Dishes and Surprises
A couple of days later sees Elaine back in her routine.
Directly after her encounter with Regina, the other servants had more questions for her than she could keep up with. They practically swarmed her as soon as she returned to the kitchen. The constant interrogation and people grabbing at her from every side had left Elaine's head spinning, and in the end, she hadn't been able to get much out beyond that Regina was scary.
Simple, but fitting. It was the truth, but free of any of the parts where Elaine had messed up or been angry with the other girl. She told the others that she did just fine, that Regina wasn't angry, and that she doesn't want to be sent to do that again.
And that statement had ended in people accusing her of lying. Because there's no way that someone like her could do something properly. Those comments had left Elaine's eye twitching. She pulled the hair ribbon free, handed it back to the older girl who'd tied it back earlier, and forced her way out of the situation to get back to work. Even scrubbing floors would be better than being questioned and insulted over her interaction with Regina.
From there, life returned to normal. The others found a new target after someone else had to deal with Regina, and just as expected, Elaine went forgotten. No one cared much for a person who wouldn't encourage their gossip, so she was left alone when it became clear she wouldn't talk.
And today, Elaine is doing dishes. She's been assigned to clean up after the servants' breakfast, so there's a pile of plates and bowls a mile high next to her and a sink full of scalding soapy water in front of her, waiting to be taken care of.
She's been at it for about an hour, by now, and has gotten through a good stack of plates. Soon, she'll have to pause to put all of them in the drying rack so they can air out.
As she viciously scrubs a particularly stubborn stain on one of the plates, Elaine's mind wanders. The first thing she's thinking of is what she's going to do tomorrow and what challenges the next day (or days) will bring... but all too soon, her head starts going places that she doesn't want it to. Before long, the person who enters her thoughts is none other than Regina.
This has been a trend lately. Elaine can't shake the image of the older girl— poised, gorgeous, and smiling— from her head.
She hates it. She wishes she could forget about Regina for good and go back to life as normal. Or if she has to be thinking of someone she'll likely never see again, why couldn't it be Nikola? That would be far more pleasant than dwelling on Regina.
And even worse, for some reason, she can't get rid of that awful feeling of jealousy. It doesn't make any sense. It's obvious that she should be envious of someone like Regina, but under these circumstances, why is it lasting? And why does it feel so deep? There are countless people to envy in the world, and for some reason, Elaine's head has decided that Regina is the one it wants to fixate on and hold onto.
"Elaine!" someone calls.
She snaps to attention, almost dropping a plate as she does. "Yes? Do you need something?"
It's one of the other servant girls close to Elaine's level. If she remembers right, this one was sweeping another part of the kitchen today.
"You have someone here to see you," the girl says with a smirk. "A boy. Have you been making friends with the stable boys or something? He looks strong." She's clearly amused... while Elaine is just incredibly confused.
Who'd be visiting her? She never speaks to anyone outside of the serving girl group, and even then, it's not like she has any friends. There's not a single person she can think of who'd be going out of their way to see her.
"Um... let him in?" Elaine says tentatively.
The other girl scurries aside, and a second later, someone Elaine instantly recognizes steps into the kitchen; Prince Nikola.
Elaine almost squeaks from shock. She does drop the plate this time, but fortunately, it merely falls into the soapy water of the sink with a loud 'plop'.
"Shhh," Nikola whispers, raising a finger to his lips. "Call me Niko, okay? We don't want everyone losing their minds because of me being here. You'd be swarmed."
That's... a very good point. And when Elaine looks at him, she can tell that he's actually trying to be subtle. While still made of finer materials than anyone of the servant class would have access to, Nikola has dressed himself in drab colors and simple styles. He doesn't quite blend in, but it's much better than the last time she saw him.
"Y-Yes... Um, wh-what are you here for?"
She's staring. She knows she is. The sheer fact that Nikola came to visit her has Elaine feeling like she could explode. He must have been serious about wanting to see her again, and that's a thought that's almost impossible to process.
Nikola grins. He's been smiling faintly this whole time, but now, his face lights up with it. "I told you," he says, "I wanted to see you. I haven't been able to get away for a bit, and it took me a while to find where you'd be working, but I really wanted to talk to you again."
Elaine can barely speak. This can't be real. Her wet hands grab at her apron out of sheer nervousness. She's trying to be polite and make eye contact, but this whole situation is somehow even scarier than when she was attending Regina. Back then, she was just a random servant who'd never be seen again. This time, Nikola is here for her, in particular, and if she messes up, he's not going to forget. She doesn't want to give him a reason to dislike her, and that means she has to be careful.
"Th-Thank you! I'm honored to see you again, Pr— Um, Niko. Thank you very much for c-considering me."
"You don't have to be so formal," Nikola says, coming to stand beside her. "If anything, it'd be better if you weren't. Again, we don't want people getting any ideas, do we?"
"No..." She nods in agreement. That's extremely true. Then, "Um... h-how did you find me?"
"I just asked around. Whoever of the lower-ranking servants I could find, you know? Most of them don't know me, and I didn't want to put too much attention on either of us, so it seemed like the smartest plan." He sounds proud of himself. "No one figured it out, that I know of, so we should be fine. I'm just 'Niko' for now. Don't worry about treating me like anyone else."
"Y-Yes, I'll try. Again, um, th-thank you for visiting me. I'm flattered." Elaine smiles and tucks a bit of hair behind her ear. She's still finding it hard to look at Nikola, but she makes a good attempt in the hopes it'll please him.
And it seems to. He smiles back, then leans in over the sink.
"Dishes?" he asks.
"Mhmm. Just today's job." It's getting easier and easier to speak casually. Elaine doesn't quite know what to think of that.
"Impressive. It looks like you've done quite a bit already. You must be very efficient. Lots of practice, I imagine?" From anyone else, it would come off as patronizing, but there's genuine curiosity in Nikola's voice that destroys any potential insult. If anything, Elaine flushes with pride.
"Yes, d-definitely. I've... I've been doing this kind of thing for most of my life. I like to think I'm decent at it... e-even if most of the other girls wouldn't agree."
"Do you want some help?"
"I said, do you want some help? I wouldn't mind. I mean, I've obviously never washed a dish before in my life, so I'm bound to be terrible at it, but you could teach me."
Nikola tilts his head with that same curious grin. He glances back and forth from Elaine to the dish-filled sink.
Could she really let the prince do dishes? It feels like some kind of crime. Insisting on doing them herself would probably be the most respectful choice, but denying him something might be just as bad. Nikola seems eager to help, and Elaine gets the feeling that it's better to indulge him and stay on his good side.
"I-If you want to. I might not be the best teacher, though."
"That's fine," he says. "I'd just like to help for a bit. Do something new and all, learn a different skill..."
Elaine has no idea how knowing how to do dishes could ever be of use to a prince, but if that's what he wants, then she supposes it would be fine to let him try. The worst that could happen is that he'll break a dish or two and she'll be blamed for it. It's not like that would be a shock to anyone.
And... this is a chance like no other. When would someone like her be able to have this moment again? It's a miracle in itself that Nikola went out of his way to visit her. She might as well try to draw out the moment for as long as possible.
Getting in trouble wouldn't mean much compared to it.
"Alright. Let's get started. Come stand beside me and pick up a plate. I'll show you what to do."