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fic: The Price of Survival 3/3

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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When Alex gets back home, her life is initially ruled by appointments. Her doctor is hyper-vigilant, keeping close tabs on her still-healing back, running tests to make sure she hasn't been infected with HIV or STDs. He reminds her to rest and take it easy to let her torn muscles heal. He x-rays her wrist, then puts her under anesthesia and re-breaks the bones so he can set them properly before putting her in a cast to make sure they heal completely.

She goes to a therapist, one recommended by one of the doctors in Utah. It's not going as well as her doctor visits. After the initial appointment, he starts pushing her to talk in graphic detail about the rapes. She tells him she's not ready yet. He asks a lot of questions about specifics; she answers in generalities. She's never been to therapy before, doesn't know if it's normal to feel so reluctant to talk. Still, she keeps going faithfully, hoping that soon she'll be comfortable enough with him to be a good patient and do what she's supposed to.

Days stretch into weeks. Alex tries her best to reintegrate herself back into her life. She's not back at work—she's not healed enough physically for that, let alone emotionally. But she spends time helping Josie with paperwork at the HOPE Center. She drives Carlos to his physical therapy appointments. She talks to Sally and Vanessa once a week. She hangs out at C.D.'s with the guys and listens to their familiar banter. She and Jimmy sit by the pond in the park, feeding the ducks, enjoying the beauty of the outdoors. She and Walker spend time at the ranch—walking through the fields, playing chess, sitting on the swing watching the sunset. He doesn't push her to talk; the few things she shares are about how the ordeal made her feel.

These are all things that she knows she enjoys. They're things she knows should ground her, should mean something. They always have in the past. But she feels like she's just going through the motions.

Her therapist says it's because she's in denial about what she's been through, that she's not working through it. She's not sure she agrees. It's not like this is the first time she's suffered at the hands of a psycho and had to find a way to deal with it. It's just the one that's been the most life-changing

She's on the couch at the ranch one evening, just over a month after coming home, cuddling with Walker. Out of the blue, he asks if she feels like a stranger in her own life. She pulls out of his arms in surprise, stares at him. His eyes are warm, understanding, and she nods slowly and starts to cry. He holds her close and after her tears taper off, she asks how he knows. His voice is quiet as he reminds her that he knows what it's like to try to put the pieces back together after a life has been shattered.

She remembers that he lost his whole world when his parents died, then again when his fiancee was murdered. If anyone can understand how lost she feels, it's Walker.

She tells him about her sense that she's just going through the motions. She recounts what her therapist keeps saying. She tells him she wants to take her life back, but that it just doesn't seem to fit her right now. She's afraid she's too different after her time with the brothers, after all the things she endured at their hands, after everything she's endured at the hands of others over the years. She tells him about the nightmares that make her sleep restless. She's afraid she'll never be comfortable in her own skin again.

Walker shifts so she's looking at him, kisses her forehead gently. He tells her that her therapist is wrong, that he knows she's working through things in her own way, that she's coping a lot better than most people would be. He tells her that when Ellen died, he felt the same way, like he was sleepwalking through life and would never find enjoyment or happiness in anything again.

Her eyes widen in surprise and she asks how he got past it. His smile is crooked. "I walked away from my life here. I went to the reservation, a place where I felt completely safe, but didn't have any reminders of anything in my normal daily life. I spent time alone, sometimes thinking, sometimes just staring up at the stars. I spent time with my friends and mentors there, sometimes talking, sometimes silent. I rode horses. I camped beside the lake. I buried myself in books. I buried myself in work, spending hours cutting firewood and fixing fences."

He leans forward, kisses her forehead again. "I didn't force myself to do anything specific, to be anyone specific. I just did whatever I felt in that moment. And one day, I woke up and realized I missed my life here, missed the things I used to do and the friends I had. That my life would never be exactly the same as it was, but that it would still be good. Maybe you need to do the same."

She blinks at him and he chuckles. "No, not go to the reservation. But go someplace completely different. A place that doesn't remind you of here, that doesn't remind you of the cabin. Someplace where you don't have to take care of anyone else. You spent more than four months waiting hand and foot on the Trammels, not to mention helping protect Vanessa. And since you've been back here, you've been fussing over Carlos and trying to make sure the rest of us are okay."

She doesn't know how to respond to that, settles for a shrug.

He continues softly, "You haven't taken any time to just take care of you. Go someplace where you can do that. Take the time to put the pieces back together."

"I miss Sally. I'm worried about her."

She blurts it out before she even realizes the thought is in her head. She shakes her head in bemusement; it's a complete non sequitur. Walker doesn't look the slightest bit surprised or confused. His response is simple.

"Have her go with you."

******

She calls Sally the next day, floats the idea. Her friend seizes on it so quickly that she realizes Walker knew all along that it was something they both needed—that it was something they needed to do together.

After she hangs up the phone, she calls her therapist, tells him she'll be going away for a while to get her head together. He tells her not to, says that her bad attitude towards therapy and stubborn refusal to talk will only make things worse for her in the long run. She freezes at the words, hears Dwight's voice in her head, saying similar things. A spark of anger flares. It's been a long time since it's been safe for her to be angry. She thinks it's a good sign. She tells the man politely, but firmly, that she won't be having any more sessions with him.

The relief she feels when the conversation ends tells her it was the right thing to do.

She calls her doctor, who says there's no medical reason for her to stay in town. Her back is still a little tender, but the wounds are well on their way to healing into scars. All her tests are clean, and the cast won't be coming off her wrist for at least a month anyhow. He wishes her well and she hangs up feeling encouraged.

When the phone rings an hour later, she picks it up, expecting Sally. To her surprise, it's Sarah. The other woman doesn't waste time on pleasantries.

"When Dad and I moved here, we also bought a house in a small coastal town a couple hours away. It's got three bedrooms, wonderful views of the ocean, and is a fifteen minute walk from the beach. There are houses nearby, so it's not isolated, but it's a quiet town and people respect privacy."

Alex doesn't even have to weigh the idea. "It sounds perfect."

******

By the time she heads out to Walker's ranch that evening, everything is arranged and Alex fills him in on the details as they eat dinner. Sarah took it on herself to buy Alex's plane ticket and she'll be flying out around noon tomorrow. Sarah will drive them to the house, drop them off, and then head back home. Alex feels almost like she got caught up in a whirlwind of efficiency—Sarah managed to get all the details worked out before she'd even started packing.

She thanks Walker for the suggestion, tells him she's been feeling less anxious just for the thought of being someplace different. His smile is gentle as he reminds her he knows that feeling, reminds her to take as much time as she needs.

They spend most of the rest of the evening in silence. She clears off the table while Walker cleans up the kitchen. When he starts washing dishes, something she can't easily help with one-handed, she heads outside to sit on the porch swing. Walker joins her and they sit quietly, watching as the stars and moon emerge on the canvas of the night sky. When it gets chilly, she gets up to head back home. Walker rises without a word and walks her to her car.

She turns to face him. "You know I love you, right?" she says. "Even though we haven't...I haven't been able to..."

She trails off, eyes darting to the side, unable to give the words voice. He leans forward, kisses her forehead gently. "I know," he says. "If you didn't love me, you wouldn't be here right now. You wouldn't trust me to hold you when you're scared, wouldn't let me be around you when you're feeling vulnerable."

There's a pause, then he continues softly, "Someday you'll be healed enough to want to be intimate again. Until then, I'm content with what we have. I'm just relieved that you're out of that nightmare, that you're safe and sound. That's all that's important to me right now."

She doesn't know what to say to that, can't seem to find any words at all. She settles for leaning against him, her arms going around his back as he pulls her into a hug. Finally, she pulls away, looks up into understanding eyes, says simply, "I'll call you tomorrow to let you know we made it there safely."

He smiles down at her. "That sounds good. But don't worry about me, Alex. Just take care of yourself."

******

The day is long. A flight delay and an accident blocking the highway put them hours behind schedule. The drive is mostly silent—Sarah concentrating on traffic, Alex and Sally both watching the scenery. They stop for dinner, then stop in a nearby town to pick up groceries. While there's a grocery store that's walking distance from the beach house, Sarah tells them it's small and carries just the essentials. Alex selects expensive chocolate and coffee—luxury items, comfort food at its finest. Sally seems overwhelmed by too many options, doesn't choose anything at all. Sarah steps in, picks out a smattering of salamis, fancy cheeses, and crackers. Sally's eyes light up when she sees them, though she doesn't say anything. Alex smiles.

By the time they finally arrive, it's after 10pm. They set their luggage down in the living room, get a quick tour of the house. While Sally and Sarah cart in the bags of groceries and unload them, Alex calls Walker. She knows he's asleep by then, but won't mind being woken. The conversation is brief—she tells him they made it safely, tells him to sleep well. He wishes her the same.

Sarah leaves to head home. Sally and Alex stand together in the living room, an awkward silence between them. Alex isn't sure what to say or do—while they got close during their captivity, they've never spent time together like this, where there wasn't a task or a need guiding their interaction. And their talks on the phone have been relatively brief and focused on day-to-day minutia. They've never had this kind of face-to-face freedom to say or do whatever they wish. She's not quite sure how to bridge the gap from their old reality to their new.

Before she can ponder it too long, she yawns. Moments later, Sally follows suit. They both grin knowingly at each other and the awkwardness is broken.

Alex says, "I don't know about you, but I'm ready to collapse. It's been a long day and I'm exhausted."

She sees the dark shadows under dark eyes, suspects Sally's sleep has been as troubled as her own. Her friend doesn't say anything, simply nods.

She leans over, picks up her suitcase in her good hand. Sally grabs her duffel bag and they walk through the hallway to the bedrooms. Without discussing it, they both head in to the master bedroom and set their bags down. Sally jerks her chin towards the en suite bathroom and Alex nods, grabbing her bag of toiletries and a nightshirt and heading in to get ready for bed.

When she's finished, Sally takes her turn. Alex slips under the covers, sighing contentedly at the warm weight of them. There are times when she feels like she'll never be completely warm again after spending so many days and nights chilled to the bone. She turns on to her left side, carefully positioning her casted wrist so that she's comfortable, and closes her eyes. It's not long before Sally slips into bed beside her and she sighs again as her friend spoons up behind her and settles an arm around her waist.

She hadn't really expected that they'd slip back into this old pattern, but it feels right. It brings a sense of familiarity that she hadn't realized she was missing. It brings a sense of comfort—being close to the one person in the world who truly understands what she's endured, who she knows doesn't judge her for the choices she made to survive.

Her last thought before sleep claims her is that she hopes her friend is as comforted by this closeness as she is.

******

When Alex wakes in the morning, her head is fuzzy, her limbs lethargic, her eyes heavy. She blinks at the grey light coming in the window, then at the clock, which tells her it's almost 11am. She can't remember the last time she slept so late.

She feels fidgeting behind her, rolls over onto her back, finds Sally pushing herself into a sitting position. Dark eyes dart around the room and she sees the vaguely uneasy expression on the other woman's face. The dark-haired woman looks as tired still as Alex feels, and she wonders briefly why her friend is just sitting there instead of going back to sleep. Several possible reasons, each of them troubling, parade through her foggy brain; one sticks, still troubling, but logical.

"No one's going to punish you for sleeping late. You're free of that now."

She sees the sudden mix of guilt and relief in dark eyes, knows she's on the right track. Dwight didn't like it if they weren't up, dressed, and well into their morning chores by the time he rolled out of bed.

Alex reaches out with her good hand, puts it on her friend's knee, or what looks like her knee through the layers of covers. Walker's words play through her mind; they're even more appropriate for Sally than they are for her.

She keeps her voice soft. "You've spent a lot of time taking care of everyone else—the brothers, Vanessa, me. It's time for you to take care of yourself, to focus on what you want, on what you need." She pauses there, then adds, "It's time for both of us to do that for ourselves."

Sally doesn't say anything for a long time, but Alex can see that she's processing the words, mulling them over. She waits. Finally, Sally admits, "I feel like I could go back to sleep."

It sounds like a non sequitur. Alex knows it's not. She rolls over on to her side, facing Sally, pats the space beside her in invitation. "Then sleep."

Sally hesitates only a moment before sliding back down under the covers and curling up against Alex.

******

It's almost mid-afternoon by the time they wake again. Alex still feels like a zombie, feels like she could sleep for a week. But she gets out of bed anyhow. Her need for the bathroom is pressing and the idea of coffee sounds like heaven.

They move through the afternoon slowly, in a sleepy daze. They drink coffee, make a late lunch of eggs and bacon. Afterward Sally washes dishes while Alex organizes the kitchen and refrigerator. They move on to exploring the offerings of the house—books, movies, games, puzzles, so on and so forth.

They make their way outside, to the deck off the living room. The house sits near the edge of a cliff—a high rocky bluff with a narrow tongue of sand at the bottom. There are five other houses along the clifftop lane; the road that connects them to town and the local beach winds down the gentler southern slope of the hill.

It's chilly and windy, but they sit out on the deck anyhow, Sally on a bench next to the edge of the deck, leaning forward with her arms on the railing, Alex curled up in a chair nearby. They sit in silence, watching the waves below and the sun moving across the sky.

They don't head back inside until after the sun drops below the horizon and night has fallen.

******

The next several days are much the same—they sleep until late in the morning and then move quietly together through their day. They cook together. They walk on the beach. They play checkers. They sit on the deck and look out at the ocean.

Most of their time is spent in silence.

Alex finds the quiet familiar, since she and Sally have never needed many words anyway.

More than that, it's nice to just be able to be. To not have to worry about what she's saying, or not saying. To not have to be mindful of someone else's temper, someone else's worries, someone else's feelings. She feels like she has space to learn how to inhabit her own skin again.

In that sense, she finds the silence comforting.

She thinks Sally does too.

******

One stormy afternoon, they're working on a puzzle. It's a garden scene, with lots of similar-colored flowers and shades of greenery, and it's slow going. While Alex is studying the picture on the box, Sally speaks unexpectedly.

"I always loved gardening as a child. Our whole family helped with the vegetable garden, but my mom and I also had a huge flower garden. It never felt like a chore to pull weeds and do the watering, because I was nurturing the plants and watching them grow. It was relaxing, meditative."

Sally's voice is soft compared to the howl of the wind outside, but it echoes loudly in Alex's ears. She knows there's something important in the seemingly random comments, murmurs a quiet "That sounds nice."

"Now every time I think about gardens, all I can think about is endless work. Hours spent planting and weeding and fertilizing, praying the deer and rabbits would stay away, knowing that failure would mean going hungry all winter. Being yelled at and beaten for not working fast enough or planting enough or doing enough."

Alex hears the anger and resentment behind the words. She understands why it's there, understands one more piece of what the brothers stole from her friend. She keeps her voice soft. "You have every right to hate them for taking that away from you."

Sally doesn't respond verbally, just shrugs, dark head still bowed over the puzzle. Alex knows it's probably not what a counselor would recommend, but says, "It'll take a while, but one of these days you'll be able to grow something again for your own enjoyment, without thinking of the brothers when you do it."

Sally's response is so quiet that she barely hears it. "I hope so. They've already taken too much from me."

Alex wants to ask, but something makes her hold her tongue. She hopes it's awareness that the time isn't right, rather than fear of hearing the answer.

They sit in silence for a while, pouring over the puzzle. They complete a tricky section, look up at each other and smile. Alex points to the floral arch they just pieced together, asks what flowers those are. Sally tells her they're clematis. They bend over the puzzle again and Sally starts pointing out the various flowers in the picture, telling Alex what they are and talking about the ones that are her favorites.

It's not a profound conversation, but Alex sees the way the line of tension in Sally's shoulders relaxes incrementally as she talks, and she smiles to herself.

******

The next day, they're sitting out on the deck, watching a seagull try to get to a specific spot on the railing despite the wind pushing him back. Sally shakes her head, says he's stubborn. The word stirs something in Alex's chest; she abruptly says she fired her therapist.

Sally says nothing, just looks at her, dark eyes warm and sympathetic. Alex finds herself blurting out the story—the way he pushed her to talk, how vulnerable his questions made her feel, her reluctance to tell him the sordid details, the way his final words to her reminded her of things Dwight had said.

She looks up when she feels a hand on her knee, sees Sally shaking her head. "A good therapist will push you, but not that quickly, not before they know you're ready. And anyone who makes you feel the same way Dwight did is not someone you should be around."

Alex closes her eyes in sudden, sharp relief. She'd known that, but had been second-guessing herself. She admits, "He did kinda make me feel like that some, when he wanted to know the specifics about how the brothers touched me...what they did when...you know..." She trails off, rallies. "But I guess I thought maybe it was just me, that I was projecting my own fears or demons onto him or something."

"Did you feel like that with anyone else?"

Alex shakes her head. "No one else asked questions quite like that. I mean, my friends know what happened, the basics, anyhow, but when they ask questions, it's generally because something's triggered a flashback and they're trying to figure out what I'm reacting to or how to help me. Or they ask how I'm feeling. Stuff like that."

She trails off again, mind working in overdrive. Slowly, she says, "I haven't felt like that with anyone else because no one else told me I had a bad attitude or that I was just being stubborn because I wasn't ready to talk."

Sally says quietly, "That's because they know you. That therapist didn't. But you'll find one who does."

Alex sighs softly, stares out at the ocean. Her friend's words are more of a relief than she'd expected.

******

After two weeks, Alex calls Walker. He fills her in on what's been going on in Dallas—their latest case, Carlos graduating to a walking boot, Trent getting sucked into a bar fight, Jimmy's latest get-rich-quick scheme. She finds herself laughing as he talks. It's good to hear about her friends. She's not ready to go home, but she misses them.

A couple days later, Sally calls Sarah while Alex is curled up on the couch reading. The sisters' conversation runs along similar lines. Sally smiles a lot during it.

******

They're watching a movie one evening when Sally abruptly bursts into tears. Alex is out of the chair and kneeling beside her before she's even aware she's moved. Sally stares at her for a moment, seemingly frozen, then collapses against her, sobbing.

Alex holds her close, murmurs soothing words, lets her cry. It's the first time she's ever seen her friend in tears and it's a little scary and painful to watch. But at the same time, she's grateful to be allowed to witness it. She's honored to be trusted to give Sally the same kind of comfort the other woman's given everyone else.

She has no idea how long she kneels beside her friend, holding her. She only knows that by the time the storm of emotion has passed, the TV screen has faded to snow and her knees are aching.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Sally shakes her head, then takes a deep breath and says in a small voice, "I think I need to. But not tonight. I'm..."

Sally doesn't finish the sentence, but she doesn't have to. Alex can read the rest of the words in the fatigue lining Sally's face, in the way she's shaking from the emotional drain. She holds out a hand, helps her friend to her feet, slips an arm around Sally's waist when she sways. She says, "Come on. Let's get you cleaned up and then we'll get some sleep. We can talk later."

She's grateful when Sally doesn't pull away. She leads her to their shared room, to the bathroom, helps her wash her face, then gives her space to get ready for bed. When they curl up under the covers together, Alex spoons up behind her friend, holding her close.

For tonight, she'll be the one holding the demons at bay.

******

The next day, Sally tells her tale in fits and starts. It's eerily similar to Alex's—being kidnapped because she caught Luke's eye, finding two women already captive at the cabin, being raped and beaten into submission, being treated more roughly than the other captives, being put to work like a pack mule and punished every time Dwight's temper flared. Similar to Alex's experience, one of Sally's fellow captives—Mae—was a worried mother type and the other—Jenny—was young and more fragile than she seemed.

And like Alex, Sally had withdrawn and turned inward as a result of what the brothers did to her, having to decide what price she was willing to pay for survival.

Unlike Alex, she second-guessed her decisions, debating whether survival was worth it.

Sally had had no hope of being found and rescued. She'd also experienced horrors far worse than anything Alex could have imagined. During Sally's first year and a half of captivity, she'd watched Jenny die slowly from an illness, watched as Clara, Jenny's "replacement," fought back and tried to escape at every turn, only to be broken down piece by piece. Then Mae got sick and Sally had tried to nurse her back to health, while also taking care of Clara as the worsening punishments took their toll.

Weeks later, both women were dead and Sally was alone in the cabin at the mercy of three pissed off brothers.

Alex shudders as she hears the remembered revulsion in Sally's voice.

There's a measurable pause before her friend speaks again, tone heavy with defeat, admitting she wanted to die too. Alex watches silently as Sally gets off the couch and walks over to stare out the window. The dark-haired woman's voice grows distant as she says that by then, she was so broken down that she didn't have the courage or strength to try to escape again. Death was the only way out.

"I was lying in a bloody heap on the floor one night after Dwight beat the hell out of me for...I don't even know what. Living like that any longer just seemed pointless. If I'd been able to move, I'd have gotten Buddy's hunting knife and slit my wrists. And then I heard Mae's voice in my head. It was something she'd told me early on, something I hadn't really listened to at the time. She said that every time she thought there was no reason to keep living, she remembered that if she was gone, no one would be there for the other women—to take care of them and try to protect them."

Sally's staring blindly at the rapidly sinking sun, tears streaming down her face. Alex gets out of her chair and walks up behind her. She wraps her arms around her friend, her own face wet with tears.

Sally doesn't react to her presence, simply continues talking in a low monotone. "I knew with a man like Dwight, there would be other women. I decided that night that doing for others what Mae had done for me and for the rest of us was reason enough to keep going, reason enough to survive. And then Dwight went out and captured Vanessa, and I finally knew I'd made the right choice."

Silence falls then. Alex stands behind the other woman, holding her, as they both stare out at the darkening sky, their tears slowing, then stopping. She feels Sally lean back slightly against her and is glad she can do something—no matter how small—to support her friend.

After a while, Alex says quietly, "I wish you'd never had to make that decision. But don't ever say you lack courage. It took courage and strength to make the choice to keep living when death would have been easier. Don't ever forget that. You're an amazing person and I, for one, am glad you're still here." She pauses for a moment, then continues, "I don't think I'd have made it through my captivity without you. I appreciate everything you did to take care of me. I don't think I've told you that enough."

Sally starts crying again, sobbing softly, and Alex kisses the back of her head before saying gently, "And while I don't think Vanessa really realizes just what you did for her, I do. It's because of you that she's able to go back to her life with a minimum of scars—both physical and emotional."

She hears Sally chuckle through her tears. "I'm not the only one who helped with that."

Alex snorts in amusement. "It was a big job. You needed to expand the department."

They both start laughing uncontrollably. Sally pulls out of her arms to lean against the sliding glass door; Alex moves to the side to lean against the wall. Alex can hear the slight edge of hysteria in Sally's laughter, thinks it's entirely understandable, given the charged nature of their conversation and the emotions the other woman has been suppressing for far too long.

She knows venting feelings is a good start towards healing. She's grateful that Sally seems to have had a breakthrough.

******

The next day finds Alex doing the talking as they sit together on the couch. Though Sally already knows most of her story, she tells her friend some of the details she hasn't been willing to divulge to anyone else. She's heartened by the sympathy and understanding in dark eyes, saddened by the knowledge in them that tells her Sally was violated in the same ways she was.

She talks about how it was the hope of her friends coming to find her that kept her going, about how they've always come through for her. Sally is visibly upset by the revelation that Alex has been kidnapped more times than she can count, that it's not the first time Alex has been beaten up or slapped around by someone holding her captive, even though those other times pale in comparison to what the brothers did.

Alex tries to soothe her friend, stops dead in her tracks with her mouth hanging open as she recognizes just how much she's been affected by those past traumas. And as she remembers that part of what affected her this time was the sobering realization of just how ugly those other situations would have gotten if not for Walker being there to rescue her.

"Are you angry that he wasn't there to save you this time?"

Alex shakes her head, not even having to think about it. "I was a little bit in the beginning, when I was recovering from the first whipping. But I realized that was unfair to him, and I worked through it pretty quickly. My luck was bound to run out sometime. What happened was no more his fault than mine."

She sees the hint of a smile on Sally's face, realizes her friend already knew the answer, but asked the question to make sure she knew it too. She offers a tiny smile in return. It slides off quickly as her thoughts go back to her new awareness. The situation with the brothers wasn't the most traumatic of the bunch solely because of what they did, bad as it was, but because what they did also dredged up memories she'd buried and tried to forget.

She tells Sally about Tony Seville and Lane Tillman. About Max Kale. About Dewey Baker. About Victor LaRue.

She's trembling and in tears before she finishes, and is grateful for the supportive arm around her back and the warm shoulder to cry on.

She's suddenly exhausted, feeling like she's just run a marathon or something. Pulling slightly out of Sally's embrace, she glances up at her friend's face and sees the same exhaustion lurking in dark eyes. She chuckles then, through her tears, sees the confused look Sally gives her.

Alex manages to sit up straight, hiccups, and says simply, "Do you know we've talked more in the past two days than we did in the entire four plus months we were captives?"

Sally cocks her head to the side, gives a crooked smile. "It wasn't the time or the place then. But I know what you mean. Catharsis is draining."

Alex chuckles again. "True story. Besides feeling like I could sleep for a week, I feel like I could eat a horse."

Sally laughs. "I think we have something a bit tastier than that. Go wash your face; I'll make us some lunch...er...dinner."

As Alex makes her way to the bathroom, she feels lighter than she has in a very long time—like she's released a weight she hadn't really known she was carrying.

For the first time, she feels as though she's solidly on the road to healing and she's confident she will get her life back. It's a good feeling.

******

Over the next couple of weeks, they intersperse walks on the beach, watching movies, and doing puzzles with lots of conversation. There's some talk about their ordeals, about how they were affected by them then, about how they're feeling now. There's more talk about their lives before they were kidnapped.

Alex talks about her job, her friends, their various adventures, her relationship with Walker. Sally is, predictably, not quite as talkative, but she shares memories of her mom, tells stories of the fun times she and Sarah had growing up, mentions some of her hobbies.

Alex calls Walker every few days, tells him what they've been doing, listens to his tales of life in Texas. There's laughter and there's teasing. It feels good. It feels like old times.

Sally calls Sarah a couple of times. The phone calls aren't long, but they're filled with cryptic, knowing comments that clearly mean something to both women, but make no sense at all to Alex. She just rolls her eyes.

******

They're sitting on the deck one sunny afternoon. Alex gets up and paces. She's restless, but she doesn't want to take a walk, doesn't want to go down to the beach, doesn't know what she wants to do.

Sally's leaning back in a chair with her feet up on the railing. "Maybe it's time for you to go back home."

Alex stops in front of the railing, crosses her arms on top of it and leans forward. She stares at the ocean beyond, considering the words. "I think maybe it is," she says slowly. "Much as I like it here, I miss the prairie—I miss Walker's ranch and the woodlands beyond. I miss taking walks in the park and going horseback riding. I miss the excitement of the big city. I miss my friends. I miss my job."

She pauses for a moment as she's hit with the revelation. "I miss my life."

She hears movement, isn't surprised when Sally comes to stand right beside her, pressing their arms together. Her friend doesn't say anything, and after a moment, Alex asks, "What about you? Are you ready to go back?"

Sally's tone is dry. "Unlike you, I don't exactly have a life to go back to."

Alex turns her head, not entirely sure how to interpret that, finds Sally watching her with a wry smile on her face. "It's not a judgment, Alex. It's just reality. I don't have roots in Santa Rosa."

"Your sister is there. Your dad."

Sally stares back out at the ocean. "They are. But as much as I love them, they've created their own lives there. It's not exactly fair to them for me to try and horn in on that just because I don't have anywhere else to go."

Alex is confused by this turn in the conversation. She's suddenly concerned that maybe her friend is not coping with things as well as she'd thought.

Sally speaks softly. "I want to stay here. I've fallen in love with this place, with the ocean, in a way I'd never expected. Santa Rosa is nice enough, but it's not where I want to be. I already know my dad and Sarah won't have a problem with me living here. With me making this my home. Since I'm starting over from scratch, I may as well put down roots in a place I feel safe and comfortable. You know?"

The words blow Alex's worries away as if they were smoke, and she smiles brightly. "I do know. And I'm glad you have a place where you feel safe and secure."

They stand there in silence for a few minutes, then Sally says, "I'll go call Sarah. She'll probably get all the arrangements made before you even have time to pack." They both laugh knowingly.

As her friend slips back into the house, Alex stands there, staring off into the distance. She's glad she came out here. She's even gladder that she's eager to go back home.

******

Epilogue

It's almost a year to the day before Alex makes it back to California again.

Sarah offers to pick her up at the airport and drive her to the beach house, but Alex declines. She rents a car, takes her time exploring the coastline, enjoying the scenery of the drive.

When she arrives at the house, she stands staring at the front door for a moment, uncertain whether she should knock or just walk on in. Before she can debate it too long, the door swings open and she sees Sally leaning against the doorjamb, looking amused. Alex grins at her, then stands there hesitantly, hands in her pockets. Normally, she'd offer a hug, but it's been a long time since they've seen each other and she's aware that her friend tends to be a lot more reserved than she is.

Sally resolves her dilemma by pushing away from the door and stepping forward to wrap her in a bear hug. Alex relaxes into it, hugging her back, and they hold the embrace for almost a minute.

Alex can't stop smiling as she follows her friend into the house. She's really missed Sally.

Sally gives her her choice of guest rooms and she picks the one next to the living room with a door that connects to the deck. She drops her luggage on the floor of the bedroom and opens the curtains to stare out at the view. By the time she unpacks a few things and makes her way back to the kitchen, Sally's brewed a pot of coffee and filled two mugs. Looking around, Alex smiles when she sees two African violets sitting in the kitchen windowsill.

They head out to the deck and Alex takes a deep breath, the tang of the salt air instantly relaxing her. They sit in companionable silence for a moment, sipping their coffee, then Sally asks, "Stressful week?"

Alex gives a rueful laugh. "More like stressful month. All work related stuff, thankfully."

Sally nods. "Yeah, sounded like your caseload was driving you bananas." There's a short pause, then the woman continues, "Talked to Nessa this morning. She says to say hi. She started school this semester—she and two of her sisters are sharing an apartment near campus. And she's got a new boyfriend—her brother set her up with one of his friends and they hit it off immediately. She sounds like a lovesick teenager, honestly. If it wasn't so cute, it would be nauseating."

Alex laughs at the mock note of disgust in Sally's voice. She and Vanessa have fallen out of touch in the past several months, so she's glad to hear the update.

She says, "I'll try not to sound too much like a lovesick teen when I tell you that I think Walker's finally ready to set a wedding date."

She glances over to see Sally nodding in approval. "Took him long enough."

Rolling her eyes, Alex chuckles in agreement. Sally's heard all about their years-long on-again-off-again-on-again journey, and about Walker's fear of commitment. Most people would have assumed his reason for continuing to wait had to do with her captivity and subsequent recovery; Sally knows that was only the smallest piece of the puzzle.

Alex clears her throat. "Since we're on the subject, what about you? Is there anyone you're interested in?"

She's still glancing at Sally, so sees the way the woman hunches up her shoulders. There's silence for a long moment, before Sally says quietly, "I'm not healed enough to think about dating or relationships yet. Just the thought of being that close to someone brings back some bad memories. You know."

Alex keeps her voice soft and soothing. "I do." She'd had a stable relationship with Walker before the kidnapping, and it had still taken her nearly six months to be comfortable with anything more intimate than fully clothed cuddling. She continues, "Believe me, I understand." She's relieved when she sees her friend's shoulders relax.

Sally sighs. "Sarah's concerned. I keep telling her I'm okay, that it will be okay. That I just need time."

Alex says, "It's a big step after something so traumatic. You want to be sure you're ready for it."

Sally nods emphatically. "Exactly." There's a pause, then the woman's tone turns dry. "Besides, there are worse things in the world than being single."

Alex laughs at that, agrees.

They fall silent for a while, each busy with their own thoughts. Through their phone calls, they already know most of what's going on with each other. Alex found a therapist she connected with and is back to being busy with work and her friends and the HOPE Center. Sally's working part-time at an art gallery in the next town over, and she's taken up painting, one of the hobbies she and her mom shared.

Alex has worried a bit about her friend over the past few months. From what she's gathered from their conversations, Sally is still quiet and reclusive, having only a few friends, spending a lot of time on her own. But seeing her now, Alex's worries are calmed. Sally doesn't appear to be haunted or troubled. The dark-haired woman looks good and seems content. She tells her so.

Sally looks at her inquisitively for a moment, like she's trying to figure out where the comment came from. Alex just watches her, sees when the pieces come together. Sally shrugs. "Yeah, I'm a bit of a hermit these days. But honestly, I've always been something of a loner. I mean, you've met my dad, right?"

They share a chuckle before Sally continues, "I'm not like you and Nessa. I can't go back to being the person I was before. Too much happened. There are too many scars. But that doesn't mean that I don't like the person I am now or that my life is ruined."

She pauses there, fixes Alex with an intense stare. "I came out of that nightmare in one piece, and I got a second chance at life, at happiness. I have work that I love, a handful of genuine friends, a supportive family, a beautiful place to live, and a friendship with you that means more than I can put into words."

Alex blushes and says softly, "Your friendship is one of the best things in my life, too. Having someone who truly understands who I am and what I've overcome is...priceless."

Sally smiles gently. "Ditto. The point is that this"—she waves her hand in the air, encompassing everything—"is a better outcome than I ever could have dreamed of. My life will never be the same as it was. I can't change that. But it doesn't mean that what I have now is less than what I had before. It's just different. I'm healing, slowly but surely. I'm living life on my own terms and I'm at peace. That's more than a lot of people in this world can say."

Alex leans forward in her chair, reaches out, places a hand on her friend's knee. "I'm happy to hear it," she says sincerely. Sally smiles at her.

The conversation lapses then, as they fall back into their familiar pattern of quiet. Sally stares out at the ocean. Alex sits back and lets her own gaze drift to the horizon.

Sally's words echo in her mind and she realizes there's a lot of wisdom in them. While she's pretty much just picked up her life as though she'd never left it, Alex knows that it's not exactly the same as it was before because she's not exactly the same. And that doesn't mean it's bad, just that it's different, as Sally said.

She would have happily lived out her days without enduring the ordeal at the hands of the brothers. She would never choose to go through that again if given a choice. But she's also aware that without it, she wouldn't have this friendship that has become so central to her life. She and Walker wouldn't have gotten quite as deep into some conversations about love and trust and boundaries, conversations that have only brought them closer together. And she wouldn't have learned some of the things she has about herself—about her strength, her ability to endure, her capacity for understanding and compassion.

Good and bad. Light and shadow. Joy and sorrow. Hope and despair.

Yin and yang.

Life in all its dizzying, wondrous complexity.

Neither of them can change the past, those paths that have led them to where they are now and made them into the people they are today. But the present and the future are theirs, to write in whatever way they choose.

She's looking forward to seeing what the next chapter holds.

The End
Tags: fanfic, walker texas ranger
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