Ilyzaelle Helianthas couldn't quell the soft song of nostalgia that raced through her as she took in the royal dining hall. It had been so long since she'd came to the palace, it felt like a dream. And it very well could've been, with the way the ⠗⠕⠕⠍ was decorated. Nothing was left unadorned - no candle unlit, no napkin untrimmed, no face unsmiling.

Well, maybe that last part wasn't quite true. There were faces of uncertainty in the dining hall that evening; there were faces of haughty indifference. There were faces of quiet melancholy. Lyza admitted that she felt some of that too, swimming in her eyes, collecting in her heart.

Because everything was so different now. The world was dressed in splendor, yes, but Lyza could still feel the tension and unease beneath the surface of each tight smile, each clinking fork. She felt it as though it were inside of her.

And maybe it was.

Lyza couldn't help glancing at the prince - she refused to think of him as Sid yet - at the head table, picking solemnly at his Caesar salad. The queen was perched at her own chair, chin high as she sipped from her glass of wine, staining her lips ever redder, if that was possible. Lyza was sure that Levana could look like a queen wherever she was, in any circumstance. Had she been born this way? And was Obsidian the same now? It had been years since they'd last met, unaware of each other's names or upbringings, and he could certainly be different now.

But Lyza still saw fragments of that little boy in his genuine smile, his somber eyes, his eagerness to make those around him feel secure, even now, in this dinner cluttered with confined emotion.

Was she falling in love with him? She didn't know. She couldn't guess.

But it had been sincere of him to encourage the girls to mingle, to break some of that built-up tension that had been corroding the room. And he'd remembered her. And she'd remembered him.

And maybe this could work.

But she couldn't get ahead of herself. They'd only spoken once, and they'd only been friends as children. Maybe they were destined to be only friends as adults as well.

Lyza had been somewhere in the middle of the room with her fellow shells when many of the girls had started moving. Lunars beside Earthens, Earthens beside Lunars. It was... it was nice. It was just an inch away from beauty, two notes just intervals from harmony. Girls smiled experimentally, testing the waters as they spoke in low tones. Lyza didn't join them. She felt isolated at that table - she wasn't usually the first to speak in a conversation, or even the second. But it still would've been nice to have someone. She figured they all thought she was cold, detached, intimidating. And she wasn't trying to be; she was only doing her best. But she still managed to be friendless, lonely, staring at the royal table and trying to muster the courage to speak.

The dinner wound on, words flying over her head between eagerly conversing girls. A few Selected weren't speaking with anyone, so Lyza tried to console herself. She was only eating, so there wasn't any need to speak, especially with food in her mouth. It wasn't that the girls didn't like her - she just wasn't social enough to reach out. And she didn't mind that. She didn't.

As she spooned soup, immersed in thought, a voice alerted her and she glanced up quickly. Had she missed something?

Obsidian was standing once more, his smile paper-thin but still managing to remain. His bearing was awkward and slightly embarrassed, as though he knew what a confusing mess this was. "Um... I hope you've been enjoying your dinner. If you don't mind, I'd like to visit you each individually for a moment, just to chat. Nothing too scary, don't worry."

Surprise rippled through the dining room, eyes widening, whispers snaking around the tables. Lyza sat up a little straighter. What did he want to talk for? She swallowed and set down her spoon carefully as the prince stood and began at the closest table.

Lyza tried to see and hear, but couldn't over the rustling and chattering of the girls around her. Was he eliminating her? Had she noticed how she hadn't spoken to anybody? Did that matter to him?

Lyza's breathing came a little quicker than she'd like it to, just like on the second day of the Selection, when she'd hoped that Sid would remember her but tried not to get her hopes up in case he didn't. But this time was different. It was only a conversation. Just a light chat.

"Are they... leaving?" An elegant Selected - Ariella, wasn't it? - from across the table wondered.

Lyza glanced at the door and surprise lanced through her, despite herself.

Three beautiful young women - almost certainly Artemesians - were stalking out, shooting cool glares at Obsidian.

He looked away.

"Eliminations," whispered Lyza. The girls around her nodded.

"How many will he eliminate?"

"Sweet stars."

"But it's so soon!"

"Come on, girls, it's not that bad!"

"Have we done something wrong?"

"The nerve of him, turning us away so soon. I never liked him much anyway."

Murmurs raced like a network of roots throughout the room, growing more animated by the minute. This was new for everyone; nobody quite knew what to expect, least of all Lyza.

But she needed to keep her head.

"Ladies, it'll be alright," she said consolingly, though she wasn't sure anyone heard her. "Let's not worry. Think about it - what's the worst that can happen?"

A few of the more timid, flustered girls nodded and seemed to calm, but the more outgoing ones just kept spiraling and speculating. Lyza sighed. She didn't enjoy conflict, but there wasn't much she could do.

Obsidian turned from the table, eyes sad, and seemed to notice the Selected's distress. For a moment, dismay etched his features, but he quickly changed his expression into a warm smile and walked to the next table. Lyza couldn't help admiring the way he hid his emotions so quickly, that effortless composure that could be conjured anytime. Perhaps he should've gone back and comforted more of the girls, but he'd still managed to pull himself together and continue on.

It wasn't long before His Highness was at their table. He took an empty chair across from Lyza and next to an Artemisian whose name was far too long and complicated for Lyza to remember.

"How are we doing tonight?" he said, just a tinge of nerves peeking out beneath his gentle smile. "It's nice to see you all again."

"What is this about?" snapped the Artemisian beside him. She had an unbelievable amount of jewelry on, and her stare was sour enough to make anyone flinch. "Why are you interrogating us?"

Obsidian's gaze flicked to the tablecloth. "I... I just thought it was a nice way to talk to you all without making too much of a fanfare. What about the rest of you, have you on"

"Well, in trying to avoid a fanfare, you've singlehandedly caused anxiety to every girl in this room," the Artemisian continued. "Why don't you just announce it to everyone and get it over with? I'm afraid these pool Earthens are far too fragile for such stress." She looked at the other girls at the table, who were all Earthens. "I'm only trying to look out for my fellow Selected."

What a manipulative thing to say. As if it were only the Earthens who were antsy - anyone could've seen the way the Artemisian was wound tight as a spring, despite the way she deflected it on the others.

Sid played with the tablecloth, and Lyza noticed that his hand was shaking. She straightened, soup spoon on in her fist for courage. She wanted to defend Obsidian, but also didn't feel like starting an argument.

"That's not your decision, though." Lyza focused her attention on the Artemisian, trying to be diplomatic. "The prince is the one hosting the Selection. And I'd personally prefer if he didn't announce my elimination in front of the entire dining room." She spoke carefully, coolly, and tried to keep any edges of on from her voice.

Still, the words were harsher than she'd intended. Was the prince going to eliminate her now, claim she'd spoken out of turn? Had she overstepped his boundaries, fought his battles?

The Artemisian fumed. "Nobody asked you, shell."

Shell. It was only a word, but somehow the girl managed to infuse it with so much hatred, so much condemnation. It made Lyza feel worthless. It made her want to shrink.

But she didn't show it. She simply dipped her spoon in her soup. It was halfway to her mouth when Obsidian spoke.

"Banglia," he said carefully. "Suppose you were the one being eliminated. Hypothetically, of course. Would you want me to announce it to the room, or would you prefer I go about it privately and civilly? Just an honest question."

She paused, then spoke with an equal, measured tone. But her words were as sharp and puncturing as needles. "I'd want the entire room - the entire world - to know your mistake, Your Highness."

Lyza spotted it. The uncertainty flitted through his eyes. The hesitance. But he spoke anyway. "As you wish, then."

Lyza could feel her heart pounding as the prince stood from the table, set his jaw, and turned to face his waiting audience. "Lady Banglia Fablevale of Artemisia has asked that I publicly eliminate her. The reasons for this being that she insulted another Selected, while I was there, and talked back to royalty - no doubt she insulted other Selected without my knowledge. I hereby dismiss her from the Selection and invite her to return home. Let this be a lesson to the rest of you; as Selected, guests of the royal Lunar palace, you are equals. Bullying will not be tolerated. Thank you."

From across the room, Lyza spotted the queen and king consort. Levana's face was contorted in sick shock, while Kaito was stifling a proud smile. Lyza felt a stab of relief and pride as well. She knew that had needed to be said, but it took bravery for Sid to stand up and outright declare it, especially with Levana watching.

Banglia stammered for a moment, grasping for control, but ended up turning on her heel and marching out of the room after her fellow Artemisians. It took a long time for the girls to settle into a kind of frantic chatter, and Obsidian still hadn't moved from his chair. He looked rattled.

"Are you alright, Your Highness?" Lyza finally asked, speaking below the din of the other girls.

Obsidian nodded unsteadily. "Yeah, of course. Thank you. For everything."

Lyza nodded back, swallowing the torrent of feelings that had suddenly arose. She wasn't about to show them now. "Of course."

"I actually wondered if you might-" Obsidian took a breath, "accompany me and a few other girls for a group date tomorrow?" The words were in a hurry, tumbling over each other.

Lyza had to struggle to keep the shock from her face. "I'd... I'd be honored, Your Highness. I would love to. Thank you."

He smiled. "I should be the one thanking you. It's good to see you again, Lyza."

And with that, he was gone.

...

"How is everyone doing tonight?"

Sid smiled at the occupants of the last side of the last table, trying not to sound like an overexcited announcer at a concert. None of the girls would be eliminated here, for which he was incredibly glad. He wasn't sure if he could handle any more drama that night.

The girls all smiled back at him. He was proud of himself for remembering all their names: Pangea, Zaire, Melolina and Danya. He remembered each of their meetings clearly, especially Zaire's, though it wasn't exactly in a good, lovey-dovey way, which wasn't Zaire's fault. In fact, he couldn't stop blaming himself for not being good enough to fix what he'd done wrong, and for ruining their meeting in the first place. There was a reason he'd come to their table last, but he had to confront Zaire eventually; to apologize, to clarify. Her smile was widest at the table; she waved exuberantly and tossed a handful of words at him, her voice like a song.

"Hi, Sid! Great to see you again."

"Hi, Your Highness," said Pangea with a little smirk on her face. Was that a mocking tone in her voice, or was he imagining things? "Good seeing you again." It was gone then, replaced with joviality once more.

Mel and Danya nodded, smiling but silent. They were on the quieter - or maybe just more cautious - side, he remembered. Both very nice girls, though, and people he'd wanted to get to know more.

"Good to see you as well!" he said, smiling. "I hope you've been enjoying the dinner? My apologies for all the confusion with the eliminations. I'm very new to this, and my efforts to avoid embarrassing the girls went wrong. None of you have to worry about that today, of course."

They all seemed to collapse into their chairs, tightness melting from their shoulders. He really hadn't meant to bring everyone so much anxiety, but what had he expected? He was basically kicking them out of the palace.

Stars, why couldn't he just have a normal relationship in normal circumstances on his own terms?

"The dinner's amazing!" said Zaire, her voice seeming to carry a mile, but somehow in a way that wasn't obnoxious or overbearing. He just got the distinct feeling that she was invested in the conversation, intent on hearing what he had to say.

"Everything's beautiful, Your Highness," said Danya softly.

"I'm so glad. I wanted to ask you all a quick question!" He paused, steeling his nerves, as the Selected smiled and nodded patiently. "Would you... want to accompany me for a group date tomorrow?"

The faces around him lit up as though Christmas was coming early. "Are you serious?" said Mel, the first words she'd spoken.

He suddenly felt embarrassed, but he nodded. "If you'd want to."

"Aw, come on, of course we'd want to! How could anyone say no?" Gea said, her smile easy and just a hint mischievous.

The girls all laughed and the tension snapped. Sid realized he'd been silly. Gea was right; would anyone really say no to the literal prince asking them on a date? Not to be arrogant, of course.

He smiled. "I'm so glad! Zaire, Danya? You can say no if you want, of course, I'd understand..."

Danya smiled softly. "I'd be honored."

Zaire grinned. "Why not? I'd love to!"

The table lapsed into a nice, companionable silence after that, as they all dug into their freshly-served apple crisp. There was a general tinge of happiness in the air, a peace. Sid tried to find the right time to reach and and apologize to Zaire, so she wouldn't start spreading rumors and possibly get them both executed, but things were just... too serene. And how was he supposed to say anything while the other girls were there, ears empty and ready to hear that Sid had called Levana a tyrant and was now apologizing. Gee, the on would die if they'd heard. What a great headline; how the Earthens and Lunars alike would laugh!

He struggled with himself for a few moments longer before a spike of inspiration filled him. He just had to get the other girls distracted somehow, into a conversation, then somehow talk to Zaire without them noticing. It felt impossible, but there wasn't another option, unless he could somehow communicate subtly in a way only she would know, without the other girls noticing.

"So..." he said, tentatively breaking the silence.

...And then, of course, he couldn't think of a topic of conversation that wouldn't be awkward. He didn't dare ask about family, or why the girls had entered, and something like their favorite color would just be redundant. Thankfully, the ever-outgoing Zaire picked up the conversation.

"I don't love small talk," she admitted. "Seems like a waste of time. Who cares about the weather or the economy or whatever." She smiled vividly. "I'm honestly not sure that anyone actually likes it."

Gea nodded. "True. Why beat around the bush if there's something you want to say?"

"Exactly! I mean that isn't to say that I don't love talking, but I just have a feeling that would only make things more awkward, and we all know it's awkward enough already. That's not too much, is it? I never think before I speak and honestly I don't think that'll change anytime soon."

"It's alright," Said Sid, smiling. "We were all thinking it. Besides, I say things without thinking and regret them as well..."

Smooth. Real, real smooth.

Zaire laughed, a free, unrestrained thing that seemed to make the entire room lighter. "So! Two of you are from the Sectors, and Danya, you're from America? What's it like?"

Gea smirked. "Well it's no secret that the Sectors aren't exactly Heaven... but really I'm sure Earth is worse." There it was, in her eyes and voice. Bitterness. Resentment.

Sid nearly choked on guilt and decided it'd be best if he didn't respond.

Danya nodded, her soulful eyes smiling. When she smiled, it was always just a hint sad as well, as though she'd seen far more in her life than anyone ever had or should. "You're right, Earth isn't perfect either... what's it like in Africa though, Zaire?"

Zaire beamed. "Fantastic! I seriously adore Cape Town... I mean I've lived here all my life, it's right by the ocean which is literally my favorite place in the world, plus my fam's over there and they're some of the most important people ever! But I... I'm sorry that you guys don't have the greatest hometowns. Of course my town's not perfect but I'd love for you all to visit!" She smiled at Mel, whose eyes were fixed on her plate, shoulders slumped, as though she might disappear.

"I would if it wasn't totally frowned upon and illegal to leave Luna," said Gea, lowering her voice and eying the queen with slight disdain.

Oh no. No no no, they couldn't go down this path again, for more than one reason.

Didn't he deserve this, though? Wasn't it his fault? Shouldn't he be learning his lesson?

He decided he'd have to do this now, no matter the consequences. He'd gotten himself into this mess. Now he had to clean it up.

"Girls," he said, voice barely a whisper, and even Zaire and Gea hushed. "I'm only just now becoming aware of how broken Luna is, and how desperately it needs to be fixed. I'm trying my best to improve our kingdom and I want you to know that if any of you wants to talk to me, you are more than welcome to. However, as long as Levana is around, we're not safe to speak openly. So as much as I want you all to know that I don't agree with what's going on, it's not something that can just be spoken about casually. All of our lives are at stake if you let anything slip." His voice shook and he took a breath, all sternness melting to raw exhaustion. "Does that make sense?"

Sid glanced at his mother, staring stonily down at her uneaten crisp, knuckles white against the table. She was angry, but she didn't appear to have noticed Sid's third vulnerable speech of the night. He felt cold and shivery, as though he'd come down with a fever, and felt terrible about his white lie to the girls. Because the truth was, there was absolutely nothing he could do about the state of Luna.

At least, not right now.

Zaire finally cleared her throat, smiled, and nodded. "Well, looks like this date invite just turned into a therapy invite, but I guess I'm not complaining."

Danya smiled hesitantly. "Thank you for opening up, Your Highness."

Melolina continued staring awkwardly into her plate, but he could see the tiniest hint of understanding in her eyes. He looked over at Gea, expecting to see a similar response to Zaire's since the two seemed so alike, but what he saw in her eyes was hot, pure passion and conviction, or so it looked like to him, as he knew he was by no means educated or skilled with emotions - especially those of women. Especially those of normal women who weren't his slightly tyrannical mother.

But from what he could tell, she was either infuriated or determined.

And no matter how hard he thought about it, he still couldn't figure out why.

...

I hope I got the Queen song in your head with that chapter title cuz it's definitely in mine lool. Now let's see, what did I say about updating more during the summer? Guess I LIED because it's been so busy but I'm really just feeling the feels and nostalgia like Lyza I guess, because this story is just so sentimental to me but we already did that last chapter so! What did you think of this chapter? I kinda struggled I don't know why but I feel like my writing is sucking lately but I hope the format was okay! We all know Gea's the rebel, but will Sid find out? And are you excited about the group date? Cuz I am! Either way school is starting back up and that makes me sad but the AIT train will still be chug-chugging along, just maybe realllly slowly. Seriously thanks guys for your patience, your reviews, your love, and most of all, thanks for reading. I always have a bunch of stuff I wanna say in my brain but then when I'm writing the AN it all goes away! But I really hope I'm portraying these girls correctly, I do sometimes need to take some liberties in order to keep to the storyline but that doesn't mean I don't wanna portray them as best I can, so if I got anything wrong don't hesitate to let me know. Also if you guys like The Lunar Chronicles (and if you haven't read it I love you, thanks for doing the research and submitting), you should read Heartless by the same author because it's a retelling of one of the fairy tales represented by one of our Selected! *wink wink*

Well it's gotten long enough, you guys are awesome, have a delightful day!