The following story came about as a result of my reading Cleveland Amory’s The Cat Who Came for Christmas. This tale could have taken place during Hanukkah, Ramadan, Solstice or any other of the seasonal celebrations. I happened to use the expression of Christmas as my background. Any recognition of characters from the Xenaverse is intentional, but used without their permission and with no ill intent. The story belongs to the author… ‘nuff said. Although there is no explicit sex in this tale, it does depict the relationships of women as romantic in nature. If this concept offends you, please read no further… you’ve been warned. There is some rough language at the beginning. Feedback and comments are welcome.

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A Midnight Clear

By: Blue
Vryblueyz@aol.com

CHAPTER ONE

This is a story about the magic of Christmas… the unbreakable bonds of love… oh, and two very special felines. It started very innocently…

"Hey! Get off!"

The woman’s words sounded sincere, but the sleek animal knew where to draw the line. And she hadn’t quite stepped over that boundary yet. Once more, she pawed at the colorful cards, finally sending the pile crashing to the dark, hardwood floor.

"That’s it! I mean it. Get off the desk!"

The words were ineffectual. The animal had already decided she was through and was concentrating on a floating dust bunny, swatting the poor thing about the apartment… bypassing the various expensive ‘cat toys’ about the floor. With a defiant swish of her tail, she had exited the room, leaving her human to clean up the mess.

Vanessa stooped over the strewn about cards, mumbling to herself. "I swear, next time… a dog. No more cats. Yes, a very benign, obedient dog." The last sentence was directed at the empty doorway, with an emphasis on the word ‘obedient.’ She felt better having had the last word, although it was just a technicality. The feline always had the real last word, and it had been that way since Van rescued her from kitty death row at the local animal shelter. That had been exactly one year ago.

Vanessa Reynolds is a computer wizard and owns her own company. She does it all, hardware, software, communications. She sets up small companies to do business online, and that’s exactly how she happened to be at the shelter that night. She had set up a small server to keep track of inventory and to track lost animals through various identification routines. It seems that the server had crashed during Christmas Eve afternoon, and, since the shelter management had seen fit to also contract her for support, she found herself running diagnostics trying to get the sucker back up. She was deep in a core dump… and not the kind you’re thinking about… when her attention was diverted by a man’s yelp.

********

"Shit! That little fucker bit me!"

There was a commotion around the corner from where Van was working… the sound of metal objects hitting the concrete floor, making a most ungodly noise. Well, there was no way she could concentrate on a dump, so she stepped into the hall to see what the fuss was about. At the end of the hall was a set of swinging doors with a big red sign stating, "Staff Only". The doors had glass panels at eye level. From her position she saw human arms flailing about and heard the sound of more cursing.

"You wait till I get my hands on you… I’ll do you myself!" There was a brief silence, then the man yelled again. "Ow! Goddamn you!" Finally, he called for reinforcements. "Fuck! Someone get in here and help me!"

Another male attendant rushed down the hall toward the doors, shoving Van aside. As he neared the war zone, his compatriot on the inside tried to warn him. "Don’t open the doooorrrr….." Too late. He swung one of the doors inward. Vanessa was sure a wild animal of some kind would be bursting through the doors attacking her in the process. She scanned the hall for a suitable niche to slide into. There was none. The closest safe haven was the office she had just come out, and it was too far down the hall. She braced for the onslaught. To her amazement, a dark, furry streak zipped through the attendant’s legs, bypassing Vanessa altogether, and headed straight for the office. The injured man practically ran over his accomplice in his pursuit. He was holding a badly chewed hand and sported bright red claw marks across his face. He was livid.

Turning to his inept partner, he demanded. ‘Where did that little shit run to?" As an afterthought, he berated the man just on principal. "And I told you not to open the damn door!"

"Jeez, Dan, I’m sorry. I thought you had hold of it."

Dan was a very out of shape, beer swilling, insensitive lout. He was exactly the type of person that had no business around anything living. He was breathing so hard, Vanessa thought he might keel over right where he stood. He leered and roughly questioned her. "Hey, girlie, you see where that bitch cat ran to?"

Vanessa couldn’t remember the last time she’d wanted to belt someone, but this guy was about to bring out some very repressed personality traits if he wasn’t careful.

"No, sorry, I’m afraid I didn’t see anything." She responded calmly.

Dan wheezed and continued his search, mumbling down the hall. "Well, there ain’t many places for her to hide. I’ll find her all right."

Vanessa slowly walked back to the office and closed the door. She knew the animal was in there somewhere. By all rights she should have been wary. She didn’t know if it was wild or infected. She just knew Dan wasn’t going to get his meaty paws on it. She found the feline under the desk. She was licking her paw and then running it over her ear and face. She only cast a cursory glance at the human to make sure it wasn’t DoDo Dan and went back to her bath, like nothing had happened. She even moved from under the desk, obviously not concerned by the search going on in her behalf.

The animal’s coloring astounded Vanessa. Her fur was a midnight black and almost looked like silk, but it was her eyes that really caught Vanessa’s attention. They were crystal blue. The only blue eyes she’d ever seen on a cat usually belonged to white-furred, deaf felines. This was most unusual. She was still staring at the cat when the door to the office opened. Dan and his henchman had found their quarry. He made a move toward the cat, and her demeanor instantly changed. She planted all fours firmly on the floor, ears flattened on her head… her tail swished from side to side like a whip, the fur standing on end, giving it a plume-like effect. A very low, intense growl was vibrating from her throat, and those piercing blue eyes were mere slits. Yep, she was ready to make Dan cry all over again.

"There you are." He hissed. Then in a very insincere, sweet tone he tried to assure the animal, "C’mon… nobody’s gonna hurt you… come to Dan…" He was inching his way toward the animal. She wasn’t buying his act for a minute and prepared to spring.

Vanessa couldn’t stand it any longer. She stood and got between Dan and the ball of pure energy on the floor. "What are you going to do with her?"

Dan was irritated with this interruption. "Her time’s up."

"What do you mean by that?" Van asked.

"Oh, c’mon lady. She’s a stray. She gets three days, and, if’n nobody adopts her, then it’s off to kitty heaven. Well, ain’t nobody wanted to take this hellion home, so… her time’s up… jest like I said. Now get outta the way and let me do my job." Dan was mistaken in thinking he’d won.

Vanessa looked into his beady, ‘lil eyes. "I want to adopt her… right now… tonight."

The man smirked to his partner. "Oh… you wanna adopt her? Ain’t that sweet. And just how do you think you’re gonna get her home? Last time I checked we’d run out of kitty straight jackets. And trust me, you’re gonna need one. She ain’t let nobody hear her since she came in… not even the women docs. The best thing for this one is the gas."

The man had a point. How was she going to get her home? One thing that was sure… the feline would not be going to kitty heaven tonight. "I’ll borrow a carrier from here to take her in."

Dan laughed out loud. "Oh, like that will hold her. What do you think she was in on the way to the chamber? She chewed right through the side. I’m telling you, this one is nutso."

"Well, that might be, but I’m not going to allow you to put her down. What kind a person are you anyway? It’s Christmas Eve… or don’t you have a heart?" Vanessa was incensed.

"Hey, it ain’t me. We get hundreds of strays and throwaways in here every week. Talk to the asswipes that turn ‘em out. Trust me, puttin’ ‘em down is better than havin’ ‘em starve to death on the street or worse. I ain’t the devil here." Dan’s not so eloquent speech did have some merit. It was his death side manner that needed some work. "Tell you what, you manage to get her in the crate, and you can have her. Deal?"

Vanessa nodded in agreement, and Dan left the office to find a carry all. Van looked at the feline at her feet and shook her head. "Gods… what have I agreed to? How am I going to get you into a carrier?" She flopped into the nearest chair and peered sadly at the cat. "This may not be your lucky night after all."

To her amazement, the animal jumped to her lap and was calmly sitting there when Dan entered the office again. Vanessa wished she’d had a camera. The look on his face was priceless.

"What the…??" His jaw dropped open at the sight of the cat from hell being petted by a total stranger.

Vanessa stroked the animal’s luxurious coat and smugly announced. "I don’t think I’m going to need that carrier. I think just a towel will do to get her to my car."

Dan placed the carrier just inside the door anyway. "Sure, whatever you think, but I’ll leave this here in case you change your mind. I’ll get the girls up front to get the adoption papers for you to sign."

"No problem. I’ve got a little more work to do here before I leave. I’ll sign them on my way out." Just for effect, the cat hissed and spit at Dan as he left the room. Van already liked this animal. "You tell him… um… hey, you need a name. I think I’ll call you Raven because your fur is dark as the raven."

*********

Yes, that had been some Christmas, and now Raven had made herself right at home. There were times Vanessa thought the animal could actually understand her, but her close friends just made jokes about her needing to get out more. Well, of course they were right, but the business occupied almost all her time and besides, she was done with women… too much trouble and very high maintenance. She was tired of watching women she loved walk out of her life, uttering the same cliched phrase, "It’s not you… it’s me." Of course, what that really meant was… "It really is you." No, this Christmas would be fine with just Raven. It was fortunate no one informed Raven.

CHAPTER TWO

Vanessa had collected the greeting cards from the floor and was once again at her desk. It was a few days before Christmas, and she was doing what she always did… waiting until the last possible moment to finish shopping and mailing the cards. She wasn’t that fond of the holidays in general and Christmas specifically. All that family oriented advertising, seasonal movies, and even the damn TV commercials only accentuated her aloneness in this city. She’d had a few relationships of varying duration, but none really lasted. The plain fact was that Van just wasn’t very good at intimacy… it scared the hell out of her… and eventually her partners moved on… too frustrated to deal with her nature. She was currently several years removed from her last disaster and had accepted the possibility that this was just the way it was going to be. Until last Christmas, she didn’t even have a companion of the furry kind. Her rationale was simple… she worked too much to have an animal. She felt it wouldn’t be fair being gone so much and had resisted her friend’s entreaties to adopt a creature. What Vanessa failed to realize is that animals adopt us, not the other way around. Living proof of that was roaming her apartment looking for more entertainment. Raven sat at Van’s feet peering at her with those blue eyes. Finally she couldn’t stand being ignored any longer, and boldly jumped into her human’s lap… intent on taking a short snooze before dinner.

Van stopped addressing the last of the cards and adjusted her chair away from the oak secretary to accommodate an extra body. The fact that she did this automatically was testament to Raven’s complete integration into Van’s life. The feline watched the silver Mont Blanc fluidly write greetings of the season to another of Van’s clients. Christmas was not a personal holiday for her; it was business. It wasn’t always that way, but over the years the magic had gotten lost. She didn’t remember exactly when… it just happened.

"There. All done." Van finished addressing the last of the cards and was searching the secretary cubbyholes for the stamps. All the while Raven hadn’t moved. She had become one with Van’s lap and seemed almost irritated her human was fidgeting about.

"Yeoww…." The statement was punctuated with a slight bearing of claws into Van’s thin, faded jeans.

"Ow! Okay, just a minute and I’ll be through. I’ve got to get these in the mail tonight." Somehow Vanessa’s excuse held little weight with the feline. Raven hopped off her lap in search of more secure sleeping accommodations.

"Just for that, I’ll be clipping those claws of yours." The threat floated into the air like so much cat hair. She knew better and just smiled as she collected the stack of cards. There was a mailbox near her brownstone, and although it was well past the last pickup time, she wanted to get them in the box and be done with this chore. Van grabbed her leather coat from the hall rack and left the cozy confines of her apartment, making sure she locked the door securely. Her building had a keyed entrance from the street, but she wasn’t taking any chances. She was a big city kind of woman and knew when you let your guard down, that’s when things happened. Van stepped into the cold, crisp night. New York hadn’t had its first snow yet, but the air felt like it was right around the corner. She had a sense about these things and played a little game with herself predicting the city’s first flakes.

"Uh-huh… tomorrow… just in time for Christmas Eve." Pleased with herself, Van strolled toward the blue postal box a block away.

Van’s apartment was quite a find… a 1920’s renovated brownstone located in the Upper East Side of New York. It had been a shared residence with her last partner. Van kept the unit, and her partner kept the Mercedes. Vanessa had always thought she got the better end of the deal. She had been given the choice of the car or the apartment when it came time to pack and separate. She remembered what an old friend had told her once about such things. Her friend was straight and was having huge problems with her boyfriend.

They were sitting in a bar knocking back shooters and her friend gave Vanessa some sage advice. "Honey," she said downing the shooter, "If it has tires or testicles, you’re gonna have trouble with it."

Vanessa took the advice to heart, and opted for the brownstone. She hadn’t regretted her choice. As she walked away from the canopied entry, Raven perched on the windowsill and watched her from the warmth of the third story apartment. Van’s unit was situated in a coveted front corner of the building. There were windows facing the street and along the side alley that separated the closeness of the adjacent brownstone. It gave Raven a perfect spot to keep tabs on her territory. She sat almost every night peering onto the darkness like she was searching for something. Many nights she would fall asleep on the sill.

Van pulled the box’s mouth open and shoved the cards through the opening. "There. All finished for another year." She was relieved the tedious task was complete. Now all she had to do was figure out what to have for Christmas Eve dinner and what movies to watch. She made her way back toward her home. Her thoughts were on grocery shopping and what wine to open as she neared the alleyway. The sound of a loud crash startled Van and sent her heart racing. Her footsteps froze, and she looked into the dark alley. She realized she was alone on the street, but something was drawing her attention. Again, the sound of a ruckus emitted from the recesses of the alley. And then the obvious sound of a cat… and one that wasn’t too happy.

Vanessa sighed in relief. "Gods…" She muttered. "Just strays fighting again." She felt a mild sadness that those animals were in the cold, scrounging for food and warmth in such a hostile place. There was almost a sense of guilt that she couldn’t just take them all in. After rescuing Raven and realizing what a wondrous creature she was, her heart went out to any homeless, scared animal. She prepared to slide her key in the security door lock. Her eyes scanned the very corner of the front fašade of the building… toward the alley entrance. She spoke to whatever denizens were wandering about the night. "Sorry, guys… I only have room for the one."

The heavy brass handle opened the door silently, and Van stepped inside the warm entry. A pair of green eyes watched the door seal shut. There was an audible sigh of frustration from the alley. A golden form took shape at ground level just at the corner of the building.

In short order, Vanessa was back in her home. Raven had shifted to one of the apartment’s side windows, tail swishing in a very excited manner. Her blue eyes were glued to the alley below. She was making strange little ‘clicking’ sounds; her hindquarters were beginning to fidget on the narrow sill. The pride of her presence… that full tail… was standing straight in the air. For intents and purposes she was behaving like a female in heat. The idea was ridiculous. Van had had her spayed shortly after adopting her, yet the posturing was undeniable. Whatever was diverting her attention outside was also prompting this display.

"What is it, girl? A tom-come-too-freakin’-late suitor?" Van walked to the window and looked the three stories down into the dark alley. Her face was pressed up against the glass with Raven’s right below her. They would have made quite a sight from below. Of course, Van couldn’t see anything, not even outlines, but Raven obviously had something in her keen sights.

"YEOWWW!!!" The animal butted her head against the pane. Her cry was very insistent.

Van gave up trying to see what her poor human eyes were never designed to see. She picked the feline off the sill, to a loud protest and much squirming. Before Raven could rebound, Van closed the custom plantation shutters.

"That’s enough voyeurism for one night, young lady. Besides, you can’t go out, and whatever is out there is not coming in for a visit. Deal with it."

Raven leapt up on the secretary and made a frail attempt to peer over the half shutters. Her efforts were rewarded by a not so graceful spill to the hardwood floor.

"Gods, Raven! What is it!?"

Vanessa had never seen such an interest from the animal. If anything, the cat was too nonchalant about everything. She had an air about her… a control that was more than catlike. Raven was the epitome of a ‘Yeah, whatever…’ philosophy. This had always intrigued Van, and even more so now with this peculiar behavior. Finally, Van swatted the dark, brooding feline away from the window.

"Enough! I outweigh you and I’m the only one with opposable thumbs in this room… so that makes me the one with the power." She looked at Raven… Raven looked at her… a duel was in progress. Van could swear that the animal had processed an idea. And sure enough, the feline raced between her legs, heading for the bedroom… and two more windows on the alley side. Vanessa was several thought processes behind Raven. The sounds of crying alerted her of plan ‘B’… that and the unmistakable noise of a cat pawing at the window.

By the time Van had flipped on the bedside lamp, Raven was literally pacing the windowsill. The human shook her head and once again removed the protesting companion, securing the shutters. In a satisfied tone, Van chided the feline. "You may as well chill out. There are no more windows for you to race to. Now give it a rest."

Raven was perched on the arm of a reading chair near the window. Her gaze shifted from the shuttered window to Van’s stern face. Gradually, her body settled into a compact crouch on the arm, and she appeared to fall asleep.

Van headed for the living area. She still had some work to do before retiring. On her way, she detoured into the kitchen; poured a glass of red and moved toward her desk. Out of curiosity, she stepped near the shuttered window. Quietly, she moved the wooden covering back just enough to look out into the dark alley. To her amazement the air was filled with the beginning of the first snow.

"Ah… perfect… I win. Alas, there are no more surprises left in life," she said quietly and closed the shutters. Van plopped into the leather chair at her desk and immersed herself in yearend tax documents. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve and she planned to sleep in, have an early dinner and just relax. Nothing was going to intrude on her solitude.

Raven’s tufted ear rotated at the sound of the shutter being opened, and she opened one blue eye. The faintest trace of a smile appeared on her thin feline lips… if that was possible. She yawned wide… rhythmic swishing of her tail against the fabric of the chair provided the cat equivalent of counting sheep, or mice, and fell into a deep sleep.

CHAPTER THREE

"Vanessa… wake up! He’s been here… c’mon…" There was a rocking of her shoulders and the sound of a very familiar, irritating ‘lil voice. She pulled her soft pillow over her head to drown out the insistent warbling. She needed a bigger pillow.

"Vannie…pleeeeseee…I can’t wait!"

Again movement on her upper body was threatening to drag her from slumber. She swatted blindly into the air, and issued a stern caution. "Leave me alone…or else!"

For a moment, the pestering stopped, but she heard a muffled rebuttal to her warning. "Okaayyy… but I’m gonna play with your stuff."

"I don’t care." She replied, and snuggled deeper into her fortress. A loud metallic clanging startled her out of the dreamstate. Vanessa sat straight up in her bed. Her subconscious hadn’t quite released her. For a moment, she was reliving Christmas morning as an adolescent, and her little brother’s ritual of waking in the middle of the night so he could start Christmas early. She was disoriented, and her heart was racing. Another loud crash and the wailing of a fracas from outside finally brought the present into focus. Out of habit, she peered at the lighted clock dial.

"Christ… four thirty in the morning. What the hell is going on?"

"Yeooowwww…." Raven had gotten into the spirit of the party outside. She was racing about the apartment, trying to find a window to peer from.

The sounds of the interaction were escalating. This time the rumble of a trashcan being overturned prompted Van from the warmth of her bed. She moved toward one of the windows in the bedroom to throw open the sash. It was almost a scene from the children’s story… "The Night Before Christmas"… a similarity that wasn’t lost on Vanessa as she grabbed her robe.

"Lord, I’d better not see eight tiny reindeer out here." She smiled and pulled the shutter back, giving Raven access at last to the sill. The snow had accumulated quite a bit since she’d gone to bed, and the alley was bright with reflected moonlight. She could see all but the very darkened end. The source of all the noise was perched on a pile of discarded boxes. The snowfall had disguised the trash and it was a pristine mountain. Atop this mount was a lone feline, bravely fending the advances of the unsavory street toms and their hanger-ons. The cat was out numbered and was in imminent danger of losing position and tumbling into the scruffy gang below.

Raven was absolutely frantic. She was pawing at the window, growling and generally causing a scene. The sounds from the alley indicated a full attack was about to be launched. The poor object of that sortie would not fair well. Van peered at the drama below. She recognized most of the assemblage, but the light furred single was new to her. A reflected glint from an object around the cat’s neck sparkled in the moonlight.

"By the gods. That’s no stray… it has a collar on. Someone’s lost." As an afterthought, she spoke the obvious. "And about to get a serious ass whipping."

"Yeowwww……!!!" Raven pawed at Van’s robe and peered at her with eyes wide from excitement.

"What!?" Van pulled Raven’s claws from the terry cloth loops.

"YEOWWWWW..!!" Again a set of claws grabbed the woman… this time digging in deeper for emphasis.

A sudden look of comprehension went across Van’s face. "Oh…no… I am not going out there to rescue another cat. No way… no how. Hell, you don’t even like other animals. You think I’m crazy enough to bring a strange feline in here?"

In a move unprecedented, Raven leapt into Van’s arms. Before she knew what was happening, the cat was nuzzling her neck, purring very loudly, and making weird noises in the back of her throat. Vanessa knew something very unusual was going on, and it was all related to that feline in the alley. She decided there would be no restful sleep unless she separated the warring factions outside. She still had no idea how Raven would react to a new member in the house. She sighed, and extricated herself from the grasp of her cat.

"All right… I’ll do it. But not because you want me to, and I’m warning you… no fighting!"

Raven relaxed immediately and pranced to the front door. Van eyed her as she pulled on sweats and boots. It was as if the animal was going to escort her out the door. In a few minutes, she was indeed out of the apartment and on her way into the cold, early morning air. A very vigilant pair of eyes watched from the third story window.

Van was doing some serious mumbling as she exited the heat of the building vestibule. "I must be out of my feeble mind… or what’s left of it." She had a towel with her. She wasn’t even sure she’d be able to get near the feline in question. She cautiously rounded the building corner, stopping to let her eyes fully adjust to the shapes in the alley. She counted four or five attackers, and their quarry was still positioned on the high ground. There seemed to be a bit of a standoff in progress. The snow was gently falling draping all the ugliness of the alley in a wonderland effect. It was beautiful. Van doubted she’d have any problem dispersing the crowd. It was the other cat’s willingness to be rescued that was on her mind. She moved toward the group.

It took only a few strides to send the kitty gang scurrying in different directions. She was close enough now to actually see the lone feline. She couldn’t tell if it was female or male, but from its demeanor, she guessed female.

Softly, she spoke to the animal. "It’s okay… I’m not going to hurt you." The cat sat passively, watching the human approach. Van assessed the condition of the animal. "Well, from the look of you, I’d say you haven’t been out too long. Your coat still looks clean and I’d say you haven’t missed too many meals."

That last statement brought forth a meow of indignant protest. "Yeooww.."

Van chuckled, "Sorry… didn’t mean to offend. Now… what are we going to do with you?"

Before Van could inch forward, the feline jumped from the boxes to the alleyway and sprinted toward the street. She made a hard right at the building corner.

"Shit!" Van couldn’t believe she was left standing, alone, in an alley, in the middle of the freaking night, in ankle deep snow, clutching a towel. She looked up toward her apartment window. A pair of blue eyes looked back.

Van raised an eyebrow and promised the animal in the window. "You are in such big trouble when I get inside." She took in a deep breath of the cold air to calm herself, and made tracks out of the alley. As she rounded the corner, a familiar form was waiting, green eyes blinking calmly… sitting under the canopy at the building entrance. The feline was grooming. Apparently, she was not too keen on having mats of snow on her golden fur and she was actually waiting on Vanessa.

"Good grief!" Vanessa gasped. "You look like you know exactly what you’re doing." She stepped toward the waiting animal and this time the cat didn’t move. "Gods, you remind me of another feline… who you’re about to meet."

Van stooped next to the lost, little dear. She reasoned the cat’s survival mode was keeping her in place. Obviously, Van wasn’t threatening, and she must be tired, cold and hungry. Vanessa gingerly reached her hand out to make contact. She let the feline smell her fingers before actually touching her. To the human’s amazement, the ball of fur started vibrating in a throaty purr and shoved its head toward Van’s hand.

"Yep… you haven’t been lost too long… you miss being stroked too much." Vanessa surmised. "Let’s get you inside and see if we can find your owner."

Vanessa scooped the cat up in the towel and juggled her keys into the door lock. The fact the animal wore a collar would make a search much easier. The owner probably lived in the neighborhood. In short order, the twosome were at Van’s apartment door. She still didn’t know how Raven would react to a strange cat in the house, as she’d been the sole animal for the last year.

Taking a deep breath, Van inserted the key into the brass lock. "Okay, time to find out."

There was comfort in hearing the sturdy lock click open. Van liked things that were sturdy and dependable. She had worked very hard trying to get her life into some order. Taking Raven in was not a planned event, and it certainly wasn’t ordered, but it had worked. That had been her last concession to spontaneity. Tonight’s venture could certainly be classified in that category. She stepped inside the apartment, golden bundle still in her arms and closed the door.

For a few moments she stood waiting for Raven to pitch a fit, but instead, the dark beauty just sat in front of her… waiting. Vanessa knew she couldn’t hold the animal for the rest of the night, and slowly knelt to release her visitor. Truth time.

The cat seemed very comfortable in the presence of Raven… and certainly comfy in a strange home. Van took the opportunity to check the collar and look at the tag. She carefully unbuckled the leather accouterment removing it from the feline. She peered at the tag and smiled. It was in the shape of a triangle, pink in color and had a name on one side and a number on the other.

"Well, at least we know about your owner’s orientation. Hmmm… Princess, huh?" Van chuckled. She could see why the animal was named that… she had a very regal air about her. The number, however, wasn’t a phone number. "Sure… why should it be easy, when it can be hard?" She sighed. "Well, it’s too late to fret over this. I’ll work on it in the morning."

Princess looked up at Van and proceeded to walk right up to Raven. Van held her breath, but to her delight, the two cats began purring and rubbing one another.

Vanessa was completely taken aback. "Well, I’ll be."

Princess ran her head down the length of Raven’s silky body, her head facing toward the kitchen. She stopped her ministrations of the resident feline, her nose picking up the scent of food. With a flick of her tail, she scampered into the kitchen, and in a few seconds, Van could hear the unmistakable sounds of food disappearing.

"Hey, make yourself at home… don’t mind us." Vanessa looked down at Raven, who hadn’t moved. "What’s wrong with you? Do you realize a strange woman is snarfing your kibble? Have you no pride? What about defending your territory? Okay… who are you and what have you done with Raven?" She snapped her fingers loudly to get the cat’s attention. She could have sworn the animal was in shock.

Raven blinked and trotted off to the kitchen. Van was sure there would be hissing and snarling now. She prepared for the worse, but only the sounds of kibble being consumed emanated from the kitchen. The sight of two cats eating nose to nose from the same bowl was amazing… and a relief. Van didn’t want to referee any catfights inside the house. She was suddenly very tired and a glance at the mantle clock told her why. It was nearly five thirty in the morning.

"I’m going back to bed. You two clean up when you’re through." Vanessa turned out the lights in the room and wandered back to the warmth and comfort of her bed. She smiled as sleep began to overtake her mind. The unlikely scenario in her kitchen produced a final thought… ‘I bet they’re kitty soulmates.’

CHAPTER FOUR

Van slept soundly late into the morning. The sun was filtering through the wooden slats of the shutters into the bedroom producing odd patterns on the wall. She uncurled from the fetal position, slowing stretching her arms and legs. The down comforter was nestled just under her chin and the 300 count cotton sheets caressed her lithe form. She absolutely loved the comfort of her bed. It was a favorite place on weekends for reading, surfing the net on her laptop, and working the New York Times crossword. As she moved her legs about, she felt a solid form next to her foot. Van lifted her head and peered over the bunched top of the comforter. The form at the foot of her bed wasn’t Raven, it was the rescued feline, Princess. She quickly searched for the true owner of that spot and was about to get up to look for Raven. Just as she propped up on two elbows, the dark furred feline levitated from the floor to the bedtop. Van was mesmerized at Raven’s motion. At times, she just appeared without a sound. Her agility was pure magic to watch. As wonderful as Raven’s patience had been so far, Van fully expected a hissing duel over this bit of territory. The animal surprised her human. Instead of swatting and behaving all indignant, Raven stretched out near the newcomer. Princess barely opened an eye in response. She snoozed without stirring.

"Yeow…" Raven was clearly addressing Vanessa.

"Yes, I know, she’s right at home." Van playfully rocked her foot against the side of the cat… nothing. "Hmmm… seems she’s a late morning sleeper to boot. I bet she’s the type of kitty that will rise but refuse to shine."

"Yeoww…" Raven concurred heartily.

Van fell back to the mound of soft pillows collecting her thoughts. First order of business… pee and then coffee. It was a comfortable ritual. She pulled herself from under the inviting covers and walked into the bath for relief. Raven also had a morning ritual. She jumped off the bed and followed Van to the bath where she sat at the woman’s feet. The sound of the commode flushing signaled the next step. Van ran water in the lavatory, washed her face and brushed her teeth. Raven watched from the toilet seat. Next the two walked back to the bedside. Van slipped her robe on and picked up her glasses off the nightstand. The parade proceeded to the kitchen. All the while, Princess hadn’t moved as much as a regal whisker. Van started coffee and refilled the empty food dish for Raven.

"Well, I see our guest wasn’t shy about eating." She poured a generous amount of kibble into the dish, fully expecting a repeat performance once Princess regained consciousness. Van even offered a word of advice to Raven. "Uh… if I were you, I’d eat now before its too late." The feline seemed to understand the implications of waiting and tore into the bowl.

As the dark Sumatran dripped into the carafe, Van went to the front door to retrieve her paper. She could hear sounds of several of her neighbors as they went about final preparations for Christmas Day. The Casper’s from next door were just stepping on the elevator. Mrs. Casper was already outlining the last frantic day of spirited shopping for her poor husband. Van offered a look of silent support for the man’s plight. He returned a non-verbal ‘thank you’ as the brass doors slid shut. He had a look of a condemned prisoner on his way to the gas chamber. Van couldn’t help herself, and when she was certain the elevator was on its way, she announced to the entire floor, "Dead shopping man walking!" Personally, she was glad her meager shopping was finished. The very idea of braving the madness on Christmas Eve sent shivers up her spine. She collected the paper and stepped out of the hall… the delicious aroma of coffee pulling her inside.

Raven had finished breakfast, and Van fully expected her to be pacing the floor ‘neath the window, waiting for the woman to open the shutters. Raven always groomed sitting on the sill, keeping watch. This morning she waked right past Van and back into the bedroom. The lure of fresh java kept Van from following until her lips had sipped that first, glorious taste. With her addiction satisfied once more, she caressed the warm, ceramic mug in both hands, and quietly walked to the bedroom door. The sight of Raven snuggled up next to the still sleeping Princess was almost too precious. The longer Van watched, the more she felt like she was intruding. There was something very warm and comforting in the way Raven’s paws was draped over the smaller animal’s front legs. She backed away from the door and turned her attention toward a more investigative pursuit.

Van picked up the collar from the kitchen counter and thought about the significance of the numbers etched on the tag. She warmed her coffee and reached for the paper separating the sections until she had the classifieds in her grasp. Van quickly scanned the listings for lost and found pets. She was amazed to see what New Yorkers considered ‘pets.’

She sipped her brew and scanned the ads. There were pleas from owners of exotic rare birds, lizards, and rats. Van chuckled at the thought of someone actually having a pet rat in New York. There was even an ad for a lost tarantula. Involuntarily, Van’s feet came off the floor and curled up under her. She hated spiders.

To no one in particular, she read one of the entries aloud. "Hmmm… lost, one rare yellow python, Chester. Last seen in vicinity of Times Square subway station. Chester is about 20 feet long and weights about 150lbs, is very friendly and hasn’t eaten in a month… approach with caution." Van shook her head and took another sip of coffee. "Lord, I have to remember not to use that station for a while." The fact that a 20-foot python could just escape into a very busy train station was beyond comprehension, but this was New York… the melting pot of humanity. Come to think of it, she’d seen some pretty weird sights on the subway platforms. She supposed a 20-foot snake would probably fit right in. She read over the rest of the colorful entries down to the almost boring lost dogs and cats. There wasn’t one ad for a golden Princess. She wasn’t too surprised. "Of course not… its gotta be hard."

She folded the ads and looked at the tag again. "All right, this number has got to be some sort of identification." Her index finger tapped rhythmically on the ceramic mug as she searched for the answer. It came to her with sudden clarity. "Damn! I can’t believe I didn’t think of this sooner."

Van walked to her desk and turned on her computer. She watched the machine run through its boot-up process, foot nervously bouncing up and down. "Come on… " She said in a pleading manner. Finally the main screen materialized and Van could begin her search. She pondered for just a moment before initializing the dial-up software… accessing the animal shelter’s server. She rationalized her ‘hacking’ by the fact she was an authorized user. On many occasions, she’d dialed-in from home to work on a problem. "Hmmm… this is just one more liiiitle problem," she mused.

Within a few minutes, the shelter’s login screen appeared. Vanessa needed to access the pet identification records. The shelter was connected to a worldwide pet recovery service that utilized a central database. If the number on the tag was some form of ID, the chances were good it would be registered in this database. From the server’s main menu, she selected the icon indicating additions, inquiries or updates to the database. There were two selections for search… microchips and tattoos. Van was hoping the number was first of all, a valid ID and second, it indicated a tattoo. If Princess had a chip implanted, it would have to be scanned to extract the owner information, and that meant waiting until the next full business day after Christmas. The tattooed animals, however, would have all the pertinent info listed in the database. She held her breath, input the tag’s number and hit the enter key. A small window popped up on the screen indicating the search was in progress. She pushed away from the screen, relaxing against the leather back of the antique desk chair. Depending on the size of the database, the search could take more than a few minutes. Van got up and went into the kitchen to refill her mug and to look for a something to nibble on. She figured a watched pot never boiled and the same was true in waiting for data returns.

Van took this time to fix a toasted blueberry bagel and another cup of coffee. She coated the warm bagel with soft cream cheese and returned to her desk. She was in the middle of a bite when the database search concluded… prompting her to hurriedly swallow the bite, wiping cream cheese from her lips. She inched closer to the screen. The first panel simply indicated that the search object had been found. The next panel displayed the owner information. Van congratulated her efforts, "Yes!" She scanned the info and sent the file to her laser printer. Quickly, the printer spit out the requested file allowing Van to read it at her leisure. She then shut down the various opened windows and logged out of the server, finally disconnecting the dial-up connection. Van’s elation was short-lived once she more thoroughly read the document. "Dammit!" She let out a deep sigh, commenting further on her disappointment. "I knew it wouldn’t be easy."

Princess did indeed have an owner, and she was registered in the national database. Her owner, however, lived in Virginia, not New York. The information included the owner’s name, address and phone number as well as info on Princess… the date she was registered, the vet who did the tattoo, her vaccinations… blahblahblah.

"Ok, let’s see what we have." Van put the slip of paper on her desk. She picked up the phone and dialed the owner’s number. On the third ring, an answering machine picked up. A woman’s sultry voice delivered the taped message. "Hi, Jim and I can’t take your call right now, but leave your name and number, and we’ll call you back as soon as possible."…beeeeeppp…. Van left her name and number along with a short message-indicating Princess was in her possession. She sighed recalling the wording of the taped message…"Jim and I…"

"Well, so much for that orientation assumption." Van shut down the computer and made her way into the bedroom. It was time for a hot shower and she needed to get things prepared for her dinner. She stopped at her bed and gave Raven a scratch. The animal languidly rolled on her back, exposing her soft belly for Van to tickle. Princess opened her eyes, stretched and yawned. In the back of her mind, Van wished the owner wouldn’t call. Seeing the two cats together seemed perfect… like they belonged to one another. She gave Princess a rub on the head and moved into the bath. Her mind was trying to figure out how Princess had come to be in New York. She even went so far as to guess she had changed owners and the new one had not updated the database records. If that were the case, then Raven might have a companion after all.

Raven rolled toward Princess and licked her companion’s head. The gentleness of the action was more than just one cat grooming another… it was love.

CHAPTER FIVE

Van finished bathing and got dressed to run some errands. She needed to pick up dinner from the local deli, as cooking wasn’t high on her priority list, and stop by the wine merchant. She might even get some cut greenery for the table. She bade the felines good-bye.

"Okay, I’ll be back. No fighting… no illegal use of the computer… and no antagonizing the wildlife outside."

Raven and Princess blinked silently… understanding. Van gathered her coat and left the apartment. The cats listened intently for the key turning in the lock, signaling the human’s departure. Raven sprinted to the front window casing and watched for the familiar form to emerge on the sidewalk.

"Well, is she gone?" A soft voice purred in the direction of the window.

The dark beauty floated to the floor and walked toward a pair of green eyes. "Yes, Gabrielle, she’s gone. Or should I call you Princess?" There was a hint of mischievousness in her throaty voice.

"You know, Xena, it’s not like I had a choice when that woman named me. At least she got the regal part right, I am Amazon royalty. And I wouldn’t be pointing any paws if I were you… um… Raven." The bard had a point, even if she was just kidding the warrior.

‘Well, names…snames. We’ve got a much larger problem than that." Xena was pacing in a tight circle around her beloved Gabrielle.

"What’s that?" The bard was in the process of licking her paw and running it over her ear.

Xena was incredulous. "Hello??? We’re cats, for Zeus’s sake! Has that little bit of reality slipped by you?"

Gabrielle stopped in mid-lick, gingerly placing her paw on the floor. "Oh… yeah, so we are. I guess I’ve sorta gotten used to this form." She arched her back, stretching every muscle. "It’s not been that bad."

Xena so wanted to arch her brow, but couldn’t. "Oh, really? And which part wasn’t so bad, huh? Um… the part where we were separated for nearly a year? Or maybe the part where I’ve had the same food day after day? And how about you… where in Hades have you been all this time? And what was all that business in the alley about? You could have been seriously hurt."

"Gods, Xena… do you have any idea how hard it is not to just start blabbing instead of meowing? I thought I’d go nuts trying to find you. Even tho it was Hades fault we got separated, it was almost impossible to get away from those people. If it hadn’t been for the woman getting pregnant, I’d still be on that farm. Oh… and for your information, I had that alley scene well in hand. I had to think of a way to get your attention." There was a trace of frustration in her small voice. In fact, both their voices were strange sounding… not at all like the ones they were used to. Of course, the fact that cats aren’t designed to actually talk could have had something to do with it.

Xena made a mental note to kick the underworld’s god’s ass when they were finally done with this duty. She picked up the conversation. "What did her getting pregnant have to do with anything?"

"Well, the husband didn’t want any animals around the baby. Now, personally, I don’t understand that, I like children… heck, I even had one. I would have made a great sitter…." Gabrielle was off and running.

"Gabrielle! Just the facts." Xena now wondered why she had missed the bard so much.

"Oh, sorry. Anyway, they decided it best to find me a new home."

"And that’s how you came here?" Xena asked.

"Yep. Lucky for me the woman’s sister was looking for a companion… and she lives here. So, you see, it all worked out." Gabrielle lifted her paw to start grooming again, but stopped, trying to regain some of her humanness. "Oh… sorry." She purred.

Xena realized she had been too hard on her. They were, after all, cats. "It’s okay, Gabrielle… groom if you want. We still have a problem. Van looked up the owner information from that number on your tag…"

Once more Gabrielle couldn’t resist the opportunity to chime in. Apparently, she’d not had a lot of conversation over the last year. "That’s good, isn’t it? I mean no problem… did she call… did she speak with the woman…?"

Xena rolled her eyes. "Gabrielle… listen to me, okay? The woman’s sister never updated the file and your previous owner wasn’t home when she called. She could be anywhere. We’re in serious cat litter here. Don’t you remember what Hades told us?"

Gabrielle scrunched her perky little nose. "Uh… well, not exactly. Something about performing a good deed…. I don’t really remember, sorry."

"Gods… how in the name of all that’s Olympian could you have forgotten why in tartarus we’re roaming around on all fours?" Xena’s tail began swishing madly. She tried to refresh the bard’s failing memory. "All right… this is the way it went. We were in the underworld after having completed yet another lifetime, and still not getting it right. Um… sound familiar now?"

Gabrielle’s green eyes blinked at the warrior. "Oh, yeah… now I remember. Hades was really pissed that you seemed to follow the same pattern and he was about to pull the plug on the reincarnation thing."

Xena absently bit at an itch on her paw. "Uh-huh… and do you remember what you said to him?"

"Well, not really." Gabrielle’s selective memory was functioning just fine.

"Let me tell you. In the middle of his tirade, you reminded him that we were only human and didn’t possess uncanny intuitive traits… like…cats." Xena paused to allow the bard to defend herself. For once there was no noise forthcoming from the warrior’s partner. She continued. "Thanks to you completely enraging him, he sent us back as freaking felines…"

"Xena… I’m sor…" Gabrielle didn’t get to finish her statement.

"Wait, there’s more. Coming back as animals is only part of it. He told us that in this lifetime we were to help a worthy person find the possibility of true happiness… and he gave us one year to do it in. To fail means we will live out our natural lives in this state. Now, you wouldn’t want to guess when that year is up, would you?" Xena sat on her haunches waiting for Gabrielle to respond.

"Umm… soon, I suppose?" The bard had a bad feeling about this.

"Oh, you could say that. How does midnight tonight suit you?" Just hearing the words gave Xena the fidgets.

"Oh, gods, Xena what are we gonna do? Where are we going to find that person? For the first time, Gabrielle realized the seriousness of the situation, but she still hadn’t gotten Xena’s drift.

"Relax, Gabrielle. We have the right person, my owner. She’s a kind but lonely woman with a good heart. She saved me from a rather nasty demise last year." Xena probably shouldn’t have volunteered that last part.

Gabrielle had to know. "Saved you from what?"

Xena now tried forgetting. "It doesn’t matter."

Gabrielle would not let this go. "Oh, no you don’t. Let’s have it. What happened to you?"

Xena knew from lifetimes of experience to just give in or it would be a verry long night. "All right. I was in a local animal shelter and was about to be gassed. I fought my way from the vile men who had me, and Van saved me… adopted me right on the spot."

Gabrielle wished she could have laughed. This was sooo like Xena. "I can’t believe this! Even as a cat you wound up on death row! You know Hades is going to have plenty to say about this. Honestly, you couldn’t behave?"

"Okay, just let it go for now. If we can’t get Van hooked up with someone tonight, we’re done for. What about your owner… what kind of woman is she?" Xena was getting desperate. The idea of using a catbox was wearing thin with her, and she longed for a flagon of port. She’d found out early on, cats have no tolerance for alcohol… at all.

Gabrielle’s eyes brightened. "Oh, Xena, that’s it! My owner, she’d be perfect. She’s kind and generous, loving and a gentle soul. She just works too much. Now if only we could get a message to her as to where I am. I know she’d come."

"Well, we have a problem there." Xena held up her paw. "See, claws… not fingers. And it wouldn’t do us any good anyway. Hades won’t allow us to talk to anyone except each other. You really hacked him off, by the way."

Gabrielle slumped to the floor and let out a big sigh. "Then I guess that’s it. We’re out of time and luck."

Xena curled up next to her companion. "That’s all right. At least we found each other."

The two felines were huddled together silently contemplating how the rest of their lives would be spent when the phone rang. Both Xena and Gabrielle looked in the direction of the answering machine. On the third ring, the machine picked up and Van’s voice announced that no one could take the call, please leave a name, number and so forth.

Beeeppp…. A woman’s voice left a short message. "Hi, I’m Melissa Jenkins. I believe you have my cat, Princess…"

Xena and Gabrielle didn’t hear the rest of the message. They were too busy rolling about the floor in unbridled relief.

CHAPTER SIX

The afternoon was waning, and Van still wasn’t back from her errands. The early excitement of Gabrielle’s… uh… Princess’s owner calling was turning to anxiety for the two misplaced Greeks. Xena was pacing the front windowsill as she’d done thousands of times before, but this time was different. She alternated looking out the window and peering at the wall clock. It was nearly five.

"Damn! Where is she? There couldn’t be that many places open on Christmas Eve." Xena resumed her steely gaze out the window.

"Oh, that’s right, it is that time of year. I’d almost forgotten. I sorta miss celebrating Solstice, don’t you?" Gabrielle could be a child at heart at times. "Xena, you remember that Solstice we helped those orphans and Senticles? That was a great Solstice."

"Xena stopped her vigil and looked at her partner. She did indeed remember that event. It was their first Solstice together. Things were so simple then. "Yes, I remember, and don’t worry, we’ll celebrate the next one together." Xena’s senses drew her back to the window just in time to see the top of Van’s head near the front entrance. She leapt from the sill. "Finally!"

Gabrielle’s ears perked up. "She’s back?"

"Yep… now to get her to call that owner of yours." Xena rubbed her nose against Gabrielle’s and caressed her face with her own. Silently, she couldn’t wait to have human hands and lips again. She’d missed Gabrielle terribly. "Remember, we can’t talk to her, but just follow my lead."

"OK." Gabrielle’s reply was still in the air when the sound of a key in the door lock alerted them.

Van stepped into the apartment her arms loaded with bags and parcels. She maneuvered some of the packages to the dining table and deposited the rest on the kitchen counter. The unmistakable smell of roasted something was wafting from one of the foil containers. Gabrielle’s eyes widened and her mouth began watering. She was seriously thinking about jumping on the counter when Xena gave her a none too gentle bump.

"Yeoww.." She protested.

Van threw a look of disappointment toward Raven… Xena. "Hey! Don’t be impolite to our guest, Raven. She probably just smells dinner. Isn’t that right, Princess?" Van leaned over and stroked the feline’s head. "Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten you two. We’re all having Christmas Eve dinner."

Van went about the business of putting things away in the kitchen and generally puttering around. Xena couldn’t stand it any longer. She bounded to the answering machine and placed her paw on the message recall button. Fortunately, all it took was a little pressure to activate the messages… there was only one.

"Hello… you have one message… beeeppp…. Hi, I’m Melissa Jenkins, I believe you have my cat, Princess.."

Van practically dropped the bottle of Mouton Cadet she was opening. "What the…?" She stepped out of the kitchen and saw Raven sitting on the machine, the massage still playing. "Raven! Get off that before you erase the message." The cat happily complied. Van hit the replay button and listened to the full message. Melissa had left a number but said she’d be gone after six for the evening. Van looked at her watch… five forty-five.

She hurriedly picked up the phone and dialed the number. "Please… be there." The phone rang and a voice came on the line. "Hi, this is Melissa…"

Van started talking before she realized it was a recording. She had missed her. "Dammit anyway." She waited for the greeting to finish and started talking. "Hello, Melissa, this is Van… uh… Vanessa. I called about your cat and…"

A voice stopped Van in the middle of her message. "Hello… this is Melissa… you still there?

"Yes, I am. Um… hi, again. It seems I have Princess, did you know she was gone?" Vanessa was recalling what Dan had said that night at the shelter about people throwing their pets away. She was hoping Melissa wasn’t one of those ‘asswipes’, as he had so articulately put it.

"Oh gods, yes, I’ve been worried sick. Is she all right? I don’t know how she got out. I’m usually so careful about that sort of thing. When can I come get her?" Melissa was on the verge of tears.

Van tried to ally her fears. "Oh, she’s just fine and none the worse for her ordeal. When do you want to pick her up? I know it’s Christmas Eve and you probably have plans, but I’ll be around tonight and tomorrow."

There was a slight hesitation on the other end of the line. "Well, I was just going to a late movie… nothing special, but I wouldn’t want to intrude on your Christmas Eve.

Van had no idea where the next words came from. They just rolled off her tongue and into the phone. "In that case, why don’t you come over for dinner… that is unless you don’t mind missing your movie. I’ve got plenty for two… if you want."

Raven and Princess looked at one another. If it wouldn’t have freaked Van out, they would have demonstrated the feline version of a high five.

Melissa didn’t normally accept invitations from strangers. This was New York, but there was something in the woman’s voice. She rationalized that Van must be okay to have taken Princess in. She agreed and got Van address. "I’ll be there within the hour, if that’s all right. I can see a movie any night."

"Perfect. You like red or white wine?" Van asked.

"Oh… red is fine. See you soon." The line went silent.

Van hung the phone up and realized it had been quite a while since she’d had anyone over for dinner. Fortunately, she’d gotten two Cornish hens at the deli. She was going to have the other one the next day. She still couldn’t quite believe she’d invited a perfect stranger into her home… this was New York after all. "Oh, well, too late now… besides having company tonight would be nice." She decided to take a quick shower. Dinner was already done. She poured a glass of the red and went toward the bedroom and bath. As the warm water cascaded over her body, she wondered about the two amazing animals in her apartment. How did Raven know about the message and more importantly, how did she know how to replay the darn thing. This was turning out to be one interesting Christmas.

*************

It was nearly one hour exactly from Van’s conversation with Melissa that the entry buzzer sounded in the apartment. Vanessa let her in the front door and directed her to the third floor. She found she was actually a little bit nervous. All that subsided when she opened the apartment door. She felt completely at ease with this woman. She had a warm, sincere smile and kind eyes. The two exchanged a firm handshake and Van took Melissa coat. The first thing she looked for was Princess. And it didn’t take long. The golden beauty jumped into her arms, purring loudly. Van could see the special bond between the two. She’d made the right decision taking Princess in and inviting Melissa over. She let the two get reacquainted while she poured her guest some wine. All the while Raven sat off to the side. It was as if she’d seen Princess go through this sort of thing before, and was content watching.

Princess lavished affection upon the human. In a way, she was trying to say good-bye, but she knew Melissa didn’t understand. Finally, she hopped off her lap and sought out Raven. Van offered Melissa the glass of wine, which her guest took graciously. Vanessa had started a warm fire and although she didn’t have a Christmas tree, the festiveness of the evening was in the air. Van motioned for Melissa to take a comfy seat near the fire.

Melissa started the conversation. "Tell me how you found Princess?"

Van sipped her wine, allowing the liquid to warm her. "I’m not sure who found whom."

A quizzical look was on Melissa’s face. "What do you mean?"

"Well, I think it was Raven who found her. I know this is going to sound strange, but I believe those two know each other." Van cast a glance toward the two forms in question. They were curled up on the sofa together. "See what I mean? They’ve been like that since I brought Princess in from the alley. I’ve never seen anything like it. They just bonded immediately."

"Hmmm… that might explain why Princess was acting like she was before she slipped out." Melissa sipped the wine and gazed into the dancing fire. "She’s been behaving very strangely over the last week… always at the door when I’d come in. A few times she zipped into the hallway and I’d have to corral her. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I suppose she must have felt her companion was nearby…" Melissa paused not wanting to sound like some weirdo. "Not that I’m suggesting such a thing is possible, but animals have senses way beyond what we can experience."

Van really liked this woman. "Oh, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve read stories of pets that have gotten separated from their owners and traveled great distances to find them, using just their instinct. I think it’s very likely these two used to be together and have simply sought one another out."

Melissa smiled. "And what a perfect time to do that… this time of year I mean."

"Yes, I know what you mean." Van hadn’t realized how much she’d missed having quiet conversation. This felt warm and comfortable. A slight pang in her stomach reminded her of dinner. "Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m starved. How about dinner?"

"Absolutely. I’m famished! But are you sure there’s enough?" Melissa pushed herself from the cozy confines of the chair.

Van nodded. "Oh, yeah, trust me. I have plenty. All I have to do is do a quick nuke reheat and we’re in business. I hope you’re fond of Cornish hens, dressing, peas, mashed potatoes with gravy, cranberry sauce, hot yeast rolls and butter… oh, and Italian Cream Cake for dessert."

Melissa’s stomach growled positively. "Hey, it’s a start." She grinned playfully.

**********************

From across the room Xena and Gabrielle watched the interaction take place. Van and Melissa launched into the meal like there was no tomorrow. Animated conversation and laughter flowed as if they had known each other forever. There was a genuine sense of interest in one another. They exchanged work stories… Melissa was a professional photographer trying to solidify her business. Van’s business was to help people like Melissa do just that. They discussed art, the theater, music, travel and philosophy. Melissa explained how she changed tags on Princess’s collar… saying she couldn’t abide the plain one her sister had bought. They had many points of similarity and even the areas they were not agreed on produced intelligent banter. Both seemed starved for just this kind of connection. They were so engrossed in conversation the actions of the felines were oblivious to them.

Gabrielle silently padded around a chair to the front of the hearth. She was out of direct sight of Van and Melissa. She motioned for Xena to join her. When the warrior was close, Gabrielle whispered. "Well, do you think this is what Hades had in mind?"

Xena thought for a moment. "I hope so… ‘cause we have about ten minutes left. If this isn’t it, then we’ll get to see if cats really do have nine lives."

"How will we know for sure?" Gabrielle always wanted details. Some things never changed, no matter what form they came back as.

"Trust me… we’ll know." The warrior said nonchalantly.

The small mantel clock began chiming the hour. It was midnight and Christmas day was twelve golden tones away. Van and Melissa had talked the hours away and were quite surprised that it was that late.

Van raised her glass in a toast. "Merry Christmas, Melissa."

Melissa returned the gesture. "And to you, too."

They both turned toward Raven and Princess, raising glasses to the felines. Van spoke for the humans. "And Merry Christmas to you two very special felines."

As the twelfth chime rang throughout the apartment, a disembodied voice filled the space. "Well done, you two. It’s time to come home."

Van and Melissa had had just enough wine not to freak out. They looked at one another and then to the cats. To their amazement, a shimmering light began to envelop the animals. In a few seconds the actual forms of the cats had dissolved into a brilliant radiance, lifted off the floor and dissipated into thin air. The two women were in shock… to say the least.

Van wanted confirmation she wasn’t hallucinating. Without taking her eyes from the spot on the floor, she asked Melissa. "Tell me you saw that too."

"Oh, yeah…. I saw it… I don’t believe it, but I saw it." Melissa turned to Van and asked the obvious. "I don’t suppose they’re coming back?"

Van was shaking. "Oh, I don’t think so. I guess there really was something very special about those two."

Melissa shyly smiled. "Yes… they got us to meet. There has to be a reason for that, but I’m going to really miss Princess."

Van felt the same tug in her heart. "I know… same here for Raven. I think they planned this all along… some sort of magic."

"Yes… magic… Christmas magic." Melissa said softly.

****************

In the time between here and then a conversation could be heard… a very familiar conversation.

"See… I told you things would work out. Now if you’d only stop insisting on a good fight to solve everything we’d be done with all this." The bard’s voice was back and in full glory.

"Uh-huh… and if you tell me one more time…’I told you so’… I’m asking for separate vacations next time." The warrior’s voice was controlled as ever.

Gabrielle continued. "Do you think Hades is still gonna be pissed at me… I mean it’s been a while and you know how sometimes he just can’t let things go… and…"

"Gabrielle…." Xena warned her companion, but some things were meant to be just the way they were.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a goodnight.

The End

 


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