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The Lone Deranger

By Rosy & LeiLani

"Holy moley!"

The diminutive man stared, awestruck, his stubby fingers poised over the keyboard. "Guys, you are not going to believe this!" He craned his neck toward his two taller companions, who sat at a folding table a short distance away. They were engrossed with eating Chinese food from take-out boxes.

"Not gonna believe what this time?" challenged the diner wearing his flaxen hair in a ponytail. Horn rimmed glasses framed intelligent blue eyes that might have been attractive were it not for the fact that the rest of his face was frozen in a perpetual smirk. "You always say that, Frohike. It's annoying." To emphasize his point, he popped the better part of a whole egg roll into his mouth, complete with a thick frosting of fiery mustard.

Frohike scowled. "Fine, Langly, if you're not interested, no problemo. Nobody's going to force you into meeting with a whole convention of hot babes."

The third man glanced up, his neatly trimmed chestnut hair and beard and his classic features out of place among the ugly ducklings around him. "Frohike, pardon us if we don't get excited. You said the same thing last week, and a couple of days before that, and a month before that. It's not like we're not interested. It's just that we'd rather wait until the ladies, uh ... materialize."

At his friends' apparent disinterest, Frohike shrugged, returning his full attention to the e-mail he'd received. A lazy grin spread over his face, distorting the five o'clock shadow that darkened his otherwise pale face. "Oh, yeah, come to papa," he murmured greedily. He wasn't naïve; he figured his cohorts probably weren't that far off the mark, but he was determined to play things to the hilt before conceding any points. He positioned the cursor over the document and commanded that it open for him, leaning back for all of about two seconds before jerking strait upright.

"Holy crap!" he exclaimed, all pretense of disinterest forgotten. "Langly, Byers, I'm not kidding. This woman really wants me!"

The other two men exchanged knowing looks. "Uh-huh," Langly replied sagely. "Sure she does."

"No, really! I really mean it this time!"

Byers, the swan among the group, stood, ambling over to clap a hand on his friend's shoulder. "You don't have to do this, man." He glanced at the computer screen as an afterthought, and his eyes widened. "Whoa! Langly, you gotta see this! He's right!"

Langly was on his feet in record time. "No way!"

All three stared at the mail, all three secretly thinking it still had to be a hoax, plain and simple.

And all three secretly hoping against hope that it wasn't.

***************************

The van was two decades old and badly in need of a new paint job, but the trio of friends kept the engine purring like a kitten. You never knew when you might have to make an unplanned flight when your job was exposing the creme de la creme of the government underworld.

Byers drove; aside from the fact that he was the best driver overall, he was also the least likely to attract the attention of a passing police officer. Whenever Langly drove, he had a tendency to be pulled over. When Frohike drove, he got pulled over at gunpoint.

The email respondent had attached a photo of herself, and while Frohike would have preferred to meet the woman alone, his comrades would have none of it. The insisted on the pretext of covering his back, their own particular euphemism for undying curiosity about the woman whose letter proposed a meeting that was more intimate than innocent in nature.

"You sure you didn't send her Mulder's photo again, by mistake?" Langly asked for the tenth time, still unwilling to believe that the little man with the toadlike features had actually garnered a date.

Frohike straightened the bow tie that threatened to cut off his breathing at any moment. He glared at Langly. "No, I didn't send her Mulder's photo. I don't believe he'd really shoot me, though, even if I had." Actually, Mulder had convinced Frohike that a bullet would follow such action, but Frohike had no intention of divulging that little detail to his partners.

Byers pulled up along the curb. "This is it, guys. The Devondales on Main and Savannah." He blinked. "I'll be damned. There she is, too, big as life and exactly as the picture showed."

All three men crowed close to the front windshield to catch a glimpse of the attractive woman sitting demurely on the bench in front of the coffeehouse. She was a statuesque blonde in a peacock blue sweater and matching skirt. She dangled a black pump off of her toes, apparently bored of waiting.

Frohike brightened, his face wreathed in smiles. "Come-to-papa," he breathed, his words as much a prayer of thanks as anything else. He stepped out of the van and waltzed to the woman's side, executing a quick bow as he held out a small bouquet of flowers. "Janice Bell? I'm Melvin Frohike."

The lovely face turned at the sound of his voice, and she smiled, her eyes alight. "Mr. Frohike? The Mr. Frohike? From the Lone Gunmen? The Magic Bullet?"

"One and the same," he boasted without hesitation.

She stood, her height emphasized by stiletto heels. She leaned forward and brushed a gentle kiss over his cheek, and his face flushed in pleasure as her perfume reached his nose. He decided right then and there that he was in love.

She tucked her arm into his and turned them away from his friends in the van. It was only then that Frohike realized she had pulled a pistol and held it flush against his ribs. "Just do exactly what I say, come along - ah-ah, don't look back, that's a good boy. We're going to go for a nice little ride."

Frohike rolled his eyes, mumbling, "Oh, man."

Byers and Langly sat staring in disbelief as Frohike and the stunning woman disappeared around the corner of the coffeehouse. Their eyes were wide, their mouths were open, and their hearts were pulsing in a quick rhythm to match the woman's little steps on the pavement. It was Byers who spoke first, stuttering his words. "Oh my god! Frohike... scored... that chick!" He sat back, closing his eyes in frustration. "Why?"

Langly was still staring at the spot where the woman and their comrade had once stood. He gawked at the prospect of Frohike scoring a date, jealously swelling up inside of him. "How could he? Where..." He paused, taking a deep, calming breath. "Look!"

Byers sat up, staring at the little sports car that pulled away from the coffeehouse. Frohike was clearly visible through the glass windshield, although he did not look pleased with the situation at hand. The blonde was driving, smiling with pure delight at something unidentifiable. They roared off in the opposite direction, leaving only a few wisps of smoke from their exhaust system behind.

"The little frog! He's taking the girl somewhere! Come on, we have to follow 'em! Let's go, let's go!" Langly pulled his seat belt on and slapped the dashboard, shouting orders like a drill sergeant. "Stay behind them, but not too close, or Frohike will see us!"

Byers pulled the old van into traffic, keeping a steady eye on the distant sports car. They stayed at least 50 feet behind Frohike and his date, making sure that there was no way Frohike could spot them.

 

 

Roaring down the middle of Washington DC in a sports car. with a hot blonde in spike heels would normally have been Frohike’s idea of heaven-well, almost heaven- but this situation just wasn't living up to it's full potential. The blonde had cuffed him to the car door, (and again, this normally would have been a variation on a true paradise... blonde, handcuffs, sports car...) throwing his carefully arranged bouquet of flowers in the back seat with a sneer. Even while she drove, she kept her gun steadily pointed at Frohike’s head, never wavering, even for a second.

"Why are you doing this, Janice? I thought you said I was se-"

"I know! I don't know what came over me!" She laughed hysterically, and Frohike couldn't help but notice how she shook when she laughed... He slapped himself on the cheek, angry at his behavior. The little voice in his head cried, She's a killer iceberg blonde with a pistol! Don't look... don't look! He shielded his eyes with one hand. "Why are you um, taking me away with a pistol to my head, if I may ask?"

Janice giggled slightly, but she answered with a frown. "Any man who is so pathetic and to try and pick up women from the Internet one: has to be some sort of psychotic killer who preys on the innocent and unknowing, or two: well... just one. Men who can't get women and resort to the Internet as a means of 'scoring' always have something wrong with them. So that's why we intervene, try and stop this madness."

"You mean there's more where you came from? Great!" Frohike’s voice didn't have a tint of sarcasm in it, and he actually found himself smiling from ear to ear.

This movement must have amused Janice, for she chose to answer this question with more depth. "Yes, there's... thirty-something of us. We work together out of our... headquarters, where we use the Internet to reel in you psychotic crack heads. We lure you out into daylight (by your looks, it seems as if you haven't been outside since Y1k!) and take you there. Then we... um...." Janice trailed off, staring blankly in the rearview mirror. "Did you know there was an ugly-ass van following us? Are they your men?!" Janice screamed, punching the dashboard with her pistol. "You sent them to spy on us!" Her face flushed with anger, but rapidly returned to normal as her eyes lit up. Seemingly, Pistol-Woman here had a plan.

"We'll give them what they want to see, no less!" Janice pulled the car onto the side of the road and leaned over, pressing her lips onto Frohike’s. Frohike closed his eyes and for a moment, radiated in the pure bliss of the blonde woman that pressed herself onto him.

Until she pressed the gun to his head, that is.

 

 

Byers pounded his fist on the steering wheel, shouting, "No way. This is Frohike, already. That's the kind of woman who'd shoot down somebody like us without even blinking."

Langly's astonishment had faded, morphing into unease. "Uh, Byers? I think maybe you're right. About the shooting, I mean. I may be seeing things, but isn't that a gun aimed at the dude's skull?"

The darker man squinted. "Nah, can't be. Maybe - " He rubbed his eyes. "Maybe a bottle of wine or something? That could be the cork."

Langly sat back, disgusted. "Look, man, this is Frohike. If I was a chick and had to kiss him, I'd be holding a gun, too. Only I'd be holding it to my own head. I'm telling you, the woman's got a weapon in there. He's a hostage!"

Both men stared at each other, slow grins spreading over their faces. "Love slave!" they exclaimed simultaneously, clapping each other a high five.

Byers chuckled, shaking his head. "We should be so lucky."

"Yeah. Yeah, we should." Langly straightened, puffing out his chest. "The email said she has friends. If we just happened to, you know, drop by her place, we might happen to meet some of them."

The duo leaned back in the van's bucket seats, each picturing himself with a variation of the beautiful woman who was all over Frohike. They were so absorbed in their daydreams that it took a full minute to sink in that their friend had a harsh meeting with the butt of his captor's gun. The woman's silver Porsche spun back out onto the pavement, its sleek skin nearly out of sight by the time the van roared to life.

****************************

2 hours later

J Edgar Hoover Building

Scully didn't look up at the knock on the door. Her full attention was focused on the medical report spread over the desktop.

Mulder sat opposite her, carefully creating a pencil sculpture, a number two yellow seesaw sitting atop an eraser fulcrum. His suit jacket slouched over the back of his chair, his tie stuffed unceremoniously into its breast pocket. "Come in," he called, boredom oozing out of every pore.

The two computer geeks tripped over themselves trying to get in. Langly was hyperventilating, Byers practically dancing in place once inside, and both of them did their best to stammer out their story in incoherent segments that flowed and overlapped in perfect confusion.

Skinner stepped in behind them, the expression on his normally stoic face hovering between tolerance and amusement. "They insisted they had to see you. That's about all anybody could get out of them."

Scully glanced up briefly. "Hello, boys. Somebody break into your sandbox and steal the rubber ducky?"

Mulder smiled, relieved for the interruption. "Calm down," he insisted, playing his best imitation of a sane man. He gently pushed Langly into a desk chair, glancing up at Byers. "Works better when one person speaks at a time and everybody's breathing."

Scully reluctantly sat her reading aside, folding hands in front of her, resigned. Whatever was eating these two, she was going to hear it, whether she wanted to or not. She glanced at the door. "Hey, guys, where's Frohike? Don't tell me he's not in on whatever escapade brings you here."

Byers's eyes overflowed. "Frohike was kidnapped in broad daylight!" he declared dramatically.

"By a beautiful woman," added Langly helpfully, between gasps.

Scully and Mulder looked from Byers to Langly to each other, then back to their agitated guests. "We came here to ask for your help rescuing him," Byers said, his voice anguished.

Scully blinked. "Frohike, kidnapped by a beautiful woman." Her own eyes were becoming watery very quickly. She wasn't sure how long before she burst out laughing. "Um, what makes you believe he wants to be rescued?"

It took the better part of an hour for the distraught men to describe the scene that had taken mere minutes to play out before their eyes. Their dismay was genuine enough, Scully conceded grudgingly, and as ludicrous as their story sounded, it had a ring of truth to it. Obviously there had been a meeting between Frohike and a woman. Scully wasn't sure if she bought the beautiful part, but for the sake of argument, she'd accept that it was woman. She proposed the idea that it could have been a female impersonator, an idea all four men decried immediately. "No way," Langly argued vehemently. "You wouldn't say that if you'd seen her."

Scully leaned back in her chair, hands clasped behind her head, her mouth drawn in a line of pure doubt. "I don't know that you can arbitrarily rule it out," she argued, mostly for the joy of seeing four reasonably intelligent men falling all over themselves to describe how they could never confuse a cross dresser with a real woman. Then she dropped an extra firecracker in their collective socks. "How do you know? How do you know I'm not really just an extraordinarily small man who's remade himself into a woman?"

She grinned at the immediate silence and the quartet of open mouths. It didn't last, but the outrageous comment had created its moment. "See, you had to stop and consider the possibility. With the right clothes and the right surgery ... "

Byers coughed. "Scully, you are a bright woman. Do you think you could be fooled, when it came right down to it?"

Mulder tilted his head in unspoken challenge, and even Skinner had taken on a decidedly defiant stance. She had inadvertently backed herself into a corner. "Oh, hell, all right. I'd know."

Langly leaned forward wearily, elbows on knees. His breath no longer came in short gasps, but he'd seen enough to understand the seriousness of the situation. "Look, everybody, this is all well and good, but it's not going to find Frohike. We have an email address. Why don't we try to backtrack it, pinpoint its source?" His black tee shirt's skull and crossbones design echoed his own dark expression. "The woman had a gun, for god's sake. She pistol-whipped him. I saw it, saw him go down. I don't think that was with his permission."

Scully watched the emotions that flitted over all the men's faces, and she realized she wasn't going to be able to have a moment's peace until they found the missing member of the Lone Gunmen. She whipped her purse over her shoulder and stood, striding to the door. Gripping the knob, she turned to the men. "All right, boys, let's see if we can find Frohike's girlfriend among the mug shots."

 

 

"Nope, nope, uh-uh... definitely not!" Byers's clutched his stomach, horror playing wickedly across his face. He was staring fixedly at a hand full of photographs of women who had recently been released from jails across the region. As of yet, none of the photographs even remotely resembled the blonde that had taken their short comrade.

"I'm telling you Scully, this woman was... gorgeous! Stunning! Beautiful! The girl from every boy's childhood dreams!" Byers pushed the pictures away from himself. "And I'm telling you, she's not gonna be in here anyway, she was... too careful. Not one of your everyday convicts."

Scully sighed heavily and gathered up the pictures, stuffing them into an old file cabinet. "Well, can you describe her at all? How tall was she? What color eyes? Hair? Approximate weight? Anything that might help us is appreciated, you know."

"No need to describe her, we have a photograph. The lady sent Frohike one after her met her online. Assuming Frohike didn't delete it, which I doubt he did."

"You mean to tell me that this entire time, you had a picture of the woman, and you didn't even notify me of the fact?!" Scully snorted in frustration, rolling her eyes upward in helplessness. "Please, tell me no..."

"You never asked, Scully."

Byers was saved from asphyxiation by Scully when Mulder burst into the room, grabbing his coat from the back of a chair. On his way out the door, he called back to his partner:

"Scully! Get your stuff and come one, Langly got something! He's been working on the e-mail tracing back at his place, and he's got a trace on it! You too, Byers!"

Scully wearily rose and put on her black coat, buttoning up the front. "Here we go again!"

Bursting into the room where Langly sat, calmly working at his computer, Mulder dashed over to the startled gunmen. An impatient Scully and a jabbering Byers followed him closely behind. He ignored the pair behind him and immediately devoted his attention span (tiny) to Langly, gasping for breath as he spoke quickly, a little bit too so.

"What's the address? Where did that broad take Frohike?" He pulled up a wobbling chair and plopped down, letting out a breath of air. He examined the glowing computer monitor before him, searching for an answer to his question amongst the illuminated letters and numbers. "Well?"

Langly eyed Mulder, and his steely glaze caused the anxious agent to become nervous. Langly tapped a button on his keyboard with his thumb, and the two watched as a text box came up on the screen. In it, it contained an e-mail address and a street address, both of which were unfamiliar-familiar to Mulder.

"What's this?" Mulder pointed to the square, questioning what lay before him. "Who's e-mail and street address is this?"

"Hold your horses, G-man, let me explain. This is our culprit's e-mail address. I did a database search on it, and it found a match – the address for the server she was contacting Frohike from. This is it."

Mulder silently read the text, his lips moving as he took-in the information. "You mean to tell me her e-mail address was JaniceJoyride?! You have got to be kidding me!"

"I told you Frohike found her almost instantly. He was browsing in a chat room..." Byers stepped forward, tapping the address on the screen with his knuckles. "Recognize the server address?"

Mulder considered it thoughtfully for a minute, then replied, "No. But I have a feeling that I should..."

Langly and Byers glanced at one another, their mouths set into slight frowns of dismay. "Yeah. She hacked us, Mulder. She got into our system."

Scully stepped forward leaning closer to the computer screen to read. "Wait, this is your own address here! What the hell is going on?"

"'JaniceJoyride e-mailed us from our own server. She's not only a babe, but a smart one at that!"

 

 

Janice wove in and out of traffic for the better part of an hour, the smooth hum of her German engine nearly enough to lull the bewildered Frohike to sleep despite his all-too-real fears.

He was growing increasingly nervous, understanding that beautiful or not, Janice – if indeed that was her name – hadn’t blindfolded him. Granted, he'd been out cold for a while, but she had to realize he'd recognize common landmarks. He shivered with dawning comprehension.

She had no intention of letting him go. Ever.

Keep your wits about you, man. He sat back warily, trying to keep his voice from squeaking as he spoke. "This is some machine," he said, licking the bloodied split in his lip.

The woman shot him a disdainful glare. "What's it to you? Hot babe, hot car, isn't that what you and your kind dream about, Toady?"

He didn't want to provoke her, nor did he want to admit how right she was. His Adam’s apple bobbed nervously. The bow tie, already too tight, now threatened to strangle him. He used his free hand to tug at it until the fabric yielded and the crimson knot unraveled. "Not many people appreciate the classics," he commented with what he hoped was detachment. "What is this? A late '67 or an early '68?"

There was a subtle shift in her expression. The palest suggestion of respect? "Early '68. Good catch. What gave it away?"

The level of disgust was diminishing, he thought. Good. Keep her talking about something neutral. "I recognized the body style. They altered it slightly by the middle of '68, wider wheel base and sleeker fins. My mom had one of these, swore it was the best wheels money could buy. She got pulled over constantly." He wasn't pretending the catch in his voice. "She was quite a speed demon in her day."

"What's she doing now?"

Frohike paused. As relieved as he was to see his captor's antagonism index fall, he didn't want to divulge something so deeply personal. Finally he realized his mother would no longer care. "She's dead. Murdered in her sleep by a man with enough clout in high government to brush off any suspicion like water off a duck's back." It was the first time he'd allowed the memory to surface in a long time, and it still clawed at his midsection.

Janice didn't speak for a moment. When she did, her voice was harsh again. "We're almost there. If you behave yourself, you'll live to see another day. If not - "

The sunlight glittered over the Porsche's metallic paint as the little car whipped suddenly into a gap in the fence.

We're at the airport, Frohike realized with a start. His pulse jumped as he realized that Janice was headed for the wide-open maw of a dilapidated hanger. They'll never find me here, he thought, his heart sinking. He had still held out the tiniest hope that, even though he couldn't see them, his friends were still trailing close behind and would jump in to save him. Those hopes virtually disappeared when Janice put the gearshift into place and yanked up the parking brake inside the cavernous warehouse.

The blond kept her cool composure as she unfolded long legs, stretching for a moment before making her way to Frohike's side of the vehicle. She kept her weapon in plain view, warning, "Don't screw with me, little man. I've got a gun and PMS. You're going to do exactly as I say, no more and no less. Got it?"

Frohike nodded, his eyes never leaving the ice queen's face. She unfastened the door side of the handcuffs and drew him along on the short metal leash, gesturing and tugging him into a waiting single engine Cessna. "Come on, Mr. Macho," she chuckled. "We've got places to go, people to see."

"Why are you doing this?" he finally managed. "I didn't solicit you. You put an ad out and I answered. I never hurt you, and I wouldn't do anything you didn't want to do. I would never hurt any woman. No real man would."

Once again, he noticed a flicker of ... something ... cross her face. He couldn't put his finger on it, couldn't say exactly what it was, but it caused chills to creep up his spine.

In the space of a heartbeat, the contempt returned. "That's what you all say," she hissed. She clamped the loose end of the handcuff to a metal ring over the tiny window next to Frohike's seat. "Just sit down and shut up."

He automatically flinched when she reached for his lap, but to his surprise, she just buckled the belt around his midsection. She then turned away and slid into the pilot's chair. "Don't worry, I've left plenty to keep your friends occupied. They won't find us until we're ready for them."

"Leave my friends out of it!" he shouted, suddenly forsaking all concern of offending her. "They never did anything to you! They didn't even answer your stupid ad!" He leaned forward against the restraints, though he didn't remove them.

The aircraft rolled forward into the sunlight, waiting for its turn to take off. "Don't worry, Toady. It's kind of touching, you know, almost like you really cared about them. For what it's worth, though, it's not what we plan to do to them, it's what they're going to do for us." Moments later they were off the ground. Janice flew out to well over the ocean, tipping her wings, then banked sharply to the right, heading back west over the mainland.

 

 

Mulder leaned over Langly's shoulder, his hand braced against the dusky wall. Scully once commented on the boys' décor. She called it "early dungeon muck", a title the trio of computer geeks embraced instantly, even commissioning a friend to splash the words over a weathered copper sign.

The male FBI agent glanced up at his feminine counterpart, gracing her with just a hint of a smile. She might fool almost anyone else, but to all four men inside the dingy little apartment, her underlying concern shone out as clearly as a searchlight at midnight. Whatever she claimed outwardly, Scully was an honorary Lone Gunman, and she cared a great deal about the scruffy little crew.

AD Skinner stretched, stifling a yawn. "Any luck at all breaking the code?" The straight-and-narrow assistant director had long since traded in his suit for form-fitting jeans and a polo shirt, his hard-nosed bureau persona relaxing somewhat in the process.

Langly grunted in reply.

Byers interpreted, "That would be a no. The kidnapper has covered her tracks six ways from Christmas. She writes pretzel programs that turn back on themselves, aborting every effort to really trace her." He frowned. "To all appearances, the email really did originate here. Of course that's impossible."

Mulder arched his back to try and alleviate the kinks between his shoulder blades. "Why? You think no one could break into this place?" He reached back for the mug that held now-lukewarm black coffee, raising it to his lips for a big swig.

Langly's eyes never left the computer screen. "No freakin' way anyone could get in here, not without us knowing it. We've got locks, we've got alarms, we've got surveillance equipment on 24-7, and the bottom line is no. No one could break into this place." He lifted his chin defiantly, challenging anyone to argue the point.

Something caught Mulder's eye and he raised a finger. "Hold that thought." He ambled over to a corner, leaning over to retrieve something pastel from beneath the corner of a box. His face split into what the boys referred to as a big, poop-eating grin. "Oh yeah? So tell me, boys, who's into leather and lace these days?" He dangled a delicate peach silk thong up for them all to see. "And here's the note that came attached to it."

Scully deadpanned, "My, my, Langly. I always figured red was your color."

Scully collected the note from Mulder's hands, stepping around him and into a ray of light, silhouetted by the swirling clouds of dust from the room. She first read the note silently to herself, taking notice of the smeared fingerprints that adorned the crisp edges of the paper. Clearing her throat, Scully began to read it out loud, her tone of voice hinting at amusement.

I have Melvin - we're out of town right now, on our little trip. By now you must have notified the authorities, but I warn you now: if the police get involved in this, then you'll be sorry. Call them off, tell 'em you found Toady. If not, Melvin will surely regret your actions.

With love,

Janice

PS: I see you've found my little gift! Think of it as...a token of my appreciation for your having provided me with such a hostage! Toodles!

Scully snorted and tossed the note to Mulder, suppressing a mild laugh. Her eyes, however, were streaked with concern, and her cheeks were pale from worry. "Mulder! Check out the fingerprints! This girl is either brilliant or... suicidal, I don't know which." She plucked casually at the lint clinging to her black jacket. "Langly? Byers? What do you guys think about this note? Sound familiar, link you've seen this girl's style before?"

Langly could only shrug, and Byers answered with a downward glance at his blazer. "Well... no. But I do get the hint that she's been here before, since of course she left us her, uh, ah..." Byers blushed, averting his eyes from Scully's.

"Thong!" Mulder tucked the note into his pocket and slipped the pink, silky fabric of the thong into a plastic baggy, taking extra care not to smudge any of the potential fingerprints it might offer. "Scully, I'll take this downtown to be analyzed and printed. Stay here with these guys and look around for anything else she might have left us. If you find anything, call me!" Before Scully could protest, Mulder was out the door and away, leaving behind two shabby gunmen and one dazed FBI agent.

 

 

12 hours later

Frohike wasn't sure what to expect, but he knew he didn't expect what he got. He figured he'd be locked inside an unheated cell with a lumpy mattress on the floor and a bare light bulb strung from the ceiling. Instead, he got the Martha Stewart treatment, right down to matching linens and gourmet meals. His captors - and there were apparently several - were all female, and Janice, as it turned out, was the ugly one.

The split lip had been tended and he'd showered and shaved. His room, far from the Spartan existence he'd envisioned, was a tastefully decorated space complete with a television and video library, a stereo, and a computer. No Internet connection, no telephone, no means of contacting the outside world, but hardly a torture chamber.

It made no sense to him. The women were alternately overtly hostile and genuinely warm. Of course, some of it was undoubtedly simply differences in personality. He tried to memorize the faces and names of the ones who breezed through to instruct him on the rules of the house.

There was Phoebe, a tiny brunette with a magical laugh and dancing green eyes. Her voice was deeply sultry with a hint of a southern drawl. Kate was the youngest he'd seen, a soulful poet with the lithe build of a dancer and a cascade of coppery curls. Chiquita was a little firecracker with flawless bronze skin and a long black braid that clapped against her spine as she walked.

One of the ladies struck him in particular; the woman he dubbed Storm was a willowy waif whose flaxen hair was cropped short, her eyes so pale blue they were nearly white. She was a mystery, seemingly indifferent until he caught her in an unguarded moment, her lovely features drawn with an enigmatic intensity. He didn't know her name. Hell, he didn't know if any of them had given him their real names.

There were more, he knew, and he wondered for the first time what had drawn such stunning creatures together on such a bizarre quest. Something told him that Janice's explanation wasn't the whole story. Or maybe it was pure smoke screen. Whatever their true intent, his unease was slowly being replaced by deepening curiosity.

 

 

Dr. Lee Carlson stared with much boredom at the computer screen before her, twiddling her thumbs absent-mindedly on her desk. She pushed her glasses up on her nose twacking away a stray strand of her long, wispy blonde hair as she did.

"Well, the prints didn't register in the criminal data base, Mr. Mulder. Whoever left the note and the uh, other piece of evidence for you hasn't committed a single crime. I also ran it against our citizen data base, and it didn't bring anything up either." She licked a bagel crumb from the corner of her mouth, exposing a row of silver braces.

Mulder sat musing for a moment, wiping at the grease stains on his tie. After about a minute, he broke the thoughtful silence that had developed between himself and the lab technician. "Run it against the government data base. Maybe this woman was some sort of government worker. Maybe that's how she found Frohike in the first place..."

Carlson hit a key, and both she and Mulder watched with evident fascination as both a name and a picture flickered onto the monitor. With the flick of her wrist and the touch of a computer key, a printout of the kidnapper's information was coughed from the printer at hand. Mulder picked it up, wincing slightly as he touched the still-hot paper.

"Janice Bell, aged twenty-six, unmarried-married. Former government/military employee, worked with the FBI for several years. Went to Duke in North Carolina at age... whoa!"

"What is it?" Carlson sat forward, her eyes shining expectantly.

"This girl's a smart one, started college at age thirteen! Joined the FBI when she was sixteen as a special trainee. Switched to the government when she was twenty-one!" Mulder skimmed the rest of the page, his brow furrowing in disgust. "The rest of this is classified!" He crammed the page into his coat pocket. Turning to the technician, he pulled his coat across his broad shoulders, backing towards the door.

"If you get anything else from that note and the thong, please, call me or Agent Scully as fast as you can!"

"Can do, Mr. Mulder!" Carlson turned to the two plastic badges containing Bell's note and her thong. "I'll call you the moment anything comes up!"

But her words fell on deaf ears, for Mulder had already disappeared out the door and down the hallway.

*****************************

 

 

 

24 hours later

Frohike feigned disinterest, though his sights kept landing squarely on the deceptively quiet woman in the corner. She wasn't as beautiful as the other women at first glance, but something about her required a second look.

And a third and fourth.

She was on the small side: an athletic build, with a swish of chestnut hair swept into a low ponytail at the nape of her slender neck. Hooded eyes revealed flecks of gold up close. Not that he'd had many opportunities to see her up close, though he'd have liked to.

She hadn't volunteered her name, nor had she answered when he asked her. He'd silently dubbed her Mostly Harmless, a designation he mentally abbreviated to MH. He later revised his opinion, though he stuck to the original moniker for clarity's sake. He'd gradually put together that she was a chemist, and almost certainly the da Vinci of the operation. Every now and then he'd catch a faint whiff of the pigments and linseed that identified her interests.

Funny how she spent so much time around him, yet hardly said a word. When she did, her voice warmed him. He only wished he knew what she intended.

What she and her companions intended.

 

 

Langly puffed out his cheeks and blew, his forced breath flipping the recalcitrant blond strand away from his face. He remained at the computer for his seventh straight hour without a break. His shoulders, arms, and fingers were cramped, and he swore his butt was killing him. "Come on, you little amoeba," he muttered under his breath. "You were the girl wonder in college. Even a G-woman can't just up and disappear that easily."

Mulder returned with a basic printout: names, dates, and faces. But Janice Bell remained as elusive as ever. She had a driver's license with a bogus address, ditto for the address listed on any one of a dozen email boxes scattered across the Internet. Her trademark, as it turned out, was to break in - literally or figuratively, apparently dependent on whim - and post her messages from her victims' own computers.

And there were victims, plural.

Until now, it seemed no one made the connection between the former beauty queen and the multiple disappearances of men from every walk of life. Contempt marked her every movement, including an entry into a beauty pageant that she won only to turn around and condemn. She publicly tossed the crown into a sewer, making front-page headlines in the small town where she lived.

The more Langly discovered, the more disturbing the picture it painted. Janice Bell was a genius, without a doubt. A genius that lured her victims in and made sure they never saw the light of day again.

Langly's fingers were cramping so badly he was hitting wrong keys right and left. He was ready to pick up the keyboard and throw it through a window in frustration. He silently begged for a break, for anything that would lead them to their missing friend. It never once occurred to him that their quarry might email them and tell them where she was.

 

 

 

 

 

Byers burst into the computer room, waving a manila file folder frantically around his head. Mulder and Scully were approaching behind him, jubilant looks playing across their tired faces.

"We've got something here! Check this one out!" Stumbled over to an empty computer and pulled a compact disk from his manila folder. Popping it into the console, he began rapidly typing, bringing up a series of pictures and text boxes on the screen.

"Byers said that he remembered Janice carrying some sort of tote-bag with her, the kind a club or group would give out to it's members. We drove over to the site where Frohike was taken, and discovered an ATM machine pointed directly at the spot she would have been standing. And of course, all ATM machines have security cameras. Doing a bit of finagling, we managed to get a copy of the tape." Scully triumphantly smiled at Langly, boasting her superior investigative abilities. "Am I good or what!" She laughed lightly, showing the briefest of smiles.

Mulder grinned, and pointed to the computer. "Watch and behold, my fine-feathered friends!"

Across the monitor, a scene familiar to the remaining gunmen was playing out. Frohike, having just got out of the van, was strutting over to Janice, bowing low and offering her the flowers. Just as she pulled the gun on him, Mulder smacked the keyboard. The picture froze.

"Watch this!" Byers typed quickly, his hands flying across the keyboard, never missing a stroke. Langly watched with envy from behind, but he studied the frozen picture as well. It was rapidly zooming in, until all that was visible was the emblem sewn onto Janice's tote bag.

Scully made this her point of entry by hurrying over to the screen and pointing at the patch. "See? It says '2001, A Piccolo Odyssey. The Piccolo O, or TPO are a group of seven or eight woman who play their Piccolos. I went to hear them last fall. They're actually pretty good. I did some digging, and guess what I found?" She magically produced another manila folder, handing it over to Langly, who extracted a single photograph from within.

It was a picture of seven women standing onstage somewhere, each playing the Piccolo. There was one woman circled in bright red ink, making her stand crazily out from the rest of the ensemble.

Langly smiled. "It seems as if our kidnapper plays the Piccolo, team. We've got a lead!"

Scully peered over the men's shoulders. "Piccolo, huh? Guess that narrows it down a little, but I still don't see how it gets us any closer to finding her. This photo is two years old; we don't know if Janice is still part of the group."

Mulder replied dryly, "How many piccolo virtuosos can you claim to know, Scully? I'm betting this little group of friends stays in touch. Question is, can we find any one of the women in this group, and if so, can she tell us how to find Janice?"

Byers interjected sheepishly, "Um, I think I can help there. See this girl?" He tapped his finger over the face of pretty brunette at the outer fringe of the septet. "I know exactly how to find her. Her name's Camellia. Actually, I call her Chameleon, but don't tell her I told you so or she'll kill me. She lives in a little town in Iowa, place called Evansdale. That's why the piccolo symbol caught my eye. Cammie's been a part of this group ever since high school. I don't remember Janice, but I can tell you the names of the other five. I even dated a couple of them."

Scully, Mulder, Langly, and Skinner stared at Byers as if the mild-mannered computer geek had sprouted wings and a tail.

"Cammie???" Langly choked. "Your SISTER Cammie?"

Skinner was thrown into a fit of coughing at Byers's admission. Langly remained agape. Scully's porcelain features were frozen - Mulder couldn't tell if it was a look of anger or if she was fighting to contain laughter.

The younger male member of the FBI team reacted the fastest. "I think it might be a good time for a family reunion," he prompted, yanking out his cell and slapping it into Byers's hand. "Dial," he ordered sternly.

He glanced again at the digitized photo, taking in the seven faces. All of them looked very, very young. "Didn't anyone ever stop to wonder why someone who looked like Janice would want to date someone who looked like Frohike?" he posed at last. "Didn't Frohike suspect anything?"

Byers shook his head, signaling silence as the call connected. "Hi, is Cammie there? Uh, Camellia?" The expression on his face said the answer was no. "This is her brother John and I need to speak to her as soon as possible... Kitty? Kit, yeah, it's me, how are you? Actually, maybe you can help me, it's really important. I'm trying to find the new member of your group, Janice. No! No, I swear I don't want to date her!"

He glared at the quiet round of snickers that erupted behind him. "Listen, Kit, this may be a matter of life and death... No, I swear I don't want to date her! Look, I can't explain everything right now, but take my word for it, I need to know where she is, she ... E-mail?"

He turned blue eyes back to his companions, bewilderment smeared across the classic lines of his profile. "She e-mailed me?" He paused again, listening to the feminine voice at the other end. "Yeah, sure, okay. Thanks, Kitty."

Before he hung up, he'd begun to backtrack through his computer screens, pulling up an email message. "Ill be damned!" he breathed. "She sent us a map."

 

 

Frohike's curiosity had long since obliterated any real fears. While he wasn't free to go beyond the upper level of the farmhouse, it was enough to convince him he was better off staying, anyway. Lacy curtains disclosed a great deal of the exterior view, which was basically trees, grass, a pond, and nothing suggesting civilization existed within walking distance. A weathered windmill turned gracefully in the breeze; the computer nerd had no clue if it served any useful purpose or if it was merely another of the thousands of aesthetic enhancements scattered over this complex puzzle.

Besides, it wasn't like he was being abused, other than the initial blow from his abductor. He was getting three homemade meals a day, a luxury he hadn't experienced since before his college days at Kent State. Clean clothing was folded outside his door every morning. He even had his own private bath, though he wouldn't have minded sharing. Watch yourself, he thought. You're surrounded by estrogen. ARMED estrogen. He didn't have to be a rocket scientist to know that hitting on one of his captors could change his situation dramatically.

Behaving himself was becoming increasingly difficult, though. He was only human, after all, and even the ice princess herself had begun to thaw around him. That didn't mean he trusted her, and he still worried over her insinuated intentions toward his friends.

They still hadn't asked him for anything, despite the apparently collective plans to which all the ladies hinted. He'd finally surmised the name of the mystery woman, and he wasn't surprised to discover that she was a teacher. All of the women were educated, polished beyond the norm. It was only that MH - her name was Gwen, he reminded himself firmly - stuck out among the rest. She seemed to try to downplay her own femininity, forgoing cosmetics, her clothing following simple, uncluttered lines.

Frohike thought she was possibly the most stunningly luminous creature he'd ever seen, and he suspected she could launch a battle of wits against the cream of the scientific crop and she'd come out the winner.

********************************

Their rental car speeding rapidly down the highway, Mulder and Scully sat in relative silence, watching the beautiful countryside stream past in a bright, green summer's haze. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and the day was a mild one, creating a pleasant atmosphere. For once, the agents didn't discuss the case at hand, but allowed themselves the brief luxury of sitting back, relaxing, and simply enjoying the view.

Scully stirred, and opened her eyes, blinking against the bright sunlight that streamed through the windshield. Mulder was driving, (as always) and he was humming uncharacteristically-characteristically to himself. Scully yawned, and stretched, warding off the remaining depth of her nap.

"Mulder, what time is it? Where are we?" She took a sip from the ceramic coffee mug that was sitting near her, but made a face at the cold liquid. "Eeww."

Mulder checked his watch. "It is... exactly 1:30pm. We just crossed the Georgia state line. Welcome to the land of peaches!" He leaned forward, checking a large, green roadside as the blue rental Malibu sped past, leaving behind a trail of dust. "We just left the far-reaching outskirts of Atlanta. According to our map, we need to keep going south, until we reach Elizabeth City. Bell said in her e-mail to meet her there." Mulder couldn't help but poke a remark, accented by a deep-southern drawl, "So our kidnapper is a Southern Bell, down here in the warm country!"

Scully laughed and pulled her cell phone from her purse, switching it on. She dialed quickly, and sat waiting as the number connected.

"Oh, hi yeah, it's me. Did you ever find Camellia? Uh-huh. Yeah, I see. Great, just great." She was quiet for a moment, but thoughtfully added "Just peachy."

"What happened to Camellia? Did Langly ever get in touch with her?" Mulder turned to Scully, questioning her brief phone conversation.

Scully sighed and put the phone back in her purse. "Well, yes and no. He found out where she was - she got on a plane for Elizabeth City yesterday."

"The day that Frohike was abducted!"

Scully gazed around her at the lush greenery. The Georgia countryside was stunning, its oak, maple, elm and ash forests almost holy in their hushed beauty. Now and then the trees would step back to allow brief expanses of meadows and fields, with the occasional abandoned building. More than once, the FBI team rolled past the weathered remnants of a barn, man's intrusion given over to nature. Nature's palette colored the once-crimson wood with muted grays and greens, turning the architecture into serene sculptures.

If it weren't for the kidnapping, this case would have been a nice excuse for a vacation. She permitted the hint of a smile to flicker over her lips as she raised a hand to brush back her auburn mane. It was beyond bizarre to think that Frohike was an FBI case. A nut case she'd believe, but an FBI case ... And she was frankly surprised that Mulder had thrown himself into this so enthusiastically. After all, there was no real X-File involved.

This was pathetically mundane, now that she thought about it. Nothing paranormal, no vampires, no flukemen, no aliens, no government conspiracy, just a nice female psycho who apparently had a grudge against computer nerds.

Come to think of it, maybe this Janice had something, after all.

The map led them to a turnoff that could barely be construed as a road; it was more like a wide path, no pavement, just dual tire tracks in the dirt separated by a narrow meridian of grass. Mulder stared dubiously at the map, his eyes spanning the thick forest on all sides. If they drove down this little thoroughfare, there might be no way back.

There would certainly be no quick escape route. They were in a midsize rental sedan, not a four-wheeler, which meant he'd have to negotiate their way over the rough terrain in hopes of not taking out the undercarriage. He turned onto the first few feet of the little diversion, pulling to a stop, intending to take another look at the map.

Before he could ask Scully anything, a woman emerged from the trees: a shapely woman in powder blue attire, from her faded jeans to pale buttoned shirt. A white cowboy hat was perched over a matched set of glossy black braids. She was atop a magnificent dappled stallion, the animal's spirited prance and sleek lines suggesting a thoroughbred lineage. Mulder privately thought the rider was the thoroughbred, though, her lush curves filling out the western wear in an enticing manner.

Well, he had to admit to one little flaw in the picture. The woman's face was partly covered by a mask, something straight from the Lone Ranger, and she had a shotgun leveled at the drivers' side of the car.

"Hi-yo Silver," he muttered aloud.

The Lone Gunwoman gestured to the FBI agents to exit the vehicle. Behind the rider, three other women appeared, all likewise masked, one scooting into the driver's seat vacated by Mulder, the other two leading a matched set of Appaloosa mares. One of the identical women on foot glanced up at the rider. "Ashley, you need us to stay close?"

Ashley kept her gun leveled at Mulder's midsection. "Nah, Virtie, I'll be fine. Just collect their weapons and take the car on in. We're going to take the scenic route. You and Michelle can meet us there."

Virtie handed the reins of her animal to her sister and ambled over to the two decidedly disgruntled agents. She performed a quick frisk of Scully, her hands moving expertly over the other woman's slender form. "All clean," she announced loudly. Scully's purse was lightened of her weapon, then returned to her.

Virtie took a little more time checking Mulder, her manner light and efficient. If she lingered for a second in certain areas, there was no way to be sure if it was intentional or not. Mulder kept his gaze straight ahead, his expression never shifting as the pretty blond's fingers roamed over his body. This has got to be a dream, he thought. A really strange dream, since I'm not allowed to touch, but a dream, for sure.

Virtie claimed the Sig Hauer from his shoulder holster in the car, along with the Swiss army knife in his pocket and the small pistol he always concealed on his person. Scully shot him a questioning look when she saw the unofficial weapon - particularly when she saw where he'd hidden it - but she wisely kept any comments to herself.

The female FBI agent raised defiance against the woman seated on the horse. "This is kidnapping, Miss. It's a capital offense, anyway, and add to that the fact that we're federal agents, you're risking the death penalty."

Just for a moment, profound sorrow registered beneath the mask. "The death sentence isn't always a bad thing, Miss Scully."

 

 

Scully's look was one of shock, and it must have registered with the other woman, because she simply smiled and replied, "Toady told us you might be coming." This statement brought Mulder’s and Scully's eyes together in a look of concern. Frohike wasn't the type of person who would just notify his captors that he was befriended by the FBI, much less hand out their names.

Unless of course, the situation involved life or death.

"How did you get Frohike to give you our names?" Mulder seemed just as worried about him as Scully did, although he was still beaming quite a bit at the woman who had patted him down. His lips were turned up gently at the corners in a slight smile, his eyes faintly sparkled with life. "What did you do to him?"

Virtie smiled back just as sweetly, twirling her own gun around one finger. "Let's just say we... tested his limits a little bit, and leave it at that."

Scully's stomach sank, and she looked away, frowning. "What else did he tell you?"

Virtie laughed, and stepped over to Scully, patting her on the back sympathetically. She leaned down and whispered in Scully's ear, making sure that Mulder was well out of earshot. "He wishes that you'd kidnapped him first!"

"Enough girls, let's go. We've got places to be, people to see!" Ashley twirled her magnificent horse around and began to make her way into the woods, leaving Mulder and Scully with the other masked girls. "Come on!" She shouted over her shoulder, but her voice was carried off by the gentle southern breeze.

"Here, I'll give you a leg up." Virtie gestured for Mulder to step over to one of the beautiful Appaloosas, bending down to help him onto the horse. When he was seated comfortable on the mare's wide back, Virtie handed the reins to the other masked girl, and turned to help Scully get up. When she too was perched upon the horse, Virtie took the leather reins and began to lead them into the forest.

Neither agents had ridden before, and neither were dressed comfortably enough for the long ride ahead. While Mulder's feet were slipped comfortably into the stirrups, Scully found her legs dangling high above them, her feet nowhere near the leather foot-holds. Neither of the women made a gesture towards helping her, and so Scully was forced to ride, slipping and sliding around on the saddle.

Suddenly, a loud gunshot split the air, and the startled horses reared, swinging their long, graceful legs around. Scully screamed and tried to grab the mane of her mare, but it was too late. She slipped from the saddled and crashed to the ground, cracking her head on the rocks below.

The last thing she saw before the world turned black was Virtie leaning over her, her eyes bright with concern.

Everything blanked out into a swimming darkness, and Scully fell into unconsciousness.

 

 

Pandemonium ensued. Mulder dismounted instantly, any concerns at spooking the Appaloosa forgotten in the panic that gripped him. Scully lay in an unmoving heap, her face ashen, and a slow trickle of blood spreading across the rusty soil. Ashley dropped to his side an instant later, shouting over her shoulder, "Virtie, get Angel! We need a doctor here! Michelle, radio back to Gwen and tell her there's been another ambush!"

Ashley raised anguished eyes to the man whose own fears were splashed over his face. "I'm sorry," she murmured. "No matter what you think, we never intended for anyone to get hurt. We need your help." Her chocolate eyes brimmed with unshed ears. "Please, Mr. Mulder, let us help her. Let us help all of you."

He didn't know how to react. First the woman holds a gun at him and Scully, then she apologizes for Scully's injuries, then begs for help? It made no sense at all, and he wasn't sure if he could trust any of the women. On the other hand, it wasn't like he could realistically overpower four women with the only weapons, and the only transportation. And there was the fact that none of the quartet had fired the shot.

He licked his lips nervously. "Let us go. Let me take her to the hospital. Look, I know you didn't do this. Let me get the police out here."

It was the wrong thing to say. Ashley sighed, stepping back to bring her gun back up level with his head. "I'm afraid I can't allow that, Mr. Mulder. I wish I could."

To Mulder, time was moving in slow motion. The tick of the second marker on his watch mocked him. His own fingers counted off the rhythm of her pulse, his eyes measured the fall and rise of her every breath, and it seemed an eternity between each. She was alive, but still unconscious. And he knew that while in the movies people shook off a blow to the head, reality could mean seizures, coma, paralysis, memory loss, and worse.

He forced himself to focus, to keep an even keel while he performed the basic first aid procedures every FBI agent was trained to know. He settled his jacket over his fallen partner, not moving her, praying he could convince their captors to change their minds. "You can't do this," he said quietly. "You're not killers. You said it yourself; you never meant for anyone to be hurt. Look, if you want me, fine. I'll go anywhere you want and never look back, as long as you call an ambulance for my partner, as long as you let her go."

Ashley's gaze fell on the injured woman. "I'm sorry, I really am. You have to believe me, it's best this way. We can't call anyone."

The cavalry arrived within moments, though not the cavalry Mulder had hoped for. An army of women swarmed from the woods, each individual astride a horse, the apocalyptic representation of Mulder's own wet dreams come back to haunt him in truth. He was removed from Scully's side, gently but firmly pulled back by a sea of femininity while another team closed around the fallen FBI agent.

His shouts and struggles were useless. The women kept him back until he realized that Scully had been loaded into the sedan and it was rolling down the rough roadway. Only then was he released, and he ran after the car, intellectually knowing it was a futile pursuit and his heart requiring that he follow just the same.

The women knew that he would follow them now, he realized. Perhaps the 'ambush' had been staged, because so long as they had Scully, he was as effectively captive to them as if he had been caged.

"Come on, let's go. We need to go." A woman that Mulder didn't recognize stepped forward and placed her hands of his shoulders. Mulder turned to look at her, but his breath caught in his chest. For a brief second, the confusion of Scully's accident and her abduction was blown away by the mysterious woman, leaving Mulder wishful and full of a strange lust. The woman was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen in his life, a woman he had once thought only dreams could create, or that only imagination could improvise, and even though he could not see her entire face, what Mulder could see took his breath away.

Noticing Mulder's hopeful eyes, the strange woman smiled weakly and whispered, "Call me Storm. That's what everyone else does." She guided him by the shoulders to a horse and stooped down to help Mulder up, when he was perched safely on the mount, she climbed up herself, seating her fragile form delicately before Mulder, resting comfortably on the mare's spacious back.

Mulder shook himself to stimulate his veins and to keep the blood flowing. She is the most... mysterious person I have ever seen. What is she doing out here, with these women? A part of Mulder's mind breathed, gazing longingly at the back of her, studying her soft, shortly-cut hair. Another part of him, however, countered with the painful remark: She's armed, and she may know where Scully is! Keep quiet, and don't let your... emotions slip out of hand! She could be playing you coy! Mulder took and deep breath, and for the moment was relieved on the tension for his riding partner.

"Where are we going?" Mulder whispered, although he didn't know why he kept his voice down.

Storm gave a light tap and sent their horse to s steady, but bitterly-slow trot. She was silent for a moment, and Mulder got the impression that she was considering whether or not to answer his question. When she finally answered, her voice was also hushed into a meek whisper:

"You'll see." After a pause, she added thoughtfully: "Your partner will be there."

Mulder sighed appreciatively, and rested back, staring deftly around him at the several other female riders, quickly fading into the purple and red streaked southern sunset, dissolving into nothing but silhouettes and deep shadows.

The horses were clearly at home in the dense undergrowth, their hooves finding paths Mulder would have missed on foot. The FBI agent hadn't ridden since he was a student at Oxford, and even then it was precious little. The animal's canter was fairly tame and his teeth still rattled with every footfall.

Storm wrapped his arms around her, turning pale blue eyes back to him. "Hang onto me, and use your legs to grip the mare."

"I-I-I-I d-d-don't th-think I c-c-can," he replied with as much grace as he could muster.

The pixie in his arms leaned back slightly, her bottom and spine flush against him. "Yes you can. Think of it sort of like making love, capturing and working with the rhythm of another body, fitting your timing to hers."

Mulder swallowed at the image THAT conjured up. Scully, he reminded himself sternly. Think of Scully. He was gritting his teeth, and given the bounce of the horse's gait, it was a painful experience.

"Relax, Mr. Mulder," Storm reassured him. "We won't hurt you. Neither me, nor my friends, nor Dahlia, here." She stroked an affectionate hand over the mare's neck, and the animal lifted her head in appreciation.

The terrain became increasingly uneven the further they rode. Their path twisted upward along a steep bluff, and again the horses found footing where the bewildered Mulder would have been hard-pressed to follow. "What earned you a name like Storm?" he finally asked, hardly realizing that his body's instincts had begun performing precisely the adaptations that the woman had suggested.

"Old hobby. I used to surf, actually won a few titles. When I went out on the board, I had people who followed my every move, commented on the nuance and style. They didn't get that I was just out there having a ball. Of course, I didn't object to their input, either. Anyway, one competition the waves got really choppy midway in, with no time for anyone to get to shore. I was a trained lifeguard, so I headed out and brought in the ones who were in trouble. It got me my nickname and an award for lifesaving."

Mulder blinked. This woman didn't behave like a criminal. None of these women did, except Janice. There was a whole lot here that just didn't add up.

"I know you think we're cruel to keep you and your partner here, but there are things you don't know yet, things that may change your mind. Give us a chance to show you, Mr. Mulder. When Cammie told us about you and Agent Scully, it was the first time any of us felt hope in a long, long time."

 

 

Light streamed from windows. Lots of lights, lots of windows. By the time the horseback riders reached their destination, darkness settled over the landscape and the air turned crisp again. Lightning bugs punctuated the air with their Morse code messages, and the musky smell of damp earth told Mulder they were near a stream or pond. Other than that, he was utterly lost.

As appealing as his riding partner had been, his worry for Scully was becoming oppressive. He still didn't know what to make of their enigmatic abductors, women who were aggressive one moment, tearful the next. Come to think of it, why were all of them women? He hadn't seen a single man in their ranks, and that made him very uncomfortable. It didn't help that the women chattered easily around him, exchanging relatively private information like he wasn't even there.

Dropping to the ground, he groaned, his knees threatening to abandon him. He remembered now why he'd stopped riding almost as soon as he started. There was a reason Ford invented cars. He knew his exaggerated John Wayne walk was the reason for the smothered giggles and it perturbed him to no end. He hoped Frohike was doing better than he was. He hoped Scully was all right. He hoped to god he never had to ride another horse in his life.

Storm led Dahlia away, and another woman took his elbow. "Who are you?" he grumbled. "Batgirl?"

The young woman snorted. "Hardly. I don't do capes and masks. I'm Alaina, but you can call me Al. And don't even think about quoting Paul Simon. I practically lived in the gutters for a good part of my life and I learned to defend myself very well, thank you, even against a trained FBI agent."

"I'm not exactly one to poke fun at unusual names," he responded dryly. "All I want is to know that my partner is all right."

Al turned to him and he saw the fiery highlights come alive in what looked like a thick fringe of chestnut hair. Her face softened. "She'll be fine. Our Angel's a real doctor, in case you're wondering, unlike the butchers in town whose shingles should all read Mr. Hyde. We have some good people here, despite what you may think. As soon as your friend's up to company, we'll take you to her." She tucked her arm in his and guided him up the steps into the enormous refurbished Victorian. "We have your rooms waiting for you. I imagine Langly and John will be arriving shortly, too."

Somehow, Mulder wasn't surprised when less than sixty seconds later, Langly's whine permeated the formality of the entry. "Oh, man, my butt is killing me!"

A plainly irritated Byers snapped back, "If you repeat it one more time, I'm going to kill you!"

Mulder jumped up, hurrying into the darkness of the sticky evening where he had heard the voices of his comrades. Through much fumbling and feeling around, Mulder finally tripped over the pair and landed flat on his butt, feeling the slick grass underneath him.

He instantly though of horses, and what they tend to do in the worst places.

"Mulder! Is that you? You just landed in a big pile of shi-"

"I know!" Mulder interrupted Langly, standing up slowing and accessing the damage to his pants. "Hopefully the Lone Rangers over there have a change of clothing, it seems as if they have everything else around here." He stood up and began to gingerly brush off his pants, grimacing as his fingers touched the slippery material. "Oh man, this is sooo nasty!"

Byers giggled. Mulder silenced him with a stern glance, but the computer geek’s eyes continued to sparkle with childish delight. "So, so Mulder, how did you get here?"

Giving up on his ruined pants, Mulder sat down and sighed heavily, letting the breath whistle between his teeth. "They ambushed us, took out car, stuck us on horses and we were off!" He paused, and then jumped up once more, looking around frantically. "We have to find Scully! She fell off her horse and cracked her head open on a rock. They took her off..." His voice faded away, and he rushed over to the nearest Ranger, spinning her around and talking quickly in a raised, shrill voice, although it was inaudible to the remaining Lone Gunmen.

 

 

 

 

 

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Langly and Byers found themselves laughing hysterically at the brown goo smeared across Mulder's bottom. Langly pointed, and through his tears and roaring laughs, he managed to stammer:

"I guess he really didn't like that horse!"

Byers bit his lip, fighting to bring his mirth under control. It was all but impossible. They had been transported back more than a century, complete with horseback riding and a Victorian mansion.

No, he decided. They'd been transported into one of the trashy romances his kid sister favored, where the heroines were feisty young heiresses and the heroes muscled gods with mush for brains. It was hard to take anything seriously in this setting. Scully, he reminded himself. Mulder said Scully's hurt. It was that sobering thought that brought him around.

He grabbed Langly's sleeve and tugged, angling his head toward the distraught FBI agent and the group of seemingly sympathetic captors who surrounded him. Mulder's voice lost its squeaky quality after the first few words, and for the first time, the two Gunmen got to see the magic personality turned on full-steam.

When Mulder was of a mind, he could charm the Queen of England into giving up her crown. And just now, he was of a mind.

Byers wished he had a way to take notes; the male FBI agent was earnest, soulful, his every word and gesture measured for effect. He had the women eating out of the palm of his hand. He could have asked for anything at all just then and he'd have gotten it. The horse dung on his trousers made no difference, nor did his captive state. Mulder was pure charisma incarnate, and he was running for as far as it would take him.

Most of the women were drinking it up like a baby to milk, but a smaller knot stood back slightly, their faces registering nervousness.

It was to that group that the bearded man strode, putting on his most inoffensive smile. "Ladies," he introduced himself. "My name is John Byers. But I have a feeling you already knew that, didn't you?" His eyes appraised each individual, seeking out the natural leader. He first looked at the dark beauty in the cowboy hat, whose stance suggested she'd challenge any taker. His eyes then lighted on the petite blond with the pale blue eyes. What had her friends called her? Storm?

Something told him that while either of those women would have been a force to reckon with, they weren't the driving force behind this little hideaway. Neither, he deduced, was Janice. He spied the younger girl that Mulder had called 'batgirl', ruling her out.

Then the sea of women parted and there was no longer any doubt of who. Now the only question was why.

There was a pause, and the only sound was the quiet rustle of leaves on the warm Georgia breeze. It seemed as if the world were holding its breath as the woman moved gracefully down the stairs, an air of importance hovering about her. As she stepped into a patch of moonlight, Mulder forgot the uncomfortable stain on his pants, the soreness in his joints, and the stiff creaks in his muscles.

She was absolutely radiant.

Again, her face was covered by a silk mask, but it was a rich yellow instead of the deep black of the other girls'. Her eyes shone green, and when she turned just so, little flecks of amber shone in them from the refracted light of the silver moon. Her lips were a startling shade of pale pink, her teeth white, and her skin a healthy rosy hue. Her soft features were exquisitely framed by a shimmering mane of brunette hair that was twisted into gentle curls. The rich chestnut swirled over her shoulders and cascaded down her back

"What the..." Byers managed stammer, before breaking from the parted sea of women. He dashed forward, and spun the comely woman around, gazing into her eyes.

"John? John!" The woman pulled Byers to her into a loving embrace, nearly swallowing up his tiny body into her taller one. "It's been too long!" She stepped back and looked down at him, her lips drawn into a porcelain smile.

"Cammie! Oh Cammie, where have you been all this time? It's been so many years since... since..." Byers smiled up at his younger sister.

Cammie's face was drawn into pain and she averted her gaze, a single tear running down her doll-like features.

"We need help, John. Something's happened."

 

 

Frohike couldn't see what was happening on the outside of the building. He could hear the murmur of voices, saw the outer fringes of the crowd, the part that wrapped around the old porch. He gathered that it was important, though he was still in the proverbial dark about the motives behind his kidnapping.

MH was his bodyguard tonight again. Gwen, he reminded himself, though she didn't actually respond to him when he called her by name. He was intrigued; while she spoke rarely, her speech declared her educated, cultured, and a resident of the deep south. He wasn't normally a man who found a southern drawl particularly sexy, but this woman was the exception to every rule.

She was too young for him, of course, and too much a lady for more prurient interests. He settled on worshipping her at what little distance he could maintain while confined to the same room. He had taken to studying her in silence, memorizing the exotic lines of her face, the graceful flow of her hands, the understated elegance of her walk. He privately thought of her as royalty, his fancy assigning her the title of fairy princess. He smiled at the thought. Well, he thought wryly, after all, you've been called a toad often enough. Maybe she'll elevate you to frog.

He'd been on his best behavior for days now, and it was wearing thin, but he couldn't bring himself to let his more base instincts surface around this delicate creature.

And then the delicate, dainty lady knocked a heavy potted plant over on her foot, smashing the terra cotta planter and doing a number on her foot at the same time. She didn't raise her voice, but he could read every word that whispered through silent lips. Every pithy sentence, every earthy phrase. Frohike decided right then and there that this was truly the woman of his dreams.

 

 

A lone figure descended the stairs, her hand gliding over the cast-iron railing. She was youngish, perhaps in her mid-twenties, with a sweep of chestnut hair that curled over her shoulders and cascaded down her back. She moved slowly, deliberately, with the all the regal bearing of a queen holding court.

She kept her focus on Mulder until another voice captured her attention.

"Cammie?!"

Byers moved slowly at first, then ran the last few steps, gathering his baby sister into a bear hug, swinging her around in a circle. "It's been forever!"

She returned his embrace wholeheartedly. "Johnnie! Johnnie, I was sure you'd come!"

She broke away briefly, turning her attention back to the bewildered FBI agent. "I know you're worried about your friend. She's all right, don't worry."

Mulder's eyes darted to the brilliant light exuded each time the door opened. "Scully?" he breathed, watching his russet-haired partner move toward him. She was well, with nary a scratch in sight, nor even a scar. "How-?" he began as she flung herself into his arms.

Camellia shrugged. "Be glad that Angel knows what she's doing. It takes a great deal of skill to do that."

Byers, too, was confused. "I don't understand. Cammie, what's this all about? Why are you doing this? You're breaking the law, you kidnapped Frohike, and this - this makes no sense!"

Camellia raised frightened eyes to her brother. "John, something's happened. Something I can't explain."

Mulder's eyes narrowed. Something didn't feel right.

Actually, nothing felt right. Even the most complex puzzle had a pattern, and this ... this was contradictory and random, like a dream.

Or an illusion.

"It's not real," he whispered. He looked at Scully, at the overwhelming light that emanated from the house, at the masked women. "None of this is real!" he declared, this time more loudly and with more conviction.

Cammie licked her lips nervously, swiveling her head to meet his hazel eyes.

"Mulder?" Scully's hand was on his arm. "How can you not believe the evidence of your own eyes?"

He shook his head and stepped back from her. "I don't know when it started, but this is a dream or a hallucination or an illusion." He shielded his eyes and mounted the steps, pushing forward against the brilliance that physically repelled him.

He fought the urge to run, forcing each step, and finally the invisible barrier shattered, its screen giving way to the quiet beauty of the night. Byers and Langly were there, their gazes fixed on some distant point, their bodies frozen in their own personal visions. Scully was still missing.

Given that the two LGM were apparently unharmed, he ignored them, racing into the house where he knew he'd find his partner.

The entry was not what he recalled. Rather than the elegantly appointed foyer, this was a somewhat dingy spot wrapped in aged wallpaper, its gracefully arced staircase missing a couple of posts. The chandelier overhead blinked and sputtered as though the power were intermittent and failing.

"Scully!"

Mulder's concern mounted as he climbed the rickety stairs. "Scully, where are you?" He glanced into room after room of the old mansion, increasingly disturbed at its decay. Finally he pushed back a door, its rusty hinges squealing in protest, and he found Frohike. The little man was gripped in the same rapture as his friends outside. The difference was that for Frohike, the waking coma had lasted for days, leaving the little computer geek emaciated and reeking of his own wastes.

"Oh god," Mulder whispered in horror. He hated to leave his friend in this state, but neither could he abandon the search for his partner, whose condition could be far worse. He now knew that he had been under the influence of illusion. Maybe he still was, who knew? But something told him that this was real, that the decrepit skeleton of the house he now saw was the true picture.

"SCULLY!" His voice rose with his fears, his hands beginning to shake. What if she was still lying out in the dust, bleeding and broken? What if she had been killed and buried, all done when he was oblivious?

He shook off that thought, desperation demanding that he keep looking. She's alive. I know she's alive.

Mulder's hand closed on the knob of the last door. He sucked in air, willing his heart to beat. Pleasepleasepleaseplease! He turned the rusted handle and pushed, and found two figures; Scully, lying injured on the bed, and Janice, standing a few paces away, her gaze on a point outside the window.

Scully!" Ignoring the startled jump and cry that bubbled from Janice, Mulder rushed over to his partner, scooping her into his arms. "Are you... okay?" He pushed back the hair from her forehead and sighed in relief at the large, white bandage that was plastered to the place where her head wound would have been. Blood seeped through the light material, and even though she could have been killed, it comforted Mulder to see the blood. It convinced him that he was no longer dreaming.

 

 

"Wh... huh... Mulder?" Scully groggily opened her eyes, trying to focus them on the blurry figure that hovered above her. Raising a hand to her forehead, she drew back as a sharp bolt of pain raced down her spine. "Ow... where am I?"

It became apparent to Mulder that he woke his partner as she slept, and her smiled sheepishly down at her. "You know, I was just going to ask you the same thing!"

Scully sat upright, ignoring the pain that lanced through her. "Whoa... whoa... a horse. I fell off a horse...!" She laughed quietly. "Is that how I hurt my head?"

Mulder nodded. "Then they stuffed you into a car, drove you back here-" Both agents suddenly became aware of Janice's presence in the room. They turned and stared face-to-face with the woman who had kidnapped Frohike.

She really is beautiful! Byers and Langly were right about that! Mulder thought. He carefully laid Scully back down and stood, cautiously approaching the tall blonde. "Janice Bell?"

She smiled brightly and extended her right hand, clasping Mulder's warmly. "Pleased to meet you." She stepped back towards the window, her blue jeans rustling lightly. Mulder could only stare, drawn into her intense beauty. The woman was absolutely gorgeous, and Mulder's eyes were glued to her.

"Mulder!" Scully grabbed the end of his shirt weakly, pulling him backwards. She whispered, "Just remember she kidnapped Frohike." Letting go of his shirttail, she lay back down, sighing heavily. Even though her head was beginning to heal, Scully was still very, very weak.

At the mention of Frohike's name, Mulder fell back into reality. Stiffening, he raced for the door. Not really knowing if his words would have any effect on the two women, he mumbled: "Scully... Janice... just stay here, okay?" He was gone before either could reply.

Mulder stopped outside Scully's door, torn. Could he trust her with Janice? He had no idea what was going on, if Janice was the center of this fiasco or an innocent bystander.

No, he realized. Definitely not innocent, though at the moment she appeared to pose no threat. He swallowed his panic, then dashed back to the door that hid Frohike.

The little man was barely breathing, his face pallid beneath a five o'clock shadow that was well on its way to becoming a full beard. His eyes were sunken, dull, wide open, and focused on his own private horizon. Mulder knelt beside his friend, a light hand on the other man's shoulder. "Frohike."

There was no response.

"Frohike! Come on, man, wake up!"

Still no response.

Mulder wished Scully were here. She was the doctor, maybe she'd know some trick to get Frohike's mind back to connecting the dots. Basic first aid training assured him that the computer nerd was alive; it also told him that he was in a bad way.

Mulder stood, raising eyes heavenward in an unspoken prayer. "Come on, come on come on come on, think!" Maybe it was some kind of hypnotic trance. He bit his lip, then leaned over, hoping against hope. "Okay, Frohike ... Melvin ... when I count to three, you're going to wake up, feeling refreshed and hungry. One ... two ... three!"

Nothing.

Not knowing what else to do, he returned to Scully. Once more, he found himself entranced by the blond beauty. Only this time, his mind connected its own dots. "It's an illusion," he realized aloud. "You're not real. At least, what I see of you isn't real."

You're not real." Mulder repeated, stepping closer to Janice, his dark eyes watching her every move. "Something's... not right about you, although I don't know what it is." For a moment, no one moved. The room was quiet, save for Scully's somewhat labored breathing. Mulder only moved his gaze from the beautiful blonde woman, (a bit too soon for his own tastes) when Scully emitted a low moan, coughing violently. He rushed back to his partner, lifting her head from the bed covers.

"Scully... don't go out on me here, you have to stay awake! Just a little longer! Frohike needs our help!"

At this, Scully stirred slightly, concern shifting in her eyes. "Frohike... needs our... help? Is he... all right?" Her breath was stuttering and slurring, as if her body was numbing. This frightened Mulder, and he kept a steady hold on the back of her head. "Let's... go!"

It was evident that Scully was in no state to walk by herself, so Mulder helped her up, supporting her light weight with his broad frame. They stumbled past the searching eyes of Janice, both aware of the dark gaze that she settled upon them.

"Before you go to your friend, know that if he is taken away we'll all die. He's our only chance... you ruined the plan!" Janice whispered quietly, but neither Mulder nor Scully heard her. They were already out the door and were slowly making their way in the direction of Frohike's room.

Mulder didn't know how he could manage getting both Scully and Frohike outside at the same time. Neither was really in any condition to walk, and he couldn't carry both. He just hoped he could wake the diminutive man enough to get him on his feet in any capacity. From there he'd just have to wing it.

 

 

Scully's eyes welled with tears when she saw Frohike. For all of their subtle sparring, there was a genuine friendship between the female FBI agent and the computer geek. Either would defend the other without a second's hesitation.

Mulder eased his partner into a frayed chair, kneeling next to her, his hand going to her pale cheek. "I'm sorry, Scully, but I need your help. I can't wake him up."

She confessed uneasily, "I'm not sure you should try. He looks like he needs to be in a hospital." She glanced back in the general direction of their captor, as though expecting Janice to burst through the door at any moment.

Mulder bit his lip pensively. He had tried his cell phone en route and it refused him service, but he was desperate. He withdrew the plastic device and stared at its small screen that assured him dialing was fine.

Perhaps that too had been an illusion.

Scully's gaze drifted between Mulder and Frohike. Her head felt like it was ready to explode, her mouth was dry, and her vision blurry. Ingrained medical training told her she had a concussion at best, a skull fracture at worst. She didn't even begin to know how Frohike's condition should be categorized.

She was vaguely aware of Mulder's voice. He was speaking to someone. To her? Yes, he was asking her how to wake up Frohike. Her voice spoke of its own volition, replying that she didn't think Frohike should be disturbed. Despite her real concern, her mind wrapped that thought with an internal smile. As if Frohike weren't already disturbed.

Her partner withdrew something from his pocket and it beeped with his every movement. What was it? Oh, yeah. A cell phone. Funny, she should have thought to use the cell phone to call for help. Why hadn't they?

She wondered absently what had happened to their rental car. She didn't recall checking into this motel, though its deteriorating decor put it right up there among Mulder's worst picks. He always managed to find the most god-awful places.

He punched his thumb against the cell phone one last time, then returned his attentions to her. He was talking to her again, and she tried to give him her undivided attention, but it was growing increasingly difficult to focus. Something about illusion, a siren, Janice? Scully shook her head in an attempt to clear the attending cobwebs.

That was a big mistake. The motion sent agony through her head and neck and it rippled all the way through to her toes. She heard herself cry out and felt the heated moisture of her own tears leaking down her cheeks. Then she felt Mulder's arms wrap around her, lifting her up with the gentleness normally reserved for a newborn infant. Her partner was always protective of her. Occasionally it irritated her, but just now, even through her haze, she knew that she needed that protection.

"Scully... something's wrong... we're hallucinating, but I don't know why. It seems so... so much like what happened with the mushrooms. Scully? Remember?" Mulder's voice floated to Scully's ears, and she was vaguely able to register what he was saying. Struggling to concentrate on Mulder and not on the ringing and fuzzy thoughts that echoed through her brain, she was able to sit up straight and focus on Mulder, squinting to keep her vision from slipping elsewhere.

Think... think... don't let the... whatever cloud your mind. Think about Mulder. Scully tried to conjure up images in her mind to help her not to slip into the deep end. Suddenly, the thought of Mulder's red speedo was aroused unexpectedly in her mind, causing a fit of giggles that erupted without warning, sending the pain in her head to an extreme.

"Scully? What's wrong? Scully?" Mulder looked up, startled at his partner's sudden change in mood. Just the sound of his voice was enough to trigger another onslaught of laughter, causing Scully to fall to the floor, tears of pain streaming down her face.

"It... was... your... speedo-" The laugher stopped suddenly when Scully caught Mulder's gaze straying to the doorway, fear playing across his face. She turned and gasped, the moment's giggles evaporated completely. "Frohike!"

The little man fell into Scully's arms, gasping for air. His chest heaved with each strangled breath, and a raspy, cloggy sound was coming from his throat. "Scullly... Mulder..."

"Oh my god! Oh my god!"

Mulder leaped up and helped Scully to lay Frohike's broken body on the floor, smoothing his graying hair from his face, exposing bruises and scars. He was bleeding from countless scrapes on his arms and neck, and dirt was smeared across his ripped clothing. Needless to say, he had experienced better days.

"Get me outta here, no no... don't let 'em go through with it, Mulder. God, I need help... get me outta here... get us all outta here!" Frohike was more than likely delirious. When Scully touched his forehead it was obvious that he had spiked a fever of at least a hundred and three.

For the moment, Scully was able to ignore the wrenching migraine and the cobwebs that previously clouded her thoughts. Scully pulled the shirt from Frohike's withered body, tossing it away. "Mulder, if we don't get him to a hospital soon, he'll die! He's going to cook! How can we get him out of here!"

Mulder stood up slowly, a hand to his forehead in panic. "The only way out is the front door. Straight through the crowd outside."

Mulder's head whirled at the sound of Janice's voice. Despite himself, he was entranced at the woman's words. He was peripherally aware that Frohike, too was suddenly mesmerized. Even Scully seemed affected by the stunning beauty.

"You can't leave," Janice repeated sadly. "It's a matter of life and death!"

Mulder didn't know where he found the will to reply. "Whose death, Janice? Yours? Frohike's? Scully's? Who - What are you?! You've nearly killed two people very dear to me, and all because of this illusion. I'm sick of your siren's song! I'm - "

He stopped, watching as the color drained from the woman's face, and he finally understood. The impact was a sledgehammer to his midsection. "A Siren. The mythology, Homer... It wasn't a myth, was it?"

Slowly she shook her head and tears began to streak the flawless complexion.

Mulder called up the references. The Greek Mythology he'd taken as required college courses. The Sirens. They lured sailors to their deaths. His eyes drifted up to the woman whose attire shifted into a flowing Grecian gown. Was this the real Janice, or just another illusion?

Whatever the case, she - and possibly more of her kind among the group outside - were still luring men to their deaths. Frohike was failing, and if Scully died, Mulder would die a thousand times over.

Mulder's voice was terse. "I've already called for help."

Janice smiled sadly. "It doesn't matter. We can divert them, conceal the turnoff, or allow them in to join you."

She was right and the FBI agent knew it. He felt himself falling into her spell again and he shook himself, and just for an instant her image shimmered to reveal something ... inhuman. It was brief, but he caught a glimpse of feathers.

The Sirens of the Odyssey were part bird, he remembered.

Piccolo Odyssey. Were all of the musicians Sirens, or was the name coincidental? He knew that Camellia was human, or at least that she had been. She was Byers's sister, after all.

The Sirens were a mystery even in mythical volumes. They died when their victims escaped, but other than that, there was precious little information written about them. If Janice and her cronies were Sirens, she was right about the life and death connection, but it would be her death if Frohike escaped. Mulder couldn't dredge up much sympathy.

"It's not what you think," she said smoothly, her honeyed voice conveying a depth of grief. "We don't kill and we don't want to see any more men harmed. We've seen too many souls extinguished over the centuries. We only want our release."

Mulder swallowed, uncertain. His eyes strayed to his partner's face, to Frohike's injuries. Too much was at stake for him to be frozen in place, but he didn't know what to do. "How do I stop it?" he heard himself ask, not really expecting an answer.

"We've lived too long. We want to die."

His mouth drew into a hard line. "Then let us go."

Suddenly, Janice melted away into a sea of wings and feathers, the only remnant of her past form was her beautiful face and her flowing, blonde hair. Blinking, Mulder stumbled backwards, his mouth in the shape of a wide O.

Janice reverted to a Siren once more - the illusion disappeared along with the rest of her body.

 

 

Scully was just as surprised as Mulder, and she too fell back, staring in awe at the stunning mythological creature, her pains momentarily forgotten. As a child, she always loved hearing the old Greek Mythology books read to her. As a teenager, she read The Iliad and Odyssey. She never believed the stories and legends they contained. But this woman,this Siren standing before her and Mulder was proof, incontrovertible evidence that the myths were true. The faeries, the sphinxes, the manticores, the unicorns, the dragons… If this creature did indeed exist, then why shouldn't the others?

"Scully look, it's... it's a Siren! She's beautiful!" Mulder found the strength in his legs to stand, and he slowly approached the quivering creature before him. She had the head of a woman but the body of a bird. Janice (if you could call her that) was shifting uncomfortably from one clawed foot to the other, staring nervously at the three humans before her, watching them with wide eyes.

"I'm sorry I had to show you this... I didn't think your partner would believe." Janice cocked her head in the direction of the awed redhead.

Scully slowly stood and she too approached the winged Siren, reaching out a timid hand to caress the bird's soft feathers. "This is real, right Mulder? We're not dreaming?"

Mulder smiled. "No, no we're not. She's real. They're real. All of it. The Sirens... all the other creatures from the Greek myths just have to be real. If Janice is, then why shouldn't they?"

Scully smiled as well, delighting in the fact that Mulder had voiced almost the exact same thought that she pondered only seconds before. "If you want to die--let us leave."

Janice looked at the ground, a single tear rolling down her cheek. "I can't. It doesn't work that way. We've been... we've been cursed. Or we would have let Frohike go."

"But the legend says-"

Janice smiled weakly. "Yeah, I know. And it should be true."

"Then why can't you let us go?" Scully looked questioningly at the Siren, her icy blue eyes concerned at the creatures statement. The legends always said that if the Siren's prey were let go, (or they escaped) that the Sirens would kill themselves by plunging into the sea and drowning. Some thing is wrong. The legends wouldn't describe the Sirens incorrectly, Scully thought, still watching Janice warily.

Janice was silent for a moment, and when she looked up to meet Scully's eyes, her own were filled with unshed-shed tears. "We've been cursed."

"Mulder?"

"Frohike!"

"Scully?!"

The sounds of the other two gunmen interrupted Mulder's reverie, and he turned at their arrival. His relief was short-lived, because both Langly and Byers froze the instant the Siren spoke their names.

Their incongruous attire and their rapt expressions bit into his psyche, angering him to the point of explosion. "Let them go!" he shouted at their motionless captor. "You said you want to die, all you have to do is let us go!"

"You are free to go," Janice whispered softly. "It is your destiny. And upon your departure, two of us will be freed."

Mulder's face clouded with confusion. "I can't leave without my friends."

The creature's enormous wings parted, her feet carried her forward, and human hands reached out to stroke along Langly's cheek. The blond Gunman shivered, a detail that didn't escape Mulder's notice. On some level, the men were still conscious. "He reminds me a bit of the sailor," Janice remarked. "Wiry, a bit too thin to really be called handsome, certainly not the most cultured thing. But he has his appeal."

Her other hand combed through Byers's beard, and the same tremor repeated in the second of the friends. Mulder's curse was cut off when a tiny dynamo flung himself forward, knocking the woman's hand away.

Frohike insinuated himself between the Siren and his friends, swaying on his feet like a flag in the wind. Mulder swore the little man's knees were rippling.

Janice was startled, plainly not expecting his outburst. She actually stepped back. No, she fell back a few steps when Frohike shouted, "Don't touch them!"

Wonderment covered the apparition's face. "That is five. All of us." She leaned over and brushed a kiss over Frohike's crumpled brow. "The curse promised we would be released by love. I had always assumed it meant that we would be loved." She glanced at Mulder, then at the reviving two Gunmen. "I never thought it would be like this."

Langly and Byers simply stared at Janice, their jaws hanging to the floor in surprise. "Love? You can only be released by love?"

Janice looked sadly away, cooing softly to herself. "Yes. Love. I had always thought that to be released from the spell was to be loved but now... I just... don't know."

Scully thoughtfully considered the Siren's morbid words, watching Janice carefully. The creature fascinated her, and she didn't know why. When Janice had morphed into her true form, Scully secretly expected a hideous creature, but the Siren turned out to be exquisite. Her features were smooth, like a china doll. Scully shook her head, trying to clear her thoughts. Something kept turning her mind to Janice, and it didn't make Scully feel any better about the situation. She hoped that the Siren's song wasn't the cause of it, because myths had always described that the Siren's song only affected men, not women. Unless...

"Start at the beginning, Janice. Maybe we can figure out how to help you. There has to be something." Mulder picked at a sliver of lint hanging on his collar. "Tell us about the story of the Siren. We all want to help, but we need to know."

Janice nodded and sniffed in an effort to dry her tears. "Well, we (the five of us Sirens: Storm; Ashley; Kate; and Phoebe) are the daughters of the great god of the sea, Phorcys. We lived on a beautiful, lush green island, all to ourselves. But one day... one day we discovered singing. We loved to sing (and still do!) We knew that our voices were beautiful, but we didn't know that Sailors could hear them from the sea. They became so in love with us by hearing our singing, they would drive their ships into the rocks along the beaches of the island in an attempt to see us. When we figured out the reason why all of the ships that came near our island crashed, we were all very upset. It was my idea to keep singing… Eventually we got great pleasure out of seeing the poor, doomed sailors lust after us and then perish on the terrible rocks. For hundred of years we led the men to their deaths, until a man named Odysseus defeated us by plugging his own ears and the ears of his crew with wax when his ship passed our island. In rage and sorrow, the Sirens threw themselves upon the rocks of their island, and they drowned in the sea. Somehow... somehow five of us survived, although I do not know how. It was the five of us who began the singing to kill the sailors, and so maybe... maybe we're being punished for what we did. I do not know! We have lived for thousands and thousands of years, and want only to leave this cruel earth and be reunited with our dead sisters. But we can only die by the work of true love."

Five pairs of stunned eyes stared at Janice, tears rushing down each pairs' face. The story of the Siren had touched a place within each on-onlookers heart, and all felt deep sympathy for Janice.

It was Byers who spoke first, sniffling heavily. "We'll help you anyway we can."

Everyone nodded in agreement.

Mulder's tears dripped onto his hand, and he realized he was reaching toward the Siren. She was changing again, becoming human. He sucked in a breath as the room around them began to shift, too, becoming brighter. "No!" he shouted, sliding his arm under his partner. "Langly, Byers, get Frohike and get out of here! It's another illusion!"

Scully raised lazy arms to circle his neck and his partner drawled, "Mulder, why should we leave? We can stay here and we can do anything, be anyone." She leaned up to kiss him and he trembled. If he allowed this, he would be lost. They all would.

He fumbled for an answer, his mind skimming through the accounts of the Iliad and of the Argonauts. He couldn't put wax in everyone's ears, but he had another idea. "Byers, your sister. She plays the piccolo, doesn't she? She and her friends? Do they sing?"

"Cammie sings. I think her friends do, too."

Janice screeched, "NO!"

Byers understood implicitly. He was out the door before Janice's shriek was completed. Mulder scooped up his partner when Byers returned with six young women in tow, including his sister. They were no longer supernaturally enhanced, but their reality was all the more beautiful to the men who realized what was at stake. Scully's voice wouldn't work, and his own baritone would never be enough, but maybe ...

The impromptu group huddled together, their voices reconstructing a complex musical interlude they normally played on their instruments, each voice blending flawlessly with the next. There were no words; none were needed. The other four Sirens arrived, each a different proportion of bird and woman, each of their stunned faces turned at the humans they believed converts.

And as the women's voices soared in harmony, Byers joined in on the familiar piece, his own voice adding rich texture to the puzzle. Langly and Frohike followed behind, and Mulder's own soft hum melted into the melodic puzzle. When Scully opened her mouth to join the chorus, her partner quietly and firmly clamped a hand over her mouth. As much as he loved her, he'd heard her sing.

With each new musical curve, the five sirens grew more insubstantial, their glorious plumage and stunning faces sifting into the winds that arrived from nowhere, until only a ghost remained of each. And with the final sustained chord, even the ghosts drifted into oblivion.

Three days later

Georgetown MD

The Lone Gunmen actually got into an argument over which of them would carry Scully's luggage up to her apartment. For some reason, the trio made any excuse to invite themselves into her home. She might have been angry or annoyed if it weren't for the fact that she knew they were driven by a shared crush. She knew about Frohike all along, since he was decidedly vocal in his attentions. It took a little longer for her to catch the signs from Langly and Byers.

She smiled, knowing they were relatively harmless in their adoration. It helped that they knew she was a crack shot if they ever decided to become really annoying. Besides, she wasn't so hardened that she didn't enjoy the attentions they pretended to hide.

They treated her place like a temple, anyway. She swore Langly mouthed a prayer when he stepped onto the tiled entry. She didn't want to know who - or what - he was praying to. Mulder took the two suitcases, and Scully's partner had kept his peace in spite of what she knew was running through his head. Two suitcases and three geeks to carry them up. When she asked them in for coffee, all three sets of eyes went wide with awe.

"N-No," Byers stammered. "You should rest."

Langly nodded, his features brightening as an idea occurred to him. His blond waves bounced in time with his chin. "Yeah. You should sit down. Let us make the coffee."

That broke through their shyness, and within minutes they were enmeshed in a whole new argument. "No, I'll make the coffee. You call for pizza."

"She shouldn't have pizza! She just got out of the hospital, she should have chicken soup."

"She has a head injury, not the flu!"

Scully leaned back against the comfort of her overstuffed sofa. She let one eye close while the other focused on her partner's bemused face. He'd gone without shaving during her hospitalization and she hadn't yet decided if she liked his mountain-man look or not. "Now children!" she called to her would-be nurses, "Play nice!"

Her admonition was merely the pivotal introduction to a whole new argument, its threats and insults as flamboyant as they were insubstantial. She was surprised at the comfort that their harmless banter provided. She felt her eyes growing heavy and she realized she'd probably be asleep long before her tag-team nannies finished their ministrations.

Mulder lifted her feet from the floor, dropping them into his lap and easing her pumps over her heels, tucking the shoes under the end table.

Scully's mind drifted back to their experience. She already decided that all she remembered was the result of her head injury. The Sirens were mythology, nothing more. Mulder and the Gunmen hadn’t even brought the subject up since their return. Still, Janice's voice kept running through her head, declaring the words in an ever-repeating mantra. The curse promised we would be released by love. I had always assumed it meant that we would BE loved.

Frohike loved Langly and Byers? Well, she supposed in his own way, that was probably true. Friends could love friends, couldn't they?

"Sure they can, Scully."

Both her eyes snapped open as she realized she'd spoken aloud, and how it must have sounded. Mulder's hazel eyes were positively dancing with the laughter he so carefully denied his lips, and she nearly punched him for laughing at her anyway. It was the thought that counted.

Before she could react, he slid out from under her feet and insinuated himself at the other end of the couch, drawing her head onto his chest, his arm around her. She opened her mouth to protest, then it occurred to her how much she didn't want to protest. She could feel his astonishment when she snuggled against him instead.

She was drifting off when she realized dimly that her friends in the kitchen had again changed the subject of their argument.

"Man, I was in dire straits! The woman had me so rattled I told her about my mom ..." Frohike's voice broke with emotion.

There was a full ten seconds of silence. "Your mom?" Byers's voice returned in apparent shock.

Langly coughed. "You didn't tell her the story about your mom being murdered, did you?"

"I had to!" the littlest geek wailed.

Byers's incredulity drifted in to Mulder and Scully, who exchanged looks of horror that their friend had endured such a tragic loss.

Langly's response clarified, "Frohike, Frank didn't kill your mom. He married her, you yutz!"

Frohike sniffed soulfully, "Like there's a difference?!"

*****************************

The End