Chapter 27 – Yonderly

On August first, on Saturday morning after a copious brunch in both temporary housings, the whole group of Selected and Royals piled into several limousines and headed to the Palace again, talking excitedly amongst each other.

But though they had seen the Palace crumbling down during the earthquake less than a week ago, it was a huge shock to all of them, making the silence in all three cars heavy around them, to see half of the building down. It used to be so aesthetically pleasing, symmetrical, and luxurious. Now? It was half down – the whole East Wing was crumbled in on itself and surrounded by one of those red and white plastic fences dancing in the summer breeze – and a whole group of security guards had been mobilized to stand around it so that no one would get close. They had secured the rest of the Palace and special teams had gone in to retrieve whatever could be salvaged, but the royals or the Selected were prohibited to go there.

"Oh, wow," Willow breathed out as she stepped out of the car, helped by one of her Selected though she didn't see who. She couldn't find more words. Her heart was broken, but she wasn't really sure if it was because of the loss of half of her home, the loss of her shoe and tiara collection – she still didn't know what had been saved at that point – or for the people who had died in the quake. Maybe all three.

"Hey, you okay?" Mikey asked, standing next to her and discreetly rubbing his thumb on her wrist.

She nodded and swallowed the lump in her throat. "We'll have to relocate everyone to the West Wing," she said practically. "I don't know how many rooms are still available on that side."

"Hey, don't worry about us," Mikey said. "We can bunk together with some of the guys if there aren't enough rooms for everyone."

Willow smiled. Of course, Mikey would suggest that; he was the sunshine boy who thought of others before himself. She would have to bunk with Lolly in one of her brothers' rooms while the boys shared a room together. No big deal, right? She took a big breath and let it out slowly. "Alright," she said. "Let's do this." She headed towards the entrance where the chief Butler welcomed them inside.

Charlie hurried to talk with the man, asking him how many rooms were available on the second floor and already making plans on how to room the remaining twenty-one Selected. Willow could already see the wheels turning in his mind and how he found his place again after a few days of idleness: Charlie was made to organize and plan stuff.

It took them a couple of hours to get everyone a room – there were two groups of two, otherwise, everyone got their own room – and to find the ones who had lost their rooms on the East Wing some clothes and other personal belongings. Meanwhile, Willow and Lolly took their quarters in Matty's room while the two princes worked on finding their lodgings in Zeke's room.

"Why didn't you ever tell me about Domenico and you?" Willow asked her sister, sitting on the large bed. "All this time–"

"I didn't plan anything," Lolly cut her. "It just happened…" She sighed and sat on one of the seats around the room. There were dresses and shoes scattered everywhere as maids had been able to scavenge old stuff from the attic since both sisters had lost their rooms in the earthquake. "I was at his wedding, you know?" the younger princess said softly.

"I know that," Willow retorted a little too rudely than what she had planned. "Don't you think it's weird? You were his wife's witness. And now you're dating him?"

Lolly shrugged. "He's gone now." She paused. "I don't even know if he's going to come back from the war…"

"Don't say that," Willow snapped. "He'll be with his brother who's a Colonel or something. He won't be on the front lines… He's going to be fine."

"You don't know that," Lolly said softly, playing with the hem of her long sleeve. "Anything can happen to anyone."

Willow snorted. Leave it to Lolly to be so pessimistic about the whole thing. "At least you can text him or call him to make sure he's okay. It's not the twentieth century. We have phones that work all around the world."

Lolly looked up. "I doubt he can answer the phone anytime he wants–"

"Then just text him!" she snapped back, making Lolly flinch a little. "I'm sorry," she quickly said. "I didn't mean to say it like that–" she sighed. "Just– this whole Selection is kinda getting on my nerves and coming back here with only half of our home standing and none of our things…" Willow trailed off, looking out of the window. She wasn't used to this view from the West Wing, but she would have to get used to it…

Lolly stood and came to sit next to her sister. She wrapped an arm around her larger shoulders and rested her head on them, too. "I know," she said. "I think we're all a little on edge since the, uhm… quake…"

Willow nodded and they stayed like that for some time. Willow didn't even notice that she was crying silently until a tear splattered on her hand. She quickly wiped her cheeks and pressed the palms of her hands on her eyes.

"It's okay to cry," Lolly said. "You've been through a lot, Willow…"

The Crown Princess shook her head. "Hell, no. My makeup is too good to cry on." They both chuckled at that and it loosened the atmosphere around them a little. "Mikey told me he loved me," she blurted out. She had wanted to say it to someone ever since he had said it, but with Annie gone, Lolly was the only option.

"He what?" Lolly exclaimed, backing away from her sister. "As in best friends, or as in… more than that?"

Willow sighed and shrugged. "I–" she cleared her throat. "I think as in more than that."

"Holy moly…" Lolly said slowly. "And what did you say?"

"Nothing. I was falling asleep, that was the last thing I heard."

"Wait." Lolly frowned. "What do you mean you were falling asleep. You were in the same bed?"

"Couch," Willow corrected. "Nothing happened!" she felt the urge to add. "I swear."

Lolly shook her head in dismay. "And what are you going to do about that, now? He's your best friend. You two grew up together." She paused. "If you end the Selection now and announce him as your winner, you're going to have a riot on your hands. From the other Selected."

"I know. That's why I haven't done anything about it. Yet." Willow stood and paced across the room, needing to move, to do something, anything. "I'm just going to carry on as if nothing happened and continue to eliminate guys. Until only one is left." She paused. "That's what everyone's expecting, anyway."

"At least you won't drag it for months on end as Uncle Val did," Lolly said with a small smirk, making Willow smile as well.

"I hope not, but you never know." After that, the two sisters continued going through the clothes and put to the side the garments they could or would still wear, trying to refill their closets. Around noon, they met with everyone in the dining room for lunch.

/ / /

Once everyone was settled in their new room and had had lunch in the dining room, they decided to all spend some time together in the afternoon. The pool was cracked so they couldn't go there, but they went to the Men's parlor and spent the afternoon playing games or continuing the tournaments; with some of the people gone already, they had to improvise new teams to replace the fallen tributes, and by the end of the afternoon, Willow had won the table soccer game with Mikey.

"But that's cheating!" Julian said, laughing. "You two have been doing that for years!"

Willow laughed, too. "Yup. I guess you just have to pick the perfect partner for the perfect game." She shrugged and elbowed her ex-boyfriend in the ribs. "If I'd had to pick an ice-skating partner, I would have picked you. Easy."

Julian laughed and everyone around them looked at each other, then shrugged. They had stopped a long time ago to try to understand everything that was going on. They knew one of them was an ex-boyfriend, and they were probably starting to understand who it was, by now…

"Anyway," the princess said. "I think it's time for a date tonight. I need something to take my mind off things, and this should do the trick." She headed to her office where she had put the two new boxes with the names and came back, her heels clicking on the floor. "All right," she said, coming back inside the room. "You plan or I plan?"

"We plan!" most of the guys replied, covering the few who didn't want to plan.

Willow nodded and picked a paper from one of the boxes. "Hayes Lee," she read out loud. "I'll let you organize whatever you want for this evening, including dinner or not, whatever you want."

Hayes grinned from ear to ear and saluted. "Yes, ma'am," he said. "I'd like to include dinner if that's okay with you?"

"Absolutely," Willow replied, nodding. "Just let me know the hour and I'll be ready."

He nodded and some of the remaining selected suggested a Mario Kart tournament for later that evening, which was very well accepted, and already teams were being made and arrangements done with Charlie to organize that.

The Princess knew she didn't have much time before her date with Hayes so she quickly left the room and headed upstairs to take a shower and try to find an outfit that could be good enough for a dinner date, wherever they would go. It could be a restaurant or a picnic, but she needed to be ready for both.

The first thing she noticed when entering the room was the cigarette smell. "Lolly?"

"Out here," her sister replied. Willow followed her sister's voice on the balcony, where she was smoking a cigarette. There were already three finished and crushed ones in the ashtray.

"Are you okay?"

"Do I look okay?" Lolly replied. "Dom is gone, fighting in a war; we lost half of our home, and you're hooking up with Mikey." She paused. "He's my friend, too, you know?"

"I know that." She leaned against the railing and crossed her arms. "I'm going on a dinner date tonight with Hayes."

"The New Asian detective?"

"Yes." Willow waved away some of the smoke coming her way. "I don't know what to wear."

"Little black dress is always a go-to for dinner," Lolly said, shrugging.

Willow snorted. "I don't have a lot of options, to be honest. I have the black dress I wore to the last special Report. Or a huge black gown the maids found in the attic. And it doesn't fit me anymore."

"Play with the accessories," Lolly said. "You're the same shoe size as mom and her closet hasn't been destroyed." There was a tinge of bitterness in her voice and Willow didn't miss it. She simply didn't comment on it. "Go pick something there. Even a dress." She puffed some smoke on her cigarette. "I'm sure Nerissa or your new fashion designer friend can alter a dress."

"Are you kidding?" Willow snorted. "Mom would never let me alter one of her dresses."

Lolly shrugged. "One of the past seasons, maybe. And it's a dire situation."

Willow rolled her eyes and headed back inside the room, mumbling a small whatever under her breath. She didn't think she could complain over what she had lost. People had lost way more than her. Everything they had. She could still live in half her home and shop online for clothes. She would need to do that soon, by the way. She went to her almost empty closet and took out the black dress she had worn at the Report, and headed to her mother's walk-in closet to pick some shoes and accessories. She couldn't bring herself to take a dress from her, but accessories? Hell yes. She had always done that, anyway.

Her phone vibrated in her jean pocket and she took it out.

Hayes V. Lee: Highness, may I take you out to dinner in an hour? [17:32]
Hayes V. Lee: Oh, it's Hayes, by the way. [17:32]
Willow: I know who it is, I saved all your numbers on my phone. [17:32]
Willow: And yes, in an hour sounds good! See you! [17:33]
Hayes V. Lee: Thank you. [17:33]

In the next hour, Willow took a shower, washed her hair, and got dressed and ready with Nerissa's help before heading to the Main Entrance to meet with her date, who was dressed in a very fancy dark grey suit. She had no idea where he got that suit from since his former room and personal stuff had been destroyed as well, but Willow was glad she had opted for a fancy outfit as well.

"Oh, wow," Hayes said when he saw her coming over. "You look amazing!"

"Thank you," she said. "You clean up nicely yourself." She paused. "Where did you get the suit? Wasn't your room also in the East Wing?"

"Yeah," he said, a little embarrassed. "It's actually one of Julian's suits and Aidyn tailored it for me. Nothing permanent, though!" he quickly added. "We can take out the alterations."

"I see." She straightened his burgundy tie. "It's amazing how people come together after a disaster, even during a competition…" She brushed some make-believe dust from his shoulders and smiled at him. "Shall we?"

Hayes nodded and offered her his arm. "Had I had my motorcycle, I would have driven us to our place for the evening." He paused. "But seeing as the roads are not that great at the moment and I don't have my motorcycle, we'll have to make do with an official palace car. Besides," he added, "your bodyguard wasn't budging on that, anyway."

Willow laughed. "That would have surprised me." They climbed into the car and were both silent until they were past the Palace gates.

"You know," Hayes started, breaking the silence, "some of us don't really feel like it's a competition."

"Why not?"

He shrugged. "The earthquake kind of brought us all together, you know?" He smoothed some creases in his pants, not looking at her or even outside. "Half of us lost everything we had here, and you lost even more than us. And then we had to stay at Prince Nathan and Prince Valerian's houses, and it was like a break in the middle of the Selection."

"Hmm," she replied, thinking about what he was saying.

"But don't worry, now that we're all back here, I'm pretty sure the competition will resume."

Willow nodded, but she didn't believe him completely. Had the others heard about her and Mikey? Were they abandoning the competition and just enjoying their stay? On one hand, it would make everything easier, but on the other, she kind of liked it to have guys fight for her attention and love. That was the whole point of the Selection, wasn't it?

They were silent for the rest of the drive into town, and both witnessing the terrible state of the city, a week after the earthquake. A small part of her felt bad for all those people who had lost everything. All she had to do was order stuff online and she'd had everything back again. Not everyone had good insurance like theirs. Though one couldn't replace authentic tiaras and family jewels; everything else was just a click away, or a thread and needle away.

The car slowed down when they arrived at their destination and Hayes hurried out of the car to run around the vehicle and open the door for the Princess.

"Highness," he said, offering her his hand. She gratefully took it – getting out of a car in a tight dress and heels was always a hassle – and they walked inside the restaurant that had been rented out just for them. They were led to a small round table near the window overlooking a long pier and the ocean, and Hayes pulled out her chair for her. Willow felt the whole thing was a little stiff and formal, but she hoped the wine would help with that…

The waiter gave them both a menu and they read it and chose their meal in silence. It was awkward, really, and when he came back, Willow ordered some wine to get the evening started. Hayes didn't object, and their waiter came back with an expensive bottle of sparkly wine with some appetizers.

"So," Willow said, not liking the silence that was hovering around them.

Hayes popped a pistachio in his mouth. "Can I ask you something?"

"Sure!" she replied. Finally some conversation.

"How are you holding up? I mean– you're always showing a brave face and all, but how are you really doing?" This time, he looked at her in the eyes, taking her completely off guard.

"Uhm, okay, I guess?" She fidgeted on her chair and put some hair behind her ear; she then took a deep breath. "It's just hard to see half of your home destroyed, but I know I don't have it as bad as some others out there."

"Don't compare yourself to others," Hayes said softly, reaching across the table to put his hand over hers. "You're entitled to your feelings, whichever they are."

Willow nodded and tried out a small smile, but it came out pretty wobbly. He was right: she had been putting on a brave face in front of everyone – except maybe Mikey and Julian – but she was barely holding everything bottled up. She knew it would come out at some point, and she hoped it wouldn't be right now. This was supposed to be a fun date! Something to take her mind off of things!

But then again, if she talked about it, maybe it would help soothe her mind and she'd feel better afterward? "The Selection was already a lot of pressure, with the brewing war in Europe, and now this? Sometimes I wonder how my father keeps it together, you know?" she said. "Like– am I ever going to be ready to handle all of this by myself? I'm supposed to step up on the throne once my father decides it's time…" Here, she trailed off, not knowing if she should continue, but she was already in too deep to stop now. "It's just– sometimes I feel like I'll never be ready or good enough to be Queen, and that I should just let Zeke step up and all."

Hayes snorted. "Please don't do that," he said. "He might be a good politician, but he's marrying the Heir of France, remember? He can't be on two thrones at the same time."

"I'm pretty sure he would end the engagement in a heartbeat if he could be King of Illéa. Prince Consort is the next best thing he could ever hope to be." Willow drank some wine and put her glass down.

"…Maybe," Hayes said. "But he's not that bad a person. I mean– I don't have a sibling around my age to compare your situation to, but my guess is that he just likes to mess with you. When you're not around and he's hanging out with us, he's actually pretty cool. And he's keeping an eye on us for you. Trust me…"

"What is that supposed to mean?" the princess asked, popping some pistachios in her mouth just as the waiter arrived with their first dish. They waited for him to finish setting the plate before Hayes replied.

"I think he's keeping tabs on who says what, who might be a threat to you as a potential husband and all that."

At that, Willow burst out laughing. "I'm not sure he's a good judge of character, to be honest. Haakon was his favorite, and look where he is now."

Hayes chuckled. "True. But I think Haakon played everyone, even the best of us."

"You mean even you, Mister Detective?"

Hayes' cheeks turned a little bit pink and he sipped on his wine. "Unfortunately, yes. I had my focus on… something else, and I completely missed Haakon and his intentions."

"Oh? What something else?" Willow asked, curious.

"It's over now, anyway," Hayes replied, dodging the question. "But I'm going to keep my ears and eyes open from now on, on everyone. Even your brother."

"Good to know," she said with a smirk. They clinked their glasses and now that they were a little more relaxed – thanks to the wine and the excellent food – the conversation between them flowed easily. In the end, they ordered a dessert and then headed out for a digestive walk on the beach and then the pier. Willow felt safe with Hayes, and she really liked him and his humor. He kept some aspects of himself a mystery, but she figured it was normal, being a detective and all.

When they climbed back into the car, Willow was exhausted, but happy, at least for the time being. She leaned her head on his shoulder and they were silent for the whole ride, simply enjoying each other's presence. Once at the Palace again, Hayes helped her out of the car and walked her all the way up to the second floor, since he couldn't go any higher.

"Thank you, Hayes, for this nice evening," she said, squeezing his hand. Before he could reply anything, she stood on her toes and kissed his cheek, whispering a small good night before darting up to the third floor, hoping that no one had seen her do that.

But just as she turned the corner to go to her new room, she bumped into Zeke.

"Hey!" he said. "How was your date?"

"You keep away from my Selected, understood?" she threatened him, poking her index finger in his chest.

"We were just playing Mario Kart!" the prince retorted. "No harm done."

"I don't care what you did, but after that stunt you pulled with Haakon, I don't trust you around them."

Zeke snorted and pushed his glasses up his nose, just like their dad did. "Look, Haakon was a mistake, okay? He's an actor, and he fooled all of us. But if you want some advice–"

"No, I don't want your advice," she quickly said, already walking away.

"I'll give it anyway!" he called back. "There's something going on with Henry!"

"Shut up!" Willow said, slamming her door.

Wooohooo! I finally wrote. I hope you liked this chapter and that the wait was worth it. ;) Thanks for reading and for reviewing! I'll see you in the next chapter... sometime in the future! lol.