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You descend the stairs as quickly as you can, Almond and the strange girl on the broom - Peridot, right? - running alongside you. Almond, in fact, seems to be running even faster.

You can’t help but be afraid. You only woke up moments ago, and you had been face-to-face with Rosemaster’s power yourself - she had almost skewered you, to be frank. You believed in your friends wholeheartedly, but even you feared the worst, having to think of how Cucumber and Sir Carrot were faring up against her even more powerful self. They weren’t exactly battle-hardened warriors...

“Cucumber?” you called out. “Sir Carrot?”

But - to your surprise and relief, there’s no sign of Rosemaster at all. When you get to the bottom of the stairs, instead there is… Sir Carrot, wearing a strange new outfit and even looking strangely taller. He’s talking to Cucumber. You can see a tear in the arm of her dress, no doubt from a battle. The wig she was wearing is missing.

You stop, your immense gratitude at seeing them alive being overridden by your surprise and concern. You don’t know what to say, but it doesn’t matter - Almond moves first.

“Cuco!” yells Almond. “Are you…”

Cucumber turns away from Carrot and smiles gently. It’s good to see her smile, you think - that means she’s still alright, in spite of everything.

“I’m fine, Almond,” Cucumber says, walking towards her sister. “Are you…?”

“Please!” Almond scoffs. “I don’t have a scratch on me! It’s you I’m worried about!”

“I’m fine, promise!” Cucumber says, raising her hands. “I…”

Almond immediately grabs her arm, displaying the cut in her dress to her. Cucumber flinches. “You’re not fine! Look at you! And what happened to your wig?!”

Cucumber frowns. “It’s… gone. But it’s just a wig. It’s not a big deal.”

You can tell by the tone of her voice that it is a big deal, and perhaps Almond thinks the same thing, because she immediately hugs her sister. And then she hugs her sister, pulling her off the ground and lifting her into the air.

And that’s when you see them. The tears rolling down Almond’s cheeks, staining her fur. Her expression, rather than its usual infectious grin or eager smile, is a wavy frown, her eyes shut tight.

You look at Almond and frown, still unsure what to say, not sure if you should speak up. For a moment, just a moment, her eyes open and cross yours - her frown deepens.

Then she looks away, back towards Cucumber.

“I don’t care about the wig! I care about you!” she yells. “You got hurt, and… and… I wasn’t there to protect you!”

Over the next few hours, you keep thinking about her tears.


 

Dear Diary -

I We I’m so This has been a long journey, and to be honest with you, I am

You take your pen and scratch off yet another line. You aren’t sure what to write - you know what you want to say, but the words themselves just won’t come to you. It’s like your memory - always just out of reach. And, like your memory, equally as frustrating.

And there’s so much to talk about. You aren’t even sure where to start, really. So much has changed - you still have to get used to that Cucumber has come out as a girl to everyone, after so long keeping that a secret. She even came out to her father, who only laughed and tousled her hair and said “I’m not paying for any of your dresses.”

You let out a sigh and look out over the Flybus, which Cucumber’s father is still driving - or, er, flying? When does he ever sleep...?

You see Cucumber next to Carrot, her eyes closed as she rests her head against his side, her new replacement wig threatening to fall off. Carrot is sleeping as well. That’s good, you think. They’ve been through a lot - they deserve rest.

You look towards where Almond is sitting, on the other side of the Flybus. She’s most definitely not sleeping. She’s staring out the window, and not with the excitement and incredulity that you usually see from her. She’s glaring, as if she’s going to melt the window with her eyes, and polishing her sword well past what could be called a “mirror sheen.”

You wonder if you should approach her, in her current mood. But you are nothing, truly, if not optimistic - you are confident that you can cheer her up.

So you get up from your seat and primly approach, setting your diary in front of yourself and crossing your arms over your stomach. She doesn’t see you as you get close, so you stand there, feeling somewhat awkward.

“Almond? May I sit here?” you say at last.

She doesn’t turn to look at you. She just sets her sword at her side and says, “Whatever.”

That’s close enough to an invitation, you think. You take a seat next to her (and her sword), placing your arms in your lap as a princess should, as you’ve been trained to do your entire life.

You smile gently at her. Her eyes dart towards you for a second, then dart away. You swear, although maybe you’re just imagining things, that there’s a slight blush on her cheeks.

Yes. Definitely your imagination.

“Almond,” you say.

“What?” she says in a short, clipped manner, putting her hand against her chin and continuing to stare out the window.

“I just wanted to say the moon is quite beautiful today,” you say. You’re trying your hardest, as taught in your Royal Decorum classes (not to mention your Royal Personal Therapy classes), not to pressure her too much. If she doesn’t want to speak, that will be fine, you decide. At least you can give her company. “Don’t you think so?”

You and Almond look out at the moon, hovering over the clouds, dwarfing the rest of the stars, its massive image reflected back at it through the ocean. Even though you were just using it to break the ice, it is beautiful.

Almond shrugs. “It’s OK.”

Well, it was worth a shot. Giving her company it is.

But, just as you’re opening your diary to try writing again, Almond speaks.

“You saw me crying, right?” she says, although she doesn’t sound angry. She’s frowning at you, but not glaring, you notice.

“Yes,” you admit. “I did.”

“Well, you can’t blame me, right?!” she says, raising her voice. “I mean, Cucumber… my sister… I thought she was really, really hurt, and…”

“I don’t blame you, Almond,” you interrupt. “It’s alright to cry.”

At your words, Almond blinks. Her shoulders sink and she glances away. “I’m not supposed to cry… I mean, uh, not in front of my sister. You know.”

You give her another gentle smile. “Why not?”

Almond raises her eyebrows. “You have siblings, right?”

“I’m afraid not… I’m an only child,” you explain.

“Then I guess you can’t really get it,” Almond says, smiling softly. “It’s a sister thing.”

“I see,” you say, continuing to smile at her. “Maybe you can explain it to me?”

Almond scoffs, crossing her arms and looking out the window again, or perhaps towards the opposite seat. “I don’t… really know how, OK? It’s like… she’s the big sister, but she’s the crybaby, the one who always went crying to dad and mom and stuff.”

“She sure did!” says Cabbage from the front seat.

“Dad,” says Almond flatly.

“Oh, you’re having a moment,” Cabbage replies. “Don’t let me interrupt!”

Anyway,” Almond continues, “now I have to be… like her big sister, I guess? I have to be strong and brave and cool for her or… or…”

Almond trails off. You say, as gently as you can, “Or what?”

Almond sighs, rubbing her arm.. “I don’t know. I don’t know how to say it. And, um, you’re cool and all… like, that thing you did with your eel guy against Splashmaster was awesome!” She blushes, though you’re not sure why. You blush too, although you’re not sure why either. “And I like you and everything, but no offense, we haven’t really, uh, talked a whole lot...”

“I’m not offended,” you say, and you’re not. Every friendship starts somewhere, after all - you’re not going to let that stop you from trying to support her.

“And this is... hard,” Almond continues.

“It’s quite alright,” you say. “May I try?”

She nods and you make an mmm sound. How to say this…?

“Do you feel like… perhaps… that without you, she won’t know what to do?”

Almond frowns deeper. “I mean, yeah, I guess. No offense, but she’s kind of a total wimp. Without me... without me being tough and cool to, you know, inspire her, it’s like… she’ll fall apart.” She smiles awkwardly. “Or something...?”

You reach out and, with as much gentleness as you’ve been speaking with, reach out and touch her shoulder. She doesn’t flinch away. She just stares at you.

“Your sister is stronger than you think, Almond,” you say, and she looks away again. “I’m sure of it.”

Almond looks skeptical, but she doesn’t take your hand off her shoulder. She just looks back up at you furtively. “You’re sure?”

You nod.

...How?” she says, very quietly.

“Because I’ve seen her,” you say. “She’s brave and courageous too. Just look at how she tried to make peace with Noisemaster, or how…”

Almond’s brow furrows. “You know, she was going to make peace with the Nightmare Knight too? She was all -” She makes a passable impression of her sister’s voice, if a little more nasally, and waves her hands back and forth. “‘We shouldn’t fight him! We should talk to him!’ And he almost killed us. She almost died.”

Your smile fades a little.

“My sister can be… really dumb,” Almond says quietly.

“That’s not dumb,” you reply, shaking your head. “That’s bravery. That’s optimism.”

Almond looks confused, her brow furrowing. “What’s optimism…?”

You raise a hand to your chest. “The belief that anything is possible, that miracles can happen. The belief in the power of hope, and love, and friendship, to win out over evil.”

“You… really believe in that stuff?” Almond says, with a tiny smirk. She stares at you as if she’s trying to be sure you’re serious.

“Of course,” you say, not bothered by it at all.

“I used to too,” says Almond, looking away from you with a soft sigh. “I believed this would all just be a fun adventure, like in my favorite show. That I was strong and cool enough to fight anyone, to fight anything, even the Nightmare Knight!” She lowers her head. “I’m the one who got us into this whole mess, you know. I gave away the last Disaster Stone to Peridot. If we had gotten rid of it, like Cucumber said… then…”

You frown.

“Maybe…” Almond mutters. “Maybe I was the dumb one.”

“No!” you say quickly, taking her hands in yours. Her head flips up to look at you - now you’re sure she’s blushing. You try to ignore it, and the way it makes your heart beat just a bit faster. “No, I didn’t mean it that way at all, Almond! You’re brave too. You’re brave and caring and strong… I really believe in you as well as Cucumber, with all my heart.”

“You really mean that?” she says, sounding just as skeptical as before. Her blush gets deeper. “That’s not just your ‘optimism’ talking?”

“My optimism is always talking,” you say simply, but then you beam at her and squeeze her hands. “But I meant every word.”

“You believe in… me?” she says. Her face is turning redder and redder by the second. “Even after what I said, about how this is my fault…? You still…?”

You nod. “Absolutely.”

Then, completely without warning, Almond launches forward. There’s a blur of motion, and then her arms are around your neck, her chest is pressed against your chest - the force of the impact nearly knocks your glasses askew - and then… and then her lips are on your lips, and oh. Oh. She’s kissing you.

Almond is kissing you.

You feel your heart skip several beats.

She continues pressing her lips against yours insistently, as if she’s trying for a response, but you don’t know what to do. You’re completely frozen in place.

After a moment, or maybe an hour, she seems to realize what she’s doing. She breaks away from the kiss like a frightened bird, pulling herself back against the wall of the bus and raising a hand to her no doubt pounding heart. Her face is bright, bright red. Your heart pounds equally as hard - no doubt your face is as red as hers.

“Holy crap,” she says, sliding her hands down her cheeks. “Holy crap. Why did I do that? Why did I do that?!

“Goodness,” you say, brushing your hair out of your eyes. “That was… unexpected.”

“That was… that was my first kiss,” she hisses, covering her face with her hands entirely. “My first kiss ever! I… don’t know why I… and it was with…? With you?!”

You feel like you should be offended, and Almond seems to realize what she’s said as well, looking alarmed.

“Oh geez, I’m sorry!” she says quickly. “I didn’t mean it that way, you’re… you’re really cool and, uh, pretty, and nice and… you know! I was just expecting, um… to, uh, be rescuing a prinnnnnnn… wait a second. You are a princess. I kissed a princess?!” She pulls her ears down in front of her face. “This is so embarrassing! Uggggh! I’m so sorry!”

You simply smile at her, although you’re trying as hard as you can to calm your own pounding heart. “It was quite nice, for what it’s worth. I’ve never been kissed before either.”

And I was your first kiss?!” Almond exclaims. “This is the worst day of my life!!!”

“Whoa, first kiss?!” says Cabbage from the front seat. “Just what are you two doing back there?!”

Shut up, Dad!”


 

Dear Diary -

Don’t tell anyone, but I was kissed today! ❤❤❤

You aren’t going to believe this, but it was with Almond! She’s quite pretty, to be sure, but I wouldn’t have expected it… we were talking about how I believed in her and she just suddenly kissed me! I’m still in shock...

It was a lovely kiss though! I wish I had kissed her back, but I was so surprised. As you well know, I’ve never been kissed before… but her lips were so soft and she was so warm... Goodness, should I be talking about this? How embarrassing, even for a diary! ☺️

Afterwards, she asked me if she could be alone for a while, and I, of course, obliged and went elsewhere to write. I hope things aren’t awkward between us from now on…

Anyway, remember, don’t tell anyone! Or I’ll be very cross!

- Nautilus


 

Eventually, the Flybus touches down outsides Quartzon. As you leave it, following behind Cucumber and Carrot, you feel a hand grab yours. You turn around, surprised, but it’s only Almond.

She’s blushing deeply, chewing on her lower lip. You smile at her, trying not to blush back.

“Thank you for the…” she says, and you almost think she’s going to say “kiss,” which makes no sense because you didn’t actually kiss her. “Talk. It really helped.”

You take her hands in yours and, if possible, her blush deepens.

“It was no issue at all, Almond. I’m glad to be of help.”

She gives you a small, awkward smile back.

“Let’s do it again sometime.”

And now you’re quite certain she means the kiss. You giggle, squeezing her hands, and she grins.

“Certainly.”