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To Fire, Into Storm

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*

Albert hasn’t craved a smoke in years, but that night, his fingers are aching and his gut boils with the need for one. He won’t. Of course he won’t. He quit the day his old man was diagnosed, vowing never to start again, and he hasn’t touched another cigarette since. Chances are after all this time it would just make him ill; not that he’d mind that much. At least it would distract him from the dread that’s been squeezing his chest ever since the call came in, exploding into full-blown horror the second he laid eyes on Cooper’s face.

He only recalls snatches of the drive back to the motel, with Gordon stone-faced and silent in the passenger’s seat, eyes fixed on the dossier in his lap. Next to Albert, in the back, Tammy Preston kept trading her white-knuckled stare out the window for covert glances of concern, which Albert studiously tried to ignore. No need to drag anyone else into the private hell he’d somehow managed to create for himself. When, on arrival, Gordon still had the stomach to want dinner, Albert made up an excuse and fled to the bar instead.

Preston finds him there a couple of hours later, hands folded around a half-empty tumbler of Scotch.

“Albert?” He flinches at the solicitude behind her voice. So she’s decided this is an ‘Albert’ moment, not an ‘Agent Rosenfield’ moment, which doesn’t bode well for the rest of the conversation… But no. That isn’t fair. Tammy’s discreet as they come. If she asks, it’s not out of some morbid sense of curiosity, but because she’s thinking about the case and the impact his state of mind might have on it. That, and because she’s a friend.

“Tammy,” Albert manages, conceding it is that kind of moment, at least. “How was dinner? Gordon lectured you about Mount Rushmore, I take it?”

“He didn’t, actually.” Preston looks down at his whiskey, an almost imperceptible shadow crossing her face. “After the first five minutes, I don’t think he even opened his mouth except to order food. Albert…” She fidgets for a moment, then juts out her chin. He can see the shift in her expression that means she’s come to some kind of decision, and sure enough, she pulls up a bar stool and sits. “You’re not going to explain to me what just happened, are you?” She asks it in a tone that says don’t make me drag it out of you, filling Albert with an odd sense of pride. Which doesn’t mean that the thing she’s asking is something he’s willing - or able - to give.

“I can’t,” he says, then downs the remainder of his drink, the sting of it searing his throat. What happened is that all his hopes of the past two decades were burnt to cinders, swallowed by whatever rabid fire is now raging behind Dale Cooper’s eyes. And the worst of it, that in trying to help Cooper all those years ago, Albert might actually have contributed to his fall. “For one thing, I don’t have a clue myself. For another…” He squints down into his now-empty glass, struggling to push through the swirling fog of despair and muster up some empathy. “Look, Tammy… I can see why you feel left out. If I were you, I’d probably feel the same, but -”

“This isn’t about me,” she says, angrily pushing her hair out of her face. “And don’t… Tammy me, all right? This is about the case. A case Gordon wanted me on because he thought I’d be useful, but I can’t be if no one tells me what’s going on. So…” She trails off, looking shaken by her outburst, but not the slightest bit remorseful. “You brought me here to help. Now let me.”

“Tammy…” Albert winces. He’s doing it again, isn’t he? “I don't question your competence, but I don’t see how you could. How anyone could,” he adds, fighting down another clammy wave of panic before he risks meeting her eyes. She returns his look with a raised eyebrow, try me written on her face. “For the love of God, Preston…” He passes a hand across his forehead. “I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

“We’ll make it a debriefing, then. Just like we trained for.” She folds her hands across the surface of the bar, the epitome of professionalism. “I can ask the questions -”

“- and I give the answers?” Albert rolls his eyes. “I think we’re both in for a disappointment, then.” But even if he doesn’t have any answers, at least she’s right that it can’t hurt to try. “Fine,” he grumbles, and really, he should have known it would come to this. “What is it you wanted to ask?”

“Agent Cooper was your friend.” It doesn’t sound like a question, probably because it isn’t. Albert can’t imagine that anyone working for Cole never caught the rumor about how hard Coop’s vanishing act hit him, or speculated about the reasons why. He himself never confirmed or denied anything, but he thinks Preston’s got him figured out well enough.

“You could say that,” he admits. “But that was half a lifetime ago. You weren’t even born when we first met.”

Preston rolls her eyes in a near-perfect imitation of himself a few minutes ago. “You weren’t born when the second amendment was written; does that stop you from having an opinion about it?”

“Right.” Albert winces. If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that Tammy’s got opinions about everything. “Enlighten me. What’s your opinion, then?”

“Well…” she says, and bites her lip. “Agent Cooper and you go way back. But that man we saw in prison… he isn’t Cooper, is he? For one thing, the voice isn't right. For another, Cooper had brown eyes, but this one’s eyes are almost black. And yet…” Albert averts his face; he can’t let himself think about the way she said ‘had’, or he’ll embarrass himself on the spot. “You looked like you weren’t surprised at seeing him that way. Not really. And when he said he’d left messages, he was looking at you, not Cole.”

“Noticed that, didn’t you?” Albert squeezes the bridge of his nose, where a headache is slowly building. “Right. Time to get outta here.”

“Albert…?” Her eyes are wide and accusing as he gets off his seat.

“We’re taking a walk,” he says, squeezing the back of the bar stool to steady himself. He's only had two drinks, but his tolerance isn't what it used to be, and neither is his physique. “The walls could have ears here, and we’re gonna need some air. At least I know I will.”

She has the presence of mind to keep her mouth shut for now, which is more than he might have done in her place. As they make their way outside, Albert’s vest flapping in the breeze, for a moment he feels as thin and insubstantial as if he’s walking through a dream. But Preston’s heels crunching on the gravel help ground him, and by the time they’ve crossed the parking lot, Albert feels almost grateful to have her there.

He beckons her to walk beside him, slowing his pace to a stroll - for his own sake, not hers. His lungs haven’t been the same since he gave up smoking; he can feel the night air scraping at them while he tries to catch his breath. Preston gives him another one of those looks, and it’s a testament to the woman’s stamina that this time she doesn’t try to dig or, God forbid, ask him if he feels all right.

“I wasn’t surprised,” he mutters, shoving his hands into his pockets. Then, realizing how cryptic that must sound: “Cooper. You’re right. I wasn’t surprised to see him. Or rather, I was surprised by the how but not the what.” He steals a glance at Preston clipping along, silent but hanging on his every word. “But then, I’ve been braced for the worst for a long time.”

He can hear the wheels turning behind Preston’s silence, the way she checks herself before speaking up. “But no one’s seen or heard from Cooper since he went missing. And… you don’t mean ‘worst’ as in ‘presumed dead’, right? Because that would have been the most likely assumption, given how long he’s been missing.”

“It would,” Albert admits. “But it wasn’t the one I was starting from.”

“Because you had information proving otherwise?” Long pause. “Were you in contact with him? The messages he said he left…”

“I never talked to him since he went off the grid. Didn’t even know for a fact he was still alive. But yeah, I did have some intel suggesting he was. And…” Albert swallows compulsively, tasting bile. “I did get messages.”

"You did?” Preston’s arm comes up to touch his elbow, then falls away again to her side. He can hear the eager tension in her voice - which is part of what makes her a good agent, he guesses. She doesn’t spook easily, and she really is fascinated by this stuff. Not unlike the Dale Cooper he knew, which is a thought Albert has had before, but never with as much anguish as now. “What kind of messages?”

They’ve hit an intersection, the traffic lights glaring red, and Albert stops at the crossing, hugging his coat around himself. It isn’t all that cold, but he feels distant and shivery, like he’s running a fever even though he knows he’s not. “Nothing substantial,” he says. “Nothing that pointed to him. Just… Snatches. Static.”

“Static.” She moves to stand across from him, arms folded in front of her chest, as if the chill of the night has gotten to her too. He always forgets how young she is. Not naïve, not quite, but with all the bravado of youth still clinging to her. Just like Albert himself used to be.

“Static,” he nods. “Not the literal kind, but… I’d come home after a late night at the lab, and the answering machine would be blinking like crazy. Then, when I’d listen, there’d be nothing. Or just a hissing noise, like the crackle of electricity. Or moaning, or sometimes a single scream. Later, when I got a cell phone, it started happened during the day as well.” He’s shivering for real now, his teeth on the verge of chattering, and there’s an empty, crampy feeling in his stomach that has nothing to do with how little he’s eaten today. “Sometimes it would stop for months, even years, but it would always start again. I tried track down the caller, but I never could.”

Preston hoists her bag higher up her shoulder, looking truly disturbed for the first time that night. “So you believe it was him? Cooper?” Then, cautiously, “What did Gordon Cole have to say?”

“I never told him.” Albert shrugs. The light turned green half a minute ago, but he’s not sure his feet are up to carrying him much further, and at least here, he has the comforting weight of the buildings at his back. “At first it seemed like coincidence. Irritating but insignificant - a fly to bat away, not to chase off with a flamethrower, which involving Gordon would have meant. Then by the time it got significant…” He grimaces. “It got personal, too.”

“I see.” Preston sounds uncharacteristically subdued. Could be the strain starting to show, or maybe it’s just Albert’s own agitation, which can probably be read off his face. “If it’s private, I understand if you don’t…”

“My father died,” he says, his eyes fixed on the traffic lights at the other corner of the street. His voice sounds like sand and grit and his throat feels like it, too. “It’ll be five years this November. He’d been ill for some months. The hospital called to say he might not make the next morning, but I was working a case so I couldn’t get there in time.” He doesn’t know why he’s telling Preston all this, not when he's never told anyone else, except that she’s neither Gordon or his mother so she has no personal stake in it. Which makes her more objective than he’ll ever be. “When I got home and checked my phone, there was a message. It sounded…” He fights the impulse to bend over, nausea churning in his gut. “It sounded like a man in pain, struggling to breathe. After what must have been over ten minutes… the breathing stopped. The next day, when I got to the hospital, I learned that the moment I listened to that message coincided exactly with the time of death.”

Preston gasps - a soft, choked intake of breath that’s barely even audible. Albert can’t see her expression; he’s too busy fighting the tears that threaten to push past his eyelids, despite his refusal to shed them before. Tears of grief, fear, humiliation, guilt, horror. The monster that taunted him for years is the same force driving the twisted shadow of Cooper they just met; Albert’s never been as sure of anything in his life, and if he’d only spoken up sooner, maybe it wouldn’t have come to this. Whatever the hell ‘this’ might be.

“Albert…” Preston’s hand is on his arm now, and he doesn’t have the heart to shrug it off. “Are you…” She hesitates, then points up ahead. “There’s a bench over there. Do you want to sit down?”

“I’ll sit down when I’m dead,” he snaps, more sharply than he meant to. Then, patting her hand to soften the sting: “I’ll live, Tammy. I’m no damsel in distress. The day I need to sit down after talking you through a case is the day you can put a bullet through my head.”

“But this isn’t just a case,” she protests - getting her wind, back, apparently, which is comforting in a way. “And you are in distress. You have every right to be.”

“I don’t have any right.” His voice is a whipcrack, startling them both. “I gave up on my rights when I chose to hold back information. I should have told Gordon. I should have told him a hell of a lot more than this.” He finally pulls his arm from her grip, ending up with his back against the pole of the traffic light. When he meets her eyes again, the sympathy in them is almost more than he can stand. “I screwed up, Tammy. I can’t tell you the details because it would implicate you, and someone should be kept safe from some of this, at least, but I screwed up and now more people will pay the price. Some of them might already be paying it.”

“You mean Cooper,” she says. “The real Cooper.”

“Maybe.” Albert swallows. “Or maybe Gordon, or you, or whatever poor clueless sod gets in the way of any of the vile forces at play here.”

“Better us than them, then,” Preston says, her voice wobbling slightly. “At least we know what we signed up for.”

“Do you, really?” He flinches at the cynicism in his voice.

“Not… really.” She tugs down her blouse, the gesture half nervousness and half candor. “But we’re all here because we chose to be. If there’s a price to pay, we’ll figure out the best way to pay it.”

What you’ll figure out is the best way to get yourself killed, he thinks, but he doesn’t say it. “Life doesn’t work that way,” he grumbles instead, although it’s lacking the conviction it should have. He’s too wrung out for a verbal wrestling match, and besides, Tammy Preston has thirty years and the idealism of youth on him. Let her hang on to it while it lasts.

"Maybe not,” she says, her expression guarded. “But I’m no damsel either, Albert. I don’t need to be kept safe.”

“Like hell you don’t,” he says, but there’s no venom in it, and anyway she’s right. He just needs to find a way to admit that to himself. And maybe the reason he’s finding it so difficult is that he’s too busy projecting on Tammy when it’s all about him failing Coop instead. “Cooper knew what he signed up for.” It comes out not so much bitter as numb. “Whatever happened to him, he obviously couldn’t fight it on his own, and he sure as hell didn’t deserve it."

“It’s a cruel world.” Tammy moves to touch his sleeve again, the gesture surprisingly gentle compared to the words. “Isn't that why we’re here? To hold the cruelty in check? Who else will if we won’t?”

“The world’s capacity for cruelty is endless,” Albert mutters wearily, “and we’re just people. Not my idea of a fair fight.”

“No,” she says, tilting her head. “But I promise I’ll be careful if you are.” She gives him a small, knowing smile, and he can still hear the conviction in her voice as they make their way back to the motel, and Gordon, and whatever wicked place the fight will take them next.

*