Thanks for the reviews for the first chapter. Since I know what the main plot of this story is, everything makes perfect sense to me, but I'm aware it might be a bit weird to everyone else... but everything will become clear in later chapters, I promise!
Also, in case anyone's confused about the timeline of this story, (SPOILERS) the third season of Merlin is jumping forward a year after the last episode, and Morgana is found in the first episode. This is set a couple of months later, so Morgana was missing for a year and then back at court for a couple of months... whether you buy her story about not being able to handle court life or whether you think she's up to something by leaving, is up to you. :)
The absence of Guinevere was like a constant ache in the pit of Arthur's stomach. He found himself looking for her the first few days she was gone, expecting to see her trailing after Gaius or walking across the courtyard. He started to avoid going down the street where her little house stood, as he couldn't bear to see it standing empty of life, with the windows nailed shut. It was pathetic, really, the way he longed for her, and he really hated the knowing look on Merlin's face whenever he caught him staring wistfully at the West Gate... which was more often than Arthur was willing to admit. But he couldn't help it – he missed her.
But it didn't matter that he missed Guinevere; he had to push past it. Pining for her would not help either of them, and it certainly wouldn't help the kingdom. Arthur had to stop being so selfish; Gwen had practically told him as much herself.
Guinevere had been gone from Camelot for a week, and with Morgana gone Uther had little else to do but force Arthur and Elaine together. It was really quite alarming to Arthur to see his father playing matchmaker – he really was very determined. Over the past few weeks (the last week especially) Arthur had walked in the gardens with Lady Elaine, eaten dinner with Lady Elaine, toured the city with Lady Elaine, gone hunting with Lady Elaine... all under Uther's watchful (and hopeful) eye.
Well, today was the day. The previous night at a private dinner, Uther had made his expectations of Arthur very clear, and Arthur had no intention of disobeying. He didn't even bear any ill-will as such towards his father for pushing the match – from his point of view, Lady Elaine was perfect. Her birth and her inheritance leant themselves well to her suit, and Arthur himself had admitted that he liked her. Uther's betrothal to Igraine had begun almost exactly the same way – she had been a visiting princess, approved of by Uther's father, and Uther had done his duty. After they were married he had fallen deeply in love with his wife, and Arthur knew that's what he expected to happen between himself and Elaine.
It wasn't going to happen, but that didn't mean that Arthur was going to shirk his duty – that wasn't who he was.
Arthur had sent Lady Elaine a note earlier that morning, asking to see her, and she was waiting for him in her guest room when he arrived. Her maidservant let him in, and Arthur was forcefully reminded of Gwen admitting him to Morgana's chambers countless times in the past. He grit his teeth and walked past her into the room – he wasn't about to let errant thoughts of Gwen throw him off track.
Lady Elaine rose to greet him, her smile bright and friendly, and perhaps a little knowing. Arthur nodded to her, not quite able to return the smile, and shifted a little. He wasn't really sure where to begin.
"Good morning, your highness," Lady Elaine said.
"My Lady," Arthur replied. "Thank you for agreeing to see me."
"Of course – to what do I owe the pleasure?"
Arthur could practically feel her maidservant's eyes boring into the back of his head. He cleared his throat. "Might I speak to you alone?"
Lady Elaine paused for a moment, looking at him as thoughtfully, and then nodded. "Of course – Hannah?" She nodded to the girl over Arthur's shoulder, and Arthur heard the chamber door open and then close again.
Lady Elaine sat back down on one of the carved chairs, and gestured to one nearby. Arthur sank down into it.
"My Lady, I came here... that is, I have something to ask," Arthur said clumsily. He felt like an absolute fool. He really didn't know where to start. The thing was, he had thought about how to propose before now, but every time it had been Guinevere that was on the receiving end. It felt like even more of a betrayal to use the same words... not that they applied to Elaine anyway.
Elaine was watching Arthur intently, and he shifted in his chair uncomfortably. "I – you have been here for – that is, we've spent a lot of time together..." Unbidden images of conversations in wooded glades and dinners at a plain wooden table entered Arthur's head, and he blinked to clear them. "I mean, you've always been an ally of Camelot..." A soft voice, telling him to live for Camelot. Arthur's eyes closed. "I mean... I..."
"Your highness – Arthur." Arthur's eyes flew open and he looked up at Lady Elaine, who was still staring at him intently. She'd never called him Arthur before – they'd always been rather formal with each other's titles, even when they'd been joking or teasing. He gave her a small smile, and waited for her to say something else.
Lady Elaine took a deep breath. "Am I right in assuming that you are attempting to propose marriage to me?" She asked plainly.
Arthur's eyes widened, and he was horrified to feel his cheeks heat up. "Well... I..." He fumbled for an answer in the face of such frankness.
Lady Elaine smiled. "Because I already know my answer, and it does look like it's causing you considerable pain to find the right words..." She said, her smile widening.
Arthur blinked at her in surprise. Her frankness was something that he admired in her, but even he hadn't expected this. He was pretty sure proposals weren't meant to go this way.
Oh well – it would put him out of his misery. He managed to smile back. "What's the answer?" He asked.
Lady Elaine held her hand to her head, as if she was swooning. "So romantic..."
Athur's jaw dropped indignantly. "You just said –"
"I'm joking, Arthur," Elaine cut in, smiling widely again. Arthur rolled his eyes, unable to help smiling at the joke, and watched as Elaine sobered. She looked at him seriously. "I'm afraid the answer is no," she said after a moment. "I won't marry you."
"What?" Arthur replied straight away, sure he hadn't heard right. "You're saying no?"
Elaine nodded. "Yes."
Arthur supposed he should feel surprised or hurt or even angry, but the overriding emotion he felt at Elaine's response was profound relief. His eyes closed and he let out a low breath as his chin fell forward to his chest. He'd thought he'd made his peace with having to do his duty – as much as possible, anyway – but knowing that he didn't have to marry Elaine felt like a reprieve from a sentence he didn't deserve. She'd said no.
Wait a moment – she'd said no.
Once the initial relief wore off, Arthur realised that that had not been the answer he'd been expecting.
He looked up at her, frowning. "Why?" He asked.
To Arthur's further surprise, Elaine burst out laughing. She shook her head, her eyes sparkling as she grinned at Arthur. "Because of that!" She exclaimed. "Arthur, do you have any idea how relieved you looked just then, when I said no? You do not want to marry me."
Arthur's eyes widened. "I-"
Elaine shook her head again, still smiling. "It's alright, Arthur," she said. "It's blindingly obvious that you're in love with someone else."
Arthur's horror must have shown on his face, because Elaine was quick to reassure him. "Well, to me, anyway," she said. "We have spent a lot of time together, these past few weeks, and every time you have paid me a compliment you have looked... ashamed."
Arthur felt ashamed now – he hadn't realised that he'd been so obvious. Poor Elaine; she didn't deserve that. "I'm sorry," he said earnestly.
Elaine smiled again. "Don't be," she said. She paused for a moment, looking thoughtful. "I assume that, since you're not paying these addresses to her, the lady in question would not meet with your father's approval?" She asked gently.
Arthur snorted. "That's putting it mildly."
"I'm sorry for your pain." Elaine sighed. "But I envy you."
Arthur gave her an incredulous look, and Elaine returned it. "Arthur... you have love," she said. "It may not be perfect, but you have it." She sighed again, gazing out of the window. "My mother died when I was ten, but she and my father loved each other very much, and he was never the same after her death." She looked back at Arthur and smiled. "I know that it's a lot to ask for, given my station in life, but I have always wished to marry for love."
Arthur looked down at his hands, sighing himself. Elaine's situation was a lot like his own, but the difference was he'd never known his mother, and had never known his father with her. "I never really thought about it. Not until I..."
Arthur smiled and looked back up at Elaine. "More like... saw her properly for the first time," he corrected.
Elaine smiled wistfully. "It sounds like a story from a courtly poem," she said. She nodded at Arthur. "And I hope that one day it will be."
Arthur didn't really have anything to say to that, and Elaine gave him another smile before standing up. Arthur quickly got to his feet as well. "Don't worry about your father – I'll come up with some plausible reason for not wanting to marry you," Elaine said, her eyes twinkling again.
Arthur grinned at that. "I'm sure there are a lot," he quipped. Then he looked at her seriously, and held out his hand for hers. She gave it to him, and he kissed it. "Thank you, Elaine."
Elaine nodded. "Good luck, Arthur."
Uther wasn't happy to hear the news that the Lady Elaine had refused Prince Arthur's proposal, but he could hardly force her into the marriage. He seemed quite happy to hear that she had decided to leave the next day, as he didn't want to be reminded of his son's failure (though he was inclined to think it was also stubbornness on her part... which wouldn't be a factor if her father were alive, or if her brother would take her in hand). To clear his head, Uther gathered a small retinue of knights and left the city to go hunting.
As he passed through the Western Gate, he was told that his son and his manservant had left through the same gate not long before; obviously the Prince had needed to clear his head as well.