A/N: Hi, everyone! Massive apologies that this has taken me so long. I'm inundated with school and work at the moment, as anyone who's sent me a PM and waited weeks/months for a response will tell you. I am definitely interested in finishing this, and I anticipate about three more chapters. However, as I've said before, I'll get the chapters out whenever I can finish them.
Huge thanks to everyone who's read this story so far, reviewed, and kept up with it! You're brilliant. xoxo :D
"I don't know," Merlin says pensively, tugging at his bowtie. He glances over at Arthur, Chuck, and Devon, who are all eyeing him appraisingly. They're all dressed in black tuxes, as well, but the difference is that they are handsome enough to pull off the look.
"You look awesome, dude," booms Devon.
"Yeah, mate," says Arthur, stepping over to clap him on the shoulder, "bowties are cool."
Merlin turns back to the mirror, tugs at the tie again, and decides that yes, it does look rather dapper. And with a bit of luck, perhaps Morgana will like it.
He and Gwen are leaving tomorrow, which means this is his last night to spend with Morgana, the last night to convince her they could have a future together if only she'd be willing to take the chance on him. He's spent so long running away from relationships, pretending that love didn't exist simply because he couldn't fathom it out. He thinks that if he were feeling this with anyone else, he would probably still be running. But everything with her, everything about her, seems so right that it makes him dream of lazy Saturday mornings spent in her arms, walks through the park on sunny afternoons, dinner parties with friends. He dreams that her face will be his last sight before he falls asleep and the first in the morning, that her arms will be reserved for only him, that her lips will yearn for no other's but his. Her smile makes him feel like such a life is possible.
What a difference a week can make.
Perhaps she's beginning to change, as well. After everything she'd told him about not being good at trusting people, she was the one to kiss him. He can still remember the way she had tasted, how soft her lips had felt, the heat radiating from her body. It gives him hope, hope that neither of them has irrevocably shut the doors to their hearts, hope that each can help the other heal, hope that they've found something beyond imagining.
And he has one night to give her that same hope, or else he'll return to England with a shattered heart.
On Friday morning, the four girls go out dress shopping. It's all Ellie's idea, of course, though it makes Sarah feel like the teenager she never was—a girl who believes in pretty things like rainbows and romance. Morgana has spent most of her life around fancy dresses, but Gwen seems slightly in awe of the sheer variety of colors, patterns, and styles, running her hand over the fabrics as the four of them wander through the shop.
Ellie pulls out a bright pink halter that will barely cover anything. Her eyes dance as she asks Sarah, "How about this?"
Sarah pushes it away with a smile. "You better be kidding."
Morgana takes the dress from Ellie and says, "Well, if you're not going to jump at it, I will."
"Are you serious?" asks Gwen, laughing. "Well, I suppose Merlin will like it."
"No," Morgana replies with a vigorous shake of her head. "No, no, no. Never mind. Best not give him the wrong idea."
"Oh, what's the matter?" asks Ellie. "I thought you really liked him."
A fierce blush rises to Morgana's cheeks. "No, I do. I do." She runs a hand through her hair and hopes no one notices how even the mention of Merlin flusters her. "But given our histories, I just think it's best we take it slow."
"Slow is good," agrees Gwen.
Sarah frowns as she looks at a deep purple one-shouldered dress. With the Bartowskis leaving tomorrow, she doesn't exactly have the luxury of taking it slowly. But taking it fast doesn't exactly seem like the solution, either, not for a guy like Chuck. She supposes the answer lies in what she really wants, which is a question she hasn't asked herself since . . . before Bryce.
She lets out a long, slow breath. It feels good to admit, even to herself, how much he affected her.
Morgana grumbles as she picks through a rack. "There's so much here. How are we supposed to choose?"
"I have an idea," says Ellie, leaning over the top of a stand of dresses. "Let's forget about the men."
"What do you mean?" asks Gwen.
"I mean, who cares what they think of our dresses? Let's choose something we like and just not worry about whether they prefer green to yellow or strapless to straps."
Smiling, Morgana adds, "Yeah. We don't exist to please them, do we?"
"I like it," declares Gwen.
After years of being an agent and having to do exactly that, Sarah finds herself refreshed by the notion. But somehow, she thinks that it wouldn't be so bad to please just one man, and not in the interest of getting him to spill secrets, but simply because she was in love and wanted to look nice for her boyfriend.
She picks up a sparkling silver dress. "What about this one?"
Merlin paces the lobby, his hands in the pockets of his trousers in an effort to look cooler than he feels. Devon and Arthur, even with his crutches, both look even more handsome in their tuxes, and if Chuck's is a bit too big in the shoulders, his tall frame makes up for it and renders him quite good-looking. Merlin just feels out of place. He's not accustomed to wearing clothes more expensive than his monthly rent, and his collar is too tight.
"Calm down, man," says Chuck. "She already said she'd go with you. What do you have to worry about?"
Even as he asks it, Chuck is aware of his own nerves starting to string out. Morgana and Sarah may have agreed to go with them, but that's only the first step of many. He fervently hopes Awesome's tango lesson earlier this afternoon will be enough to get him through the evening.
"Well, let's see," says Merlin. "This suit, looking like an idiot, dancing, stepping on her feet, saying something stupid. My breath! Have I forgotten anything?"
"Here, mate," says Arthur as he takes a small tin from his trouser pocket. "Have a mint and take a breath."
Merlin nods and takes the proferred mint. "Right."
Devon claps his hands together. "Men, this night is a gift. We're in a gorgeous country in a gorgeous resort about to spend the next few hours with four gorgeous ladies. Let's be ourselves, and let's appreciate this opportunity. All right?"
His toothy grin and optimism are too contagious to be refused, and a grin comes to Merlin's face. Devon's right. He may be leaving tomorrow, but he still has tonight, and he intends to make the most of it.
It's Chuck who sees them first. He turns right as the elevator bell dings, and his breath catches as the doors slide open. Without looking, he elbows whoever's beside him and senses rather than sees the other three turn around.
Sarah looks stunning, absolutely stunning. She wears a silver dress that sparkles and falls to her knees. Ellie's the only one who's opted for color, and she looks enchanting in a bright blue dress with a gold accent around her waist. Gwen's in gray, the straps falling off her shoulder. The dress has ruffles or uneven pleats or something that Chuck doesn't understand but admires all the same. And Morgana is in a knee-length white dress with a layer of black floral patterns that is somehow classic and yet fun simultaneously.
"God have mercy," utters Arthur.
Devon grins. Arthur had been talking about Gwen, but all four of the beauties are bewitching. And Devon, for one, is ready to do his part by sweeping Ellie off her feet.
He claps his arms around Arthur and Chuck. "Gentlemen, look at these women, and let's remind ourselves how fortunate we are."
"You can say that again," says Arthur.
He hobbles forward to meet Gwen and press a kiss to the back of her hand while Ellie embraces Devon.
Sarah steps forward and straightens Chuck's bowtie. "Well, don't you look dapper?" she asks with a chuckle.
To Merlin's surprise, Morgana greets him with a short, sweet kiss on the lips. His heart swells.
"Hey," he murmurs.
"Hey, yourself," she replies.
He extends his arm and asks, "Shall we?"
Her smile widens as she slides her arm through his. "We shall."
The premier greets the guests as they enter the ballroom. He is particularly glad to see Devon, but he pays special attention to the women.
"Premier," Sarah greets with a smile as he takes her hand and presses a kiss to it. "How very kind of you to invite us. Will we have the pleasure of meeting your wife?"
"Oh, I'm afraid she's not feeling her very best this night," says the premier. "But I sincerely hope you enjoy the party. Welcome, welcome, welcome."
The ballroom is grander than anything Merlin's seen. A grand dance floor sits to the right side of the room next to a stage on which a string quintet plays. Hundreds of guests in black ties and cocktail dresses mill about, served by waiters with champagne and hors d'oeuvres. His mouth drops open at the sight, and Morgana elbows him very gently in the ribs to bring him back to reality.
"Everything all right?" she asks.
"Brilliant," he responds.
Because, yeah, with her by his side, everything is perfect.
"You're beautiful," Arthur whispers in Gwen's ear.
His injury prevents him from asking her to dance, but truthfully, she doesn't mind. He's nothing like the sort of man she wanted or expected, but in a few short days, she's found that life sends you what you need without regard to your expectations. And since she and Merlin are leaving tomorrow, spending time with Arthur is more important than anything.
"Oh, hush," she chuckles and pushes him away playfully.
He sneaks a kiss, making her laugh. He says, "I'm sorry I can't ask you to dance."
"Would you even if you could?"
He purses his lips and pretends to think it over. "Well . . ."
She makes to shove him gently again, but he catches her about the waist and pulls her closer. And when he kisses her, she can believe that, no matter what comes tomorrow, this is going to last.
"Babe," begins Devon as he twirls his girlfriend around the dance floor, "is this a party or what?"
"Oh," Ellie gushes, "this is unreal, Devon. Thank you for being the wonderful surgeon you are."
"Ah, it wasn't all me. I had a great team, and the premier is looking after his health now."
"Well, I still think you're pretty great."
He leans down to give her a kiss. "And I think you're pretty awesome yourself, babe."
Chuck takes a swig of champagne and watches Sarah approach from the dance floor. She's graciously given him a break from the dancing and accepted an invitation to a tango from another guest. But she comes back to him, and that makes him feel spectacular, makes him feel wanted.
"How was your tango?" he asks.
She shrugs. "A tango's a tango."
"But he didn't step on your feet."
"You're not a bad dancer, Chuck," she says, putting a hand on his arm. "You just need to have more confidence."
"Right," he says with a breathy chuckle.
"Are you all right?"
He takes another sip of champagne. "It's just . . . that I'm leaving tomorrow." He gestures to the grandeur surrounding them. "Never thought I'd be sad about that."
Sarah studies him. Even though he's quiet, his pleasant features manage to broadcast everything he's thinking. He may be too scared to tell her how he feels, but it's written on his face. He isn't her type at all, but maybe that's been her problem all this time. She's been looking for the wrong sort of man. Maybe a guy like Chuck Bartowski could give her exactly what she needed, even if for just a short while.
"That's soon," she says softly.
She takes his hand and twines her fingers with his. "But there's still a lot of time until then."
"W-what are you saying?"
She leans in close, and her breath tickles his ear as she whispers, "I'm saying I have a room upstairs and we still have tonight to make the most of this."
He pulls away abruptly. A night with this woman would be more than he could ever ask for, but he can't imagine it not leaving him empty, unfulfilled. Because one night could never be enough. As strong and sudden as this connection is, he doesn't want to settle for one night. He wants a girl he can bring home for family dinners. He wants a girl who will agree to spend their lives together because she likes him for him. He wants to get married one day.
"Sarah, I . . ."
"Chuck . . ."
"I know you're like ten thousand leagues above me," he says, "but I'm not interested in being a one-week island romance for you that you'll forget about as soon as I'm gone. I guess . . . I guess I should've said sooner, but I really thought this could go somewhere. But I . . . I won't be just a fling."
And Chuck Bartowski does something he never thought he'd do. He walks away from a beautiful woman.
Merlin hands Morgana a flute of champagne and takes a sip of his own. She's put up with his dancing and even his stupid jokes all night, and he's been able to forget about what tomorrow will bring. But not any longer. Not when he looks at her dazzling smile or hears her musical laughter. Or holds her as they dance.
So he pulls her away from the dance floor, away from the crowd.
Morgana's heart speeds up at his touch. She's wasted nearly six months of her life feeling sorry for herself and scaring herself into not trusting anyone except for Arthur. But Merlin's made her realize the folly in that, made her see that true affection between two people is stronger than any other force in the world. She's never met a man who makes her want to be better, want to be more, but Merlin does.
"Morgana," he says, running his thumb over her knuckles, "Gwen dragged me along on this trip, but then I met you, and I was really happy that she did. Because I didn't really believe in anything, much less love, and now, I think I'm starting to."
She sets down her champagne and lifts a hand to his cheek. "I think I'm starting to, as well."
He takes her hand and removes it from his cheek. "But I'm leaving tomorrow."
Her heart falls. "Oh."
He licks his lips nervously. "I guess what I'm asking is –"
Gunshots resound through the ballroom.