"Help! Someone, please help!"
Thorne bursts out of the lighthouse with Cress in his arms. Both of them are soaked and Thorne's clothes are torn from his altercation with Sybil, but none of that matters.
Cress is barely breathing.
Soldiers on the pier rush towards him. "Master Thorne?"
They take one look at Cress in his arms and draw their weapons.
"Where is Mistress Sybil?"
"Has someone attacked her?"
"Is she ill?"
"No one was supposed to see the Princess!"
Thorne won't let go of Cress as they try to pry her out of his arms. "We don't have time for questions right now. I think she's been poisoned." He pushes past them. What kind of help does one seek Above for this? What are they called again?
"She needs a doctor?" asks a soldier.
"Yes! Someone find Dr. Erland!"
"That kooky old man in the seaside hut?"
"Yes!" Thorne takes off running again.
"Master Thorne! Surely the royal physician—"
"Just find Dr. Erland! He'll know what to do!"
He fixed Thorne's eyes. Surely he can fix a bit of poison. There has to be an antidote.
"You know what," Thorne says, huffing. The soldiers are at his heels. "Find the royal physician as well. Wake up anyone who might help. The Princess's life is at stake!"
No one needs to be told again.
Thorne's heart is in his throat as he runs toward Dr. Erland's hut.
His arms tighten around Cress as he takes a sharp turn off the pier.
"Don't you dare die on me now, darling. Sybil already tried to kill you once and I saved you then, didn't I? I'm going to save you now too. She's in the ocean, Cress. The Sea Witch took her, and Sybil can't get you anymore. She can't get you anymore so you're not allowed to die. Do you hear me?"
The night's events catch up to him as Dr. Erland's hut comes into view, a sole lantern lit outside the thatched door.
He was supposed to die tonight too. He was supposed to die that day in the ocean when Levana turned him into a human. He and Cress have both defied death once, and if Thorne got his second escape from it tonight, then Cress will get her second escape too.
She has to.
That's how this works.
"Don't leave me," he chokes out.
He's not crying.
Merman princes do not cry.
But his human body likes to betray him, and a fat tear rolls down his cheek as he bangs on Dr. Erland's door. The soldiers arrive a second later and burst through the door without waiting for the doctor to respond.
Dr. Erland emerges from a side room in pajamas (the strangest of human clothing, for sure) and a weird little hat. He blinks through sleepy eyes. "Can I help you?"
"Sybil did something to the Princess," Thorne says. He moves to the table where Dr. Erland fixed his eyes and shoves away documents and little vials that shatter on the floor. He lays Cress down. "Poison, I think. She was already unconscious when I arrived."
Dr. Erland harrumphs. "Perhaps next time, you should ask me whether any of my vials could help her before you break them."
Panic seizes his lungs. He will crawl on his knees and scoop up any liquid she needs with his bare hands, if necessary. "Can you help her or not?"
"I must examine her first."
"Then do so."
Dr. Erland puts a hand on Thorne's wrist. "First, you must let go of the Princess."
"Right." It's hard to let go, though. When he finally does, all the adrenaline he had leaves him.
He slumps against Dr. Erland's desk, his heart still racing but his body sagging with exhaustion.
Dr. Erland addresses the soldiers. "I need cold compresses, vikta root, ten milligrams of prynium, and…" He rattles off more ingredients that Thorne has never heard of. He doesn't care what they are as long as they save Cress.
They run around collecting things for what seems like hours.
A soldier, one that Thorne recognizes from how often he's caught him and Cress sneaking around—Barton, might be his name—takes Thorne by the elbow. "We need to take care of your wounds too," he says.
Thorne blinks. "I'm fine."
"Sir?" Barton points.
Thorne follows his gaze to below his right knee, where blood runs down the entirety of his lower leg. "Oh..." He grows faintly nauseas the more he looks at it. "It's just a gash."
"The royal physician is on his way. He can take a look."
"Let's just focus on Cress."
Barton runs a hand down his face. "I'm sure the princess would command us to make sure you survive as well."
He swipes at the blood as if to show that he's fine. Now he's got blood on his hands. Smart, Thorne, real smart. "I'll be fine."
"Can you tell us what happened? We'll need to file a report with Sybil."
"Sybil is dead."
His voice rings out into the little hut.
For a moment, even Dr. Erland pauses, and only Cress's ragged breaths can be heard in the room.
"She poisoned Cress," Thorne clarifies. "Then tried to kill me. She fell off the lighthouse and the ocean claimed her."
Everyone stares at him.
"We'll need to verify that with the princess," another soldier says slowly.
"She was unconscious."
An uncomfortable beat. "You are the only witness to Mistress Sybil's death?"
Thorne notices the shift in tone and straightens. "Am I in trouble here?"
The soldiers glance amongst themselves.
"I saved the princess. Sybil poisoned her." Thorne crosses his arms. "What's so hard to understand here?"
No one says anything, though, because in that moment, Dr. Erland clears his throat.
"She should live. Her vitals are stable."
Thorne sags against the desk again. "When will she be awake?"
"It could take some time. Let's let her rest."
"Here? In her room?" In my room? he doesn't add. He is not leaving Cress alone again.
"Her room should suffice," Dr. Erland says. He stoops to pick up some of his broken vials. "I'll need to make another tonic for the princess to take. It should be administered carefully, once every hour for the next two days until she wakes." He turns to the soldiers. "Can the royal physician take care of that?"
Barton nods. "Yes, of course. Thank you for your prompt attention. We'll make sure the princess knows of how you helped her during her time of need. Normally, Mistress Sybil would be the one to reward you for your help, but seeing as she is…indisposed…we will allow the princess to decide on your reward once she is well."
"No reward is necessary," Dr. Erland says. "It is my duty to help my princess, after all."
Thorne goes to the table where Cress is still unconscious. "I'll carry her back."
Dr. Erland stops him. "Unfortunately, I'll need to keep you here. By the looks of it, you're going to need stitches."
She blinks a few times.
"Cress, hi, can you hear me?"
Thorne cups her face.
She mumbles something and relief floods Thorne's tense body. He's still hovering over her on the bed, as if his body caged around her can ward away anything else that might hurt her. But he leans back now as she wakes to give her space. He props his elbow up on her fluffy covers and only continues holding her hand.
It takes her several minutes to fully wake up.
"Hi," he whispers again. "Welcome back."
She shifts towards him. "What's going on?"
"Sybil poisoned you. I fought her on top of the lighthouse. The Sea Witch took her. You almost died. I saved you. Dr. Erland helped."
The tale sounds quite heroic to him, now that he's able to sum it up succinctly, but it's a little bit too much for Cress at this moment. He has to repeat a few versions of this story several times before she's fully caught up. Especially the part about Levana.
"Sybil is dead," she finally says.
He kind of wants her to focus on the fact that he saved her, but that's an important part of it too. "Yes. You're free from her."
He doesn't tell her that he is also free from her, that Sybil figured out his secret and tried to blackmail him with it. She is gone and they don't have to worry about her anymore.
He catches her up on the past few days since she's been out. Thorne was under investigation, but nobody came to any conclusions either way. Some consider him a hero, and others, a murderer. But nobody can prove anything, so he's not worried, though the latter title bothers him.
Nobody has any idea what to do about Satellite either, since it's unprecedented for Cress to already take full power of the throne.
"But there isn't anyone else," he concludes. "The Council met and apparently, the only thing keeping you from reining as the sovereign monarch was Sybil. She cast a lot of doubt on your ability to rule. I think you'll have to meet with them and convince them. Maybe this is a good time to explain what happened at the shipwreck."
"I can't prove anything," she says. She still holding his hand — hasn't let go the entire time they're talking.
"You can tell your truth, though."
Her fingers caress his palm. "Thank you for saving me."
Now, that's more like it.
"We're getting good at saving each other," he says humbly.
She hums again and slings a leg over his hip.
His hand is on the curve of her waist.
Then Cress rolls on top of him.
His thoughts get muddled. "Aren't you…I mean…you're probably feeling weak…hungry…"
Her mouth comes over his mouth, cutting off all protests. He has none, anyway. He's been starved without Cress, hasn't kissed her since they slipped into the ocean. Since Sybil caught them and took her away. Since—
Cress slides her fingers through his hair.
He groans and stops thinking about everything except the beautiful girl straddling his waist. His arms come around her and hold her tightly to him as he sits up to get closer to her. He can't get close enough.
It's harder to hold someone close Above the water, he decides, here on land where gravity is always trying to weaken him. But he's up to the challenge. And so is Cress, with the way she leans into him even more and wraps her legs around his hips. Her entire body melts against his.
She murmurs incoherent appreciation as he kisses across her jawline, down the column of her neck. Cress digs her fingers into his back and shells he loves her. He loves her he loves her he loves her.
She pulls away, breathless. "I don't know if I'm ready to rule."
"W-What?" he says as he kisses the corner of her mouth.
Cress sighs. "With Sybil gone, it's up to me. What if I'm not a good queen?"
The uncertainty in her voice kills him, and even though this is the last thing in the entire world that he wants to talk about right now because They're in a bed! She's on top of him! Everything feels so good! They beat death so why not celebrate! he pulls his mouth away an inch to look into her eyes.
"Okay." Thorne tries to form a coherent thought. "I've known many people in positions of power in the sea. I think someone as kind and observant as you will make a great queen."
His throat is still pretty dry. "I may not be entirely unbiased right now."
She looks at his bare chest, as if only just remembering that she ripped shirt off mere moments ago. Her hand comes up to his heart.
"We don't have to be a secret anymore."
He swallows. "No?"
"If I'm queen, and I approve of you, no one can say anything."
He kisses her again. "You're right…"
"We could rule together."
He jerks back, forgetting that there is a bedpost behind him and smacks his head.
Cress laughs. "Are you okay?"
He rubs his head. Cress is still on his lap.
"Fine, fine." Rule together?
Is Cress asking him to—
She can't be.
"I'm a merman," he says, his throat dry again, but for different reasons now. "You're a human…a human queen."
And he is a merman prince, but—
Why can't he tell her?
He loves her.
He really loves her.
But rule with her?
Why are his human legs telling him to run out the door and never come back?
"You're human now too," she says, sliding her hands around his neck again. She scoots closer. "And Sybil is gone. There's nothing that can separate us now from being together forever."
He clears his throat.
She blinks up at him, her blue eyes coming to a sudden realization. "Isn't that what you want?"
His human legs need to stop trying to run.
"I…" He takes a deep breath and takes Cress's hands off his shoulders.
"Thorne?" Those blue eyes are threatening tears now.
"No, no, don't cry." He holds her hands to his chest. "I love you. I know that."
"But not forever." It's not a question.
"I can't think that far. Not because I don't want to be with you," he rushes to say. "But so much has changed so fast. Since I met you. Since I became human. I…I don't know what forever looks like. I can't…can't promise that."
He hasn't told her the whole truth and he can't.
That he's a prince, and even worse—that he doesn't know what will happen to this spell. If he'll even stay human. If something about avoiding the sea will somehow, someday, crack him wide open.
He can't tell her because he can't even tell himself.
"And ruling Satellite with you? I never thought—" That I'd be king. Cinder has always been the rightful heir. I am no one people would follow, look up to. "—that something like that would ever be an option."
Cress's brows draw together, but she doesn't pull away. She also doesn't cry. There's that, at least. Instead, runs a thumb over his cheek. "You would make a great king too."
Her declaration startles him out of his troubling thoughts. "See, that's the thing. You don't really know me…know what I'm like…my history…"
"I know you as well as you know me."
She kisses him lightly. "It's not."
"I'm not….not a forever type of merman—man. I'll mess it up."
"Not this time." She kiss him so slowly time stops. "I believe we're destined to have an epic romance. One that defies the fates. It already has. How can all this have happened if we're not meant to be together?"
The fates. Yes. Wasn't he just thinking that?
What a ridiculous thing to think.
He's set himself up here.
"You're scared," she says.
He looks away.
She tugs at his chin until he faces her again.
Something in her soft eyes makes his heart split in two.
"You're not?" he says quietly.
"All the time."
"Except when I'm with you."
He leans his face into the crook of her neck and exhales. She lets him stay there and massages the knots in his shoulders. After a time, he picks himself up.
"Of all the girls I could have saved that day, I just had to pick a princess."