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Flesh Wounds

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"Albert, you should see this." Cooper sounds breathless, excitement oozing from his voice like the filling from a cherry pie, and if that metaphor holds less appeal to Albert than it would to the man himself, well, then that’s only fitting.

Albert cranes his head past the doorpost, catching a glimpse of blurry not-quite-darkness on the TV screen over in the living room. Some nature documentary, which - aside from cooking - seems to be Cooper’s main obsession these days. Not that his interests run towards the local wildlife or, God forbid, anything with wings and a beak. No, it’s always the desert or the Arctic or, in this case, the deep seas. And sure, it’s good to see Cooper enthusiastic about something, even if it means Albert’s getting called out of the bathroom five minutes after he got home just to share in the sight of what’s likely a pair of squids mating. But there’s a cloud to every silver lining, and Albert - unlike Cooper - can never look at the latter without seeing every detail of the former too.

The truth is, Cooper is doing better. He’s still living at Albert’s place instead of his own, and seeing how rough some of the nights have been, they can all agree that’s not a luxury. But given that all of six months ago, the thought of leaving Cooper unsupervised for ten hours seemed like a farfetched utopia, there’s no denying they’re making progress.

The other truth is, while the good - or at least decent - days are finally starting to outnumber the bad ones, Cooper’s enthusiasm is all the more exhausting because you never know when he'll come crashing back down. At one point or another, could be days or hours, he always does. Just last week, Albert found him shivering on the balcony in his pajamas, clutching the railing so hard that Albert had to pry his fingers off it. When pressed, all he did was mutter something about eyes hidden in the folds of the curtains and how he’d needed to escape. Just a nightmare, not even one of the worst, but bad enough. Albert feels no nostalgia for the days where he was afraid to take a piss for longer than it might take Cooper to do something phenomenally stupid, but the one thing more exhausting than constant hopelessness is… well, hope, when it’s lined with a constant fear of backsliding. And Albert’s starting to feel the strain.

"You’re missing it, Albert." Cooper isn’t pleading, exactly, but there’s something in his voice that says he’s been alone for long enough. Did Diane call today, like she said she would? When Cooper gets like this, company isn’t a luxury; Albert knows that all too well by now.

"A minute!" Albert yells, frantically scrubbing the remains of a day’s juggling corpses off his hands. He showered at the lab so they can’t really be filthy, and anyway he wore gloves, but it’s the thought that counts. There’s a dull throbbing at his temples that he can’t seem to shake, and he spends a jaw-clenching half minute fumbling to get at the Tylenol which, along with everything else that might tempt him, is still safely locked out of Cooper’s reach. That leaves finding a glass… Didn’t he stop locking away the glassware at one point? Wait - there’s one, tucked away at the back of the medicine cabinet. Not clean by a long shot, but it’ll do.

"Hurry," Cooper calls, "the seahorse is about to give birth!" and Albert throws a look across his shoulder as he pulls out the glass - too fast. It bangs hard against the edge of a shelf, along with several of his knuckles. Cursing, Albert slams the glass onto the vanity.

It shatters in his hand.

He yelps, more in surprise than pain. Crimson splatters drip into the sink, and he gapes for an addled moment before registering the source: the mess of bloody cuts and splinters that’s supposed to be his right hand. The pain hits about two seconds later, when he flexes his fingers, only to realize one shard’s still buried in his palm.

God… This time he bites down on it, clamping his jaw shut until he can trust himself not to make a sound. Not good enough; Cooper must have heard him earlier, because the background noise from the TV just dropped away, replaced by Cooper very quietly clearing his throat.

"Albert? What’s happening in there?"

"Nothing." The lie leaves a sour enough taste that Albert scrambles to correct it. "Nothing for you to worry about, anyway." Did he manage to keep the effort out of his tone? No way to tell. "Hush and watch your documentary. Attaboy." It sounds exactly like the dismissal it is, but the last thing either of them needs is for Cooper to saunter in and see this mess. Albert spent the past year trying to keep Cooper well away from anything violent or distressing, and if, these days, he gets the occasional televised glimpse of a lion tearing out a gazelle’s throat, Albert supposes gradual exposure isn’t a bad thing. But this is real blood, Albert’s blood, and there’s no saying how Cooper would handle it, given that the last time he saw Albert bleeding was back when BOB was the one making him.

Albert blinks down at his hand until his eyes start to water, wondering what on Earth he’s supposed to do next. Most of the cuts look shallow, but some don’t, including the one with the piece of glass sticking out like a nightmare fashion accessory. He’ll have to take it out before he can clean up the rest, but it’s bound to start bleeding, and there’s no way he can manage a decent bandaging job with one hand, let alone stitches. Which means leaving the glass in the wound and taking a cab to the emergency room, all without Cooper realizing something’s screwy…

Yeah, and after he’s pulled that off, next thing on the list is buying a lottery ticket, because there’s no way anyone can get this lucky.

So he’s out of options. And the longer he takes to think about it, the more likely Cooper will realize things aren't right, so why is it that suddenly he can’t seem to think at all? He’s barely lost any blood to speak of, so there’s no reason for the tightness in his chest or the way his legs are suddenly turning to jelly. Dammit, he can’t afford this. He’s got to stay sharp.

"Albert?" A wary call from right outside makes him jump. Did Cooper actually sneak up on him, or was Albert just too busy panicking to hear him coming?

"Coop. Don’t -" he tries, but the bathroom door is already swinging open, Cooper’s eyes going wide as he takes in the scene.

For a second, Albert forgets to breathe. Cooper’s gaze flits across the room like a nervous bird, lingering on the bloodstained tiles and the hand Albert is awkwardly cradling in front of him. The silence feels like an accusation, and although Cooper’s face is a near-perfect blank, Albert can’t tell if it’s because he’s coping or because he’s fighting tooth and nail to hide that he’s not.

"It’s OK," Albert says, struggling to ward off the sense of impending disaster. "I smashed a glass. It’s not as bad as it looks."

Cooper takes a step forward, taking care to avoid the dots of crimson on the floor. His expression shifts subtly, and when he meets Albert’s eyes, the hesitation is gone. "You’re a man of many talents, Albert, but prevarication isn’t one of them. Here. Let me look." Another step, and he’s taken hold of Albert’s arm, turning it so he can see the damage. He whistles softly - a sound so much like the old Coop that Albert feels his mouth go dry. "You’re right. This doesn’t look good." Warm fingers fold around his wrist. "You’re the doctor, Albert. Tell me what we should do."

Albert blinks. "'We'? We aren’t doing a damn thing. I’m gonna call a cab, go get this patched up. I can handle it. I promise I won’t keel over on the way or pass out in the cab." Truth is, he’s not entirely sure what he can handle. His palm is throbbing in time with his pulse, and there’s a vague dizziness he can’t seem to shake off, but he’ll be damned before he’ll tell Cooper that.

"You’re trying to protect me," Cooper says, letting go of his arm. "You’re afraid I can’t deal with…" He frowns at the bloody mess in the sink. "This."

Albert starts to shake his head, but denial won’t cut it, and if he tries to change the subject Cooper will see right through him. "Well…" he says weakly, "can you?"

"I’m not sure." Cooper wraps his arms around himself, as if to fight off a chill. "I feel… calm. Concerned for you, but unafraid. The blood, your injury… they don’t bother me to the point where it hampers my ability to function. I think, for now, I’m in control."

You think? Albert almost says it out loud, but what Cooper just gave him was exactly the kind of answer Albert’s always trying to pry out of him. "Well, that’s something," he mutters. At least that makes one of us. By now the adrenaline rush of those first few minutes has worn off, replaced by a sense of lethargy that sticks to him like mud, but he can’t give in yet. Cooper may be fine now, but there’s no telling if or when that might change, and if it does, it’ll be up to Albert to deal with the fallout. This isn’t his first rodeo, so he knows how this works.

Cooper hasn’t stopped watching him, with that soft, dreamy gaze that still looks like it could cut right through him. When Albert opens his mouth to go on, Cooper shushes him. "I hear what you’re asking, Albert, but I’m afraid I can’t condone it. You’re in no state to go out on your own. I would be a very poor friend if I allowed it."

"If you allowed it?" Albert parrots. He can’t remember the last time he heard Cooper say so much at once in a tone that brooked so little argument. “Coop…” He starts to shake his head, has to stop and brace himself as the room tilts around him. Pain shoots through his palm and up his forearm, and he curses only because a groan would be far less dignified. "Ah, shit." It comes out a ragged whisper.

The noise at his back tells him Cooper just flipped down the toilet lid, and Albert doesn’t protest when a hand takes his elbow and tugs at him to sit down. Not that there’s an alternative. Given the choice between sitting or ending up on the floor, he’d pick the former anytime.

"Easy, Albert. Slow breaths, there we go." Cooper’s still doggedly talking in plurals, but any desire on Albert’s part to berate him for it is overshadowed by the need to actually… well, breathe, and to keep from showing how much that costs him. He sees Cooper lower himself on the edge of the tub, close enough for their knees to touch. "It’s all right," Cooper says. "I understand the impulse, I do. But the act of resisting pain isn’t actually conducive to healing." The way he says it, he makes it sound like something straight out of a therapy session. Which is exactly the reminder Albert doesn’t need right now.

"So," he manages. "I should just… what, embrace my pain? Whatever floats your boat, Coop, but you know that spiritualist claptrap doesn’t work for me."

Cooper dips his head down, looking chastised - but only slightly. "You’re a scientist, Albert. Surely there are better uses for your energy than trying to persuade me not to get involved, given that all you'll accomplish is the exact opposite of that.” His tone is gentle, but there’s a stubborn set to his jaw that Albert remembers all too well from their years of working together; it means he won’t back down no matter what. By now, Albert has known the man for long enough to admit when he’s beaten.

"Fine," he mutters. "OK. Whatever you say. I was just…"

"Looking out for me. I know. And I do appreciate it, Albert. Just… please, for once, let me return the favor?"

It’s the plea in Cooper’s tone that slays him. That, and the twitch of his lips when he swallows, then sits up straighter as if in defiance of whatever objection Albert might come up with next. But Albert has no defense; he’s never had any against Cooper’s impossible style of fighting, and he’s certainly not going to manage one now. "OK," he says again, and gulps down a breath.

The smile that lights up Cooper’s face would be wildly inappropriate to the situation, except that it starts out slow and tremulous and Albert can see every hairline fracture in it. It’s not a comforting sight; a few well-placed words, and Albert’s sure he could crack Cooper’s shell like an egg. But then, when hasn’t the inverse been true as well? The thing about trust, in the end, isn’t in knowing the other has no power to break you; it’s in believing they’ll try to keep you whole regardless. Him and Cooper… He wouldn’t claim they're whole, exactly, but all things considered, it’s close enough.

When, inevitably, Cooper’s smile cracks, a trace of it still lingers on his face. "OK," he echoes, with a nod at Albert’s hand. "How about we get that cleaned up, then take it from there?"

Albert forces himself to think about it, which is harder than it sounds, given that his brain feels like mush. He’s almost positive he’ll end up needing stitches, but Cooper has a point: the longer this stays untreated, the more likely something will happen to make the damage worse. Then again, he isn’t sure the alternative is better.

"You wanna take out the glass?" He gives Cooper as doubtful a look as he can muster. "Are you sure? Cuts like these… For one thing, they’ve got a nasty habit of bleeding like hell. You’d have to wrap it up tight, apply enough pressure. And the rest of those scrapes need to be cleaned, the splinters picked out. It’ll be ugly, messy…"

"I can do it." Cooper’s voice doesn’t waver. "Be fair, Albert." A ghost of a smile. "When is life ever anything other than messy? Besides, I had first aid training. Mandatory, as I recall."

"Lord have mercy," Albert mutters.

"I still remember a thing or two." Cooper shrugs. "The instructors always said I had very steady hands."

It wasn’t a joke, but it draws a chuckle out of Albert anyway. "Yeah, I’m sure they did." He winces. "Coop, not meaning to question your skills here, but my hands are… kind of essential to my profession. If there’s any doubt you can handle this… " It was a last-ditch effort; try to make this about Albert himself rather than Cooper’s issues, and maybe he’d finally see the light and reconsider. "Remember that time we drove into Seattle, witnessed that bike accident?"

The look Cooper turns on him isn’t one of betrayal, but the way his eyes widen makes Albert feel like a bastard anyway. It was one of the first times he’d taken Cooper on a trip after… well, after Twin Peaks and its whole ugly aftermath. And it turned into a nightmare Albert won’t soon forget.

"Yes. Of course I remember." The hand in Cooper’s lap curls into a loose fist. "But that was different. I was helpless then. I was in the car, watching a man bleed out from the passenger seat, and I just…  We talked about this, didn’t we?" He lets out an unsteady breath. "I wasn’t prepared. I’ve seen too many people bleed while being powerless to help them. But this time I won’t be powerless." Cooper’s fingers unclench, move to brush Albert’s knee. "I watched these hands try to hurt you once, Albert, while I all I could do was endure it. I can never make up for that, but… any chance to even the odds a little, I have to take."

"Coop, we’ve been over this. It wasn't you at the wheel back then. BOB -"

"We talked about that too." And reached a stalemate every time, because Cooper, for whatever reason, still isn’t prepared to concede he’s blameless in letting the monster in. He’s convinced he should have fought harder, while Albert thinks it’s a miracle that he survived at all. "It doesn’t matter. I can help now. I want to."

Albert nods slowly, rubbing his forehead with his good hand. The thing is, he understands all too well. One of the reasons he insisted on taking Cooper in was the helplessness he’d felt while BOB was out there, taking his friend on a joyride to who-knew-where. Cooper trusted him then, and if he hasn’t won back Albert’s trust by now, then when will he? Except it’s not just about having faith that Cooper won’t hurt him; it’s about trusting his ability to cope, so that they don’t end up paying for Albert’s moment of weakness with weeks of sleepless nights and daytime terrors. And if Albert won’t trust him, how will Cooper ever trust himself?

"There’s spare towels in the closet. Put some on the floor, it’ll minimize the mess." Albert closes his eyes and breathes out through his teeth. "Hot water. Tweezers, antiseptic, lots of gauze. And take off your shirt; better take off mine too. I told you this is bound to get messy."

The slow thumbs-up Cooper gives him isn’t exactly reassuring, but it’s a start.

Turns out Cooper does have steady hands, which is lucky for both of them, if only because it helps him work faster. The pain is bearable, no surprise there, but there’s many variations on 'bearable' and this one is toeing the line. But Cooper is efficient and quietly capable, working with his lips pressed together and a confidence Albert hasn’t seen from him in a long time. Every once in a while, when Albert shifts or winces or breathes out too sharply, alarm still creeps into Cooper’s face, so in the end Albert just closes his eyes and tries to focus on guarding his reactions. By the time Cooper is done - that one shard was a bad one, but at least the bleeding stopped - Albert feels as wrung out as if he’s pulled several all-nighters, despite having done nothing of the work. If Cooper feels the pressure, he’s not showing it yet… Which is lucky, because Albert’s not sure how he’d cope with Cooper cracking now.

"There." Cooper finishes washing his hands, briefly steadies himself against the edge of the sink. His hair is getting long again; it keeps falling in front of his face, and he probably doesn’t even realize how often he’s brushing it away, or that Albert never quite manages to take his eyes off the sight. "You go on ahead. I’ll clean up here, then I’ll be along." It doesn’t sound forced, per se, just tired, in a way that makes it hard to pin down if it’s normal weariness or a sign of something more dangerous. But asking the question is tricky - the act of observing impacting the observed and all that - and Cooper could probably use some privacy. So could Albert, to be fair. So he just nods and gets to his feet, making his way to the living room with as much dignity as he can muster.

As he circles the couch, he sneaks a last glimpse across the hallway and through the still-open bathroom door. A flash of mirror and white tile; the floor covered in bloody towels; and, barely visible from this angle, Cooper - braced against the sink, eyes shut and looking like death warmed over. It hits Albert like a sucker punch, and it’s a good thing all he has to do is finally allow his knees to buckle to have a couch under his ass. He sags into it, trying to blink away the image playing itself out against his eyelids. Cooper. Bathroom. Blood on the tiles.

The realization seeps in like the slow horror of a movie scene. All these months, he’s been dreading to wake up to this exact image - except with the blood belonging to Cooper, not him. It never did happen, and by this point he doesn't think it will, but he almost can’t remember a time where he wasn’t constantly, subliminally terrified of Cooper tenderly slicing open his wrists one night. He spent so long trying to prepare himself for it, imagining the tatters of Cooper’s hands clutched in his own, and to have it play out the other way around feels like a sick parody of what might have been. If anyone ever predicted this, Albert would have laughed in their faces at the absurdity of it. He isn’t laughing now.

His gut cramps up, and for a second he actually thinks he might vomit, but the feeling ebbs and he just sits with his eyes closed, mouth pressed into his uninjured hand. The other one dangles uselessly, wrapped in thick layers of bandage. It doesn’t hurt much, but God, he’s tired; he’s been tired for so long it practically counts as the new normal, which shouldn’t be any cause for complaints because compared to Cooper, he’s had it fucking easy.

He isn’t sure how long he’s been sitting there, or how Cooper managed to come back in without him noticing. But suddenly there’s a presence at his side and a hand on his shoulder, exerting gentle pressure.

"Albert?" A rustling sound as Cooper rearranges some pillows, then sits down next to him. He smells faintly of soap and deodorant; a good, simple smell, comforting in its normality. Already a part of Albert feels like the world’s worst drama queen for letting himself spiral like this, but he doubts self-flagellation is going to be enough to shame his body into submission. "Are you all right?"

"Fine," Albert grates, and inwardly curses himself. Terrific job, Rosenfield. The desperate headshake’s a really convincing touch.

For a moment, Cooper looks like he’s chewing something over. "We once made a deal that full disclosure is important, Albert. I think it’s only fair to say it ought to work both ways." The hand on his shoulder shifts slightly, a thumb settling against Albert’s collarbone. "Are you nauseous? For a moment, you looked like you were about to throw up."

"Well, I like this carpet, so I’ll try not to," Albert mutters, which already feels like admitting defeat. How long was Cooper watching him? Probably best not to wonder. "I'm just…" Breathe, Rosenfield, damn you. "… rattled, is all." An understatement, but not an outright lie. It would help if he could at least catch his breath, but every attempt only seems to make it worse: breathe in, hold for two frantic heartbeats, then out again in a stuttering puff that does nothing at all to ease the pressure below his ribs. Rinse, repeat.

If Cooper disapproves of ‘rattled’ as a diagnosis, he doesn’t say it out loud. He just sinks a little deeper into the couch, hand anchored against Albert’s shoulder. They sit in silence for a couple of seconds, Albert’s breathing harsh and rapid compared to Cooper’s measured rhythm, but it’s impossible not to notice the strain in Cooper’s posture as well. It’s the only reason he doesn’t instinctively pull back when Cooper’s hand slides between his shoulder blades, then, ever so slowly, moves to rub a circle across Albert’s back. Once, and then again. The gesture is cautious, tender, everything Albert might ever have found himself wishing for during all of those long nights keeping vigil. It could have been a perfect moment - if not for everything that led them to it.

And then he does pull away, shame burning behind his eyelids, because if anyone is owed that kind of tenderness, it’s Cooper, not him.

"You’re angry," Cooper says. It’s an observation, not a question, and there’s not a shred of judgment in it, which only makes it worse.

"Not at you," Albert says through his teeth. "Just… what use am I, losing it over a flesh wound like a goddamn amateur? I can’t even -"

"You’re being too hard on yourself. When the soul is bruised, there’s no telling how the body will react to further trauma."

"My soul?" He didn’t mean to fling it back like an accusation, only realizes that’s what it was when he sees the blood drain from Cooper’s face. "Sorry," he mutters. "I didn't mean -"

"Yes, you did," Cooper says, gaze dropping to the floor. "And you’re right. I spent years in that room, chasing ghosts and doppelgangers and fighting not to lose myself, and I don’t know if my soul will ever recover. But you went in there too, Albert. Saved me. Pushed back against the darkness… and I know we never talked about it, but they say no one ever comes out of that place unscathed."

"So my soul is tainted, is that what you mean? That place corrupted me and now I can’t be trusted, or even trust myself?" Albert fights the temptation to turn away, shut out the rest of this conversation. They never did talk about what happened all those months ago - the events surrounding it, yes, but not the nightmare they shared in the twisted version of Hell that Cooper so damn respectfully refers to as the Black Lodge. It doesn't matter what you call it; can you walk out of Hell without taking part of it with you? Was that what Cooper was trying to say?

"Oh, Albert…" It’s less a reply than an exhalation. When Albert turns his head, he finds Cooper’s face level with his own, something heavy and indescribable in his expression. "I would trust you with every precious thing in this world. I trust you with my life. Even during those days when I didn’t trust myself with it, I never stopped trusting you."

Albert swallows. "Didn’t, past tense?" He has to ask.

"For now… I think." Cooper’s head dips down. "I made a promise to stick around and fight, and that I'd tell you fair and square if I ever changed my mind. I meant that then, and I mean it now."

Albert shakes his head. "I… must have heard you say that. I guess I never dared to take your word for it."

"I understand." Cooper gives him an unsteady smile, one that only just reaches his eyes. "Trust goes both ways, Albert. I only hope I’m deserving of yours." His hand comes up to hover between them, then tenuously cups Albert’s face. This time Albert doesn’t flinch, not even when Cooper leans in - slowly, as if asking permission - and closes the distance until their foreheads meet.

The sound that leaves Albert’s mouth is less a sigh than a sob, something inside him caving at the touch. He squeezes his eyes shut, but it’s not enough; some of the dampness behind his eyelids comes spilling down across one cheek. By now, he’s sat through enough dawns with Cooper sobbing - or worse, catatonic - in his arms that this shouldn't even register, but it does when it’s him doing the sobbing, and it’s all he can do not to avert his face. He doesn’t, though. Not this time. Coop hasn’t made a peep, just sits there like a statue as if expecting some kind of revelation, but his breath comes in shallow gasps against Albert’s throat, alive and warm yet barely steadier than Albert’s own.

His good hand finds Cooper’s shoulder, presses him back as gently as he can. Cooper’s eyes are gleaming with something more than just the lamplight, and Albert scrubs his sleeve across his own face. "You OK?" he says, hoarse, and when Cooper nods, a bit too shakily, "C’mere." He wraps his good arm around Cooper, hissing when the movement jolts his bandaged hand.

"I called a doctor." Cooper’s voice is muffled, his cheek burrowing against Albert’s shirt. "She told me no house calls, but she’d make an exception to spare you the ER visit. Said to give her regards, and to ask if she could count on you to be a reasonable patient and not yell at her while she’s putting in stitches. I told her I couldn’t guarantee it."

"Who d’you call?" Albert asks, but he can already guess.

"There’s an emergency number stuck to the fridge. She said… The doctor said she was surprised it was me calling, not you."

"Yeah, I’m sure she was." Albert bites his lip. "Janeski? I thought you hated her guts."

"Hate her?" Cooper’s surprise sounds perfectly genuine. "Albert, I barely know her. I know she’s tough, competent, bordering on rude, and she doesn’t take no for an answer. Much like you, in fact, so it wouldn’t be fair to resent her just because she isn’t you… or because she happened to be assigned to me while I was on suicide watch." Long beat. "She’s the one you would have trusted with my life, so I suppose I can trust her to take care of you now."

Albert blinks, his brain still stuck at the memory of Cooper wrapping his mouth around the word 'suicide watch'. The backhanded compliment is reassuring in comparison, except Albert’s rarely felt less tough or competent in his life. As for not taking no for an answer…

"Coop, I swear to God, if you tell that woman to 'take care of me', I’ll -"

"I won’t." Cooper’s hand splays across Albert’s stomach. "Under one condition. You let me take care of you. Just until you’re better. You deserve a break as much as anyone."

"Coop…"

"I’ll cook. We can go for walks. Tomorrow, if you want; I’ll make us a picnic." Now he’s sounding frantic, and it doesn't take a genius to see why: when Cooper gets this eager to offer distraction, it’s because he’s desperate for it too.

"Don’t tell me." Albert gives in. "Donuts?"

"I’ll make you a special batch. No frosting, no jelly."

"Hmph. Nondescript food for a nondescript guy, huh?"

The slow smile that spills across Cooper’s face is the most comforting thing Albert’s seen all night. "Albert, if you were any less nondescript than you are, I swear we’d have to start putting up warning signs."

"Approach at own peril? Fair enough." Albert sags against the couch, arm loosely draped around Cooper’s shoulder. He’s tired, but it’s the kind of exhaustion that feels almost peaceful, just the dull throbbing in his palm to remind him of the reason. "You risked it once, and look where the hell it got you."

"It got me here, now," Cooper says, and if there’s a touch of wistfulness in his voice, it would almost be possible to miss it. "Some might call that punishment, and well-deserved too, but they're wrong on both counts. I never did deserve you, Albert, and I don't know how you put up with me. I'm just… grateful to have you."

"Right back at ya," Albert murmurs, and if that sounds like an easy answer, he knows Cooper knows it’s everything but.

 

*