NOTES: Written for robinmarian for the help_haiti challenge. She asked for a "4 times Arthur proposes to Gwen and she said no and one time he proposes and she said yes" story.

A Simple Question

(or: Four Times Gwen Says No, And The One Time She Says Yes.)

The first time, she doesn't entirely realise what's been said until much later.

I've never loved another.

One day you will...and I cannot be your queen.

You don't know that...things may change.

It's only when she thinks back on their conversation that Gwen realises the question that went unasked, and that the answer she didn't give was 'No.'

-oOo-

The second time, she's still in shock. She's seen the knights at practice, knows the clash of sword against sword, but there's nothing quite like the crack of the broom handle against a man's skull.

Arthur drags himself shakily to his knees, and tries to stand. "You okay?"

"I'm not the one bleeding." Gwen pushes him back down to the floor, her voice sharper than she intends. The dead sorcerer's robes are cannibalised for dressings for Arthur's wounds, and she's brisk about wrapping them. "Hold still!"

When she looks up in the middle of it, his expression seems caught between amusement and apprehension. "Sire?"

His hand closes over hers, fingers curling around her nearest wrist, stilling her hands. "Thank you."

"For patching you up?" Gwen asks, her mouth curving at his solemnity.

"For looking out for me."

Considering Arthur went after the sorcerer himself when he knew what the man had already done to Merlin, he needed someone looking out for him. Gwen wasn't about to just let him hare off to play the hero alone.

"It was nothing, sire," she says, and knows her smile's too wide, her voice too bright. She can feel her skin heating under his gaze.

After a moment, Arthur takes his hand away, murmuring an apology and something else, almost inaudible.

And Gwen doesn't let herself think about the words he might have said beneath his breath. I wish it was something.

-oOo-

Gwen would rather forget the third time completely.

She could deny Arthur's pleas to meet him afterwards, but not the king's order.

"I'm pleased that you had the sense to keep my son from doing anything foolish," says Uthyr from his throne. "You've been a good servant through the years - a loyal subject in spite of...everything. First your service to Morgana, then taking over the palace household when... Well. And now this. We are grateful for your loyalty."

At this moment, Gwen suspects it's not a good time to tell the king where he can put his gratefulness. It's never a good time to tell royalty exactly what she thinks of them.

Except when she did it to Arthur that first time in the forest outside of Ealdor. Except when she told him how rude and insensitive he could be when he stayed in her house. Except when she confronted him with her father's death and his complicity in it - if only in not standing against his father.

For a moment, she wishes she'd given in to Arthur's pleas. Even if it was just an enchantment, it would be irrevocable and then...

And then she would spend the rest of their marriage living with the sneers that the Prince had only married her because he was under a spell.

Anything he said or did, any vows he made, any proof he brought forward - nothing would ever absolve her of 'tricking' the prince into marrying her.

Gwen couldn't have lived with that.

"Sire." She bobs a curtsey, because that's how you show a respect you don't feel towards the king.

And when she goes out, she passes Arthur coming in the other direction and doesn't look at him as he stops and reaches out one hand to her as though in entreaty.

"Guinevere..."

The guards are too close, the courtiers stare avidly, she can feel Uthyr's gaze on her back.

Gwen didn't refuse Arthur's enchanted proposal only to have him betray himself in front of the entire court.

So she curtsies, brisk, as though she has somewhere else to be. "Sire."

And hurries on before she can see the hurt in his eyes.

-oOo-

The fourth time, she passes the great hall on her way up from the town and sees a candle flickering inside.

By the soft glow of light, there's no mistaking the golden head sunk over the scarlet collar as he sits on his father's throne - soon to be his.

Gwen's feet stop in spite of her best efforts to keep moving, to pass on by without drawing attention to herself. It's not safe to be alone with Arthur anymore - and it has nothing to do with not trusting him. It's herself she doesn't trust as the months pass and the respect and admiration she has for him only grows.

It's not her place to let that show.

Still, she takes one step into the dimly-lit hall. "Sire?"

"Gwen?" His head lifts. "What are you doing up?"

"I could ask the same thing of you, sire."

Arthur shrugs, his eyes steady on her as she enters the room and draws close to the dais. "Thinking, mostly. About my father and his legacy. What people will remember of him."

Gwen thinks briefly of her own father and his legacy - tainted by a traitor's death, an ignominious end for a kind, generous man whose flaw had been to be too trusting of one who turned out to be a sorcerer. But she doesn't speak of it here and now. Whatever King Uther's faults, Arthur doesn't need to hear them now.

"He made Camelot what it is today," she says. "That's not a little thing."

"No." Arthur looks up at the banners that ring the great hall - the lords who've sworn allegiance to his father - who'll someday swear allegiance to him. "He built a kingdom."

"But you'll make it great."

Arthur looks at her almost wistfully. "You believe that?"

"Yes." A simple answer for the complexity of everything Gwen sees in him, but it has to be enough.

"Guinevere..."

"No."

"You don't know what I was going to say."

"Yes, I do." Her voice is even as she watches him. "And the answer is still no."

He watches her back, blue eyes lambent by the light of candles burning low. "It doesn't have to be this way."

"Yes, sire, it does." Standing across from him by candlelight, Gwen has no illusions regarding them.

She knows what can't be, she's lived with it all her life. In comparison, Arthur has never been denied anything he wished to reach out for. And Gwen will serve in his retinue, hold his friendship dear, and remain a loyal subject to a king who could be great, but she can't be the wife he needs.

-oOo-

Gwen can hear the whispers as he leads her out onto the floor as his partner for the first dance of the evening. She ignores them and focuses, instead, on the steps of the dance - familiar and cadenced to the lute's steady song, to the murmur of the crowds in the hall.

It's harder to ignore him. He is her dancing partner, after all, and the King of Camelot.

In three days' time, he'll be crowned High King of Albion.

Yet tonight, in a room in which are gathered the highborn ladies of the five kingdoms, Arthur Pendragon is dancing with a woman whose father was a blacksmith, whose hands are still rough from hard labour, and whose finery is borrowed.

"Guinevere."

"You shouldn't have done this, sire."

"What? Asked a beautiful woman to dance with me?" Arthur's expression is light as he regards her. Tonight, she's dressed in velvets and silks, her hair tied up with gilded cords, one of Morgana's old necklaces encircling her throat.

"Yes. You know they're all wondering..." Around them, courtiers laugh and drink in gaiety and relief - after three long years, the war is over, the treaties signed, the land at peace again. "You should have chosen someone else to dance with."

"Someone suitable?"

"Yes!"

He glances around the room, his gaze taking in the myriad nobles gathered to celebrate the end of the war and the ascendance of the kingdom of Albion. Then he shrugs. "Not interested."

Exasperation leaps, unstoppable as the fierce flare of pleasure in her breast. "Sire..."

"You kept our people safe and fed and clothed while I was away at war, Gwen. You marshalled the town guard and brought the local farmers and their families into town so the raiders couldn't hurt them."

Gwen looks away, embarrassed by the litany of her actions. "I did what anyone would have done, sire."

"But no-one else did. You did it, Gwen." He snorts with soft laughter. "Captain Aelredd of the city guard wanted to know if I'd stand for you in the place of a guardian."

Startled, she lifts her eyes to his face. "What? Why?" A moment later, embarrassed realisation floods her cheeks. "Oh."

"I didn't tell him I'd see him thrown out of Camelot first. I thought that was rather restrained of me, actually."

"You can't-- Sire, this isn't proper."

"No, Guinevere, this isn't sane." A hint of anger touches his voice - a frustration long held quiet. "You keep telling me what I should and shouldn't want, how I should choose a wife from one of the simpering, smiling women watching us now."

"You should."

"I don't want to. I don't even think I can - not when I've got this woman who speaks her mind, marshalls my people to defence in my absence, and looks after them as though they were her subjects, not mine."

Gwen swallows. "I could leave Camelot."

The words hang between them for a moment, but it's an empty threat. They both know it.

"You're already their Queen in everything but name. They know you, Guinevere, and they love you." His fingers - sword-calloused tips - lift her chin so she's looking up into his face. "It's not only them, either."

She doesn't drop her gaze, but neither does she say anything. There's nothing she can say.

"I've a question for you, Guinevere. Would you marry Aelredd if he asked you right now?"

Of all the questions Gwen expected, that was not one of them. "No!"

"Why not?"

"Because I don't know him."

He nods. "The fact that he's a guard has nothing to do with it?"

"No, why should it?"

"Because the fact that I'm king seems to have everything to do with your refusal to marry me."

Gwen feels herself flush. "That's different."

"Is it? You don't choose a husband based on what he does; you choose to marry a man because you love him - whether he's a king or a beggar." Candlelight gleams around them, softening the blue of his eyes, highlighting his hair with brazen glints of fire. "It's a simple question, Gwen: do you love me or not?"

It's a simple question, but the answer is not simple and never has been. Still, he's never turned from a battle, and she's never stepped back from what she knows is right - save for this tenderness that has always reached for the open day as the green spears of the spring's crop push through the bare ground of winter.

In the midst of the great hall, surrounded by the nobility of the Five Kingdoms, held in the arms of Arthur Pendragon, Gwen has only one answer to give.

"Yes."

- fin -