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once upon a time is one time too many

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When Crow wakes up, there’s something chirping in his ear and his butt feels wet and cold.

This wouldn’t have been that alarming considering the amount of time he spent on the streets in Satellite, but it’s been ages since he had to actually sleep on the ground and he’s pretty sure that it’s not where he dumped himself last night.

Actually, he doesn’t remember going to bed at all.

Slowly, he cracks open one eye and sees the sky (not too alarming), green treetops (less normal), and an actual bird sitting on his face (what the hell?). He jolts up and swats at the bird, which kind of careens to the side but doesn’t stop flapping around his head and screeching at him.

Shhhhh,” he says at it, even though it’s not like real birds have ever listened to him anyway.

He looks around. The place he’d apparently ended up falling asleep in looks like a forest of some sort, but nothing like anything he’s seen around Neo Domino City. He’s not any sort of expert on the different flavors of plant life, but something’s wrong and he just knows.

Trying to think back on what he was doing before finding himself on the ground, he realizes that, no, he never did go to sleep. The last thing he remembers is reading a children’s book to his kids, with Yuusei sitting to the side toying around with a small gadget in hands and Jack pacing back and forth while casting suspicious glances at the children sometimes. He’d turned the page to a colored illustration, and then he’d suddenly felt like the chair he was sitting in was pitching him forward...and he doesn’t remember anything beyond that.

He gets up and dusts himself off (not like that helps much with the wet and cold thing, but whatever), before he hears something that sounds vaguely like groaning coming from a cave to his right.

Debating between following his gut and staying away from the dark cave with the groan-y noises and throwing caution to the wind like the main character in a horror movie, Crow picks the latter.

“Might as well see that what is,” he mumbles to himself before heading over. If it’s a person, maybe they can tell him where the hell he is. The thought is idealistic, yeah, but it’s resourceful. The bird is still following him, but at least it’s quiet now.

When he approaches the mouth of the cave, the bird (Gale, he’s just going to call it Gale) flies ahead of him and lands on a ginormous white lump. Crow can’t really make out what the lump is, but when Gale starts pecking at it it lets out a sad whine and rolls over, unraveling a little, and he sees that it’s...

 

Well.

It looks like Stardust Dragon, if Stardust Dragon was from a children’s cartoon and fed a diet of junk food. So like, adorable, but that’s not the point.

Toon Stardust blinks at him a few times before flipping over abruptly and inelegantly, greeting Crow excitedly with the cartoon dragon version of a smile.

“Woah there, buddy,” Crow says when it starts swinging its tail around so hard that the walls of the cave starts shaking. “So, um. You’re a dragon.”

The dragon shakes its head.

“You’re…not a dragon?”

It lets out a whine and starts scratching something into the ground. Crow squints at the markings on the ground when the dragon finishes and looks at him expectantly.

Kizuna,” he recites, unimpressed. “You wrote the kanji for bonds. Very anime of you, but... is this a riddle?”

Bonds the not-dragon keeps staring at him expectedly like he’s missing something that should be obvious, and it reminds him of a friend who does something similar, and has the same blue eyes, and… has Stardust Dragon.

“…Yuusei?”

The dragon that’s apparently Yuusei—whatever, he’s seen weirder things in his time—nods excitedly and nuzzles him.

 

“Are you serious? Why the hell didn’t you just write your name you big nerd—”

He’s interrupted by Gale, who he sort of forgot was even there, chirping happily and headbutting him in the direction of the mouth of the cave. “I think it’s high time someone told me what’s going on,” Crow mutters, but follows it outside because the headbutts are starting to hurt and besides, Yuusei doesn’t look comfortable at all in this small cave. After exiting, he hears yelling in the distance, from beyond the trees. He can’t really make any words out or see anyone, but he heads toward the voices because they aren’t exactly going to get anywhere by staying here.

He gets maybe twenty feet out before turning around and seeing Yuusei struggling with his limbs, like he’s trying to get by on four feet but his heart is telling him two. Sighing, he pats his friend’s newly draconic forearm.

“You can do it, Yuusei. I believe in you.”

Yuusei grumbles miserably.

~~~

The voices Crow hears lead to a small castle town on the edge of the forest. The sign leading into the town reads, “The Kingdom of...”, but the rest is worn off and unintelligible. The noise is coming from the town square, where someone is making a colossal racket.

Unhand me!” a familiar voice rings through his ears as he gets close enough to actually hear what’s being said. “Is this how you treat your king!?

There’s a great scrambling of people yelling frantically, and if the situation at hand wasn’t so confusing and ridiculous Crow would have burst into laughter.

It’s Jack (of course it’s Jack), and he’s surrounded by people waving papers at him and trying to push him in the direction of a horse-drawn carriage with varying levels of respect to their royalty.

“King Jack, where have you been? Our kingdom needs you!” A well-dressed man cries, to which another shouts, “Like hell it does!”

“Hey asshat, what’s with the new tax law--” A new voice yells, cut off by a guard who says, “Don’t address the King so rudely! I mean, we’re all thinking it, but don’t just go and say it.”

Crow decides he likes these people.

Jack seems to pick up on the insults and is red in the face with frustration, trying to shove the townspeople off of him to no avail.

Telling Yuusei to stay by the trees — sorry Yuusei, he thinks, feeling sorry for the dragon but not sorry enough to pay for any damages he might cause just by walking through the narrow streets of the town— Crow revels in the picture of Jack being uncomfortable for a few seconds before he marches towards him and grabs his arm.

King Jack,” he says as sweetly as possible into his ear, “I have some very important business I need you to attend to.”

Jack’s face is a mixture of shock and reluctant relief when he sees who he is, and for once in his life he lets Crow drag him away at top speed without resistance.

“What is going on,” Jack hisses at him as they dodge the townsmen that are still trying to get a hold of him.

“I have no idea,” Crow says, “but wait until you see Yuusei.”

Jack makes a face at him because he doesn’t like not knowing things that Crow knows for any amount of time, but he doesn’t say anything until they somehow manage to outrun the citizens and make it back to the forest.

“What was that all about?” Crow asks Jack.

“Forget that, what the hell is this,” says Jack, pointing at Yuusei.

Yuusei droops a little and the look on his dragon face tugs at Crow’s heartstrings so he kicks Jack in the knees. “That’s Yuusei,” he snaps.

Jack snorts. “Ha. Yuusei’s not a dragon.”

“And you’re not an actual king,” Crow retorts. Yuusei, meanwhile, is scratching something else into the ground. “Seriously though, what was up with that?”

“I don’t know!” Jack huffs. “They think I’m their king—well, they’re not wrong, I should be—but as soon as I woke up here someone grabbed me and tried to haul me off to their castle! Do they realize how offensive that is? God. If I ruled this kingdom no one would be touching me anywhere, ever.

Crow rolls his eyes. “You know where no one touches you anywhere, ever? Our world, so let’s go do something about this.”

“What’s that supposed to mean!?”

“Think about it.”

“I thought about it already, you little--”

They’re interrupted by Yuusei thumping the ground with his tail, using one claw to point to a drawing he’s made in the ground of three stick figures holding hands. It’s clearly meant to be a picture of the three of them (as humans), but Crow’s hair looks more like a bird’s nest and Yuusei’s marker takes up 75% of his face. Jack sees it and is outraged.

 

“My hair does not look like that!” he yells, at the ground. He grabs a stick and scribbles over the doodle. Crow thinks it looks even worse now, and says so.

Yuusei shoves at the dirt impatiently, and it’s only then that the other two see the words he’s also written next to the drawing: I am Yuusei.

“Ya could have just told him so from the start, Spartacus,” Crow says exasperatedly, but Jack has already disregarded the words in favor of drawing a proper representation of himself, one that takes up the entire patch of sandy ground they’re standing around and somehow still manages to look worse than the stick figure a dragon drew with its claw.

Yuusei doesn’t look affected at all. Instead, he waddles over towards a different clump of trees and sits down, cocking his head at the two of them like he’s waiting for them.

“Did you find something while I was gone?” Crow says, hauling Jack away from his masterpiece and dragging them both over. Gale’s sitting perched on Yuusei’s head, nodding at whatever it is he’s looking at. When they get there, they find out that the clump of trees is, in fact, not just a clump of trees, but what seems like the base of a mountain with a path sitting beyond them.

There are three wooden signs by the path that say, Tired of problems you don’t know where to start solving?

Does it always seem like the wise mentor for your quest is missing?

And why can’t anyone explain what’s going on without freaking out?

Crow squints at it, and then walks a little further into the path to see more similar signs.

Forget about the old maps and the the vague prophecies. The Mountain Sage will provide you with real answers, just for the pleasure of your company! he gets lonely

“What,” says Jack.

But wait, there’s more! Find us at the end of this path today, and get the only life advice you’ll ever need for the lowest price around!

“Why do these signs sound like an infomercial,” Crow states more than he asks.

“I don’t need to be sold anything.” Jack glares at the signs indignantly. But Yuusei and Gale have already started down the path, and Crow figures that a sketchy lead is better than no lead at all.

~~~

“No,” Jack says as soon as they get to the hut at the end of the path, and “The Mountain Sage” appears at the door. Yuusei positions himself behind Jack to stop him from turning around and marching right back down the path again when they recognize who it is.

Godwin?!” Crow sputters at the old man, who’s rubbing his eyes tiredly.

The Mountain Sage squints at them. “How do you know—” He yawns, and waves a gloved hand around. “Nevermind. We’re not open for business today. You’ll have to come back in three days.”

“Or never,” Jack fumes and Crow punches his arm.

“Three days?” Crow repeats with disgust. “Look, we can’t wait three days. We don’t belong in whatever world this is and we need to get home.” He hears some dragon noises from behind him. “And, Yuusei’s a dragon. You’re sketchy but this is urgent.”

Godwin looks mildly offended (Crow wouldn’t blame him, if he didn’t resent the one in their own world so much; after all, they probably just look like strangers that showed up to his home to badmouth him), but regards them silently for a few moments.

“Very well, I shall grace you with my aid,” he says finally, as if he’s the best thing that’s going to happen to them. “Come inside.”

They follow him into the hut, or at least they try to. Yuusei nudges Jack inside, but only gets his own neck through before he gets stuck in the doorway.

Crow looks at the width of the doorframe, and then at the size of Yuusei’s body. “I don’t know what you expected,” he says. Yuusei gives him a sad sigh and just lays his head on his floor while the rest of him stays on the doorsteps.

"I know what you are," Godwin starts out by saying, as soon as he sits down with a flourish. "You're not of this world."

"We— we literally just told you that," Crow interjects.  Godwin ignores him.

"You were probably sent here for inexplicable divine reasons," he continues. "They're inexplicable, so don't bother trying to figure it out. I can send you back, but in order to complete the spell that will send you back to your home world, I need you to do a few things."

"Yeah?" Crow raises an eyebrow. "Well we don't have your currency, and we sure as hell won't be working for you."

Godwin laughs. It feels wrong. "Oh, I'm not talking about payment. Don't worry about that, I simply enjoy helping people. But you'll have to gather a few items to use on the spell in order for it to take effect. First, though, I need you both to kiss the dragon."

Jack slams his hands down on the table. "Don’t mock me!" he yells, looking like he's ready to sock him in the jaw.

"Calm down, I was just joking," Godwin waves at him unaffectedly. Crow leans down and plants a wet kiss on Yuusei's dragon nose anyway, and Yuusei makes a happy sound. Jack gets even angrier. "Actually, you need to retrieve this list of items."

He pulls a piece of parchment out from nowhere and presents it to them. It looks like some kind of list.

“The Evil Queen's Pendant, Sleeping Beauty's Needle, The Little Mermaid's Comb, and The Twins' Teapot,” Crow reads aloud.

They squint at it for a few seconds.

"Are you serious? You want us to retrieve things from fairy tales?" Jack says incredulously. "Those are fake."

Godwin regards the group silently for a moment, and then hands the parchment to Crow with a gesture suggesting great importance.

"They may not be as fake as you think, Jack," he says in a low voice before he stands up abruptly, swishes his cape over his head, and spins around as dramatically as possible.

And then, in a flurry of robes, he's gone.

"Welp," Crow says as he gets up slowly, rubbing at his eyes, "I guess we'd better get started then."