“You know, Cucumber…” says Nautilus, turning around suddenly, her wind-chime voice echoing off every corner of the cave leading down to the Shipwreck Shelter. “Now that I think of it, I don’t believe I ever thanked you properly for rescuing me from those Crabbros before!”
Cucumber looks down into Nautilus’ seashell-to-seashell smile and, feeling warmth rise up to his cheeks, wishes he wasn’t currently being their only light source. He rubs the back of his hair with his right hand, causing the light from his wand to bounce wildly around the caves, and tries to laugh it off, but the laugh gets tangled up somewhere and becomes a nervous chuckle.
“O-oh no, don’t worry about it!” says Cucumber. “It’s not like they meant any harm.”
“Nonsense, Cucumber!” Nautilus replies, arms on her hips. “Well, I mean, you’re probably right… but that’s not the point! It was very brave of you to come to my aid.”
“Well, I suppose…”
“It shows that our meeting truly was destiny! It was so clear to me then that such a brave boy had to be the Legendary Hero!”
Cucumber blinks, realizing belatedly that Nautilus has glided over to him and taken his hands into hers. He can’t seem to get out another dismissal of her compliments or a correction that he’s not really much of a Legendary Hero or even a quick pointing-out that it actually took her a minute to make that connection… and it’s not because her hands are so much warmer than his.
It’s that everything else has just become, for a reason only a little voice in the back of his head knows, as cold as the cave around them. Cucumber looks away, towards a little river of water flowing down into the cave mouth, and even Nautilus’ smile fades into a tiny frown.
Cucumber sighs – why can’t he just accept a compliment, just for once? - but Nautilus brightens like someone has flipped a switch inside her. Cucumber nearly trips when she tightens her grip on his hand and starts walking back, with him in tow, to the cave’s entrance.
“We’re going back to the palace, Cucumber! There’s something I need to show you!”
“See, Cucumber,” says Nautilus, flexing an arm. “I told you we’d get there before the next scene transition!”
“The what?” Cucumber manages to choke out, lifting his head. Cucumber wonders how everyone but him always manages to get to wherever they need to go without breaking a sweat - even Carrot – but is momentarily distracted when he realizes where they are. The exuberantly large bed, a blue-white waterfall of curtains over light pink clamshell blankets, the windows looking out into the much realer waterfalls outside, the jellyfish lamp on the end table, the coral bookshelves as far as the eye could see… safe to guess it wasn’t her dad’s bedroom, anyway.
“Is this?” Cucumber starts, pointlessly, his mouth hanging open. The bedroom’s far larger than his own room, maybe even bigger than his family’s whole house… it’d take him a year to read all the books she owned! Maybe two!
“Nrrrrgh!” nrrrrghs Nautilus, pushing her back against the conch-shaped door handles of a set of light purple doors in the corner. “Just one moment, Cucumber! I can’t seem to get this… door open…”
“Have you tried pulling the handles?” Cucumber replies, without looking up from the half-open copy of The Legend of the Nightmare Knight – For Sillies! laying on a treasure chest at the end of Nautilus’ bed. He wonders if that’s what she had meant by spending her whole life studying them. “I mean, it says it right there…”
Nautilus purses her lips and looks up. Just above her head, in her own large manuscript, is a sticky note in the center of the two doors. It says “Pull!” with, for good measure, a giant smiley face.
“Oh, so it does!” she laughs, in a way that’s not entirely a laugh but also somewhat excuse-you-but-I-would-have-noticed-eventually-thank-you-very-much, before turning around and pulling the doors open. “Thank you, Cucumber.”
Cucumber looks up from the book, curious, as Nautilus steps through the doors and into the room behind them. He can’t see what’s behind her, besides that it’s very, very… bright.
“Oh, it’s unharmed!” says Nautilus. Cucumber’s not sure if he should be happy about just how excited she sounds about whatever-it-is that’s in there… or completely terrified. “How wonderful! Please hurry, Cucumber!”
With some hesitation, Cucumber walks towards the door. He’s not sure what to expect – the long-lost secret to cheering up the Legendary Hero? Another Dream Sword which she was keeping in her room the entire time? Another Extremely Specific and Pretty Much Completely Worthless Spell Capsule Machine? Cosmo? - but what’s he not expecting at all is clothes.
In retrospect, maybe he should have expected clothes.
Two stories high and itself shaped like the inside of the conch shells on the door, Nautilus’ spiraling wardrobe is filled with shelves and shelves and shelves of neatly-folded tops and skirts, dresses hung on white shell hooks, carefully organized piles of sandals and boots and even roller skates, hairpins and necklaces and purses… more clothes than the last room had books. Nautilus stands in the middle of it all, her eyes closed and her back to a white mirror so tall that he and Almond and Carrot could all stand on her shoulders and still not reach the top.
“Well, Cucumber?” she says, opening her eyes and placing her hands on her hips. Her smile is, somehow, wider than ever. “What do you think?”
“It’s incredible!” he says, unable to stop himself from turning around and around to take it all in. Even the space above the door is filled with dresses. “There’s so many!”
The obvious question comes to his mind and he stops, looking towards her.
“But… why’d you take me here?”
“Oh!” Nautilus gasps, hand over her mouth. “How silly of me! Why, it’s for you, of course!”
Cucumber swallows, his heart skipping a beat. His throat, possibly just because it’s surrounded by water in every direction, has chosen the moment to become very dry.
“I do hope I’m not being too forward here, Cucumber…” she says, frowning and looking away. “But I saw the way you reacted when I called you a brave boy before, and, well… I know it’s strange, but I suppose I just assumed. It’s fine if you don’t wish to, of course… oh, gosh, don’t cry!”
Cucumber wasn’t really a crying kind of person, a real crying kind of person, even after all of the very good reasons he’d been given to since he’d left home. Even Almond had never cried, not even as a baby, and he knew his father and her would just make fun of him if he did, so he’d stopped a long time ago. But now he was definitely crying, in great ugly sobs that soaked his fur and made him want to bury his head in his sleeves, and the worst thing is he didn’t know why…
He’s so caught up in wanting to hide somewhere that he doesn’t hear Nautilus approach until she, completely silently, wraps her arms around him and squeezes him close. They just stand there, Cucumber’s head buried in her shoulder, for some time.
“Did you know, Cucumber,” she says, eventually, “that a long, long time ago, I used to be known as Prince Nautilus?”
Cucumber looks up, rubbing one of his eyes.
“Of course!” says Nautilus, her smile practically sparkling. “Well, I am an only child, so I don’t know if I would have been able to sign the Dream Sword back then… but I suppose there would have been a first time for everything! Isn’t that right, Cucumber?”
She doesn’t have to say what she’s really trying to – I know how you feel. Cucumber sniffs and gives her a small smile back anyway, and she looks visibly relieved when he does.
“If you’d still like to try anything, I can step outside… but I understand if you don’t want to keep your sister waiting any longer! It’s your choice, Cucumber.”
Cucumber takes a deep breath, like he’s expecting his father to jump out from a corner and yell something about how “the men of our family have been legendary heroes for generations,” which is… more possible than it has any right to be.
“You… you really don’t mind?”
When she hears a knock on the door of her dressing room/wardrobe, Nautilus looks up from her well-worn copy of Rhyme & Jarana, the famous play about the lovestruck couple separated by the giant soundproof wall in the Melody Kingdom. Smiling, she stands up and brushes off the hem of her dress before walking to the door.
When she opens it, she looks into a mirror image of herself. Oh, sure, if she was to be completely truthful, Cucumber’s thinner limbs and smaller frame don’t look quite the same in her dark blue top and the skirt is just the tiniest bit too large. But she can’t even think for a second about those things when Cucumber is standing there like that, cheeks pinker than the ribbons wrapped around both their waists, gently rubbing a hand across one of the sheer sleeves she wears over her arms.
“Oh, Cucumber!” Nautilus practically squeals, wrapping Cucumber into another hug. “You look beautiful!”
“No buts, Cucumber!” Nautilus says, pressing a finger against Cucumber’s lips with a glare that very definitively bans all “buts” from the rest of the conservation. “You look amazing.”
“That’s not it, it’s just…” sighs Cucumber, who takes a step back, still looking more towards the wooden floor than up at her. “What about Almond? How will I…”
“You don’t have to say anything to them, Cucumber,” replies Nautilus, her smile softening. She lowers her hands and once again, gently takes Cucumber’s into hers. “You can tell them anything you want, whenever you want, alright?”
Before Cucumber can say another word, Nautilus leans forward and plants a tiny peck on Cucumber’s cheek.
“But, if I may say so, I believe that you’d make a wonderful Legendary Heroine.”