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once upon a time is one time too many

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After running all the way to the ocean and hijacking a ship they found conveniently tied up at the docks, the three of them had set off in the direction that Carly had told Crow the cursed castle was in. The land they’ve ended up in looks completely different from where they came from; the skies seem to be perpetually clouded, none of the trees have leaves, and all-in-all it looks like something from the set of a dark, supernatural movie.

Crow supposes their own story definitely falls under the umbrella of “supernatural”, even though he’d really prefer to stay away from “dark.”

They don’t get much time to think about it, though, because as soon as they step onto the road, some armored figure on a white horse charges past them and nearly tramples all over Jack.

“My apologies!” the figure calls back. “I must save the princess!”

“WAIT!” Crow starts to run after them, yelling. “HOLD UP, DID YOU SAY PRINCESS?”

The other person slows their horse down and turns around. “Yes, the princess. There’s only one princess in this land; surely you know of her?” They take their helmet off as the group approaches, shaking their hair out and holding their hand out to them. “I am Lady Sherry LeBlanc. Pleased to meet your acquaintance.”

Crow takes her hand and chuckles a bit, glancing at Jack. “I’m Crow,” he says. “You look, like, way more like a knight in shining armor than Jack does.”

“Jack?” Sherry says with mild surprise, jumping off of her horse gracefully. “Do you mean King Jack, of the Kingdom of Blueballus Extremus?”

Jack yelps, looking extremely affronted, but Crow shoves him to the side to stew by himself. “Yep, that’s Jack, that sure is him. But hey, can you tell us more about this princess?”

Sherry gets starry-eyed, and she sighs wistfully. “She’s my one true love,” she says, placing a gloved hand over her heart. “

Then she launches into a long, drawn out story of how the two of them had met as children, spent one perfect summer together, and promised themselves to each other, but ultimately had to stay in their respective kingdoms. They’d kept in touch via letters, but were rarely allowed to see each other, and it was the cause of many years of sad longing (Jack gags and tries to walk away, but Yuusei hip-checks him into listening to the whole story).

“In her last letter to me, she told me that her father was planning on setting her up to be married to the prince of a neighboring kingdom.” Sherry wiped a tear from her eyes. “My poor girl! She sounded so unhappy. She told me she was going to protest this, of course, but she hates to argue with her parents. The next thing I knew, someone sent word that the princess had fallen under a grave curse!”

She pauses, clearly expecting a reaction from her audience. Crow gasps accordingly.

Sherry nods, satisfied, and then clenches her fist and gazes toward a spot in the distance. “It is said that the only thing that can break this curse is True Love’s Kiss. That is why I must journey forth to save her! Only I can wake her from her slumber, and afterwards her parents will surely approve of our union!”

Crow claps idly. “Nice.”

“We’ll accompany you!” Jack, who has been silent this entire time, declares. He brandishes his sword (Wait, since when does he have a sword?  Does he even know how to use that thing?) and gestures at Sherry. “Surely you’ll need our help on this…honorable quest.”

Sherry sniggers. “Not with that terrible posture, I won’t. Didn’t you ever take sword-fighting lessons? Or do kings only ever hold their swords?”

“Why, you—” Yuusei hip-checks him again, and then bends down in front of Sherry. She seems to notice him for the first time.

“Hello, noble dragon,” she says. “Are you offering your aid as well?”

Yuusei gives her a toothy grin that’s probably meant to be friendly and reassuring. Crow wouldn’t have taken it that way, but Sherry at least seems to be at ease with it.

“Well, I’m certainly not so arrogant that I would refuse aid, even from strangers. But why are you so willing to help me on my quest?”

Crow takes their list out and shows her. “We’re actually on a quest of our own,” he says. “We think that the princess has something on this list that we need, and, well…we’re hoping that she might help us when she wakes up.”

Sherry nods approvingly. “Very well!” She smiles, jumping up on her horse again. “We will work together, then. It may turn out beneficial for both of us, in the end.”

And so the four newly met companions start in the direction of the cursed castle, together.

~~~

The village they end up having to cross through on their way there is quiet and dreary, just like the rest of land.

“It’s like a ghost town, except there’s still people,” Crow comments. “Why is everything so dark, anyway?”

Sherry shrugs. “It’s likely that the curse tampered with the environment surrounding the castle, especially with everything it’s done to the actual fortress. It must have been a powerful witch to have done this.”

“Creepy,” Crow says. Jack scoffs.

“Whatever. Let’s just storm the place and get this over with.”

Sherry nudges him with a sharp, armored elbow. “Oh yeah? Confident you can take the witch down?”

Jack makes a face. “I don’t even have to answer that! I’m the king. Some witch would be no match for me.”

“Yeah,” Sherry says with a chortle, “maybe if you knew how to hold your sword the right way.”

“How dare you—”

“Are you planning on trying to free the princess of her curse?” a voice says from behind them. They all spin around—except for Yuusei, who tries but takes about three times as long to get his entire body rotated—and see a man and a woman standing there. They’re fancily dressed and adorned with jewelry, but they look completely distraught.

“Please reconsider!” the man says. “Many people have tried, and they’ve all failed. The curse’s defenses are impossible to penetrate!”

Jack levels him with a glare. “Who are you to tell us what we can and can’t do?”

The man gestures at the crown on his head and sighs. “We’re the King and Queen of this land. The cursed princess is our daughter. We should have looked out for her more, but...now it’s too late. There are too many deaths on our hands already.”

“Hold on,” the Queen says, peering at Jack. “Are you not the King of Wearing Your Initials as Earrings Like a Tool? We did not realize we were in the presence of fellow royalty.”

Jack’s face gets so red that Crow’s pretty sure it’s burning more than his soul, and he looks like he about to start screaming at both of them. Sherry, however, gets there first.

“Really?!” she rages, getting all up in the King’s face. “She’s your daughter! How dare you just give up on her? Did you care nothing for her, after all?!”

The King’s jaw drops and he makes a sound as if to argue, but then he just looks ashamed. “You don’t understand. Every single person who tried so far has perished.”

“Well, I haven’t tried yet,” Sherry says with a huff. “I’m going to rescue the princess, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

She takes her horse’s reins and Yuusei’s front claw and marches away from them, leaving Crow and Jack to shrug helplessly and follow her.

“Assholes,” she’s saying under her breath when they catch up to her. “What wimps. She deserves better. I’m going to save her today.”

“That’s admirable,” Crow says, “but, like, I’m pretty sure we’d only be able to get there by today if we flew there.”

They all stare at Yuusei, who perks up at the implication of being useful.

“Pretty sure he’s too fat to fly,” Jack says, and Yuusei droops again.

“Aww, it’s okay,” Sherry says, patting him on the head. “You’re cute. You can be my mascot.”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it,” Crows adds and kicks Jack on the shins. “Let’s just focus on finding somewhere to stay before it gets dark.”

“Jack Atlas isn’t scared of the d—”

“Honestly, Jack, no one cares.”

~~~

They end up finding an inn, but as soon as they walk in, the innkeeper takes one look at Jack and exclaims, “Oh! Could it be King Jack of Being Unable to Hold Down a Job? Your kingdom has been waiting for your return!”

Jack immediately storms out and refuses to go back in.

Yuusei finds him stubbornly trying to sleep under a tree and lies down next him, curling up around him carefully. Crow sighs fondly when he sees both of them asleep, handing Gale off to Sherry and settling down in the crook of Yuusei’s neck.

“Sorry about him,” he says to her. She waves it off.

“It’s no problem. I do not mind sleeping outside.”

Crow laughs. “They’re kind of weird, and Jack especially isn’t always easy to deal with. We’ve been together for as long as I remember, though. I guess ya get used to it.”

“I understand the feeling,” Sherry smiles. “It’s good that you have each other.”

Crow leans back against the warmth of Yuusei’s scales and Jack’s shoulder. “More like they’re lucky to have me,” he quips, but he’s smiling as he says it.

~~~

It’s the afternoon of the next day when they start to near the castle. As they travel closer, they start to see the garden of thorns that the rumors talked about, twisting and towering over any paths that would lead them into the castle. Some parts look like people had started to cut through them, but nothing seemed to go all the way through.

Sherry stares somberly at the evidence of everyone else’s failed attempts. “They call this the Black Garden because of how many deaths it has caused. They say it changes on itself, and if you get tired and stop fighting, it swallows you whole.”

They stare on in silence, paying their respects to the deceased.

“I’m gonna wreck it,” she continues.

Jack is immediately in front of her, facing the thorns and brandishing his sword like a baseball bat. “I will be the one to wreck it.”

“Ha! I’d like to see you try!” she sneers, drawing her own sword and elbowing him out of the way.

“JACK ATLAS LOSES TO NO ONE!”

“EAT MY DUST, KING OF SAD WANKING!”

Jack lets out a furious howl and Crow sniggers, watching as the two of them start hacking away at the garden with their disproportionately-sized swords at record speeds.

Meanwhile, Yuusei is…actually trying to fly over them.

“Uhm,” Crow says as Yuusei flaps his wings but only succeeds in sort of rolling face-first into a particularly thick vine. He lets out a sad whine and switches tactics, opening his maw wide and inhaling.

Holy shit, has he been able to breathe fire this whole time? Crow thinks in awe.

But then Yuusei heaves out a great huff, and the only thing that comes out is a trickle of smoke. He sits on the ground, dejected.

Crow walks up to him and strokes his back comfortingly. “Don’t worry about it, buddy. We’re doing just fine as we are, see?” He gestures to the crazed duo that’s still competing to see who can cut through the thorns faster (Sherry’s winning). “You’ve been a great help in other ways. How about…do you want to carry me through behind them?”

Yuusei perks up at this, turning to look at him with his eyes sparkling.

“I mean, I’m not wearing armored boots like those two,” Crow reasons, and Yuusei enthusiastically crouches down to let him on his back.

The two of them teeter off, following Sherry and Jack’s trail of destruction.

~~~

Crow must have nodded off at some point, because when he comes back to consciousness, Jack and Sherry are yelling loudly at each other about who trampled through more thorns. He feels warm, and realizes it’s because Yuusei’s been covering him with his wings. He’s walking in a more unbalanced manner than usual, because dragon wings are definitely not supposed to be held like that.

He pats them and gently tucks them back into their normal resting position, before he tunes back into the yelling.

“You guys, it doesn’t matter who won,” he starts.

“IT MATTERS BECAUSE I DON’T LOSE,” Jack fumes.

“It doesn’t—”

“Were you even there?! You’re just being a SORE LOSER!”

“I AM NOT—”

“LOSER!”

“Oh my GOD, YOU GUYS.” Crow slides off of Yuusei and starts walking forward without them. “It doesn’t matter because woah, hey, look, there’s the entrance to castle, do you wanna maybe go do what we came here to do?”

Sherry manages to look marginally chastised and Jack just looks constipated, but at least he shuts up. That’s when Gale, who hasn’t done much of anything this whole time, flies out in front of them and lands on the top step of the doorway. It hops a little bit, as if to say “Come on!”

Giving one last look to Sherry and Jack, Crow starts after it. Sherry seems to finally take a hold of her conviction again, and all but runs after Gale to catch up.

“Does the bird know where it’s going?” she asks.

Crow shrugs. “Probably.”

They follow it inside, stepping cautiously because, well, this castle is supposed to be cursed. But beyond the utter silence and thick layer of dust covering all of the tapestries, it doesn’t actually look that eerie. There are no flickering lights and there especially aren’t any skeletons, which Crow has been hoping they never come across.

Gale leads them up a spiral staircase, stopping every now and then to let Yuusei catch up. Now that he thinks about it, it feels a little cruel to be making him climb so many stairs in the first place when he still isn’t fully accustomed to all his limbs. Crow lingers behind a little to make sure he doesn’t trip and fall.

It gets a little darker further up due the lack of windows, and everyone tenses up when they hear something like scuffling at the end of a hallway. The entire area seems to be shrouded in mist, and they approach it cautiously.

As they get closer, Crow spots a small, dark shadow that looks like it’s having a choking fit. Sherry’s hand jerks toward her sword, gripping the hilt.

“Stupid mist,” the figure coughs, swatting at it, “Just… go away.... you won’t be missed! Get it!? It sounds like mist!

“Stand back,” Sherry orders, “I’ll take care of him, and his wordplay!”

The mist clears and, as Sherry moves to strike, Crow sees… Tiny Kiryuu.

Yoooou!” Kiryuu yells, pointing at Jack dramatically, “If I had a dime for every time someone made a bad short joke at me, I’d have a lot of dimes, but if I stacked them up, they still wouldn’t be as tall as you!

Yuusei lets out an unimpressed groan.

“The witch is speaking in tongues!” Sherry says, “Be on guard!”

“That’s not the witch,” Crow groans, “It’s a twerp who Jack offended.”

Sherry doesn’t loosen her grip on the sword, still eyeing him suspiciously.

“And I have another bone to pick with you!” Kiryuu continues. “You stole my boat! I had to use Demak’s boat to get here! Duel me! Duel me right here, right now!”

Jack rolls his eyes. “He’s not really a threat,” he says to Sherry. “He’s just got a short temper.”

Face red with fresh anger, Kiryu screeches, “Short temper!?”

“Heeere we go,” Crow sighs.

Sure enough, Kiryuu starts babbling, “I’ll have you know that my temper isn’t the only thing short about me— wait, no, damn it, I mean— I know you are but what am I!? Wait no. I mean... your face is short! Wait… oh hold on, that one was actually good. Your face is—!”

“Shut. Up!

The door behind him slams open, revealing a woman dressed in a red and black dress adorned with flowers and fit for royalty. “Princess Aki!” Sherry cries.

“A girl can’t even take a nap around here,” the woman continues on, marching towards Kiryuu. “I thought I was done with this when I kicked the last guy’s ass! Said he was a wizard, couldn’t even take a punch or two—”

Picking Kiryuu up by the collar, Aki hisses, “Were you sent by that ‘Divine’ guy?”

Kiryuu screams.

“No, he’s after us,” Crow pipes up. Aki turns to him with a glare, dropping Kiryuu to the floor. Crow gulps and adds, “Also, uh, your girlfriend was looking for you.”

The princess brushes her hair out of her face and seems to notice Sherry for the first time. She gasps. “Sherry! You’re here!”

Sherry’s eyes tear up and she launches herself at the princess, knocking Kiryuu out with an accidental(?) boot to the head in the process. “You’re safe! They told me you had fallen into a deep sleep from an evil witch’s curse!”

Aki looks a little sheepish. “Aah…that would be me.”

“…What?”

“I, uh, was the one who cursed me.”

Everyone gives her looks of varying degrees of confusion (varying because Crow still can’t really decipher Yuusei’s expressions most of the time). “Please explain,” Sherry says with a crease in her brow.

Aki blushes a little. “I got really angry when my parents wouldn’t listen to me. They wanted me to marry some wimpy prince, can you believe it?!” Sherry makes a disgusted sound at this. “So I guess I lost my temper, and um…altered the landscape a bit…? It wasn’t intentional, mostly. I wanted everyone except for you to leave me alone, and I think my powers responded to that.” She takes Sherry’s hand and smiles at her. “It’s been kind of lonely in my room all by myself, though. I’m glad you’re here.”

Sherry sweeps her off her feet and bends her over, pressing a deep kiss to her lips that Jack looks away from.

Cute, Crow thinks, happy that everything turned out fine even if the reasons behind the events are mostly just confusing.

He thinks back to his conversation with Sherry about the people they appreciate in their lives, and looks at his companions fondly. So maybe one’s a dragon right now and the other one’s got official titles in douchebaggery, but he’s glad they’re here too.

“Hey. We need your needle.”

…and there’s Jack, demonstrating his first point thoroughly.

Aki pulls away from Sherry and looks a little baffled at them. “Needle? Like...a poke-y needle?”

“What other kind of needles are there.”

She makes a face at him. “I don’t have any sewing needles, if that’s what you mean. I’ve never sewn anything in my life. There are, like, thousands of thorns outside though? You could have just taken one.” She reaches into her pocket and takes out one, long thorn and presents it to them anyway.

Jack stares at her outstretched hand and just gapes. “You’re telling me we could have just picked one of these things off of the ground and left.”

Aki shrugs, handing the thorn to Crow instead. “Yeah, guess so.”

Jack’s scream of rage echoes throughout the empty castle halls.