saga/title/fandom: Love and Mischief Saga: Seeking Balance chapter 1 (Hercules/Xena)

author: Scribe

rating/genre:(NC-17) - Comedy/Romance/Drama

warnings: slash, sexual content, language, male pregnancy

summary: This story begins before the events of Cupid's Little Helper. An offshoot of the Love and Mischief Series. (Ares/Joxer)

comments/disclaimers: I did not create the characters here, I don't own them. I derive no profit from this effort. I mean nothing but respect for the creators, owners, and the actors and actresses who portray them. Archive? Yes, but tell me where.Notes: I love writing Cupid/Strife. I do a lot of it. I've only done Ares/Joxer as peripheral to the Love and Mischief Series, and one song fic. I feel like I'm neglecting the boys, and thought that since I had made it clear in Cupid's Little Helper and Tha Birds, an' Tha Bees, an' All That Othah Good Shit that Ares and Joxer were a couple, and had a child, that it would be only logical to tell THEIR story, too. So here goes. This story begins before the events of Cupid's Little Helper, and will most likely cover some of that ground from a different perspective. F'rinstance, what was it like when Cupid gave Ares a glimpse of the agony that Strife had gone through? We'll see. Ares and Joxer are together in my Love and Mischief series, and a few readers expressed curiosity in their back-story, so here it is. I'm not up on the finer points of hydras, so here's my personal take on them. They are large creatures, usually larger than an elephant when fully grown, and they resemble a legless, three-headed dragon. Their body scales are incredibly thick and tough, thinning and becoming a little more fragile up the necks. If one head is cut off, two will grow in its place. The only way to kill them is by destroying the brains, WITHOUT cutting off the heads. Also the blood is like poisonous acid. and

Chapter 1: Unexpected Savior

*Trust my brother to be able to find a hydra, even in this wilderness,* thought Ares. *And now he has to go and try to kill it. Damn, what is his problem? Sure, it's eaten a few sheep and cattle, but its a PREDATOR, damn it. If those idiot shepherds hadn't decided to start pasturing their livestock in this mountain meadow, it would have gone on feeding on rabbits and moles. If you go ahead and present it with creatures that are bigger, tastier, and easier to catch than its natural prey, of COURSE it's going to go for them. And it wouldn't have eaten that shepherd if he'd had enough sense to run away instead of trying to get that lamb back.*

The meadow was a good way up a mountainside. *Grazing must be getting scanty in the surrounding valleys and flatlands. I'll have to have a talk with Demeter. Maybe I ought to have a small war in the area--thin the population out a little.* Ares settled back against the cliffside behind him. This particular meadow was almost enclosed by cliffs. It was sheltered from harsh winds, but it still caught a lot of sun. Thus the grass was lush--that was what had attracted the shepherds. Unfortunately the thick grass, providing an abundance of seeds, and the berry bushes that ran around the sides of the meadow, also attracted a lot of small game--the natural prey of the hydra. With a warm, dry, good-sized cave for shelter, it was inevitable that a predator would move in. It was just bad luck for the shepherds that this particular predator was big, scaly, toothy, and had three heads, and a bad attitude.

Ares, invisible, was sitting on a rock that projected above the entrance to the hydra's cavern. It wasn't all that high up, no more than eight or nine feet, but he figured he'd be out of the way, and still have a good view of the battle. Hercules had just arrived at the meadow, followed by a knot of mortals. *Fools,* thought Ares. *He MIGHT be killed, you idiots, and if he is that damn tri-headed snake will be burping for a month after gorging on you.* Then he took a closer look at the mortals, and sighed.

*I might have known. It's the entire Freaky Foursome, with that idiotic tagalong in the junk armor. I can understand Hercules asking Xena along, but what possessed him to bring the others? Iolaus might do a little damage with his arrows if he hangs back, but Gabrielle's staff won't be worth shit... unless the hydra uses it as a toothpick after he eats her.* Ares had to stop a second and smile at this mental image. *And that other one... What's his name? He's always praying to me to be a better warrior. Tartarus, that's a laudable ambition, but you have to have SOMETHING to work with. Anyway, the only use I can think of for him in this sort of battle would be if Hercules used him as bait, and that's way too practical for Baby Brother.*

The five stopped at the edge of the meadow, across from the cave entrance, and huddled. Ares noticed that Joxer was on the outside, as the other four put their heads together. He moved around them, looking for a space to wedge in, but every time he approached, someone would shift, closing him out. He hopped a few times, armor clanking, trying to look into the huddle, and Ares shook his head. The image of the lanky figure, draped in castoff armor, standing on tiptoe in an effort to be included, gave him an odd, fleeting feeling. It came and went so quickly that he couldn't identify it. *Of course they're shutting him out. He's more likely to get them killed than help them win, and he's even MORE likely to get HIMSELF killed. They'll tell him to hang back.*

The knot of plotters loosened. "It's agreed then. Xena and I will flank the entrance. Iolaus, you'll fire a few arrows into the cave to lure it out. Gabby, you get those things around their necks." The bard had opened a sack and withdrawn a pair of curious looking weapons. Each consisted of two balls--one at each end of a section of rope. Ares recognized the form, but usually the balls were studded with spikes. *Shit. Is she such a peace monger that she doesn't want to cause excess pain to what she sees as a man-eating monster?*

"Xena, I know how effective that chakram is, but remember--if you cut off one head, two will grow in its place."

Xena, quite rightly in Ares' opinion, scowled at Hercules. "You don't have to spoon feed me, Hercules. I've known that since before I picked up my first training sword."

*You tell him, Xena. I don't much mind if it eats the others, but I suppose I'll have to save you, if things get hairy. Wouldn't look right to let one of my own kids get eaten--not if I could prevent it.*

"What about me?" The other four heroes looked at Joxer. "I know! I go right in, make a frontal attack! While it's concentrating on me, Herc and Xena come in from the side, and we finish it off."

Hercules put a hand on Joxer's shoulder, and Ares saw the slender man's knees bend slightly from the pressure. "No, Joxer. We need you to do something very important." Joxer's expression brightened with pleasure. It fell as Hercules said, "We need you to stay back here and make sure that none of the shepherds come into harm's way."

"Oh." His disappointment was evident in that one syllable. Joxer cleared his throat and said, "And if it gets past you, I'll be here to take care of it before it can escape."

"Um, right."

They positioned themselves. Iolaus and Gabrielle went almost to the center of the meadow while Hercules and Xena walked along the perimeter till the were on either side of the cave's entrance, close against the side of the cliff. Hercules drew on a pair of thick gloves. *Hm,* thought Ares. *He's had those bound with wire. If he has to tangle with the hydra, the jagged scales won't cut him. Damn, if he keeps this up I may have to admit he isn't a total fool.* Xena took her chakram off her belt, flexing her arms like a javelin thrower, warming up. Gabrielle had one of the bolos dangling from each hand, swinging slowly back and forth. Iolaus checked an arrow, then notched it in his bow. Joxer drew a sword that would have been melted down as scrap by any self-respecting weapon maker.

Hercules gave a nod, and Iolaus let the first arrow fly. There was a questioning grunt from inside the cave, but nothing more. After a moment he shot another arrow into the darkness. This one elicited a grating snarl, and he quickly sent two more after the others.

It worked. There was a roar, and the hydra squeezed out of the cave. Ares heard Xena swearing, and he had to chuckle. From the size of the cave entrance, they'd been expecting a much smaller monster--something along the size of an ox. They hadn't taken into account how, um, COMPRESSIBLE the beasts were. They could squeeze through openings that looked far too small to let them pass. This one was... Ares cocked his head as the creature finished exiting its lair and reared up. He couldn't think of any other land animal that was comparable in size. Maybe one of Poseidon's smaller whales. A head rose up before him, halting six feet over his head. *That isn't counting the neck length, of course.*

The hydra had fixated on Iolaus. All three heads hissed, and its bulky body began to slither toward the Golden Hunter. Gabrielle let the first bolo fly. Ares smirked when it hit the beast in the chest instead of wrapping around a neck or head. It must have hurt, though, because the hissing increased in volume. The hydra increased its speed as Gabrielle snatched up another bolo, and Iolaus loosed another arrow. The arrow struck the creature's chest also, and bounced off. *Damn, I thought Iolaus knew better. He's not going to stick the thing like that--not unless his arrowheads are made of Hephastian metal. The farther you go up the necks, the thinner the scales get. Aim higher, Blondie.*

Xena was on the hydra's left. She screamed her battle cry and charged, chakram cocked. Ares sighed as the hydra's left head whipped around, zeroing in on her. Ares sighed. *The yell may work well in ambush when you're dealing with bandits, Xena, but this time it was a warning instead of a shock.*

Hercules, to Ares' eternal surprise, was sensible enough to be silent as he made his own charge. He leaped, and grabbed. He managed to get a handhold in the thick scales, and began to climb up the creature's side, toward its shoulder. If he got on its back, the right head would have enough room to twist back and snap at him, but that close... It would be like a human trying to bit himself on the back of the neck. It didn't stop the left head from trying, though. Only some acrobatic swinging kept the hero from losing a leg.

Xena threw her chakram, and it thunked into the right neck, sinking deep. Hercules saw this and yelled, "Xena! No decapitation!"

She'd drawn her sword. "Shut up! I'm wearing it down."

Ares nodded. *Yes, it's losing blood now. Another couple of dozen wounds like that might actually slow it down.*

Iolaus managed to put an arrow through the neck of the center head, high up. The beast threw its head, spattering his blood in a bright crimson arc. A spray landed across one of Xena's gauntlets and immediately began to eat through the tough leather and metal. Xena stopped her charge and jerked frantically at the lacings that held the arm guard on, trying to get it off before the poisonous acid could reach her skin. The sight of her lover in peril must have distracted Gabrielle. Hercules had hauled himself up on the hydra's shoulder. He'd just buried his sword in the skull of the weaving right head when the bolo wrapped around his throat, knocking him to the ground. He had to swiftly roll to the side to avoid being crushed as the hydra shifted its massive body.

The hydra whipped all its heads again, and Xena's chakram, slick with hydra blood, came loose, dropping into the thick grass. Xena dived for it, and jerked her hands back with a shriek when her fingertips hit the blood. She frantically wiped her hands on the grass, quickly enough to avoid any real damage--she'd just have some blisters. She ripped off her short leather skirt and used it to wipe the chakram clean. The leather was smoking and crumbling by the time she tossed it down and grabbed her weapon again. She finished just in time to back peddle quickly. The teeth of the wounded left head snapped shut inches from her belly as she tripped and fell.

The head that Hercules had skewered hung limp and dead, but the other two were wounded--and more dangerous than ever. The center head had twisted to look at the still struggling, slowly choking Hercules. It both heads had worked together, Ares had no doubt that they would have made short work of the heroes. But the center head strained toward Hercules, and the left strained toward Xena. First one side would gain a foot, then the opposite would drag it back. *It's going to split itself down the middle, like a fucking wishbone,* thought Ares in disgust. *Who's in charge of Unnatural Beasts, anyway? I'll have to have a talk with them, because if all hydras are this stupid, they'll be extinct in no time.*

Gabrielle snatched up her staff and ran across the meadow, swishing over her head, as she called out to Xena. Xena, crawling backward like a crab, tilted her head back and saw, upside down, what Gabrielle was doing. "No, Gabby! Stay back!"

Gabrielle listened about as well as she usually did. She kept coming. She bonked the left head squarely on the nose. The left head jerked back with a surprised grumble, then it gave a great, honking cry. *Way to go, bitch. Now you've made it PERSONAL. I hope it eats your ass.*

It didn't get the chance. Xena threw the chakram, and this time it caught the left head right between the eyes, sinking deep. The head swung in a death spasm, and slammed into Gabrielle. It knocked her flying. She landed several yards away, and immediately started ripping at her clothes, screaming. Xena crawled over to her and began ripping at her companion's clothes, stripping away the fuming fabric.

Hercules was wheezing and turning blue, plucking at the cords that were cutting into his throat. Iolaus threw down his bow and ran to help him, drawing a hunting knife. He knelt beside his gasping lover, saying, "Hold still, Herc. I have to cut these away, and I can't afford to slip."

There was so much going on at once that Ares didn't know where to look first. He leaned over the edge, peering this way and that...

And the ledge crumbled.

Ares fell, thumping down on the back of the hydra. The beast's body rippled spasmodically, pitching the god over the remaining head. Ares hit the ground hard--hard enough to stun him. His breath whooshed out, and he became visible--too dazed to stay hidden. No one noticed except the hydra--and Joxer.

Joxer had been bouncing with excitement and... and... *No, not fear. I'm a warrior, and I'm not afraid. I'm APPREHENSIVE. That's only normal, right? I mean, my friends are going up against a big ass, pointy-toothed, multi-headed people eater, and that's enough to give ANYONE pause, but they're doing pretty good, except for Gabby sort of strangling Herc, but Iolaus is taking care of that and...* He blinked as the dark haired man in leather suddenly appeared on the ground before the wounded hydra. The man sat up, putting a hand to his head. Joxer recognized Ares, his god, and the center head of the hydra was drawing back, ready to strike at him.

He didn't pause. He didn't think. He charged.

Xena had stripped Gabrielle completely, much to the bard's combined relief and mortification. Iolaus had sliced Hercules free of the choking bolo and was helping his dazed friend to his feet, ready to drag him to safety. They all looked up at the yell. What they saw astonished them into immobility.

Joxer was running across the green, flower-spangled expanse of the meadow. It would have looked like a cliche about serenity if not for two things: the grass was charred in large blotches, and Joxer, with a frightened, but fiercely determined look in his eyes, had his sword drawn.

"Joxer!" Hercules croaked. The other three had more volume. They screamed at their friend. "Go back!" "No!" "What the hell are you...?"

The head darted down. Joxer smashed into Ares, knocking him flying in a move that was classic Joxer. The hydra missed biting his intended prey in half, but one huge fang gouged Joxer's right thigh, opening a deep wound that immediately began to pump blood. Even as he screamed, Joxer hacked at the hydra. He landed only a glancing blow, but it sliced through one of the creature's eyes. The hydra jerked its head back, roaring in agony as the slender man crumpled to the ground.

Iolaus was cursing himself as he ran back to the other side of the meadow in search of his bow. Gabrielle screamed again and again as Xena tried to find her sword, which had disappeared into the long grass when she dropped it. Hercules leaped at the hydra and tried to jerk his sword out of the right head's skull, but it was trapped in the bone. The center head drew back once again, preparing to snap the head off the pitiful creature that had dared to hurt him.

Ares sat up again, shaking his head to clear it. *What the fuck?* He heard the screaming, the horrible hissing and roaring, and most of the fog cleared away. The sight before him was both horrible, and ridiculous. Joxer's 'helmet' had slipped down over his eyes, covering half his face. That was enough for a laugh. But there was a gaping wound in his thigh. It couldn't have happened more than a few seconds before, but the grass was already being soaked with his blood. The hydra... *Shit. I should be dead now. How...?*

The hydra whipped his head again, and blood flew, sending the four heroes scrambling out of the way. A thin stream hit Joxer, falling across his helmet. A drop ran off the edge, etching its way down the human's cheek, and Joxer screamed again. Ares had heard men scream before, in pain, grief, and death. For some reason this made his gut clench. Then the hydra's head was diving down, and Joxer was going to die. He had to die. No one was close enough to prevent it. Even Ares couldn't think and move quickly enough to get him to safety--if he so chose.

Joxer saw the head descending toward him, moving like a lightening strike. He still had his sword in both hands. Acting on instinct he thrust up and forward. The hydra had its mouth open, gaping to take a huge bite of soft, living flesh. The battered, nicked sword slid between razor sharp teeth, plunged through the soft palate, and sank deep into the creature's brain. It was dead before it thumped to the ground. There was a moment of shocked silence, then shouts, and frantic activity. Joxer lay half under the thick neck of the center head, and it took a moment for his friends to pull him free.

"Oh, gods, oh gods!" wailed Gabrielle, jerking off his helmet. She laughed hysterically. "This stupid helmet was finally good for something! It protected his face from the worst of the blood. He'll have a scar..."

"That's the least of his worries," snapped Xena. "Someone give me a strap. We have to tie off his leg before he bleeds to death."

Iolaus began to tug at his waist. "Use my belt."

"Is he all right?" Joxer's voice was faint.

"Joxer, don't try to talk," ordered Xena. "Save your strength."

"Hercules is fine," said Gabrielle.

"That's nice, but I meant..." Joxer trailed off, his eyes fluttering shut.

"He means me."

Hercules, Iolaus, and Gabrielle looked around in surprise. Things had happened so quickly. Their view had been blocked by the hydra, and they hadn't seen Joxer knock Ares sprawling. They had just assumed that Joxer was being his usual impulsive, reckless self. Suddenly things made sense--Joxer had sacrificed himself to save Ares.

Gabrielle shouted, "You've killed Joxer, you bastard!"

"He isn't dead yet."

"He could be soon," said Iolaus sadly. "He's losing an awful lot of blood, Xena."

"I can't get it to stop," she growled. Her hands were slick with Joxer's blood. "And I'm worried about that hydra's blood."

"It's only a drop," said Ares.

Xena glanced at him angrily. "Damn it, Ares, you know that shit is dangerous, even for a god, and he's a mortal. One drop could be enough, especially as weak as he is now."

"He died saving you, Ares," accused Hercules, stalking toward Ares. "Here's another life you've destroyed."

"You're not blaming this one on me," Ares snarled. He shoved Hercules aside and went to Xena. "Hand him over."

Gabrielle pushed between them, oddly unconscious of her nudity as she confronted the God of War. "Just let him die in peace!"

"HE ISN'T DEAD YET!" Ares roared. When the God of War took that tone of voice--everyone except the godly, the stupid, and the suicidal moved. Gabrielle was none of those, and she shifted out of the way quickly. Ares glared down at Xena, who was glowering at him defiantly. "Give me my follower."

Xena studied him. Her voice low, she said, "Why?"

Ares hesitated. *Why? I don't owe her a reason. Because I want him. Because he's mine.* "Because he'll die if you don't."

Xena nodded, and sat back. Ares lifted the limp, blood smeared body into his arms. Joxer's head rolled back loosely, dark hair falling across his forehead, a livid red streak on one pale cheek. Ares could sense the life force inside him, but it was weakening. He'd have to move quickly.

There was a flash of red. As the sparks faded, the remaining humans looked at each other. Gabrielle said, "Xena, why did you let him take Joxer?"

Xena shrugged. "We couldn't save him. Maybe Ares can."

"Do you really think that Ares will put himself out to save Joxer? I don't think he's even noticed him before, except to be annoyed. He probably just wanted to play with him for a while. We could have at least made his last moments peaceful, and comfortable."

Xena looked toward the sky. "I'm hoping that Ares can keep Joxer's last moments a long time in the future."

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