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[14] Meet Again

The next few days pass uneventfully again. Elaine does her chores and not much else... and tries not to think of anything but her work. It doesn't go as well as she'd like.

When she's busy, it's not hard to get invested in it. She can lose herself in scrubbing dishes, polishing silverware, or carrying endless baskets of laundry. She can focus on things that aren't what she's trying to avoid. But when she's alone, Elaine has problems. In the late nights when she's in her room trying to get some measure of sleep, her mind won't stop wandering to Nikola and what she now knows she's missing.

Someone was kind to her. Nikola treated her like a person. Elaine wants to hear his voice again more than anything, but she steps on those feelings to the best of her ability. It's not worth it to long for someone who will only get her in trouble.

And anyway, why does she care so much? Nikola sees her as entertainment at best. Things never would have progressed past what they are. He's out of her world, and that's all there is to it.

Her days of excitement are over and done, and that's the way it should be and should stay.

So Elaine absorbs herself in chores. Regina doesn't call for her again either, which Elaine hopes means that the other girl either forgot about the herb-hunting trip or decided against it. It would be much easier if she didn't have that part to worry about. In fact, she'd be quite happy if she never had to see Regina again.

In the middle of the week, Elaine is washing a pot.

As in, she's outside, crouching by a waterway that runs through the castle grounds, and up to her elbows in chilly water. This particular pot is one of the large, iron ones that gets absolutely filthy. It's no wonder the job was dumped onto her.

She's been at it for quite a while, daydreaming about nothing in particular when footsteps approach.

"Hello again," says a very familiar voice.

Elaine squeaks and nearly drops her scrub brush. She looks up and sees Nikola above her, messy-haired, a bit dirty, and grinning as widely as ever.

For a moment, all she can do is stare. Where they're at isn't exactly public, but it's nowhere near as hidden as the kitchen area from last time. It would be way too easy to be seen. And yet... just looking at him makes her heart soar.

"U-Um— hello!"

"I finally found you," Nikola laughs. "I'm sorry I left you alone for so long. Father wanted me and some of the young lords to take a hunting trip. It was plenty of fun, but I've missed being home just as much!" Nikola stretches as he says the last bit, bloody-knuckled hands extending in front of him. He's scraped up in quite a few places and his clothes look somewhat tousled.

"D-Did you just get back...?" Elaine questions.

"Yep, pretty much. I said I was exhausted and wanted some time to myself," he explains. "But really, I wanted to make sure I hadn't lost you in the time I'd been gone."

He gives her a cheeky grin at that, and Elaine's heart pounds. This can't be real. Not only is Nikola back, he's being as friendly as can be. She feels much too small and awkward, all of a sudden, and all Elaine can do is clutch nervously at the scrub brush and try to find her voice.

It was for her. After being gone for who knows how long, Nikola sought her out first thing after returning. All because he'd been away for a little bit. It makes Elaine want to ask him things. Far too many things, and things that aren't her place at all. She wonders if he's even seen Regina since he got back. A spiteful part of her hopes he hasn't.

But that's a lot to take in, and Elaine isn't exactly recovering quickly. She must gape helplessly at him for too long, because Nikola kneels down beside her a moment or two later.

"Hey," he says softly, "no need to look so scared. It's just me, right? We did dishes together. I'm not gonna do anything bad."

His casual laugh and easy grin set Elaine at ease in the weirdest ways. How can it be that she feels more comfortable around the prince than most of the other serving girls? By all rights, she should be terrified of someone of his status.

"R-Right..." she manages, at last.

"So how have you been?" Nikola asks next. "Has anything happened while I've been away."

"Regina called for me again," Elaine blurts out without thinking it through. "She did once before, too, and she 'liked me enough' to do it again." She doesn't know why she's saying it. Bringing up Nikola's betrothed probably isn't the smartest thing she could do, but it comes out all on its own. When she thinks about it, Elaine wants to know what he'll say. How she compares to the perfect Regina in his mind.

"Oh, did she? She's a bit scary, isn't she? I'm a bit nervous around her, myself," he explains, vaguely hesitant.

" are?"

"Mhmm. Regina is... something. She's a nice girl, but she's somewhat intimidating, don't you think?" Something in Nikola's eyes changes as he says it. Elaine doesn't like the sight.

"V-Very. I was terrified," she sighs.

"Then let's not talk about it anymore. We can find something else! Would you like to hear about the trip, maybe?"

As he sits back on his rear on the ground, Elaine notices anew the scratches and scrapes lining his knuckles and the red, scabbed-over line along his cheek. He's dirty and a bit beat up, tired, and probably worn thin from the time on the road. It makes her think of something.

"Oh, give me just a moment!" Elaine says. She lets the pot drop to the edge of the waterway. "You're hurt. I-I can tend to the wounds, so give me a moment to get some things!"

She scurries off before Nikola can answer, scared of what he'll say. Maybe he'll be gone by the time she gets back, but Elaine... she wants to try. Doing something for him, for once, would make things feel a little more fair. Nikola has been looking after her so much and treating her so well. She wants to repay him, even if that's just by cleaning up a couple of scrapes.

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