue jeans. He's wearing a loose fitting black t-shirt beneath his leather jacket, a t-shirt one that stretches nicely over his broad chest. Standing in my doorway, silhouetted by the light from the corridor, he looks nothing less than a pin-up boy in an aviation magazine.
"What a surprise," I say, running my tongue over my lips lightly.
He doesn't speak.
"Well?" I step aside. "Come in."
He enters my apartment and stops just inside the doorway. He takes a long look around, his gaze settling for a moment on my black suitcase by the door.
"Globe-trotting again, Webb?" Rabb asks sardonically.
I shut the door and gesture to the sofa. "Have a seat." I pick up my glass of wine on my way to the arm chair. Rabb sits down, a little awkwardly, in the corner of the sofa. He extends his long legs in the direction of the coffee table, knocking it slightly in the process. "Can I get you something? Wine? Beer? Tea?"
"No, nothing. I'm fine."
I settle back in my chair, content to let him sit on my sofa and brood. The soft glow of light from the lamp casts shadows against the wall, and I watch as Rabb takes in all of the decorations. He's never been to my apartment and he seems to take his time, pulling everything in. Finally, he looks at me. "I got your email."
"You could have just hit 'reply'. You didn't need to make the trek out here."
"Oh, I think I needed to." Rabb gets up and wanders aimlessly. He picks up a soapstone box I bought in India, and then places it gently back on the shelf. He glances briefly at the photograph of my mother, and then moves on to examine the cuckoo clock I bought in Bavaria a few years back. His fingers brush lightly against the pashmina scarf thrown across the back of the armchair. "Quite a collection you've got here. Do you enjoy living in a museum?"
I eye him steadily and then take another sip of my wine. "Are you here to criticize my interior decorating or for another reason entirely? I'm a busy man, Harm."
"And I suppose you enjoy using me as your personal taxi driver too."
"Taxi driver?" I frown.
"I received a memo from Alan Blasidell this afternoon." Rabb sits opposite me, his legs slightly spread, leaning his weight on his arms as he looks at me. "I'm scheduled to fly you to Singapore tomorrow."
"I heard something to that effect, that you were under consideration for the job."
"Your taxi service, in other words."
"I wouldn't look at quite that way," I say. "Granted, it's not as exciting as surveillance missions over North Korea." Rabb's latest exploits over the Korean peninsula have made the rounds at the Agency, but it makes me shake my head in utter disbelief. Testing an experimental aircraft, and then diversion to North Korea for surveillance, coupled with engine trouble –- it's the type of situation only Harmon Rabb would find himself in. And hell, it's also the type of situation only Harmon Rabb would be able to get himself out of.
He holds up a hand. "Why me?"
"Why did you choose me?"
"What makes you think I had anything to do with the assignment?" I keep my tone light and easy.
Rabb narrows his eyes. "Because I know *you*, Clay." The challenge in his voice is evident. "You're testing me. You're putting me on the line. You're doing what you always do, showing me up."
"You've got it wrong, Rabb. I had nothing to do with the decision to assign you to my current mission. Blaisdell simply thought given our past working relationship, we would make a good team. He ran the idea by me, and I agreed it would be something worth trying." I keep my tone deliberately light, non-committal. The idea of spending nearly 18 hours alone with Rabb is alternately terrifying and exciting; at the same time, Rabb's one of us now, and despite his track record of crashing expensive military hardware on a whim, I can't think of anyone else I'd want more to fly me on this latest mission. After hearing about Rabb's success in the Philippines, I admit to a certain amount of disappointment that he will not be joining me on the ground. His brute strength combined with my finesse -- no doubt we'd be unstoppable. "I assure you, Rabb, I have no intention of 'testing' you."
He considers this, tipping his head to the side, but never taking his gaze off me.
I shift in my seat. "Are you sure you don't want me to get you something to drink?"
"I'm fine." Impatience is evident in Rabb's voice. "I just need an explanation. The last time we talked, back in Langley when we had dinner, we didn't exactly part on the best of terms. And now you want me to fly you to Singapore?"
"Is there something wrong with asking for the best pilot in the CIA?" I keep my voice calm and even. I put the wine glass down. Every now and then, my hands shake -- a nice souvenir from Sadiq Fahd. "I've said it before and I'll say it again. I'm good, Rabb, but I'm good because I work with good people who help keep me at my best." I gaze at him. His face is half in shadow, half in light. "I need to get to Singapore safely and quickly. I found out you were available and requested you." I offer him a smile. "Consider it a compliment, Rabb. Consider this my way of showing you that I trust you, that I want you on *my* team."
"I wish I could say the same about you." Rabb narrows his eyes at me. "I never did trust you, Webb, and I don't expect that to change. Even if we are ostensibly on the same side."
I stand up, in part to mask the growing trembling in my hands. I grip the back of my chair. "That's your problem, Rabb. You're too pig-headed, too caught up in your own world, your own quests, that you've never been able to see what's right in front of you. And even when you do manage a moment of clarity, you trip over yourself. You never seem to get it together, never seem to figure out what's being offered to you." I tighten my grip on the back of the chair. My knees feel increasingly wobbly and the heat from the wine settles uncomfortably in my stomach. "I've never seen anyone quite as good as you at overlooking the most obvious of opportunities."
Rabb laughs. "You can be an awfully sanctimonious prick sometimes, Webb."
I blink a few times. The reproduction of Monet's Water Lilies, which I picked up on a trip to Paris about four years ago, blurs. I close my eyes and turn my head briefly to the side. Damn you, Sadiq, damn you, I think. The full force of bitterness wells up inside of me. For this moment, I'm back in Paraguay, strapped down to a table staring straight up at the wood-slat ceiling, as Sadiq and his men attach electrodes to my body. At night, I still wake up, biting down hard enough on my lips to draw blood. I try to tell myself to be strong, to not show pain, to not give in, but invariably the fight is lost. In the shadows, Sadiq and his men leer, their triumphant laughter ringing in my ears. And invariably, I wake up screaming.
"Webb?" Rabb's voice sounds miles away, as if he's on the other side of the Atlantic and I, I'm here. I slip to my knees, my head hanging down as I try to make sense of the designs on the red and white Oriental rug I purchased in Turkey on a mission last summer. "Webb!"
The wool is itchy against my skin and I'm only peripherally aware of Rabb kneeling by my side, his hands tight on my shoulder. Shaking, the earth is shaking, or is it Rabb? It's impossible to tell the difference. Nausea wells up in the base of my throat. The lights flicker and my left arm -- where Sadiq attached the first electrodes to -- feels numb. I close my eyes.
When I wake up, I'm lying in bed, undressed except for my boxer shorts. The sheets are twisted around my legs, as if I've been thrashing about; my skin is shiny with perspiration. I turn my head to the side. The clock reads quarter past two. My head aches -- a dull, heavy throb behind the right temple. And I remember that in a few hours, I have to get ready to leave for Singapore. I struggle to sit up and then Rabb's there.
"Careful," he says. His voice is uncharacteristically soft, almost gentle. He hands me a glass of water. "How are you feeling?"
"Like hell." My voice is hoarse. "What happened?"
"You passed out." Rabb sits at the edge of the bed. "You had some kind of seizure. After you passed out, I dragged you in here and into bed. If you hadn't woken up when you did, I would have been on the phone to 911. " He frowns at me. "You should probably reconsider Singapore and check into Bethesda."
"I'm not really going to Singapore." I have a hard time getting the words out coherently. "Singapore is just a layover." I grimace. "Your security clearance, it isn't high enough to take me all the way to where I need to go."
"Wherever it is you're going from Singapore then," Rabb says. There's no fight in his voice. "You're not well. You returned to work too early. You need time to recover, to heal."
"I was cleared by the Medical Review Board." I'd tell him about London, about the nine days I spent there looking for information on an upcoming IRA meeting, but once again, security clearance prevents me from doing so. More importantly, I want Rabb to know I felt just fine in London. Silently I curse my body –- but Sadiq Fahd especially –- for letting me down. "I can do this."
"Not in the condition you're in."
"I haven't lost my edge. I just need some rest. A good night's sleep."
Rabb presses his palm firmly against my shoulder so that I lay back down. "Get some rest then. I'll be at the airport if you decide to still go, but I wish you'd reconsider." He smiles briefly. "If we're going to be partners, we're going to have to trust enough to look out for each other."
My eyes widen. "That sounds funny coming from you," I tell him. Or maybe the joke is indeed on me, that all of these years I thought I'd figured Harmon Rabb out, nailed him to a T, I've been wrong all along. Perhaps he isn't just a flyboy with the penchant for danger and talent for surviving what kills most mortals, but someone with more depth and genuine feeling than I'd ever given him credit for.
Rabb stands up, shoves his hands deep into his pocket. He gazes intensely at me. "Consider this my way of accepting what I see in front of me, the opportunity that's being extended."
I blink in surprise. "What?"
He shrugs. "I don't like to hear it, but you're right." He stares at the African mask hanging on my bedroom wall; I found it in Kenya. "I'm not good at trust, Clay, and I've never been good at relationships, romantic or otherwise." His lips turn up slightly. "It's probably why I'm where I am." He shakes his head. "And I've never had the 'edge' that you talk about. So I accept."
"Accept?" I frown. My mind is blurry and it's difficult to make connections.
"You said back in Langley that you'd be willing to be my mentor." Rabb's attention is now fully focused on the African mask. He runs his fingers along the contours of the wood, and it's only now I realize what large and strong hands he has, and yet his touch is amazingly gentle and reverent. "I could use some guidance." His voice cracks slightly. "So I accept, but it has to go both ways. I don't think you're well enough to go to Singapore, but if you're going to be pig-headed enough to go anyway, you need me."
"There's a meeting," I tell him. "I have to be there. Al-Qaeda..." I let my voice drift off. Rabb's a smart guy, he can put two and two together. Then I stare at him fiercely. "Don't say a word to Sarah."
"You make it sound like I even talk to her these days." Rabb narrowed his eyes. "And I'm assuming since you didn't know that, you yourself aren't talking to Mac regularly."
I sense our truce has been broken. I know Rabb will always have a soft spot for Sarah MacKenzie, that she will forever come between us. I know he hates being defeated, that he knows he had his chance and he lost it. As for myself, I'm not entirely sure what it is I feel for Sarah. She's a lovely woman, intelligent and feisty, and I enjoy her company. But in her presence, I also feel somewhat claustrophobic, that I cannot always be as honest with her as she wants me to be. And perhaps that is why Rabb avoids his old life as well; relationships disintegrate when the truth can never be spoken.
"My relationship with Sarah is none of your business," I said coolly. Already, I feel stronger. I stand up, wobble a little, and Rabb catches me by the elbow. His hands are cool against my feverish skin. "I'll be fine."
"I need to be in Singapore tomorrow. I can't be late." It's impossible to disguise the urgency in my voice, and if only I could tell him, if I only could be truthful with him, I'm sure Rabb would understand.
"Look who's being stubborn now. You're going to get yourself killed if you're not one hundred percent." His expression softens. "But I understand the urgency and so I'll fly you there."
I turn to look at Rabb. He appears genuinely concerned for my well-being and I'm both grateful and surprised by his about-face. "I appreciate you being here tonight. I appreciate you taking care of me. And I'd appreciate it if you didn't tell anyone at the Agency about this episode." I smile wryly. "I haven't lost my 'edge', Rabb, just temporarily misplaced it. I'll be back to normal soon enough."
"If you insist." He releases my arm. "Do you need anything? I need to get some rest and so do you. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow."
"No," I say. "But thank you." I follow him slowly to the door. He does not say anything, just turns the knob and then closes the door gently behind him. I walk into the kitchen, pour myself a glass of wine, and sit down in the living room. My leather photo albums are still on the coffee table. With trembling fingers, I turn the pages, before stopping on the one with the London postcard. The space below and opposite are reserved for Singapore and Malaysia. The wine warms me as I close my eyes and lean my head back. I'm not thinking so much of Sadiq anymore, but rather of the way clouds look at 35,000 thousand feet.
~ the end
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