Author's notes:

Some parts of the story might be considered triggery, but only in the ways that Twin Peaks canon itself is. If you're okay with the subject matter of Twin Peaks the series, you should be pretty much okay reading this, too.

Many thanks to my ever-awesome beta nemo_everbeing, for giving this story the proverbial kick in the ass that it needed to make it so much better, and for providing invaluable suggestions and encouragement!

Crazy Little Thing Called Love

On, off goes the lighter. The flame sputters, jumps, weaves in erratic despair, nips at the baby-smooth skin on the back of his hand. On, off.

The real beauty is it's not even his hand. Just that of his latest human catch, brand-new, shiny, all his to drive and spin and crash at his whim. Not that he intends to total this baby anytime soon, oh no. No, Dale Bartholomew Cooper is far too fine a specimen for that. Cooper is going to give him a nice, long run for his money, and then when the fat lady finally sings, he'll go out in a blaze like you ain't ever seen. No doubt about it. BOB is gonna set him on fire.

Rain hammers the roof of the car, the windscreen wipers scraping at the glass. BOB squints past it at the looming shape of the apartment block. On the topmost floor the windows are dark, just like they were an hour ago when he pulled onto the parking lot. But no worries. He can afford to wait. He sways the lighter like an incantation, slow enough for Cooper to feel the flame but too fast for him to break BOB's hold and flinch away. Good boy. Practice makes perfect, of course, but he'll soon have Dale dancing to his every tune. The rush of anticipation is heady, addictive, and then the grin breaks through, pulling his lips back from those perfect, Boy-Scout teeth.

It feels good being free.

Even better to be free inside Dale Cooper's skin, because there was, he thinks, stroking the sleek Bureau-issued gun at his hip, a certain ennui setting in. Oh, BOB is BOB and he's got a talent for fun; as long as there are cherries to pick and souls to catch, he's always keen to seize the day. But the truth is, after decades of only Leland and the futile hunt for Leland's spawn, he was craving a change. Cooper is proving to be one hell of a change, in even more ways than BOB could have hoped for. And the one he's out to explore tonight, well… That may have been the juiciest surprise of them all.

Would you believe he'd missed it at first? Even with all the signs staring him straight in the face. Sure, he'd thought the relief in Cooper's chest as Truman broke down the bathroom door – relief BOB tore out lovingly at the seams – left a cloying aftertaste of tenderness. Just like he'd seen Cooper's despair over broken bird Annie melt like syrup when Truman's hand squeezed his arm. But he hadn't thought it through. He'd just flung it onto the ever-growing pile of Cooper's eccentricities, and moved on.

It was only when Albert Rosenfield called – when Cooper picked up the phone and something hot and tight shifted under his breastbone – that BOB woke up and smelled the roses.

"Coop, what mess have you landed yourself in? That town is a goddamn health hazard; I thought I spelled that out for you. That includes the chicks, even if they're former nuns. Especially then." Albert's exact, acrid words. No hello, no how are you, no concession at all to what in the petty human hive-mind tends to pass for civility. Yet the only response BOB sensed in Cooper was… affection? Right then, he knew. Knew the clue that dear Dale, with his sharper-than-diamond gaze but all the self-awareness of a brick, must have missed for years. A secret right up BOB's alley.

Albert Rosenfield is special. Albert is the key that will make Cooper turn, turn, like the ballerina in a musical box. BOB can't wait to see them both dance.

With a flourish he checks his watch again, taps out the intro to "La Bamba" against the steering wheel. Twelve fifty-five. Late even for Albert's ridiculous standards, and still no sign of movement around the building. But he knows – or at least Cooper does – that Albert rarely pulls all-nighters when in driving distance from his home. Something to do, he believes, with the comfort of a private shower. The ones in the office are decent enough, firm flow, steady pressure, but Albert is very particular about showers. And privacy. BOB sifts through Cooper's memory, finds no recollection of ever seeing Albert with the shadow of beard or even slightly rumpled clothes. Albert's looks are his armor, the sleek suits and crisp ties and impeccable grooming all meticulously assembled to distract from that one oh-so-sticky truth. There's a reason Albert's made a career out of dealing with patients who never talk back: that way, he's just a gay man cooped up in a lab, as opposed to one in a public profession. Oh, he may claim to be out of the closet, all right, but he's really just dragginghis closet along with him. In the end, aren't they all?

BOB chuckles. Oh, yes, Albert will be here. Even if it's just to brush his teeth.

He's right, of course. Bright boy Dale always is. Albert pulls into the parking lot at a quarter to two, too distracted to even notice the familiar car sitting next to the entry gate. BOB gives it fifteen minutes after he's inside: long enough to freshen up, have a smoke, maybe pour a stiff drink. Then he cracks his knuckles, and goes to ring the bell.

Just the look on Albert's face makes it worth it.

"Cooper?" Albert doesn't stare, he goggles. For no more than a second, but the scramble for composure is a spectacle to behold. Then the mask slams into place like a trap springing shut. "Weren't you supposed to be in Twin Peaks?" Albert's knuckles tighten on the doorknob. "Must have missed the memo about you being back in town."

"I only left this morning." The words flow like syrup between Cooper's pretty lips. So Albert thought he was still in Twin Peaks, picking up the pieces of shattered little Annie? Ah – nothing like the challenge of a puzzle with a great big hole where the middle should be. But his tone must have been just a little off, his reply a little too smooth to convince, because Albert's look could have welded steel. He'll mellow soon enough, no doubt. Darling Dale could never fail to tug at Albert's heartstrings. But Dale's not driving today, and BOB is still rusty at the wheel. What he wants is to control this game, keep Cooper tight on the leash he's been wearing so meekly, but Cooper's skin is still new on him. Like a good coat, it'll need some wear before it stops chafing at the seams.

Change tactics, then. Adapt and survive. Isn't that what their darling Albert excels at, after all?

He pulls back, thrusts Cooper's mind forward. Cooper goes limp like a string has been cut.

For a man in the corpse business, Albert's reflexes are impressive. Hands have closed on Cooper's arms before he's won the struggle for muscle control, a struggle BOB observes with gusto. He's got spirit, our Dale. As for Albert, it's a marvel to see how all color just drained from his face.

"Coop," Albert rasps, and then, "What the hell–" but Cooper's already shaking his head, locking his legs in place and sucking down air in deep, rhythmic gulps. Albert draws him inside by an elbow, shuts the door with a shove of his hip. "Okay. First order of business: breathe. Then talk."

Cooper finds a precarious balance, but the disorientation is sticking to him like feathers to glue. His mind is a jumble of memories, a smattering of loose pieces refusing to blend into a single picture. Leaving Twin Peaks. The long drive back to Philadelphia, punctuated by rest stops at grubby roadside diners. The beef stew and rhubarb pie he had for dinner, a flight of geese at the horizon, the pink glare of the setting sun in his eyes. How is it he remembers every detail of the trip, but not why he returned in the first place?

Tsk, tsk, Dale. Ask BOB no questions, he'll tell you no lies. You'll get your answers soon enough, don't you panic… just yet, eh? Plenty of time for panic once we get this show on the road.

Cooper straightens. "Thank you, Albert. I believe that will do." He inserts a hand between his chest and Albert's arms in a surreptitious attempt to widen his personal space. Embarrassed at the physical closeness? Or embarrassed at the lack of embarrassment – at, might we say, the counterpoint to it? BOB knows which horse he's betting on.

"'That will do'?" Albert looks livid. He pulls his fingers from Cooper's coat with a jerk. "In case you missed something, I didn't just brush a bug off your sleeve, Cooper. I kept you from polishing the floor with your ass."

"Yes. You did." Cooper sounds genuinely chastened. "I haven't been getting much sleep lately. Although evidence seems to suggest that I should."

BOB watches the decision crystallize in his eyes. "Well, unless you prefer gloomy hallways for conversation, I suggest we carry on upstairs. Or am I too optimistic to assume you've finally deigned to enlighten us mortals on what happened in Twin Peaks?"

"No, I don't think you are," Cooper says earnestly. He slides a hand into his pocket, closing his fingers around the bottle of aspirin he only now remembers is there. He's been taking a lot of medication lately. He's not sure why. "Although, in all fairness, I'm also looking for a place to crash for the night. I'm afraid my driving skills might not be up to the task of getting me home at this hour."

BOB is impressed. Oh, this is too good. Who could predict that, unwrapping his freshly caught package of eccentric, life-loving public servant, he'd find a man so trained at squaring away bits of himself that he's forgotten they're even there? And for what? Propriety, and the feeble illusion of wrong and right? Poor Dale, protector of the innocent. So naïve. So misguided. So horribly wrong.

They ride the elevator in silence, Albert hovering at the door, arms crossed in front of his chest like a man standing guard. He'll never know how right he is. He can't win, though. He can never win, because BOB is gonna peel him and squeeze him like a sweet, juicy orange, leaving him utterly naked. For all the barbed wire he's strung around himself, Albert's love is as boundless and stubborn and unconditional as Dale's. And, in BOB's capable hands, as sure a ticket to a one-way trip down Misery Lane.

Upstairs, Albert points him to the sofa, shoves a package of soggy crackers into his hands. "Sit," he orders. "Eat. Talk when you're ready." He takes the armchair opposite Cooper, feet planted on the floor as if in some kind of sedentary parade rest. The tension is restrained but palpable. "And before you ask, I don't do donuts, or muffins, or grandma's extra-special home-baked pumpkin pie. So any complaints about the catering you can take outside. Got that?"

"Got it, Albert." Cooper stops himself halfway into raising a thumb, the compulsion stronger than himself. A-okay is very much not what this is. But he'shungry, and that must be a good thing. He tears off the wrapper at the corner, fumbling briefly with the plastic. The first bite is underwhelming, not so much in taste as in texture. The second bite is even worse. He finishes the rest of the crackers on autopilot, washes them down with a tepid mouthful of water. When he finally gathers the energy to talk, he's almost surprised when nothing stops him.

He gets as far as the beauty pageant, Windom, Annie, the clearing in the woods. Then waking up in his room in the Great Northern with a great big hole in his scalp and no memory of the hours in between. Albert just listens, motionless except for his hands. It's typically Albert to always be fiddling with something: a cigarette stub, a fingernail, the cuff of a sleeve. Right now he's rubbing at the strap of his wristwatch, stretching it between index finger and thumb.

"Let me get this straight," Albert says. "According to Hayward, you had a run-in with a mirror, yet you don't remember a damn thing?"

Cooper tries to answer, finds that he can't. Panic floods his mouth with something hot and sharp and metallic; either that, or he's about to lose those crackers after all. He fights to swallow it down. For a frantic few heartbeats he can't breathe, and it's like childhood terror all over again, every night waking up in cold sweat shaking off a nightmare swept back up and wrapped into one, but then it's over and he's sitting, arms on knees, rocking gently.

BOB clucks and hits the brakes harder. Oh, no, Dale, naughty boy. Don't you go spoiling this game. Not before little Albert has come out to play.

Cooper lifts his head to the press of Albert's eyes, pinched and and briefly, unguardedly afraid. It's rare to see Albert with his guard down. Rarer still to see his concern expressed in something other than degrees of sarcasm. But he knows the root of Albert's fear, because he remembers that look. Albert's wondering if Annie is going to be another Caroline. Cooper can hardly blame him. Despite the pretense of having the social skills of a sullen five-year-old, Albert can read the signs as well as anyone. Possibly better.

"I'm sorry," he says, propelled by a sudden need to drive the pain from Albert's eyes. What he should explain – what he would explain if he thought Albert would believe it – is that he thinks he understands now. Yes, he fell in love with Annie. But he fell in love with Annie.Not just with the idea of her, or as some form of atonement for what happened to Caroline – though he can't deny that was part of it too. But in the end, he made a conscious choice and so did she. Of course that's easy for him to say now, with half a continent between them and little chance of meeting again. It's true nonetheless. Love is never safe; something Annie understood. That already makes her different from Caroline. To love is to risk, and he can't change that. Not any more than he can change how risk seems to follow him around, clinging to him and to everyone sharing his path.

Like flies to meat, Dale. Like bees to a sugar-candied apple pie. BOB may be the lightning but you're the rod. The faster you run, the faster we'll set fire to the house.

"If you mean it's not very civil to show up at someone's front door only to spout nonsense at them all night: no, it's not. If you're serious –" Albert swallows, covers it up with a snort. "Don't be a moron, Coop. It doesn't suit you."

"I am serious, Albert. I may have endangered you by coming here."

"Well, I'm serious, too. What do you take me for, a cream puff? That kind of talk isn't helping anyone, least of all you, so quit it."

"I can't," he insists. "Please, Albert, it's vital you listen to me." But the source of his panic is nebulous, strange, a maddening itch crawling under his skin. Albert may not spend much time in the field, but that doesn't mean he's less aware of the risks, or is less willing to take them. So why is the thought of putting Albert in danger suddenly too much to bear? Is it just that, after Annie, he can't stand to see more good souls hurt? Or is that he knows, deep down, that any choice Albert might have had in the matter has long been taken from him; that, after all they've been through, he could never walk away?

"Coop," Albert says, still not quite gentle. "I'll listen to anything you've got to say. I just reserve the right to disagree with it. Now what is it you want to tell me that's so life-threateningly urgent?"

Life-threatening?No, no, this is all wrong. A haze of red clouds his vision, thick and sticky like freshly spilled blood. He glimpses velvet drapes swaying, a flash of teeth bared in the rictus of a scream –

Cooper thrusts himself upright, nearly tripping on the carpet beneath his feet. He should never have come here. He makes it halfway through the room before getting hold of himself, the acuteness of his panic ebbing in slow waves. Already the images are fading, like the imprint of a nightmare, haunting but distant, unreal. Maybe Albert is right. Maybe he is the one who's become unreliable, his instincts kicking in over a phantom fear. It doesn't feel true, but that doesn't mean it can't be.

"You all right?" Albert says, having circled around to flank him at the table. His tone is carefully professional, something Cooper is grateful for. "Anything you need?"

"Just talk. Please." Cooper addresses him shakily, suddenly desperate for any emotion belonging to someone other than himself. "Tell me what you're thinking right now."

Albert blinks as if that's the worst piece of gibberish he's heard in his life. "It's not what I'm thinking that damn well matters here, is it?"

"It is." This time he manages to keep his voice steady. "It matters to me." He shudders, rakes sweaty hands through his hair. The planes of Albert's face are hard and angled and somehow, in a way he's never let himself see before, beautiful. Such fierce pride in that face, the scattered lines of boundaries drawn and crossed and drawn again. His own life, too, has been an exercise in boundaries. Has he crossed too many, or not enough?

Reaching over, Albert adjusts the position of an ashtray on the table, flicks away a leftover cigarette stub. Buying time. "I'm thinking…" he begins, then trails off. BOB savors the anticipation. Albert plans to give up something so Cooper can feel safe. So gloriously noble. So pointless. "I'm thinking no one should have to go through this kind of experience twice. Not alone."

Cooper flinches. Equating Annie with Caroline again. Her ghost never really stopped haunting them. Not him, and not Albert either, who loved him even before Caroline, has never stopped loving him since. It's the kind of commitment that doesn't come without a price, and for the first time, Cooper lets himself wonder what that love is worth to him, to which lengths he's willing to go to save it. The answer shouldn't come as a shock, but it does.

"If that's true, Albert," he says, with an effort, "then if I shouldn't be alone, neither should you. I'm not the only one affected by this. I never was."

Albert looks away with a jerk, but there's no missing the pang of anguish in his eyes. That, and a kind of raw need that tears at Cooper's heart and threatens to pull it from his chest. BOB hollers; now this is his idea of a rollercoaster ride! It's what he does best: lure out people's hidden desires, those teeny-tiny truths they're afraid to admit to themselves, then polish them up all neat and shiny for the world to see. He could never have had his way with Leland if there hadn't been a spark of indecency there, a twinkle of lust in his love for Laura. Not much at first, but a little madness goes a long way. And that goes for Cooper too.

Unsteady, Cooper braces both hands on the back of a chair. Being here is all wrong, but it also feels right in a way he can't possibly define. Albert's body is a warm, solid presence at his side, real and tempting and close. Rationalizing this is wrong, too, but it's the only option. Surely part of him has always known that his capacity for love doesn't fit a standard mold, no more than his beliefs or his professional methods do. Yet in spite of that, he joined the Bureau, where rules were strict and some types of nonconformity were tolerated… shall we say, less than others. Not that it mattered. Romantic involvement was out of bounds anyway, because everyone he ended up caring about was either a colleague or a victim. So he made his choice, and kept his silence.

And then he met Caroline Earle.

The first time in years he listened to his heart and not to what others claimed as wisdom, a person he loved died.

What his heart tells him now is that Albert means more to him than is proper. Or wise. Not that he believes improper is the right word, but most of the world and the Bureau do. It's always the rest of the world that's the trouble. And Albert has worked hard to keep his private life private. Silence was never just Cooper's choice; it was Albert's as well. Or is that rationalization too?

BOB doesn't even grace that with an answer. Oh, spare us the drama, Dale. I bet he'd fuck you right now if you asked. You know you want him to. Maybe I'll ask, and save us both the pain.

In an impulse, Cooper slides a hand up Albert's face, almost backing off again at the shock in those eyes. Momentum carries him past the point of caution. He threads his fingers through close-cropped hair, watches the frantic bob of an Adam's apple, the bone-deep tightness in that jaw. Picturing Albert he feels suddenly, terrifyingly aroused, the rush of blood downwards only rivaled by the heat flooding his cheeks. His throat closes up; his chest burns with the need for contact.

"Albert – is this real?" he pleads. "I have to know." He feels as flushed as Albert looks haunted. It's not even a real question, but Albert might pull an answer out of his hat anyway. One that can serve for both of them.

"I don't –" Know what the hell you mean, Albert might have said, but instead he breathes out, pinches the bridge of his nose. "Cooper, when a person's body reacts before their mind does, I'd venture something is real." He rattles off the reply like he would an autopsy report, rushed and blunt and with an utter disregard for human emotion. In this case his own. Oh. Oh, god, of course Albert didn't miss that particular clue. "In my experience, that is. I don't pretend to be in any way a representative specimen, and I presume you aren't either, which makes the value of this statement basically nil."

"Your judgment always has value," Cooper says faintly, as if that could mend something. He has gone too far, has already exposed Albert past the point of safe return.

"I know my judgment has value, Cooper. If doubted that, I'd have applied for a job at the local Wal-Mart selling lawn chairs instead of digging for clues people's lives depend on. Frankly it's your judgment I'm worried about." Albert's mouth tightens, and Cooper can see the conflict there, raw and fresh and roiling just below the surface. "I'm serious, Coop. I don't know what this business with Windom did to you, but I know enough to see you need help. Preferably from a professional."

"But I have help." His voice sounds hollow in his own ears, because of course Albert is right. He does need help. The kind of help he has no right to ask Albert to give. Or does he?

"Is that right?" Albert's voice is harsh, breathless. "From what army?"

"Just this one," he says, and closes the distance.

There's no subtlety in the embrace, no conscious thought apart from the need for closeness. They fit together in a way Cooper hadn't thought possible, his own legs wedged between Albert's longer ones, one hip pressed up against the chair. Albert's arms are stiff but melting slowly, his breathing shallow and way too audible for his dignity to remain intact. It's all so perfect BOB could just curl up and weep, if he wasn't too busy laughing his ass off.

Albert breaks the contact first, fingers digging into the base of Cooper's shoulders.

"I'm sorry." Cooper swallows. His throat feels parched, and he's shivering like he is running a fever. His hand is still on Albert's hip. For some reason neither of them is pulling away. "I shouldn't have assumed…"

"Damn right you shouldn't," Albert says, but it sounds raw, unconvinced.

"I never even asked if you're seeing anyone." Open question, posed in abject innocence. Oh, Dale, Dale. BOB couldn't do this better if he tried.

Albert is wearing the look of a man who just realized that struggling against the current will only make him drown faster. "You don't seriously think even I'd be sadistic enough to expose a decent person to the kind of pandemonium that living with–" He cuts himself off. He was going to say with me, Cooper knows. "– with someone in my line of work is bound to be?"

Was that an answer, or just another question? Cooper shrugs helplessly. The sensation of Albert's palm on his cheek trickles through as if from a great distance.

"Did you know?" he asks. He can see Albert try to sort out what the question refers to. That he's attracted to Albert? That he's capable of falling in love with men? That he knew how Albert felt but resolved never to act on the knowledge?

"I've wondered," Albert says, dodging the ambiguity. "I didn't know." Deep breath. "Hell, I didn't even know if you knew."

"That I'd be open to sharing a bed with you if the occasion arose?"

"That you were…" Albert's hand at his cheekbone is withdrawn with a jerk. "Fuck it, Cooper. Whatever this is, you're not –" Beat. "You're not gay. Are you?"

"I'm not," Cooper says. Strange. He's never heard Albert use the word 'gay' before, or refer to himself as such. But it's self-evident. Albert wouldn't date a woman when forced to at gunpoint. And Cooper knows for a fact there have been men, although he never got to meet any of them.

"But you're not –" Albert shakes his head, once, as if caught in an argument with himself. Such a simple word, straight. And yet he can't say it.

"No," Cooper says. "I don't think I am either."

"Caroline Earle?" Albert's clutching at straws now. "Annie Blackburn?"

"Not all love is exclusive, Albert. And two people is hardly a statistic."

Albert snorts, but for once no retort follows.

Man of few words, eh? BOB's willing to bet he's a screamer in bed. It's always the surly types that turn out to be – and if not, well, BOB will just have to find out how to make him. There's a basement, right? If they do it nice and proper, the neighbors won't even hear a peep.

Cooper swipes a hand across his eyes, is startled to encounter the gummy trail of tears. He can't for the life of him name the source of his distress, only that it feels fitting somehow. For Annie. For Caroline, for Windom. For Laura. For every kind soul who's ever been spirited away from the light. For Albert, who is giving in even now, pulling Cooper close and breathing out against the corner of his mouth.

"Coop," he says, hoarse. "It's okay. God help me if this isn't the worst call I've made in years, but –"

"I know," Cooper says. "'But'. Will that be enough, you think?"

"Not a clue," Albert says, but his thumb doesn't stop its path downwards across Cooper's spine.

Morning arrives furtively, with more rain and the scratch of unfamiliar fabric against his skin. Cooper wakes with a jolt, struggling to dig his way up from the sheets and through the sticky residue of nightmare. He flops onto his stomach to gasp into the pillow. In the dream, he was wrapping slick plastic petals around a dead girl's face, a spiderweb of dried blood cracking under his fingers.

Shakily, he sits up and untangles himself from the bedclothes. Dawn is still some time away, so he sits in the dark for a moment, warming his toes against the floorboards and listening to the clatter of rain on the roof. The room smells faintly of washing powder and damp. His heartbeat evens out along with his breathing.

After a few minutes, he pads across the floor to his suitcase in the corner, extricating his toothbrush and his last set of clean clothes. Somehow all of this made more sense yesterday, letting himself be talked into using the bedroom and taking Albert's retreat to the sofa in stride. Now he feels guilty for not protesting. Why should it be Albert making concessions? As precedents go, this was not his best call.

Oh, no, no, no, Dale, BOB croons into the silence; as precedents go, you got it just right. Your gruff little lovebird ain't gonna whistle for long. Better clip his wings before he thinks he can fly.

A burst of sleet hammers at the window, and suddenly even Albert's spacious bedroom feels stifling. Cooper retreats to the hallway and onwards into the kitchen, distracts himself by brushing his teeth over the sink. Under other circumstances, the bathroom sink would do fine. But Albert's bathroom is tiny and windowless and far too sterile for comfort right now. The kitchen at least looks inhabited, even if the only signs are a folded magazine and a few dirty coffee cups lined up on the Formica. It also has windows aplenty. Cooper wonders if Albert cooks here in the evenings, imagines him stirring the pots and pans as the sunset paints the skyline golden. It doesn't even seem all that implausible.

Thoughts of dinner lead to thoughts of breakfast, which his stomach reacts to with a half-hearted rumble. He briefly considers preparing them something, but that would require rummaging through Albert's kitchen; a step he isn't quite ready to take. Instead he drifts to the living room to indulge in a different kind of luxury. The one of watching Albert sleep.

Cooper is surprised by how serene he looks, even with his neck wrenched in an awkward angle and one arm trapped beneath his chest. He's not exactly snoring – Albert would be irate at the mere suggestion of the word – but still, breathing very audibly through his mouth. Cooper studies the calf poking out from underneath the blankets. What few people know is that Albert works out studiously, with total dedication and not a scrap of pleasure. Cooper suspects it's at least part retribution for the smoking: Albert's private little bargain with whatever deity doles out lung cancers these days. A few more years of life in exchange for three hours a week on the treadmill. He doesn't really think Albert believes it.

Albert wakes mid-breath, groans and rolls over onto his back. He does a double-take at the sight of Cooper. But it's hard to tell if the reason is relief or apprehension, or just surprise that sleep didn't miraculously erase whatever passed between them last night.

"I wanted to make breakfast," Cooper blurts, latching onto the first thought that presents itself. His stomach stresses the point with a growl.

"Well, good luck with that." Albert grinds a fist into an eye socket, working up a sardonic half-smile. "I don't do breakfast as a rule. But you're welcome to try."

"Albert, breakfast is the most vital meal of the day."

"I'm sorry, I hadn't taken you for the type who lets himself be swindled by Cheerios commercials. I stand corrected." Albert shifts and swings his legs to the floor. "Anyway, there's toast and eggs. No oatmeal or cereal or freshly squeezed juice or whatever it is that appeals to you. But an omelet I can manage." He presses his knuckles into the pillows to stand, freezes with a grimace. "Fuck." A low growl. "This is fucking ridiculous."

There's a small chance he's referring to their conversation, but given the crudeness of the profanity Cooper doesn't think so. His eyes drift to the blanket, still bunched up conspicuously at Albert's waist. Ah. Make that no chance at all.

"Most couples would find nothing ridiculous about morning sex." The second the words are out, he wants to take them back. Of all the descriptions that might fit them right now, 'couple' is both presumptuous and painfully imprecise. As for the sex, as they say, it takes two to tango.

Albert's cheeks have colored a luminous scarlet. For a moment Cooper expects rage or at least protest, but the reply is almost mournful. "Cooper… is everything simple for you?"

Cooper shakes his head. Dawn has started to filter through the clouds, wrapping the apartment in a pale grey light. Of course the answer is no. These days nothing feels simple anymore, not even the things that used to. What he wants to say is that nothing to do with love or longing or free choice has ever been simple, nor should it be. What he ends up saying is only what Albert told him last night. "Albert… It's okay." He wills himself to believe it, to grasp the reality of this. The ache in his chest at Albert's hesitation feels real enough; so does the dull throb of his own erection against his stomach. He reaches for his pyjama bottoms, fumble with the tied cotton cord at his waist.

BOB drinks in the chaos brewing inside him: a tablespoon of self-doubt, a cup of terror; shake and sweeten with sprinkles of heartbreak. A cocktail fit for a king.

"You know there's a perfectly adequate psychological term for this, don't you?" Albert says. "It's called rebound sex." His voice has taken on an aggressive edge.

Cooper gropes for an answer, comes up short. BOB nudges gleefully, triggering a fresh wave of desire, hot and wet and sticky like spilled gasoline. Cooper reels under the onslaught. For a moment, all he can think of are fingers shredding skin, a knee pressed into the small of a back, then the mad surge of pleasure as he worms and thrusts his way into flesh.

"Albert," Cooper says. He feels adrift, unsteady. Albert is the crux, the key he needs to find himself. He can't afford to let this slip. "We could have shared the bed last night."

Albert's expression softens. "There'll be other nights," he says, then blinks, as if taken aback by what he just said. But Cooper can see the truth in his eyes: yes, they say, there will be other nights, nights and days and all the stray hours in between. It's as close to a promise as he can expect Albert to make. It's already more than he hoped for. He puts a cautious hand on Albert's thigh, burrows his fingers into the blanket.

He feels almost triumphant tugging down.

Later, he wonders when the term 'couple' did start to apply. Was making love already past that point? For himself, he thinks it was. Even that first time, which wasn't in any way proper or dignified, just two people rushing through the motions like a pair of kids desperate to finish, to prove they could do this and remain whole. He feels slightly less sure about Albert, who seemed too proficient not to have done it before: a quick lay to take the edge off, no strings attached. But that's unfair. Albert would never take this leap of faith if he wasn't willing to see it through to the end. So why, as weeks pass, are they still not treating this as a relationship but as some kind of furtive affair?

He's all too aware the fault might be his. He hasn't been himself since Twin Peaks. At first he believed the cause was grief, that the wounds would heal in time and the pieces click back into place. But he was wrong. He feels like he's caught in a tide that keeps dragging him down, waiting for the right moment to suck him under. Some days it's all he can do just to breathe.

It starts with brief snatches of moments. The third night he spends with Albert, he jerks awake on the bathroom floor, hands clutching at the tiles and his fingertips scraped raw. A few mornings later he finds himself bent over the table, lovingly polishing the kitchen knives.

Those first few times he's alone when it happens. But the episodes grow more frequent, more difficult to hide. Finally admitted back to work, he bursts out laughing at a murder scene, whooping manically over the broken body with tears streaming down his cheeks. He allows a baffled Gordon to send him back home, only to have Albert find him sobbing on the balcony, a shredded pack of condoms between his fingers.

Albert worries, of course, with an intensity that manifests itself in a blistering temper and a dogged search for explanations. But none of them ring true. Albert is talking depression, anxiety, post-traumatic shock, the ugly aftermath of whatever happened between him and Windom. Cooper tries to listen, but it all seems theoretical; applicable to others perhaps, but not him. Still, it hurts him to see Albert afraid. Not that Albert would admit to the sentiment. Instead he channels it into a fierce protectiveness which leaves Cooper feeling both touched and vaguely guilty. They've never discussed it, but he knows very well how Albert lives in fear of losing him, not through madness or murder but through something as banal, and as human, as a change of heart. There are still no witnesses to this thing between them. Cooper could walk away tomorrow, and no one would even know. That isn't right either. God knows Albert is entitled to some allies in this fight.

Does it count as coming out if there's not actually someone to come out to? Cooper ponders the question for some time. He fell in love only twice before as an adult. Both times, hardly anyone knew. With Caroline, the silence was voluntary and, until her death, absolute. And while his feelings for Annie weren't exactly a secret, they never did manage to escape the strange bubble of reality which was his life in Twin Peaks. When it comes down to picking names, he wouldn't know where to start.

Albert, it seems, has done better for himself. He has a few close friends outside the Bureau, who gather occasionally for a night in town. What finally moves Cooper to join them isn't that Albert asked but that he didn't; as if Cooper is a liability, as if the mere attempt to share a social life could break them. The only way to ban that thought is by proving it wrong.

The proof of the pudding, eh? BOB guffaws, drags phantom fingernails across the inside of Dale's skin. No harm in making the boy squirm a bit – not when they're so close to the finish line. So, poor clueless Albert ain't as clueless as we thought; good for him. No harm done, though. BOB will have to move faster, but who's he to complain? The big reveal's a'comin', and Dale will be eating his pudding soon enough: a blood-red one, just as juicy and sticky and fresh as Norma's finest cherry pie.

The date for the dinner is set, the venue picked. If Cooper feels unsettled, it helps that Albert does too, and likely for better reasons. It's not Cooper exposing himself to his friends, after all.

They meet in a slightly dingy part of town, in a place that looks decrepit from the outside but is reputed to serve phenomenal sushi. Cooper sits and chews his rice self-consciously, absorbing the ebb and flow of the conversation. By consensus, work is off-limits as a topic. But everything else, from politics to the latest rage in obscure electronic music, is debated and dissected without pity or pause, a frantic back-and-forth of pros and cons that is making Cooper's head spin.

He is still processing the fact that no one had to be explained who he was. Albert and him being an item was clearly news, but apart from that, he suspects Dale Bartholomew Cooper must have been a regular topic at these gatherings. The thought only sharpens his unease. He already knows he could never match Albert's openness to these people, whose day-to-day lives have nothing in common with their own. Jeff teaches political history, Eli was in med school with Albert and now works as a neurologist, Sue and Randy – short for Randolph – own a small art gallery on the outskirts of town. They're all intense, serious, sharp-tongued but deeply decent, the kind of friends that who must have been gathered carefully over the course of a lifetime. All brutally honest and entirely loyal. Which makes it even harder to stomach the suspicion in their eyes.

"So, Dale." Cooper's head snaps up. It takes him a moment to place the voice as Eli's: the least cynical of the batch, thirty-ish, with a sharp mind and a thirst for conversation. "You've moved in with Albert, right? Please tell me he's gotten rid of that god-awful collection of ABBA records by now."

It's just small talk, aimed at drawing Cooper out. But then Albert smiles into his glass, a private smile that's there and gone in an instant. That's when he knows. They have history. More than history: they've slept together, in Albert's bed, in Albert's home. It hits him like a punch in the gut, sends the acrid taste of jealousy creeping up his throat. The feeling is utterly alien to him, but he can't help it, like he can't help but notice how good-looking Eli is, or keep himself from seeing the need in his eyes.

You should ask for a threesome; he ain't gonna say no.

Was that thought his? It has to be. Cooper downs his wine in one gulp, feeling the flush spread across his cheeks. The rest of the night he is aware of the others' stares like needles in his skull. They do suspect him. He doesn't know of what, but he has the growing suspicion they must be right.

Albert is tight-lipped and sullen on the drive home. Cooper keeps expecting him to say something scathing, even if it's just a grumbled 'That went well', but nothing comes. It seems it's up to him to evaluate the evening.

"You and Eli." Cooper plunges in before he can lose the courage. He still can't say it without feeling faint. "How long were you together?"

Albert makes no pretense of being surprised by the insight. "Couple of months," he says brusquely, eyes glued to the road. "Just long enough for me to realize it was a mistake."


Pause, breath, swallow. "'Cause I was really screwing him because he reminded me of you."

"Oh." Cooper is momentarily speechless. Not because of the language, which is pure Albert: the more emotionally invested, the more he tends to resort to obscenity. But by the depth of feeling behind the words. "He still loves you."

"I'm aware of that," Albert says, irritation sharpening his tone. "I also know the guy's not a pushover. He's smart enough not to let it cloud his judgment. Contrary to popular belief, it's not uncalled-for to be in love and still keep your wits about you, you know."

"Was that how you felt all those years, loving me?"

Albert stiffens. "God damn it, Cooper –" It was intended as a threat, Cooper guesses, but it comes out dangerously like a plea.

"He'd sleep with you if you asked. With us," Cooper blurts. Albert's throat works furiously, and Cooper bites down on a rush of guilt. "I'm sorry," he mutters. "I don't know why I said that." But the words go stale in his mouth. Some dark, buried, perverted piece of him is quaking with need at the thought, and he can no more quench the craving than he can stop the earth from spinning.

You'd love to fuck us, wouldn't you, Albert? You fucking me with Eli on top, pounding my ass like there's no tomorrow, and the three of us screaming like bitches when we come...

Cooper groans and presses his fingernails into the soft flesh of his palms. But the sting doesn't stop the feeling, or the words crowding each other on the tip of his tongue.

"Cooper?" Albert says, suddenly alarmed. They've stopped at a traffic light; the glare pounds red and relentless though his closed eyelids. "Coop. Hey. You still with me here?"

"They don't believe what we have is real," Cooper pants, struggling to blink away the shimmering velvet haze. He feels dizzy; his pulse is roaring in his ears. "You saw it too, didn't you? They were all thinking it. At first I thought they were worried about my motivations; that maybe to them I'm just a straight man too confused to know love from gratitude, or loneliness from desire –"

"I don't think that's what they –" Albert begins, then cuts himself off, because yes, that's exactly what he's been worrying about. Albert has always been the worst liar. "Okay," he recovers. "I'll admit Jeff is a sarcastic bastard on the best of days, and Eli for obvious reasons is not without prejudice, but they'll warm up to you. And Sue and Randy liked you well enough. They're good people, Coop, all of them. Not necessarily nice people, by any normal meaning of the word, but…" He lets the words trail off when the light turns to green.

Cooper clenches his teeth as the car surges forward. It's not that Albert is particularly fond of speed or driving, let alone of cars themselves. It's just his standard policy to insist on coaxing the most out of any piece of technology, be it an engine or the latest forensical technique. "Sue and Randy are nice," he replies mechanically.

Very nice, that inner voice whispers, and pretty too. Sue especially. I'll bet she wouldn't refuse a good… Oh, dear god, no. There's no excuse for even going there.

Ah, ah, BOB clucks. Don't be a spoilsport now, Dale. If we're talking taste, I gotta say, yours is flawless. And they have a little girl, don't they? Girl and boy, even. Albert, Eli, Sue and the kids: oh, my, are we gonna have a ball.

That night, Cooper dreams of sticky sheets and squealing children; of soft, spongy limbs parting under his touch. He wakes up sickened but rock hard, tears mingling with sweat on the pillow. Beside him, Albert's snoring gently. He barely makes it to the shower in time to jerk off.

For the next few days Cooper feels like a ghost roaming the house: wild-eyed, edgy, insubstantial. But the week turns out uneventful. Still officially on sick leave, he takes to filling the days with long walks and gradually moving his belongings from his own place to Albert's. There was never a question that he'd be living with Albert and not vice versa. Albert at least has carved out a home for himself; for Cooper, an apartment was never more than a clean place to live. When he isn't out on the streets he reads, or makes dinner, or simply sits and tries to meditate until Albert comes home from work. By the end of the week, he could almost fool himself into thinking he's doing well.

BOB is patient, though. He's had decades of practice with Leland, squeezing and nudging the pieces into place. How puny is another week compared to that? The trap will snap shut soon enough, and then it's off-stage with you, Dale, and don't forget to take a bow.

The sweetest piece of irony is that it's Albert who changes the game.

"Diane asked about us."

"Us?" Cooper frowns. It's five to eight in the evening; Albert has just arrived home, has barely gotten rid of his jacket and tie. This is usually not when they have deep conversations. He feels cornered, thrown off-balance by the flow of events.

"What are you," Albert says, "Echo Cave?" He finishes hanging up his vest, kisses Cooper on the mouth, but the gesture feels rushed, distracted. "Yeah, us. And I'm pretty sure she meant it as in: you and me, fucking. Don't ask me how she knows. I'd say female intuition, but then I don't have a clue what that even means."

Albert's tone is acerbic, but there's something faintly hopeful in his eyes. Which makes sense, Cooper thinks. Albert never made many friends at the Bureau, but he's fiercely protective about the ones he does have. And there are few beliefs Albert holds more sacred than honesty. He may not be keen on telling the world about him and Cooper, but telling the world and telling an individual are two different things. Cooper understands. He knows the weight of that kind of silence.

That night in bed, in a rush of post-coital fearlessness, he says it. "Diane and Denise." His voice sounds muffled in the crook of Albert's neck. "How would you feel if we asked them over for dinner?"

Albert's face radiates a deep suspicion that Cooper is either pulling his leg or delirious. Then his eyebrows rise. "You're serious."

"Yes," Cooper says. But already the courage is beginning to feel less like that and more like plain insanity. He pushes on anyway, past the unease in his stomach and the rising taste of panic in his mouth. "I thought – if we're going to make this official, we might as well do it properly. Diane should be there, of course. But I also feel Denise deserves to know."

The grin filling Albert's face is slow and tenuous and, for once, free of mockery.

The grin on Cooper's, safely hidden in the pillow, is pure BOB.

The evening in question, Cooper is shaky, on edge, strung so high on caffeine that he can barely see straight. He blames the nightmares, which have returned with a vengeance. He spent last night roaming a maze of mirrors dripping with blood, his own face leering back at him from a myriad of twisted angles. It's just a dream, he told himself, and wrapped tight in Albert's arms he could almost believe it. But deep down he knows better. Something is crouching in the shadows. It's just waiting to pounce until he turns his back.

"It can never be as bad as you're thinking," Albert says, mistaking his tension for nerves. He's peeling the potatoes, knife in hand, steadily scraping steel across skin. "Look at it this way. They're not your parents, sisters, or aunts, so they don't own any part of you. You don't need to make any grand announcements, because they already know. And Denise is probably the least judgmental person on earth when it comes to matters like these. As coming out goes, few of us have it that easy. You're gonna be fine. Now try and take your mind off things, before you have a coronary." Unexpectedly, he hands Cooper the potato knife.

Cooper breathes shakily, cradling the hilt between his fingers. It's just a tool, his mind insists, but his body is screaming of danger, and he can't seem to shake the echo of weeping, the sticky drip-drip-drip of blood on tiles. The rush of adrenalin hits sudden and hard, pouring into him with all the violence of a flash flood.

He blinks back a sudden vision of Albert writhing underneath him, the knife-tip kissing jagged skin.

He'd give anything not to have to look down at the knife.

Anything is not nearly enough.

It's there. In the glint of steel. A face he would recognize everywhere. A face with the crooked grin of a predator, plastered over his own. A face which changes everything. Which makes everything – oh, god, no – crystal clear.

The world stops.

The knife clatters onto the tabletop.

"Bathroom," he gasps, exhausting what little breath he had left. Suddenly he's almost certain he's about to be sick.

He slams the door behind him, steadies himself against the sink. The hard edge of the porcelain is cool against his palms, a tiny island of stability to anchor himself by. When he lifts his head, there's no doubt in his mind as to what he'll see.

BOB grins back from the mirror with all the warmth he can muster – the warmth of a flickering, slow-roasting flame.

This can't be true. He wants to throw up, get rid of the evil gestating inside him. BOB stops him before he can get a finger down his throat. He runs cold water from the tap, soaks his face and the throbbing pulse at his wrists. Slowly, methodically, he pulls himself back together, drawing on every scrap of mental discipline he's gathered. Albert is out there. Most likely he's driving himself up the wall by now for not knowing what just happened. If there's one thing Albert loathes, it's feeling useless. Cooper needs to warn him, to tell him the truth…

BOB cackles. And what truth would that be? Possession as an excuse for getting cold feet? Ah, Dale, Dale – you know as well as I what a sane man's reaction would be. No, you've brought me this far, and I'm grateful, but now it's time for BOB to take the wheel. If you're good, you can have the back seat. If not, well, only one driver needed for this baby. Take a wild guess who it's gonna be.

Cooper groans helplessly, the truth of it catching him like wildfire, like a match has been lit inside him and now he's blazing away. BOB is right. He could try to tell Albert, but given the circumstances, it would only sound like panic, or madness. Neither are acceptable. And, God help him, there isn't any other option he can see.

Or maybe there is one. Is there? For a brief, breathless moment he feels the world slide out from under him: what if his feelings for Albert aren't his own? But, no, no. He can't allow himself to believe he was sullied this deeply, this fast. Once he believes that, it's over. The lust may be BOB's, but the warmth, the tenderness, those have to be his own. If he holds that thought, there's still a chance he can beat this. They can beat this. Albert may be capable of pettiness and spite, but he's also capable of a depth of love few people can wield and remain sane. If some people are rocks, Albert is a mountain. There's no one he'd rather have at his side.

"Coop? You okay in there?" Albert's timing is either terrible or uncannily perfect. Cooper sags, caught halfway between dread and relief.

"I'm here," he says faintly. Not I'm fine. There won't be any lies for as long as he can help it. "You can come in if you want." Please come in. Please get out. Save yourself. Help me. He doesn't even know what it is he'd ask, even if BOB would let him.

The handle turns and the door opens, deliberately slowly. Trust Albert to continue to value his privacy, even at a moment when he doubts he has any left. Their eyes meet in the mirror, but there's no suspicion, nothing but genuine alarm. Now he knows the truth, Cooper doesn't understand how Albert can look at him and not see BOB. How the illusion can be so obscenely perfect.

Smoke and mirrors, Dale, BOB chants. The best illusions are the ones people create for themselves. He'll never see you as anything but perfect. You and I both know why.

Cooper feels himself spasm, feels his muscles contract with the chaos roiling inside him. He is dimly aware of an arm around his waist, a hand keeping his head down as he retches, finally, bringing up liquid fire with ragged heaves.

"We're not doing this," Albert is saying. "You're in no state. I'll ring Diane, tell her the dinner's off."

Yes, Cooper thinks, call it off, keep them safe, but "No," BOB says, "I'll be fine. I just need a moment. Please, Albert, I need this evening. We both do." The voice is nearly perfect, down to the stubborn half-smile, and Cooper can see Albert caving, can see him shoulder past the doubt and the fear, just like he's done time and again these past weeks. Not for BOB – for Cooper. That insight hits him only now. All this time BOB has been playing them, preparing them for this very moment, leading them on like fools; like those small, clueless children.

Cooper tangles his fingers into Albert's shirt, tries to hold back the encroaching darkness. He'll make BOB fight for every inch. He feels Albert's arms come up around him, but the sensation is distant, stripped of comfort. BOB is kicking down the doors, and there's no way to stop it. He knows he has only seconds left.

"The owls are coming," he breathes. "I love you. Don't believe another word I say." It's is all he gets out before the tide drags him under.

If Albert's eyes show a glint of realization, he masks it too quickly for BOB to see.

Poor, pathetic, poker-faced Albert: he'll have no defense until it's too late. Cooper has shown him a piece of heaven, and now, as fairy-tales go, he'll follow Cooper straight down the drain. There's no doubt in BOB's mind. It's how these things roll. There is, after all, no surer road to ruin than through that crazy little thing called love.

That's right, Cooper thinks, briefly giddy with hope, before the Lodge swallows him whole.