A/N: Where does the time fly? I haven't updated in forever! Anyway, here's another chapter for you lovely readers! Thank you for the support. Enjoy! xx IFHD

Chapter 26: It Is What It Is

Song Inspirations: "It Is What It Is" by Lifehouse, "Nothing" by The Script, "Hesitate" by Stone Sour, and "In My Veins" by Andrew Belle

Gwaine let out a muffled groan as he continued to lie, immobile, in a supine position. His head throbbed, even more painful than the aftereffects of alcohol, as his consciousness slowly returned. Eyes fluttering open, he desperately attempted to remember what had transpired, what had caused him to be in this position in the first place. His orbs were transfixed upon the grey ceiling before him, vision still blurred; then, his gaze slid to his right, towards the lingering presence that he felt there. As he caught sight of Lourdes worriedly peering down upon him, the knight bolted upwards and jumped from the mattress, finding renewed strength as the need to defend himself jolted through his system. He frantically looked for any weapon within the room to defend himself with. Although the young woman placed her open palms before her in a placating gesture, Gwaine took a few steps back from her, mistrust emanating from his flashing orbs. "Stay away from me!"

Lourdes had been in the middle of treating Gwaine when he began to wake. When she returned to her chambers, she saw the knight, still unconscious, upon the stone floor. Alarmed at the possibility that she had been responsible for this, the young woman was quick to pull the knight upon her bed, assess what had been done to him, and begin a healing spell. Now, seeing the abhorrence in his eyes and the hostility in his actions towards her, she was certain that she was to blame for his injuries. "Gwaine, please." She took a few, cautious steps towards him, holding her hands out before her. "Whoever that was…whoever that hurt you…that wasn't me. I swear it."

He didn't budge. He said with a snarl, "You tricked me once, creature, but you will not do so again."

The way that he spoke to her caused Lourdes' heart to constrict. What had truly happened when she was under Czernobog's control? Was she responsible for hurting others who she cared about? Guilt and inadequacy overtook her then, feeling as though she hadn't been powerful enough to resist the spell in the first place. Distress lined her expression as she perceived Gwaine quickly backing away towards her door. She quickly needed to convince him that she was herself once more, so she blurted, "I remember everything that happened between us."

Gwaine's brows furrowed as he halted his movement. "What?"

"The Rising Sun tavern. The walk back to the castle." Lourdes pressed onward, her countenance softening as she locked eyes with the knight. "My chambers…" Although Gwaine's eyes darted away at this, she continued, "I'm sorry, Gwaine. What else can I say or do to make you believe that it is truly me?"

There was one way, Gwaine thought.

After a brief pause, the knight questioned:

"Who does your heart truly belong to?"

Face becoming white, Lourdes froze at the unexpected query. She opened her mouth to utter a reply, but quickly clamped it shut, for the thoughts in her head were too confusing and convoluted for her to explain with words. As she continued to say nothing, Gwaine could see and feel her hesitation; the knight's stance subsequently relaxed, his spine straightening. With a quick nod to her form, he proclaimed. "I now believe that it is truly you who has returned."

Unnerved by Gwaine's subsequent, dejected demeanour, Lourdes could only watch in silence as the knight swiftly exited her room.

333

"Alright, Cillian." Gwaine ensued to slam his elbow upon the table top. Using his free hand, he gestured to the red-headed warrior in challenge, as though beckoning for him to come forward. "Show me what you're made of!"

"What the hell are you saying?" Cillian cried out in the Anihc tongue in animated frustration through the jeers, laughs, and cheers of their comrades surrounding them. He rolled his eyes as he waved the knight off with a dismissive gesture. He couldn't allow foreign taunts to distract him. "Whatever you said, pansy knight, I'll best you anyway!"

Gwaine's face contorted at the grinning warrior's response, which was followed by jests and booming guffaws from the Anihc warriors. "Huh?" Now the one confused, the knight looked towards his Camelot comrades, receiving only curt shrugs and blank looks from them. Gwaine's eyes darted back to Cillian in unamused suspicion. "Did…did you just make fun of me?"

Although the news of the impending northern attack had spread throughout the kingdom, the warriors and knights of Camelot resolved to drink their situations away and busy themselves with contests in the local tavern one last time. To the satisfaction of Camelot's knights, the space was almost three times the size of the tavern of The Rising Sun, and, much to their contentment, was filled with the beautiful barmaids of Anihc. This was certainly the type of distraction that they needed before placing their lives on the line once more.

The arm wrestling battle between Gwaine and Cillian ensued. Over a dozen warriors and knights gathered around them, commentating on their efforts and screaming out lighthearted taunts. Lancelot, Merlin, Arthur, Leon, and Elyan all stood by Percival, who keenly looked upon the friendly contest; whoever won this match would face him next!

An approaching form served to distract Gwaine. As his attention wholly fixated upon Lourdes, all of his efforts and energy rescinded; this momentary exhibition of weakness then allowed Cillian to easily slam his fist upon the table and take the match. To the shouts and cheers of the Anihc warriors and the groans of the knights of Camelot, Cillian ensued to stand and throw his hands in the air repeatedly in celebration. Gwaine consequently mumbled a curse, breathing out through his bottom lip. As he waved off Cillian's celebrations, the warrior, nevertheless, turned to him and shook his arm. "Good…match, Sir Gwaine." The beaming warrior began unsurely, trying his best to speak in the Western tongue.

With a small smile at the conciliatory gesture, the long-haired knight returned the armshake. He then spoke in the Anihc tongue with surprising ease, "Good match, Warrior Cillian."

The large grin upon Cillian's face quickly faded, however, as Percival took his stance before him. As the giant of a knight crossed his arms in challenge, the Anihc warrior nervously gulped, his head having to rise to even make eye contact with the knight. Gwaine also had to wince at this, for he himself had once challenged Percival in an arm wrestling competition; it felt as though the knight could have completely dislocated his shoulder! Gwaine finished, eyes squinted towards Cillian, "…And good luck."

"We need to prepare the men to ride out in the morning, or the morning after." Lourdes had been saying to Arthur a few paces from where the match was occurring. "My," she paused, choosing her words carefully, "…informant did not specify the numbers of Czernobog's men, but I believe that we must prepare as many men as possible. However, I want to leave a few warriors to guard the castle and the surrounding village and…" She trailed off at this point when she distinctly heard Gwaine speaking her tongue.

Arthur looked at her expectantly, bottom lip slightly protruding in thought. "And…?" As he patiently waited for her to continue, he clearly discerned that Lourdes was distracted. Following her line of sight, Arthur could see her stare transfixed upon Lancelot and Gwaine's direction, where the two knights stood side by side. Waving a palm in front of her face in an attempt to break her concentration, the blonde-haired king cocked his head to the side. "Lourdes? Hello up there?" When she still didn't respond, he grumbled under his breath, "I think you've been around Merlin for too long…"

Without warning, Lourdes lightly pushed at Arthur's shoulder in jest. "I heard that." Her eyes flickering back to Arthur, she chided, "Merlin's much wiser than you give him credit for. You have no idea how much he has helped and guided me since we met." She nudged him. "And I know he has always been there for you - always loyal, always by your side - whether you like to admit it or not."

Merlin overheard this; it caused him to smile.

The king's eyes softened as he perceived the sincerity in her tone and expression and, most importantly, the meaning in her words. "I know." Arthur replied lightly, squeezing Lourdes' shoulder in a conceding manner. "I just don't tell him often. I'm afraid it'll make his head bigger than it already is."

Lourdes could only close her eyes and shake her head amusedly; if that was the best Arthur could do at expressing his emotions with her, then she would take it. With a pat on Arthur's arm, she took her leave from his side and traversed the floor towards Lancelot. All around her, the people of Anihc began to bow; however, she quickly signaled for them to halt the gesture. She did not want to distract any of the tavern's patrons, for she hypothesized that her presence would make some within act quite differently. Perhaps that's why she longed for Camelot once more; aye, she was a respected medic and many were fond of her in Arthur's kingdom, but, at the end of the day, she received the same treatment as anyone else. She felt as though she did not have to live up to such high expectations, and she could act without duty gnawing at her. Most of all, she could be entirely herself, with little consequence to deter her from doing so.

As she reached the knight, she discreetly took his hand in hers, subtly gaining his attention. It took every effort for Lancelot not to kiss her at that very moment, but, with much willpower, he somehow managed to restrain himself. The knight merely squeezed her hand in return and hovered his adoring eyes upon her face. Lourdes couldn't help but smile despite the news that she brought. "We ride out within the next couple of days, Lancelot. I have already spoken with Arthur about the plans."

The knight took a step closer to her, taking her other hand in his. "No matter what happens, I will stay by your side."

"In truth, I do not want you to come at all." She admitted, head lowering as she broke the stare. "It would be much safer if you and the knights stayed here," A sigh escaped her lips, "but, given your personalities and from past experience, I know none of you will heed my commands anyway."

Overcome with emotion, Lancelot could no longer restrain himself. He placed a gentle palm upon her face, then stroked a tendril of her hair behind her ear. "We worry about you and your people just as much as you worry about us." Resting his hand upon the side of her head, his thumb then caressed her cheek. "Take comfort in the fact that our force united will be stronger than our force divided."

Gwaine caught on to the closeness in which Lourdes and Lancelot stood and the actions that they displayed with one another. Not heeding Merlin's worried calls behind him, the ale-filled knight stalked - almost in a winding manner - towards the exit of the tavern. The slight commotion was keenly noticed by Lourdes and, giving Lancelot a light embrace, took her leave. The princess tried to ignore the knight's questioning look as she departed, ensuring that she attempted to act as calm as possible. Sharing a knowing look with Merlin as she passed him, she inconspicuously followed Gwaine outside.

The crisp, evening air instantly met her body as she stepped out of the tavern doors. Peering to her right, she caught sight of Gwaine staggering through the deserted street in the direction of the gardens. Without any ale to impede her movements, it didn't take long for Lourdes to catch up with the knight. In silence, she caught Gwaine by the waist as he stumbled upon a protruding root. The knight's glossy eyes slid to her form as he slurred, "It's always how it goes, isn't it? You open your heart up to someone, and it just gets…stomped all over." He forced a lopsided smile as his head lolled to the side. "But it is what it is."

"Gwaine, you've had too much ale," with a grunt, Lourdes attempted to keep the waddling knight on his two feet. "Please, you need to rest. We are preparing to…"

"Do not take me for a fool!" He attempted to release himself from her grasp, retracting his arm. His face contorted as his eyes narrowed. "I may act like one at times, but I assure you, I certainly am not one."

"I've never taken you for a fool. Ever." Lourdes desperately caught Gwaine's hand in hers as he began to stagger away. "I apologize for all of the pain that I've caused you, for any wrong that I have done to you. It was never, ever my intention to do that." Unrestrained, tears began to appear in the brims of her eyes. The knight turned to face her now. "You are such a good, selfless man, Gwaine. I saw that in you from the very beginning. You deserve so much more than…"

Such sweet words fell upon deaf ears. Instead of placating the knight, Lourdes saw that she only succeeded in upsetting him even more. With a step backwards, Gwaine questioned despondently, "Why are you telling me all of this? Do you think it'll change anything?"

Lourdes' head shook in a curt manner. "Gwaine, I -"

"I'm in love with you." The knight's arms lifted at his sides at his declaration. "I'm in love with you, Lourdes, but you're not in love with me. Do you see the problem in that?" A scoff escaped his lips as he shrugged. "Either way, what can a knight like me ever give to a princess, anyway? Absolutely nothing."

A sharp intake of breath allowed Lourdes to momentarily control her emotions. "That's not true!" With purposeful strides, she crossed the space between them and took Gwaine's face in her hands. "Gwaine, you are worth more to me than you will ever understand. Please know this."

With softness lining his look, it seemed as though the knight was quickly succumbing to the princess' words and actions. He cursed himself for being so weak and relenting when it came to her. Now, his actions seemed as though he was entirely sober, his feet becoming steady once more. "You have changed me forever, and for that, I am grateful." He began, though his countenance remained hard, "But despite everything that has transpired between us, I can see that you have already made your choice…."

Lourdes' face crinkled with hurt. "Gwaine…"

"…so I will make mine." He quickly interjected, his chin rising as he proclaimed, "I choose to no longer remain in this torturous state. What has passed between us, princess, will soon be a distant memory to me."

And with that, Gwaine stalked away from her sight.