[Four]

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"Four patients, no casualties; even the cost of testing and treatment were low. For an advanced case of Glanders, we did well." Kate didn't know how to turn it off; instead of minding her breakfast, she was busy digging through not one manilla folder but two. She was Stephen Connor wrapped up in the body of a female without the tendency to take swings at people (as far as Natalie was aware, anyway). The excitement of solving a puzzle was new as well, the waving of hands to elaborate a specific point of the investigation; Stephen never did that...

The pathologist watched her boss' boss while chewing her over-salted eggs. They had done well, taking the camaraderie that had been forced upon them in Colima and reweaving it into something more…natural…in the past several days. Carrying a workload of five people, the pair had barely managed to find the appropriate time to rest, but there was something quaint about drinking coffee in an empty lab while utterly exhausted, sharing the company of only a single other high-strung person.

Five minutes past the recap of the case and into the summary of the financial report, Natalie set her fork on the table and reached for her coffee, "Kate."

"Huh?" it was a look of distraction, as if the Director had been unaware her company could actually speak.

Natalie took a hardy sip, "It's common to relax before heading back…eat, talk about things that don't really matter."

Blue eyes peered at Natalie over the black rim of reading glasses, which were removed by a pair of thin fingers, "All right."

Silence prevailed as both women focused on their breakfasts. The only interaction they had was when both reached for the hot sauce, likely trying to salvage an otherwise dissatisfying serving of eggs. Natalie watched the sheer amount Kate piled on and silently told herself to congratulate Frank. Excessive use of regular hot sauce was a symptom of having become addicted to his...

"Have you heard about the Lyme Trials?" Natalie ventured, one of the few newsletters she had read upon returning from Mexico had mentioned it. she'd had no one to discuss it with since.

Without missing a beat, the blonde snorted, "Who hasn't?"

Only most of America, Natalie thought, but she understood Kate's meaning. The schism that had grown in the medical community over the disease was a well touched upon one in the circle of infectious diseases. On one side were those who felt it was an easily treated disease, on the other were those who insisted it had chronic implications and deserved months if not years of aggressive antibiotic therapy. Licensing boards were taking those who treated the chronic symptoms to trial, threatening to suspend and even revoke practicing licenses for knowingly administering unnecessary treatment. The NIH stood with the former; Natalie was inclined to support the latter. She was silent about it, naturally, as her career depended on keeping people like Kate happy, but it didn't mean she didn't have a strong opinion. Her history wouldn't allow her not to.

"Are you asking as a scientist or as an NIH employee?" Kate continued, having read something in Natalie's expression. Her grip on her fork had loosened, signifying that she might possibly be game for this conversation.

Giving up on her eggs, Natalie reached for the toast, "Scientist."

She underwent another long moment of Kate's silent scrutiny before the Director began to speak, "Quote me on this and I'll have you filing paperwork for the next decade, but I think the IDSA are a bunch of sanctimonious asses. I've never liked insurance trusts, and they've got their eye on creating one. Most information we have on Lyme is hearsay based on a small corner of the research, and a group of fourteen doctors are looking to decide what is the only appropriate treatment for it. The conflict of interests there are unnerving..."

Natalie swallowed her bite and grinned, so there was a real doctor in there somewhere. "That's not what the NIH says."

"Do I look like I have the NIH tattooed to my forehead?" The lack of sleep had done Kate's conversational skills well.

"Invisible ink…"

"It's a career, not a doctrine…Why do you ask?"

Thinking of her mother, Natalie shrugged and turned her focus to her hands, "Small talk."

"About Lyme disease?" Skeptical was the word as well as the tone of voice.

"We aren't exactly on personal terms," Natalie confessed, a little more sarcastically than intended, "but I'm starting to not dislike you; the contrary really. If you quote me on that I'll hack your annual blood tests. I'm of the opinion that Lyme is both interesting and controversial enough for semi-cordial colleagues to discuss over breakfast…"

Surprisingly, Kate hid a smile with a rather adolescent roll of her eyes, "I have a cat."

Not entirely shocked by the segue so much as the person making it, Natalie furrowed her brows but played along, "A cat?"

"Maine Coon. He's bigger than a small dog and sheds like one."

"What's his name?"

Looking neither embarrassed nor contrite, Kate delivered her next statement with a bland expression, "Snuggles."

Natalie's peals of laughter refused to be tamed, filling the dinner and showing no signs of fading.

Shaking her head, Kate speared more of her egg, "I adopted him! He came with the name..."