Element

By Seema (seemag1 at yahoo com)

Disclaimer: DPB!

Notes: For Gail, last story in the 'Element' series, spoilers for seasons 9 & 10. This takes place between "The Man on the Bridge" and "The Four Percent Solution" -- in other words, the pre-Christmas episode story (g). Thanks to Gail for providing the motivation and for looking this one over.

It's just after six when the cab lets me off. I give the cabbie sixty dollars, tell him to keep the change; it's the holidays, after all, and I'm feeling generous, if not a bit uneasy. I glance up at the second floor of the brick building; lights are on, ergo, Rabb is home. I take a deep breath and head inside. As I approach Rabb's door, I can hear some music coming from down the hall -- loud and percussive. I flinch. How the hell does Rabb stand the noise? I shake my head and knock on the door. It takes a few seconds for it to open. He's just as surprised to see me there as I am to be standing on his doormat.

"Webb," he says flatly.

"Hello." I hold out the package I brought. "Merry Christmas and a happy new year."

"Yeah?" Rabb doesn't move.

"Aren't you going to ask me in?"

"Give me a good reason why."

I shrug. "It's the holidays," I say. "Time for good cheer, good tidings and times, friends and family."

Rabb frowns. "I'm not sure where you fit into that equation, Webb," he says.

Once again, I hold out the package and hope he takes it. "Consider it a peace offering," he says.

"You know, things have been pretty good since you stepped out of the picture," Rabb says.

"I'm glad to hear it." I mean the words honestly. Telling the truth about me, about what I feel, what I do -- that's high on the priority list, the first and most vital element to healing the relationships in my life, my therapist says. Of course, it'd be a lie to say honesty comes naturally or even easily. So many years of hiding, so many years of making up stories -- I'm not sure where the real Clayton Webb even starts or ends these days. My therapist constantly reminds me it's a journey of a thousand steps and she urged me, in that earnest way she has about her, to take the first one. "Put some of the ghosts to rest," she said. Underlying her words is the threat: The CIA won't take you back unless they see some real progress.

Rabb puts his hands on his hips. "What brings you by?"

Again, I hold up the package I've brought. "Just a symbol of the season and--" I hesitate "-- my appreciation." The words sound corny, even to me.

He scoffs at this. "I can't even count the number of times you've almost gotten me and Mac killed," he says. He takes what I offer and runs his fingers over it; the shape of the package immediately gives away the contents. Rabb narrows his eyes as he looks at me. "I'm not sure a couple of bottles of wine can make up for that."

"It's a start," I say. "Can I come in?"

Rabb stares at me, tips his head to the side, and slowly nods. "Why not?"

Rabb's apartment is bathed in a gentle glow of golden light. It's warm inside, comfortable and feels like a home. I inhale sharply. I've been splitting my time between Manderlay and my apartment here in DC, but no matter where I am, it feels like the walls are closing in on me, that the shadows speak to me and I can't break free. Here, in Rabb's apartment, I don't get that feeling of being watched.

Rabb indicates the sofa. "Have a seat. Want something to drink? Beer? Wine? Something else?"

I shake my head. "No, I'm fine." That's the other thing I'm working on, in twelve easy steps, is curing myself of drink. I remember Sarah once telling me she couldn't recall ever seeing me without a drink in my hand after Paraguay. I accused her of exaggerating, of projecting her own addictions on to me. I think that night ended with Sarah stomping out, slamming the door behind her so hard that the artwork on the walls shuddered.

Rabb sits across from me, leans forward, resting his elbows on his thighs. "So how have you been, Webb? What's life after the CIA like?"

"You should know, you've been there," I tell him defiantly.

Rabb's lips part slightly. "Ah, but I came out of the cold sooner than you did," he says. "I wasn't in very long and I always wanted to get back to JAG. You, I'm not so sure of. So what do they have you doing, now that you're compromised?"

I hate that word. 'Compromised'. I hear it often, in my therapy sessions, with my supervisor, with everyone. It's an adjective, I feel, that's become part of my name -- Compromised Clayton Webb. As if I were the first agent to ever have a moment of softness in the field.

"Well?" Rabb looks at me expectantly.

I shrug. "Desk work, evaluating field reports, listening in to chatter. Maybe in a year or two, I'll pick up an assignment out in the field. It's hard to say." In fact, it's not so hard; in a few weeks, I'll be packing my bags and heading to a quiet cul-de-sac out in Iowa to do some undercover work. My supervisors say we're just investigating some wire fraud, some money laundering. "Nothing terribly dangerous," he said when he handed me the file. "I'm sure you'll do fine." I'd taken the file, glanced at it only casually, before putting it away. After years of tracking down terrorists across the globe, I'm getting sent to Iowa, to live in a Victorian house with a wrap-around porch, and for God's sake, painted a baby blue, to watch housewives go about their business. As they say, it's not the fall that kills you, but the landing.

Rabb glances down at his intertwined fingers. "It must be hard for you." It's a rare and unexpected note of sympathy and I'm touched by it, but I just shrug off the comment casually, because that's what the old me would have done.

"I manage." I take a deep breath. "How is Sarah?"

At this, Rabb jerks back up to look at me. "She's doing good." He quirks a grin. "She did miss you." It was probably a hard admission for Rabb to make, and I'm grateful for his honesty, his kindness; he owes me nothing and he knows it.

"I still miss her," I answer. Another stab at honesty. "But it's better this way."

"Is that why you came to see me? To get a Mac update?"

"No, not exactly." I take a deep breath. This honesty thing is hard. "I owe you, Rabb. I hate to say it, but I do."

"For what? The talk on the beach at Manderlay when I told you to get your ass in gear and stop feeling sorry for yourself? When you were sitting there by the water while your girlfriend was running around with an assassin hoping to find you before you got yourself killed?"

I ignore the bitterness in Rabb's tone. "For making me see what was happening to me. I wasn't thinking clearly then, not at all, and I don't think I had been, not since Paraguay, that is."

Rabb straightens up slightly. "You went through a lot there. It's understandable. And when you returned, you didn't take a break. You jumped right back into the fray."

"I like to keep busy."

"I think you like to think you're invincible."

I allow myself a small smile. "Well, that too." I look at him intently. "I did want you to know I'm working on it, that I'm making progress, and one of these days, I'll be back to the person I was."

"I look forward to it." Rabb takes a deep breath. "What will you do now?"

"Still trying to figure that out. Trying to be a 'new' me is... interesting, to say the least."

"I keep trying," Rabb says, "and I still haven't figured out how to exactly get where I'm going. I guess you could consider me a 'work in progress.'"

I lean forward, lace my fingers together as I stare intently at Rabb. "So you're still searching too, then?"

Rabb considers and then he nods slowly. "I'm closer than I've ever been before," he says finally. "And you'll get there too. You just have to be patient." He smiles. "And figure out what it is about you that pisses people off and work on reining that in."

"I always thought secrecy was part of my charm," I say.

"Only if you don't actually intend to make any long-term commitments in your life, whether on a romantic or friendship basis," Rabb answers. "That's something I'm learning. The hard way."

"And you're saying I'll get there too."

"If you want it enough, yeah, you will."

I smile. "This is a whole new side of you, Rabb. The 'kinder, gentler' side of you."

"Taking responsibility for a 15-year old girl will do that to you."

"Are you saying I should find myself a 15-year old girl to take care of?"

"No." Rabb frowns. Apparently, the 'kinder, gentler' Rabb has misplaced his sense of humor. "But I am saying it doesn't come easy and that you have to be willing to talk, to tell people what you're feeling so that they know what they mean to you."

"I'm here, aren't I?" the words slip out before I can stop them. I stare at Rabb with some discomfort, but he doesn't seem to notice.

"Actions are one thing, words another," he says quietly. "And different people react differently. I like action myself, but Mac, she's into the words."

"Right."

"It just depends on what you want," Rabb says. "I don't know what that is, for you, I mean. All this time we spent together last year and I still know nothing about you, about what you want, and I'm not sure you do either. You're going to have to figure it out yourself."

Rabb's words sting, but I don't react. "Fair enough," I answer. "Sarah had the same complaint."

"We can't both be wrong."

"No." I take a deep breath. "You're not." It's a tough admission to make and my heart is pounding furiously. In the soft light, shadow covers half of Rabb's face, but his features have softened and I think he understands. Mission accomplished. I stand up. "I don't want to take up much more of your time. I just wanted to stop by, apologize for everything and wish you happy holidays."

"Thanks. You too." The wariness in Rabb's expression has finally dissipated. He takes my outstretched hand. "Take care of yourself." Rabb's handshake is firm, solid, and safe. "Keep in touch." Our hands linger for just a moment and then he pulls away, clearing his throat. "I've got somewhere to be," he says. "Promised Mattie and her dad I'd come down tonight. We're going exchange gifts."

"That sounds nice."

Concern crosses Rabb's face. "And you? What are your plans for the holidays?"

I think about Iowa and the baby blue Victorian style house. "I'm traveling," I tell him easily. I still have my pride, after all, and I don't want to reveal just how desperate I am for Christmas plans. Even my mother has her own agenda -- skiing in France -- so I decided to go head to Iowa a little earlier than initially scheduled.

"Somewhere exciting, I hope," Rabb says, but without much curiosity.

I tilted my head slightly the side. "'Safe' would be a better word for it."

"Nothing wrong with 'safe' either," Rabb answers. He opens the door. "Thanks for stopping by, I appreciate it." By the tone of his voice, I know he means it.

I take a long look at him, remembering some of the long talks we shared when he was in the CIA, especially when we were in Singapore together. Despite the tension over Sarah, despite our perilous situation, I had felt a bond with this man. The past few months have taken their toll; I'm not sure Rabb and I will ever return to that kind of camaraderie again, much as I would like to. As I walk out into the biting December air, I turn to look back at Rabb's window. He's standing there, a silhouette against the light, and I lift my hand. He nods and then resumes closing the blinds. With a deep breath, I get into my car. First step taken, I think, about a thousand more to go.

the end