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[23] Distance

Elaine spends the next few days in misery.

For a little bit, she's just terrified. Regina made her threat very clear, and that's a reason to be very afraid. After what happened in the woods, she's shaken up in all the worst ways.

That time is spent throwing herself into her work and completing her chores at a pace that gets her strange looks from the other serving girls. She even asks for more work when she's done for the day, which leaves Margery questioning if she's feeling alright. All Elaine can say in response is that she doesn't want to think right now. She's too tired to come up with a lie.

The look on Margery's face might be concern. Elaine can't bring herself to care. Normally, she'd be irritated by the fact that someone's pretending to be nice to her. Now, she just wants to be left alone and able to do her job.

From there, Elaine keeps at it. She doesn't let herself rest. Even though she's not getting much sleep, it's a lot easier to drag herself through more and more work than it is to lie in bed unable to close her eyes for fear of what thoughts will appear behind them. Work is familiar, at least, and that's what she needs.

Since no one comes to tell her that she's being removed from the castle for good, she figures that Regina left her threat at what was said. Elaine is grateful. Anxious, of course, and in a state of unending stress, but grateful that she's not being taken away from the only home she's ever known. The part of her that's desperate to see Nikola again won't shut up, though, even when Elaine does everything in her power to ignore it.

And then comes the worst part.

"Elaine," Susanna says to her one morning over breakfast, "someone was looking for you yesterday. Did you know that?"

"Who was it?" Her tone is snappy, but that's just a consequence of the stress and exhaustion she's been dealing with. Elaine knows Susanna doesn't deserve it. She still can't stop.

"A boy. About our age and all. Pretty tall, messy hair, and the most gorgeous eyes! He said his name was Niko, and that you two had spoken before. Is that true?" Susanna asks with wonder. Elaine almost chokes on the bite of bread in her mouth.

"N-No. I don't know who that is at all," she lies. "Must have been one of the stable boys playing a prank. I wonder where he got my name..." She sighs like there's nothing at all interesting about the situation, and hopes that Susanna won't question it.

"Oh, that makes sense. I'll turn him away if she shows up again, then."

"What did you do this time?"

"I told him that you were working and that he could come back in the evening if he wanted to see you. I understand now, though, so I'll be sure to chase him off."


Asking around for her is dangerous. Saying that he knows her already is even more so. Elaine has no idea what Nikola is thinking, but whatever he's trying to do, it's going to get both of them in trouble if he keeps it up. Does he have no idea what would happen to her if Regina caught them together again? Just thinking about it makes her feel sick.

When breakfast is over, Elaine gets back to work. She's running laundry again today, and she's grateful for that. It means a lot of running around and never staying in one place for long. Even if Nikola does try to find her again, he shouldn't be able to track her down during all of the scurrying around the castle.

As always, the work is hard. Elaine's muscles burn and she's out of breath in no time. Even so, it's welcome. The feeling of drowning herself in busy work and forgetting her worries in the way her body aches is just what she needs. The familiarity gives her a sense of security. It feels beyond stupid to take comfort in chores, but... it's true. And it does help.

Over the next few hours, Elaine does everything she can not to think of Nikola.

The other servants compliment her on how quickly she's moving and how hard she's working. Elaine smiles to the best of her ability and dismisses the kind words. People never say nice things about her. Why is now the only time?

And soon enough, her evening meal rolls around. Elaine is exhausted enough that she might actually be able to sleep this time. She eats quickly, not stopping to enjoy the taste.

If she slows down, her mind will wander.

It does anyway.

By the time she's heading up to her room, Elaine is thinking of things that she doesn't want to be. Nikola was excited to see her again. He hugged her. She made the prince happy just by being herself, and a chance like that will never come again.

And... it wasn't just because of who he is. The fact that Nikola is the prince comes second when Elaine thinks about it. The reason why she liked being with him wasn't because of how he was born. It wasn't because she thought he'd give her anything. She liked being with Nikola because of how he treated her and the way he smiled. She liked the way he'd listen when she spoke. As a person, Nikola is someone she doesn't want to be away from.

The feelings make her chest ache. Elaine bites down on her lip and shuts her door behind her. She doesn't want to cry. Not again. She's had enough of shedding tears over someone who's out of her life for good. It's time to get over it and move on. Her life was never going to change, in the first place.

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