Shortly, Elaine returns with supplies in hand. She had to be sneaky so that the other girls wouldn't question what she was taking and why, but she has what she needs.
When she makes it back to the waterway, Nikola is waiting. He's leaned back against a nearby wall, eyes closed, and his legs crossed in front of him. Elaine can't help but pause. He's... pretty. Not just handsome, but pretty in a way that's somehow soothing. His resting expression is kind.
"Um... Niko. I'm back."
He opens his eyes. "Welcome back. What'd you get?"
"Just some bandages and salve. N-Nothing special. You've been so kind to me... so I'd like to try to help you too."
As she says it, Elaine is left blushing. She doesn't know why, but it's hard to meet Nikola's eyes like this. At the same time that she wants him to notice her, facing him is too much.
"I'll be fine," Nikola tries to say.
"No! I-I mean... please, let me do this for you," Elaine says with far more confidence than she feels.
Nikola appears to be taken aback for a moment, but he soon relents. With that familiar smile, he leans back against the wall. He looks her right in the eyes, and it's like he can see everything. "Then I'll be in your care, Elaine."
So Elaine kneels beside him. She wets a small cloth in the cold water of the stream beside them and dares to take one of Nikola's hands in hers. It's much bigger than her own, strong, and his fingers bear the callouses typical of archery. There are a few scars scattered across his skin, and the shocking flaws of someone so perfect almost don't seem real. Elaine swallows heavily. She got into this, so now, she needs to do her best.
She starts by gently wiping at the scratches. There are a few of them, but they aren't too deep, and Nikola doesn't even flinch when she dabs at them with the cold, damp cloth in her hands. She's careful to go slow and do the job right. This isn't like when she cuts herself open in the middle of some chore. Nikola's comfort and wellbeing matter far more than her own, so she's going to be careful.
He deserves to be taken care of properly, not just bandaged up to the bare minimum.
And Elaine knows that a castle's doctor or one of his attendants would likely do a much better job, but she's the one here now, and she's the one who gets to do this. No one else, not this time. Finally, she can do something to pay him back.
She washes the cuts on his hands thoroughly before applying the salve. It's a disinfectant, so Nikola hisses a bit when the stinging liquid comes into contact with the scrapes, but he bears it without complaint. Elaine neatly dabs the salve onto his hands with her own fingers, marvelling at the difference in size.
"You're good at this," Nikola says after a minute.
"Yeah. You're very gentle."
Elaine wasn't exactly paying attention to what he said before (as she was too absorbed in her work), but that gets her attention. A fresh blush rises to her face. Gentle.
"I-I'm used to it..." she tries to explain. "With my job, little cuts and such happen a lot. I know how to take care of them by now." It feels silly to explain something so simple to him, but Nikola just smiles. His fingers curl a bit in her hold.
"Well, thank you. I mean it when I say you're doing well."
It leaves Elaine biting the inside of her mouth to avoid saying something embarrassing. There are so many things that could slip out, but instead of letting any of them through, she finishes with the salve and moves on to the next task. The cut across Nikola's cheek isn't bad, but it could scar if it's not treated properly.
Without really thinking about it, she leans in closer, almost into his lap. Her mind is entirely on cleaning up the wound, so the closeness doesn't quite register. With the still-damp cloth, she gently scrubs away any dirt that could be clinging to the wound.
And when she pulls back to make sure she's done, Elaine meets Nikola's eyes.
This close, they're stunning. She's suddenly, abruptly aware of how close she's gotten to him, and that realization makes her squeak. Scrambling backward, Elaine spits out an apology.
"I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to get into your space like that!"
"It's fine. You were doing your best to clean it, right? I'm grateful." Still, Nikola is smiling. The warm look in his eyes makes Elaine's heart soar. He reaches for the salve this time and dabs a bit onto his face on his own. "Here, I'll spare you some trouble. This stuff must be pretty effective. The ones on my hands hurt less already!" he exclaims.
Elaine looks at the young man, the prince who's been nothing but kind to her. She takes in every part of him at that moment.
She loves him.
The realization hits Elaine like a strike to the face. It's sudden, sharp, and all too true, and once she's thought it, she knows instantly that there's no going back. Elaine's mouth runs dry. She knows her eyes are helplessly wide, but with the turmoil finding its way deep into her chest, she can't do anything but stare.
"Y-Yes... it works quickly, d-doesn't it?" she stutters. It's hard to even talk. Her heart is thudding rapid-fire in her chest.
Nikola seems entirely oblivious to Elaine's mental meltdown. He presses the little jar of salve back into her hand and shifts onto his knees. After a stretch and a long, pleased sound, he runs one hand through his messy, sandy hair and grins at her again.
"You're a miracle worker, Elaine. I'll have to come back to you the next time I get all scraped up. Thank you." And with those words, he reaches out and pats her head. It's not the first time he's done it, of course, but with the new thoughts rushing through her head, the affection makes Elaine's throat feel tight. He's being so kind. She might as well be suffocating under the weight of what she now knows to be her own affection, hidden too deep.
"O-Of course, my— Um, I mean, Niko. I'd be happy to tend to you whenever you need me." Her voice is going soft. The thought of being useful to Nicolas again leaves her feeling giddy.
"I need to be going now, but... when can I see you again? Would it be alright in a couple of days?"
"Um, you're the one who visits me..." she says tentatively. "I'm merely honored to be granted your time."
"Then, let's see. Could you come out to the gardens three days from now, in the late morning? I want to show you around!" Nikola's beaming grin almost makes Elaine forget the fact that she could never do that. By that time of day, she has work to be doing. And it's not like someone like her would be allowed into the castle's gardens, anyway.
"I have my work to do—"
"You can sneak away, can't you? Just for a bit?"
Elaine hesitates. She shouldn't. She really, really shouldn't. If anyone found out, she'd be in massive amounts of trouble.
"I can make an excuse for you. If anyone catches you, I'll make something up. No one will be mad, I promise," he assures her, and the sheer excitement on his face drives Elaine to cave.
"I'll try," she says, even knowing how terrible of an idea it is. "I'll try my best to be there."
Nikola grins even wider at the agreement. He pats her head once more, says that he really does have to be going now, and proclaims that he'll be waiting to see her again soon. It'll be a boring wait until then!
And Elaine is left standing there with her still-uncleaned pot, not sure of what to think. Her feelings are real. All this time, she'd thought she was just happy because of how kindly he treated her. No. Elaine now understands that she loves the prince who's taken the time to get close to her, and that's what scares her more than anything yet. What is she supposed to do? Even a mere crush on someone like Nikola is dangerous.
Heaving a shaky breath, Elaine kneels by the waterway once again. She picks up the abandoned scrub brush and gets back to work. She's already late, and if this takes much longer, Margery will scold her, for sure. As much as she wants to dwell on Nikola and the moment she just had with him, work calls.
Elaine closes her eyes for just a moment. She shakes her head to clear out the unwanted thoughts. She can decide what to do later. For now, what matters is getting her current job done.
Don't think about it.