Come Back To Me
By Aoikami Sarah
Started in February of 2019, sometime around episode 50 of CRC2. First version posted in June of 2019. Revision begun January 2020, finished June 2020. Long may he reign.
Gustav Fletching would always remember that the sunset appeared downright glorious that day; pale blue and yellow shifted against the clouds and succumbed to magenta and soft violet—as good a sign as any that he was on the right path, even if he had been headed to Shady Creek Run.
He breathed in the crisp air, rubbed his hands a few times, then folded them under his arms for warmth. As the sun set, the autumnal temperatures dropped to nearly freezing. He could still turn around. The thin jacket with long tails he wore offered little protection from the elements and he had recently worn a small hole in the sole of his left shoe. Only another day or so to the border. He could still turn around. To the south, the moon Catha, nearly full but waning and trailed by small, dark Ruidus seemed to follow him like two crazy mis-matched eyes.
He could still turn around.
A twinge of panic surprised him, making him catch his breath and shudder involuntarily.
Not a week prior the Mighty Nein had trundled into his life once again and turned it on its head, releasing him from hard labor and turning him out on the world a free man. He had initially refused to let them bestow such kindness, having become so comfortable in his own self-pity. The idea of being free from court-mandated repentance terrified him. Before they arrived, he struggled daily with dread. What would he do with freedom? What purpose could a former ring-master serve? He'd lost everything—his family, his livelihood, his confidence that he could make even a small difference in the world.
One week prior a pink-haired firbolg traveling with the Mighty Nein looked on him through his prison cell bars with unblinking, penetrating eyes. "You're a man who is afraid of what you owe," he had said. "It'll feel so much better when you're finally free from this belief."
More than a decade earlier, two men sat at a table in the back corner of a tavern. Each of them clutched leathern tankards and conversed loudly. A human man with his back to the room wore a large hood that protected his scarred face from view. He chuckled as he raised the drink to his lips again. "This is madness," he said through a ragged smile. "A couple of ne'er-do-wells such as ourselves? Convincing people to come with us?"
"It will work, Desmond!" a younger Gustav chimed, sloshing his drink as if he had forgotten he was holding it. "It will. We go back to the market tomorrow and we just go 'hey, you. Flutist.' Floutist? Fluter? Whatever. 'You, flute player. You are awesome. Come with us.'"
"You do the talking."
Desmond took another long pull from his tankard. "And who or what are 'us', exactly?"
"Desmond and Gustav!" he replied cheerily.
"That sounds stupid, though."
"Ok. What was the name of that flea circus we saw? Reedy and Fillington's Amazing…something-something."
"Reedus and Feller's Amazing Cabinet of Wonders."
"Aha! Desmond! We need surnames."
Desmond paled. "Oh gods…"
"No, no! I'll give you a new one! How about, Desmond…" Gustav looked around the room. A painted sign advertising the local brew caught his eye. "Moondrop!"
Desmond turned to follow his eyes and appreciated the beauty of the sign's artistry. A silver crescent moon shape pierced the handle of a tankard with the words Moon Drop Ale inscribed below it. "Fine." He noticed a young archer seated just below the sign with a quiver full of arrows. "You'll be Gustav Fletching," he said, taking the name from the bright green feathers that made up the arrows' fletching.
"Done!" Gustav agreed and held his tankard out to toast him.
Desmond turned back to face him and snorted at the ridiculous grin on Gustav's face. "Fine," he said and touched his drink to his. "Fletching and Moondrop's…"
"Travelling," Gustav added and scooped the air with his hand to ask for the next word.
"Carnival," Desmond said with some finality.
He rolled his eyes. "Alright, enough!"
Gustav laughed and Desmond did his best to hide a smile in the brim of the tankard.
As the years passed and the carnival grew, it wasn't often that the two men argued. Usually, Gustav would defer to Desmond regarding who they let in to their troupe. Desmond set the bar rather high; someone they supported had to be a good enough performer to justify the effort. Then one day a lavender-skinned tiefling wandered into their camp from the woods. He was bedraggled, covered in dirt, and barefoot. He was mute and appeared to have suffered some horrible abuse or other. They could not have guessed what he would tell them when his senses returned, that he had crawled from the ground in which he'd been buried.
Desmond did not care for him from the start. To him, this man was a burden. He had nothing to contribute and put undue stress on their resources and time, and potentially, their safety. But he was vastly outnumbered. Everyone in the troupe loved this poor, unfortunate soul. They ministered to him, slept with him held close to keep him warm, and nursed him back to health. Gustav seemed especially taken with him and Desmond noticed. One day while they were traveling the Menagerie Coast, he started to speak, but could mutter only the word 'empty', and it frightened a young performer. Gustav thought on his feet and told the young boy that he was saying 'M.T.' and that those were his initials which stood for (he looked up at the sky and saw a sea bird winging) Mollymauk (he looked down to the mug clutched in his hands) Tealeaf. Once named, he was officially theirs and Desmond huffed and puffed, but could do nothing about it.
A year or more later when Gustav wanted to bring in a sweet, young dwarven girl singer and her huge, mysterious and deformed companion Desmond had tried to put his foot down, claiming that the creature she was attached to was too dangerous. But Gustav was determined and the company loved the little girl and stood behind him. They could keep her safe until they could find someone to free her from him. But Desmond had been right.
When it all fell apart one horrible night in Trostenwald and this 'man' murdered a half-dozen people, it was all over for The Fletching & Moondrop Traveling Carnival of Curiosities. Kylre was dead, Mona and Yuli disappeared, Toya, Orna, and Bosun left together, Mollymauk and Yasha followed the group that would become the Mighty Nein, and Gustav took the blame and the penalty of hard labor to make up a fine of over twenty-six-hundred gold for the loss of life and destruction of property to the town.
All but the missing halfling sisters and the late 'devil-toad' gathered at a tavern for one last drink before parting. Desmond Moondrop said little save that he wasn't sure what he would do from here, but he would go alone. Gustav tried to keep in good spirits for the sake of everyone else, but his heart ached with guilt. He was about to lose everything—his collected family, his happiness—and couldn't really see a light at the end of the tunnel. He'd go to prison, and perhaps, he thought darkly, the labor would be too much, perhaps it would kill him. That would be fine. He deserved it for what he'd done.
He said goodnight and goodbye to everyone and succeeded in keeping the smile on his face until he'd left the tavern, but as soon as he knew he was alone, his face fell. He walked toward the prison as if being pulled by a heavy chain.
"Gustav," Desmond called from the shadows between buildings.
"Desmond…" He stopped and turned to face him but didn't approach.
"Running off to jail, are you?"
"I know what you're doing. You can't face me, can you?"
"Desmond, I—" Gustav searched for the right words. "I'm so sorry. This is all my fault. I'll start with this. I will pay my debt to this town, first."
"I'll make it up to you."
"How? Start a new carnival? Why? So you can fuck it up again? So you can destroy my life again?!" Gustav took a step back as Desmond stepped out of the alleyway, shoulders hunched, fists clenched in anger. "I have nothing left. You ruined everything. I trusted you!"
"I'm sorry, Desmond! Please don't—"
"No," he barked, turned around and walked away. "I'm done with you. I never want to see you again."
Tears coursed down Gustav's face as he stood there for several minutes. He watched him under the few oil lamps that lined the street as he walked out of town. When he could no longer see him, Gustav continued on his way to the prison where he would languish for almost three months before being bailed out by the Mighty Nein.
Their newest member, the pink-haired firbolg man, had looked into his eyes and through his soul. Gustav had managed not to gasp aloud and put on his best showman's smile, but Caduceus' words hit home hard.
"This is my debt to pay." Gustav glared at him from behind the bars as he realized that these good, kind people would not be swayed. "This is my responsibility."
He shook his head, floppy ears flapping softly. "This is not your debt. Your debt lies elsewhere. I know these things."
Gustav paled. He knew exactly where 'elsewhere' was, and once he was released, he did his best to put on a good show, marching away with a spring in his step until he was out of sight, then let his shoulders droop and marched north.
Gustav gently slapped his cheeks to help snap himself out of his gloom. "You probably can't make it up to him, but it's all you can do to try. It'll be terrible, but that hardly matters. You deserve whatever you get," he muttered, then gave an exasperated groan. "Come on, Fletching! The sky is clear, you're in good health, and the path is…" he started, then observed the path in question. A long way up the Glory Run Road ahead of him with his half-elven vision he spied a covered wagon listed to one side. Three figures he could only just make out moved around it. "The path has a broken down cart in it," he muttered with a grin and picked up the pace.
As he approached he raised his hands in passive greeting. Gustav Fletching was a tall, thin, half-elven man with straight silky ash-brown hair that he wore done up in a thick braid down his back. His eyes were a friendly, warm brown and a sincere smile graced his fine features.
"Hail, friends. You look like you could use a hand." Disappointingly, the wagon was pointing in the opposite direction of his travel. "If you were headed north, I would ask for a ride, but perhaps you could spare a silver or two for some assistance?"
A stout dwarven man scoffed from his position squatting near the broken wheel. Two of the spokes had snapped causing the rim to bow out. A half-orc woman standing next to him raised her chin and put her hand on the handle of a great ax on her hip.
"Hail!" chimed the third member of their party and the other two groaned. A human woman in her fifties or so smiled at him and made a gesture he didn't recognize but assumed was associated with her worship as she wore clerical vestments of the Platinum Dragon. Another quick scan of the party found hints of this worship adorning the other two, as well. She swung a lantern around so that she could see their visitor. "If you could offer any assistance, good sir, we would be most appreciative!"
Gustav peered at the cart. It was otherwise in fair shape. "I traveled quite a bit in such contraptions and have repaired them more times that I care to count. I may not have a strong back like you fine folks, but I do have some know-how. If you were to pry the topmost board from the buck it can be split in two and lashed to the spokes as a splint. Could get you as far as the crossroads if you move carefully." The cleric looked to the others for confirmation and they shrugged.
"Worth a try," the dwarf grumbled and made a motion for Gustav to assist.
"First, you should unload some of the weight if you have anything heavy back there because you'll need to jack this up. Do you have anything that could go under the axel?"
"Ah, we have some barrels we could use," the cleric agreed and she and the half-orc went around to the back of the wagon. "Come, children. It's alright. We're going to go play in the field for a little while. Jorga, can you help me with our new friend?" Soon, Jorga the half-orc had easily lifted three people from the back and deposited them around the other side. Two tiefling children of no more than twelve years played quietly beside the wagon and the cleric sat with another person covered in what appeared to be a large cloak just outside his line of sight.
Gustav started helping the strong ones pry the board loose and split it. They had some nails and a spare leather harnesses to aid in the repair and after almost two hours of work he had gotten them back on the road. The dwarf clasped his hand and gave Gustav an appreciative smile. "Not usual us finding someone helpful. Thank you. Go see Hildi for your silver."
"I thank you, friend." Gustav bowed low and rounded the back of the wagon. "All set!" He chimed. The two tiefling children, a boy with grey coloring and a girl with red were playing cat's cradle in the gathering gloom. Hildi stood up from the bedroll on which they had been sitting on the sparse grass off the side of the road. "Oh, excellent!" she replied, brightly. "Now, come along, we need to make it to the crossroads before we rest." She reached down to the figure seated next to her. Gustav noticed the cloak was less of a garment and more a huge length of brocade with symbols of the Platinum Dragon all over it. "Give me your hands, now, friend," she said and fished them out from under their wraps and tried to pull him up. "Oh, you poor dear, come on now…" Hildi's voice lost a little of its positivity. "We'll be on our way soon and you can rest later, ok?"
"Let me help," Gustav offered and bent to grasp a purple wrist. As he and Hildi gently pulled and rocked him to his feet Gustav froze. Hildi went on, thanking him again and scrounging in her coin purse for a few silver to give him for his trouble but he didn't hear her. He stared hard at the man slouching under the Platinum Dragon tapestry. His horns had lost their adornments, his face was dirty, and his red eyes were downcast and vacant.
"Molly…" Gustav breathed.
He twitched, blinked a few times and looked up at Gustav's face. His mouth opened slightly, but no sound came out.
He is soaked to the bone and shuddering violently. Soft brown eyes search his and a hand brushes his hair back from his forehead. "You're going to be alright, friend," he says...
In a moment, the lucidity had passed and he cast his eyes groundward once more, shivering slightly in the cold, crisp air.
"What's the holdup?" The dwarf asked as he rounded the side of the wagon. He pointed with his thumb at their charge. "You know him?"
"I…" Gustav placed a trembling hand against the lavender tiefling's face and in the light of Hildi's lantern he noted the tattoos, and the many fine scars. "I do. Oh, Molly…"
"Ah!" Hildi cried. "It is divine providence! You see, Felder! Bahamut brought us north to rescue these children," she said with a sweeping gesture that encompassed them, "and put us on the path in which this poor man lay, freezing and beaten to within an inch of his life so that we might reunite him with his friend!"
Finally, gears that had been turning in his mind clicked into place and Gustav gasped. He knew that look. He'd seen it over two years ago when this man stumbled upon their camp, lost, freezing, starving, and empty. "Oh, you poor thing. You're back again."
"What's the matter with him, then?" the dwarf called Felder asked, narrowing his eyes. When Gustav hesitated, he held a hand up and with a word and a flourish compelled him to be truthful. Hildi seemed displeased that her compatriot would resort to spellcraft so quickly, but he silenced her and asked again. "What's the matter with him?"
Gustav kept his grip on Mollymauk's wrist, the other hand dropped to his shoulder, but he did not seem to notice, his eyes cast down, unfocused on the ground. "He's suffered a great trauma," Gustav said carefully. "I've seen him like this once before. It took months for him to recover."
"And who exactly are you?"
"My name is Gustav, and this man is my friend," he said and stared into his eyes, searching for that fleeting sign of recognition he'd seen when he first uttered his name. "We traveled together in a carnival a few months ago, but were separated." Molly shivered, but did not respond.
"A carnival," Hildi repeated. "Does that explain all those marks on his skin?"
"For the most part," Gustav agreed. He glanced north up the Glory Run Road then back to his old friend. There was no question of what he had to do. "Don't worry, Molly. I'll take care of you."