“I appreciate it, sir” said the baby-faced bartender as he held up the generous tip Mulder had left and replaced the money with a drink that resembled diluted Alien Bounty Hunter blood. As he watched the kid saunter off, Mulder wondered if he should have worn his loudest tie to this affair. All the nuts roll down to Florida, Mulder thought, including resurrected paranormal investigators and washed-up truth-tellers of the pre-digital age.
Tampa Convention Center completely made sense as the locale for a major cop conference. Who doesn’t love sun, booze, and the chance to give the wife a vacation on the company’s dime? He had definitely heard some agents conspiring about hoarding their per diems earlier, and got momentarily lost in memories of the wasteful spending he and Scully had taken up to disguise the fact that they were, in fact, sharing a room on assignment.
Mulder, in a move totally out of character given his finely crafted brooding-bad-boy-of-the-Feds mystique, and much to his former (former?) partner’s surprise, has accepted an invitation from the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association to chair a special session at the 2016 FLEOA Conference. The session title? “Policing the Weird: Paranormal Claims in Law Enforcement Practice.” Monster boy, he thought as he read the email from the conference chair two months ago, that’s me. Still, it felt good to be remembered, and even recognized for the - quite frankly - pioneering work he and Scully had been doing for all those years.
Even his therapist encouraged him to go. “It’ll be good for you, Fox,” Thor had said at Mulder’s latest appointment. “We’ve talked about how you need to find ways to reclaim the pride you used to feel, professionally, Plus, I mean, it’s Florida.”
So here he was. A margarita in front of him, salt on his lips, and the telltale post-travel back pain let Mulder know that he wasn’t a recluse in rural Virginia anymore. It was time to be Fox Mulder again, not to waste that agile mind anymore. Until the opportunity came for him and Scully to finally, once and for all, stop those sons of bitches. Her words, not his.
Mulder’s phone buzzed. He read the text from Scully: “See you soon. You’ll be great.”
Sitting in the customary moderator’s seat at the center of a semi-circle of five uncomfortable armchairs, Mulder felt like he was moonlighting as a radio show host. It was uncomfortable, having to perform the role of an authority. He straightened his tie and cleared his throat.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let’s get started. I’m your moderator, Special Agent Fox Mulder from FBI headquarters. Today, we have several decorated federal officers with us who in one way or another have encountered claims of the paranormal in the course of their work.” In turn, he introduced the panelists.
DEA agent Sharese Mbala, a small woman in a well-cut pinstripe suit who in their introduction had told Mulder she headed the Atlanta division, spoke first. “Good afternoon, everybody. Agent Mulder, can I say that I was very happy to see you and Dr. Scully back at the Bureau. Finally I have someone to call for advice when things get… weird.”
“Thank you, Agent Mbala,” Mulder said, a little stunned. “It’s good to be back. So let’s turn to our question. Best practices in law enforcement: how do we deal with the cases that make little sense, and yet, need to be solved.”
Mbala nodded. “In our investigations, as you can imagine, DEA agents frequently encounter abnormal behavior, both in the individuals and groups we investigate, and in the… lore surrounding drug trafficking.”
“Like bath salts,” added Customs and Border Protection agent Carter Chase, whose bright pink tie ended an inch or so too far above his belt buckle. If this was a new trend among the young, hip Fed set or what, Mulder didn’t know. “I’m sure y’all locals remember the ‘cannibal werewolf of Miami.’”
“Filed right next to my personal favorite, ‘The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati’,” a crisp voice to Mulder’s left said. He turned his head to look at Scully, who wore an expression of amused tenderness.
“It also ate Gary, Indiana,” Scully seriously explained, “giving us jurisdiction.”
“And of course, Chessie the Chesapeake Bay monster,” Mulder joked, all the while smiling at Scully. “But back to more serious matters. The war on drugs.”
Agent Mbala smirked. “Ah, yes, bath salts. Director Bryson’s assessment of the bath salts situation, in hindsight, is, and I quote: ‘Don’t even get me bleeping started.’”
The crowd erupted in laughter.
“Of course I need to stress that she has never said anything remotely similar about the great state of Florida.”
Mbala, judging by the ripple of chuckles that echoed through the rows of cops, was a big hit and had an excellent career ahead of her. Mulder was glad. He remembered the boys’ club in every single meeting he had ever attended in the first iteration of his Bureau career. He remembered Scully discreetly raising the height of her seat at conference tables, shaking her head. She had fought hard.
Now, here among hundreds of strangers, he caught Scully’s eye briefly, love and a deep camaraderie washing over him. He felt like he was home.
“So let me ask you, Agent Mbala,” Mulder said, shuffling his notes, “what are some concrete challenges surrounding the paranormal the DEA is facing?”
“Besides the fact that none of it makes any sense?” Mbala chuckled. “When I see reports on my desk that… where I get deja vu and think ‘I’ve seen this horror movie before!’, I often wish we had a best practices guide to help us process the information in an organized and replicable fashion. As it stands now, I might as well just toss these cases into a box and forget all about them.”
Mulder nodded. Next to him, Scully raised her eyebrow and spoke in her most commanding voice. “Agent Mbala raises an excellent point about replicability. A scalable system for categorization is long overdue. Take it from me: don’t just file everything under X.”
Mulder couldn’t help but let laughter roll over him. “I couldn’t agree more, Dr. Scully. So, Agent Chase, I know you’re also a data analyst for the CBP. Can you speak to any ideas to address the issues Agent Mbala is raising?”
“Sure can,” Chase started, and Mulder lost himself in the back and forth of the discussion.
Mulder felt Scully’s amused gaze hit the back of his head long before he turned and saw her saunter up behind him at the bar. That look she was giving him, her crows’ feet barely visible after a good night’s sleep, a gauzy sleeveless shell revealed as she’d taken off her all-season blazer. She was ethereal. And he was a little buzzed on the Florida sun, his partner’s effervescently good mood, and actual, honest-to-god intellectual stimulation.
“You were a great moderator, Mulder,” she said fondly, “and that was a lot of fun.”
He pointed at the jacket under her arm, and motioned for the bartender to bring them two margaritas. “Playing hooky?” he asked her.
“Are you asking or suggesting?”
“You know what I’m about, Scully. When have I ever not cut class?”
Scully squeezed his waist and hopped up on a stool with an adorable scramble that delighted Mulder even after all these years, though of course he’d never let her know.
She took a sip of her drink and leaned into him, conspiratorial, beckoning with her fine index finger until his ear was nearly to her lips.
“Do you remember?” she said, very low. Mulder moved slightly to look into her eyes, confused.
Scully mouthed, dramatically, “Mothmen,” and Mulder choked on his mouthful of margarita. Scully’s laughter rang in his ears as he coughed, and her little hand patting his back made up for a humiliating death by inhalation of tequila at the decrepit age of 55.
His cheeks burned even as he calmed down and turned her around to face him. The whole day had been playful and Scully didn’t appear to want to stop, and also – of course he remembered. Florida. That day she’d tried, like a normal person celebrating the return of her life and energy, to let him know what she wanted from him. And he’d only jumped up and run to look for mothmen.
“You know,” Scully said, tender voice like cotton candy to his ears, “when you came to my room the other week in Oregon, I very briefly wondered if you were gonna maybe… make it up to me for that night with the goddamn mothmen. New beginnings and all.”
Mulder sighed and shook his head. “And all you got was a monster rant.”
“That’s okay,” she said, “I was serious, that is how I like my Mulder. But just so you know…”
“Yeah?” Mulder breathed, not sure what it was exactly he was hoping she’d say next.
“Just so you know I also really, really like wine and cheese.”
Scully demonstratively slurped her drink, squeezed Mulder’s hips quickly, and hopped down off her stool, briskly disappearing beyond the glass doors and into the sunny lobby, where she pressed a button on the elevator and looked over at Mulder, cocking her head.
It was now or never.
“Bartender!” Mulder half-yelled urgently. “Can you order up a cheese plate and a bottle of… I don’t know, something good! Room 477! Put it on my tab!”
Even with a click in his hip and a bum Achilles’ tendon, Mulder had never run up stairs faster.