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by astolat

The Palmer case and the Earle case were both closed eventually, and he was summoned back to the Bureau. He had coffee with Audrey one last time, the morning of his departure from Twin Peaks.

"I'm applying after all," Audrey said, meaning college.

"I'm glad to hear it," he said. "Where are you considering?"

"I'm thinking about the University of Virginia," Audrey said. "Also Georgetown. Are either of those near Quantico?" She smiled up at the passing waitress. "Jean, could I have some more coffee, please."

"Those are both excellent schools," he said, and ignored the vague sensation of trying to outrun an oncoming train.

Audrey wrote him brief notes all that next year. They arrived in small envelopes with no return address and no signature, faintly scented with her perfume and cuttings of Douglas firs. Today I went to the waterfall pool. It's really too early to swim but I went in anyway. There was no one else around, and I couldn't hear myself breathe or think, the water was so loud. I had to get out too soon because I was cold. Are you ever lonely?

She never spoke of practicalities, of college applications or plans. He wrote her back less frequently, but longer letters. My most recent case, which as it is ongoing I cannot discuss in detail, took me to Park City, Kentucky, via the Bowling Green-Warren County Regional Airport: a small but welcoming facility with friendly personnel and a cafe with drinkable coffee and a more than adequate blueberry pie. I highly recommend regional airports for travel purposes. While I appreciate the efficiency of our major hubs, I find that the charm of air travel is lost to the necessities of herding sheer quantities of people.

After the conclusion of my investigation there I had occasion to visit the famous cave system nearby, which I found at once beautiful and terrible. The chambers have been given colorful and deceptively humanized names, such as the Chandelier Room, which attempt to mask the ultimately alien nature of this subterranean world. It is not for us or of us.

Yet even as I passed onward through the vast halls, past the heaving bulges of the walls of the Drapery Room and the phosphorescent stalagmites jutting beside the trail, I had the sensation, a disturbing one, of being at home. The sensation was so intense that it distracted me into a state very nearly like a trance. I did not notice anything further on the tour—the time simply vanished. I had cause to regret that distraction a great deal, as a member of our group somehow became separated from the rest of us and was lost in the caves. Despite an extensive search, we were not able to find any trace of her.

He was out of town on another case in August. In mid-September he noticed that the notes had stopped. A quick telephone call to Harry made sure nothing unusual had happened in Twin Peaks. He told himself he was pleased. Audrey had begun college and the world had opened for her, as for many a young man or woman trapped and aching in a childhood they had outgrown. She had found what she needed.

Later that day, someone smashed the mirrors in the men's bathroom on the third floor near his office. The security cameras had temporarily been switched off. An investigation failed to uncover any concrete evidence. The broken glass was removed. The mirrors were replaced four and a half weeks later, after several requisition orders.

In November, he overheard the secretary down the hall asking, "Are you lost?"

"No," Audrey said, and he jerked up from the report he was writing. "I'm looking for Agent Cooper."

She came around his door. She hadn't changed very much in the space of a year. She was still slim and beautiful, her hair primly close-cropped around her face, and she was wearing a skirt suit, black and neat, with low heels and an intern's badge clipped to the lapel. He was abruptly conscious that he'd taken off his jacket, and his shirtsleeves were rolled up. Her eyes were still gleaming and green.

They had coffee in the commissary together. She was studying political science and psychology. She'd talked her way into an internship with the prosecutorial division. She'd be there three times a week, after classes. She was taking shooting lessons and martial arts. He refused to allow himself to look up the Bureau regulations on intra-office relationships. She was still a student, and he was an agent, and now effectively in a supervisory position.

On Friday, his colleague Gil Warner came by trying to unload a pair of tickets to the symphony that weekend that he wasn't going to be able to use. "My wife wants to go skydiving," he said glumly.

"Ouch," Cooper said.

"You can have just one if you want."

"I'll take them both," Cooper said, and belatedly realized that he had two symphony tickets in his hand just as Audrey came around to visit him again. She saw the tickets and looked at him. He said, "A friend wasn't going to be able to use them—" and somehow he was taking Audrey to the symphony, and the Friday after that, she came by with tickets to a new exhibit on Tibetan culture at the Smithsonian, and just like that it had become a routine.

She was living in the dormitories. He picked her up and dropped her off at the front door. She never suggested his coming up, or her coming to his apartment. He never kissed her. "It is satisfying to know, Diane, that a respectful friendship, plain and simple, is still possible between a man and a woman," he told his tape recorder, at three AM on Sunday night, while he couldn't fall asleep.

On a case outside Richardson, Texas, he was shot twice, once in the trunk, where it hit the vest, and once in the leg. The leg shot nicked an artery, and he was barely able to manage an improvised tourniquet out of his tie and a branch broken off a nearby Shumard Red Oak before losing consciousness. He woke groggily in the hospital, hearing Audrey say outside, "I'm his fiancée."

She was wearing a small plain diamond ring on her finger when she managed her way into the room, and she smiled at him conspiratorially. Then she spent the next three days at his bedside, in the hospital and then in the hotel room, curled up in a chair with a loaded pistol in reach and a couple of textbooks she was studying for her final exams.

They flew back to DC together after he'd wrapped up the case. She fell asleep on his shoulder. "Would your wife like a drink?" the stewardess asked him softly, as they came by with the trolley.

"Coffee, please," Audrey said sleepily.

"For both of us," he said. He felt weightless, as though he'd stopped trying to hold back the tide.

He bought another ring that Monday, and gave it to her on Sunday. They agreed they would be married in a civil ceremony, after the holidays. It would be witnessed by two of her friends from school and Gordon and Albert, who both looked at him dubiously when he asked.

"Well, Coop, she's a beautiful girl," Gordon said.

Albert, characteristically, said, "I'm not entirely certain how friendship translates into assisting you into matrimony with a woman who, before the age of twenty, has been kidnapped twice, nearly murdered three times, involved herself in four separate criminal investigations, followed you across the country, and carried out a dedicated quasi-military campaign designed to achieve your capture. Are you out of your mind?"

"Albert," Cooper said, "there's an old Buddhist saying—"

"Three monks look backward at the moon and a cowbell rings?" Albert said sarcastically. "Never mind. It's your funeral."

There wasn't a formal honeymoon, but they went back to Twin Peaks for the holidays. Audrey was on break and he had a week of vacation time. They arrived amidst a pitched battle between some guests from the touring live Christmas pageant, who wanted to tie up their reindeer on the front lawn, and the ice sculpture contestants: the reindeer were licking the sculptures.

Christmas dinner was as excruciating as he could have anticipated, but Audrey's ankle pressed against his beneath the table and silently promised eventual relief. Benjamin Horne scowled and chain-smoked cigars; Jerry Horne kept up a flow of unpleasantly leering jokes. Johnny, sitting across from Cooper, refused to look at him except to peek between his fingers. After dinner Johnny wrapped both his hands around Audrey's arm and said, "No, no, no, no, no," when they were leaving to go to their room.

"It's all right, Johnny," Audrey said. Johnny moaned, but he let her go.

They were staying in his old room. "I'm going to wash up," he told her, and went into the bathroom. He brushed his teeth, and then he took the twine and the gag and the switchblade out of his toiletries bag. "No," he said, to his reflection. "No. Not Audrey. Please." Bob grinned at him out of the mirror.

He picked up the supplies and opened the bathroom door and stepped out. "Audrey?" he said. The bee-sting pain in his arm took him by surprise. His legs went limp under him, and he dropped first to his knees, then over onto his side. The ball of twine rolled away. Audrey was kneeling down beside him. "Audrey," he said, slurring. "Shoot me. My gun—"

"It's all right," she said, and he felt the handcuffs snapping around his wrists as he slipped under.

He woke up on the bed, in the dark. There were candles lit all around the room, flickering. He was handcuffed and tied to the bed in nothing but his pajama bottoms. Audrey was painting a design on his chest, a Tibetan mandala. It burned. "You fucking whore," he said. "I'm going to squeeze the life out of you with my bare hands."

"Oh, you sweet talker," Audrey said. She was wearing jeans and a plain snug black turtleneck. There was a knock on the door.

"What're you going to tell them? You and Dale like it frisky?" he said.

She got up and went to the door and cracked it just a little. He strained at the ropes while her back was turned. Then she came back with Donna Hayward and James Hurley.

"Audrey," Cooper managed to say, "the left arm, loose—"

She laid her hand on his forehead. "I'll take care of it." He snarled and tried to bite her.

"I've got it," Hurley said, weak, pathetic, milquetoast loser; Laura hadn't been able to plant any real hooks into him. The cord around Cooper's wrist tightened.

It was like swimming upstream against a thick, dark, fast-moving current, with no chance to breathe. He didn't remember everything, only Audrey and Donna and James chanting in rounds; the distant clanging of a bell; cold air and the candle flames jumping and stuttering.

After a while, he started being able to snatch the occasional breath, to whisper a few words along with them, before he was screaming curses again. They kept it up without faltering, each of them holding a tall candle burning slowly down, and then he could manage a whole round, and then at last he was chanting with them, his voice hoarse and tired, but still going. Audrey touched his wrist, questioningly, and he was strong enough to shake his head when Bob tried to make him nod.

He started a new chant, something he remembered distantly from a prayer scroll in a museum exhibit, and the three of them picked up the words. He was still swimming, but the water was growing clear, widening out into a smooth lake, transparent down to the powdery sand.

He woke in bed, untied and free, and Audrey was curled up in the circle of his arm, her head pillowed on his shoulder. James was awkwardly asleep in the armchair, and Donna was napping with a pillow and blanket on the floor.

"Dale," Audrey said softly.

"Yes," he said, and kissed her.

= End =

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