oceangazer_ff (oceangazer_ff) wrote,
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fic: The Price of Survival 1/3

Title: The Price of Survival
Author: ocean gazer
Fandom: Walker, Texas Ranger
Season: six, using the DVD numbering system
Spoilers: for "Survival"...this story is an alternate ending to that episode
Pairing: Alex/female friendship, Alex/Walker canon relationship
Summary: What if Walker didn't arrive in time to save Alex from the Trammel brothers?
Category: AU, hurt/comfort, angst, major Alex-whump
Rating/Warning: Adults only, for rape, violence, and dark content. The descriptions aren't extremely explicit, but there's some definite intensity to them, so proceed with caution if rape is one of your squicks.
Archive: AO3, Passion and Perfection. Anyone else, please ask first.
Disclaimers: I think we all know I don't own these characters; I'm just borrowing them for a little while. They belong to Norris Brothers Entertainment, the Ruddy Greif Company, Top Kick Productions, CBS Productions, and various others. This story is writing practice and experimentation for me, and I've made no money from it.
Author's Note: So, this was supposed to be just a short piece, an experiment in writing in present tense using third-person restricted POV. The next thing I knew, it had grown like kudzu. I have no idea what happened. I'm also not quite sure why my brain is stuck on such dark themes these days. This story is an alternate ending to the episode "Survival," so if you haven't seen that, it may not make a whole lot of sense. (It may not make a lot of sense even if you have seen it, but that's an entirely separate issue.) It's an Alex-centric story, with an emphasis on two of the minor characters in "Survival." For those familiar with my writing, it's the kind of f/f friendship story I write when I'm not writing actual femslash...lol. Let's see...what else? Not beta read, so all mistakes are my own. Feedback is always appreciated and adored, but never required. Thanks for reading.
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Alex shudders as she realizes that none of her screams or struggles are going to do any good. She's tied to the tree—wrists in straps above her head—and she can hear the snap of the bullwhip as Dwight approaches.

Normally, this is right about when Walker would show up to rescue her. But she doesn't think it's going to happen this time. She saw the trap the brothers built on the trail; she knows the chances are slim that any of her friends walked away unharmed from the rock slide it triggered.

"Rip her dress!"

She feels hands on her, hears the rip of the fabric, feels the chill as cold air hits her suddenly exposed back. She shudders again, closing her eyes against the inevitable. She doesn't regret her escape attempt—she'd needed to at least try and get help for herself, for the women in the cabin. She just wishes it hadn't been in vain.

She hears the snap of the whip, and a few moments later feels a line of fire across the middle of her back. She screams involuntarily, her eyes popping open with the shock of it. Dwight laughs, as does Luke, and the whip slashes across her shoulder blade, tearing another scream from her throat.

The two men continue laughing and their laughter flips a switch inside her brain. She suddenly feels deadly calm. There's no getting out of this one, no Walker bursting in to save her, nothing she can do to stop it. But she can refuse to give these monsters the satisfaction of seeing her break. As the whip lands again, Alex bites her lip bloody, screws her eyes shut. She can't keep from whimpering with the pain, but she doesn't scream.

She'll get through this. She'll do whatever is necessary to survive. But she'll never stop looking for a way out, never stop hoping that at least one of her friends survived, that someone will eventually come for her.

Those thoughts steady her, even as the whip lands again on her unprotected back, knocking her off-balance, making her lean forward against the tree trunk. She thinks of Walker, his strength, his courage. She thinks of Jimmy, his loyalty and humor. She thinks of Trent and Carlos, faithful friends. The prayer forms in her mind: Please, God, let them all be alive.

She'll be strong for them. She'll be strong for her two fellow captives. She'll be strong for herself.

She doesn't know how long the whipping lasts, how many strokes fall. She's too focused on trying not to scream.

She hears Dwight's snort, hears the heavy tread of his footfall as he thuds over to her. A hand twists in her hair, pulls her head back, and her eyes snap open to find his face pressed up against hers. His lips twist in a contemptuous sneer. "Guess you're a little tougher than I thought," he says, his breath hot against her cheek. "Hope you're smarter, too. If I have to do this again, it'll be a whole lot worse."

There's no response she can think to make to that, especially not with pain pulsing through her back in time with every breath. She just stares blankly at him, breathing hard, and he snorts in dismissal, letting go of her hair and shoving her head forward. He moves away from her and bellows, "What are you two looking at? Vanessa, Sally—get back inside."

Alex sags against the tree trunk, hanging limply in her bonds, not quite sure what to expect next. She can hear movement behind her and tries to track it, only registering that the sounds are getting fainter. Anxiety and uncertainty rise in her. Are they going to leave her out here like this, wounded and exposed to the elements?

She doesn't have time to ponder it much further before there's a presence beside her. She feels hands reaching up to her wrists, releasing the straps. Expecting to see either Dwight—the ringleader—or Luke—his faithful lapdog—she's surprised to find Buddy there with her. It's no surprise that he merely scowls at her, not saying anything, but he holds her up by the arms when she would have fallen, and is careful not to touch her wounds as he leads her back to the cabin.

When they step inside, Dwight is nowhere in sight. Luke grabs her away from his brother, and she bites her lip to keep from crying out at his rough, careless touch. He propels her over to a stool, pushes her down on it. He speaks over her head to the other women. "Get her cleaned up and make some dinner. We're double-checking the perimeter traps and we'll be hungry when we get back."

Luke stomps across the room and heads out the door. Buddy stares at her for a moment, eyes unreadable, before following his brother. The sudden absence of a threatening presence makes Alex light-headed with relief. She sags forward, slumping over, no longer bothering to try and hide her pain. She feels a gentle hand on her knee and looks up to see Sally kneeling in front of her, dark eyes full of worry.

Sally's presence is as surprising as Buddy's was. Of the two captives, Vanessa is the more talkative, the more outgoing, the one who's more open. But as Alex looks past Sally, she sees Vanessa standing at the kitchen counter, staring out the window, blue eyes brimming with tears. The young woman's expression shows traces of sympathy, but it mostly reflects disappointment and frustration.

Stung by the sudden sense that she's failed this woman, Alex stares down at the floor, feeling defeated.

A hand under her chin prompts her to look up again. Sally's staring at her, shaking her head. The other woman's voice is soft, low enough that it doesn't carry past her ear. "Nessa was hoping for a miracle. Not your fault she didn't get one. But we'll help her keep believing."

Alex blinks in confusion, feeling like she's missed a step in this conversation. Before she can even think of how to respond, Sally speaks again, in a normal tone this time. "You need to lie down. Come on."

She struggles to her feet, grateful for the steadying hand under her elbow. Every movement, every breath, hurts, but she tries to hide it, not sure if she's putting on the stoic facade for Vanessa's sake or for her own. She follows Sally into a tiny bedroom, blushes but doesn't protest when the dark-haired woman strips the ruined dress off of her, leaving her in only her underwear. She shivers violently—unsure whether it's from exposure, embarrassment, or shock. Not that it matters.

Without needing to be told, Alex lies down on her stomach on the bed. She's grateful when Sally covers her lower body with a blanket; it helps her feel marginally less vulnerable. Teeth chattering, she listens to the rustling sounds as the other woman searches through dresser drawers, apparently looking for something. To distract herself, she asks, "What about you? Are you still hoping for a miracle?"

In lieu of an answer, there's a dip in the mattress as Sally sits beside her. Alex hisses in pain as a finger tentatively touches one of the welts on her lower back. She feels the cold burn of the ointment Sally's rubbing into the wound, clenches her fists in the sheets and tries to control her shaky breathing.

It hurts far more than she'd expected and she blinks hard, trying to keep the tears from falling as Sally moves on to another lash mark.

"Surviving is my miracle." Sally's voice is flat, expressionless.

It takes a minute for Alex to connect the dots, to understand that this is the answer to the question she'd asked. She wants to say something, offer up something positive like "while there's life, there's hope." But she knows in an instant that the words would ring false to this woman. The tone of her voice is one Alex has heard before—in victims of extreme trauma, in survivors speaking of the experiences that broke them.

Compassion rises in her and she wants to sit up, wants to turn and look at this woman and ask what happened to her. She doesn't. She knows it's not the time or the place. And then, sharp pain flares to life and she's too busy coping with it to think of anything else.

The last thing she hears before darkness takes hold of her is "I'm sorry."

******

For three days, Alex lies in bed, unable to do anything except sleep and suffer in silence. Sally is there frequently, bringing her water, helping her to the bathroom, tending to her wounds with gentle, expert hands.

On the fourth day, Alex is able to get off the bed by herself. Her movements are slow and tentative; pain pulls at her with every step and she doesn't want to open the newly formed scabs on her wounds. Sally flutters nervously behind her as she painstakingly makes her way out to the common room and over to a stool pulled up to the table. The brief journey tires her more than she'd expected and she's thankful for Sally's hand under her elbow, helping her sit down with a modicum of grace when she would otherwise have fallen. Vanessa is all nervous chatter as she comes over to join them, and Alex manages a tiny smile to set the young woman at ease.

Sally comes back to the table before Alex even registers that she'd left, puts a bowl of fruit and a cup of water in front of her, presses Vanessa down into a chair. The young woman looks up in surprise and Alex sees the shrug Sally gives in response. After a moment, the dark-haired woman says simply, "The brothers will be gone for a while; they're checking for signs of pursuit. May as well relax while you can."

Alex watches thoughtfully as Sally moves swiftly away, turning back to the chores in the kitchen, but she's too tired and in too much pain to puzzle things out just yet. And Vanessa is all smiles and chatter, so Alex divides her attention between nibbling on an apple and listening to the young woman, vaguely amazed that after two years of captivity, Vanessa still has such a spark of life.

******

The next couple of weeks are much the same. The brothers spend the bulk of their time off looking for search parties, leaving the women mostly alone. That suits Alex just fine—she's still recovering from her the whipping and she's just as happy to not see much of her captors.

She's discouraged every time the brothers rub it in her face that they haven't seen any signs of pursuit, but the news doesn't depress her the way she knows they want it to. If any of her friends survived that rock slide, then they'll come looking for her once they heal from whatever injuries it caused. She knows that as surely as she knows her own name. But she's enough of a realist to know it might take a while—the trail has long since gone cold and there's a lot of country to cover.

Her job is to not give up hope until they can find her.

She says nothing of this to the other women. She doesn't want to offer Vanessa any false hope, and Sally seems too defeated to believe her anyway.

Instead, she sits at the table with Vanessa day after day, helping with what few chores she can, and listening as the young woman talks about her large, close-knit family and her happy, carefree childhood. It's not long before she knows all of the woman's hopes and dreams for the future, and she's no little amazed that Vanessa can still hope and dream. Sally has gone back to being the mostly silent shadow who tends to Alex's healing wounds, but otherwise leaves the two of them alone, taking on the bulk of the responsibility for the chores and keeping things to the brothers' liking.

Alex knows this relative peace won't last. But she soaks it up while she can, and says a little prayer that someone will find them soon.

******

Alex lies in a fetal position, shivering in the cold of the room, eyes staring unseeing at the wall across from the bed. One small part of her mind knows she should move—cover herself with the blanket, get up and wash herself in the basin, do something. Most of her is frozen in shock and shame.

If there was one good thing about being whipped on her first day at the cabin, it was that the brothers hadn't laid a finger on her while her wounds healed. This morning, her reprieve from their attentions ended. She'd been sweeping the floor of the bedroom the women share when the brothers had burst in and cornered her.

She shudders as sense memories wash over her; she can still feel their hands and mouths on her body. All three stayed in the room and took multiple turns with her, holding her down, laughing at her wild struggles. She breathes hard, fighting nausea, as her mind replays various moments of the assaults: Buddy's weight pinning her to the bed, Luke's leering face and crude comments, Dwight's rough hands and brutal pounding.

She fists her hands, digs her fingernails into her palms hard enough to draw blood. The burst of pain helps her push away the memories. It doesn't help erase the fear and the shame.

In the back of her mind, she'd known all along that it would probably come to this. That the brothers wanted her for a very specific reason and were determined to have her, no matter what. After all, why else would they have kidnapped her in the first place? It was a huge risk to take, knowing she was traveling with Texas Rangers. If all they'd wanted was a simple domestic slave, there were much easier targets.

Knowing it, however, doesn't do a thing to change how she feels now. Dirty, humiliated, and terrified.

She hears the bedroom door creak open and cringes, her entire body going tense with terror. Please God, no more. Not now. She can't bear to go through that again.

The footsteps are light, too light to be any of the men, and Alex relaxes a fraction, though not much. She's all too aware that she's lying there naked, bruised and battered, the sheet beneath her stained with blood and fluids from the assaults. She shivers, both from cold and vulnerability, and closes her eyes.

The footsteps move closer and Alex feels the dip in the mattress as someone sits down near her head. It makes sense that Vanessa would come to check on her, even though she doesn't really want the other woman to see her like this. Over the past several days, she's come to understand that despite Vanessa's liveliness, the woman is a lot more fragile than she appears. Alex feels motherly towards her. She doesn't want to make the young woman worry about her.

She knows she should open her eyes, find something reassuring to say, but she can't seem to make herself. She feels a hand on her shoulder and her eyes do open then, in shock. It's Sally who's here with her. The dark-haired woman's comforting touch is completely familiar to Alex after days of having her wounds tended to.

She uncurls a bit, looking up to meet worried brown eyes. Sally reaches out, draws a blanket up over Alex's naked body, says simply, "Nessa's out picking apples. She wasn't here for any of it."

Alex feels her cheeks grow hot and she swallows hard. "Does...does she know?"

She sees the sympathy on the other woman's face. "That they were going to break you in, yes. How bad it would be, no."

She's not surprised when Sally stops there, since the woman typically doesn't say much. What surprises her is when Sally continues carefully, "Nessa knows what they're capable of, but she also only understands it in light of her own experience. I know you've noticed that they treat her differently than they treat us."

Alex nods slowly. Even though the brothers treat Vanessa as little more than a slave, they are far rougher in speech and manner towards her and Sally. She's just never thought much about the difference. Until now.

Sally's mouth quirks in a not-quite-smile. "Like all of us, she tried to escape early on and was caught. While I tended to her injuries, I told her that the only way to survive was to cooperate, to be submissive. At the same time, I told the brothers that she was too delicate for rough treatment and they'd kill her if they weren't careful with her. It was the only thing I could do to protect her."

Alex's mind is spinning. This is the most Sally's said to her at any one time and she can't quite put all the pieces together. She says slowly, "You never gave me that advice."

Sally's mouth quirks again. "Would you have listened?" The not-quite-smile drops off and dark eyes shine with concern. "I thought you were strong enough that you didn't need it. Was I...was I wrong?"

Alex opens her mouth in astonishment. After a moment, she says simply, "No."

And it's true. She's lost sight of it, perhaps, over the years, since Walker is always bursting in just in the nick of time to save her from her kidnapper-of-the-week. But despite that, she's not some naïve, delicate flower. Even with Walker's protective instincts keeping her from being killed many times over, she's still been roughed up plenty along the way, still faced numerous terrifying situations, still had to rely on herself to get through things. She's stronger than she sometimes gives herself credit for. She's a survivor.

And so is the woman sitting next to her. It's still not the time or place to ask just what the brothers have done to her, what they've put her through in the however-many-years she's been here. But the pieces click together in Alex's mind and she sees that Sally's worried, mother-hen fluttering isn't simply because she's scared of the brothers. It's because it's the only thing she can do to help protect the people around her.

Alex understands that, because she's done similar things. She's been in situations where she was the one most equipped to cope with the threat at hand, where she spoke up or stepped into the line of fire to divert attention and try to protect the innocents trapped with her.

"Thank you."

She doesn't miss the flash of surprise on the other woman's face at her words. Sally speaks slowly. "For what?"

Alex smiles at Sally's genuine confusion, even though it makes her split lip start bleeding again. "For protecting Vanessa. For being here with me now..."

The smile fades as she remembers why the dark-haired woman is here with her, as memories rush through her mind. She shudders, once again overwhelmingly aware of the pain in her body and her lack of clothing, and feels a hand brush through her hair. She tenses instinctively, then finds herself relaxing at the soothing caress.

It surprises her that she's comfortable being touched—she's known rape victims who could barely handle it when someone stood next to them. Then again, she's a touchy-feely sort, and her response to traumatic events is usually a need for hugs and comfort from those she's close to—though she suspects she'd be shying away from her male friends under these circumstances. And after days of sharing a bed with her fellow captives—though they all sleep in separate corners of it—and living in a tiny cabin where nothing is private, any sense of personal space she ever had with Sally has long since vanished.

She trusts Sally implicitly, in the same way that she trusts Walker, Jimmy.

So she closes her eyes, lets Sally stroke her hair. It isn't long before she's crying, releasing some of the pain and fear and shame. She hears Sally's soft murmurs, and though she can't understand the words, she knows in a way she can't explain that the other woman understands exactly how she feels.

She lets herself cry, lets herself be soothed and comforted by the gentle hand in her hair.

And maybe someday, if she's lucky, she'll be able to return the favor.

******

When Alex finally leaves the bedroom and limps out to the common room, sunlight is blazing through the kitchen windows, signaling that it's late afternoon. She stops in her tracks and blinks hard, momentarily disoriented. Sally had helped her clean herself up, then changed the bedsheets and pushed her back down on to the bed, suggesting she lie still and rest for a while. Physically exhausted and emotionally drained, she'd agreed. She just hadn't expected to sleep so long—to be left in peace to sleep so long.

Not that she really wants to leave the relative peace and quiet of the room. But she knows that it's best if she comes out on her own terms, rather than waiting until it becomes an order. It's the only bit of control she has and she'll be damned if she gives it up.

Vanessa is at the kitchen counter, chopping apples. Sally is across the kitchen at the wood stove, stirring something in the stew pot. The brothers are nowhere in sight. Both women turn and look at her as she slowly shuffles forward, coming to sit on a stool in a corner between the wood stove and the common room. She flinches as she sits down, but manages not to hiss in pain. She's not sure for whose sake she's trying not to show weakness.

Vanessa's relief at seeing her is obvious, though the young woman doesn't move away from her position at the counter. "I was getting worried," Vanessa says. "You were asleep for a long time."

The young woman pauses there and looks to Sally for a moment, as if weighing whether to say more. Alex watches them closely—Sally's expression is unreadable and after a few moments, Vanessa looks away, turning her attention back to Alex. "I know it's not pleasant...what they do..." the young woman stutters finally. "But you get used to it. Honest. Just cooperate and don't fight it. They didn't hurt you when you...when you submitted to them. Right?"

Alex freezes at that. Not because of what the woman said; she'd expected to hear as much after what Sally told her earlier. But because of the innocence shining out from Vanessa's light eyes, the innocence that hasn't yet been stamped out by the ordeals she's endured.

A fierce sense of protectiveness blossoms in Alex's heart. Ironic, she knows, that she's feeling protective when she's the one who's just been brutalized. But there it is. Under other circumstances, she'd be pushing the others to resist, to not make this easy for the brothers. Here, now—she knows it's not that simple. They each have to find their own way to get through this, to survive.

She's not going to stop fighting, not yet, but that's a path only she can choose to walk.

She glances quickly at Sally, not sure how to respond. The dark-haired woman's expression is still unreadable, though her eyes are worried, as they always seem to be. Sally offers a brief, one-shouldered shrug, clearly no more sure of how this should go than Alex is.

Alex chooses her words carefully. "It's true that cooperating would probably have led to less pain."

She hears the cabin door creak open as she's speaking, but ignores it. She's not going to stop mid-sentence and look like a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar. The brothers spill into the cabin and she stiffens at the sight of them. Luke leans against the doorjamb watching her, a smirk on his face. Dwight steps into the center of the room, while Buddy heads into the kitchen and leans his backside against the counter a few feet away from Vanessa.

Dwight growls, "I told you not to worry about her. She'll learn her place. Stop your gabbing and get back to work!"

She can see Vanessa jump a little as Dwight yells at her. The young woman gives her a tight, watery smile, then turns back to chopping apples as though her life depends on it. And maybe it does.

Alex hears Dwight's heavy tread coming across the floorboards towards her and it takes everything she has to not get off the stool and flee, even though she knows she can't possibly move fast enough to get away from him. His hand presses down heavily on her shoulder and her entire body thrums with tension and fear. He laughs at her discomfort and Luke joins in from across the room. He leans down, whispers in her ear, "Before we're done with you, little filly, you'll learn to relax and enjoy it."

She shudders and turns her head away. As shows of defiance go, it's weak. But it's all she can do under the circumstances. He laughs again, then releases her shoulder with a little shove and moves away, heading towards the room he and Luke share at the back of the cabin, probably planning to get high before dinner. Luke follows his older brother, smirking at her as he passes by.

Once they're gone, she releases a shaky breath and clenches her hands into fists, trying to regain some sense of calm and control. She finds Sally watching her and the understanding she sees in dark eyes helps steady her. Whatever else may happen, she's not alone.

She casts a surreptitious glance at the remaining brother, but he's not paying any attention to her. She watches him dig into his pocket and hand Vanessa a small glass jar—filled with honeycomb and honey. The young woman smiles at him, and he moves away, heading Alex's direction. She instinctively flinches, but he ignores her, walking past her to sit down at a chair at the rough-hewn table a few feet away. Momentarily, she hears sounds that have become familiar to her in recent days—he's cleaning and sharpening his hunting knives.

She's still tense because of his proximity, but he doesn't scare her the way the other two do. She's not sure why.

She leans forward slightly on the stool, hugging herself as she tries to get herself together. Her mind turns to Walker, as it always does in times of fear or stress. Thoughts of his strength and courage steady her, help her find her own strength and courage.

When she'd first been dragged to this cabin, what she wanted most was for Walker to arrive in the nick of time and save her, as he'd done so many times before. Now she wants two other things, equally badly.

She wants to know that Walker is still alive. That Jimmy and Trent and Carlos are alive. She can't bear the thought that they all might have died on that mountain because of her.

And she wants to find some way to get Vanessa and Sally out of here. To get herself out of here.

She takes a deep breath, releases it. She hopes the strength of those wants is enough to help keep her going. She's pretty sure life here with the brothers is only going to get worse.

******

The next several days are sheer hell. Every afternoon, the brothers send Vanessa out to forage for the last fall fruits, then corner Alex, like she's the new toy they're obsessed with and plan to play with until it breaks. Buddy drags her into the bedroom first, forces her down, takes his pleasure quickly, and leaves as silently as he came. Dwight and Luke wander in when he's done and take leisurely turns with her, goading each other on, mocking her cries of pain, and punishing her every attempt to fend them off.

She's covered in scratches and bruises from head to toe, and her left wrist is badly sprained, if not broken. Her eyes are red and swollen from crying so much and she can't remember the last time she was so terrified. She huddles in on herself, cowers in her corner when the brothers are near, shies away from Vanessa's confused pity, keeps her eyes averted and her mouth shut. Sally comes to her every day when the brothers leave, and while Alex allows the dark-haired woman to tend to her wounds and hold her while she cries hysterically, she doesn't speak to Sally, remains curled in on herself.

She knows the brothers think they've almost broken her will. She's sure Vanessa thinks so too. She doesn't know what Sally thinks. But that's not it at all. She's struggling to cope with the pain and the fear, struggling to move past it so she can find her inner strength.

And she's wrestling with a question that only she can answer—at what price survival?

******

A week later, Alex lies passive underneath Buddy, not struggling as he takes her. When he leaves and Dwight and Luke pounce on her, she doesn't fight them.

The next day, the pattern repeats—Alex is like a rag doll, letting them do what they want to her without resisting. It doesn't make their touch any less rough, but at least they're not beating her into submission in the process.

The end of the next afternoon finds Dwight on the bed with her, kneeling between her legs, his fingers digging into her hips, holding her up off the bed and pulling her firmly against his body. He's buried deep inside her, softening from his release. Luke pulls on his clothes, walks over to the bed and reaches out to squeeze her breast. She freezes at the contact, but doesn't flinch away, and he laughs at her, toying with her for a minute before removing his hand. His laughter echoes as he walks out of the room.

She bites her lip at the sharp burst of pain when Dwight abruptly pulls out of her and drops her hips. He slides off the bed, reaching for his discarded pants. When he's dressed, he stands over her, his eyes roaming possessively over her naked body. Shame pulses through her at his lewd scrutiny, but she makes no move to close her legs or cover herself. It would be pointless—he's already seen everything and it would only make him needlessly angry.

He smirks at her. "Told ya you'd learn to like this. Knew you'd eventually relax and enjoy it."

She takes a deep breath. She knows now what she's willing to do to survive, what choices she's able to live with, but she still has her line in the sand. She says quietly, "Lack of resistance doesn't equal consent."

He stares uncomprehending at her for a moment, and she holds her breath, not sure which way this is going to go. Anger burns in his eyes and he reaches down, grabs her hair in one meaty hand, and hauls her off the bed in one quick move. He holds her upright in front of him, staring at her, eyes blazing. "What did I tell you about that smart mouth and bad attitude? Stupid, stubborn bitch."

She doesn't respond, but doesn't look away either, meeting his stare with her own, holding fast to the line she's drawn for herself. She winces as his grip in her hair tightens. After a moment, his anger fades and his mouth twists into its usual contemptuous sneer. He laughs. "Doesn't matter if you consent or not. You belong to us—we can do whatever we want with you. You'd do well to remember that."

He snorts dismissively, then abruptly lets go of her hair and shoves her violently. She crashes hard into the wall and slides in a heap to the floor. Her last thought before darkness claims her is that if her wrist wasn't broken before, it is now.

******

Soon after that, the brothers lose interest in her. She's not sure if it's because the lack of a struggle bores them or if they're satisfied that they've destroyed her spirit or if it's just that she's no longer a novelty. She doesn't actually care why. She's just relieved at the respite.

She knows they'll still take her every so often when the mood strikes, as they take Sally and Vanessa. But without the terror of a daily gang-rape hanging over her head, that prospect seems bearable.

The fact that she can even think that way strikes her as wrong. But it's a fact of her current life.

She doesn't regret her decision to submit, doesn't regret the choices she made to survive. Not as long as there's even the slightest chance that either her friends will find her or she'll find a way out.

Until that day comes, she'll deal with the cards she's been dealt and focus on not losing hope.

******

Her days are long, filled with work. The brothers decide to keep Vanessa in the house doing mending and cooking, sending Alex and Sally to do the hard labor outside. Fetching water, washing clothes in the outdoor tub, hanging the laundry to dry, harvesting the last vegetables from the garden, tearing down and mulching the garden beds for the winter, gathering and hauling firewood.

Her wrist has healed, but not properly; it's misshapen and aches all the time, particularly in the chill of the late fall air. She walks with a pronounced limp—Dwight was in a foul mood one day when he dragged her into the bedroom and his brutality did some kind of damage, though she doesn't know exactly what, or whether it's permanent. It doesn't matter; there's nothing she can do about it here, now.

She's quiet, withdrawn. The only person she's remotely comfortable with is Sally, and they spend most of their time together working in silence. When the brothers are around, she speaks only when spoken to. It's the only way she can deal with the pain and fear that haunt her every waking moment. On the rare occasions when the women are alone together in the house during the day, Vanessa is chatty and she tries her hardest to come out of her shell for the young woman's sake. Vanessa still hasn't lost her spark, and she'll do her damnedest to make sure that never happens.

She and Sally take turns drawing Dwight's attention when his temper flares for no apparent reason, taking his beatings on their shoulders to spare Vanessa from them. Protecting her in what little ways they can is something that unites them, though they've never once talked about it. She knows the young woman hasn't figured out what they're doing yet. She's pretty sure Dwight and Luke haven't either, the way they mutter about stupid women who never learn. Only Buddy seems to get it, and he doesn't say anything.

She thinks the silent brother actually cares about Vanessa, in what limited way he's capable of it. Even though it doesn't excuse anything he's done, the way he's treated them, it gives her a slight degree of sympathy for him. Maybe it's just Stockholm Syndrome, since he's been marginally less abusive towards her than the others have. She doesn't think so. It's knowledge that does her no good; it doesn't help her daily struggles in any way. But in some weird way she can't define, it helps her keep hope alive.

She's mostly focused on the very immediate—put one foot in front of the other, do the task at hand, get through one day at a time. She knows that's what Dwight wants—to leave her so exhausted and worn-down that she breaks, that she gives up completely and accepts this life as her fate.

But though the flame of hope inside her is dim right now, it hasn't gone out entirely. Underneath the trauma and the terror, the exhaustion and the pain, she still remembers that there's another world out there, another life filled with people who love her and care about her. She hasn't given up on getting that back some day.

She just can't let herself dwell on it. It's too painful when she's struggling emotionally with what the brothers have done to her. It's too painful to think of the life she's lost while she's trapped in this one with no escape in sight.

******

Alex wakes immediately when she hears the creak of the door, and tenses at the sight of Buddy, framed in the doorway by the light from the coals in the fireplace. Fear and doubt rise in her. She knows Dwight and Luke are already asleep; they go to bed soon after dinner and sleep like the dead with the amount of dope they smoke. Buddy's never come in like this before; she can't imagine a good reason why he would now.

Her spot is at the foot of the bed and she curls into a tighter ball under her blanket as he makes his way into the room. But he walks past her, going over to the left side of the bed where Vanessa sleeps, putting his hand on the young woman's shoulder, shaking her awake. Her curiosity is suddenly stronger than her fear, and she rolls over, needing to see what's going on. She sees Sally sit up abruptly, also turning to watch the man, and she's relieved to know she's not alone in her concern.

Buddy's voice, so seldom heard, startles her. "It's cold in here, Vanessa. My room's a lot warmer and I have more blankets. You should sleep in my bed with me so you don't freeze."

The moon is full, light streaming through the window, so Alex can see the mix of uncertainty and want in Vanessa's eyes. Their room is frigid, blasted by the wind as it is, and Vanessa's been sick once already this winter. The offer of a warm place to sleep is probably a dream come true. There's no doubt in Alex's mind that Buddy means what he says literally, not figuratively, and as she glances at Sally, she can tell the other woman is thinking the same thing. Vanessa looks at each of them in turn, and they both nod at her, letting her know it's okay. She smiles at them, then turns the smile on Buddy and lets him help her up and lead her out of the room, shutting the door behind her.

When they're gone, Sally fixes Alex with an intent stare. Alex blinks hard, not at all sure what's going on. The woman's voice is soft, sad. "He's right; we could freeze. End of last winter, Dwight got mad about something and took our extra blankets. Tried to get Nessa to share blankets and sleep next to me, but..."

Though Sally stops there, Alex can fill in the blanks herself. Early on, she'd noticed that Vanessa balked at any contact with the two of them that could possibly be construed as intimate. At first, she'd assumed it was the young woman's way of taking what little control of her body she could. But it hadn't taken long for Vanessa to confess that she keeps her distance because Sally likes women instead of men.

She knows the young woman cares about Sally. And Vanessa has no qualms about letting the dark-haired woman protect her, advise her, console her, even patch her up when she's injured and doctor her when she's sick. But none of that is enough to erase the young woman's religiously ingrained fear—her fear that close contact with a woman will either turn her gay or cause Sally to lose control and take advantage of her.

Alex hadn't known what to say to any of that when she heard it. She still doesn't, for that matter.

Understanding what the intensity of Sally's stare is about, Alex says softly, "That doesn't bother me. But I am afraid that if I'm not entirely awake, I'll mistake you for one of them..."

She can't finish the thought. Sally nods and says gently, "I get it. Just 'cause we're not fighting back doesn't mean it's not still rape and doesn't make their touch any easier to bear."

Alex feels sudden tears in her eyes at the words and is surprised by them. The other woman seems to have so thoroughly accepted her fate that it hasn't occurred to her that Sally might still be as traumatized by the brothers' treatment as she herself is.

"I'm sorry," she says, reaching out a hand to touch Sally's leg. "You're so adept at taking care of me, of us, that I forget sometimes that you're going through the same thing we are."

Sally shrugs and looks down. The non-verbal deflection doesn't surprise Alex, though it makes her sad. She whispers, "Somehow, someway, we will get out of here. I know you've stopped believing in that, but I haven't. I'll believe in it for both of us."

She's grateful when Sally looks up at that and nods, though the dark-haired woman doesn't say anything else.

A gust of wind rattles the window and Alex shivers in the chill of the room. She makes her decision quickly, sitting up, blanket in hand, and scooting up the bed until she's sitting next to Sally. She sees the surprise in dark eyes. Quietly, she says, "I'd rather risk having a flashback than both of us coming down with pneumonia."

Sally closes her eyes for a moment, but not before Alex reads the relief in them, and she's once again near tears at the reminder of just how many ways this woman has been hurt.

The moment passes quickly, though, and Sally takes charge, telling Alex to lie down and get comfortable. She lies on her left side, the position she sleeps in the most because it bothers her wrist the least. She feels her blanket being draped over her, then Sally's blanket being added on top of that. Already, she's warmer than she has been in days. Sally reaches over her, grabs Vanessa's discarded blanket and drapes it over the top of the others.

Sally slips under the nest of blankets behind her, close, but not quite touching, clearly trying to give her space. Alex is grateful for that.

She lies there, soaking up the feeling of not being chilled to the bone for the first time in weeks. She hears Sally's soft, steady breathing and it soothes her. She thinks of the woman's gentle hands, the way they've tended her hurts and eased her pain. Her earlier worry vanishes like smoke—there is no way even in sleep that she'll mistake the familiar, tender touch of her friend for the rough hands of her tormentors.

She scoots back slightly, until she bumps into Sally, and hears the woman's concerned, "Alex?"

Sally's rare use of her name makes her sad again. But she pushes the emotion aside and says simply, "I'm not worried about flashbacks any more. I know I'll sleep better if you're holding me. I think you will too."

For a long moment, nothing happens. Then she feels movement as Sally turns and spoons up behind her, her body snuggled tight against Alex's back, one arm draping protectively across the curve of her hip, hand resting lightly on her stomach.

Alex sighs softly. For the first time in far too long she feels safe and supported, the way she always feels safe and supported with Walker. She hears Sally echo her sigh, feels the way the other woman seems to relax against her. She knows suddenly that as much as she needed this type of caring, reassuring touch without knowing it, Sally needed it more.

She's grateful for the chance to do something—no matter how small—for the woman who's done so much for her.

The sense of being cocooned in the blankets lulls her and the comfort of being held by someone she trusts completely soothes her. It's not long before she drifts into the first restful sleep she's had since being kidnapped.

******

The twelfth night she falls asleep in Sally's arms, she dreams of Walker. He's standing on a rock on the top of a hill, staring at the mountain beyond. He holds his hands up towards the sun as if in prayer, closes his eyes. "Hold on, Alex," he says. "We're searching for you. Just hang in there until we find you."

When she wakes, it's with a renewed sense of hope. She's never been one to place too much stock in dreams, despite having a few that were prescient. But she knows Walker, knows his intuition and his traditions, knows that if he were to come to her in spirit, it would be in a dream.

As she and Sally climb out of bed and slip out of their nightshirts and into their dresses, she wants to share the dream with the other woman. But she holds her tongue. She knows her friend will see it as wishful thinking, not as a sign. More than that, she doesn't want to make any promises she can't keep. While she's positive her friends are out searching for her, she also knows it still could take a long time before they find her. The last thing she wants is to finally give Sally a sense of hope, only to watch it crumble to dust.

As she goes about her day and its never-ending chores, she feels more like herself than she has in months. It's ironic, she knows, since she's aware of just how unlike her former self she is right now. She's still quiet and withdrawn. She's still skittish at the mere sight of the brothers, abused and scared as she is. On the surface, she's nothing like the strong, opinionated, confident, optimistic woman her friends know. But that woman is still there, buried underneath the trauma and pain. She will never be quite the same as she was before, but she hasn't lost herself entirely. Not yet.

She thinks of Sally. Her friend is highly traumatized, her pain profound. And yet she is still all gentle hands and protective fluttering. Alex will be as strong as she is. She won't let the brothers steal her new-found hope from her. She won't let the fear and the horror destroy her compassion.

That determination won't make her suffering in the meantime any easier to bear. She knows this. But it will give her the strength to carry on in spite of it.

******

Alex carefully chips a V into the bark of a tree with a piece of flint. For several days now, as she and Sally have been out foraging for whatever bits of food they can find in the dead of winter, she's been leaving little signs like this. She knows the odds are low that a random search party will see them, but she knows Walker. If he's anywhere near where she's left a clue, his intuition will kick in and he'll be drawn to it.

It's a long shot that her efforts will actually help anyone find them. But it feels good to finally be doing something proactive.

She turns, finds Sally watching her with troubled eyes, and wonders at it. After one initial, worried protest, Sally hasn't said a word to her about what she's doing; the dark-haired woman has even pointed out a couple of good places to leave clues. She's not sure what the problem is, stares questioningly at her friend.

By way of an answer, Sally points up. Alex flinches slightly to see that the sun is lower in the sky than she'd expected. They still have a few hours of daylight left, to be sure, but the brothers are probably back from checking their rabbit snares by now, and the last thing she wants is for Dwight and Luke to come looking for them. Even though they haven't been given a time limit for their task, the brothers don't need an excuse to punish them.

She drops the flint, kicks a layer of snow over it, and picks up her basket. It's heavy—laden with kindling, an assortment of walnuts and chestnuts, and a handful of roots and tubers Sally was able to find despite the fresh snowfall. She balances the load against her hip, waits until Sally has done the same with her basket, then leads the way as they retrace their earlier steps. She limps carefully over the uneven, slippery ground, despite the haste she knows they're both feeling. She can't move quickly under the best of circumstances, and there's no point in either of them risking a sprained ankle.

When they walk into the clearing surrounding the cabin an hour later, Alex thinks they've made it back before the brothers. A quick glance at Sally tells her the other woman's thinking the same thing. Even with Buddy rarely saying a word, the brothers are not quiet—walking like elephants, banging cupboard doors, making noise with everything they do and everything they touch. As they near the cabin, all Alex can hear is silence.

But as she opens the door, four heads turn to look at her and Sally. The brothers and Vanessa are all sitting at the table. Vanessa looks confused and frightened. Dwight looks angry. Luke is smirking. Buddy's expression is inscrutable as usual. Alex feels her heart beat faster.

Not sure what's going on or what else to do, she edges in to the room, Sally close enough on her heels that she can feel the sudden tension in the body behind her. No one says a word for a long minute.

"Put the baskets down and come here," Dwight commands.

Alex starts to tremble, but obeys. Sally does the same, still right on her heels. Dwight holds something up. "What's this?"

Alex has the sudden, hysterical thought that to an outsider, this scene would look completely ridiculous. Because what Dwight is holding up is a simple blue ribbon. Innocuous. Non-threatening. Nothing that should incur any kind of wrath or leave both her and Sally shaking in their proverbial boots.

Her mouth is dry and she can't form words. Dwight's growl is low, more menacing than his loudest yell. "I asked you a question."

Alex feels Sally's hand on her back, and knows what her friend is about to do. She speaks quickly before Sally can say a word. "It's my ribbon. From my old dress. The one that was ruined when you whipped me."

She can hear the quaver in her own voice, and hears Sally's nearly inaudible "no" behind her. But she stands firm, not willing to let her friend take the blame for this. Not when it's her doing.

"And why did I find it tied to the trunk of a sapling?"

This time, Alex doesn't answer. There's no lie she can give that will satisfy him, and she's not going to give him the truth. Not when it could implicate Sally as well. It's the only thing she can do for her friend. But she knows he already knows the answer. His laugh confirms it. He drawls, "Did you really think one little ribbon would catch the attention of a search party? Are you really that stupid?"

She hangs her head, remains silent. She hopes he'll just give her the usual beating for her disobedience and call it a day. She knows it's not likely to be that simple. When he grabs her chin and forces her head up, she knows she's in trouble.

His mouth twists into a sneer. "I think I've been too soft on you. Time to remind you just what I'm capable of."

For a single, heart-stopping, terrifying minute, she thinks he plans to have the brothers gang-rape her again, then and there. She starts to tremble uncontrollably. She's unaccountably relieved when he calls over his shoulder, "Luke, bring my whip. Buddy, bring Sally out with you. She needs to watch this—it'll be a lesson for her too. Vanessa, go to Buddy's room and stay there."

As he stands abruptly and grabs her arm, Alex struggles against him. But it's futile—he's too strong and her energy has been sapped by weeks of cold weather, nonstop work, and inadequate food. Still, she doesn't go down without a fight, and he's breathing hard by the time he muscles her out to the tree and gets her wrists secured in the straps. She shivers as he rips open the back of her dress, then shudders as he rips open its sleeves and skirt until the ruined dress falls in a pile of rags in the snow beside her and she's standing in nothing but her underwear.

This time, there's no buildup, no snapping the whip against the ground to gradually increase her fear. He already knows she's scared of him. This is solely about punishing her—hurting her—and she screams as he lays into her. She doesn't bother trying to be strong this time—there's no point to it.

He stops after the tenth stroke, laughing at her as she pants for breath. She sags against the tree trunk, whimpering at the agony in her back. She knows he's not done yet, that he's just getting started. He gets off on this.

She closes her eyes, breathes through the pain, tries to tune out the grating sound of his laughter. Bad as this is, as it will get, it's still far, far better than the alternative. She'll be strong. She'll endure it. She has to.

She hears the whip snap again, and a new line of agony across her back tears a ragged cry from her throat. She tries to steel herself for the next stroke. But before he can hit her again, there's a primal scream, a ferocious "Leave her alone!" echoing through the air. Alex's eyes snap open in sudden shock. She knows that voice.

It's Walker.

Tied to the tree like she is, her back on fire, she can't move, can't turn to see what's happening. But what she can't see, she can hear. Thuds, grunts, snaps, cracks, groans. There's a fight going on in earnest. She doesn't know how many people are with Walker, how the fight's going, anything at all. All she can do is stand there in her bonds, heart in her throat, and pray that Walker will win and this nightmare will finally end.

As abruptly as it started, the fight is over. There's a sudden, profound silence, where even the wind stops moving in the trees. And then Walker is beside her, knife in hand, reaching up to cut the straps binding her. He releases her and she lowers her arms slowly, then turns her head to look at him, almost not believing he's here. She moves sluggishly, turning sideways towards him, just staring at him. He moves closer, reaches for her, his hands carefully placed on her upper arms, and she bows her head and bursts into tears, overwhelmed by the sudden, miraculous rescue.

One of his hands moves slightly as if he plans to lift her chin up; one finger just barely skims her chest, but she tenses instantly, her head snapping up, breath coming too quickly. He senses her dismay immediately and pulls his hands back, staring intently at her. Her tears have stopped, but she's trembling again, not from cold this time, but from fear, from sense memory. Luke's hands, Dwight's hands, roaming over her.

She opens her mouth to try and explain, but no words come out. She closes her mouth again and just stares at him. She wouldn't even know where to start.

His eyes clinically move over her bare body as she stands stiff and still in front of him. Though the only bruises she sports are from Dwight's last few beatings, she knows the fact that she's standing there nearly naked in front of God and everyone, not fidgeting in embarrassment or trying to cover herself, will tell him some of what she can't say.

She sees the exact instant the penny drops and he understands the basics of what's been done to her. His eyes brim with rare tears and his voice is a naked whisper. "Oh God, Alex. I'm so, so sorry."

She can barely speak around the sudden lump in her throat. "I know. But it's not your fault. You're here now. You saved me...us."

He starts to reach out again, to comfort her, but she flinches at the sudden motion and he stops. She feels bad—guilty—for not letting him get too close, but before she can apologize, he says gently, "It's okay. I understand."

And then, she feels a familiar presence beside her and relaxes minutely. Sally slips a sheet around her shoulders and she grabs the fabric in both fists, pulling it around her, hissing as the sheet comes in contact with the shredded skin of her back. She's still cold, but feels better for not being exposed. Sally's hand is under her elbow, steadying her, and she can finally look past Walker and take in the entire scene. Trent and Jimmy are there, tying up the brothers, who are all out cold.

She can sense Sally's nervousness about the newcomers, even though it's obvious that they're friends. But the dark-haired woman doesn't say anything except "We should make sure Nessa's okay, treat your wounds."

Alex sees the slight lift of Walker's eyebrow and explains, "Walker, this is Sally. She and Vanessa were already captives here when I arrived."

He nods, understanding what's she's not saying—namely that they're as likely to be spooked right now as she is. His voice is quiet. "We'll finish up here, make sure these guys aren't going anywhere. Once you're all okay, we'll figure out what comes next."

She nods in return, starts to let Sally guide her towards the cabin. Then, moved by an impulse she doesn't quite understand, she stops and jerks her chin towards Buddy. "Keep him separated from the other two—now, and when you take him to jail. He deserves better than they'll get..."

She trails to a halt, not quite sure how to explain. Sally fills in the blank. "He's bad, but not as bad as the others."

In typical Sally fashion, that's all she says. But it's the heart of the matter and it's enough. Walker studies both of them for a moment, then nods. His voice is gentle. "Go on. Take care of yourselves and your other friend."

Alex wants to smile at him, but it's been too long since she last smiled and she's almost forgotten how. Pain is pulsing through her back and the tears are threatening again and all she can do is give him a brief nod. She follows Sally's lead, heads into the cabin. There will be time enough for a reunion later. Right now, it's enough to know that they're safe and the brothers will never hurt them again.
Tags: fanfic, walker texas ranger
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