Iolaus' Unforgettable Festival

by Chris M.

Content Warning : Subtext, innuendo, and references to drinking abound. Although nothing explicit is detailed herein, allusions to sex between virtually all possible combinations of the genders are made, as well as various adult behaviors associated with said groupings. So should you or the lawmakers of your area disapprove, best skip this.

Spoiler Warnings : No really important ones from any episodes, but a good grounding in events from the first three seasons, including in particular "The Quest," "Ulysses," "Return of Callisto," and "The Bitter Suite" would be helpful. Again, no major spoilers are given, but many major events are mentioned in passing.

Non-ownership Disclaimer : Don’t own ’em, wish I did - especially considering the way I’ve written them sometimes.

Xenite Disclaimer : Even though Iolaus’ party pants were severely strained in the production of this work, it took weeks to remove the smile from his face.

Author’s Note : In terms of plot, this presents a slightly different slant on events than the actual episodes have shown, but I think you’ll enjoy it anyway. This is a stand-alone piece with no connection to any of my other stories (well, except for one... <WG>), and presents a truly alternative view. Don’t take it too seriously or try to read anything too deep into it - it was written purely for entertainment, and to tweak some of the AltFic clichés. ’Course, if I was really going for clichés, this would take place at the hot springs during an Amazon festival, but ya can’t have everything...


"This was supposed to be a vacation," Iolaus groused sourly to himself, taking another drink of his ale. "Escort Gabrielle to a festival - a sidekick’s night out, just her and me - while Herc and Xena go take care of..." his mental wandering trailed off as he turned to look at his drinking partner. "Hey, Gabrielle, what exactly are those guys doing, anyway?"

"I don’t know," she smoothly responded before pausing to take a sip of her cider. "She just said they had something to do. You know how she gets sometimes. Inscrutable."

Although Gabrielle had answered easily, for a moment, Iolaus had the uneasy feeling that Gabrielle was hiding something from him. He quickly dismissed the thought. He was just overly suspicious, he reassured himself. This was Gabrielle after all - and, if he was going to be wholly honest with himself, he had to admit that he didn’t really care what the answer to the question was; Herc could be just as moody as Xena at times, and lately was definitely one of those times. Frankly, he could use a break from the big guy, best buddy or no. Shrugging his dismissal of his idle complaint, Iolaus returned his attention to the crowd partying around them.

Although the festival of Demeter had only barely begun, the celebrants were already deep into their enjoyment of her bounty - the ale and wine were flowing almost faster than the harried bartender and his assistants could pour. Spirits were high, and a buzz of excitement filled the air. "Gods, I love fertility festivals," Iolaus snickered silently to himself.

Squirming his hips, he eased his arousal, repositioning himself within the confines of his tight leather pants. They clung to his lower body like a second skin and hid nothing of his excitement. Despite his limited wardrobe, he’d wanted to dress to advertise his interest in celebrating the festival and his "qualifications," and - even if he did say so himself - he’d done a good job of it. He was all but drooling with anticipation, looking forward to sharing a long, fruitful celebration of fertility with the throngs of lovely young women who seemed to have congregated in this town.

Unfortunately, none of the women appeared to be very interested. "Maybe it's because I'm drinking with Gabrielle," he mused. "Because I'm already with a woman, they probably assume I'm taken." He weighed that thought for a moment, then nodded in satisfaction. "I’d better tell Gabrielle to go sit somewhere else, or this is going to be a very long festival," he thought. "Now the only thing I have to figure out is how to tell her; Gabrielle's such an innocent - I don’t want to hurt her feelings."

Before he could decide on the right phrasing, the idea of sending Gabrielle away was completely dismissed from his mind. It was no longer necessary because a hot-eyed young maiden was staring boldly in his direction.

Iolaus abruptly sat bolt upright in his chair, straightening his purple vest as he did. "Well hello, Iolaus... This festival’s looking better already," he mumbled to himself.

Ignoring his tablemate, who for once had fallen silent, Iolaus returned the woman’s look with a direct gaze of his own - and was glad he had. She was pretty - a little short, even by comparison to his own compact build - but very buxom. She was almost a celebration of fertility in her own right.

The woman sipped at her goblet of wine and continued to cast flirtatious glances at his table. "Bless you, Demeter," Iolaus breathed reverently. "I owe you a big one for this."

With an artful yawn, the woman stood and straightened her blouse and skirt, briefly drawing them taut against her body - surreptitiously revealing her trim shape to best advantage. After a quick stretch she returned to her seat, with only her wicked grin providing a hint towards the true motives underlying the moves.

"Ooh," Iolaus whispered, eyebrows rising. "She’s definitely interested," he thought. Iolaus’ pulse rate jumped, and a dull throb arose from points south. With a smile, he was about to rise to make the woman’s acquaintance, when a purring growl broke his concentration.

Startled, he turned to face the source of the sound - his tablemate - and did a double take. Utterly taken aback, he could only stare at her, eyes widening as his jaw dropped in shock.

Gabrielle’s expression was unlike any that he’d seen on her face before. It was heated... sultry. Eyes half-lidded and face slightly flushed with rising desire, her expression was openly seductive. She all but glowed with the intensity of her focus, and the heat of her gaze was clear even in the dim light of the tavern.

Her eyes were locked on the flirtatious woman’s body and were roaming freely, openly caressing each luscious curve with every lingering move of her longing gaze. Gabrielle unconsciously licked her lips, moistening them with the tip of her tongue as her admiration grew even more obvious. The front of Gabrielle’s new blouse tented slightly as her nipples visibly awoke, and the purring growl she emitted deepened, seeming to reverberate in Iolaus’ bones, arousing a throbbing in his own excitement.

Iolaus stared at his companion, stuttering slightly in his befuddlement. "G - G - Gabrielle...?" he finally managed to say. "Wha - What are you doing?"

Her expression didn’t alter in the slightest, nor did she turn her gaze away from the woman. Somehow she still managed to answer him through motionless lips, "Same thing you are, only I’m doing it right."

"Wha..." Iolaus began.

"Watch my staff, would you? I’ll be back in a bit." Without another word, Gabrielle rose, and with a walk that gave her hips a truly distracting sway beneath the short skirt she wore, sauntered over to the obviously fascinated woman at the bar. Gabrielle leaned over to whisper in the woman’s ear for a moment, then wrapped one arm snugly around her waist.

Whoa... Iolaus thought, watching her. To his surprise, Gabrielle dropped a quick kiss to the woman’s neck, then led her by the hand through the crowd, and out the front door.

Had that just happened? Did she... he couldn’t even complete the thought. Was this Gabrielle? he thought in shock. The same Gabrielle who was almost too embarrassed and naïve to kiss him when they first met? The same Gabrielle who...

He forced himself to think rationally as his brain slowly processed the events he had just witnessed. The same Gabrielle who’d picked up the very woman he’d been interested in with easy, practiced skill and headed off to... to celebrate the festival.

Grimacing, Iolaus ordered another ale. This was not how he’d planned to spend the festival. It was a fertility festival, after all. It was his sacred duty to celebrate!

More importantly, it had been a long time since the opportunity had arisen, and he’d wanted to make up for the lost time by getting thoroughly debauched with the happily celebrating nubile young farm maidens of this little out-of-the-way community - not watch sweet, naïve Gabrielle do it.

All around the tavern, couples were pairing off and heading out into the night to celebrate Demeter’s fertility in the earthy embrace of the newly plowed fields while a stream of fresh bodies continually flowed in to the tavern to take their place while recuperating from their exertions. Yet despite this constant influx of people, not a single woman was giving Iolaus a second look. The few maidens who gave him the eye invariably turned their attention to other men after only the most cursory of looks. It was almost enough to make him cry.

After a candlemark or so, Gabrielle returned to the tavern, a thoroughly satisfied expression glowing on her face as she straightened her top. Still without prospects, (even at the height of a fertility festival, for Zeus’ sake!) Iolaus dropped his head into his hands as she picked up her half-empty cup of cider. "Gods, the only way it could be worse is if she’s sympathetic and understanding..."

"What’s wrong, Iolaus?" she asked, the warmth of her sympathy and concern clear in every word. "Aren’t you enjoying the festival? I understand. Well, don’t worry. It’s still early. I’m sure it’ll get better."

"I just had to think it," he muttered, then raised his voice. "Gabrielle... wha..." he couldn’t quite bring himself to finish the sentence.

She actually looked exasperated with him. "Iolaus..." she sounded almost petulant as she protested, "You did know I was a Queen of the Amazons, right?"

"Well yeah, but you were married, and I... I mean we..."

She openly snickered at the croggled look on his face. "It’s okay, Iolaus," she patted his hand. "I’m sorry I never got around to telling you. Frankly, I didn’t quite know how to tell you. I grew up with Perdicas, and would have happily lived my life with him, but... Men are good, but truthfully I prefer women."

Now that he had recovered his equilibrium a little, Iolaus began to relax slightly, her nonchalance and casual acceptance of her preferences centering him, helping him deal with the surprise and ease the tension he’d been feeling. Despite his acceptance though, he couldn’t help feeling... slightly off-balance by the revelations.

That she preferred the embrace of other women wasn’t a problem for him (though it disappointed him for purely personal reasons), nor (after the initial surprise had faded, anyway) was her obvious skill at seduction - she was an Amazon Queen, after all, and he’d seen Cyane’s ability firsthand while still a boy at Cheiron’s Academy (though admittedly her talents had usually been reserved for Herc). In fact, after years of wandering, through wars and peacetime, strange lands and alien cultures - not to mention a few cases of death and demonic possession - he was hard pressed to find a bigoted bone in his body. Besides, he found the idea of Xena with Gabrielle to be rather intriguing...

No, the problem for Iolaus was simple : he was having a hard time adjusting to this newly confident version of the innocent girl he’d thought he’d known. "I’ve heard rumors," he cautiously admitted to the visibly sated and happily glowing Amazon, "but I thought that was all they were. You know, just rumors. Anyway, I figured if you were... you know. Were... inclined like that, you’d hook up with Xena."

Waiting until he was in the process of drinking his ale, she casually asked, "Like you and Herc did?" She snickered as he sprayed his drink across the table. "I’ve heard rumors, too."

"No!" he denied vehemently. "We’ve never!"

"I didn’t think so," she responded, giggling at his expression. "Not routinely, anyway, but I can’t believe you’ve never... Not even once?" she asked, more than a hint of surprise entering her voice. "Just to see what it was like?"

"NO," he emphasized. "I mean, well sure, we’ve partied together before, and we’ve um, you know...with the same woman - sometimes even at the same time, but never just the two of us... Not that there’s anything wrong with that... It’s just... I just don’t... He doesn’t... We don’t..." his hands moved blindly, trying to illustrate his point when he couldn’t articulate it, until he finally threw up his hands and gave up, "and I can’t believe I’m talking with YOU of all people about this."

"It’s alright," Gabrielle gently soothed his ruffled feathers. "I was just teasing you. And you’re right. Xena and I are ’you know...’" she mimicked his phrasing and intonation perfectly. "And she really likes what I do, but you of all people should know that Xena sometimes craves... exotic performances."

Iolaus blushed, memories of his brief time with Xena flooding into his mind - a time that still sometimes returned to pleasantly linger in his dreams, even after all these years. "She was just using me to get to Herc," he down-played the incident, unsuccessfully trying to hide his discomfort at that fact.

"Not entirely," she hastened to reassure him. "She really did like you - still does in fact - even if she normally prefers bad boys. She hasn’t told me much about what you did or were like when you were..." she gestured vaguely, "you know, but she did say you were very good - and for her, that’s a big compliment."

She giggled a little at the questioning look that appeared in his eye and the faint blush that suffused his cheeks. "I was curious a while back, and I asked her," she answered his unspoken question. "She’s not exactly shy, you know." At the even more goofy expression that appeared on his face at that comment, she simply shrugged her shoulders self-deprecatingly.

Setting aside that topic, she retreated to safer ground - her own relationship with the warrior princess, wanting her friend to understand her. "It’s just... Sometimes Xena gets this craving for something I just can’t give her - not for wont of trying, though, believe me - so... We have this arrangement." Her wicked and thoroughly lecherous grin at a small gathering of women across the room made his blush deepen. "We don’t really need anybody but each other, but sometimes a little change in perspective helps us to better appreciate what we’ve got, you know?"

Unsure what to say, he remained mute and hurriedly took another drink, wanting to ease his suddenly dry throat.

She waited until the ale was flowing down his throat to comment, "Xena’s birthmark is just so adorable, don’t you think?"

His drink sprayed across the table a second time.

"I’ll stop teasing you now, Iolaus," Gabrielle laughed. "Actually, you’re taking all this pretty well. The first time I talked about this with Solari - she’s one of my Amazons - I didn’t know if she wanted to strangle me or take me to bed." She frowned in thought, then added, "Come to think of it, she did both."

Iolaus groaned. He was so erect he hurt, but there were still no likely prospects for easing himself. "I don’t want to hear this," he moaned, dropping his face into his hands. Hearing about Gabrielle’s conquests and prowess wasn’t helping his condition, either.

"If you don’t want to, I don’t mind," she soothed him. She smiled, and refocussed her attention on a table across the room. The women clustered about it blushed daintily when they noticed she was ogling them, but made no indication of disapproval.

Gabrielle grinned, and something shifted in her expression. It was nothing Iolaus could really quantify, but the women sitting across the room almost fell out of their chairs in response. Several began to fan themselves as their blushes deepened, and one hastily gulped her drink as her eyes goggled in fascination.

Gabrielle smirked her satisfaction at their reaction. "Save my chair?" She rose and happily plucked a pert pair of giggling blondes away from the cluster of women she’d been flirting with and, drawing them along with her, vanished once more into the night.

Iolaus groaned in frustration and reluctant envy. Twice! Twice, she’d done it. He was no slouch at this - he and Herc regularly crawled through the bars and brothels that filled the landscape up and down the length and breadth of the known world together and he could seduce women with the best of ’em; but Gabrielle, the girl he had thought was an innocent he’d have to protect at this stupid festival - or abandon - was beginning to make him feel like a downy-cheeked virgin on his first visit to a tavern. How was she able to do that?

He continued drinking, still fruitlessly seeking companionship for the night. By the time Gabrielle returned, he was on his sixth ale, and was growing more and more frustrated. Frankly, he was tempted to head for the privy to take matters into his own hands, despite the implied insult to Demeter. Especially since he kept imagining what Gabrielle and the two blondes were doing... Groaning, he took another gulp of his ale and shifted uncomfortably on his chair, even as she sank contentedly back into her own.

"Thanks for saving my seat. It’s crowded in here," she told him brightly as she adjusted her top - though not before he saw the purple blotch of a fresh hickey on her neck, and a reddened patch that looked suspiciously like a bite mark on the top of one firm breast.

"No problem," he sighed. "Nothing much else here for me to do." And no one, he mentally added, truly disgusted with his own sorry performance.

She looked disconcerted at his sour mood, but let it pass for the moment as she stood up to grab a fresh mug of cider away from a passing barmaid’s tray, dropping a kiss on her cheek as the woman spun past, working her way through the crowd. Iolaus watched her performance with more than a touch of awe. If he’d tried to perform that move, he’d likely have been slapped. Gabrielle got a saucy grin and a quick wink for her efforts.

"You just seem" he struggled to find the right word, settling for, "different."

Shrugging, Gabrielle took a drink. "I know it’s been a while since we really talked, and usually when we do, we’re so busy solving a world-threatening crisis that we don’t really have much time to talk about our personal lives. And when we do find time, we’re simply too busy exchanging stories about our adventures to talk much about ourselves. I guess I have changed a bit since the last time we really got together and simply talked about us."

"Oh, yeah," he agreed firmly, nodding his head as he looked over her slightly disheveled appearance. She was the very image of a freshly debauched maiden, resplendent in the afterglow of her sated passions. It was hard to reconcile the picture she presented with the virginal icon he’d treasured for so many years. "You can say that again."

"Well, you have to understand," Gabrielle said thoughtfully, leaning back and drinking her apple juice thirstily, "I have been travelling with Xena for close to five years now, died thrice, you know how that goes - it’s one of the hazards of traveling with a hero, after all - met with more gods than I can remember, been married and widowed, gave birth to the daughter of the ultimate evil, became Queen of the Amazons, was bitten by bacchae, poisoned by Persians, defiled by demons, and was even attacked by a bloodthirsty bunny rabbit..." She smiled slightly and explained, "You had to be there. Anyway, I’d say its fairly understandable, my changing a little."

"Well, when you put it that way..."

"It’s okay, Iolaus," she began, dropping one hand atop his, squeezing it warmly, "I want you to understand. I consider you to be one of my best friends, even if we don’t get to see each other very often. You’ve been so good to me over the years, and I think it’s important you really know and understand me."

His sour mood began to dissolve under the loving weight of her care and concern, coupled with her candid recitation of the reasons underlying her evolution - he recognized the same forces that had worked on himself. He knew intimately the way such experiences could alter one’s perceptions, and change one’s attitudes. Well, except for the bunny, anyway.

Despite his initial discomfort with the topic, he soon found himself being drawn into her tale. He really did like Gabrielle, and he really did want to know her better. This new incarnation of her - a strong, sexually confident woman - had an allure that he was finding even more appealing than the naïve charm that had been so characteristic of their first encounters.

The fact that he was slightly drunk and the subject of the conversation was sex helped, too... even if it did make his tumescence throb painfully.

"Maybe it’s best if I start at the beginning," she ruminated. "I was a virgin on my wedding night," she began, and when Iolaus’ eyebrows rose slightly, she smiled and continued. "Yeah... Big shock, right? But you see, it was more than that. I’d never really... even thought much about sex, you know? Sure, I had some of the urges, but... I’d just take a cold bath or something. Mostly sex was just something Xena did now and then - find some guy, take a couple flasks of ale or wine with her, then crawl into bed with him for a day or so. I’d tell stories in the tavern and earn some dinars while she was busy, then when she recovered or was bored with him, we’d move on. No big deal. It wasn’t ’til later that I learned some of the guys she slept with were girls."

He sputtered at that, not really surprised - like he’d said before, he’d heard rumors - but her casual air about the matter was still a bit startling.

This really was coming as a shock to Iolaus, Gabrielle realized. Perhaps it was a bit much. She noted his discomfort, and decided to tone down her tale a little - still telling the whole truth, naturally, but skipping some of the spicier details.

"Anyway, then I was married... and the next morning I was a widow." She sighed, and her face fell as she relived the memory of that terrible day.

Iolaus rested his hand on top of hers in a gesture of support, mirroring her own earlier effort at comforting him. "I know exactly how you felt. When my wife died, it was like the world had ended." He sighed in sympathetic unison with her, and they both took a sip from their mugs, feeling comforted by the shared experience and the understanding companionship.

"Thank you," she smiled, "But... My case was different from yours," Gabrielle tried to explain, pausing to wink at a saucy brunette as she regained her composure. "I loved Perdicas, but I wasn’t really in love with him, if you know what I mean. We grew up together after all, and we were just always... together. We were betrothed when we were just children, so we did everything together. Until I followed Xena, anyway.

"Marrying him made everything feel... complete... right... like I’d come full circle. My family was happy, I felt happy - mostly - and I thought everything would work out... And then Callisto murdered him."

She forced herself to smile, despite the swirling emotions that threatened to overwhelm her, and she kept her tone light with an effort, continuing to remain candid despite the pain of her story. "Anyway, I may have been a virgin that first night, but he wasn’t - he’d been a soldier after all - and he’d picked up some tricks along the way. It was... a pretty wild night. I learned a lot that night... both about sex, and about myself."

Iolaus bit down a pang of jealousy, and a powerful surge of regret that it had been someone else who had initiated her into the pleasures of womanhood. The man was dead - and he had been her childhood friend and husband besides.

If he was going to be honest with himself, Iolaus had to admit that he had only really spoken to Gabrielle a few times. And, he thought as his mind mulled over the issue, she’d only kissed him that time because she’d thought he was dying - or at least had only narrowly managed to avoid it. He had no true basis to envy or hate the man... but he found to his disgust that he did.

In a way his feelings were exactly like how she’d described her union with Perdicas : ending up with her would have just seemed... right : the sidekicks getting together. What could be more natural? "So what happened after that?" he asked finally, trying to distract himself from his maundering.

"Not too long after he died," Gabrielle explained, "we stopped off to visit the Amazons. You have to understand, I was a wreck emotionally - even though Xena had killed Callisto, and I’d intellectually accepted the reality of the situation. Anyway, Ephiny - she’s another one of my Amazons, and now my regent - Ephiny um," she paused, remembering his discomfort with the level of detail she’d been using, and modified her phrasing. "Ephiny comforted me. She had lost her husband, I’d just lost mine, we were commiserating with each other, one thing sort of led to another and..." she shrugged. "I was comforted."

Ephiny? Her first time with a woman wasn’t with Xena? Iolaus silently wondered in surprise. Aloud, he asked only, "Where was Xena? How could she let..." he trailed off, uncomfortably realizing how close to ownership he was describing her relationship with the Warrior Princess.

Gabrielle smiled as they returned to safer emotional ground. "Xena was out drinking with some of the Amazon warriors. You see, she loved me even then, and I loved her, but..." she shrugged, "Virgin, small town girl, take your pick of reasons, but I simply never realized..." She suddenly snickered, and a wicked light gleamed in her eyes. "Ephiny took me well in hand, though."

Iolaus blew out another mouthful of ale. "Gods!"

"Sorry," Gabrielle apologized, eyes still flickering with suppressed mirth. He was so much fun to tease! She could never catch Xena so off guard with her comments - and the tall warrior was always swift to return her sallies. "Anyway, after I was shown that two women could love each other that way, everything changed. I started noticing things about Xena I’d always known, but seeing them in a whole new way."

She looked contemplative as she sipped her drink. "I mean, we’d been together through a lot even back then. We’d bathed together, dressed each others’ wounds, slept in the same bed, shared blankets at night, seen each other naked more times than I can remember. Even hugged and kissed." She shook her head. "But after Ephiny... After, it was just completely and utterly different."

"When did you...?" Iolaus trailed off again, not quite sure how to phrase his question. The ale had given him a mellow buzz, pleasantly separating him from some of his inhibitions without affecting his thought processes very much. It was enough to make him want to satisfy his curiosity - and the thought of Xena and Gabrielle together made him intensely (achingly, in fact) curious - but not so drunk that he was in danger of losing control of his actions.

"Not for a long time," she replied, to his great surprise. "First Xena died - that was the time you found me taking her body home, if you remember - and then I had to deal with a revolution among the Amazons. Velaska tried to take the queenship after killing Melosa - who was the old queen, not to mention her adoptive mother. After she became a goddess, it got even more complicated."

Iolaus’ eyes widened. "If I didn’t travel with Herc, I don’t think I’d believe you."

"Haven’t I told you that story?" Gabrielle asked, looking at his shocked expression in wonder. "I guess not. Remind me to tell you later. I want to get this off my chest first." As though echoing her words, she thrust her pert breasts out proudly, grinning happily as a passing black-haired beauty "accidentally" brushed against them.

For a moment it looked like she was going to get up and follow the woman, but she restrained herself. A slightly disappointed look crossed both women’s features as Gabrielle remained in her seat. "Where was I? Oh yes, Xena’s return from death. Anyway, we had a few more adventures, but we were still uncertain how we felt about each other, so we did nothing. Then we ran into Ulysses."

"King of Ithaca, right? I’ve heard other bards telling that story."

Gabrielle snorted in disgust. "Next time I see Orion I’m gonna smack him in the head. He made that lying son of a bacchae sound like a hero, when in reality he isn’t worth a bag of stale centaur poop. Ulysses really threw things off for us. The ’great wanderer,’" the contempt in her voices was as obvious as her sneer, "reeled Xena in with honeyed talk about wanting just to get home, and how tired he was of all the fighting he’d had to do, and all his suffering, and how he wanted to return to be with his wife and people even though they weren’t faithful to him." Snorting again, she gave her assessment. "Pure unadulterated crap. Every word."

Her face twisted. "Of course, Xena bought his sob story hook, line, and sinker. Even after we got him back home and found out that his wife and people had remained faithful to him, she still believed he was some great and noble hero - even after he wanted her to stick around to be a ’military advisor,’" her mocking bark of laughter showed her opinion of that offer, "Even after he announced he was willing to abandon all those responsibilities - and the wife - he was so devoted to, just so he could traipse along after her. Yeah, he’s a real great and devoted hero," she sneered.

Iolaus wisely remained silent, and after a moment, Gabrielle’s shadowed expression lightened perceptibly.

Laughing slightly, Gabrielle tried to make light of the matter. "It’s... still a bit of a tender subject actually."

"So I see," Iolaus softly replied, keeping his voice quiet and understanding.

"That was just the beginning, though. One thing after another came up, Britannia, Ch’in, that whole dragging behind her horse thing, poisoning... it took a very long time before we really got together. Even after we were reconciled, after everything we’d said and done to each other, she still had this silly notion that I was this naïve innocent lusting after sweet-faced stable boys. And I was just as sure she only wanted to be my friend and couldn’t possibly want anything to do with me sexually."

His courage fortified with copious amounts of ale, Iolaus had to ask, "So what happened? What changed your minds?"

"She walked in on me and Ephiny."

Iolaus snorted on his ale again. He frantically began blowing his nose, trying to clear the foam from his nasal passages.

"Well, you asked," Gabrielle shrugged helplessly as she watched him struggle for breath. "I don’t think Ephiny even noticed her come in to the hut, but Xena just sort of stared at me - and at the harness I was wearing, and what Ephiny was doing, and what I was doing to Ephiny, and then she just walked out without saying a word."

Her eyes losing their focus, the bard’s voice dropped in volume as she drifted into her memories of the past. "In fact, she didn’t say anything to me beyond grunts for almost a week. We’d left the Amazons and were almost halfway to Corinth before she said anything at all. She’d just... stare at me, her eyes shadowed like she was thinking really hard, then she’d look away when she noticed I’d seen her watching me."

"And?" Iolaus prodded.

"One night after I’d fallen asleep, she jumped me, tied me to a tree so that I couldn’t get away, and we... we um, we had a little talk." Even now, the intensity of the moment was enough to make the bard’s face glow with pleasure at the memory. "We worked some things out, and really talked - how we felt, what we liked... everything. We ended up camping there for almost a week, just getting to know each other all over again, and we’ve been together ever since."

Iolaus nodded, his face contemplative. Gabrielle really had grown up since they’d last talked. She’d become a confident, mature woman, her sexual poise and assertiveness the least of the changes. He’d missed her obvious emotional and psychological maturation, seeing only the physical changes when they’d gotten together over the years. For a moment he mourned the innocent girl he’d known, but he took comfort in how well she’d matured. How well? he snorted silently as that thought. He felt like a feeble old man by comparison to the vivacious and intensely alive young woman.

"And that’s how we got to where we are today," Gabrielle concluded happily, leaning back in her chair.

Simply nodding, Iolaus silently digested her story, marvelling at the strength of the woman forged from the young innocent he’d first met so long ago.

"But all that was in the past. Let’s deal with your present problem," the bard changed subjects blithely.

"My problem?" Iolaus asked uncertainly.

"Sure. This festival thing? Remember?"

"How could I forget?" the short man asked rhetorically, shifting uneasily in his chair.

"Relax. I’m a bard," Gabrielle smirked.

"And that helps me... how?" he wondered aloud.

"Are you kidding? Why do you think people become bards in the first place?"

Shrugging at the odd question, Iolaus responded as though she were feeble, "To tell stories?" raising his eyebrow on the last syllable.

Gabrielle snorted. "Right. You believe that propaganda? They really become bards to pick up women."

"Did I hear her right?" he wondered silently.

"Yup," the bard smirked at his obvious confusion, "and let me tell you, those classes have the best attendance records of all at the entire Academy in Athens."

"You’re kidding me," Iolaus abruptly realized, shaking his head in disbelief.

"Well, maybe a little," Gabrielle snickered, winking and nudging him with her elbow. "They don’t have actual classes in it, but nine-tenths of the subject of conversation there is about sex. All those young men with their raging hormones... It’s a wonder any of them ever learn any stories other than ’Zeus and the Rape of Leda,’ ’Zeus and the Rape of Callisto,’ ’Hera and the Rape of Callisto,’ ’Ares and the Chicken,’ ’Apollo and the Rape of...’ but you get the idea.

"There’s actually a bit of a problem with that - you know, with bards and sex. After all, bards wander around the countryside, show up in these little towns that rarely see strangers, telling exciting stories of action and adventure, carrying the aura of strange lands, warriors, princesses, and heroic journeys, able to spin words so sweetly... Farmers’ wives and daughters fall head over heels for it all the time."

"And you’re an expert, I suppose."

"Sure," she confessed with a wry grin. "I am a bard, after all. I learned everything they had to teach at the academy," she laughed, "but I didn’t teach them all that I knew. Anyway, those stories can wait," Gabrielle smiled, straightening in her chair, "you wanted some lessons and some help. Well, pull out your chair; kneel at the feet of the Queen."

"Funny," Iolaus mused softly to himself, "Nebula once told me almost the exact same thing."

"Did you do it?" Gabrielle asked curiously, her eyes alight with humor - and maybe something else.

"Well no," Iolaus denied. "Herc and I were chasing a hydra and..." he shrugged helplessly.

"Pity," the Amazon Queen sighed. Under her breath, she muttered something about "better with training," but he couldn’t quite hear her over the noise of the crowd. Raising her voice, Gabrielle began again. "Look, first lesson... know your audience. This is a fertility festival right? What does that mean?"

"I thought it meant it was going to be a nonstop orgy - and it seems to be that way. For everybody but me." Before Gabrielle’s revelations, there was no way in Tartarus he would have answered her like that, but still reeling from an overdose of her blunt truth, he automatically reciprocated in kind.

"No, no, no," Gabrielle scolded him gently. "It’s only that way on the trade routes and near the cities - where there are always lots of travellers. This is the back country. Here, it’s a way to get the young kids safely married off and maybe add a little new blood to the village." Shrugging, she amended herself, "While they’re having the orgy. The girls here are really husband hunting. They’re not going to choose a strange man to celebrate the festival with. More than likely the man will be gone in the morning - maybe leaving her with his child, and ruining her prospects for marriage."

Her gaze was hungry as it roved over the crowd, pausing here and there to look more closely at some of the more attractive women. Turning back to Iolaus, she gave her advice. "Wait ’til later," she suggested sagely, "after the local boys are drunk or asleep, and the women have already snagged their intended one once or twice. They’re liable to be more receptive to your offer."

Iolaus rolled his eyes. "Herc, I’m gonna strangle you when we get back."

Gabrielle shrugged. "It’s not so bad, really. If you notice, the other strangers in town are in the same boat you’re in."

Now that he looked carefully, he realized she was right. A few caravan guards and merchants were clustered at a back table, seemingly oblivious to the raucous crowd surrounding them and being ignored by the locals in turn. He’d been so wrapped up in his own misery that he’d completely missed his fellow sufferers. "So how come you’re so popular? You’re strange too."

"You have no idea how strange I really am," she purred enticingly. Leaning back in her chair, Gabrielle posed seductively for a moment, then burst out laughing, breaking the sudden tension. "Yeah, but I’m a safe stranger. I can’t get a woman pregnant, and I’ll be gone before very long, so there’s no danger of a potentially embarrassing relationship. No lasting impacts, I’m exotic, and have the allure of adventure - all the things the bards have going for them, plus, it’s the festival. The girls want to have a good time, but they don’t want to risk ruining their future. We have a good time together, than we both move on, everybody’s happy. Like I said - I’m safe."

She snickered. "And, if the man she has her eye on happens to see us together... frankly, you’d be amazed how much the idea seems to turn most of them on. If not, he’s liable to marry her just to make sure she isn’t ’corrupted’ by my wiles," she shrugged again.

Snickering, she added, "You should see what happens when I wear my Amazon Queen getup. Women fall all over themselves trying to get me into bed with them. Men do, too. Xena claims it’s just the leather, but," she snickered again, "I don’t know... I’ve actually recruited a couple new members for the Nation that way, but I don’t do it very often, and never in such a crowd. Gossip lingers and stories travel, and the Amazon Nation has a bad enough reputation as it is without adding ’seducing innocent daughters away’ to it."

Iolaus sighed as Gabrielle’s knowledgeable advice poured over him. He was beginning to feel old and slow, and more than a little drunk, but Gabrielle’s happy bounce showed no sign of ebbing. Maybe he’d just go to bed early and let Gabrielle finish seducing the rest of the women in this town - if he could sleep with all the noise, that is. "I think I’ll just turn in," the hunter finally said, finishing his ale. "I’m tired."

Gabrielle stared into his eyes, hearing his discontent and his true feelings in his tone of voice, and quickly reached a decision. "Have another drink," she told him, a clear note of command entering her voice, "and wait right here."

The hunter opened his mouth to protest, but a cold look from Gabrielle kept him mute. He reluctantly nodded his agreement, and turned to signal the waitress for another round. When he turned back to face Gabrielle, she was gone. Sighing, he paid for their drinks and sat back to nurse his ale. The tips of his ears were beginning to feel numb, and that was a sure sign he was well over his limit.

Leaning back in his chair he tried to relax, despite his painful arousal, limited options, and depressed state. Herc and Xena were probably snuggled together making like a couple of rabbits in a cave somewhere, and he couldn’t even get lucky in the middle of a furkin’ fertility festival! At least the ale was good. And cheap. Sighing, he drank some more. Maybe if he just got drunk enough he wouldn’t care that no woman wanted him. Maybe.

"Iolaus?" Gabrielle’s voice interrupted his dark musings and returned him to the present. "This is Medea," she said, introducing the tall, black-haired woman who had brushed against her breast earlier. "We’ve talked, and she’s decided to help me take care of your problem."

Sighing, Iolaus set aside his drink. Reduced to accepting offerings of charity from Gabrielle... I really am getting old and feeble. "It’s okay, Gabrielle, really. I guess I’m just not in the mood."

Gabrielle’s eyes narrowed, and something about her shifted. "Oh, really...?" she drawled.

Medea stared at her, eyes widening as she noted the difference, then smiled in delighted happiness, reassured that her decision to approach the delicious little redhead had been the right one.

For his part, Iolaus couldn’t stop staring. He’d known Gabrielle had changed; known it intellectually anyway, but until now, he hadn’t truly accepted that fact viscerally. Confronted by the irritated woman as she was now, he couldn’t help but accept the idea.

An aura seemed to burn around Gabrielle’s muscular frame, invisible yet palpably radiating powerfully from her. It had a little of Xena’s restrained menace about it, and some of the regal arrogance that kings and queens possessed, along with the self-confidence of a seasoned warrior. As if that combination weren’t striking enough, it was also laced with a bit of the sensual fire that emanated from statues of Aphrodite, melded with the supple pride of the Amazon warriors of Artemis - and even a hint of the aloof, subdued power that had so characterized his one encounter with the Amazons’ goddess. She was absolutely breathtaking, and as she glared down at him, he was wholly awestruck.

The people around them felt the change in the atmosphere, even if they didn’t consciously recognize it, and automatically backed away from the silent confrontation to give the short woman room. This was not the naïve girl of her youth - this was the Amazon Queen, the Chosen of Artemis, the travelling companion of the Destroyer of Nations... She was a force of nature made flesh, forged in the heat of battle, travel, and suffering, and mere words couldn't begin to adequately describe her presence.

Iolaus was rocked by the power of her gaze, feeling all but helpless as he swayed in the hot wind of her disapproval as it swept over him. Before her majesty, he couldn’t help but feel the urge to submit, despite their long history together.

Gabrielle stalked forward, her movements graceful and burning with barely restrained power, until she stood directly before him, resplendent in all her glory. Reaching down, she gripped him tightly through the leather of his pants, feeling the state of his erection while stroking it with knowing fingers. "’Not in the mood?’" she mocked his words, "I think you are. Now, you are going to stand up and walk out of here with me and Medea. Then, you are going to spend the rest of the night celebrating the festival with us, until either I tell you that you can leave, or you collapse from exhaustion. Do you understand me or do I need to get some rope - or a whip?"

"I’ll come with you... my queen," Iolaus slowly responded, rising to his feet.

"Good," the Amazon Queen replied firmly, her aura losing some of its edgy menace. "Then attend me," she ordered, turning and stalking from the tavern, staff in hand.

Medea happily followed in her wake, shivering with excitement and anticipation.

Iolaus hurried after them, abandoning his drink in his rush to follow. Maybe this festival wouldn’t turn out too bad after all, he mused, eager excitement coursing through his veins.

The End

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