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If you're not scared (then why am I)

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*

Nothing screams wrong to Albert more loudly than Gordon Cole’s silence. The man doesn’t talk like mere mortals do; he wields words like Zeus wields his thunderbolts, often with as little regard for human frailty. If Albert has, in some small ways, mellowed out over the years, Gordon’s still sharp as a fresh-cut diamond, and every bit as likely to bend.

He’s not bending now, but he’s not talking either. Which speaks volumes about how things stand between them - not that Albert can afford to worry about it here.

“Is that him?” Albert asks the officer in charge - a tall, beefy woman who seems inordinately grateful they’re taking this burden from their hands.

“He matched the description.” The cop shrugs. At his shoulder, Gordon hovers like a cloud of restless energy; Albert, for his part, is trying to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground. “Whether it’s him or not, your guess is as good as mine. If you ask me, this guy’s a couple of fries short of a Happy Meal; we had to put him under lock, make sure he didn’t go wandering off. But he’s all yours now.”

Albert nods, resisting the urge to look at Gordon for permission. They talked about this. Despite what Albert kept from him, it seems Gordon still trusts him further than he can throw him. Which includes letting him handle this, apparently; not that Albert knows if he ought to be grateful. Opening the door to the interrogation room, he hears Gordon fall into step at his heels.

They find him standing with his back towards them, squinting at his reflection in the one-way glass. Dressed in a suit two sizes too big, in a green so bright it hurts Albert’s eyes, he doesn't seem too worried about being locked in here. Instead he’s trying to fix his tie - emphasis on trying, because Albert has seen corpses more adept at tying a double Windsor than this.

The first thought through Albert’s mind is how many damn Coopers, because the posture is all wrong. His Cooper - oh, great, he’s calling him his Cooper now, as if that’s not multiple layers of screwed up - always stood straight and dignified, even when dignity was hard to come by. This guy is slouching, clumsy, shoulders hunched, restlessly shifting his weight from one foot to the other. The contrast with the old Coop is so complete that Albert almost walks straight out again; let Gordon handle this, like he did the first time. All they’ve found is another twisted copy. Another shred of hope stomped into the ground.

Then the man looks up, and Albert’s heart stops.

He looks... curious, most of all, which is pure Cooper. Curious, confused, dazed and uneasy, his gaze flicking from Albert to Gordon in the mirror, only to settle firmly on Albert again. Albert finds himself taking a cautious step forward, grateful when Gordon stays glued to the spot.

“Hey there,” he says, and clears his throat. He’s definitely not calling him Coop, the way Gordon did that greasy git in prison. Damned if Albert isn’t saving that name for the real deal, provided he’s ever sure they’ve found him. But he nods in the direction of this Cooper’s tie, letting a hint of warmth seep into his voice. “Need a hand with that?”

Cooper blinks down at the tie, which is hopelessly tangled, and nods. “A hand,” he says. It sounds wrong, but in a different way than with the other Cooper, where the words seemed right but there was no soul behind them. Here, the words themselves don’t fit, but the almost hopeful expression Cooper gives him chips away at his defenses one breath at a time.

“Okay,” Albert says, grappling for composure before he risks saying anything else. Inside, he’s quaking like a leaf, his throat so dry it’s painful, but this Cooper looks so fragile and the last thing Albert wants to do is spook him. God help him, he’s actually starting to hope, as much as he’s trying not to. “I’ll have to come closer, is that all right?”

Cooper’s eyes blink at him from the mirror. “All right.” He gives a tiny smile.

Albert nods and starts to close the distance, his feet carrying him to a spot behind Cooper’s back. He tries to shut out the thought of Gordon watching from the door, too close for comfort in this cramped, stuffy room that’s apparently where they kept Cooper all day. Albert may not be prone to claustrophobia, but right now he’d kiĺl for a whiff of fresh air.

“Here,” he tells Cooper. “Let me take this.” He reaches around for the rumpled tie. He’s surprised at how gentle his voice comes out sounding, without even a conscious effort on his part. "It’ll be easier if you turn around.”

Cooper hesitates, then his chin dips down. “Take this,” he says, but he doesn’t make a move until Albert takes his shoulder and physically turns him away from the glass. That answer still sounded wrong, but not as badly: this time, there seemed to be some conviction behind it, like Cooper wasn’t just parroting what Albert told him before. And his eyes…

“There we go,” Albert says, but it comes out strangled, because he’s drowning in the depth of those red-rimmed eyes, pained and haunted yet still somehow unafraid. “Look,” he manages. “You pull one end through, like this…” but his throat constricts even as his hands keep moving, muscle memory taking over where his conscious mind failed.

“All right,” Cooper says again, and this time it sounds anxious, worried. “All... right?” He reaches up to touch Albert’s hand, squeezing it as if to look for reassurance - or to give it, Albert thinks with a jolt, answering the squeeze with one of his own.

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I’m fine.” Just like he said to Tammy before - then followed it up with a statement he’d take back in a heartbeat, and not just because it failed to serve its purpose. Gordon’s never fooled by cheap distractions, and even if he was, Albert crossed a line. But he wasn’t fine then and he isn’t fine now; truth be told, he’s the opposite of fine, and he can see the reflection of it in Cooper’s face, the way his brow furrows and his lips press together. “Really, it’s…” Okay, he wants to say again, but the lie gets swallowed up by the gaping void in his chest; a void this Cooper is already halfway towards filling, and Albert doesn’t have a clue how to deal with that.

Cooper shakes his head, not in denial but surprise. “Who…?” It’s the first word out of his mouth that’s all his, not some repetition of what Albert said. Shakily, he touches a finger to Albert’s chest, then points it back at himself. It’s not clear if he means ‘who am I?’ or ‘who are you?’ or something else that Albert isn’t parsing, but the uncertainty in Cooper’s eyes is more than he can stand.

“Coop...” Oh, Jesus Christ, he’s said it, and now the name has left his mouth, he knows he won’t be able to take it back. “Coop,” he repeats, trying to keep his voice from cracking. “That’s your name, right?” He enunciates carefully, making sure Cooper can understand. “Do you know who I am?”

Cooper swallows, but doesn’t answer. Then his gaze drops to Albert’s suit and tie, and the badge pinned to his chest. “Know who I am,” he breathes. His expression relaxes.

They’re having an actual conversation. Albert knows that as surely as he knows anything, and damned if he’s going to give up on it now. He takes his time finishing Cooper’s tie, then puts a hand on either of his shoulders, trying to breathe through the flood of memory that hits him. “That’s right, Coop. I’ve known you for a long time.” Two more deep breaths, the last one sticking in his windpipe for long enough that he can barely gulp it down. “My name is Albert. I’m... a friend.” Behind him, Gordon clears his throat in warning, but Albert’s way past warnings now. He can’t even tell when his doubt from earlier faded, but he knows he’ll fight for this man if it’s the last thing he does. Which could very well be how this turns out. “I’m your friend,” he repeats. “I’m here to help.”

Cooper’s eyes shut themselves as he breathes out - a long, ragged sigh, punctuated by a spasming shudder that’s a knife to Albert’s heart. “Call for help,” Coop mutters, his voice a small, broken thing, but the relief in it is bone-deep. The next thing Albert knows, Cooper’s arms are around him, clutching him so tight he actually fears for his ribs.

“Hey, buddy. Easy. I’m here.” Albert can barely recognize his own voice, battered and raw as it is. Slowly, feeling as if the world’s about to slide out from under him, he returns the embrace, wrapping his arms around those frail shoulders and folding Coop against his chest. He’s still far too aware of Gordon’s eyes on them both, and he wrestles down a surge of old guilt, remembering how the mere suggestion of Cooper in trouble was enough to make him break every oath. The truth is, he’d do it all over again, and something tells him Gordon knows. “Help’s here,” he says, rubbing slow circles across Cooper’s back. “Don’t worry. We’ll figure this out.”

Cooper nods faintly against his shoulder, making no move to untangle himself. Instead he burrows his cheek into Albert’s vest. “Albert,” he whispers, voice thick with satisfaction. Then, softly: “Home.”

*