A/N: Ok, it's a little late for a Christmas story, but this one's not really about Christmas. It's more about Jacob and Rachel beginning to develop a working relationship.

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"I'm sorry but it looks like I'm not going to make it," Rachel Young murmured into her cell phone. "Dr. Hood's been called out for a consult. I can't tell how long we'll be in the field so I'll cancel my ticket and we can plan to meet sometime in the new year." She listened briefly to the other side of the conversation. "Yeah, Merry Christmas to you too." She ended the call and slumped down in her seat for a moment.

As much as she had been looking forward to a break, part of her was actually relieved Hood had been called out on a case. While she knew it most likely meant something bad had happened, it also meant she had a legitimate excuse to not spend the long holiday weekend with her father. Not that she had a problem with him, it was merely that their relationship was …difficult. She hadn't been looking forward to explaining, once again, the politics behind her transfer from Counter-Terrorism to the EPD. Her father shared her dismay at her transfer and lost no opportunity to remind her of his disappointment.

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Jonathan Young's brief conversation with his daughter left him with a faint feeling of irritation. He wasn't irritated because Rachel wouldn't be able to visit for Christmas. Truth be told, he had been wondering what the two of them would do stuck with each other for four days. She wasn't one for shopping and, since he had retired to Florida, she couldn't use the excuse of visiting old school friends to escape the house, allowing them both a few hours of breathing space.

It wasn't because she was prevented from visiting him due to the demands of her job. As a former agent, he understood; the job came first. No, it was the job itself that roused his ire. He still couldn't believe an agent with her qualifications was stuck baby-sitting an absent-minded, middle-aged nerd who apparently didn't have the sense to come in out of the rain.

He gave a snort of disgust as he imagined what her assignment must look like. In his mind's eye he pictured a stooped, prematurely balding man, peering out at the world myopically through thick glasses; a cross between Einstein and Mr. Magoo.

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Jacob Hood looked over curiously at his companion. She had taken advantage of the nearly deserted gate area to move away from him to make her phone call. It was clear from what he overheard that she had plans for the holiday. He wondered if she resented those plans being cancelled. He knew her well enough by now to know he wouldn't have a clue if she did; she not only wouldn't discuss her personal affairs with him but she would also hide her true feelings behind the polite, indifferent mask she presented to the world.

For himself, he didn't mind the call to work. While he enjoyed spending time with Alex and Owen, Christmas merely emphasized the fact he didn't, and most likely never would, have the family he always wanted. Sometimes he thought being among strangers, getting lost in some scientific inquiry, was infinitely preferable to being reminded of the future he had expected to have.

With a small sigh, he returned to the file folder in his hand and was once again engrossed in the details it provided.

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Rachel roused herself from her reverie and walked over to where Hood was sitting. Taking the seat beside him, she eyed him speculatively. While she swore to herself that she wouldn't be content until she was back in C-T; she had to admit that this detail wasn't quite as bad as she had first thought it would be.

Ok, yes, Hood was a bit difficult. He didn't follow her orders the way he should and he had a nasty habit of zoning out when it was least convenient. But the work was pretty varied. This would be the third time they would be out in the field and she wasn't quite sure what to expect. The previous cases Hood had worked were wildly different. The first had turned out to be a case of multiple murder and the other nothing more than a student prank in a federally funded research lab. She wondered exactly what they, well, he would be doing this time.

Having learned quickly that Hood reading meant Hood oblivious to the world, she jiggled his arm.

"So, we're going to Little Rock 'cause a bunch of people developed meningitis?"

Jacob looked up with a small smile. "Actually, we're going to Arkadelphiaand if you classify eight people as a bunch, then yes, a bunch of people have been affected."

"What's the big deal? My roommate in college had it. The health center said it wasn't serious." She smirked a bit, "they said as long as I didn't kiss her or use her eating utensils I'd be fine."

"She must have had viral meningitis. And they were right, that form isn't very contagious or serious. But these people have presented with bacterial meningitis which is highly contagious and often fatal." He looked at Rachel soberly, "in fact, there's already been one death attributed to this outbreak."

Rachel knitted her brows in concentration. "Ok, this is a bad kind of meningitis, but still, only eight people have gotten sick. What makes it something for the FBI?"

"Bacterial meningitis isn't common, generally it only affects three people out of 100,000. So having eight cases turn up in a town of 10,000 is a statistical anomaly that bears investigation."

At Rachel's puzzled expression, Jacob explained further, "something is going on there, either a natural or man-made occurrence, for an outbreak like this to happen. The CDC can't figure it out so they've asked me to come down and take a look."

Rachel's eyes widened, "What do you mean, a man-made occurrence? Do you think this could be related to terrorist activity? Some kind of test of a biological weapon?"

"Maybe," Jacob shrugged negligently. "Or it could be something as simple as a bacterial mutation due to local ecological factors."

"What will you do?"

"Look around, see what occurs to me. It's not exactly a linear process."

Rachel sighed as Hood once again became preoccupied with his file folders. She could see why his other handlers became frustrated. His thought process was erratic, to put it mildly. It was disconcerting to someone with her training, which did emphasize the linear, to realize the course of her day would be governed by the whims of the man sitting beside her.

She passed the time before boarding going over the limited logistical information she had been given. It turned out Hood was right; their flight was to Little Rock because it was the closest airport to Arkadelphia. They would be met by an agent from the local field office who would provide them with transportation. They would then travel to Arkadelphia where Hood would meet up with representatives from the Center for Disease Control, the Arkansas Criminal Investigation Division, and the local sheriff.

Rachel fervently hoped the investigation wouldn't be held up in a pissing contest between the various agencies to determine who was in charge. She recalled the difficulties during the case in Buffalo where only the local LEO had to be pacified. She wasn't looking forward to a fighting a turf war on Hood's behalf with both the local and state cops.

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Pulling up in front of the small hospital Rachel was surprised when they were intercepted by a man in the uniform of the local police. She had assumed they would meet all of the players in this little drama at the same time. She cynically wondered if the local LEO was trying to steal a march on his state counterpart.

"Excuse me; are you the people the FBI sent?"

Rachel automatically stepped in front of Hood. "Yes, I'm Special Agent Young and this is Dr. Hood."

The man stuck out his hand, which Rachel, and then Hood shook. "I'm Eric Bailey, the sheriff for Clark County. Look, I'm not here to stake any claims, hell, what's going on is way out of my league, but I thought I should warn you. The CID is pretty pissed off the health guys called in the FBI. According to him, this isn't a federal case so I wouldn't expect a lot of cooperation from him."

"How about you Sheriff Bailey?" Rachel asked, "what can we expect from you?"

The man leaned against the building and sighed. "One of my deputies is in there with meningitis. All I know is the CDC descended on my town saying this outbreak was unusual and they needed to look into it. The next thing I know, the CID shows up and nothing seems to be happening but a lot of arguing." He looked at her and Hood bleakly. "And two more citizens of my county have gotten sick. So if you think you can figure out what's going on here, I'm at your disposal."

Nodding his head in approval, Jacob peppered the man with questions as they headed inside to meet the others. Rachel couldn't see the point of most of what Hood was asking; his questions seemed pretty random to her and she could see from the look on the local LEO's face he thought the same thing.

Jacob broke off his questions when they came upon the doctor from the CDC who was talking quietly to another man.

"Robert, it's good to see you again."

The man looked at him in relief. "Jacob! I'm glad you were available. I'm stumped by what's going on here and could use your expertise." He turned to Rachel and extended his hand. "I'm Dr. Robert Kessler and you are…?"

Jacob completed the introduction. "This is Special Agent Rachel Young. She's my FBI, uh,"

"I'm Dr. Hood's FBI bodyguard and handler," Rachel interjected smoothly. She turned to the other man who she assumed was the representative of the CID. She flushed angrily when the other man gave her a derisive look and ignored her out-stretched hand.

"Lieutenant Gerry Tidwell," the man announced, holding out his hand to Jacob. "I'm with the Arkansas Criminal Investigation Division. I'll be your liaison during your time here in Arkadelphia."

Jacob's brows drew together at the rudeness toward Rachel. He realized there was often some tension between his handlers and the state and local forces; the locals resented the FBI coming in and claiming jurisdiction. Even so, he found this man's behavior offensive.

He stuffed his hands in his pockets and tilted his head, regarding the man coolly. "I don't think so Lieutenant. Between Rachel and Sheriff Bailey I'm sure I'll have adequate assistance. Now if you'll excuse us, Dr. Kessler and I need to review his findings." He turned and began to walk up the hallway with his friend.

Tidwell's mouth tightened in anger. "Just a goddamned minute," he growled. He reached out and grabbed Jacob by the arm. "I'm the agent…" he got no further before Rachel reacted.

Pulling her weapon, she used its weight to add force to the uppercut she delivered to the elbow of the arm grasping Hood. At the same time, her booted foot snaked out and struck the side of Tidwell's knee. A second kick sent the man sprawling backwards. In seconds Tidwell found himself flat on his back with Rachel's foot across his throat. When he reached up to grab her leg, she pushed her foot down slightly causing him to subside. He looked up at her in fury.

"Dr. Hood is a valuable federal asset. If you ever lay a hand on him again, I will hurt you. Understand?"

Rachel stepped back, her face deadpan as Tidwell scrambled to his feet. "Don't think you're gonna get away with this you bitch," he snarled. "I'm reporting you right now." He stormed down the hallway to the elevators. She turned to find Kessler and Bailey gaping at her. Hood was slowly shaking his head. She met his eyes, silently daring him to say something.

Jacob supposed he shouldn't be surprised Rachel could take down a man a good eight inches taller and about one hundred pounds heavier. After all, she was an FBI-trained bodyguard. Ty wouldn't have assigned her to his detail if she couldn't do the job. Still, he shook his head; he couldn't see the point of that little demonstration. It would only make his work more difficult. He decided he would take it up with her when they were in private. He didn't want to upbraid her in public.

"Well, Robert," he turned to his friend, "let's review those test results of yours."

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As Hood and the doctor from the CDC went over the records of the patients with meningitis, Rachel quietly talked to Bailey. Soon she had a good grasp of the geography of the area and the relationships, or lack thereof, between all of the patients. Bailey had a few questions of his own; he quizzed her about Hood's background and qualifications. Rachel was about to ask for a hotel recommendation when Hood announced he was ready to leave.

"Where are we going?" she asked.

"I'd like to do an environmental scan of the homes of these patients." Jacob turned to Bailey. "I think it would be helpful for you to accompany us. Seeing the local sheriff might make people a little more inclined to co-operate."

Bailey nodded in agreement and made some helpful suggestions about how to approach the task.

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Rachel wasn't surprised when, as soon as they got into the car, Hood brought up her confrontation with Tidwell.

"Honestly Rachel, I don't know why you felt the need to man-handle Tidwell." he pursed his lips. "Was it really necessary?"

"Yes." She refused to elaborate. Damn it, she didn't need to explain herself to him.

"Why? He wasn't a threat to my safety. You offended and embarrassed him. After your actions, it will be almost impossible to work with him effectively."

"It'll be fine."

"How can you say that? He was furious and looking to make trouble; he's probably calling the FBI field office to report you for excessive force or something."

Rachel couldn't help it, her lips twitched and she let out a snort of laughter. "Oh, I don't think he's gonna report me to anyone. What, admit he let a girl get the drop on him?" She shook her head, "Nah, once he has a chance to cool off he'll decide not to mention it. I'm willing to bet he goes so far as to get himself called back to Little Rock."

Jacob was sidetracked by this line of thought. "Really? Is that why you did it, to get rid of him?"

Rachel was silent for a moment. Mentally shrugging she decided she might as well give Hood the truth. It would be easy to lie, to agree she was trying to get rid of an uncooperative agent. But she had come to realize how much Hood valued honesty; she didn't want to jeopardize their working relationship with a pointless lie.

"No, I did it because I don't have a penis."

"I… I … beg …your pardon?" Jacob stuttered.

Glancing over, she was amused to see his cheeks were turning pink. 'Christ, what a prude.' She wondered how he'd have reacted if she had told him bluntly that having a pussy was a distinct disadvantage in her chosen line of work. She grinned inwardly, 'he'd probably faint.'

"Assholes like Tidwell, they think a penis is a requirement for a position in law enforcement. Pushing him around like I did is the only way to get his respect. You saw his face when I was introduced, the way he wouldn't shake my hand." She snorted, not in amusement this time. "Probably thought I was your go-fer or worse. Well, I made sure he knew exactly why I was with you."

Silently, Jacob pondered her words. From what Robert had intimated about Tidwell when they discussed the case it was likely Rachel was correct. Robert had found the man overbearing; he wasn't looking forward to having to deal with him himself. "What about the sheriff? Was your little, uh, demonstration, for his benefit as well?"

"Nah, he's ok. He pretty much laid all his cards on the table when we met. He's grateful both of us are here. He wants answers and he doesn't care who gives them to him." She nodded in approval, "he's a good cop, he worries about his people, not his pride."

Jacob raised his eyebrows, impressed that Rachel could read people so quickly and accurately. She had just echoed the opinions Robert had expressed about the two men. Opinions he had developed after working with them for a few days.

Before he could comment, they arrived at the first house. Rachel pulled her SUV into the driveway behind Bailey's police cruiser. As they joined him in the walkway he explained this was the home of his deputy, Bill Heen. Heen had been one of the first people to come down with meningitis. The door opened before they had a chance to knock. A woman holding a toddler, with another small child wrapped around her leg, stood in the doorway.

"Eric, is something wrong? Is Bill…." she looked frightened.

"It's ok Janet," Bailey said soothingly. "These people are from the FBI, they've been sent to help figure out what's going on here.

Jacob nodded to the woman. "I'm Jacob Hood, I'm a scientist and this is Special Agent Rachel Young. I was hoping you'd let us look around your home. I've seen all of your husband's medical reports and this kind of background may be helpful."

The woman stepped back to allow them to enter. "Of course, anything you need, you just ask."

Bailey took the woman and her children into the kitchen, partly to keep them out of Hood's way and partly to fill her in on any changes in her husband's condition. Jacob and Rachel moved into the living room which was dominated by a large Christmas tree.

Rachel looked around curiously. Hood was drifting around the room, poking into corners, examining the decorations on the mantelpiece. This was a new territory for her, the two previous cases on which she had accompanied him didn't involve going into the victims homes looking for clues as to what happened to them.

"What exactly does an environmental scan consist of?"

"Hum?" Jacob looked up, an abstracted expression on his face.

"An environmental scan," Rachel repeated patiently. "What does it consist of? Are you going to take samples of stuff or what?"

"Oh! No, I just want to look around."

"You mean you want to search these people's houses?" Rachel asked exasperated. "Why didn't you just say so?"

Jacob looked at her in surprise, "I did."

Shaking her head, Rachel continued to follow Hood as he patiently went over every room. "What are you looking for?" she finally asked.

"Nothing in particular, I just wanted to look around."

Rachel rolled her eyes.

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They had searched two more houses before Jacob decided they should call it a day. Bailey accompanied them to the local hotel; he wanted to confirm their schedule for the next day. They had just reached the front desk when his radio crackled. He excused himself to take the call from his station as they checked in.

Jacob noted Bailey's smile as he rejoined them. "Good news? We could use some."

"Well, you might call this good news. Agent Tidwell has been recalled to Little Rock." He shot a look at Rachel. "Seems he told them the man from the FBI declined CID assistance and refused to cooperate with him."

"Shame," Rachel said deadpan. "I was looking forward to working with him."

Bailey laughed and took his leave, promising to return bright and early to accompany them on their searches of the remaining homes.

"Well, you were right about him." Jacob shook his head. "And I have to admit I'm glad you got rid of him so effectively." He looked sideways at Rachel, "Saved me the trouble."

His lips twitched as the flash of surprise on her face. "I found his rudeness toward you unacceptable. Having to deal with that, with him, would have been a distraction from my work. It's best he's out of the picture. But," Jacob continued with mock indignation, "I don't think it's fair that I take the blame for his departure."

"Why?" Rachel suppressed a smile. "Afraid you'll get a rep as being difficult to work with?"

Jacob gaped at her in surprise. A joke, a definite joke at his expense; this was a first. None of his other handlers had ever teased him.

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The next day proved, from Rachel's point of view, almost as boring and pointless as the day before. They spent the morning prowling through the houses of the remaining patients. Hood questioned their relatives, asking about their habits and movements in the previous month. So far he hadn't come up with any ideas.

They were sitting in the local diner with Bailey grabbing lunch. Even though it was the day before Christmas, the people around them were subdued, chatting quietly. Bailey was discouraged, he had hoped the appearance of this fancy doc from the feds meant there would be a quick explanation to what was going on in his town.

"I can't believe how this outbreak is getting to everyone. We all thought we'd end the year on a high note. Yeah, we were all expecting a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year."

"Oh? Why is that?" Rachel asked as she picked at her French fries.

"This county has been having a hard time since the recession. The aluminum factory closed down a couple of years back and lots of people were out of work. Then this new plastics factory opened up a few months ago. It brought in a lot of good paying jobs."

Jacob raised his head sharply. "A new manufacturing factory? I don't recall seeing anything about it in the CDC's reports."

Bailey raised his eyebrows at Hood's question. "Why should it concern them? It's not like all of the sick people work there."

"But some do?"

"Yeah, three of the guys who are sick work at the factory. But that's it."

"What about the others?" Jacob questioned him. "Are you sure there aren't any other connections to the place?"

"I don't think so," Bailey began, then he paused thoughtfully. "Now that you mention it, my deputy? Bill Heen? His brother-in-law Marty works there."

"So we have at least half of the affected people with a connection to the factory." Jacob looked at Bailey and Rachel, "we need to check that place out. Now."

The threesome made their way the plastics factory that stood at the edge of town. There they met with the first sign of resistance to their investigation.

"Look, I'm sorry Eric," said the manager. "But it would mean my job if I let you people in here to poke around without a warrant."

"Damn it, Charlie," Bailey swore. "No one is accusing you of doing anything illegal. The doc here just needs to look around, see if this place is the source of the meningitis outbreak."

"Yeah, right," Charlie retorted. "You expect me to let the FBI in here without notifying the company's lawyers? If this place is the source, they could get their asses sued off. So until you can show me a warrant, I gonna have to ask you to leave."

Rachel opened and closed her mouth. Working in C-T, they never needed a warrant. The Patriot Act took care of that little technicality for them. All they needed a was a link, however tenuous, to an act of terror, and they could search, access, anything they needed. She wondered briefly if they could get away with that here. After all, Hood had said this bacteria could be man-made, he hadn't dismissed the fact it could be a test of a biological weapon. She shrugged, Hood didn't seem the kind of guy who would cut corners. She decided not to mention it.

Jacob was seething with frustration as they stood at the gates of the factory. "I can't believe the manager is being so obstructive. Worrying about what a bunch of lawyers would say when we're faced with a public health crisis." He broke off his rant as a whistle blew and people began pouring out of the factory gates. A look of satisfaction crossed his face.

"Well, if Mohammed can't go to the mountain, maybe the mountain will come to Mohammed."

"Huh? I think you got that backward." Rachel said.

Jacob looked at her, his head titled, biting his lip. "Maybe it would be more accurate to say there's more than one way to skin a cat." Raising his voice, he called out, "Excuse me, if I could have your attention?"

As the crowd of curious workers surrounded Jacob, he quickly explained what he needed. Soon he had a group willing to accompany him to the hospital where he would test their clothing, take samples from their shoes, and swab their skin looking for traces of the meningitis bacteria. While he and Rachel went with these workers, he requested Bailey to collect soil samples from outside the fences surrounding the factory and water samples from the sewage ditch running from the factory.

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It was late in the day when Jacob looked up from his microscope with a grunt of dis-satisfaction. He and Kessler had spent the last few hours testing the samples they had collected from the workers at the plastics factory and the water and soil samples Bailey had provided for them.

"Not a trace of the bacteria anywhere. It's a dead-end."

"Now what?" Rachel asked.

Jacob scrubbed his hands across his face. "I don't know, I guess we're back to square one. What time is it?"


Stretching out his back, Jacob grimaced. "I guess we might as well finish up here. Get something to eat and see if anything occurs to me tomorrow."

"Why don't you come down to the station and have dinner with us?" Bailey suggested. He smiled as Jacob and Rachel looked at him doubtfully. "It's kind of a tradition. My wife and Janet Heen, they make Christmas Eve dinner for all of us who have to work today, tonight. You're both more than welcome to join us."

"Thank you, but…"

"You might as well." Bailey lifted a shoulder. "There's always plenty of food. Besides, everyplace here in town has closed down by now. You'll have to drive almost out to the interstate to find a fast-food place open."

Glancing at Rachel, Jacob saw her almost imperceptibly nod her head, signaling her willingness to fall in with Bailey's plan. He was relieved to be spared another bad meal.

"Thank you, we'll be happy to join you."

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Bailey smiled as two children, a girl about ten years old and a younger boy flung themselves at him. He gave them a quick hug and turned to introduce them to Jacob and Rachel.

"Dr. Hood, Agent Young, these are my kids, Olivia and Nick. Kids, these are the people the FBI sent to help us out."

The two children looked at Rachel with big eyes, ignoring Jacob's existence. Olivia looked at her brother quickly and, at his nod of encouragement, turned back to Rachel.

"Are you really an FBI agent?"

Rachel raised an eyebrow. "Yep."

Olivia regarded Rachel avidly. "My daddy said you put a goddamned statie on his ass in about ten seconds. Is that true?"

"Olivia Ann Bailey! You watch your language! And on Christmas Eve." A woman scolded the girl.

"But daddy said…" Olivia tried to protest.

"I don't care what daddy said," the woman shot a mock glare at Bailey. "Santa's going to leave him a stocking full of coal and you too if you're not careful."

Bailey grabbed the woman into a hug. "And this is my wife Gracie. Here, let me help you get dinner out."

Laughing, the two left arm in arm, leaving Jacob and Rachel with the children. Olivia looked at Rachel expectantly. "So…did you?"

"Damn straight I did."

Olivia and Nick began pelting Rachel with questions. About her gun, if she knew karate, if she had ever arrested any bad guys. Jacob watched her covertly, slightly startled at the way the chilly, ever so correct Agent Young was smiling and talking to the sheriff's children.

When dinner was served, the children grabbed Rachel by the hands and sat her down between them. She spent the meal time listening to their chatter, teasing them about Santa's coming visit, and helping them with their meals.

Olivia and Nick protested when their mother announced it was time to leave. Jacob's eyebrows climbed up his forehead when Rachel gave both children a hug and reminded them there was still time to be moved to the naughty list. He took note of her behavior and tucked it away to add to the store of information he was slowly collecting about her.

Olivia returned Rachel's hug with the declaration she was going to be an FBI agent when she grew up.

"Oh, I don't think so," he father growled as he came up behind them and wrapped his arms around his daughter.

"Why not?" Rachel bristled.

"What, my daughter grow up to be a fed?" Bailey winked at her. "Nope, if she's gonna be a cop, she'll be a county cop like her dad."

Olivia giggled and squirmed out of her father's arms and ran to get her coat.

Rachel looked after the girl thoughtfully. "You know, her growing up to be a fed isn't the worst that could happen."

Bailey looked at her skeptically, "yeah?"

She grinned at him, "She could grow up to be a goddamned statie."