“I detest that sweater.”
Mr. R’s frown bends upwards into a soft, casual smile.
“But I like the way you think.”
Cucumber stares down at his sweater, aghast. If he was being honest with himself, he wasn’t the biggest fan of it either. But hearing the “King of Fashion” diss it was another thing. It wasn’t that bad!
“Princess ... of course!” says Mr. R, tossing his head back and shaking Cucumber out of his thoughts. “That classic Parfait je ne sais quoi… or that mysterious Piano elegance…”
“It’s fab, sir,” says a dark-furred man with a mane of blonde hair, standing behind Mr. R.
“It’s so fab, sir,” agrees a purple-haired man in glasses to his left. Mr. R’s assistant, the woman in sunglasses, makes an OK sign with her hand.
“Call me ‘R’ for revitalized, darlings.” Mr R. sits back, pressing a finger to his chin. “I spy with my stylish eye… 5 semi-finalists in this fabulous crowd.”
He motions to them one by one.
“You!” he says to a girl in a red uniform and a black hat - Maple.
“You!” he says to a pink-haired girl in a pink dress - Tulip.
“You!” he says to an orange-haired girl - Marigold.
“You!” he says to a rather creepy-looking pale girl with skull-shaped hair accessories - Dahlia.
“And…” he says, his smile widening just slightly. “You… in the ghastly sweater.”
Cucumber blanches. If the crowd hadn’t been staring at him before, it is now… but nobody is staring at him as much as Almond, who has both eyebrows raised.
“What the heck?! You can’t be a princess!” she says. “You’re not even a girl!”
The moment Almond says that, for just a second, Cucumber remembers something. He remembers… a voice, a girl’s voice, saying “I believe that you’d make a wonderful Legendary Heroine.” No matter how hard he tries, though, he can’t seem to place the voice’s owner, or why they’d even say that.
“Nah, ah, ah,” says Mr. R, wagging his finger, and the memory is gone. “There are no rules saying a boy can’t be a princess. And, believe me, I would know. I wrote the rules.”
“But…” Cucumber protests. “But!”
“Now, Cucumber,” says Carrot. “It would make getting the signature for the Dream Sword rather simple.”
“That’s NOT THE PROB-”
“There’s no time to waste, princesses,” Mr. R interrupts. “Let’s get you into hair and makeup and out of… ah, certain sweaters.”
He claps his hands twice.
Cucumber blinks, and when he opens his eyes again, he finds himself surrounded by rulers. There’s a small army of young adults holding them up to him, wrapping them around the top of his head or around his waist.
One of the people surrounding him, who isn’t holding a ruler, smiles at him. They have long pink hair with white streaks and are wearing a smart purple suit. Even Cucumber can’t help but notice that they’re also very pretty.
“So… you like green, hmm? I can work with that.”
“I… I guess? What is happening???”
Two young women wheel in a rack filled with small green dresses.
“Why, we’re getting you fitted for the contest, sweetie,” the person explains. “Name’s Hyacinth.”
Cucumber looks back and forth between the rack of dresses and Hyacinth, who merely continues beaming at him.
“N-n-no way! You’ve got to be kidding!”
“You are one of the contestants, aren’t you, dear?”
“I… I guess so?”
“Then we’ve got no time to dilly-dally!” Hyacinth exclaims, taking one of the green dresses off the rack and holding it up in front of Cucumber, who blushes crimson. “You’ve got to get dressed so we can get your wig and makeup on!”
Cucumber opens his mouth to protest further, but before he can, Hyacinth shoves the dress into his hands, alongside a pair of shoes and a pair of stockings.
“Wait…” Cucumber says desperately. “Wait!”
Without warning, the various people surrounding him pick him up off the ground, dress and all, and start to carry him across the room.
Cucumber looks in one of the five dressing room mirrors at himself, and at the dress laying in his hands.
It’s just a dress, right? He hasn’t worn a dress before - as much as he’s getting a weird sense of déjà vu - but it’s just clothes. Besides, everyone wore dresses. It wasn’t weird at all for even the most masculine people to wear them for fancy parties, especially now that Mr. R had popularized it as a fashion statement. Even he knew that much about fashion.
So why… why did this feel like such a big thing? What was he so afraid of?
He unfurls the dress and looks at it, turning it around to view it in the mirror. It isn’t floor-length - it goes up to just below his knees. It isn’t anything complicated either - it’s a simple, flat light green, nondescript except for some subtle yellow patterns cut around the hemline. The stockings Hyacinth gave him with it are bright green, while the shoes are dark green.
Cucumber pinches the bridge of his nose. How does he always get himself into these situations?
But he looks at the curtains leading out of the dressing room and sighs. He doesn’t really have a choice. He knows if he walks out wearing the same clothes, he’ll just be pushed back in by a battalion of fashion assistants.
Besides, he reminds himself, Carrot is right. You couldn’t make signing the Dream Sword any easier than by having himself sign the Dream Sword. Even if he was only a princess by a weird technicality.
So he could deal with it.
It wasn’t like he wanted to wear it!
Once Cucumber is dressed, he opens one eye to peek at one of the mirrors. He’s dreading the worst - he expects to look completely ridiculous.
Instead, to his surprise, he looks…
The dress fits him like a glove, yes, but it’s more than that. It feels right. It’s hard to explain, even to himself, but it feels like he’d been meant to wear it.
He spins in a circle, letting the dress swish around himself. He looks down at his legs, admiring the green stockings and the new green shoes. It’s… he struggles to find the word for it… cute? Yeah, he thinks, blushing. Cute.
He’d never really thought of himself as cute before. It seemed like such an embarrassing word - he wanted so badly to be taken at least a little bit seriously as a talented, studious wizard. Not too seriously, of course - he had to strike a balance - but cute was not a word he’d normally use to describe himself.
As he looks at himself in the mirror, he feels himself recalling something else. Another memory, or something like it.
It’s that girl again, that girl he couldn’t recognize before. He can’t place what she looks like, as if she’s cast in shadow, but she’s… hugging him. Which is hard to believe. After all, it wasn’t like he got hugged by a lot of people his age. And he still couldn’t recall who this girl was. Why would she be hugging him?
“Oh, Cucumber!” she says, her voice distorted. “You look beautiful!”
He feels himself wanting to brush away the compliment, but he doesn’t know why. Something about Almond, about how there was something he didn’t want to say to her, couldn’t figure out how to say to her.
“You don’t have to say anything to them, Cucumber,” says the girl. “You can tell them anything you want, whenever you want, alright?”
Tell who? Tell what?
“You OK in there, sweetie?” says Hyacinth’s voice from the other side of the curtain, and Cucumber forgets all about the girl again.
“Y-yes, I’m fine,” Cucumber stammers. He can’t stop staring in the mirror - he still can hardly believe what he’s seeing. “I’m, uh, ready, I guess.”
“Excellent!” says Hyacinth. “We have your wig ready for you.”
Cucumber rubs his face. Oh, right. The wig. He’d almost forgot.
Well, it couldn’t be that bad, right?
What was putting on a wig compared to facing the Nightmare Knight, after all?
A few minutes later, Cucumber is sitting in front of another set of brightly lit mirrors, surrounded yet again by the army of assistants. Two of them have just finished combing his hair back, keeping it out of the way of his forehead, and are now presenting him with the wig.
It’s the same shade as his hair - orange - but much, much longer than he’s ever had his hair before. He’s always kept it trim and short, in the same style he’s worn since he was very little.
If there’s one thing Cucumber is afraid of - and there are admittedly many things - it’s change. And this wig is, physically and literally, a big one.
But it’s more than that. These clothes, this wig… there’s something about them that feels even scarier. He can’t place what it is either, which only scares him even more.
“What do you think?” says Hyacinth, hovering over his shoulder. “Fab, no?”
Cucumber gulps, his hands squeezing the chair he’s sitting on.
“Yeah, um… super fab,” Cucumber says lamely, sighing. Hyacinth only beams.
“Well, let’s get on with it then! No time like the present!” they say, and the assistants lower the wig onto Cucumber’s head with a plop. At first, they set it right over his eyes, so that all he sees is orange hair.
Then they raise the wig, combing it back so that the hair is out of Cucumber’s face. Cringing, Cucumber looks in the mirror, and swallows back the breath he’s been holding.
It’s perfect too. It’s so long - it goes all the way down past his hips - but it somehow seems so right. Why had he never worn his hair that way before? Why had he never even considered it?
He doesn’t get any longer to admire it before the assistants are surrounding him again, spinning him around in the chair to face them and a still-beaming Hyacinth. The assistants are all holding various makeup supplies - powder, lipstick, mascara, blush, a bunch of other things he doesn’t recognize at all.
They descend on him like a pack of hungry animals.
An enormous cloud of face powder forms around him, making him cough and shut his eyes. When he manages to open them again, he’s back in front of the mirror… and he’s been completely transformed. Pink lipstick has been applied to his lips, his eyelashes are longer, he has subtle black eyeliner, his cheeks are pinker. He looks down at his hands and his fingernails have been painted orange.
He looks like a princess, he finally realizes. No. Like a girl.
The realization makes his heart skip a beat.
He stares in the mirror at himself, unable to even recognize himself anymore. He reaches out to touch his own reflection, as if to make sure that it’s really him staring back.
A girl. A girl.
Why does that make his heart pound?
Why is there a part of him that’s so happy?
“You look almost perfect!” Hyacinth exclaims, clapping their hands together happily. “Now, just one more thing… stand up, if you’d please.”
Cucumber stands up out of the chair. His reflection follows him - he can’t stop himself from continuing to stare at it. It doesn’t feel real.
“One final accessory,” says Hyacinth, handing him a large black purse. Cucumber takes it and slings it over his shoulder.
“There! Now you’re perfect!”
When Cucumber enters the elevator, nervously clutching his purse, Almond and Carrot are waiting for him. The looks of shock on both their faces almost make Cucumber want to turn right back around right there, if not run and hide.
“Cucumber?!” Almond exclaims, rushing over to him. “Whoa! You look so good!”
She grins. He smiles shyly back.
“I’m so jealous! You could even be my sister!”
“I am a bit jealous as well!” Carrot admits, smiling himself. “You do look quite stunning.”
“Thanks, guys,” Cucumber replies, relieved.
“Now who is this ? Could this be our fifth contestant at last?!” exclaims a deafeningly loud voice, and Cucumber looks towards the source to see… of all people, his father.
“D-Dad?!” he sputters.
“D-Dad?!” repeats Cabbage, sliding up to him and sticking a microphone in his face. “What a strange thing to say! I have no idea who this young girl is! Why don’t you tell us your name, miss?”
Cucumber buries his face in his hands. The sad part is, he can’t tell if his father is being serious about forgetting who he is or not.
“It’s still Cucumber, Dad.”
“Cucumber, eh? Not what I would have picked for a girl, but sure!”
“Stop calling me a girl! I’m your…”
“Not until you stop calling me your dad! I only have one daughter. Isn’t that right, Almond?”
“That’s right, Dad,” grins Almond. “And I’m your favorite, right?”
“Almond!” exclaims Cucumber. ”Not you too!”
Almond sticks her tongue out at him.
“Come on, Cuco, play along! It is a contest! You’re supposed to be like -” She puts her hand to her chest and raises her voice three octaves, in an exaggeratedly feminine voice. “‘I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win!’ Or something cool like that!”
Cucumber huffs, crossing his arms. His father waves the microphone in front of him.
“My name’s Cucumber,” he says, without looking at his father. Like Almond, he raises his voice several octaves, putting on his best impression of a girly voice. It’s… not very good, and it makes Cucumber cringe and Almond snicker.
“Great! Pleasure to meet you, Cucumber!” says Cabbage. “Now why do you deserve to win the title of Princess R?”
“Be… because…” he starts to say, trailing off. He wants to say the truth, which is ‘I don’t know. I don’t even want to be here,’ but Almond and Carrot are smiling encouragingly and all the other contestants are watching closely. So he tosses his hair back. “Because... I’m clearly the best, that’s why!”
“Oh, it’s on now!” shouts Tulip from the other side of the elevator, raising her fists to her chest. Maple claps politely. Dahlia and Marigold, though, look unimpressed.
“Oho!” says Cabbage. “Now it’s a competition!”
“And here’s Mr R.’s friendly advice…”
Mr. R pauses.
“Take out the weakest contestant first.”
Cucumber swallows. But who...
Oh, he realizes. It’s him. He’s the weakest.
And from the way Tulip, Dahlia, and Maple are staring at him, they’ve all realized the same thing.
Cabbage slaps the flower pin against his chest, but Cucumber has no time to be offended at the lack of ceremony. He takes the pin and attaches it to his purse… and then turns and runs.
He hears footsteps behind him and turns around to see Tulip and Maple chasing him, hands outstretched and devilish grins on their faces. He thinks - what’s his best move? He can’t just toss the purse to Almond, or he’ll probably be disqualified on the spot. And he has to find this trophy…
All he has to do, then, is buy himself some time.
He takes his wand out of his purse and raises it into the air, concentrating on Splashmaster’s power. A cloud of water emerges from the end of his wand and takes shape in midair, making Tulip and Maple stop in their tracks.
The cloud of water launches itself at them. Tulip and Maple cover their face, but it’s too late - the water splashes Tulip’s hair, sending it sopping in front of her face. In an instant, Cucumber runs over to her and snatches the flower pin from her chest.
“That’s not fair!” shouts Tulip. “I can’t see!”
But Maple still stands in front of him. Her hat is soaking wet, but she’s otherwise unharmed. She gives him a smug smile.
“Thought you’d get me with that little trick, eh?” she says. “Well, I’m not…”
She’s cut off by a deafening screech as Cucumber activates Noisemaster’s power and covers his own ears.
“ARGH!” shouts Maple, pulling her ears over her head.
As before, Cucumber takes the distraction to grab Maple’s flower pin.
“Magic, huh?” says Cabbage’s voice. “Isn’t that cheating?!”
Cucumber ignores him. He has to find that trophy before...
“Don’t tell me you forgot about me!” announces a voice, and Cucumber looks towards it to see a grinning Dahlia, waving her hands around in circles. Dark purple clouds are forming around her. “You’re not the only one who can…”
But her voice goes quiet, and her movements stop, as a black-and-white fog envelops her. Cucumber lowers his wand, walks over, and snatches the flower pin from her chest.
Wait, Cucumber thinks. Did he just win?
As if to answer his question, a yellow star shoots down from the sky and right into the ground at his feet, in an explosion of yellow shards. The floor where he had been has become green crystal.
“No fair, no fair, no fair!” shouts a familiar voice. Cucumber looks up towards the source to see… Marigold.
Riding Peridot’s broom.
He wants to slap his forehead. That should have been obvious.
Peridot angrily tosses her wig to the ground.
“I came here because ALMOND was supposed to be here!” she shouts, a vein in her forehead bulging. “SHE was supposed to be in this dumb contest! Not… not you! I wouldn’t be interested in you even if you were a girl!”
“I mean… FORGET IT”
She creates another star and chucks it at Cucumber, who leaps out of the way as it shatters against the ground, turning it into peridot as well.
“Peridot! Wait! I don’t want to…”
Cucumber readies his wand, holding it out in front of him, as Peridot prepares another spell. Again, he concentrates on Splashmaster’s relatively harmless power, forming a cloud of water from the end of his wand that launches itself at Peridot.
Peridot, though, flies straight at it, effortlessly weaving between the jets of water.
“You’ll have to do better than that!” she says, throwing another star down at him. He has only a moment to run before the star crashes into where he was just standing, turning yet another section of the floor into peridot.
“And stop dodging my attacks!” she shouts.
“You… you first!” replies Cucumber. If only his sister was there, he thinks. She was who Peridot really wanted to fight anyway.
“Well, then, let’s see you try to dodge… THIS!” she says. She forms another star, and then another, and then another, sending a meteor shower raining down on top of him. Cucumber knows he has no time to dodge them all. He concentrates on his wand instead, focusing on a different power, and a black and white fog forms around him.
The shower of stars stops in mid-air, floating silently in front of him. Carefully, so as not to touch any of them, Cucumber makes his way out of the fog… and the stars return to life, smashing harmlessly into the ground.
“This is so dumb!” Peridot screeches, pulling at her hair. “You’re dumb, your spells are dumb, this fake contest is dumb, she’s dumb...”
“Wait,” interrupts Cucumber. “Fake -”
“ - Contest?”
Cucumber blinks. What was he talking about again? Who had he even been talking to?
He notices a jangling in his purse and looks into it to see three flower pins. Oh, right. The contest. He’d beaten everyone, so now all he had to do was find the trophy, right? And then he’d become a princess.
Well. Sort of.
The only problem is… he has no idea where to start looking. He stops and listens, hoping he’ll hear some kind of clue to lead him in the right direction.
Far, far, in the distance, deep into the ruins, barely audible over the sound of nearby waterfalls, he hears what sounds like voices. Walking past giant, towering plants, he starts to follow the sound.
“I’m… I’m not scared of you!”
“Interesting. So why do you tremble?”
“Because it’s… it’s cold? Obviously!”
“You do not fool me. I see the fear in your eyes. And you are right to be afraid.”
“I told you, I’m not scared! Leave my friends alone! Leave my brother alone! Or… or else I’ll…”
“Tell me. What will you do?”
“I’ll kick your butt, that’s…”
Cucumber doesn’t think he’s ever run so fast in his life. The moment he’d recognized the voices, he’d panicked - of all possible things to hear, he never thought it’d be his sister yelling at the Nightmare Knight himself!
He has to be brave, he tells himself. No matter how terrified he is, if his sister’s in danger, he has to do whatever he can. No matter how hopeless it is!
“Almond!” he shouts.
“Cucumber?!” shouts Almond, and he sees her… and the Nightmare Knight, towering over her, towering over everything, surrounded by a cloud of purple fog. He’s not attacking, but he’s sure, so sure, that if Almond keeps taunting him, it’ll only be a moment before…
He gulps. He can’t bear to think about it.
“Ah. The ‘legendary hero’,” booms the Nightmare Knight. “How brave…”
For a second, the Nightmare Knight’s eyes glance over Cucumber, and he pauses.
“...you are to approach me. And how foolish.”
“Don’t you dare lay a finger on him!” Almond shouts, holding her sword up and putting her free arm between the Nightmare Knight and Cucumber.
“Wait, wait!” Cucumber says desperately. “We shouldn’t fight him!”
Almond glares at him, but she doesn’t move her sword from where it’s pointed at the Nightmare Knight.
“What are we supposed to do, Cucumber, talk him to death?” she says.
“Yes! I mean, no! I mean, we can...”
“Don’t be dumb! We have to fight! We don’t have a choice!”
The Nightmare Knight has been staring impassively at them, but at the words ‘we don’t have a choice,’ his yellow eyes narrow.
“So be it,” he says.
He lifts one massive arm. Red light forms around the tips of his fingers, shading the cloud beneath his waist a mix of purple and orange.
“Cucumber!” Almond shouts. “Get d…”
But the Nightmare Knight swings his arm, and reality
They both scream, dropping into an abyss in the crack between existence.
Almond grabs onto the shattering remnants of the world, and Cucumber grabs onto her, but
reality around them is disintegrating in their hands.
“If only in name, are you not still a knight? Do you know nothing of mercy?”
“Please, Sir Nightmare!”
"Continue this folly if you must, ‘Legendary Hero.’ It will change nothing.”
“I get that we almost DIED!
...I know… I know we can’t win. But I couldn’t just… just sit there! I have to protect you! I don’t want you to… y’know?”
“Come on, guys. We have to stay positive, okay? We still have to find that trophy… there’s a contest to win, right?”
“So you made it back, ‘clearly the best’! Took you long enough, eh?” says Maple. Her hat is still dripping water.
“Well?” snaps Tulip, tears in her eyes. Her makeup has seen better days. “Where’s that trophy you went and ruined my hair for?”
Cucumber snaps back into reality, shaking his head free of the nightmarish visage of the Guardener.
“Sorry, sorry!” he says, raising his hands. “I don’t…”
When he raises his hands, he notices a weight in his purse that wasn’t there before. He pauses, confused, and reaches into his purse.
“Whoa!” he says as he pulls out the golden flower, which floats in his hand. “But I didn’t…”
“Oh, magnifique, darling,” interrupts Mr. R, smiling. “You’ve won the first round. Next is the runway show. Just let Azalea hold onto that while we get you back into hair and makeup.”
Mr. R’s assistant takes the trophy from his hand before he can even say anything. She starts to walk down the hall, away from the rest of them, and Cucumber watches, more than a little suspicious - just what is so important about that trophy, so important that Rosemaster would go after it? Where is she going with it?
But he doesn’t get a chance to follow her. Mr. R has suddenly appeared behind him, blocking him from seeing her, much less giving chase.
“No time to waste,” he says. “Right this way, girls… and boy.”
“W-wait!” he insists, but his pleas are ignored. Mr. R gives him a gentle push toward the rest of the group, away from Azalea.
“I watched the entire thing!” says Hyacinth, smiling cheerfully. “You looked stunning, dear! Not that I expected anything else, of course.”
Cucumber isn’t even listening. He keeps looking away from the mirror he’s been seated in front of, back towards the room he’s just come from.
“Uh, yeah. Thanks,” murmurs Cucumber.
A group of assistants wheel over another rack of dresses, this time all white.
“I thought we’d go for a more classy look for the runway show,” Hyacinth beams, holding one up in front of Cucumber.
He has to get out of here, he thinks. As nice as those dresses look, and they do look nice, something’s up with this contest. He has to hurry and find out what!
“Now let’s get you into the dressing room so you can try this on!” exclaims Hyacinth, shoving the dress and a new set of shoes and stockings into his hands. The army of assistants surround him again and lift him off the ground, carrying him towards the dressing room.
If he even gets the chance, Cucumber thinks miserably.
The moment he’s in the dressing room, he sets the white dress down on a chair and starts to look around. The dressing room doesn’t have any other exits, so the only way out is the curtains he came in through. There’s a roof, too, so he can’t climb out of it… even if he wanted to, which he doesn’t. Especially not in a dress.
He still has his wand. He could use Mutemaster’s power and freeze everyone, but it only has so much range. He could distract everyone with a blast of sound from Noisemaster’s power. Or he could…
Oh no. He knows exactly what he needs to do.
He concentrates on another spell altogether, aiming it at one of the nearby walls. He swings his wand and… a comically oversized bathtub drain appears in the center of the wall.
With a sigh, Cucumber lifts the chain and gets to pulling.
“Almond!” he shouts once he finally catches up with her. Her sword is drawn, but she’s covered in vines, squirming. In front of her are a bunch of Roselings, leaping at her. “Brace yourself!”
He swings his wand, firing a blast of sound from Noisemaster’s power. Almond gives him a confused look, but she shuts her eyes tight. The Roselings are hit full force by the blast, sending them scattering and destroying the vines surrounding Almond.
Almond opens her eyes, looks at the unconscious Roselings, and scoffs.
“Cuco!” she says, turning back towards him. In spite of her tone, the expression on her face is one of relief. “I could have taken care of those guys…”
“I know, I know…” he says, scratching the back of his wig. “But I’ve got to protect you too, you know?”
She smiles softly.
“Anyway, where’s Azalea?”
“Oh yeah!” Almond says, a determined look crossing her face. “Carrot went after…”
She turns around and sees Carrot, meekly standing there.
“Oh, come on! Let’s go, Cuco!”
Carrot frowns, but Cucumber has no time to say anything - Almond is already running through the nearby door. He gives one last look at Carrot before giving chase.
“Cucumber?!” shouts a voice, and Cucumber immediately recognizes it as the mysterious girl he’s been remembering all day. But he still can’t remember who she is… much less why she’s running over to him… or hugging him.
“Oh, I’m so glad you’re safe!” the girl shouts, beaming, while Cucumber nearly has a heart attack. “I almost didn’t recognize you at first! But you look so nice, Cucumber! I adore your dress!”
“So!” says another girl Cucumber doesn’t recognize, floating on a star-shaped wand. “We finally meet again, Almond! Hope you’re ready for a fight!”
Almond stares, frowning. “Do I know you?”
For a long moment, the second girl just sits there, staring at nothing. But then she lifts her hand, forming a star in her palm. Her slack-jawed expression doesn’t change.
“I… hate this!”
She chucks it at a nearby tree, one surrounded by flowers held in floating bubbles.
“I HATE THIS”
“Huh?!” says Cucumber, as the tree begins to transform into green crystal. There’s a loud krrrrk sound… and then the tree, the vines, and the flowers attached to them all shatter.
It was a quiet night on Dreamside’s Royal Sea Train, and Almond and Carrot were fast asleep, Almond laying against Carrot’s side. Only Nautilus and Cucumber were awake - Nautilus writing in her diary, and Cucumber staring out the window at the stars.
“Ah, can you not sleep, Cucumber?” Nautilus asks.
“Huh?” Cucumber replies, looking at her. “Oh. Not really.”
“You should get some rest,” she says gently. “We have a long journey ahead of us, after all.”
Cucumber nods. “I know.”
There’s a short pause where neither of them say anything, and there’s no sound but the rush of wind outside the train and the scratching of Nautilus’ pen.
Nautilus smiles softly.
“You can’t stop thinking about our talk before, can you?”
Cucumber sighs. “Yeah. That.”
Nautilus reaches over and gently takes Cucumber’s hands in her own, and Cucumber can’t help but blush.
“There’s no rush to decide what you are, Cucumber,” says Nautilus. “Take as long as you need.”
“No, it’s not that,” says Cucumber. “I’m… pretty sure I know what I am. I still just…”
Cucumber looks over at Almond, snoring in the seat across from them.
Nautilus follows Cucumber’s gaze and hmm s.
“You don’t have to be afraid. Your sister… I can tell she cares as much about you as you do about her. I have no doubt she’ll support you!”
“That’s right!” Nautilus replies, beaming. “Tell you what... how would you like to practice?”
“P-practice?” Cucumber stammers. “Er, practice what?”
“Just tell me what you want to tell her. Only if you want to, of course!”
Cucumber glances anxiously between Nautilus and Almond before giving Nautilus a small, almost imperceptible nod.
“Okay. I… I can do that.”
“I know you can! Whenever you’re ready.”
For what feels like hours, Cucumber says nothing. But, eventually, Cucumber squeezes Nautilus’ hands and looks her in the eyes.
“Nautilus… I-I mean, um, Almond… I… I… I’m a...”
Nautilus remains quiet, waiting patiently.
But Cucumber only sighs.
“I… I can’t. I can’t do it.”
If Nautilus is disappointed, it doesn’t show on her face. She only squeezes Cucumber’s hands back.
“Whenever you’re ready, Cucumber. I won’t rush you.”
“Thanks, Nautilus,” Cucumber says, smiling softly. “You’re a really good friend.”
Hours later, the sun rises on the Sea Train. Almond and Carrot are still asleep, but now Cucumber is the only one awake. Nautilus has fallen asleep sitting down, her diary still in her lap.
“Nautlius?” Cucumber says, giving her a gentle shake. She awakens with a start.
“Oh!” she says, fixing her glasses. “I must have fallen asleep. My apologies!”
“It’s okay. Sorry to wake you, I… I just…”
“I wanted to practice again.”
“Practice what?” says Nautilus, blinking, before realization sets in. “Oh. Oh! Of course, Cucumber!”
She fixes her hair, smooths out her skirt, and sits patiently in front of Cucumber, smiling.
Cucumber looks warily towards Almond, afraid she’ll wake up at any second, before turning back to Nautilus.
“That’s me,” winks Nautilus, flexing. “Always, er… kicking butt!”
Cucumber can’t help but smile at Nautilus’ impression, awkward as it is. It is kind of accurate.
“I... have something I need to tell you.”
Nautilus fake-gasps, putting her hands over her mouth. “What?”
“I’m… I’m a…”
Cucumber’s throat feels dry.
“I’m a girl.”
The realization hits Cucumber like a meteor. The dress, the wig, the purse… the feelings he’s been having all day about them. Who Nautilus, his closest friend, is. Everything Nautilus has done for him.
No. The feelings she's been having. Everything that Nautilus has done for her.
“Nautilus!” Cucumber shouts.
Nautilus just seems confused. She stares at her, blinking.
“I don’t know!” says Cucumber. “It’s like I forgot who you were!”
Like I forgot who I am, she thinks.
“Nautilus. Peridot. Caboodle,” says Rosemaster. “If the three of you had fallen under my spell, you’d never have made it this far. Not that it makes a difference now.”
“W-what are you talking -” shouts Cucumber.
“Shh,” says Rosemaster. The vines encircling her body reach out and wrap around Cucumber’s waist, lifting her into the air. “How disappointing. I thought you were supposed to be the smart one. Surely you’ve figured it out by now?”
Rosemaster pinches Cucumber’s cheek. “That’s always the way with you heroes. Always rushing in. You never stop to think. ”
“Let him go!” shouts Almond, charging at her with her sword drawn. Nautilus and Caboodle reach out to stop her, but her sword is already glowing as she readies an Almond Slicer.
“See what I mean?” says Rosemaster. “It’s adorable.”
Rosemaster forms a pink flower in her hand, then raises it to her mouth and blows on it, sending the petals flying over Almond’s head. Without a word, Almond stumbles, then falls to the ground. Nautilus and Caboodle both collapse.
“ALMOND!” screams Cucumber.
“You’re the legendary hero, aren’t you?” says Rosemaster. “Don’t tell me you need her to fight your battles.”
Without warning, the vines around Cucumber’s waist start to move, forcing him to hold on tightly as they pull her away from Rosemaster.
“Now, we mustn’t do this here.”
Cucumber screams as the vines let her go, tossing her through the air.
“I have a far lovelier venue in mind.”
Cucumber hits the ground with a thud, her wig flying off, over the side of a cliff. Everything hurts - she struggles to stand back on her feet, to fish her wand out of her purse and fight. She has to get to Almond! She has to make sure she’s OK!
When she manages to stand, she sees that the statue of Queen Lotus has been replaced entirely by Rosemaster, who is now hundreds of feet tall. Her massive new form leans over Cucumber with a creeeeeeeak .
“Wait,” she says, pausing as she looks down at Cucumber. Her voice has become soft, without its menacing edge. “It’s you, isn’t it?”
Cucumber’s knees wobble. She does her best to stand her ground, to hold her wand out in front of herself and be brave, but she can’t stop the terror welling up inside of her.
But Rosemaster doesn’t attack. She only… frowns.
Cucumber swallows. She doesn’t dare lower her wand, but something about Rosemaster’s voice is strangely calming. It feels like… how she’d felt with Noisemaster, at first. When she’d tried to talk with him, to make peace.
“Yes. Cucumber. Ha, I almost didn’t recognize you.”
Rosemaster leans closer.
“But... I’ve seen into your mind. You’re… forgive me for saying so… you’re like me, aren’t you?”
Cucumber doesn’t understand at all. She tries to find her voice.
“What…” she says, her voice quiet. “What do you mean by that?”
“Ah, I shouldn’t say anything,” Rosemaster sighs. Her sigh is like a gale - it nearly knocks Cucumber off her feet. “As strange as this may sound, I don’t wish to invade your privacy more than I already have.”
“No, no!” Cucumber insists, lowering her wand. “Wait! I want to know. Please. Please tell me.”
A gentle smile creeps across Rosemaster’s face.
“I was once like you, dear, sweet Cucumber. I was created and told what I was. But I knew, deep down, that I was not what I was made to be.”
For a moment, Cucumber almost thinks she’s referring to being the Legendary Hero, but that doesn’t make any sense. Cucumber feels her gut twist. It can’t be, she thinks, that Rosemaster means…?
“You…” Cucumber starts to say, but then stops. She doesn’t know the right words.
“Yes,” says Rosemaster. “Once, I went by another name. Another appearance. And I was… happy, for a time. But…”
“I hardly need to explain it, do I? You know exactly how I felt. Trapped in a role you don’t wish to play. Unable to be free. To be yourself.”
Slowly, Cucumber nods her head. Her cheeks feel warm, but she continues to look back up at Rosemaster, refusing to break her gaze.
“Why have you not told them?” Rosemaster asks. Her voice isn’t accusing - it’s just as gentle as before.
“I guess I’m... scared,” Cucumber admits. “I know Nautilus supports me, but…”
She remembers what Nautilus had told her before. Even though Rosemaster probably already knows, she can’t say it out loud.
“Nautilus is different. I... don’t know what the rest of them will say. If they’ll understand.”
“You’d be surprised. Why, the very first person I told… I never thought he’d understand. It took me so long before I was able to admit the truth.”
“But you did tell him.”
“I did. And, in return, he helped me become who I am today.” A smile comes across Rosemaster’s face that Cucumber can only describe as ‘nostalgic.’ “He won’t admit it, but it showed how much he really does care - I’ll never forget it.”
Rosemaster reaches out a giant, gnarled hand and brushes a finger against Cucumber’s cheek. Cucumber doesn’t flinch away - her finger is as gentle as a flower petal, and surprisingly warm to the touch.
“You deserve that too, dear Cucumber. To be free. To be yourself.”
Cucumber nods slowly, her cheek brushing against Rosemaster’s hand. She’s still afraid, but… she can’t help but agree. She does deserve it. After everything she’s gone through, all the expectations of being a “Legendary Hero,” doesn’t she deserve this one little bit of selfishness?
“And, may I say, you look lovely.”
Cucumber’s eyes widen as she suddenly realizes something.
“Wait,” she says. “You… you planned this, didn’t you? That’s why I was picked for the contest, wasn’t it?”
Rosemaster laughs softly. “Guilty as charged. I wanted to give you a day like this. Is that so wrong of me?”
Instead of answering her question, Rosemaster only smiles… and then Cucumber sees nothing but a blinding white. For a moment, all she sees is white, everywhere she looks.
That’s when she sees the figure standing right in front of her. It’s a woman, with skin as white as lilies and hair a pure, flawless red. She’s in a glittering dress, the same red as her hair, with black leaves forming the shoulders. The white light surrounds her like a spotlight, making her seem to glow.
It takes Cucumber a moment to realize she’s still staring at Rosemaster. She’s so close that Rosemaster’s hand, so much smaller now, is still pressed against Cucumber’s cheek.
“Because we all deserve to be princesses.”
But Cucumber still can’t understand. Weren’t they supposed to be enemies? When she’d tried to make peace with the Disaster Masters before, it hadn’t worked. Splashmaster had never given her the chance, Noisemaster had laughed at her. Five minutes ago, Rosemaster had been attacking her, attacking her friends, her sister. Now Rosemaster was helping her, giving her advice.
“You don’t… actually want to fight me, do you?” Cucumber asks.
Rosemaster sighs, lowering her gaze. Her hand falls from Cucumber’s cheek.
“No. I don’t.”
“But… we don’t have to fight,” Cucumber says, as firmly as she can manage. “I know there must be some other way. There has to be.”
Rosemaster turns around and takes a few steps away.
“If only I had a choice, dear Cucumber,” she says, smiling over her shoulder. “But… I made a promise. And it’d hardly be ladylike for me to renege on my promises, now would it?”
The white light disappears, and instantly, Rosemaster returns to her previous form, the massive black-and-white statue with arms like tree trunks. It’s as if the form Cucumber had just seen had been only an illusion.
“So put on a good show for me, will you?”
She sweeps her giant hands out in front of herself. With a deafening roar, enormous, black, thorn-covered vines burst from out of the ground and rush straight at Cucumber.
Cucumber ducks, just barely, as the vines sweep over her head, their thorns parting through her hair. She turns and runs as the vines twist back and then swoop forward, aiming at her again. Once more, she dives to the ground to avoid them. It isn’t fast enough to stop the vines from slicing a hole in the sleeve of her dress.
She looks up from where she lays on the ground, but the vines don’t come around again. Instead, she sees Carrot, crouching behind a bush.
“Oh…” says Rosemaster. “I’d forgotten all about your other friend. Was he eavesdropping on us? So rude.”
Carrot stammers something at her, but Cucumber can’t hear it. She tries to get to her feet, to shout something encouraging, to try to rouse Carrot to action, but she can barely move.
“Or was he simply going to watch you die? How insidious. If he weren’t so useless, he’d make a wonderful villain.”
Before Cucumber can say a word in protest, she feels something slip into her thoughts, like weeds. She feels… suddenly detached from her body, like she’s looking at it from far away. She watches herself stand up and raise her wand towards Carrot.
“Don’t you think, dear Cucumber?”
Rosemaster takes in deep, heaving breaths. The arrow, a blinding white, still juts from her chest.
“ah… this is normally when i’d say some pithy one-liner, isn’t it?” she says, barely managing to smile. “but I’m afraid that, this time, i have something else to say.”
Carrot looks down at her, but he’s not glaring. His gaze is soft.
“tell your friend to just be herself, won’t you? it’d be so much easier on her.”
And, with that, there’s a bright flash of light, and Rosemaster is gone.
Before Cucumber is even aware of what’s happening, Carrot is already hugging her. Cucumber can barely register even that much - she feels dizzy and sick and can barely stand.
“Cucumber, are you alright?” says Carrot, releasing her from the hug and looking her up and down.
“Where’s…” Cucumber says, weakly. “Is Rosemaster…?”
Cucumber nods slowly. Right. What else had she been expecting?
“She left a message for me. It is strange, but… perhaps you will understand it.”
“What is it?"
“She said - ahem - ‘tell your friend to just be herself. It’d be so much easier on her.’ Do you know what she meant?”
Cucumber shuts her eyes tightly. Of course, she knows exactly what Rosemaster meant. And she remembers what Rosemaster had said before - that she deserves to be herself.
“Carrot, I… I know this is a weird time for this, but…”
“Please. Tell me whatever you need to.”
“She was…” Cucumber looks Carrot in the eyes. “She was talking about me. I’m a girl.”
For a moment, Carrot is surprised, his eyes widening slightly. But then he smiles down at Cucumber, placing a hand on her shoulder.
“Very well, Madame Cucumber.”
“Cucumber? Sir Carrot?” says a familiar voice, and Cucumber turns to see Nautilus, Almond, and Peridot racing down a staircase towards them.
“Cuco!” yells Almond. “Are you…”
Cucumber turns away from Carrot and gives Almond a small, gentle smile.
“I’m fine, Almond,” she says. “Are you…?”
“Please!” Almond replies. “I don’t have a scratch on me. It’s you I’m worried about!”
“I’m fine, promise!” says Cucumber, raising her hands. “I…”
“You’re not fine! Look at you!” Almond grabs her arm. Cucumber winces as Almond shows her the cut in one of the sleeves of the dress. “And what happened to your wig?!”
“It’s… gone,” Cucumber admits, feeling a pang of disappointment. She’d completely forgotten about the wig in all the chaos. “But it’s just a wig. It’s… not a big deal."
But Almond, instead of replying, wraps Cucumber in a bear hug, pulling her tight to her chest and nearly lifting her off the ground. Cucumber looks down at her sister and sees tears rolling down her cheeks.
“I don’t care about the wig!” shouts Almond. “I care about you! You got hurt, and… I… I wasn’t there to protect you!”
Cucumber simply hugs her back, as tightly as she can, patting her sister’s back. She can see the concern on everyone else’s face - Nautilus, Carrot, and especially Peridot.
“I won’t ever let you be alone again, Cuco,” Almond says.
Cucumber doesn’t know how long they stay like that, just holding each other, before she finally speaks.
“I’m never alone, Almond. I have Nautilus and Carrot to protect me too.”
“That’s right, Almond!” says Nautilus. “Liquus and I will keep Cucumber safe!”
“And I will do everything in my power as well,” says Carrot. “Do not fret.”
“Thanks, guys,” says Almond, wiping the tears from her eyes. “Sorry for getting sappy.”
Cucumber sighs, but there’s a smile on her face. “You don’t need to apologize for that, Alm…”
Without warning, there’s an explosion of blue stars in front of their eyes, and a bright blue light fills the room as the Dream Oracle materializes from thin air.
“Well done, Legendary Hero, et cetera,” she says, holding up Rosemaster’s Disaster Stone. “Another evil triumphed over, I see.”
Once the Dream Oracle has disappeared, and the Nightmare Knight has taken Peridot to… wherever he lives, and they’ve returned Rosemaster’s Disaster Stone to the Roselings, the four of them start to return to Azalea’s castle.
But Cucumber knows she has one last thing she has to say, one last person she has to say it to. Just like she’s been afraid to do ever since she left Nautilus’ closet, all that time ago.
“Everybody?” she says.
The other three stop. Almond whips around, looking the most concerned of anyone - Cucumber can tell she’s been on edge ever since they’d been separated.
“Yes, Cucumber?” says Carrot.
“Could I have… a moment alone? With Almond?”
Carrot and Nautilus both look at each other. But then they turn back to Cucumber and nod.
“Certainly,” says Carrot.
“We will be right nearby,” says Nautilus. “Call for us if you need anything.”
“I will,” says Cucumber.
Carrot and Nautilus start to walk away, to give Cucumber and Almond some space. But, just as Nautilus passes by Cucumber, she places a hand on her shoulder.
“Optimism,” Nautilus says, giving Cucumber a soft smile.
“Thanks, Nautilus,” Cucumber replies, smiling back.
Cucumber waits until Nautilus and Carrot are far enough away before turning back towards Almond. Almond frowns at her, her shoulders hunched.
Instead of speaking, Cucumber closes the distance between them and takes her sister’s hands in her own. She gives them a light squeeze, to try and reassure her.
“Almond… there’s something I have to tell you.”
“You’re… you’re kind of scaring me, Cuco. What is it?”
“It’s… a lot scarier for me than it is for you, actually,” Cucumber admits, looking away. ”I’ve been… wanting to say this for a long time, you know? But… I was afraid you’d…”
“...Make fun of me,” she says, in a small voice.
“Cuco!” Almond exclaims. “I’d never do that!”
Cucumber stares at her.
“OK, fine, sometimes I do that,” Almond admits. “But only because you’re a big nerd! I’d never make fun of you, like, for real.”
Almond nods. “Promise!”
Cucumber squeezes her eyes shut. She can feel tears starting to form, but she refuses to let herself cry. Not in front of Almond.
“I’m a girl.”
For a moment, Almond doesn’t say anything, and Cucumber dreads the worst. When she peeks out of one eye to look at her sister’s reaction, though, Almond is grinning.
Cucumber nods slowly.
With no warning, Almond wraps Cucumber up in another hug. This time, she literally does pick Cucumber off the ground, stumbling backwards as she lifts her into the air.
“You’re my sister!” she shouts, spinning around. “You’re my sister!”
“You…” Cucumber struggles to speak. “You don’t care…?”
“Care?!” Almond shouts. “Of course I do! I’ve always wanted a sister!”
Almond sets her sister down, still grinning.
“But I’m still the favorite daughter. Got it?”
Cucumber laughs. Almond holds out a fist, and Cucumber awkwardly bumps her own against it.