“Did anyone see you?”
Beth rolls her eyes, letting out an indignant sigh. “No one ever sees me. That’s why you send me.”
There’s a chuckle from across the room, which is instantly silenced when Gavin turns his attention toward the offender. He doesn’t like it when she gets cocky like that, and it also isn’t the time or place for it so that doesn’t help much, either. “They cleared out an entire outpost. They killed everyone inside. They wont hesitate for half a second if they catch you skulking around.”
“Yeah, and you used up all your luck on the first headshot.” This time Beth’s eyes only narrow. Mac. Hunter, occasional run partner, part time child wrangler, is making a pathetic excuse for a joke.
Gavin rubs at his temple and slumps back into his chair. “Children-” It’s a warning. Unlike some people she still possesses a certain level of grace. Of tact. She’ll just trip his ass on the way out, or hit him extra hard when they’re sparring alter tonight.
“It’s only a matter of time before they show up on our doorstep. We all know that. There’s no white flag we can wave – they will come in guns blazing and it’s not going to be soldiers that they kill. It’s going to be expectant mothers, elderly,” Gavin’s tone darkens with each word. “- “-children. They don’t know what’s here – why would they hesitate?”
She can see some of them through the window. They’re out in the courtyard having lunch. It’s their break before classes and training. Beth knows each of them by name, she spends enough time with them so she should.
“No one’s arguing that. No one doubts that they wont cut us down just as soon as look at us. What makes you think they’re going to take in a whole group?”
Mac is nervous. Weary. For the last few weeks Gavin has grown increasingly more on edge. They all have. Nothing quite brings down morale as a leader at unease.
“They don’t know what we have here. For all they know, we could be sitting on a stockpile of weapons just waiting to be rolled out to the Sanctuary. Take out the outposts, cripple us. Take our weapons, our supplies, our people. Whoever they are – they aren’t stupid. Not anymore.” Beth adds quietly.
“They all want to kill us and you want us to just waltz up to the gates and ask them to what – hold onto the kids while we go and fight t heir people? Come on, Bird. You aren’t seriously considering this.” She doesn’t need to tear her eyes away from the window to know that Mac’s looking at her expectantly, like the dogs do when they’re waiting on food or praise. “One or two people are a hell of a lot easier to move than what, a dozen? Most of those are children who can’t even hold a gun.”
She can’t blame him. She doesn’t. The whining is annoying but no one wants to die sooner than is necessary. For now, Beth decides to ignore him. “Alexandria will be the first place he would look if he got wind of this. Rick doesn’t sound stable – I don’t want the kids there.”
“So that leaves us with what, the King and the Widow?”
Beth nodded, turning around from the window with her arms crossed over her chest. “Gregory isn’t in charge anymore. He doesn’t have sway there, he’d do whatever we told him to but if the people wont listen to him it doesn’t matter. He’s useless to us now.”
“What do we know about the Widow?”
All she can manage is a shrug. That she’s a widow. Negan killed her husband, for all intensive purposes she’s taken over Hilltop. They don’t know much about her. The Hilltop isn’t their colony to gather from, anyways.
“The King is our best bet. They have the space and the supplies. He’s going to be the most reasonable out of the three.” Gavin adds, pinching the bridge of his nose.
She wouldn’t know, but she does know that every time they are scheduled to run a pick up Gavin is there, as is the King. Gavin she can trust. He wouldn’t be suggesting it otherwise. When Negan had given him an outpost, he had taken it seriously. They weren’t just Negan’s people, they were his, too. They were his responsibility.
Mac let out a low grunt from his seat. Muttering something along the lines of “maybe before dumbass killed one of his people.”
Beth’s eyes are immediately drawn to Gavin. Mac didn’t need to get into specifics for her to know exactly what dumbass he was talking about, and who the aforementioned dead happened to be. No one was ever going to forget the day that Gavin had made Jared walk back. When he’d gotten back after dark a small crowd had been waiting by the gates, stupid smiles on their faces while Jared banged against the metal and demanded to be let the fuck in.
An innocent had died because of him. One of the King’s people, a young kid. Gavin said he’d probably been around her age – maybe younger ( not that anyone has any clue how old she actually is) He’d gotten shot, died from his wounds. All because of Jared.
She’d never seen him like that before. Upset, he’d been on the verge of tears telling her about it. After she’s stared him down long enough to make him uncomfortable with the silence. Everyone tells her things in the end. She’s got a way of dragging it out of them without so much as opening her mouth.
“Okay,” Mac leans forward on the edge of his seat. “You do realize that this is a suicide run, right? Say we get everyone out of here safely, if Negan ever finds out-”
Beth’s jaw sets. There it is. The fear, the hesitance. “That’s why I’m going. Everyone coming with us made that choice.”
Yes. Beth had laid it out for all of them, the adults, the ones pulling this whole thing off. The children were the most important part, they were just there to be act as bodyguards. Meat shields. The children were the only thing that mattered.
“If it comes down to it, I tell Negan it was my idea.”
Silence falls over the room. Gavin doesn’t give her a surprised look the way Mac does. Mac looks like she’d just slapped him across the face. She had already had this talk with Gavin. The outpost needs someone like him in charge. It’s the only shot they have at surviving this. He can’t take the fall for this.
She’s nobody, nothing. There’s no past, and she knows she’s got no future. She’d been on borrowed time since she had woken up in that hospital. If she can do one thing, one good thing, it’s gonna be this. She’ll take the fall. Gavin will pin it on her because she just about begged him to. She’ll go to the cells or, more realistically, she’ll get re-acquainted with Lucille. It’s not how she would want to go out if she had to choose, but that doesn’t matter. She’ll die, the world will keep turning. What’s she got to live for, anyways?
“Fuck, Bird.” Mac shakes his head, dragging his hand back over his marine-cut hair. “You know I’ve got your back,” and he’s not at all happy about that, but he doesn’t need to be. She needs him out there with her. He’s a good shot, if something happens they need all the extra bodies Gavin can spare. “We really doing this?”
Both she and Mac turn to look towards Gavin. All he does is give them a small nod. He had been waiting for this day since it all started, long before she ever got to the outpost. This was a reality that Gavin had accepted some time ago, he wasn’t about to back down now.
She should be planning, prepping. Making sure her gear is packed, her weapons are cleaned, there’s a whole list of shit she should be doing. So it’s a bit baffling that she’s sitting in front of a big old TV, surrounded by children (and a few teenagers) of various ages watching an old Disney movie, Hercules.
This is one of her favourites. She’s seen them all by now, that’s what happens when you take the babysitting detail and the runners know to pick up ever VHS and DVD they come across. There’s children slumped against her on either side. One, a little boy named Jacob is passed out, and on her other side a girl just barely clinging to consciousness. A few others are sprawled out on the floor on top of sleeping bags and blankets. Beth could mute it and repeat the entire movie off by heart, but there’s some scenes that just demand her attention. On the screen, a young Hercules is confessing something heartbreaking to his parents. That he doesn’t feel as if he belongs there – that he’s supposed to be some place else. Then he starts to sing.
It’s the song that does it.
Every time she hears it, feels like every word is a punch to the chest.
I have often dreamed of a far-off place
Where a great, warm welcome will be waiting for me
Where the crowds will cheer when they see my face
And a voice keeps saying, this is where I'm meant to be
The first time that she had ever heard it, she’d needed to excuse herself. The tears had come uninvited, catching her off guard. In a million years she never would have thought that she would identify with a cartoon character and yet. Not that she’s a god, there’s absolutely nothing special about her. There’s no adoptive parents hiding some big dramatic truth – there’s no alternative origin story. There’s no one, nothing waiting for her outside the walls. It’s ridiculous is what it is.
It’s a kid’s movie, she’s a grown ass woman (at least, they think she is) but it never ceases to amaze her how wrapped up she gets in the story. In that goddamn song. Some days Go The Distance feels more like advice than simple lyrics.
There was no amulet around her neck. She had been hurt, someone had tried to take her strength away – take her life. She had been left for dead, unwanted. She hadn’t been found by a loving family. Instead, she had been brought into an environment of hate and fear. Once or twice she heard her caretakers lament ‘We’re wasting supplies on her’
Sometimes she wishes they’d done it. Killed her like they so obviously had wanted to.
Beth had dared to dream that there was something else out there. Some far-off place where a great warm welcome would be waiting for her just like it said in the song. Some days, she still lets herself slip into the fantasy that maybe, maybe it could happen.
A pad of paper impedes her view, and Beth’s lips thin ready to tell off whoever is cutting of her line of sight from the TV until she sees what’s being held in front of her. It’s not a blank sheet, it’s covered in heavy lines and bold colors. Her eyes drift upwards towards the culprit, who is standing there expectantly with a look on her face that is all but demanding Beth give her every scrap of attention that she can manage.
Haley was another Sanctuary castoff. Dumped by her asshole half-brother who claimed he couldn’t take care of her, she was too difficult. Haley helps with the kids, sometimes with the gardening. Lately she’s been going out on simple runs with Beth after she’d shown an interest in it. When she isn’t child rearing or getting her hands dirty, she is curled up with a sketchbook. She draws. Like, a lot. She can’t really write, at least she claims that she can’t. She does the line-art and one of her friends provides the words.
Her latest thing has been illustrating the goings on at the outpost, daily events, stories she’s heard from the people who actually leave the walls. They’re all carefully drawn characters. She’s recording their history, because some day maybe someone will wanna know what was there – who they were. So she draws.
The current page depicts movie night. Specifically, last week when they’d all gotten stale Pop-Tarts as a treat. It’s a rare page filled with smiling and happiness. Beth can find herself immediately. She’s the one spot of darkness in the picture. From head to toe she’s wearing varying shades of black and grey. The only real spot of colour is her hair which trickles down her back. She had just gotten back from a Code Orange, a shitty a one; but it was movie night. Gavin had already been debriefed and she needed an escape. Hauling herself off to bed was just looking for trouble. Being alone was always a terrible idea. So instead, she’d snuck into movie night and watched quietly from the back of the room.
A slip of paper falls onto the page. Running low on batteries.
Beth frowns and holds the pad back out. Haley, as if worried that she had somehow missed the note entirely pulls back short cropped brown hair and taps on her ear. On that little bit of black plastic.
“I know. Dwight’s checking around the market at Sanctuary. Lu is going out tomorrow, she’s got some ideas on where we might find some.” Haley rolls her eyes as if Beth had just told her they were never going to get her new batteries for her hearing aid ever again. Which is a bit dramatic, but she’s a teenager so it’s to be expected, she supposes. “This is good.” Beth nods towards the pad that Haley’s now clutching protectively against her chest. As it always does, the praise turns her frown right upside down instantly.
Now that she’s pleased, she retreats back to the corner where she’s set herself up with an oil lamp and a pillow, and Beth finally gets to look back at the screen.
The song’s over, but whatever. She’ll hear it again some day.
After the movie ends the children are returned to their barracks, Beth heads back to her own room. It’s a pointless exercise, changing into her pyjamas and laying down with her head against the pillow like she actually has a hope in hell of getting some rest. She wont. It doesn’t matter what she does, what she takes. The night before a run she rarely sleeps. Instead it’s time spent pouring over the plan, and the back up plan, and the secondary back up until she has exhausted everything.
She’d always taken this seriously. Gavin had stressed the very first time he’d let her out on her own that he was trusting her. She was responsible for the lives that she ferried out of the outpost, and the supplies, and for maintaining discretion. This time it’s different. They’ve never had multiple groups, they’ve never taken over a dozen people of any age from the outpost at once. They’ve never turned to the other communities for help.
That’s what it is. They’re asking for help, begging for it. She wouldn’t be surprised if the words ‘help’ and ‘aid’, and of course ‘please’ didn’t pop up in the letters that Gavin would be writing.
They could still say no. They could turn them away at the gates. They wont shoot on sight. It’s a gamble, a remarkably huge one made by a man who she’s heard time and time again advise against playing the odds. It’s ballsy to even entertain the idea that the children might be granted asylum. It wouldn’t change their agreements. They would still need to keep to the schedule and collect, they couldn’t cut down on anything, there was no room to ease up.
Blind faith was what it was.
Gavin, hoping above all else that there’s still good in these people. Beth’s never met them. She’s met a couple of the Kingdom folks and by met – she’s watched them from afar. Gavin’s dealt with the King directly, says he’s reasonable. A strong leader, beloved by his people. There’s good in those walls. That what he’d said to her.
She begged to differ. Good things don’t last in this world. They aren’t made for this world. Good people die. They die or they change which at the end of the day doesn't feel much different. What's left when you strip away the good? Strip away the light? Someone like her. A shell. Might as well be dead anyway. Not that the universe hadn't tried that hand already.
Beth’s sitting silently in the rec-room while people dance around her in a flurry of motion. The final checks are taking place, weapons are being doled out. The youngest of the group is a year old. The eldest, sixty. She’ll take the older children on foot, the group heading to the Hilltop will have a few vehicles that they’d readied and hidden days before, just outside the outposts boundaries.
“Come on, Car. You’ve gotta put this on.” Mac is attempting to reason with a particularly ornery six year old who, from her vantage point, looks to be on the verge of tears.
“What about Bear?” The little boy asks, bottom lip trembling.
Beth slides out of her seat and cuts across the room. Mac turns his head to look at her, giving an exhausted shake. Beth says nothing, only taking the black jacket from his hand’s and kneeling down to the child’s level. “Bear’s gonna go with you.” She says quietly, motioning for him to put his arms out. Mac’s okay with the kids, but his empathy sucks. It’s for the best he never had any before. “He’d be sad if he had to stay here.”
The aformentioned Bear was one of the two non-livestock animals allowed at the outpost. Bear was a big English Mastiff. A couple hunters had found him a few years back. Useless as a hunting dog but a great guard dog. Not that they’d trained him for it, it was just his size. He was huge, probably weighed more than she did. Beth’d never seen him so much as growl at anyone. Dead, yes, but the children? No. He was like their Nana – that dog from the Peter Pan movie. Where the children went, Bear followed.
Carson reluctantly stretches his arms at his sides. “What about Sadie?”
Ah, Sadie. Her dog. She’d found her out on a run, poured points into nursing her back to health. Some sort of collie and heeler mix apparently. Short hair, a funny grey and white speckled coat with tan around her feet (almost like she’s wearing boots as one of the children had one pointed out) dark brown eyes and grey ears. Well, a grey ear. The other had been torn off, best guess was that it had been the walker that they'd found with it's arm jammed in the cage. Beth didn't mind, it gave her personality. Besides, wasn't like she was all there either. They've both got their marks from this damn world. She'd always thought it's why they made such a good pair.
“Sadie’s gonna go with me. Gotta make sure all those teenagers walk fast. She’ll nip at their heels if they slow down.” Beth snaps her teeth together quick, which earns a giggle from the boy. Sadie would do it, too. A breed thing (apparently) “I know it’s warm and you don’t wanna wear this, but we have to. Even Sadie and Bear are wearing them.”
Okay, the dogs aren’t wearing coats, but harnesses with reflective stripping taped on. Just like every child and adult. So they could keep track of them in low light. Beth lets out a low whistle. No one else pays much attention to it, not until the white-grey streak comes barrelling into the room. “See?” Sadie stops right in front of her, tail wagging expectantly. Sure enough, Sadie’s already got her harness on her. Complete with the reflective add-ons.
Carson gives her a careful once over, and Sadie licks the boys face and settles at his feet. Deeming it suitable, he allows her to slide the arms of his slightly-too-big coat on. “How about you two go make sure Bear’s got his harness on, okay?” She says as she straightens up, giving Mac a pointed look.
She’d just fixed the kid, he better not undo it. The last thing anyone needs is the cries of a child to serve as a distraction or worse yet a beacon.
From the looks of the room they’re just about ready to go. They’ll do a final headcount and check the two-ways, make sure everyone who can carry is armed, then they’ll be heading out. It’ll be okay, she knows this. They’ve planned for well over a month, the routes were secured. The biggest threats and obstacles removed in the days before, all in preparation for this.
If the King was anywhere near as kindhearted as Gavin seemed to believe, the children would be welcome. As for the Hilltop, Gregory was easily bought if word from Simon’s crew said anything. Gregory would bend in whatever direction they pushed him in. To sweeten the pot, they were sending supplies with them. If there was no heart in that man left to manipulate, but they weren't dealing with Gregory. No. Word was the Widow had control of the hilltop. There was a reason why the youngest were being sent there. A teenager could be turned away, but toddlers? No. Even Negan wouldn't turn them away. In the event the Widow contemplated it, the two crates of medical supplies and three coolers of untainted food would serve as a bargaining chip.
They were ready. Beth stuffs her hand into the pocket of her jacket, feeling until her fingers close around the familiar bunch of wool. The black watch cap is pulled out, shaken, then brought down on her head. What’s left of her hair is carefully gathered and tucked underneath the collar of her jacket. Sadie weaves excitedly between her legs. She knows what that means, what happens when her master is all dressed up. No doubt that she’s feeding off the excitement and emotions that are running at a high in the rec room.
“Let’s head out.” Beth’s voice cuts through the room like a sharp edged knife. Everyone pauses and looks, but there are no questions. No discussions. One by one, they make their way out of the rec room and down the hall. A silent procession.
She’s one of the last to leave. Taking up the back of the line. Once they’re in the yard, they’ll split off and say their goodbyes. Beth just wants one last look.
Maybe, she thinks to herself, maybe it will be okay. If not for her then for the children. They’re worth the risk. If they can get even a few far from here, somewhere safe. They deserve that much. They deserve more, but this is as much as she can give to any of them.
If need be, her life, too.