Title: Pop Goes the Weasel
Author: ScullyFu
Feedback to: x-file_addict@msn.com
Posted: 01/15/02

Archive: Spookies, Gossamer, Ephemeral are okay. Others, please ask.
Spoilers: There are a couple of minor mentions in passing.
Pairing: Scully/Other Female
Rating: PG-13
Series or Sequel/Prequel: This is the eleventh story in the series and brings us back to current time. The prequels are over. Dana and Melanie have returned from their trip. If you have no idea of what's going on, perhaps you'd like to have some background information from the other stories set in the Beach Blanket Bingo Universe. All the stories are relatively short, so if you want to read them to get caught up, please, be my guest.
Notes: I have allowed myself some leeway with the medical information. Also, this story was started long before the tragic events of 9/11/01 and I do not mean to minimize what has come to pass. Thanks as always to my beta, Rochel. Hi, sweets.
Disclaimer: They're not mine. CC, 1013 and Fox have the sole rights to their existence. Dammit!
Summary: Scully's first case back deals with a rash of baffling deaths.


Good morning. It's the first Sunday of May and I'm Jim Stone with your up-to-the-minute Northwest Cable News. Our top story this morning: The Bellingham Herald is reporting the unexplained deaths overnight of five young boys. Although the police are withholding any details pending further investigation, we do know the boys were playing together in a backyard when all became deathly ill. The boys, all under the age of seven, and residents of Ferndale, were taken to Saint Joseph's Hospital in Bellingham, where they were placed under immediate quarantine. A spokesperson for the hospital reports all the boys died overnight.

It should be noted one of the victims was Billy Olson. If the name sounds familiar, it is because his father, Michael Olson, died under his own somewhat mysterious circumstances just last week. We will continue to stay on top of this story and will bring you details, as they become available.


"Morning, Mulder," I say, striding into the office. This is my first day back from my two-week leave of absence. When Skinner called me at home last night and asked if I was alright to come back two days early, he didn't go into details; he'd only say it was a time sensitive matter. But all the bruises are faded, I'm experiencing no pain, and I've even got a bit of a tan, although I certainly would have enjoyed the extra couple of play days with Mel. Perhaps even more disconcerting is the postponing of the talk I was planning on having with Mulder before coming back to work. Now I guess we'll have to do it here rather than away from the office.

"Scully," he answers, watching me intently as I place my laptop on the desk. He's probably still trying to process my relationship with Mel. What didn't he see? How could he have missed it? Is that why we've never become romantically involved over the years? It's probably a bit of a relief for him; since he's found out about Mel, he doesn't have to doubt his ability to attract straight women.

Grabbing my cup, which apparently has not moved from where I placed it two weeks ago, I return to the hallway to get myself some coffee. Mulder makes it so strong sometimes I can only gag down a few sips and then I let it sit till it goes cold. I'm crossing my legs when Mulder rises.

"Don't get too settled, Scully." He looks at his watch. "Skinner wants us in his office in seven minutes."

"What about?" I say, blowing steam over the cup rim.

"Don't know. The summons was on the machine when I got in this morning."

"Mulder, I hope it's not about some expense account mix-up," I tease.

"I was very careful to keep track of my receipts on our last trip, Scully."

Leaning forward, I sit the cup on the desk; I'll never get this coffee down in time.

"Come on, Mulder, we may as well start up. If this is about anything we've done, it's probably not a good idea to be tardy."

"Tardy, Scully?" he laughs. "What is this high school?"

I shoot him a glare. Either I've lost my touch, or more likely, he simply chooses to ignore it.

"Ooh, we're being called to the Principal's office. Gosh, I hope I don't get after school detention."

"Shut up, Mulder."

Arriving at Skinner's office, his secretary tells us the A.D. will be with us momentarily. We take our usual positions on the couch to wait. We don't have long.

The door opens and Skinner fills the doorjamb, his presence nearly bigger than life. He really is a fine specimen, standing there in his crisp white shirt, tie, and pleated-front slacks that hug his slim waist and hang loosely over his narrow hips; his body as hard as his eyes at times. As often as I have doubted his loyalty to us, I know deep down we have it. He has been compromised on a number of occasions, but as far as I can deduce, has never betrayed us.

With a single word, "Agents", he acknowledges our presence. We rise in unison and walk into his office where we take our regular seats and wait while he takes his.

He silently gives me his full attention for a moment as though he wants to say something, changes his mind and then looks away to locate a file on his desk. "I've received a request from the CDC for additional assistance on some deaths they have encountered in various locations. It seems they all stem from the same bacteria, but they are at a loss as to exactly how it is being transmitted."

"Bacteria, sir?" I question.

Skinner appears annoyed by my interruption. He clenches his jaw, hesitates, his mouth twitches. "An anthrax-like bacteria."

Mulder and I steal a quick look at each other and then back at Skinner.

"It appears the outbreaks have nothing in common other than the cause of death. There have been reports from Bellingham, Washington; Anaheim, California; Casper, Wyoming; and Atlanta, Georgia. And then yesterday," he pauses to use his finger to pull his collar away from his neck, "there was a report of the deaths of five young boys, again in Bellingham, Washington. One of the victims was the son of one of the men killed in last week's episode there."

Mulder sits up straight and clears his throat. "And they have no idea how the bacteria is transmitted?"

"Given that the incident sites are so distant from each other they have all but ruled out any sort of transmission by physical contact or food ingestion. They suspect it is airborne."

This last bit of information causes Mulder and I to again exchange a glance, not long by other people's standards, but for us it is enough, acknowledging we each understand the severity of this situation. Mulder breaks the silence with the question we both want answered.

"Have they determined if this is a naturally-occurring bacteria or synthetically engineered?"

Skinner chooses to ignore the question. "As you know, Agents, it is policy for the FBI to investigate all threats or occurrences of anthrax-related incidents."

Closing the file, he shoves it across his desk to me. "Have a look at it and get yourselves up to speed. You leave for Atlanta this afternoon where you will make yourselves available to the local Bureau, as well as cooperating fully with Doctor Susan Davis at the CDC."

Pushing his chair back from his desk, Skinner rises. "That's all. I look forward to your reports. Good luck, Agents."

We are leaving the room when Skinner speaks. "Agent Scully, a minute, please."

Mulder acknowledges his dismissal with a slight nod to me. As he closes the door, I turn towards the Assistant Director. "Yes, Sir?"

"I trust you are fully recovered, Agent," he says, looking at me with warmer eyes.

"Yes, Sir. Thank you."

He takes a few strides, stopping less than a foot from me. Peering down, he asks, "And you're ready for another field assignment?"

"Yes, Sir, I am."

Again, he looks as though he wants to say something, but decides against it. "Good to see you back, Scully."

"Good to be back, Sir."

Back in the basement office I study the file hoping something obvious has been overlooked. Mulder begins a systematic search through the cabinet for any case remotely involving germ warfare.

"This is interesting, Mulder." He turns to look at me. "Each location experienced a cluster of related casualties." I can read the question in his eyes, but he voices it anyway.

"Why is that significant, Scully?"

"Because it would appear to bear out the CDC theory that the bacteria is airborne. It would also seem to indicate the people who died had some sort of proximity to each other."

"Assuming it is airborne, wouldn't that explain the multiple deaths?"

"It could. But most toxins dissipate after reaching a certain level of atmospheric absorption. However, anthrax, at least the naturally occurring variety, does not. And since there were no readings of bacteria at any of the sites, I believe this is a synthetic form."

"So all the victims would need to be in pretty much the same area?"

"Theoretically, yes. Of course, the area of contamination would depend on how the bacteria was deployed and in what quantities."

"So, any more theories, Scully?"

"Not yet."

While Mulder goes upstairs to the travel department to pick up our documents, I give Mel a call. She decided since I was going back to work early, she would, too. She would sit in the training room and then meet with Rick, her Boston associate who flew down to cover for her while we were gone, before cutting him loose to return home. She's probably in the middle of a training session, but I need to talk with her before we leave.

"Hi, you," she says, obviously seeing my name pop up on her calling screen.

"I thought you'd be in class."

"And what makes you think I'm not?"

"I just heard some car horns in the background and unless you've switched to teaching Drivers' Ed, I'd say it's a safe assumption you're outside."

"Quite the little detective now, aren't you?" she says with a tease in her voice. "Actually, we're on break. Everybody was getting a bit squirrelly so Rick called a ten-minute breather. What's up?"

"I wanted to tell you Mulder and I have to go out of town."

"Will you be back in time for dinner?"

"I doubt it. We're flying down to Atlanta in a few hours and after meeting with the principals involved, we'll know more. But I would think at least a week, maybe less if we get lucky."

"So long?" she nearly whines.

"I'm afraid so."

"Can you tell me what it's about?"


"Jesus, baby, I miss you already," she whispers, her voice turning intimate; as though speaking softly will keep unwelcome listeners from hearing. Although the circumstances leading up to our vacation were not optimal, our week away really was like a honeymoon of sorts for us and it hasn't stopped just because we returned home. "I don't know how I'll get by an entire week without you."

"Mel," I say, my voice imploring her to watch what she's saying.

"I didn't even want us to get out of bed this morning," she adds, ignoring me.

Instantly, I'm immersed in a kaleidoscope of vivid memories of the pre-dawn hour, memories so intense I'm once again awash with physical sensations. Oh, God. I close my eyes and visualize my hands raised behind me, tightly clutching the slats of my headboard, my body writhing in ecstasy. My raw throat steadily moaning her name while her mouth guides me to heaven. "What? What did you say?"

"I said, can we at least see each other before you leave?"

Forcing myself to concentrate, I remember her question. "I'm sorry. It's going to be tight as it is. We usually only carry an overnight bag, but since this is going to take longer, we'll need to run home and pick up some extra clothes. And with traffic, well, I'm afraid there's just not going to be time."

"Call me?"

"If I can. So much depends on the length of our days. It goes without saying we'll want to get this wrapped up as soon as possible."

"Please be careful." She pauses. "I'm having pizza for dinner tonight." Translated, that means, 'I love you.' Pizza is our code word for when we're on unsecured lines.

"Pizza sounds delicious. Wish I could be there to share it with you." I hesitate wanting to say more, but instead I add, "Bye."


On the flight down I try to absorb all the details of the case report while Mulder scours the X-File cases he gathered having to do with germ warfare.

"Come up with anything yet, Scully?"

"I concur with the CDC's initial findings, it is probably airborne rather than cutaneous or intestinal. Since anthrax is usually associated with the meat and dairy industry, I can see the remote possibility of the occurrences in Washington and Wyoming, but it seems curious it would be the cause of death in any non-agricultural areas. There has to be some sort of tie-in we're not seeing."

"Where did everyone work, Scully? Maybe it's some sort of industrial sabotage."

I rifle through the file. "Different industries with no apparent connections."

"Maybe the local Bureau will have something more for us."


Deplaning, we pick up the rental car and head for the CDC. Having at least a half an hour trip from the airport to the CDC, I decide to approach the subject of Mel and me. After we're buckled up and on the road, I tune in the local classical station and give us some time to relax before I begin.


"Yes," he replies without taking his eyes off the road.

"I'm sorry we didn't have an opportunity to speak before I came back to work."

"It's okay."

"I really wanted to clear the air before I returned."

"Look, Scully," he says, quickly glancing at me. "I really don't think there's anything to talk about. What is, is and no amount of talking is going to change the situation, not that it ever could."

"I think there's quite a lot we need to discuss, Mulder."

"Dammit!" he yells, honking on the horn and slamming on the brakes. The seat belt abruptly tightens around my shoulder keeping me from lurching forward. "Why do some people always have to ride their brakes around curves? Haven't they ever heard of centrifugal force?"

"Maybe you should stop tailgating, Mulder."

"I'm not tailgating, Scully. I'm keeping up with the flow, even over the speed limit if you must know, and that idiot is holding up traffic. Why doesn't he get in the low lane?"

This is certainly a great way to try to have a serious discussion. Now he's upset and probably won't be receptive to anything I try to say. "Mulder, I wanted to explain why I didn't tell you about Mel sooner."

"Scully, as long as it doesn't affect a case, what you do and who you do it with is really none of my business."

I'm taken aback at his cavalier attitude at what I assumed must have been a jarring discovery, especially given the circumstances. But any further discussion will have to wait till later since we've just arrived at the CDC. We both get out of the car, Mulder slams his door a little too hard and is walking what seems faster than usual, perhaps to just get away from me.

I advise the receptionist of whom we are here to see. She suggests we take a seat in the lobby. Mulder and I sit in silence. In less than ten minutes, I notice a young woman striding purposefully in our direction.

For some reason, my profiling self kicks in. She looks around thirty-five, five-foot-five, maybe one hundred and twenty-five pounds, with a slender athletic body, dark features, short, low maintenance hair stylishly cut with highlights, and not much makeup. Except for the short hair, from a distance she could be mistaken for Mel. Her clothes are professional: flats, nylons and a form-fitting skirt that hits no more than two inches above her knees. The bottom half of her is all in navy, a white blouse visible under her billowing lab coat. I can't help but be reminded of the women officers I saw while growing up on the bases.

"Hello, I'm Susan Davis," she says, smiling to reveal her straight teeth, either a product of genetics or good orthodontia. Standing, I accept her offered hand.

"I'm Special Agent Dana Scully and this is my partner, Special Agent Fox Mulder." He avoids looking at me while I introduce him. He and the doctor nod their acknowledgments of each other.

"Have you had an opportunity to familiarize yourselves with the case?" Her demeanor is friendly, yet no nonsense; a true scientist, she gets right down to business. I like that.

"Yes, on the flight down."

"And your thoughts?"

"I agree with your premise, Doctor, this bacteria is airborne."

"Susan, please. Do you have any medical training, Agent Scully?"

"Dana." I smile. "And yes, I am a medical doctor, a forensic pathologist."

"Excellent," she says, returning my smile, "that should make communications a lot easier."

"Scully, I'll leave all the medical background to you. I'm going to head over to the FBI office, talk to the Agent in charge, and see if I can dig up any new information."

"Let's meet for dinner, Mulder. Susan, perhaps you would like to join us while we compare notes?"

"Yes, I would, thank you."

"Scully, I'll call you later. It was nice meeting you, Doctor." Mulder makes his way towards the front door.

"So, where do you want to begin, Dana?"

"I'd like to see any cultures you may have."

"We've been very systematic and thorough about retrieving and cataloging samples from all the victims." I follow as she starts walking back down the hall in the direction from which she appeared.

"I have no doubts," I say, hoping to assure her I'm not looking for scapegoats. "Because of the locations of two of these incidents I'm doubtful these were naturally occurring situations. Have you reached any sort of conclusion on the source of the bacteria?"

Stepping into the elevator, we continue our conversation. "You mean because two of the cities are not rural?" She hits the floor button and the doors shut. "Well, yes, that was an inconsistency and probably what led us to believe this is something more than a random act of nature. Plus the fact each of the incidents occurred approximately three weeks apart. There appears to be a pattern to the events, but we still can't nail down how the bacteria is being transmitted to the victims."

"Hmm. I looked at the file and can't put together any sort of connection yet either. Maybe Mulder will have better luck when he talks to the Agent in charge of the investigation over at the field office."

After a brief elevator ride up, we walk down a hall and stop at a door labeled, "Laboratory, Room 1113." Susan unlocks and holds open the door. "Here we are, Dana. I'll get out the cultures. Gloves are on the table. Help yourself."

Feeling my most relaxed and confident in the lab, I snap on the latex and prepare to examine the evidence.

I nearly jump out of my skin when my cell phone rings. I've been concentrating so hard on the cultures all else has become non-existent. I take a quick peak at my watch and find I've been at it for nearly three hours.

"Scully, it's me. How's it going over there?" He sounds like his old self, no hint of frustration from our earlier encounter.

"Fine, Mulder. How'd you make out?"

"Well, besides being a little bleary eyed from going over all the case notes again, there's not really all that much to report. How about grabbing dinner now? I'm starving and it's almost seven."

"I'm ready, too. Just a minute." Placing my phone against my body, I briefly speak with my lab partner before returning to Mulder. "Susan's going to give you directions to the restaurant. Hang on."

"Agent Mulder? Hi. Okay, you're at the FBI building, right?" Susan gives Mulder explicit instructions while I start tidying up the lab in preparation to leave. I throw away the latex gloves and swabs, wipe down the area, return the evidence to the lock-up area and cover the microscopes.

Susan snaps her fingers to get my attention and points, handing me back the phone. "You got that, Mulder? Okay, see you there soon. Yes, we're ready to walk out the door."

It takes us little more than five minutes to reach our destination.

"Want a drink in the bar while we wait for your partner?" Susan asks.

"I think I could have my arm twisted."

Settling into a spacious high-backed booth, I double-check my line of sight to the front door of the restaurant. "This is good, I'll be able to spot Mulder when he comes in."

"Hi, ladies, what can I get you?" the waitress asks with her pad and pencil at the ready.

"Just drinks, we're waiting for someone before we go into dinner," I explain. "But I'd really like a blended lime margarita with lots of salt, please. Susan?"

"Make it two," she says, smiling from across the table. When the waitress departs, Susan continues. "So, do you and your partner always call each other by your last names?"


"What's up with that?" she asks, her eyes bright with interest.

"It's just how we started out and it's stuck."

"Sounds kind of impersonal."

"On the contrary."

"Close, huh?" she says, her mouth forming an insinuating smile.

"Not in that way, Susan." I smile back. "We've worked together for seven years. Over time we've developed a close relationship built on mutual trust and respect." I notice the incredulous look on her face and for some inexplicable reason I feel the need to reiterate my statement. "Really, that's all."

"So, if not Mulder, are you seeing anyone?" She really does get right down to it.

The waitress returns with our drinks providing me an excuse to remain silent. Not really wanting to discuss my private life with a near perfect stranger, I am relieved when I catch sight of Mulder coming through the restaurant door.

Waving discreetly to get his attention, Mulder nods his acknowledgement and walks towards the booth. Sliding in next to me, he greets us. I notice Susan watching us.

"What do you want to drink, Mulder?" I ask.

"Are those good?" We both nod enthusiastically. "Okay, margarita it is then." He catches the waitress' attention and indicates he'll have the same as us. "Been here long?"

"Long enough to order a drink," I reply. "So, was Agent Phillips able to supply you with any new information?"

"Not really. I did bring hard copies of the complete background interviews for you to take a look at, but they really didn't reveal anything more than what was in the abbreviated file notes. Anything jump off the slides at you, Scully?"

I echo his words, "Not really. But then I didn't really expect it to. Susan and her team were very thorough in their evidence collection. It was all catalogued and clearly laid out in the reports."

Susan raises her glass. "Thank you, ma'am." She and I exchange smiles.

"I do think we should go out to Main Frame Computers tomorrow though, Scully, have a look around." The awkwardness of earlier seems to have dissipated. Mulder is his old self.

"Agreed. Have you called the hotel to let them know we'd be checking in late, Mulder?"

"Aw, crap. I knew there was something I was supposed to do. I'll be right back." Saying he needs a phone book, Mulder excuses himself.

"Everything set?" I ask when he returns, although the look on his face gives away that all is not well.

"It seems there's a convention in town and when they didn't hear from us, they figured we weren't coming. Now they have only one single room available."

"Dammit, Mulder." I was planning on having some quiet time to continue our abbreviated conversation from earlier.

"I know, I know. You take the bed and I'll campout on the floor."

From across the table Susan speaks. "I think I have a solution." We turn our attention from each other to her. "I have a spare bedroom and you're more than welcome to stay, Dana. Mulder could pick you up there in the morning or you could ride into work with me and meet him there."

"That's very generous, Susan. Thank you." Turning my body, I ask, "Sound all right to you, Mulder?"

"Yes, fine," he says, sounding relieved. He's not as young as he used to be and the idea of a hard floor probably wasn't too appealing.

"It's settled then. Are y'all up for another round of 'ritas before dinner?" Mulder and I shake our heads in unison. Susan hand signals our request to our waitress.

"I'll see you in the morning then, Mulder," I say, retrieving my laptop, as well as my overnight and garment bags from the trunk of the rental car. As I told Mel, we realized we may have to be on the road for a while, so we had each run home and packed a few extra things before leaving D.C. "I'll meet you at the CDC at nine and then we'll head out to Main Frame."

"Okay, night, ladies." He shuts the trunk and watches as we climb into the convertible and speed away into the warm Atlanta night. My head is thrown back and the tires squeal as Susan peels rubber out of the parking lot.

"Do you always drive so fast?" I yell over the rushing air and throbbing bass line coming from the multi-speakers.

Susan takes her eyes off the road to look at me briefly. "Sure. What's the point of having a fast car if you don't open it up and let it go? Do you want me to slow down?"

"No, I rather like it." I smile at my own devil-my-care behavior. This is fun; I check the speedometer and don't recall ever driving this fast. "How far to your house?" I shout over the whine of the engine.

"Only about ten more minutes. Don't worry, I know this road like the back of my hand. You're perfectly safe." She reaches across and pats my knee reassuringly.

As we turn the corner, she clicks the garage door opener. Sure enough, we squeal into her driveway in just about ten minutes flat. "My neighbors are used to me and my car by now." She stops on a dime just before slamming into the back wall of the garage, forcing my shoulder strap to catch while I brace myself against the dashboard. "There, that wasn't too bad, was it?" She clicks the remote again and the garage door shuts behind us.

I am laughing like a wild woman. "Hell, no. That was the best ride I've had in, well, forever."

Susan pops the trunk and springs out of the car before I can even undo my seatbelt. "C'mon, let's go inside for a nightcap."

Opening the door between the garage and house, she flips on the kitchen light, and beckons me to join her. Just inside the door I feel something long and furry skittering along my leg. Before I can stop myself I jump back and let out a scream.

"What's wrong?" Susan yells, turning quickly around to see her ferret jumping wildly around my legs. "Oh, shit. Hazzie, leave her alone. You're scaring our guest. Now go to your bed."

I watch incredulously as the ferret does exactly as told. "Sorry. I'm not usually so jumpy. He took me by surprise. I've never known anybody who had a ferret as a pet." I pause momentarily. "Although he does mind well."

"He's a she and she is fully trained. I got her when she was just a baby and love her to death. She's the perfect pet; if I go out of town I can leave her in her cage for the weekend or just let her have the run of the place. She's got her own little space in the closet where she hoards her stuff. She's so cute and cuddly, too."

Eliminating the ferret out of the equation, I wonder if is this what I've given up by leaving medicine a job with regular hours, a house and weekend getaways? Is this the type of life I'd have if I went back to Quantico or took Mel's offer to join her firm?

We make our way down the hall to the guest bedroom. Susan puts my bags on the luggage rack at the end of the bed and I place my laptop on the desk.

"This will be your room for as long as you're in town, any time." She smiles. "Feel free to make yourself completely at home. It has a private full bath off to the left there. The kitchen is always open in case you get the munchies or want to whip up a cup of coffee. Just help yourself to whatever you want."

I do a quick assessment of the room. It is very straightforward without a lot of frills, yet has a distinctly woman's feel to it, very warm and inviting. A double-sized iron-frame bed with a lovely duvet-covered comforter with matching pillowcases sits on a neutral-colored deep ply carpet. There's an antique dresser with a large attached semi-circular mirror, complete with a hand-stitched lace cloth draped across the width of the dresser. Peach-scented potpourri, in a heart-shaped cut glass container, sits atop the cloth. A key-turn lamp with stringed lace shade rests on the bedside table where it shares space with a clock radio. Delicate lace curtains cover the venetian blinds. A small desk with a bench-style chair and a lovely oil landscape complete the decor.

"Is that your work?" I ask, looking at the painting above the bed.

"Yes, just something I dabble at to take my mind off other stuff." Susan pulls back the bed covers and removes the pillows from the cases, which I notice match the duvet pattern exactly.

Stepping closer, I examine the brush strokes. "It's very good. Have you had any training or is this a natural talent?"

"No formal training, just something I've always liked to do," she says, smiling. "Anyway, feel like a nightcap or maybe a cup of coffee?"

"I think just a cup of coffee, thanks. I need to be fresh for the morning. Mind if I grab a quick shower while the coffee brews?"

"No, actually it's a good idea. Meet you in the front room whenever you're ready," she says while closing the door.

Plugging in my laptop, I take a moment to dash off a quick note to Mel:

Hi, honey. Just finished up for the day. Mulder screwed up the hotel reservations, so I'm bunking overnight at the home of Doctor Susan Davis, one of our contacts here in Atlanta. I'll explain more when I get home.

Tomorrow looks to be a full day for us. Mulder and I will be going out to visit the crime scene and conduct interviews. After that, I'm not sure what's on the agenda. We usually have a general idea of the direction we want an investigation to go, but it's imperative we remain flexible in case we catch a good lead.

Okay, I'll check my email tomorrow night. Have a good day.

Goodnight, sweetie. {{{HUGS}}}

Love, D.

I emerge from my room wearing my pajamas and a kimono Bill brought back as a gift from one of his trips to Japan. I nearly bump into Susan in the hallway, her hair is damp, so apparently she grabbed a shower.

"Feel better?" she asks.

"Much, thanks. My hair was a mess from Mister Toad's Wild Ride."

Susan chuckles and wipes the moisture from the back of her neck.

"I see you grabbed a shower, too," I say for the sake of conversation.

"Yeah, I always like to have a shower first thing when I get home. Helps me to wash away all the grime of the day, clears my head and gets me ready to relax for the evening."

"I know exactly what you mean, although I usually opt for a bath."

"Coffee should be ready by now," she says, leading the way back to the kitchen. "Hope you don't mind unleaded. If I drink the other stuff this late, it keeps me awake. Let's get ourselves some and pretend we're on that commercial that has women relaxing and bonding over a cup of some exotic sounding brew."

Spotting a wall plaque hanging over the dining room table, I inwardly recite the slogan. "Work hard. Invest wisely. Enjoy life!"

I mull it over. "That's quite a motto, did you compose it?"

"Uh huh, just a few things I've learned about life along the way. But it really does help keep me focused on what's important." Susan motions me towards the front room.

The next hour is spent drinking coffee, recounting medical school horror stories, comparing our career choices, and revealing accomplishments as well as regrets. By the end of the hour we know a fair amount about each other and I'm totally at ease.

"I guess that commercial really has some merit," I say, leaning forward and placing my hand over my cup when she offers a refill. "This has been really nice, Susan. I can't thank you enough for inviting me. Hotels just aren't the same as a home." Sitting back against the couch, I adjust my legs so that I'm sitting Indian style.

"Like I said before, feel free to stay here anytime you're in town, Dana. Do you think you'll stay over tomorrow night?"

"Hmm, possibly, depending on how long we spend at the plant, if that's okay. I don't want to be an imposition."

"Are you kidding? I haven't had this much fun for a long time. It's not often I get to kick back with another scientist, a single female one, that is."

"Really? I would've thought you'd have plenty of opportunity. There are quite a few women at the CDC, aren't there?"

"Oh sure, but you know how it goes, everyone has their own life. Plus the majority of women there are married with children and we don't have a lot in common. If we do ever get together it seems to be at a wedding or baby shower or somebody's going away party. Not a lot of opportunity for real friendship building there."

I wince mentally as I think about how little contact I have with other people at the Bureau, or anywhere else, for that matter. "Know what you mean."

We agree it is time to hit the hay if we want any chance at coherence in the morning.

"I get up around seven," she says. "I'll try to keep the noise down to a minimum."

"Oh, seven is just fine. Actually I'm usually up by six or six-thirty. The commute into D.C. can be a bitch in the mornings and I don't like to be late."

"Well, we don't have a long trip into downtown."

"Certainly not the way you drive," I tease.

We smile and say our goodnights as Susan continues down the hall and I close my bedroom door. Settling into the comfortable bed, my thoughts drift and I find myself wondering what Mel's doing now. It's close to midnight. I'd probably disturb her sleep if I called, so instead I pull out the files Mulder gave me. Within an hour, I'm fighting to keep my eyes open and decide to call it a night.

It's strange not having Mel next to me, being lulled to sleep by her deep rhythmic breathing. Moving the pillow out of my way, I flip over onto my stomach and try to get some much-needed sleep.


I've got my laptop open as we drive, reading previously downloaded information on the properties of anthrax, as well as my email. Mel has sent me a response: "The bed's too big without you. Love, me." God, I feel suddenly tired. I was so restless last night, I think I probably slept all of two hours.

"So what kind of mischief did you two gals get into last night?" Mulder asks as we head out to Main Frame Computer.

"Gals, Mulder?" He grins sheepishly. "Well, let's see, we visited and got to know one another, reminisced about med school days. You know, gal stuff."

"Did you discuss the case?"

"No." I cover a yawn while Mulder peeks over in my direction. "We visited, Mulder, no work just a pleasant evening with a colleague."

"So you didn't read the files I gave you?" He keeps his eyes straight ahead.

"As a matter of fact I did, Mulder. Last night and this morning before we came into town."

"It must have been a really late night," he says when I try unsuccessfully to stifle another yawn. "And?"

I turn my head to look at him. "And what?"

"Did you pick up anything that might tie these cases together?"

"Nope, I had about as much luck as you. Maybe once we get a feel for the physical layout of the plant something will start to gel."

We drive up to the guard gate where an uniformed man appears from inside it. Mulder informs him we're here to meet with Sam Moore.

The guard checks his visitor's list and obviously satisfied, gives us instructions on how to reach the main building along with specifics about where to park.

"Good morning." The man shaking hands with us identifies himself as Sam Moore, President and CEO of Main Frame Computers. "I'm glad to see they finally called in the big guns. No offense to the local boys, but they seem out of their league on this one."

Call it a sense of loyalty, but I feel an instant need to defend the locals. "Well, admittedly it is a bit baffling, sir. Is there someplace more private we can speak?"

"Sure, sure. Let's go to my office." He leads us to a large corner office on the third floor. "Have a seat. Would you like something to drink? Coffee, tea, soda?"

"I'd like a water, please," I say while Mulder shakes his head in the negative.

"Coming right up." He goes over to his office refrigerator and brings me back a bottle of Evian.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome. Now what can I do for you? I'm anxious to get to the bottom of this and get the sonofabitch that did this." He turns his attention directly to me. "Sorry, ma'am."

"Sir, have either yourself or other board members ever received any kinds of threats to either your persons or the company?"

"No, ma'am."

"Any ex-employees who might hold a grudge, possibly someone who was fired?"

"No, ma'am," he says, shaking his head. "We like to think of our employees as family and you'd never fire a member of your family. Anyone who's left Main Frame has done so of their own accord."

"Sir, we'd like to get a list of all your current employees, as well as anyone who's left the company within the last three years."

"Sure enough, ma'am." He lifts his phone and punches a button. "Helen, could you please put together a list of all employees along with hire dates, home addresses and phone numbers. And include anyone who's left the company within the last three years, as well as a copy of their exit interview. Thanks."

Mulder, who until now has been happy to let me lead the investigation speaks up. "Mr. Moore, we'd like to take a look around the plant, get a feel for the physical layout and perhaps talk to a few of your employees."

"No problem." Again he punches his phone. "Helen, could you please get me two visitor passes that allow for full access to the plant? Thanks."

Rising, Mulder continues, "Have you always had a guard gate?"

"No, Agent Mulder. We felt that after the tragedy we wanted to do everything we could to keep our employees safe. The guard gate seemed like the least that we could do to help put everyone at ease. We don't want anyone on the premises that doesn't rightly belong here. It helped to ease tensions."

"Have you had a problem in the past with unauthorized personnel gaining access to the facility?"

"No. Like I said, it was mostly to just make people feel safer."

"It appears from the reports the deceased worked in the plant area rather than the offices," I state. "Would that be a correct statement, sir?"

"Yes, ma'am, it would be." He looks up when he hears the soft knock on his door. Helen comes into the office. Walking over to us, she smiles, hands us the badges and leaves as quietly as she entered.

"So, would you like me to get an escort for you?"

"Actually, sir, we'd prefer to go unaccompanied, if that's all right with you," I say, smiling.

"Perfectly fine, ma'am. You take as long as you like, talk to whomever you like. I'll get you a map of the layout of the plant. I think you'll find our employees a pretty happy bunch." He rises and shows us to the door. "Helen, could you please give our guests a map of the plant? Thanks."

I inform Mr. Moore we'll show ourselves out when we're done. "Thank you for your cooperation, sir. If we have any further questions, we'll get in touch. In the meantime, if you think of anything, please give us a call." We each hand him a business card with our cell phone numbers. Helen hands us the list of employees we requested.

Passes attached and map in hand, we set off on our self-guided tour. After looking over the plant area where the deaths occurred, we spend another couple of hours speaking with employees. Leaving our Visitor Passes at the reception desk, we head out to the parking lot.

"We must've each talked to a dozen plant employees, Scully. Either this is the second happiest place on earth or they're covering up something."

"Mulder, just because they all enjoy their jobs and couldn't think of anyone capable of committing such an heinous act doesn't mean there is some sort of sinister plot or, or a conspiracy of silence to cover for somebody. They all seemed genuinely shaken by the deaths of their co-workers."

"At least we got a look at the plant, that may help us when we visit the other sites."

"So what now, Mulder?"

He starts the engine, preparing to drive back to town. "I think we should go to another site, Scully. Have any preference?"

"How about doing this in chronological order? Maybe there's a reason the perp chose this particular sequence."

Pulling out past the guard gate, he says, "Good point, that would mean Bellingham is our next stop. Want to catch a flight out tonight?"

"Actually, I don't particularly feel like sitting around waiting for two long connections to get there, so I think I'd rather go in the morning."

"Want me to try to get you into the hotel?"

"There's no need. Susan has offered to put me up as long as we're in town."

"She seems nice. Although her driving looks a little suspect," he says, grinning.

"She loves speed, that's apparent."

"From your laughter last night it sounded like you were enjoying it, too."

"It definitely was a rush, Mulder."

"So, what's Susan like, Scully?" He takes his eyes off the road for a quick look at me.

"Like? Well, for starters she has a pet ferret named Hazzie, short for HazMat." I can't help smiling, remembering my introduction to the wiry creature. I choose not to disclose my girlie scream.

"A ferret?" he repeats, his eyes wide. "I don't know anyone who has a ferret."

"Me either. I never really thought of them as pets, but Hazzie is trained and obeys Susan's voice commands. It's really quite impressive."

We continue to pass the drive back to town with idle chatter. I get out my cell phone and punch in a number. "Hi, Susan, it's Dana. Yes, we're done for the day. Would you like to join Mulder and me for an early dinner? No, really it's too much." I sense Mulder watching me. "Okay, okay, we'll meet you at the house in a couple of hours. Yes, I remember the way. We'll stop at the store and pick up a few things. Well, if you're sure. All right, see you then."

"What was that all about?"

"Susan wants to barbecue. She says she's got all the necessities covered, but let's stop at the store, Mulder, and grab some beer or something."

"Works for me, Scully. Think I'll stop at the hotel and do a quick change into some jeans. We have plenty of time. Right?"


After a detour to the hotel in downtown rush hour traffic and a stop at the liquor store, we arrive back at the house just as Susan is squealing into the garage.

"Holy shit, was the entire ride like that, Scully?"

"Uh huh."

We fill Susan in on what we turned up out at Main Frame while we all pitch in to make salad and barbecue fixings and then set the table.

By the time Mulder and I finish all the prep work Susan is just getting ready to serve up the main course. "You cook up a mean steak, Susan."

"Thanks, Mulder. I really hate to cook inside on warm nights. It just seems like such a waste, you know?"

"I sure do. I remember all the summers back on Martha's Vineyard; we'd eat every meal outside. I loved the early mornings best I think, before it got too hot." Mulder nods in my direction, prodding me to join in.

"Ahab, that was my name for my father," I explain for Susan's benefit, "loved to barbecue when he was home on shore leave. He called it 'family time'. We'd all have an assignment"

"An assignment, Scully?"

"Yes, Mulder. Mine was usually to make sure the condiments and napkins were on the table. Then Ahab would make a big show of putting on his apron with 'Chef' written on the front and grab the flipper. The ritual was always the same. Mom would bring out the burgers and the barbecue was deemed officially begun." I am momentarily lost in the sweet childhood remembrance.

"Another beer, anyone?" Susan chirps, bringing me back. We nod our agreement. "Okay, here you go," she says, handing us each a cold one from the cooler.

"So who chose the beer?" she asks.

I acknowledge it was my choice.

"It's good. Mack and Jack, I like it; it's kind of catchy. How did you decide on it, Dana?"

"Umm. A friend introduced me to it recently."

We fill Susan in on what we found out at Main Frame and continue visiting over a leisurely dinner and more beers.

Mulder checks his watch and gets up from his lawn chair. "Well, Susan, it has been a fun evening, but I think I'd best head back to the hotel. Our flight leaves at five-thirty, Scully. Do you want me to come pick you up here?"

"How about I meet you at the airport, Mulder? It would probably be just as easy as you coming back out here and then having to backtrack to the airport; I can call a cab."

"Heck, why don't I just run you out there, Dana?"

"What? It's much too early, not to mention out of your way. But thanks for the offer, Susan."

"Hell, Dana, it's not that much out of my way. After I drop you off, I'll stop for an early morning workout and a bite to eat before going into work. It's settled. I insist." She gives me an 'I won't take no for an answer' sort of look.

"Okay, if you insist. It's very generous of you. Thanks."

The three of us stroll leisurely to the car. "See you at the airport, Mulder."

"Night, Susan. Night, Scully." Climbing into the rental car, Mulder gives the horn a little toot as he drives off.

We speak almost in unison. "Night, Mulder."

"Feel like grabbing a sauna, Dana?"

"You have a sauna?" First Mel and now Susan, they sure are popular.

"Yep, put it in a few years back. I can't always make it to the gym so I decided to be a little decadent and treat myself," she says, smiling impishly.

"God, that sounds wonderful. Just let me clean up the kitchen first."

"Relax, will you please? There's nothing that can't wait. That's the beauty of barbecuing, virtually no clean up." She smiles. "Anyway, don't you know that's why God invented paper plates?"

I can't subdue a smile.

"Meet me in the basement in five minutes," she says tossing me a big towel from the hall cupboard. "There's extras downstairs."

I can feel my muscles relaxing in the intense dry heat. I watch as Susan pours water over the lava rocks. The sweat is beginning to roll down my body and is quickly absorbed by the fluffy Egyptian cotton towel wrapped around me.

"You're right, Susan, this is kind of decadent." I take a long drink of water to replenish the moisture seeping out my pores. "I never seem to be able to find the time for anything like this."

"Oh, I don't know how I'd make it through some days without this baby. I've found it does wonders to help relieve the stress. It's really necessary to treat yourself sometimes, hang the cost. So, what do you do to pamper yourself, Dana?"

I think about the question for a moment. "Well, I do enjoy a nice long bubble bath with soothing music and candles. I just shut my eyes and imagine myself somewhere peaceful." God, I'm parched; I drink down half a bottle of water without stopping. "So, is your gym close to the CDC?"

"Just around the block, actually. Which makes it nice and convenient when I want a break from work. It's not too busy during the middle of the day and I find it gives me a lift to get the old blood flowing; helps me to refocus on whatever I'm doing at work."

"I couldn't help noticing the trophies and plaques outside. Why do you keep them down here rather than upstairs?"

"Well, I'm not one to brag, I guess." Susan rises to add more water to the rocks leaving them to sizzle under the moisture as she resumes her position on the bench opposite me.

"Being a triathlete demands a lot of perseverance. I doubt there's many people with the willpower or mindset necessary to do what it takes to attain your level of excellence."

"Well, thanks," she chuckles. "I'm not used to being called 'stubborn' in such nice terms. But you're in great shape, Dana, please don't tell me you don't work out."

"Okay, I won't tell you." She pouts as I grin. "Seriously though, I try to keep up a regular routine, running mostly, some weights when I can. Our travel schedule often only allows for the running rather than a full workout. There is a gym at the Hoover Building and I try to use it as often as possible." I lift the bottom of the towel to my face and wipe the sweat before it drips into my eye. "But really, I admire you so much. A triathlon is such a feat of mind over body. How long have you been competing?"

"Oh, about seven years on a more or less steady basis. It does consume a lot of my off hour times." She smiles somewhat self-consciously, dropping her eyes from mine. "But I've always been a bit of a loner."

"I guess you'd have to be to put in the hours it takes to really get yourself ready for a race," I offer. "How often do you compete?"

"Well, the biggie is the annual event in Hawaii, but I try to throw in at least a couple more a year just to keep my mental toughness up. I run some marathons and do a lot of bike riding. The toughest part is all the swimming though. I enjoy the other two, but for me the swimming is the loneliest." She gets up and pours another cup of water onto the rocks. "Unlike running or biking, I can't wear a headset to distract me when I need a diversion; it's just me, alone." She takes a swig of water. "Sometimes too much thinking can be a bad thing. So that's the part of the training I have to really push through."

I find myself watching and listening to Susan through new eyes. Perhaps her life isn't all I had initially imagined. There is a degree of fragility, an element of loneliness I overlooked in my earlier assessment.

The flight is a quiet one. I take the opportunity to shoot a note off to Mel: "Hey, sweetie. It's still very early; in fact, I bet you're probably just now thinking about getting up. I'm sending this from the plane; we're on our way out West. We wanted to get going early because we have to make two connections to get to our destination. While I can't tell you our exact plans, I can tell you we will briefly be in the city where we met. Love, D."

Mulder and I go over all the witness statements and official reports a number of times looking for the slightest clue, but come up empty, again. We have a ninety-minute layover in Seattle before our connection to Bellingham and we're happy for an opportunity to stretch our legs. Since our luggage was checked to our final destination, we have only our briefcases to carry with us. Of course, I have my laptop as well.

"Ooh, that sounds good," I say as we approach Starbuck's. When we reach the register I order first. "I'll have a grande mocha, non-fat, with the works."

Mulder stops dead in his tracks. "What the hell did you just say, Scully?" Holding up two fingers, he speaks to the woman behind the counter. "What she said."

"That'll be nine seventy-three, sir."

Mulder stares at the barrista for a moment, seemingly not believing his ears. "Jesus, Scully, this had better be some damned good coffee."

"God, this is so wonderful," I say, sipping my drink. "I haven't had a good mocha for what seems like ages." I close my eyes and let the full flavor of the espresso-chocolate mixture trickle down my throat. I smile at the memories of the last time I was in Seattle. "How do you like yours, Mulder?" I ask, licking the whipped cream off my top lip.

"It's pretty good. Did you learn to order like that on the seminar trip out here?"

"Yes. It's weird, Mulder, for some reason the coffee out here tastes better than what we get back home."

"Maybe it was the company you were keeping, Scully," he says.

"Could have been," I say smiling and lifting my eyebrow in response. He seems in a good mood and we have plenty of time, so maybe this is a good to have our talk. Before I can begin, Mulder speaks.

"Have you heard from Mel?"

I'm surprised he's brought her up. Looking up from over my coffee cup, I answer, "Yes."

"What have you told her?"

"Nothing, Mulder. I haven't discussed the case with her. I've only told her that we went to Atlanta and now we're out West." I feel myself getting slightly annoyed. "I'm well aware of the Bureau rules regarding information disclosure, Mulder."

"Of course you are, Scully. I certainly didn't mean to imply otherwise."

I hesitate before speaking. "No, I'm sorry, Mulder. It is tough keeping things from her. And since we've been together, we've never been away from each other this long." I feel slightly embarrassed telling him these personal things. "Look, Mulder, since you brought her up, let's talk about Mel."

Giving me his full attention, he says, "As far as I'm concerned there's nothing to talk about, Scully."

I reposition myself on the hard plastic chair. "Perhaps I'm misstating the situation." I pause. "I have something I'd like to say to you, Mulder. It's about the night Mel came to the hospital."

"You're really intent on going into this, aren't you, Scully?"

"I think it's important we clear up a few things; that's all."

He sighs in defeat. "All right, go ahead."

Before I begin, I clear my throat. "I want to explain why I haven't told you before. You know, Mulder, I truly hated the abrupt way you found out."

"It doesn't matter."

"Yes, it does. At least to me it does." I reach across the table and take his hand. Looking directly into his eyes, I say, "I'm sorry, Mulder."

"Sorry, for what? You're under no obligation to tell me everything about your private life, Scully."

"I know. But this is something I should have addressed with you long ago. You guessed I was seeing someone and I should have told you then, but I wasn't ready."


"Mulder, you have been my closest friend for over seven years and I owed you that much."

"You don't owe me anything, Scully," he repeats.

I frown at him. "Mulder. Stop making excuses for me." I can hear agitation creeping into my voice.

"I'm not. You and I have a professional relationship, Scully, and it's there you owe me to disclose everything. What you do on your own time is your own business." He allows his attention to shift to something over my shoulder.

"Mulder, be honest. Our relationship goes beyond just a professional one. We've saved each other's lives more often than I care to recall. You know things about me no one else does. And vice versa. I think that makes us more than just work buddies, don't you?" I apply gentle pressure to his hand.

He looks directly at me. "Yes, I do."

"Well, then, will you please allow me to explain why I didn't tell you?"

He apparently recognizes the calm, controlled tone and realizes he doesn't really have a choice, so he nods his compliance and sits back in his chair.

"I wasn't trying to keep the relationship from you, per se. I just wasn't sure about it myself for a while. You see, Mulder, I'd never been with anyone I felt so strongly about before. Mel is the best thing that's ever happened to me. And, well, you know my upbringing, so you can probably imagine how extremely difficult it was to even acknowledge and accept these feelings."

Leaning towards me and placing his other hand over mine, he quietly says, "I know how hard it must have been for you, Scully. I'm glad you were able to get past it. I just wished I could have helped you through it."

I offer a weak smile. "Mulder, remember I told you once that not everything is about you?"

His face tells the story. His mind is obviously flashing back to some of the darkest days in our relationship. My own heart clenches at the memories. "God, do I," he confesses.

"Then please hear me when I say my silence in no way reflected on you. On the contrary, it had everything to do with me and my struggle to come to grips with the situation."


"Mulder, I know how you brood over things sometimes. I want to be perfectly sure you understand my silence had absolutely nothing to do with any concern I had with a level of trust between us."

"I understand completely, Scully."

"Do you understand, Mulder? I mean truly understand the frustrations, the fear? Do you know what it's like to love someone so fiercely, but be afraid to be seen together, even casually, for fear someone will put two and two together if it happens too often? Maybe all it takes is us standing too close or laughing over a private joke." My voice is barely above a whisper. "Never being able to show her the simplest of affections in public for fear a casual touch will become the proof needed to accuse? The abject fear of knowing the career you've spent years carving out could be ripped out from under you for no other reason than the person you love is of the same sex?"

His eyes look pained. "But you have to know I would never betray you, Scully."

Of course I do. "Mulder, I--"

Before I can completely answer him, our flight is called. The announcement over the loud speaker jars us both from our intense conversation. We stare cautiously at each other for a few moments, then gather our belongings, toss our cups in the trash, and head for our terminal.

Neither of us said a word during the hour-long flight; both of us caught up in our private thoughts. It's not until we're in the car that he breaks the silence.

"I think we'll wrap this up in a few days, Scully."

Personally, I think it'll take a bit longer and he probably does, too. But I play along and smile at his compassionate attempt to soothe me about being gone so long from Mel.

"You were digging through the file pretty good on the plane. Find anything new?"

"Maybe, Mulder. You?"

"I asked you first," he teases. Although I'm usually catching the brunt of it, teasing is always a good sign and at this moment I'm happy to be on the receiving end of it.

"Well, I think it's relevant all the deaths occurred in the warehouses and nowhere else in the facilities. Now we just need to figure out why that particular area would be targeted, especially at four very diverse companies located so far from each other. What aren't we seeing, Mulder? What's the connection?"

"I agree, Scully. There's definitely something here we're missing."

While Mulder drives us to the crime scene, I stare out the window, remembering. I dreamt about Mel last night and woke up wet, my body aching for her touch. God help me. I've never been this distracted by anyone before.



"Where are you? I asked you if you got the directions to Laser World." He looks over at me. "In fact, I asked you three times. Is everything okay?"

I don't address his question, but instead reach into my pocket to retrieve the directions I secured from the car rental clerk in the airport. Despite being called Bellingham International, the airport is one not very large building with only one check-in desk. Like so many other small airports we've been to, you just walk out onto the tarmac to your plane. I imagine they call it 'International' because of a number of incoming and outgoing flights to Vancouver, British Columbia, a mere sixty miles north.

I unfold the directions. "Head north on the Guide Meridian for about a half mile until we pass the mall on our left and then a little further up we'll pass Wal-Mart on our right. Turn left on Horton Road and it will be the building that sits back on our right on Laser Road."

Mulder has evidently decided not to pursue his questioning of me. Just as well, there's really nothing to discuss. It's quite simple; I miss Mel.

"Scully, I said what's our contact's name?"

"Oh, sorry. It's right here in the file. Umm, John Baker."

"You didn't answer my question, Scully. Is everything all right?"

"Yes, Mulder. I didn't sleep well; I'm just a little distracted is all." The truth is I tossed and turned all night, again. I can't get used to sleeping without her.

He pulls into one of the visitor parking spots and we go inside. The receptionist greets us, then announces our arrival and directs us to the second floor where Mr. Baker is waiting. After the introductions, we go into a conference room.

"I'm not sure what I can tell you that I haven't already told the local FBI and police. But I'm happy to answer any of your questions."

We ask Mr. Baker the same questions we posed to Mr. Moore in Atlanta. He agrees to let us take a tour of the facility and speak with his employees without an escort. Before we leave him we give him our cards, just in case.

"We'll be in touch, sir. Thank you for your cooperation," I say, reaching for the door.

"Agent Scully, Agent Mulder." We look back at him. "I just want this guy caught."

We follow the same routine as Atlanta, spending most of our time in the warehouse area, speaking with employees there. Back in the car, we decide to stop at the mall for lunch.

"I don't know, Mulder. There just doesn't seem to be any tie in, except the warehouse locations of the incidents."

"Maybe that's it, Scully. Maybe there was no reason behind why these particular companies were targeted, it was random."

"If it was random, Mulder, how does that explain the time frame between the incidents? The perp must have some sort of plan."

"Yes, a plan. But it doesn't appear to include any sort of targeting of a particular industry. So what is the point?"

"Some sort of domestic terrorism?" I suggest.

"I don't think so, not yet anyway. If full-scale terrorism is the goal, the deaths have been minimal. No, it's something else, Scully. It's almost like he's testing out his plan, trying to work out the kinks."

"So, how's he able to get this bacteria dispensed? We keep running up against the method of transmission."

"I think that's the key, Scully. If we can figure out how he's able to infect these people in so many different areas, we can find him."

"We're running out of time, Mulder. It's been nearly two weeks since the last incident. I think we should fly out to Wyoming this afternoon and look at the plant."

Mulder nods his agreement. This is good; this is what I need to do, keep my mind busy so I can stop thinking about Mel.

"Do you want talk to Mrs. Olson before we leave, Scully?"

"No, we have her statement. She's suffered more than most. Not to minimize the other deaths, but she's also lost her only child to this same contagion. If we need to speak with her later, we will. Otherwise, Mulder, I'd like not to disturb her, or the other children's parents."

He nods his agreement. An awkward silence ensues. Every time there's a death of a child involved in a case, Mulder gets very protective of me. His concern is touching, but suffocating at the same time. I've never relished cases with child victims, but I'm long past the point of seeing every child as my own.

God, how I hate connecting flights. On top of our two earlier in the day, we took the shuttle plane from Bellingham to Seattle right around one, caught a flight to Denver, then switched planes again, and now, around eight o'clock at night, we are about a half hour from landing in Casper.

One good thing has come out of it, though; because of the time difference, Mel and I are able to talk via Instant Messenger. I had never used it before so Mel took it upon herself to set it up for me.

    Lucy: Hey, baby, how's it going?

    Dr. Kay: What is with these screen names?

    Lucy: What do you mean?

    Dr. Kay: I mean, how did we end up with these names?

    Lucy: Don't you get it?

    Dr. Kay: I'm obviously missing something. I give.

    Lucy: Whose books do I devour as soon as they're released?

    Dr. Kay: Wait. I know this. Hang on. Patricia Cornwell?

    Lucy: Right. And what are the names of the two main women characters?

    Dr. Kay: Let me guess...Dr. Kay and Lucy.

    Lucy: Bingo.

    Dr. Kay: So how does that relate to us?

    Lucy: Well, Dr. Kay Scarpetta is the protagonist, who happens to be a forensic pathologist. That's you.

    Dr. Kay: And Lucy?

    Lucy: She's Dr. Kay's computer whiz kid niece. Now tell me that isn't clever. Go on, tell me.

    Dr. Kay: Okay. That isn't clever. <g>

    Lucy: Hey!!

    Dr. Kay: I was just following orders. <g> Yes, it's very clever. LOL

    Lucy: So, how are things going?

    Dr. Kay: They're going.

    Lucy: When will you be home?

    Dr. Kay: I'm not sure. We're having a hard time finding any connections among the crimes. It's frustrating. Usually by this time, Mulder has made one of his infamous leaps and we're zeroing in.

    Lucy: But not this time?

    Dr. Kay: Not yet.

    Lucy: Well, don't get too down. It'll happen.

    Dr. Kay: I know. Anyway, how's it feel being back at work?

    Lucy: Same old, same old. I'm missing you terribly.

    Dr. Kay: I had a dream about you last night.

    Lucy: Really?

    Dr. Kay: It was, um...quite erotic.

    Lucy: Really? Do tell.

    Dr. Kay: Mulder's sitting right here. He's asleep now, but he could wake up at any time.

     Lucy: So? Come on, Dana. You've peaked my interest, not to mention my libido. Which, btw, has been in high gear since you've been gone.

     Dr. Kay: Really?

     Lucy: Oh God, yes. I can't stop thinking about you, baby. When I shower it's your hands holding the soap, sliding over my breasts, stroking between my thighs. I touch myself and make believe it's you.

Involuntarily, my eyes close in sweet misery. I can't hear this now, but before I can respond, she's sent another message.

     Lucy: At night, in bed, I think about how hot you were the other morning and I have to do the same thing. Jesus, Dana, when you give yourself to me so completely, I just melt. I love you so much, baby. I can't wait till you get back.

     Dr. Kay: Me either.

     Lucy: My body has gotten so used to having you cuddled next to me that it's hard to sleep. I keep reaching for you and when you're not there, I wake up disoriented, wondering where you are. Then I start worrying about you.

She doesn't come right out and say it, she doesn't need to, but she's hinting for me to quit again. It's nothing I haven't been seriously thinking about lately, but now is not the time to discuss it.

     Dr. Kay: I'll make it up to you when I get back.

     Lucy: You will, eh? And just how do you propose to do that?

     Dr. Kay: Well, remember before we went to the Islands? We were on the couch and you told me about a couple of things you'd be interested in us doing?

I wait for her to respond, but when she doesn't, I continue.

     Dr. Kay: You do remember, don't you? Because, if you don't...

     Lucy: Are you kidding? Of course, I do.

     Dr. Kay: Well, I was thinking we could try one or two, if you still want to, of course.

     Lucy: Dana?

     Dr. Kay: Uh huh?

     Lucy: Hurry home.

     Dr. Kay: LOL

     Lucy: Hey, darlin', I've got to cut this short and go over some notes for tomorrow's training.

     Dr. Kay: Take some aspirin, sweetie; that may help you relax so you can sleep.

     Lucy: The only thing that will help me relax is when you're back home. I love you. Please be careful.

     Dr. Kay: I love you, too. Talk to you tomorrow. Kisses.

By the time we secure a rental car and get to the hotel it's around ten. We're both starving, but I don't want to stop anywhere, so we agree on pizza. We take the opportunity to get cleaned up while we're waiting for the delivery. Too tired to talk, and with no new case information to mull over, we eat in silence. Mulder retires to his room and I very nearly pass out before I can climb into bed.

Unfortunately, our trip to Casper didn't turn up anything new to the investigation. We followed the systematic investigation procedures of the previous cities to a tee. Mulder and I are determined to catch the perp before any more deaths occur. Hopping a late afternoon flight to John Wayne Airport in Orange County, we try to sleep on the plane, but without much success. When we're awake, our elbows keep bumping as we jockey for the armrest between us. This case has us baffled and we're both restless. This time we get lucky and only have to change planes once in Salt Lake City. Even at that, it's still nearly nine by the time we get the car. We drive a half-hour up the freeway to Anaheim, home of Disneyland, the Happiest Place on Earth.

Too tired for a restaurant dinner, I just want to go directly to the hotel. Mulder drops me off and goes back out to grab some fast food for us.

My body is not responding well to this time zone hopping. I'm having difficulty sleeping soundly; it's apparent in my eyes and my ability to concentrate is being compromised. To top it off, I barely held it together last night. The only thing that kept me from shooshing Mulder out of my room so I could call Mel was pure exhaustion and the fact it would've been the middle of the night in D.C.

After breakfast, which included lots of black coffee for me, we head out to Peterson Pet Supplies, the site of the fourth incident. Again, we follow the exact same procedures we've used previously. Unfortunately, with the same results.

"I can't get a lock on this, Scully. There's virtually nothing to go on; no fingerprints, no weapon, and no apparent connection between the victims or the companies."

"Let's go back to D.C., Mulder. I want to run all the data from the various sites through the computer. There's got to be something we're missing. I can't help but feel the answer is hiding in plain sight. What ties these incidents together? What is the common link?"

I try unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn. Mulder is looking at me with concern in his eyes. No doubt he's noticed my deteriorating appearance.

"Let's go home, Scully."

Oh God, another plane. At least this time it's a direct flight. Using Mulder's shoulder as a pillow, I manage to catch a bit of a nap. He gently squeezes my hand and softly calls my name to rouse me from my sleep. I'm groggy and feel a little woozy. All I want to do is curl up in my own bed, but before I can even think of doing that, I want to get this computer search started.

"Scully, let me handle getting the computer guys on track. I think you need to go home. And if you'll allow me an observation, you need to forget about setting the alarm and sleep in late."

I feel just lousy enough to agree with him. As soon as the plane lands we pick up our car from long-term parking and head out. Mulder helps me take my bags in the house and then leaves. I promise to go straight to bed if he promises to call me if anything of interest develops.

Without thinking, I check my answering machine. There are no messages. A quick shower and then I'm in my own bed with my own pillows. Sleep. I don't even call Mel to tell her I'm home. All I can think about is lying down. I'll call her when I get up for something to eat later.

The morning light is coming in through the window. What time is it? Crap, it's nearly ten. I slept right through the entire evening and night. Why hasn't Mulder called? I shower, dress hurriedly, and do my hair and make-up in what seems like record time before I head into work. I'll call Mel and ask her to meet me for lunch. God, I can't wait to see her.

Mulder looks up as I enter the office. "Scully. It looks like you finally got a good night's sleep. Feeling better?"

"Yes, thanks. Nothing like your own bed to thoroughly relax."

"Or your own couch," he says, smiling.

"Have you heard anything from the computer guys yet, Mulder?"

"Not yet. I'm going out for a while, Scully; need to stretch my legs, maybe grab a sandwich or something. Can I bring you back anything?"

"No, thanks."

I decide to work up my case notes while Mulder is out. But first, before I do anything else, I have to call Mel.

"Hi, you," she answers sweetly, her smile practically coming through the airwaves.

"I'm home."

"Really?" she asks excitedly. "When did you get in?"

"Yesterday afternoon. I'm afraid I feel asleep as soon as I got home. I had every intention of just taking a nap and then calling you to get together. I'm sorry." I want to call her a pet name, tell her how much I missed her, how much I love her; but this is an unsecured line, so we need to careful.

"It's okay. I know how tired you must've been with all the travel. I'm just glad you're home, safe and sound." The warmth in her voice calms my apprehension that she'd be annoyed.

"Can you meet me for lunch, say around one, in the cafeteria?" I ask hopefully.

"Can we make it closer to noon? That's when we usually break."

"Sure, no problem, I'll meet you then." I pause. "I can't wait to see you."


"See you then. Bye."

While my laptop powers up, I formulate the outline for my case notes. After thinking for a few moments about the main points I need to hit, I begin to type.

The bacteria appear to be anthrax-like. Testing by the CDC has revealed that unlike organic forms of anthrax this synthetic version does not linger in the air. Surprisingly, it seems to dissipate upon evaporation into the atmosphere at a rate of ten thousand parts per million. Working on the premise this type of contagion is to be used for terrorism purposes, this rate is unexpectedly low.

The HazMat units called to each scene all reported no lingering dangerous levels and no evacuation or decontamination procedures were employed. Extrapolating, only those in immediate contact seem to be effected.

Initial symptoms of inhalation anthrax are mild and nonspecific and may include fever, malaise and mild cough or chest pain; acute symptoms of respiratory distress, x-ray evidence of mediastinal widening, fever and shock follow in three to five days, with death shortly thereafter.

Inhalation anthrax results from inhalation of spores in risky industrial processes, such as tanning hides and processing wool or bone, where aerosols of B. anthracis spores may be produced.

The fact none of the victims worked in a high-risk industry also would lead one to assume this is not a naturally occurring contagion.

The unknown bacteria also seem to differ from its natural counterpart in that the autopsies have shown this to be a fast-acting bacterium. Unlike the expected incubation period of anthrax, there was no delay in reaction to this unknown exposure. The deaths were all immediate within twenty-four hours with evidence of the same symptoms of organic anthrax exposures, except for the highly accelerated time frame.

Given the distant locations of the incidents, as well as subsequent testing, it is no doubt airborne. How it is being transmitted is another question and when we are able to answer that, we will be well on the way to identifying who and why.

The death of five children from the same contagion, including the seven-year-old child of one of the victims in Bellingham, is of extreme interest. What ties this child to the plant other than his father? His mother reports he was not in proximity to the affected area when the deaths occurred. Additionally, he had not been to the plant for nearly six months.

At the time of his death, a week later than his father's, Billie Olson and four other children were playing in the back yard of his home. Nothing out of the ordinary was reported by any of the other children's parents.

Based on empirical data, it appears one must be in the immediate area at the time of the exposure, so what's the tie-in? How were these children infected?

Satisfied with my entry, with Mulder out, and still over a half-hour till I meet Mel, I decide to call my mother. I haven't spoken with her for quite a while.

As we're chatting, exchanging tidbits about how we've been and what we've been doing since we last spoke I hear some rapid popping sounds in the background.

"What's that noise?"

"Oh, Charlie brought the family for a visit. Didn't I tell you they were coming? No, I guess we haven't spoken since they made the plans. Anyway, I received a package from UPS today, something I bought to put away for a Christmas gift, and the boys are playing with that bubble stuff used for packing boxes."

Jesus. That's it. Trying to keep my voice calm, I say, "Mom, take it away from the boys."

"Dana? What are you talking about? They're just play-"

"I don't have time to explain. Just do as I say, please."

"Oh for heaven's sake, Dana, you're frightening me."

"I'm not trying to. It's probably nothing. I'll explain later."

"Alright." She covers the phone, but I can still hear her yell, "Boys, put that down. Charlie, come here."

"Thanks, Mom. I want you and Charlie to watch everyone for any signs of sickness."

"Dana? Now you are scaring me. What's this all about?"

I repeat, "I'll explain later. Just open all the doors and windows, air out the house for a while. But if any of you starts to feel sick, call me and get to a hospital."

Hanging up, I call Mulder and tell him to hurry back to the office. When he arrives I am just finishing my phone request with Sam Moore in Atlanta. "It's just routine, sir. Thank you."

Mulder strolls into the office with a soda and hotdog. "What gives, Scully?"

"I called all the contacts and asked them each to fax me a copy of the vendors they use for their warehouse supplies."

While Mulder is processing the information, I continue. "I think I may know how the bacteria is being transmitted."

His face lights up as he sits down and I tell him about the phone call with my mother.

"I think that's how the children fit into the equation, Mulder. The father took some bubble wrap home for his child to play with and, unfortunately, it carried the contagion."

"It's definitely worth checking out, Scully. When we get the lists we can compare the suppliers and see if there's any connection there."

I'm excited. My heart is beating faster than normal, but I try to retain my stoic countenance.

"Exactly. I think this is it, Mulder. This is the break we've been waiting for. Bubble wrap is used in all warehouses these days for packaging and somehow the perp is trapping the bacteria in the air pockets and when the bubble is innocently popped, the synthetically engineered anthrax spores are released. It appears the answer was hiding in plain sight all along."

"Good work, Scully."

I allow myself a brief moment of acknowledgement. "Well, if it is the way it's being transmitted, we will have to advise Susan to have her people start testing on all the bubble wrap at the sites as well as at the manufacturer."

"I wonder how many bubble wrap manufacturers there are, Scully?" he asks, looking at me eagerly.

"I don't have a clue, Mulder," I respond, my voice sounding playful, even to myself.

"Let's find out, shall we?" He starts clicking away on the keys of his computer, getting the search for bubble wrap manufacturers on its way.

"We'll need to get a list of all the wrap employees and then connect a manufacturer with all four sites, Mulder. The recent time frame of the occurrences would seem to indicate a shipping schedule."

Mulder picks up the conversation. "We should be looking for any recent additions to the payroll in the production areas. Anyone who would have access and could somehow manage to get it sealed within the wrap."

"Then," I add, "we'll have to get a list of all the people the manufacturer supplies and have them issue an immediate recall."

We can feel it. We can taste it. We've been here countless times in the past. We can smell the end. The hunt is about to end as it is just beginning. Both of our adrenaline levels are peeking. The room is electric as we toss around theories about who would do such a thing and why.

The faxes eventually come in and we each take two of the lists and start comparing supplier names. Of course, they are not in alphabetical order, why did I think this part of it would be easy? When we have matched up our own lists, we compare notes. We have one or two that appear on two or three of the lists. The name must appear on all four or we're back to square one.

Mulder jabs his finger onto the paper. "Bingo! Scully. That's the one. Cute name, too, don't you think?"

"Sounds more like a bubble bath manufacturer."

"Bubble Your Cares Away out of Akron, Ohio."

Mulder's smile is infectious and I can feel myself grinning right along with him. I can't believe I'm saying this after all the damned miles we've logged in the last few days. "Feel like a little plane ride, Mulder?"

Mulder makes a quick call to the Bill Dillon, owner of the suspect company, to alert him to be available when we arrive in the morning. He also tells him to have a list of all employees with hire dates ready, a list of anyone who's left the company within the last three months, and a conference room at our disposal. Above all, Mulder impresses upon him the need for confidentiality in this matter. We definitely don't want to tip off the perp.

While Mulder is on the phone with Dillon, I call Mel. "I'm sorry. We just got a break in the case. We have to fly out right now so we can be at the suspected site bright and early."

"You don't even have time for lunch?" she asks, sounding disappointed.

"I'm afraid not. I'm so sorry."

"Will you be home tomorrow?"

"I certainly hope so. I'll call you as soon as I know. Okay?"

"Okay. Be careful."

"You know I will."

We go upstairs to advise Skinner of our findings and then hurry out to the airport for a quick trip to Akron. If you count having to change planes in Pittsburgh the express route, that is.

I'm glad I got a good night's sleep, I feel invigorated, my old self again. By the time we get to the airport, I am sure this is going to be the end of the line.

We get to Akron and to the hotel by nine. We could have flown out in the morning, but we wanted to be here and out to the plant early. So, we go out for dinner and talk over our strategy for tomorrow. The decisions are made as to how to conduct the investigation.

With that out of the way, I decided to bring up the subject of Mel again. Part of the reason I'm feeling so out of sorts is this conversation with Mulder, I think.

I take a deep breath. "Mulder, I really would like us to finish our conversation."

"I thought we were through, Scully. All the plans are in place for tomorrow."

"No, Mulder. The conversation about Mel."

"Really, Scully, it's all right. We don't have to discuss it any more."

"No, what you said earlier, I didn't have an opportunity to respond." I pause. "I want you to know that I know you'd never betray us. Know it absolutely." We smile at each other. "It just seemed prudent that the fewer people who knew, the better; at least while I was still figuring it out myself. But Mel and I have been together for about six months now and I'm sure. I'm sure I love her and she loves me; I feel secure in that knowledge." I take a sip of water. "What I don't feel secure in is other people's reactions, personally and professionally."

"Scully, I want you to be happy. And I think you are." He reaches across and hooks one of my fingers with his. "Mel seems to be good for you. And, damn, she's like a mama lion when it comes to you," he chuckles. "When she first came into the hospital, I thought she was going to tear the place apart till she found you."

I can't help but laugh remembering how she charged in, all flustered. "Mama lion. That's a good one, Mulder. I'll tell her you said that."

"Don't you dare, Scully. Lions may look like big kitties, but they are far from domesticated."

"Oh, don't worry. Her roar is worse than her bite."

"I'll keep that in mind."

"She does tend to get a bit protective sometimes."

"Who could blame her? She loves you. It's hard for someone on the outside to understand our job, Scully. Hell, even I don't get it sometimes. We risk our lives chasing bad guys and they get away clean, never to be seen until the next time they strike at us. We've had nearly eight years to make the adjustment to our lives being threatened. Mel's had what, six months?"

I clasp his hand. "You're right, Mulder. But I wanted to make sure you knew the reason I didn't tell you. I do trust you implicitly. I told you one time you were the only one I trusted. Well, I've made an adjustment to the list," I say, smiling, "but it's still true. I trust you with my life."

We sit in silence for a few moments. "Are you really all right with this, Mulder?"

He strokes his thumb over mine. "Like I told Mel, people love whomever they love. It's not always a matter of choice. The fact the person you love happens to be another woman is of no consequence. She makes you happy. That's what matters."

"Mulder?" The tone of my voice is challenging.

"Okay, I admit I never would have suspected you to be a lesbian, Scully. I mean, I know your um, experiences with men haven't been real successful, but I never thought you were gay. I mean, there was never any indication."

"Indication, Mulder?"

"You know, I never caught us checking out the same babes."

I bubble up a laugh. "Mulder!"

"Come on, Scully. Let's go."

"So everything is all right then?"

"Everything is fine, Scully."

Back at the hotel Mulder and I say our goodnights and even exchange a hug. I'm keyed up. I flip on the TV hoping to be distracted and droned to sleep. Two hours later I'm still awake. I wanted to get another good night's rest and be raring to go in the morning. At this rate, I'll still be awake when Mulder knocks on the door to go to breakfast. My anxiety over the situation is not helping any either. Maybe if I have a drink. What's in the mini-bar? Okay, now we're getting somewhere. Vodka. And hiding in the back? Yes, it's orange juice. I'll have a screwdriver. That'll help to relax me. Glass? All right, whew, I made that a little strong. Oh well, it'll just be that much faster acting.

Finished with my drink, I shut off the TV and lie back down. My body is beginning to relax. One by one I feel my major muscle groups easing up and my mind has stopped racing a mile a minute. I make one last glance at the clock, one-fifteen.

There's a knock on my door. Jesus. What the hell time is it anyway? Didn't I just go to sleep? I take a quick glance at the clock. Good thing it has a luminous read out because it's dark in here. No wonder, it's only five-thirty in the damn morning. The sun isn't even up yet.

What the hell is that sound? I hear my name, half-whispered and half-yelled, "Scully." It's followed by another set of knocks.

I groan. Mulder. Crap. "Just a minute."

Shuffling over to unlock the door, I catch a glimpse of myself in the dresser mirror and attempt to straighten out my hair.

"Mulder? Tell me there's a good reason why you're waking me up at this ungodly hour."

"Breakfast, Scully."

"Since when do we eat breakfast at five-thirty, Mulder?"

"By the time you get ready, it won't be five-thirty, Scully. It'll be closer to six-thirty. Then allowing an hour for breakfast and the drive to the plant we'll get there right when they open." God, he's way too chipper for this time of morning. He's so wired, I would bet he's already gone on a run.

"All right. All right," I say squinting at the morning sun as it begins to filter in through the slightly ajar door. "Just stop talking. I'll knock on your door when I'm ready."

Closing the door in his face, I head to the bathroom for a shower to wake me up. Approximately forty-five minutes later I am waiting for Mulder to open his door.

"Let's go," I say.

"Good morning to you, too."


We review our strategy one final time for the morning meeting with Mr. Dillon and how we want this portion of the investigation to proceed.

"Scully, I'm concerned." He stops mid-sentence.

I wait for him to continue, but he doesn't. "What, Mulder? You're concerned about what?"

"Nothing, forget it."

"Mulder, if it has something to do with the case, I need to hear it."

"It's not about the case, Scully."

Oh, so it's personal. Do I want to hear this? Knowing Mulder if I just keep quiet long enough, he'll tell me. So, the question is do I continue to wait or do I jump in and change the subject? Before I can decide, Mulder speaks up.

"Are you sure everything is okay, Scully?"

"Look, Mulder, everything is just fine, alright? I told you I've been having difficulty sleeping is all. I'm sorry if I've been irritable or short with you. Just know that it's got nothing at all to do with you."

"Maybe you should see a doctor."

"I am a doctor."

"You know what I mean, Scully. Usually you can fall asleep at the drop of a hat. I'm the insomniac, remember? I would hope you'd tell me if something is bothering you."

"Mulder, there is nothing physically wrong with me, so please, relax." I hesitate. "And I will try to be less irritable." I force a smile.

He looks relieved to hear there is nothing physically wrong with me. "Okay, if you're sure." He offers a weak simulation of a smile back at me. It's the eyes that always give him away; they show his disappointment when I won't confide in him. "But, Scully, I'm always here for you."

"I know, Mulder." I reach over and pat his arm. "I know."

We get up from the table and head out to the plant with Mulder driving, of course.

Arriving, we can't help but chuckle again over the name of the company: Bubble Your Cares Away. Mr. Dillon is waiting for us in the lobby and leads us to his office. Once there he supplies us with the data we had requested.

"I think you'll find all our employees are hard-working people. I can't believe one of them would be capable of doing such a thing."

"Well, Mr. Dillon, I'm sure you can appreciate the situation, we have to follow up all possible leads," Mulder says, trying to diffuse the man's close to the surface panic.

I can sympathize with him. I'm sure he sees nothing but lawsuits, bad press, and the possible loss of his business.

"Of course, Agent Mulder, but I just can't believe it," he says.

"Sir, we are not accusing you of anything; this is just routine procedure and we appreciate your cooperation. Now if you could please show us to the conference room we requested, we'd like to get started," I say, smiling while I reach for the documents.

As soon as Mr. Dillon leaves us alone Mulder and I start dividing up the papers.

"You've got that smile thing down to an art form, Scully."

"Well, you catch more flies with honey."

Forty-five minutes later and neither of us have found anything that looks out of the ordinary.

"Dammit, Mulder. He's here. I know it."

"We'll find him, Scully."

I get up and pour us coffee from the carafe; they have also included a box of donuts. Why does everyone assume every law enforcement officer is a donut-eater? Why no bagels? Not that I'm even hungry.

"Look at this, Scully." Mulder looks up excitedly. He has his 'Eureka! I've found it' gleam in his eyes.

I walk around to where he is sitting. Well, actually standing now. He's shoving papers at me and pointing. "There, there he is, Scully. Ralph Jephson."

"Why do you think it's him, Mulder?"

"He fits the profile. He was hired within the last ninety days. He works in the plant area where they make the bubble wrap. His resume shows he graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in Biochemistry. Ask yourself, Scully, why would someone with those qualifications be working in a production plant?"

"I admit it appears suspicious, Mulder."

"Before we talk to him let's run a background check; see if he belongs to any known subversive groups. Maybe he's got some questionable campus activities he failed to mention under the extracurricular activities area on his job application."

"I'll fax this back to D.C., see what they can turn up on Mr. Jephson."

"In the meantime, Scully, feel like taking a stroll around the grounds?"

"I think in this instance, Mulder, we should have an escort. We'd look less out of place than if we were by ourselves. I'll call Mr. Dillon and ask him to arrange it."

"This is it, Scully. I can feel it."

"I hope you're right, Mulder."

After a stop in the ladies' room, I return to find Mulder standing with a man who has his back to me. As I approach, he turns in my direction.

"Agent Scully, this is Mike Rawls, our guide."

We shake hands. God, he's young. Is he an executive here or the mailroom boy? Mulder reads my mind.

"Mike here is the head of the IT Department, Scully."

That's good. If anyone sees us, they'll just assume we're computer people of some sort perhaps here to fix a problem with the system.

"Ready to go?" Mike asks. "We'll go downstairs and cut through the break room to the plant area."

I follow Mike and Mulder follows behind me, his hand on the small of my back.

We try to act interested and occasionally pose a question to Mike, but our focus is on the plant layout and processing areas. Everyone here wears a nametag and I try to look for our perp. I recognize his picture from his employee file and nudge Mulder. He sees him and nods to me.

"What's this area over here, Mike?" I ask, casually walking in the direction of Jephson. Mulder and I never look directly at him. He has to think he is invisible and we are nothing more than visitors.

"Oh, this is the area where the actual bubble wrap is constructed."

"This is fascinating, isn't it, Mulder? Look at the way the two sheets of plastic are molded together to allow for those air pockets."


We continue to watch the operation for a bit before moving on. I've been watching Jephson out of the corner of my eye and he hasn't taken any notice of us.

"Mike, thanks for the tour," Mulder says.

We head outdoors so we can discuss in private what we just saw. "Mulder, I think it is quite possible something could be inserted into the bubble wrap before it's sealed. It would just take a little timing is all."

"But it happens so fast, Scully. How could a contagion be injected into it?"

"If the machine were to stop for some reason, it could be done easily. I think the contagion must be enclosed in some sort of timed-release shell. When the outer coating evaporates, only the contagion is left. Then when something causes the bubble wrap to be broken or, or a child pops it while playing, the contagion is released into the atmosphere. Those in the immediate area are infected and are dead within twenty-four hours."

"Well, Ralph Jephson certainly has the knowledge and the access; I say we get a search warrant, Scully. Maybe Mr. Jephson has himself a laboratory set up in his garage."

Within an hour we obtain our search warrant and arrive at the suspect's home with the police. We wait until the HazMat unit shows up shortly thereafter. They go in first, then come out to get us; seems there is no danger because there is no lab.

"Dammit! There's got to be something, Scully."

I've been roaming around the house, looking for anything to give us a clue. "Look at this, Mulder."

He joins me in the bedroom. "What is it, Scully? Did you find something?"

"I turned on his computer and look what's on the screen."

We both stare at the monitor. Laid out right in front of us is an equation for the production of a synthetic anthrax bacteria.

"Let's go get him, Mulder."

Before leaving I instruct the officers to bring his computer's CPU in as evidence. We drive back over to Bubble Your Cares Away and inform Mr. Dillon we are going to arrest one of his employees; he is none too happy.

We head out to the production area. Mulder casually walks up to Jephson, slaps the cuffs on him, and starts reading him his rights. A crowd has formed and everyone is whispering in wonder about what is taking place.

Mulder jerks Jephson by the cuffs and we take him off the premises. Driving down to the police station, none of us say a word.

Once there, Mulder takes over the interrogation while I call Susan in Atlanta to inform her of the turn of events. She agrees to get the CDC people out here to do extensive testing. I call all the plant owners who readily agree to pull the bubble wrap they have purchased from Mr. Dillon's company. They are all extremely happy to comply with the directions I give them regarding storage of it until HazMat personnel arrives.

Lastly, I call Skinner and inform him of the arrest. Mulder is walking out the interrogation room as I'm heading down the hall.

"Did he confess, Mulder?"

"He broke down right away."

"So? Did he offer a reason as to why he would do this?"

"Oh, yeah, a really good one, too," he says, his answer dripping with sarcasm. "The stupid sonofabitch just wanted to see if he could do it. Over twenty people dead and the potential for I don't know how many more and he just wanted to see if he could do it."

"What about his lab? We didn't find any evidence of it."

"He rents a self-storage unit a few miles from his house. That's where he did all his lab work."

"Come on, Mulder. It's all over but the paperwork. We've done everything we can here. The rest is going to be up to the CDC. Let's go home."

"I wonder just how much of that contaminated bubble wrap is out in the general public, Scully. It could be anywhere; it's a ticking time bomb."

"I guess we'll just have to wait and see if any other cases are reported, Mulder. It may be that it'll never happen, if the bubble wrap is not compromised." I pause. "I'm sure Susan and the local Bureau will do everything in their power to track as much of the suspect wrap as possible. We'll just never be sure if they've found it all."

On the flight back, I call Mel to tell her I'll be home for a late dinner. She's overjoyed and tells me she's anxious for us to be together again tonight.

Back at the office, Mulder and I agree we can finish putting our notes together tomorrow, and decide to call it a day. Besides, I'm anxious to get home.

As I unlock and push open the door, I'm hit by the most wonderful smells coming from the kitchen. Before I can say a word, Mel grabs me, kicks the door shut, and greets me with a series of intensity escalating kisses. "Welcome home, baby," she says as we cling tightly to each other. "I was so worried about you."

I lean back, look directly at her, hoping to reassure her. "I was never in any danger, honey." I take a moment to look her up and down. God, she looks wonderfully sexy standing here barefoot, in dark slacks and pale colored scoop neck cashmere sweater, the swell of her breasts peaking up to tease me. Pulling her back into my embrace, I ask, "What smells so good?"

"Besides me you mean?" she laughs.

"You always smell good, sweetie." I softly nibble on her earlobe and then continue slowly down her neck. She quietly moans my name, causing my stomach to flip flop and I feel an instant rush of heat and wetness between my legs. "And you definitely always taste good."

She laughs. "Are you hungry?"

I stop nibbling and look up at her. "Oh, baby, you have no idea just how hungry I am."

Her eyes widen. "Why Agent Scully, are you trying to tell me I'm going to get lucky later?"

I struggle in vain to contain a grin. "Who said anything about later?" I run my finger over her lips, then mimic the action with my tongue.

On our way to the bedroom we make a quick detour to the kitchen. As we pass the dining room, I notice the formally set table, complete with candles and fresh flowers. I can't contain my desire and stop to kiss her passionately. In the kitchen, I reach around her to turn the oven down to 'warm'. I deliberately press my pelvis against hers. She gasps and moans in quick succession, then begins to gently undulate against me.

"But dinner is almost ready," she whispers, in faux protest.

"Yes," I say, running my tongue across her collarbone and blowing a stream of warm breath between her breasts, "you are."


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