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Over lunch at one of the tourist traps, about twenty minutes from the park itself, Mulder discussed the new information with Scully, who'd conducted her own investigation as best she could with the limited facilities available. 

Mulder told her about Johanna, including a description of the woman's hair for entertainment value, and then described the conversation, including the addendum in the parking lot. 

"I was right–Pierce was the only non-native ASL speaker; the others were either Deaf of Deaf or exposed to sign from very early on. Pierce signed badly; he probably didn't get the syntax exactly right. Our UNSUB could tell. He knew Pierce was a failure, even within the group of defectives." 

Scully looked dubiously at him. "Defectives?" 

Mulder waved a hand. "What he sees. And I think Pierce could understand the killer, unlike the others. I think maybe he was able to separate Pierce out because the killer can influence the people he talks to. If those kids weren't Deaf, they might all be dead now." 

"Excuse me?" 

"Look at it this way. If you were a tree, what would you most lack? If you wanted to have an impact on the world, I mean." 

"Mulder, if I were a tree I wouldn't give a damn about 'having an impact.'" 

"But if you did–you'd need someone who could move around. But more than that, you'd want that person to talk for you." 

"I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues?" 

"Very good, Scully, I didn't know you were a Dr. Seuss fan." 

"So you think the trees talk to our killer, and then he talks to the victims and gets them to go along with him." She said it without the usual tone of disbelief, as if that would be overkill. 

He sighed. "Let's just say he thinks the trees talk to him, and that he can do things for them they can't do for themselves. Including influence other people even though he looks crazy and kills them." 

"You got all that from talking to one witness who's not even sure who she saw?" 

"I think he's killed everyone he's met since the spree started, except for three people who were fully Deaf. That's a good enough lead for me." 

Scully reacted not at all. "So are you going to go out with her?" 

Good grief, Scully must have some sort of radar that told her when attractive women were around him. "Nah. I don't date women whose hair requires or receives more attention than mine." 

He'd got her. She couldn't resist. A small smile, but a smile nonetheless. It felt like a huge victory, until he realized that it felt like such a victory and got depressed all over again. 

Scully finished her salad and pushed the plate away. She was trying so hard to force down food that would give her energy, he could tell. He remembered meals not so long ago when she'd easily eaten everything in front of her, and left the table hungry. She'd gained weight during the abduction, and every pound reminded her of the unknown in herself, he thought. Her dieting had been fierce and successful. But now she was dropping weight again, this time against her will. He watched her bring the napkin up to her mouth and clean herself with small, methodical movements. She didn't even have to think about it. She looked up at him and dropped the napkin into her lap. 

"I took another look at the first–at Pierce Reddy, based on what you said last night," she reported. "There were traces of what might be semen on his clothes; since there was no sign of sexual assault, the clothes were overlooked after they'd been removed from the body. They put the socks and the underwear in the same bag, can you believe it?" Mulder shrugged; his evidence control procedures weren't any better, since there was no accepted procedure for managing the kind of evidence he liked. "I sent a sample to Boston," Scully continued, undaunted, "and with any luck we'll get a DNA profile and have a way to screen any suspects we apprehend." 

Mulder put the last of his fries in his mouth and nodded enthusiastically. 

Mulder spent the rest of the day walking the trails, trying to get a deeper sense of what Acadia was like, letting it fill his senses and his thoughts. Maybe he could find the killer's new lair- -it would have to be hastily constructeed, which could make it easier to find. 

The interesting thing about the mountains here was that they were so small, relatively speaking. They were the tallest on the East Coast, but that wasn't saying much; their treelines were fairly low (which, Mulder recalled, was what led the Frenchman who'd first mapped the area to call the island Mt. Desert). It was as if the whole area had been compressed in size, to bring it down to a more manageable, human level. 

That was what made it so attractive to tourists–they could bring their kids and still make it to the top of a mountain. Especially if they just drove, of course. Not very easy on Mt. Everest, but perfectly simple in Acadia. 

It was peaceful. Not even birds or squirrels disturbed his wanderings, much less other people. People were so problematic. They littered, they chattered, they hunted and they destroyed. He wondered what the aliens saw in humans, that they would bother experimenting on such imperfect creatures. Maybe humans are the equivalent of lab rats, he mused, pestilent and disgusting unless kept under firm control. 

The soil was a thin skin over the mountainside; it was rough and full of large chunks of decaying matter. Time and earthworms had not yet worn down all the components into a fine, rich dirt. As he walked, his boots exposed large fragments of last season's leaves, wet and brown. Earthworms seemed as rare as birds–there were a few when he poked at thicker patches of soil, but not many. 

Was the system breaking down? If Acadia were dying, that might explain the killer's twisted attraction to the place: an emblem of human failure. In attempting to preserve the park for recreation and enjoyment, the government had neglected to note that nature was not about human vacations. Parts of an ecosystem can't survive in isolation. Hadn't he read that the beavers, one of the park's perennial attractions, were dangerously inbred because there were no beavers in neighboring areas with which they could interbreed? The same was true of the spruce grouse, whose habitat was now down to a few isolated stands of spruce within the park. And there was the smog that, during the summer, would obscure the views from the mountaintops; he'd seen pictures in the rangers' station comparing days without pollution to days with. In the latter, the nearly infinite vistas from Cadillac Mountain had been cut off after a few miles. 

Vacations for the masses–Rockefeller, in his charity and wisdom, had decided to make Acadia available to the proletariat and had donated thousands of nearly pristine acres to the government. But the proletariat was never content with visiting, or even possessing. It had to alter. So in summertime Park Loop Road would be a parking lot, and people would wait patiently in their cars, sometimes looking out over the ocean and sometimes just fighting over who got the Game Boy next, until the line crawled forward and they were two car lengths closer to a real attraction. And then they'd wonder where the dolphins and the beaver went. 

As for the hikers, they were better than the drivers, but there would still be so many that the mosquitoes wouldn't have to choose or chase; they could just wait, and their prey would arrive. One party would never be out of earshot of at least one other group. And as careful as they were, they'd always break a branch or crush a water strider or leave a plastic bag somewhere on the trail. It was inevitable. It was human nature. 

And the best maintenance the government could afford wasn't helping. Rockefeller had hired a hundred and thirty men to maintain the more than sixty miles of car-free carriage roads he'd constructed through the park. Then he'd given it to the United States, and Uncle Sam paid six people to do the job. Was it any wonder that trash collection ran a little slow? 

Acadia was being stomped to death. 

Mulder could imagine the trees seeking a champion. Birds could fly away if necessary; beavers could migrate. But the trees were stuck with their location, exposed to the grubby hands of whoever cared to slash through the trails. Were the trees calling the killer's name? Did he hear the summons to combat when he saw the faces moving through the bark? 

If Mulder watched out of the corners of his eyes, he thought he could see the faces too. Their expressions were grave and concerned. They were not sure if he could be trusted. The patterns in the bark were as individual as fingerprints; no two were alike. He was reasonably sure that even Scully would have to agree, though she wouldn't care. 

He could feel that the killer was walking through the forest. Alone, searching for another victim, walking the trails with loving attention. He understood the difference between each tree and the next; he cared about the trees and their infinite variety, more than most people care about their children. Maybe that solicitude had roused the trees to speech. 

What would trees sound like, if they did call out? Trees fall, and perhaps they make noise whether people are in the forest or not; it's just that meat is deaf to wood. And so few people care about bridging the gap, more comfortable with small cute flowering plants than the kings of the forest. Phallic, larger than men, capable of taking care of themselves or destroying cars and houses when they topple in a storm, trees are disconcerting unless they are ignored, excluded from thought and attention. 

If the trees had found a champion, should Mulder really be trying to lock him up? 

He shook his head in disgust. Being alone in the madman's milieu was making him stupid, making him sympathetic. If only he and Scully were getting along better, she'd be able to manage him and keep the voices from getting too strong. But if he tried to describe what it was like, she'd just dismiss it and demand another look at his head, as if cells and blood could explain the mysteries of consciousness. 

Their idiot killer, anyway, was only making it worse for the trees. Langbein, much as Mulder hated to admit it, had a point. He and Scully would never have infested Acadia if not for the killings, let alone the curiosity-seekers who'd now be able to follow a 'Murder Trail' with all the best death spots. Acadia didn't need an executioner; it needed a perimeter guard. 

Well, he thought with grim humor, at least no one would be likely to believe the killer that the trees made him do it. There would be no treehunts as a result of this case, which was better than some of their other investigations, where people feared witches and attacked women. 

Scully had returned to the newly-identified Pierce Reddy, who had not yet been allowed to rest in peace, right after she'd finished with the latest victim. With only a funeral-home director to assist her, it had been a difficult and unpleasant job, without much to recommend it. They knew how these victims had died; the question was why, and she felt useless in making that determination. 

As with any investigation, different parts of the analysis were proceeding at different paces. She had confirmed that Pierce Reddy was deaf from a congenital defect. The Boston lab had also called her. The semen sample was degraded by time and exposure, but might still prove useful. And the lab had analyzed the samples of hair and skin from the Thunder Hole victim, and agreed with her that he had been an albino. The research technician there, who apparently had not heard that the X Files were the kiss of death, had agreed to run a search of all missing persons reports looking for albinos; Scully thought that he found it a bizarre and therefore fun task. There was still no word on the disassembled man from the stone cairn. The crucified woman, whose blood-stained credit cards had identified her as Genevieve Golden, had at some point been in a major accident, probably a car crash, that had left her with multiple scars and a right leg over an inch shorter than her left. She would have walked with a pronounced limp. It must have taken so much work and strength for her to go hiking in Acadia, and all it had gotten her was killed. 

All in all, it had been a day spent on minor details, too much work for too little effort. Mulder's theory about the various defects in the victims seemed plausible, but the man from the stone cairn's disability remained unexplained. It might have something to do with one of the parts they had not yet found. 

She returned to the cabin, too tired to do any more investigating. Night still fell early at this time of year, and she had even less desire to look around the trails in the dark than during the day. The gravel in the tiny parking lot behind the cabin got into her shoes, and she stumbled inside as she tugged at the thick leather. They were good for hiking, but not very easy to get off. Or maybe her coordination was going. 

Relieved of her irritating shoes, Scully sat down at the small kitchen table. She was too tired to do anything about dinner. 

Mulder came in a few minutes after she'd returned. He didn't say anything about finding her staring into space; probably he figured she deserved to be able to act like him once in a while. Taking the initiative, he rooted around for a passable meal. She tried to focus on the table, to make the world concrete again. It was fake wood-grain, on top of cheap pressed wood. It swirled and darted across the tabletop, almost as if it was real. 

The weariness started at her toes and radiated upwards. She felt as if every cell had worn itself out. The bones in her arms ached. Her hair was limp and sticky. Her clothes chafed against her. Her head drooped down until her nose was inches from the table. Mulder, as usual, radiated energy. Invariably, in the past, proximity to him had energized her, but this time it just made her feel more inert. 

He'd gotten some vegetables out of the refrigerator and was preparing to cut them up. Her eyes closed, and it was as if she were alone. She resented his ability to keep going like a damned wind-up toy. At least he'd gotten to spend the day in the forest. It was alive, however deformed. Let him put Humpty Dumpty together again, next time. 

Her eyes snapped open as she realized once again what was happening to her. It was Dana With Cancer thinking those unkind thoughts, not the person she'd always thought she was. She felt a rush of fear-inspired adrenaline, her standard response to thinking about her impending death. Whether it was tragic irony or poetic justice, her resentment was about to be rewarded: Quite likely, he would be alone, next time. Even if he did find someone else to do the forensics, he wouldn't trust another person. At least not for a while. 

"I need to tell you something." 

Mulder turned, taking out a soda as he closed the refrigerator door. She had his total attention, like a beam of sunlight. 

"I wasn't–there's more, about the cancer." 

He lurched downwards, into the folding chair on his side of the table. The can in his hand slammed against the table and foamed over. Mulder cursed and looked around for a napkin. Scully reached down beside her feet and got some from the bag of supplies she'd brought in earlier. While he mopped, she spoke again, struggling to keep her voice even. 

"Blindness and other sensory deterioration is only the beginning as the tumor expands into my brain. There will be mental, emotional changes. Deterioration. I, I can't live like that. It's not acceptable to me as life." 

Mulder looked up. Soda was running over his hand as he squeezed the sopping napkins, undoing all his good work. His lower lip was trembling. "Please don't ask me–I can't. I can't." 

"I know," she said, as gently as possible, knowing that he'd take it to mean that she thought he was weak. "Bill and I have talked about it. It's the one thing we agree on, actually. He'll– take care of it, when it's necessary. I've written a prescription and he'll help me take it. No one will know that anyone but me was involved, so he won't get into legal trouble. But, I need you to know." 

Mulder's fists clenched. He threw the wet napkins away from him; they landed against the side window with a splat. He slammed his right hand against the table once, twice, three times. She expected him to stop but he didn't, even though he was obviously doing damage. 

"Stop it! Stop, please, Mulder, please!" Scully reached out, tried to grab his hand. He wrenched it free and kept pounding. 

Scully was as scared for him as she'd ever been. This was nearly autistic behavior. Uncontrollable self-destructiveness while she was still alive was a terrible sign of what to expect later on. 

She had to stop him while he still had bones left. She put her left hand directly in his fist's path, splaying her fingers across the table. He was looking down, but his eyes had that unfocused look that told her that he wasn't completely home. 

His fist came down like a wrecking ball. Her hand was instantly on fire with pain; every nerve in her body, it seemed, had migrated to that part and begun screaming. Each of her knuckles had its own special song of damage. 

Even as she pulled her hand into her lap, cradling over it by instinct, Mulder's pounding ceased, and she was able to grab him with her unmarked right hand. 

"Oh, Scully," he said, and was up and around the table instantly, kneeling beside her to look at her hand. 

"Don't–think–anything's broken," she gasped. "Can't–say– same for you." 

He leaned his head against her knees and she could feel him trying not to cry. With great effort, she lifted her yammering hand, telling herself that it would hurt the same wherever the hell she put it, and pulled his head forward, into her lap, with her right hand. He resisted for a second, then came, a child needing comfort. 

She bent herself over him so that their heads were close together. "I hate this too," she whispered into his hair. She remembered that it usually smelled sweet, like coming home. She rocked back and forth in her chair, reassuring herself as much as him. "I hate this too."

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