"I do, Iolaus, with all my heart." and Gabrielle smiled when realizing what she was saying was completely true, debt to a war god or not. She then took in his thoughtful manner and, instinctively, pressed herself boldly against him, "Can you blame me?"
His expression lightened and Iolaus couldn't help the chuckle which escaped him. It was intriguing. But Gabrielle? They had an unstated mutual understanding and respect for each other and, admittedly, an attraction but she was just a girl... Okay, yeah, a well proportioned girl whose smile could melt ice and whose eyes were so fetching I could get lost in them very easily and...
Again, sensing Iolaus hesitation and abruptly wondering if there was any interest there at all, Gabrielle leaned in and gently began to kiss his temple and cheek. Then, a bit more daring, feeling the need to show him she wasn't completely untaught, Gabrielle nibbled on his earlobe and gently flicked her tongue where she thought it might do the most good.
He pulled her back a bit, "Gabrielle..." Iolaus was weakening rapidly. But he had to be the voice of sense here. "I just don't think ..."
"I'm not a kid anymore, Iolaus." she stated abruptly, seriously.
No, he realized. She wasn't. Iolaus began to warm to the idea. Gabrielle knew her own mind. She wasn't a child anymore -- and besides, she was anxious and offering herself in such a good-natured way. And he liked her a lot. Always had. From that first probing question in Falafel's souvenir tent to that time, much later, when he found her alone and depressed; needing a compassionate friend...
He lifted a hand to cup her face. Was this a mistake? Closing his eyes, Iolaus moved slowly in on Gabrielle and they kissed tenderly on the lips, unaware of the few curious passerby's who glanced at one another and smiled at what they judged were two unsuspecting lovers taking a moment for themselves. Iolaus noted how different her reaction to this kiss was from their first. Full bodied and tremulous, her lips moved beneath his. Her instincts were top notch, Iolaus thought.
While he spoke with Trecherius, confirming already discussed plans, Ares told Discord to leave them. Iolaus and Gabrielle were one thing and he could use her instincts and limited assistance with them but this business, between men of ambition, was none of her affair. She was an enterprising goddess ... and not to be trusted.
Discord was annoyed and turned acrimoniously. "Fine Ares, I'll go and do what I do best," and she faded from sight. She hated to be cut out of something so potentially important, even if she didn't know exactly what it was.
Distracted, Ares didn't know Discord was up to something until it was too late.Yet he knew, the moment he and Trecherius witnessed the goon pull a knife on Iolaus and Gabrielle, it was the work of his impetuous sibling.
"What's this?" Trecherius had asked, his dark eyes narrowing with concern as he watched the scene taking place. Talking quickly, damning the fact that he needed this man, Ares explained - with verve - what their next move would be.
Trecherius was impressed. Ares managed to save the moment. More importantly, he saved face. Approving of what The God of War had in mind for his kingdom and the land he hoped to conquer, Trecherius left the temple to speak with his soldiers, giving them instruction.
Calmly, Ares approached Discord, who had returned, as she watch the kissing couple through the portal, "A thug? That was the best you could do?"
"No," Discord huffed, disenchanted and child-like, turning from the screen. "Just what I thought would work. And it did. It gave the little Amazon trollop an excuse to tell him she wanted him." Discord ran long nailed fingers through her own dark hair, "You did want them to get on with this, didn't you? That bone you mentioned, Ares?"
He smiled deceptively then roughly took Discord's jaw between his fingers, "Press me, sweetheart, and I'll have you working a detail in Tartarus. Don't think I can't." he threatened, releasing her. Damn Discord. She could have ruined everything! He watched the spoilt young goddess move irritably away.
He smiled. As it turned out, she had done well. He might even tell her that some day.
Gabrielle was shocked by her own desire. Yes, it had been awhile but - despite what her mind advised - her heart and the hot fire-blood coursing through her veins told another story. She wanted Iolaus desperately and knew she should be revolted by the circumstances. But somehow this room, an inn they found in a roudier part of town, his presence and the fact that what she was doing was wrong... Evil, evil child. She nearly spoke aloud as he held her in his arms. "Iolaus..."
His breath was sweet and his movements deceptively calm and practiced. Iolaus was being so considerate, not rushing them although his own heated appetite was nearing a bursting point. Gabrielle was pleased by that. Despite the initial trepidation she sensed in Iolaus, she was able to arouse him. His touch, loving and sincere, gave her time to admire the golden sheen of his hair, the burnished flesh of his incredible body, those earthy-handsome features...and his technique. The things he was doing; the way Iolaus touched her and stimulated her...
Perdicus. Gabrielle thought of him suddenly as Iolaus loved her. Why hadn't her time with him, her beloved husband of an oh so short period of time, been like this? It hadn't. Not even close.
Later, breathing heavily as they gently lay together, Iolaus touched her face and smiled down at her, pushing some strands of damp hair from Gabrielle's lovely face...kissing her delicately.
"You are so..." he started but couldn't continue. She was kissing him again. Then, with a gentle shift, Gabrielle parted from Iolaus.
Looking up at her lover, appearing to have discovered something sacred, she whispered, "Iolaus, I've never..." she gulped, trying to make him comprehend, "I've never had that happen before...I mean, that feeling...I've never..."
Astounded, he held her more snugly to him. She didn't have to say more. He understood what it was Gabrielle was trying to say without actually saying it. She had never experienced that moment of ultimate fulfillment before. Perdicus might have been a good man, would have been a great husband and father if he had lived -- but he was still a boy in many ways, despite his outward soldier-worldly ways. He didn't know how to pleasure a woman. In time he would have surely learned yet Gabrielle had loved him and loved being loved by her husband despite the incompleteness of their unions.
Iolaus closed his eyes as he thought it through. She was still a girl in so many ways and, when one thought about it, he had unintentionally been her first true lover. Iolaus felt both guilt - that it was he who'd opened this realization in Gabrielle (a rather awesome responsibility to his way of thinking) - and pleased. Gabrielle would remember this moment and he - Iolaus - for the rest of her life, He wanted to be remembered by Gabrielle.
But he also wanted more, even if he didn't what it was yet.
"Is that something only you can do?" she asked timidly, only half joking - feeling a little foolish. Gabrielle realized her naiveté was showing through when his smile widened.
Iolaus couldn't prevent the laugh, "If only that were true ..." he murmured and giggled, looking over at her. She joined him. His manner, so dreamy and heartfelt, warmed her.
Gabrielle bit her lower lip then: "Iolaus ..." Again, that charming self-consciousness, "... can we do it again?" she asked. Before he could reply she had wriggled her way atop of him, "I dare you to say no ..." She teased, her long hair brushing against his chest and firm fingertips expertly tickled him.
"Stop that!" Iolaus cried throatily, grasping her hands and chuckling. But already he could feel himself responding to her touch -- feeling an over-whelming warmth for this young woman. How long had it been since he felt authentic love, not just desire? Did he really know the difference anymore?
Images of women he'd known flashed briefly through Iolaus mind. Beautiful women. Cruel women. Regina, Cynea and Xena... Why suddenly did he think of them while looking at this beautiful sweet-souled girl? She wasn't like them. They had used him.
Xena. He thought he'd vanquished her betrayal from his heart but it would always be there no matter how much she changed or how good a friend she'd become. He'd lost himself so completely with Xena. A hot, passionate, unreal love... Possibly Iolaus' biggest regret. Even now it distressed him to think Xena had nearly cost him his friendship with Hercules. But that was all in the past...
Gabrielle kissed his cheeks and moved over to his ear to gently nibble the lobe. "I want to be in charge this time." She whispered, "Can you be patient with me, Iolaus?"
He grinned again, snapping back to the present. He had thought she would need teaching but Iolaus had the strangest feeling that it was he who was being taught. "You are a wonder, my darling bard..." A hand lifted to touch Gabrielle's hair and trail fingertips over a cheek. So lovely. So pure of heart. "Do what you will ..." and then he fell dramatically back, as if slain. "I'm yours!"
"Oh, little girl..." Discord smiled, "She wants more ..." She glanced at Ares who didn't seem very pleased. As a matter of fact, he appeared annoyed. "What's the matter? I thought they did pretty good. Maybe a little dull. No toys or anything but ..."
Trecherius and his men had left, positioning themselves for a confrontation. Ares would follow but not participate. Trecherius watched Iolaus and Gabrielle making love through Ares portal and was pleased at what The God of War was able to show. The ruling committee and court would have no choice but to see things his way once they were given the evidence he produced. And none other than Ares himself would be there to back him up. The Counsillor-Lord and his men stomped out of the temple, anticipating unfathomable power.
Ares continued to watch the couple - "Why again?" He spoke, almost gloomily. "She knows this isn't going to count. Gabrielle has to get him in a different area, away from the inn, for it to count so why is she wasting time?"
Their attention was diverted by the girl's excited gasp, a male groan, and the impassioned call of her lover's name.
Ares was far more annoyed with himself than the actual act of passion between the man and woman. This was a good thing, really. He and Trecherius had more than enough now to bring down the current rulers of Temptius but Ares still felt unaccountably disturbed. He turned away from the image before him and looked at his hands.
Discord almost laughed, "I think the little Amazon has forgotten that you're watching Ares and, for now, about the debt. She's having too much fun... the little tramp." She turned away from Ares and walked confidently to an exit, "It's always the innocent looking ones." she murmured before disappearing in a flash of light.
The God of War, without knowing exactly why, suddenly felt an unequaled urge to destroy Discord.
Out of the Fire...
They dozed -- for too long.
"Gabrielle, wake up." Iolaus was already into his pants, boots and gauntlets. He was now looking for his vest, which had been tossed across the room, "Hercules is probably going out of his mind searching for us." he said, urgently.
She sat up in bed, dazed, and pulling the coverlet over her. Visually, Gabrielle searched for her own clothes, "How long have we been here?"
"About three hours. It's suppertime. I heard a bell-ringer toll it outside." Iolaus found her skirt and halftop. He pitched them at her.
Slightly groggy, Gabrielle struggled into her clothes, "What do we tell Hercules when he asks us where we've been?"
Slipping the string attached to his black amulet over his head, Iolaus said - "He probably won't."
"He knows me and it's sometimes better not to ask."
"But would he think I...?"
She dressed quickly then raked slender fingers through her blond hair. She spotted her staff leaning against a rickety chair. 'When did I put it there?' she wondered. Mentally shrugging, Gabrielle picked it up and looked at Iolaus, "Ready." She took a quick breath and moved to the door.
Just before it was opened Iolaus, almost apologetically, grasped her arm and met Gabrielle's eyes. "Hey..." His anxiousness had momentarily made him lose sight of the incredible encounter they both had just shared. He pulled her a bit closer to him. "You're really wonderful. I want you to know that." Iolaus spoke softly and sincerely.
These words weren't enough, he knew. This wasn't just a quick, passionate tryst. He'd been with other women where this statement might seem appropriate but Gabrielle was different. He was so moved by her and what they had experienced together. He hoped she understood that he didn't think of this as only one of many forgettable rendezvous. He leaned forward and gently kissed her on the forehead. "I'll never forget this, Gabrielle." he swore.
"Neither will I." she said tenderly; a little sadly. Oh, but you will. You will forget everything, Iolaus. I'm so sorry.
He sat to the back of the tavern, his half-mug of watered down ale barely touched. Exhaustion creased the demigod's normally bright and well focused eyes. He came to Bantius for fun and relaxation but ended up in the middle of a battle. A war of words between two insistent mothers who absolutely refused to believe their little darlings were not chosen "Most Beautiful Baby".
Hercules passed on them, not because they weren't cute tikes - all the children were - but because he saw something in the little blue-eyed girl with the whispy blond hair and serene expression that out-shined all of the other children. In truth, the baby reminded him of his own daughter, Ilea. Perhaps it wasn't fair but all his pleas to make each baby a winner fell on deaf ears. Hercules had to make a choice and she was it.
He stretched in his chair. Iolaus and Gabrielle were late. Hercules rather expected it. Iolaus had trouble with that sort of thing. There had been meager hope Gabrielle might keep him focused but the hunter could be a little overwhelming when it came to fun. Besides, he doubted all their energies were centered on the festival. Romance was a real possibility between these two. Hercules didn't know how far it would go but suspected there might be a little heat generated once they were left alone.
Then he saw the couple enter through the front tavern doors. Iolaus was holding Gabrielle's arm and whispered something into her ear. She leaned onto her staff, amused by what he said, and laughed. Both seemed energized and in a good mood. Hercules could speculate as to the reason but decided against it.
Iolaus, when spotting his friend, lifted a hand and waved. He and Gabrielle then made their way through the somewhat rambunctious crowd and over to the table.
"We're starved, what's to eat?" Iolaus plopped down in a chair across from his friend. Hercules smiled. Yeah, this was Iolaus. No doubt there. "Bread and venison will be here soon."
Still standing, Gabrielle, leaned her Amazon staff against the wooden table, "I'll go get us something to drink." she told Iolaus and nodded graciously at Hercules before she turned to go to the bar.
Both men watched her move across the floor, Hercules noting Iolaus' enchantment. "She's so special." the hunter murmured earnestly, not aware he'd spoken aloud.
"Yes, she is," Hercules agreed and couldn't prevent a teasing smile when Iolaus eventually looked him in the eye. "I noticed that a long time ago."
Clearing his throat, Iolaus immediately changed the subject, "How did it go?" he asked, referring to the babies, and laughed when Hercules rolled his eyes and slumped dramatically back in his chair, "I guess I shouldn't have asked."
"I don't think I'm going to forgive you for abandoning me, Iolaus. You and Gabrielle had better have had fun."
The hunter paused only briefly, revealing nothing he didn't want brought out into the open. "The festival's great but we had a run in with a not so friendly villager." He pulled the decorative knife from his waist-band and laid it on the table in front of Hercules. "Threatened us with this. What do you think?"
"I thought so too. He probably stole it."
"Maybe." Hercules turned the knife over and saw something that made him start - "Uh, oh."
"What is it?" Returning with two ales, placing one in front of Iolaus, Gabrielle leaned forward to look at the dagger. With purpose, Hercules lifted it so both friends could see, "Ares." Hercules pointed at the design etched into the blade handle, "His crest."
"A follower of Ares? Here?" Then Iolaus shrugged, and leaned back in his chair. "Oh, why do I bother wondering? You're here and Ares has followers near and far."
"But he didn't attack me this time. It was you two. I wonder why?"
Gabrielle sat silently for a time beside Iolaus, her fingers rigidly clutching the handle of her ale mug. Then, "Well, Ares is Ares." She said a bit too flippant, "Does he really need a reason for what he does?"
Hercules stared at her for a moment, "Whatever's going on I better check it out." Pointedly, he stopped speaking as their food was being delivered to the table. Then, when a pretty red-haired tavern maid turned to leave - giving the handsome demigod a suggestive wink as she made an about face - Hercules continued, "Ares closest temple is in Ditea. That's not too far away from here ..."
"Don't you think you're over-reacting a little?' It was Gabrielle that spoke, looking nervously up from her as yet untouched bread and venison. "I mean, Ares has followers. Lots of them. Does it have to mean he's up to no good just because one of them happened to take a swipe at us, Hercules?"
Iolaus took a drink from his mug and nodded, "She has a point, Herc. It could just be a coincidence. Besides, the festival is just getting started. We can keep an eye on things and still have a good time."
The demigod nodded, "You two stick around and I'll go on my own. If it's nothing I'll be back in a few days."
Iolaus sighed and gave his friend a tired look - "Right and if it is something I'll feel like a jerk - especially if you get hurt.'" Iolaus shook his head 'no' - "I'm going too."
Gabrielle looked from one man to the other. She wanted to say something, anything that would make them change their minds but if these two heroes were anything like Xena there simply were no words. They were as stubborn as her best friend.
"That makes it three." she said and bit thoughtfully into a biscuit.
Later, that evening ...
She immediately knew who it was the moment she heard the gentle knock. Gabrielle suspected he might stop by and honestly hoped he would. She opened the door and he instantly came into her arms, holding her close. With a gentle push, she closed the door and held him tightly, "I crossed my fingers..." Gabrielle whispered over his shoulder. "What did you say to Hercules?"
Iolaus pulled back slightly and softly rubbed his nose against her own - "Told him I wanted to say goodnight to you."
"You mean good morning." She giggled, lightly.
He joined her for a moment, his thoughts mingling with her own. "Actually, I want to talk with you." Iolaus expression grew serious and he loosened his hold on her. "Something's on my mind.'
For a fleeting moment Gabrielle felt dread, "Did I do something?"
"No .. Well, yeah. But it's not about you. Or it is but ... "
Try as she might Gabrielle couldn't prevent an amused smile. Could anyone but Iolaus sound so confused but have such purpose at the same time?
He leaned forward.
For a moment Gabrielle thought he was going to kiss her but instead Iolaus merely touched her forehead with his own and spoke softly. "I ..." He stopped again.
"You do want to say something to me, don't you?"
"I'm a bard. I can tell." She chuckled gently and felt a movement that told her he was doing the same, "Don't be afraid, Iolaus. You can tell me anything." she prompted.
He took a short breath, feeling unexpectedly comfortable despite what was on his mind. "What we did today ..." Iolaus closed his eyes, "It wasn't right."
She tensed, her forehead still against his, saying nothing.
"An honorable man doesn't take a proper young lady to a shabby room to make love." Gabrielle relaxed and inhaled gently.
"You've been feeling guilt." she summed up.
"Yeah." His eyes opened.
She pondered for a moment then spoke, telling him what was in her heart - "It was beautiful, Iolaus. Maybe we didn't sleep together under the best circumstances but it was lovely - and if you're thinking that the location cheapened the experience you're wrong." Then, a little warily, "Unless you think it made me seem ...?"
"No." he spoke instantly, "No, no."
"Then," She raised her head, fingers lifting to touch his chin, and smiled. Once again she looked into his soulful, searching eyes, "know it was one of the most magnificent experiences of my life. I have no regrets...and neither should you."
He knew what she was saying was in earnest but there was something more. She had to know how he felt about her. "What I'm trying to say, Gabrielle, is..."
"You respect me? Is that it?"
'Yes, but more.' Still, it was a start. For now, it would do. He nodded once. She allowed him to take her in his arms and they hugged affectionately. A careless thought entered into the bard's head as he held her: This is a nice room. This is a respectible part of town. How does that make you feel, Iolaus?
It was as if he'd read her thoughts.
Gabrielle felt a hand rub very gently up and down her back, between shoulder blades and over the spine, partially touching the material of her green half-top and trailing down to stroke the smooth skin of her lower back. His touch held magic and she felt herself melt in his embrace. Her lips reached for his and she pressed herself close, closing her eyes and allowing herself to be saturated in passion.
The debt, the fact she was on the verge of paying off Ares, had nothing to do with this experience. It couldn't have been further from her mind. She wanted to feel the firm line of Iolaus' form against her own again. She needed his touch, those nearly poetic words, and for him to make her feel like a desired woman. To pacify that craving. Gabrielle ran her fingers through his hair as they kissed, her lips moving hungrily against his. Did he want her as much as she wanted him right now? That didn't seem possible.
"Gabrielle...Gabrielle..." he breathed her name, his lips trailing from her mouth to her temple, then to her neck. She was doing something to him, making him feel emotions no other woman ever had. Did she understand her power over men? Had she grasped her mastery over him?
Lost in sensuality, the bard slowly opened her eyes and was jolted by what she saw.
Ares! Standing behind Iolaus, leaning against the door, arms crossed over his massive chest. He was in a shadow but she could see him and he was smiling. No, not a gesture of acceptance but a smirk of approval.
She suddenly pulled away from her lover, "I'm sorry..." Gabrielle fumbled an apology. She wouldn't do this. Not now. Couldn't.
"What is it?' Iolaus asked, startled. He held her hands in his and searched for something in her expression. "Are you all right?"
Again, she looked past him but The God of War was gone. Or was he? Had he actually ever been there? "Iolaus...I need sleep. I'm so tired..." She couldn't meet his eyes, understanding how ridiculous it had to sound. Especially after her initial reaction to his touch. And she felt guilt. Horrible, intollerable guilt.
He almost asked Gabrielle if she was joking but there was a dread in her expression that made him pause. She appeared truly torn, nervous and...afraid? He wanted to understand, even help her, but it was obvious that the bard didn't want his aid at this time. Whatever was bothering her, perhaps everything that happened during the day, Gabrielle clearly needed to be alone with it. How could he have misread the signs? It hurt a little but Iolaus was gentleman enough to let it slide. With a nod, he took her jaw between his thumb and finger and gave Gabrielle a gentle kiss on the lips.
"Goodnight. Sleep well." he said and smiled to comfort before turning to leave.
"Goodnight." she whispered in return and regretfully watched Iolaus depart.
"I don't get it. Why did you do that?' Discord asked, a frown on her full lips. Scowl-lines marred an otherwise smooth forehead. "She was getting ready to score again."
"A little too fast." Ares muttered, his expression darkly thoughtful. "If she and hunter-boy did the mattress dance again tonight the bet would be paid in full. I can't have that quite yet. I need them both." He allowed a grin. "Maybe, in the process, I can also have Hercules done away with. It can't be by my hand ..."
Ares nodded to himself, cursing the rule that forbade gods from killing other gods. Zeus had extended that law to include Hercules as well, to both Hera and Ares' chargrin. "but this can work. I'll need help from Hephestus. He owes me..."
Discord grew excited. Ares was plotting and being devious. She had to know more - "So, you really don't want a pay off at all, do you? You want her to remain under obligation, is that it? And Iolaus?"
"Let's just say the two of them will be on the road with Hercules tomorrow -- and that's exactly as it should be. If the debt's paid too soon Xena's little friend might want to part company with her golden boy before I can make use of them. I can't have that. Not yet."
Discord did a double take, "And Hercules? You really want him involved?"
"Not originally but, thanks to the dagger, it's inevitable." He looked over at her, noting the ambivalent silence. Discord hadn't meant to leave her dagger with Iolaus but it was unavoidable ... and useful. Now Trecherius' men wouldn't have to tear Bantius apart looking for the bard and hunter. They were coming to him and would be dealt with. Hercules was both a deterent and bonus.
Discord exhaled in frustration, "Ares, what aren't you telling me? I demand to know!"
"Demand, Discord?" Ares looked hard at his sibling.
"Only because I want to serve you better." she tossed in, gritting her teeth.
"I have plans for the girl, Discord." Unimpressed, Ares said, "Be patient. All will soon be revealed." Then he added quickly before she could interrupt, "It's nothing you need know about until I'm ready to tell you. Now, why don't you go off somewhere and do mayhem. Crete has been quiet lately. Do something there."
"You're dismissing me?" she challenged, petulantly.
"Sounds that way, doesn't it?" He closed his eyes, leaning his head back against the padding of the throne.
The petite but deadly goddess hesitated and tightly clenched her teeth together. She then turned on her spiked heel and exited the room. Yes, she'd go somewhere. Ares couldn't just push her aside and think it wouldn't have repercussions. She'd get him and that cute little human Amazon-princess he was so obviously enamored with!
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