For a second, he’s afraid he’s lost hold of Cooper’s hand. There’s the sensation of falling and a roar of tearing branches, punctuating the moment they rip through the veil, or the curtain, or whatever the hell he’s supposed to call the boundary between the place they just left and the real world. Or this world, at least, because there’s no doubt in Albert’s mind the other one was real, too. Then he slams into the ground near the center of the clearing, all the air squeezed out of him, but rolling instinctively until they’re free, safe, past that cursed circle of sycamores, dragging Cooper along with him. Another two feet or so and they’re out, because he can feel grass under his hands, and Cooper’s still there, a dead weight in his arms, but stirring faintly when Albert collapses half on top of him.
He can’t breathe. From somewhere, there’s the clamor of excited voices, but he can’t call out to them or cry for help. They’ve escaped, but every fiber of his being feels wrong and he can’t wrap his head around why, except that his lungs are straining to take in air and his breathing is panicked, hurting his throat. His gut feels wrong too, like he swallowed something he shouldn’t have and now his body is frantic to get it out. Clenching his jaw shut, he tries desperately to fight it.
Beside him, Cooper makes a strangled noise and rolls over onto his hands and knees. Albert moves with him, shifting his grip but not letting go, and the sound of running footsteps reaches him a second before Cooper moans, then retches violently, bringing up a jet-black stream of… bile? Gasoline? Smoke? It’s not quite liquid and not quite gaseous, but it’s pouring from Cooper’s mouth like something out of a nightmare, thick and vile and cloying, only to dissipate before it hits the ground. Albert’s still clinging to him for dear life - for all the good it’ll do, but he got Cooper out of that hellscape, so damned if he’s gonna let go of him now - when a pair of hands grab his shoulders, trying to separate him from Coop.
“No,” he protests, “no, no, leave him -” and then he twists and flails until, through some miracle, the hands back off and he’s free to reach for Coop again.
“I’m okay,” Coop mutters, from somewhere near the ground. He’s trying to push himself up on his elbows, looking like death warmed over, but at least the seizure, or fit, or whatever it was, has stopped. “I think it’s over,” he says, voice hoarse, like he didn’t use it for a long time. “I think it’s gone. Albert…?”
“Here.” The immediate crisis over, Albert feels his own panic start to rise again. His stomach is churning, queasiness building past the point of no return, and he knows with the kind of inevitability born from watching too many bad horror movies that no amount of compulsive swallowing is going to save him this time. Blood is rushing in his ears; at some level, he’s aware he’s hyperventilating, probably has been from the moment they came crashing through, but all the effort in the world isn’t enough to help slow his breathing, not even when Cooper slides a shaky arm around him. “You’re safe?” Albert pants. “You sure? They’re not coming after you?” And then, weakly, “Coop, I - I need…”
“Don’t fight it.” Cooper presses in close, and for a moment Albert couldn’t say which of them is keeping the other from falling - or maybe that’s just wishful thinking, because he’s shaking so badly he couldn’t lift a feather right now. “It’ll be over soon, Albert, I promise, but you have to let it happen.” A pair of arms loops around his chest. “I’m here. I’m here now. I’m here thanks to you. Hold on.”
Albert moans, remembering the same sound coming from Cooper, low and desperate and keening - and then everything he’s been struggling to hold back catches up with him at once and he’s choking, falling, something inside him clawing to break free. He spits whatever it is out into the grass, once, and then again, big heaving spasms until his muscles scream with it and his head’s spinning, tears mingling with earth and and dirt on his face.
Then it passes, and he opens his eyes, and whatever hellish thing he was bracing himself to see is no longer even there.
“What…” Albert coughs, thickly. “What the hell just happened?”
“The Black Lodge.” Cooper isn’t sounding too steady, but he folds into Albert’s arms like paper and lets him put his chin on the top of his head. “I’ve seen it happen before. Or rather…” Coop pauses, holding Albert tighter. “BOB saw it. You absorb more of its essence the longer you spend there, or the harder the spirits fight you.” He shivers, his fingers on the side of Albert’s throat. “You fought very hard, Albert. Thank you.”
Not hard enough, Albert wants to say, and then has to scramble to find his balance, because Cooper has just gone limp in his arms.
He mutters a curse, a fraction of a second before he hears another voice do the same; a familiar one, accompanied by a ditto face swimming into his field of vision. The owner of those hands from a few minutes ago? “Truman,” he mutters, his relief overwhelming. Harry. “Help…”
“You’re OK. I got you.” Albert doesn’t know if the words are meant for Cooper or for him, but the soft drawl that they’re delivered in is already halfway reassuring. The other half follows when Harry lifts Cooper from his arms and, with infinite tenderness, lays him out on the grass. From this angle, Coop’s looking almost peaceful, and Albert allows himself a fierce, wild moment of hope that maybe they’re going to be all right.
“You made it.” Truman’s talent for stating the obvious is as strong as ever, but just this once, Albert isn’t about to fling it back in his face. It still hasn’t quite hit him that he pulled this off without anyone dying - or worse, given the stakes this time.
“Yeah,” he breathes, reveling in the truth of that answer, oversimplified as it is. They made it. Everything else can wait, at least for now. “How long?”
“Since you went in there? Nine hours.” Truman finishes checking Cooper over, softly strokes a wisp of hair from his face. “I was starting to think we lost you, too.” He turns back towards Albert, his chin dipping down. “And I take back every word I ever said about you possibly not being the best man for the job.”
Raising a hand towards his forehead, Albert finds that it’s shaking. “Just because I don’t believe in spirits doesn’t mean I’m not up to fighting them.” And there, finally, goes his last shred of resilience as he feels the ground give way beneath him, just slowly enough for Truman to dart in and catch him before he hits the mud face-first.
Harry’s hands are gentle as they turn him over, allowing him to clutch at Cooper’s arm even as the back of his head meets the damp, soggy grass.
“It’s OK,” Harry says again, thumb pressing into Albert’s collarbone. He sounds like a man who means what he’s saying, even though there’s no telling how long that faith will survive. “You can rest now. You’ve earned it. I’ll take it from here.”
It’s a testament to Albert’s love for the man that he doesn’t spit back all the reasons why, in the grand scheme of things, none of those statements are true - or maybe he just doesn’t have the strength. Either way, in those last couple of seconds before everything goes dark, with the warmth of two souls crowded around him, he knows. No one deserves goodness more than Dale Cooper; and if there’s any good left in this world, he trusts Harry to find it, and himself to defend it… And maybe, just maybe, those few truths will carry them through.