Gabrielle bent down to lift the bedroll for the second time, sighing in frustration. She looked across the camp to her partner, sitting in the shadows of the dying fire.
“Xena, have you seen Androcles?”
Xena stopped sharpening her sword long enough to throw a smirk at the bard. “You mean, the rat?”
Gabrielle grimaced. “Yes, Xena. The rat. Have you seen him?” Xena pretended to ponder that for a moment before answering. “Check the stew?”
Gabrielle stuck her tongue out as she crossed over to the seated warrior. “You’d think you’d show a bit more respect for the animal that...”
There was a familiar rolling of eyes. “…Saved your life. Yeeees, Gabrielle.”
Glancing beneath the log before sitting on it, she turned to her warrior. “What?”
The warrior gave an aggrieved sigh. “Gabrielle. Once and for all? You smeared that glop they were feeding you on the ropes. The stupid rat chewed the ropes because they probably tasted slightly better than your feet. Let’s face it, you tricked the rat.”
“Androcles saved my life, and I promised him that if he did, I would bring him to the seaport as a reward.”
Xena mumbled something.
Gabrielle moved closer to the warrior. “Did you say something? Sometimes it’s hard to tell.”
Xena grumbled inaudibly before speaking “I was just... It’s a Rat. YOU saved your own life by using what you had on hand. The rat didn’t knock out the jailer, and he didn’t create the distraction that helped free the other prisoners while you got away. You did that. And if you hadn’t...” The warrior shut up.
Gabrielle continued for her “And if I hadn’t, you would have been in there in another candlemark anyways, right?”
There was another grunt.
“Wasn’t it nice for a change to NOT have to save me?”
Xena looked away. “It’s not that I like rescuing you, Gabrielle, but...”
“I think you’re just jealous that the rat saved me first.”
The warrior nearly exploded “I am NOT jealous of the RAT!” Then realizing that Gabrielle had successfully yanked her chain, she sat down again, and said sweetly, “it’s just that other than you, the rat and I have so little in common.”
Gabrielle evaluated her lover. “I don’t know, Xena, long ink-black hair, blue eyes,” Xena gave her a reluctant grin, “sharp white teeth, yeah, I’m surprised I don’t get the two of you confused more often.”
“That could explain why you spend so much time grooming it...”
“No, that’s because, that’s when I find the little white spot right over his heart...”
Both companions exchanged sentimental but goofy looks, which Xena managed to jettison first.
Clamping down on her own blush, Gabrielle stood and said, “Getting back to the subject, are you going to help me look or what?”
With ill grace, the warrior joined her. “Fine.”
The two partners began a search of the campsite, when the bard noticed Xena was muttering “here, ratty ratty...”
“Androcles,” she primly corrected.
“Here, ratty ratty,” Xena continued, ignoring the comment. “Hey, little buddy. Like to come out and play a little game we call, ‘Catch the Chakrum?’”
Gabrielle glared at her warrior. “Xena! I’ll look by myself. I don’t think you’ve got the right attitude.”
“Fine.” Xena happily plopped herself down on a boulder to watch her partner search. “Gabrielle, the tiny fink has escaped. He broke out of your little cage, and I bet he’s already found a village of field mice to terrorize. Probably setting up a protection racket while you’re searching for the bugger.”
“Androcles did not have a cage. He had a House; that he could leave whenever he wanted to.”
Xena began to pick at her gums with a twig. “Well, he did. He’s gone. And how’s he supposed to find his way back, even if he wanted to?” She groused, almost out of the Bard’s hearing “...evil, little...”
“Hey! Don’t make me defend the rat, Xena,” Gabrielle warned. “Anyways, they Home.”
“Yes. Androcles can find his way back to us by using instinct.”
“So it’s a homing rat, now...”
Suddenly, Xena was on the alert, sword in hand staring at the bushes. She listened with full concentration until she shrugged slightly and then dropped her head forward in defeat. Gabrielle looked at her in hesitant inquiry.
Xena gave her a look and sighed. “Yeah, it’s Joxer.”
The Bard cringed slightly. “Do you think he made a deal with Ares?” she asked with a touch of frustration. “To transport him to wherever we are?”
“Ask him.” Xena pointed to the bush with her sword.
The Bard moved to the bushes Xena had indicated and waited, gripping her staff with both hands. As Joxer’s head poked through the bushes, Gabrielle narrowly resisted the urge to clobber him.
Joxer smiled happily at the beloved face so near his. “Hey Gabby!” (There was a quiet grinding of teeth from the Bard,) “What’s up?”
Recovering, Gabrielle asked sweetly. “Joker? We were just wondering how you always seem to manage to find us?” She added a casual laugh.
“I dunno. I ask people, I follow the tracks, mostly I just know.”
Gabrielle turned to Xena in dismay. The warrior grinned back.
“Yup. It’s a Homing Joxer.”
Seeing the Bard near the boiling point, Xena rose and changed the subject. “Ah, Joxer, we’re looking for this small black rat...”
A small bugle blew ‘taroo!’ in Joxer’s head. “A rat! I’ll handle this, ladies.” Pulling his sword out with a flourish, Joxer struck himself in the forehead with the pommel and fell to the ground, out cold.
Both Xena and Gabrielle stared at the unconscious warrior non-plussed. Gabrielle said quietly. “Perhaps we should explain when he comes to, that we don’t want the rat dead.”
“We?” Xena raised her eyebrows. “Anyways, it would be even odds which one would show up with the other skinned. Maybe, attached to nice card,” she reflected longingly.
“Look, Warrior. You can either help me look for Androcles in a non-deadly way, or you can sit here and listen to Joxer’s explanation of why he meant to hit himself in the head.”
There was more grumbling, but after checking for concussion, leaving Joxer sprawled out by the fire, they split up to search.
It was, of course, Xena that spotted the beady eyed little rodent inside of a hollow tree. Repressing the desire to simply crush the rotten trunk, she crouched beside it and pondered the problem. Then she returned to the campsite for some rat treats and water. Placing the treats outside the hole while dribbling the water down from above, and feeling like the biggest fool in the known world, she waited whispering, “Come on out, you little bugger, come on...” Several candlemarks later, after trying to ply the rat out with everything from prized food to Gabrielle’s spare shift, the rat darted forward only to be snatched up by even faster hands.
Returning to camp wreathed in glory, she presented the rat to Gabrielle. Who smiled widely and hugged her tight. Who whispered “I knew you would do it”, to the victorious warrior. Who then dropped the rat to the ground whereupon the rat scampered away.
Xena watched incredulously.
And then began to fume. “Do you know how long I...? Why did you...?”
Gabrielle moved out of sword range quickly. “I’m sorry, Xena. But I never promised THAT rat anything.” Gabrielle blushed. “You see, that wasn’t the rat that chewed through the ropes.”
Xena began calming breaths. “Gabrielle, I may not like rodents, but that WAS the rat you’ve been cuddling for three days.”
Still keeping a few feet away from the furious warrior, Gabrielle tried to explain. “And I hated every minute of it. Don’t you remember Sisyphus? I hate rats as much as you do! Though I could never literally chew ‘em up and spit them out like you did on Shark Island, I figured I could at least pretend to like one for a few days.”
More calming, cleansing breaths. They didn’t help. “BUT WHY!” Xena yelled.
“You’re always teaching me things about myself. And when the rat I promised ran away, I thought about how I could show you something... if I pretended that another rat was the one that actually saved me.” The last words were blurted out.
“And WHAT could that POSSIBLY be?”
Gabrielle, put her hands out, in an easing motion, waiting until Xena’s blood pressure seemed to have dropped. “You’re always saying how you haven’t changed, that I have this idealized picture of you. I needed to show you proof. See, now, my question is, would the warlord Xena have just rescued a pet rat, just because it was important to someone else?”
Flustered, Xena tried to see her way through this. “Wait, I did this for you, not the damned rat.”
“Doesn’t matter, you still did it,” Gabrielle taunted coyly.
“You came up with this plan, while you were waiting for the guard to come to your cell, before you clobbered him, didn’t you?”
“That wasn’t enough to keep your mind occupied? Being near death and all?”
“I was thinking about you.” The bard didn’t pout often, but when she did it was a heartbreaker.
Faced with weapons beyond her capacity, Xena gave a resigned sigh. “We are very different, my friend, you do know that?”
“I like it that way,” the Bard answered, grinning.
Xena made strangling motions with her hands before actually grabbing the Bard in a tight embrace. “There will be paybacks,” Xena muttered into the golden hair.
“Fine.” said the voice from below her chin. “But right now, could we just clear up and get out? I really want to get to that river you talked about, and wash the rat smell off of my clothes.”
They had almost finished packing up the camp when Gabrielle thought of something while sniffing at her shift. “You don’t think that disgusting rodent might really be able to follow us, do you, Xena?”
Xena checked under Joxer’s eyelids. “Not if we leave now, and we ride fast...”
So Linda? How did I do?