STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Xena, and Gabrielle, and the usuals are the property of Universal/MCA, and Renaissance Pictures. The use of the prior mentioned characters is strictly for fun, not for profit. No plagiarist activity or theft of character is intended in any way.

SUBTEXT: Ah yes, subtext. This story does contain major references to the loving relationship between two women, and then some. If this is not your cup of tea, then DON'T DRINK! Or read for that matter. If you are under 18, please move on. If this type of subject matter is illegal in your state, then move out, or move on with the 18-year-olds. After all, this world has many resources, however some things are just not meant for some people. Please do us all a favor, and surf on down the line.



Each friend represents a world in us,

a world possibly not born until they arrive,

and it is only by this meeting,

a new world is born.

********Anais Nin********





I'm taking a few minutes, to jot this down in my journal so I don't forget. We have been able to spend a few days here with Blayne, our ancestor, and the two small black cats that are her constant companions. Her girlfriend, or who ever this other woman is has been exceedingly pleasant, maybe too much so. Blayne seems to be on edge, but when I asked her about it, she passed it off as fatigue from our previous trials. I'm worried about her, but I am not certain how I could help her, or what kind of possible problems that might create. The rules that govern her timeline, are so different, and so much stranger than ours.

I seem to be recovering from the trials of the past year. The strange, yet absolutely wonderful circumstances, that finally allowed Xena and I to express our love for each other, has helped immensely in our individual recoveries. It feels so good to have her arms around me, and to know that we are destined to love each other forever. And love her I do.

She has been having a harder time with the recovery than me. Nightmares, and anxiety attacks. It seems to make her feel as though she is not strong enough anymore, or worthy enough to share my love. After all the difficult things that we have been through together, and the lies we have told, and the betrayals we have designed for each other, it's a miracle, that she would endanger herself as she did, to recover me from the arms of death.

I have been feeling lately as though my death experience has subtly changed me yet again. I seem to be stronger, and more perceptive. I am the protector now, I am the emotional warrior. I always felt I was pretty level headed, at least for the most part, but now, now I feel differently, almost strange.

We are preparing to leave Blayne's enclave. It is time to move on, and we are both anxious to get started. We need some serious time to ourselves. And Xena, has some kind of special surprise planned. We will still be able to spend at least the next few days ALONE! And I for one am looking forward to it. I miss just having the two of us on the road. I need this, and I know she does too. Blayne has indicated that she will miss us, and that we may as yet run into each other again. Right now, my only concerns are with Xena, and with us. I need her so much. And I know she needs me too!

Xena and Gabrielle had been traveling for several miles, with little or no conversation between them. It was extremely hot, and rather than waste what little reserves the two had left, they traveled quietly, stopping only to refill their water skins. Gabrielle was still mystified as to where they were going. Xena had said something about a wedding, and visiting friends, and some cryptic stuff about "the Gathering".

When Gabrielle was a child, the elder women in town would whisper stories about a group of women warriors, that would "gather" in different places, at different times of the year. These women were supposed to have possessed several skills. They were teachers, healers, and cooks. The stories said that they were loyal only to each other, but it was also said that they all worked commonly for one goal and only one goal. It was their duty as they saw it to protect, and educate women in Greece, and any other places they could reach. Several of them also worked with children. Training them to survive, and encouraging them to work hard, instead of stealing to make their way.

These women were feared by many people, especially some of the most prominent men in Greece, as well as other outlying lands. They were said to practice magic, and to be protected by every Goddess, and Sorceress in the known world. The Fates and the Furies were said to give them a wide berth as well. There had never been a recorded encounter between any of these powerful people, and the women of The Gathering, and because of the mystery and fear surrounding them, there more than likely never would be.

Gabrielle wasn't certain at all about these strange stories. She had always played them off as myths, or legends. Events that had occurred long before her time, and had ended, well before she was born. If there was any truth to them at all. And as much as she pestered Xena, before they hit the road, Xena refused to tell her anything. She just kept saying "you'll see" in that irritating closed door Warrior Princess way of hers.

Then there was the question of the wedding. Whose wedding? Was it a member of the gathering? And whom would she be marrying? According to the stories, all but one of them loved women. Maybe it was her, the one, maybe she had found her allusive Warrior Prince. The notion of any of the others being together with each other, was not a bad one. After all, Gabrielle and Xena had finally broken through all of their barriers, and had begun to share their love, completely. And, she was an Amazon Queen, so it was not a strange notion at all. She just wished that she knew more about where they were going, and what was supposed to happen.

To the best of her knowledge, even the Amazons were fearful of this group. None had ever seen them, but they knew the stories, and were suitably afraid of them. As though they were ghosts, or some other strange being. Gabrielle shuddered at the thought. She had encountered many strange things in her travels with Xena, even ghosts, and she definitely did not like them.

Above all else, she wished she knew how Xena knew the people they were to visit. Xena had not mentioned any friends, just acquaintances, and assorted warlords etc. The whole idea that Xena had people she considered friends, that Gabrielle, either had never met, or had not heard about, was intriguing as all Hades. The curiosity was killing the bard.

The heat was really getting to her. She started to feel dizzy, and was afraid she was going to fall flat out onto the ground. She stopped walking for a moment and leaned heavily on her staff. Just as Xena became aware that her companion was no longer walking next to her, Gabrielle slowly slipped to the ground. "GABRIELLE! GABRIELLE!" Xena shouted. She leaped off of Argo's back, water skin in hand, and quickly pulled Gabrielle into her arms. The younger woman had apparently succumbed to the heat, and in her musings about their destination, had forgotten to keep drinking water. She had totally dehydrated herself.

Xena picked up her love, and carried her to the shade of a nearby tree. Uncorking the water skin, she carefully poured some into Gabrielle's mouth. She was still too out of it to swallow, so Xena tilted her head slightly, and let the water run out. You couldn't be too careful. A person could drown in a very small amount of water. Carefully tilting Gabrielle's head back, Xena poured a small amount of the water over her head. Letting it drip slowly across her scalp, in an attempt to cool down her burning skin. Xena could have kicked herself for not thinking of it sooner, and doing a better job protecting her mate from the hot sun.

I guess I was caught up in my thoughts, and forgot to check on her. Usually I harp on her endlessly about staying hydrated, about the dangers of the heat. Then in my excitement, about the secret I'm keeping from her, I go and neglect her. I am so stupid! Xena groaned to herself. She continued to bathe Gabrielle's face with the cool water, until she felt her stir in her arms.

"Ohhhh, I feel sick. My head is killing me. Make it stop Xena." Gabrielle cried softly. "Oh Gabrielle, I am so sorry. Here, you need to drink some water. But just sip, don't gulp, or it will make you sick." Xena answered. She slowly poured a small trickle of water between Gabrielle's parched lips. "That's it, slowly, don't gulp." Xena instructed her. Gabrielle gagged once, then calmed down, and closed her eyes again. "I'm sorry Xena, I forgot to drink more water. I was so caught up in my thoughts, about where we were going, it just got away from me." Gabrielle whispered. "Don't be sorry, it was my fault, my love. I was so busy with my own thoughts, that I forgot to keep reminding you. I feel terrible Gabrielle, I never should have taken my attention from you, even for a minute." Xena reflected sadly.

She continued to give Gabrielle sips of the cool water, and to bathe her forehead with the cooling liquid as well. A candlemark or two later, Gabrielle opened her eyes again. She had drifted off for a few moments, and Xena had been content to hold her in her arms. "Hey, are you feeling any better?" Xena asked. "Mmmm, a little. A kiss might make me feel even better though." Gabrielle smiled back. Xena bent down, and obliged her love with a soft tender kiss. "I was right, I do feel better. More please. . . ." she giggled. Xena kissed her again, and yet again. "Okay, I get the hint. I think we can stop here for the night, if it's all right with you?" Xena queried. A nod, and a returning kiss was her answer.

Xena asked Gabrielle to sit quietly under the shade of the trees, while she scouted the area, and looked for a good place to set up camp. Several minutes later she returned, and picking Gabrielle up in her arms, went striding back in the direction she had just come from. Giggling again, Gabrielle whispered in her ear, "I can walk you know silly. You need your rest too in this heat." Xena smiled, and nuzzled her neck, and then held her even tighter. "I rather like your damsel in distress mode. Milady, allow me to share this lovely site with you this night." Kicking her feet, and then kissing her lover, Gabrielle graced her with a royal reply. "Of course my champion, lead on."

Xena carried her a few yards further to the site she had found. It was a beautiful grassy area surrounded by trees, with a small stream nearby. Xena laid Gabrielle down to lean against one of the trees, and then whistled through her teeth. A few moments later Argo came trotting down the trail they had just walked over. "Good girl." Xena patted her on the neck, and then began unloading their things for the night. Gabrielle started to stand, to help Xena set up camp, when she was met with a steely blue gaze. "Sit down, I will set up camp this evening, your majesty." Xena admonished her playfully. Gabrielle chuckled, but did as she was told. She was quite honestly amazed at her usually stoic, and not normally playful lover. This was definitely an unfamiliar side of the Warrior Princess. She had seen little glimpses of it over the years, but not nearly so outgoing as this.

Hmmm, I wonder if this has anything to do with our upcoming destination. She is really excited about this wedding we are going to. I don't remember her showing this much excitement and silliness since . . .well, ever. I think, I think I like it. Yep, I definitely like it. Now, how do I keep her from closing off again. I guess I just I don't do anything, just keep playing along. If I try too hard, I might just scare her away. I wonder if I can get her to give up any information, about where we're going, and who we're visiting. Let me see, guilt? No, that's not fair. Hmmm, how about . . .heh, oh yeah, that might just work.

After a candlemark or so passed, Xena was finished setting up the area, and then came over to bring Gabrielle some fruit, and another skin of water. "I'm going to check the area your majesty. Is there anything else I can get for you before I go." Gabrielle reached up and grabbed a corner of Xena's leather skirt. Tugging her down to her level, she put her arms around the back of Xena's neck, and kissed her, then gently nipped her ear. Whispering to her, she said, "Hurry back, there's more where that came from. I'll be missing you very much." Xena kissed her back, and then blushing, stood and strode off into the trees.

Xena listened to the sounds of the forest for a while, and then extended her senses further to detect any approaching trouble. Experience had taught her that abandoning her senses to her lover could be a dangerous thing. Some of the more acute things like her hearing tended to be compromised while making love. At first she thought that she could convince Gabrielle that the road was not a real safe place to drop her guard. But that didn't last very long. Besides, she thought to herself, I'm just as much at fault. Ever since we crossed our final barriers, I can't bring myself to hold her back. Not in any way. Strange. I've been in love before, and been loved before, but never like this. When I was a Warlord, I could have anyone I wanted, anywhere, anytime. But that seems so dirty to me now. I guess it's part of the recovery process. Hmm, and that last kiss. So much like the first. I wonder what she has up her sleeve. Probably try to get me to tell her where we're going. If she only knew, we are only about a half-day's ride away now. I bet if we listened carefully tonight, we could hear the music from the gathering, carried on the breeze.

Xena turned and headed back to the clearing, thinking to herself how right it feels to be loved, and to love. She smiled to herself, when she came to the tree where she had left Gabrielle, only to find her asleep again. She knelt down in front of her, and took her hand, and placed small kisses across the back of it. She was rewarded with first a squeeze, and then a pair of beautiful, shining emeralds smiling back at her. "How would you like to take a cool bath, and then I can hunt something up for dinner?" she asked her beloved. "That sounds wonderful. But, you are going to join me aren't you?" Gabrielle replied with a smile and a leer. "Oh of course your majesty. I wouldn't miss it for the world." Xena answered with a raise of the eyebrow.

She stood, and reached for Gabrielle's hands, pulling her into an embrace. Gabrielle reached around, and began to release the clasps that held Xena's armor in place. Slowly one by one each piece of armor was removed, and carefully set aside. Next followed the laces to Xena's leather dress. After they were loosened, Gabrielle slipped the straps over Xena's shoulders, and slipped the leather garment down so that the warrior could step out of it. Before she could remove the undergarments, Xena had reached for the laces to her top, and loosened them slipping the bilious green unit over Gabrielle's head, soon to be followed by her rust colored skirt. Both women then assisted each other in removing the rest of their clothing, and last but not least their boots. When they were both quite naked, Xena swept Gabrielle into her arms, and carried her the short distance to the stream. The water came to just above her hips, at its deepest point. The current was swift, but not so much so that her balance might be compromised. She pulled Gabrielle into a deeply passionate kiss, and then set her down in the water.

The water came to just below the top of Gabrielle's ribcage. She shivered momentarily, and goosebumps broke out across her skin. Xena wasn't sure if it was the temperature of the water, or the kiss that garnered this reaction, but just to make sure, she kissed her again. The two began a dance, turning in each other's grasp, touching, tasting and exploring every inch of skin between them. Xena knelt on the sandy bottom, and traced patterns on Gabrielle's abdomen with her lips. Time seemed to stand still. Everything in their surroundings seemed to disappear, and the only thing left was the two of them.

Several candlemarks later, both women satiated by their love for each other, realized that if they continued much longer, that they would either drown, or float down stream, and end up in some poor farmer's yard, or something equally as silly. After several more tender kisses, they finished bathing, washing each other's hair, and all the unreachable places, then with a last dunking, and a few moments of water fighting, they held hands, and worked their back to the shore. Xena quickly walked over and grabbed some clean linen sheets from their pack to dry themselves off, although the air was still warm enough to dry them even without the linens.

Gabrielle was absolutely speechless. Lost in this myriad of feelings and sensations, she was reluctant to allow her senses to resurface to the present. Xena dried her off patiently as though handling a delicate piece of earthenware, or a soft and fragrant rose. Gabrielle finally broke the silence. "Xena?" she breathed softly. "Yes, my love?" Xena murmured back. "Have I told you yet today how much I love you?" Gabrielle replied. "Oh yes. Very much so. Gabrielle?" Xena said. "Yes, Xena?" She responded. "Have I told you today, how much I love you?" Gabrielle smiled, and answered her with a bone crushing hug. "Yes, yes, yes. That you have."

Slipping into almost matching linen shifts, Xena recovered her boots, and put them on with the idea of finding some game for them to eat for supper, while Gabrielle busied herself looking for some edible greens to add to the meal. Areas nearer the water tended to produce an abundance of edible plants, and roots. Xena's vast knowledge, due both to her years on the road, and her abilities as a healer, assured that they would not consume anything dangerous. Through experimentation, she was able to determine if any of the foods they included in their daily repasts might not agree with her companion.

Very few things affected either, but it paid to be aware of their limitations.

After gathering together a nice assortment of vegetables, Gabrielle settled down on their bedroll to do some writing in her diary. It had been a few days since she had last updated the scroll, but lately it seemed that her awareness was so acute, that nothing that had passed, would be forgotten. Huh, must be love I guess. She started out by writing down an account of the last couple of days on the road, and then her attentions shifted to the days events, and eventually to her curiosity regarding the impending party. For that was the only way to describe what she visualized in her mind's eye. After all, a wedding usually meant a party, didn't it?

Gabrielle had been sitting for a while, when she decided to stand and stretch. Walking towards the water, she was drawn to a movement on the surface, something floating in the current. Stepping closer, she was startled to see what looked like little boats. Made of leaves, small twigs, and other natural things from the forest, there were at least a hundred of them. Each one had a tiny figure of . . . Gods, of a woman holding the mast as if steering the boat on its merry way down the stream. She was about to turn, and run in search of Xena, when a familiar hand gripped her shoulder. "Xena! Look at all of them! Who would have done this? They're boats, hundreds of them. All made of leaves and things. Where did they come from?" gasped Gabrielle.

Xena bent down and carefully scooped one of the tiny vessels into the palm of her hand. Painted onto the surface of the leaf, in tiny little scrolled letters, were 9 names, representing the 9 original members of The Gathering. "What does it mean, Xena?" Gabrielle asked again. Xena smiled, then with a whoop, she scooped Gabrielle into her arms, and spun her around in a circle. "Gabrielle, do you know who did this? Do you know where these came from?" Xena laughed out loud. "Xena," Gabrielle said exasperated, "If I knew anything about them, I wouldn't have asked." "Oh, right, anyway, Gabrielle these are from The Gathering. They must be camped somewhere further along the stream. And I bet I know where. We are only about 1/2 a day's ride from them." Gabrielle was listening, to Xena, but she was also listening to her hungry stomach. "Xena, I know how excited you are, and so am I, but can we eat first?"

Xena hugged Gabrielle, and then kissed her forehead. "Of course. We're still going to stay here tonight, I'm just glad we are so close to our destination. With this hot weather, it's better that we don't have so far to go." With that, she turned and began building a fire. When she approached the camp, she had been carrying a couple of skinned and dressed rabbits. After the fire was ready, she skewered them, and laid them on crossed sticks over the coals. Gabrielle brushed them with some olive oil, and rosemary, and a little garlic for flavor. While Xena slowly turned them over the heat, Gabrielle steeled herself for a round of questions. She was afraid that even though they were so close, Xena would not tell her anything more about The Gathering, or where they were going.

Xena was busying herself with the dinner, when she suddenly felt a pair of sparkling green eyes staring at her from across the fire. Gazing back, with a smile in her own crystal blue eyes, she already knew what was coming. The problem was, how much information should she give up. She mentally shrugged her shoulders, and decided to play it by ear. Drop a hint or too, be irritatingly vague, and frustrate the Hades out of her. That should do it.

Gabrielle pulled their bowls out of their pack, and then began filling them with the greens she had gathered earlier. "Umm, Xena, now that we know that the "Gathering" is so close, maybe you could tell me more about it, er . . . them." She started. Xena smiled again, and continued to slowly turn the rabbits cooking on the spit. "Well, what would you like to know?" she replied. "Great, I mean okay. Let me see . . . ." Gabrielle stumbled on her words. "First, who are they? I mean where do they come from?" She managed to get out. "They are people Gabrielle. Women specifically. They come from all over. Some from nearby, and many from far away. As Cat says,……." "Wait a minute, did you say Cat?" Gabrielle interrupted. "Yeah, Catamount, it means cougar, or lynx. She is always coming up with various philosophies about life, and different situations. Her own life has been hard, but she seems to thrive in the role of teacher. And mother. More people come to her for mothering, than anyone I know. " Xena seemed to slip back into her thoughts.

Gabrielle did not let this glimpse of Xena's memories slip by her. "Xena, how long have you known these women?" "Huh? Oh, I met Cat, and her lifemate the second year after I became a warlord. There was something about them that both frightened me, and fascinated me. Gradually I began to run into them more often over the years. I never even considered harming them, or doing harm to anyplace that had been touched by them or the others. They had such patience for me, even though I was a terrible and viscious warlord. Even Ares wouldn't dare approach them, or oppose them. And to this day, I consider all of them . . . . well, I consider them my friends." Xena replied wistfully. Deep down inside though she was a little embarrassed. She had actually known Cat since she was a young girl. She had wanted to travel with the older woman, but Cat thought she was too young, and should stay with her family. She still carried the hurt inside, which is why she chose not to share with her love.

I will tell her, just not right now. No more lies, just guilt by omission.

Xena stood up, and by the look on her face, Gabrielle realized that there was going to be little else said on the subject at this time. She sighed inwardly, and joined Xena in a silent repast. When their meal was done, Gabrielle cleaned up the mess, and washed their dishes in the stream. Xena took off to attend to Argo, and to do her nightly rounds. Gabrielle settled down on the bedrolls, and drew her diary out.

Well, I'm not sure if I really learned as much as I wanted to, but I guess I should be grateful for any information she was willing to give. Just my luck, I suppose I will have to wait for tomorrow. I don't know if I will even sleep tonight, I am so excited. So much for playing the upper hand. She is so good at dodging. I wish I knew how she does that. And I can't wait to meet these women. Something tells me this is just the beginning of something really big.

A couple of candlemarks later, Xena returned to the camp, quieter than ever. She snuck up behind Gabrielle, and quietly laid her hand on her shoulder. Gabrielle just about jumped out of her skin, but she had the foresight not to make too much noise. Xena placed a finger to her lips, and then helped her stand, and led her to a spot a little further upstream from where they were camped. Gesturing to her lover to sit beside her on a nearby log, she indicated that they should be as quiet as possible, and listen carefully. For several moments, Gabrielle heard nothing but the rush of the stream's current, and the gently breeze in the trees. Suddenly her eyes grew rounder, and she turned to look into Xena's smiling face with total astonishment.

Coming towards them on the evenings breeze, was the sound of music, and women's laughter. Faint, and still very far away, Gabrielle couldn't recognize the words, but the tune seemed vaguely familiar. And if she was hearing right, it wasn't exactly a ballad, or a love song. More like a bawdy ale drinking song, she last heard in a tavern occupied by a bunch of filthy drunken soldiers. If she remembered correctly, one of them had made a pass at her, and Xena almost broke his hand. She listened for a few moments more, and then turned to look at Xena. Xena smiled back, and blushing slightly could only shrug her shoulders. "Xena!" Gabrielle whispered, "Just what exactly are we getting into?" Xena tilted her head in question, and then answered. "What? So they're having a party. That's what a wedding's all about, isn't it?" Gabrielle just raised her eyebrow, and then returned her gaze to the sounds coming from upstream.

Later, while Xena was sharpening her sword, Gabrielle returned for a third time that day to her diary. I am completely mind boggled now. Xena just smiles that smug little secretive smile at me, and then goes back to working on her sword. I think I'm almost nervous about meeting these people. I mean, I've met strangers before, but I just don't have enough information. Could this Cat, or one of the other's be a former lover? I hope not. There's something about knowing about the men in her past, but I still cringe when I think about the women. Especially after all we've been through. For some reason, I just have this huge jealous streak when I think about the women. Like competition or something. Maybe I won't measure up to their standards, or even her standards.

Not really understanding the distressed look on her lover's face, Xena assumed that it must just be more curiosity about the trip tomorrow. She had no idea that Gabrielle could have any insecurities about their relationship. Especially not since the past year, and all the strange and terrible events that they had suffered through. Including the loss of Solon. And yet they still came back to each other. And forgave each other. Xena would never ever forget the pain of losing Gabrielle either. Her leap to certain death with her daughter, and the subsequent quest to return Gabrielle to her side, left her forever scarred. A small tear slipped from the corner of her eye just thinking about it.

Quickly Xena set aside her sword, and walked with long strides to kneel down beside Gabrielle. Gabrielle looked up, and recognized the signs of an anxiety attack coming on. These episodes had started apparently during the time when Gabrielle was gone. She preferred not to think about being dead anymore. During their brief stay with their descendent Blayne, following Xena's recovery of Gabrielle, Xena had started needing to be close to Gabrielle. To touch her more often, to keep her in her sites. Blushing to herself, Gabrielle found that in a selfish way, she really needed, and enjoyed that contact. But the pain that often accompanied the anxiety was almost too much for Gabrielle. She loved Xena so much, and she wished that there was some way she could help her get past this. The attacks were coming less frequently, but no less severe.

Without so much as a word, Gabrielle locked eyes with Xena, and extended her arms to embrace her warrior. She could feel Xena shaking, as her lover buried her face in the soft curve of Gabrielle's neck. Softly Xena cried, unable to prevent the creeping sense of loss that periodically overwhelmed her. Internally a part of her was angry at itself for not being able to fight this weakness. She was deeply afraid that she might not be able to effectively protect Gabrielle anymore. Even though the tough little bard was probably capable of protecting herself and even Xena these days.

Gabrielle murmured soft words into Xena's ear, and stroked her long dark hair. She was genuinely worried about the warrior's continuing battle with these particular demons. Gabrielle had sought the advice of the healer at each of the villages near where they had stayed for the past few weeks since she . . . returned. The solutions ranged from the obvious, to the absolutely absurd. One even suggesting opening her head to release the demons that inhabited it. No, Gabrielle would keep searching, until the anxiety finally lifted. In the mean time, she hoped she had the strength to protect them both if she needed to.

Xena looked up into Gabrielle's eyes. "I'm sorry Gabrielle. I truly am sorry. I have fought major battles, with death all around, but I can't shake this feeling of loss, and utter helplessness." The tears began forming in her eyes again. "Shh, love, don't cry, and don't despair. We'll find an answer to this. Together. I love you, I'm not leaving you or dying ever again. At least not soon anyway. And, we'll protect each other. Okay? Because you are my life, and my soul. No person or event, or thing is ever going to change that." Gabrielle replied. She realized at this moment that these words were becoming almost a mantra. A repeated phrase that seemed to unlock the chain that held Xena in such terror.

Gabrielle finished putting away her scrolls, and then the two women retired to their bedroll. Gabrielle laid down first, and Xena joined her, with her head resting on Gabrielle's shoulder, and her long arms wrapped around her waist. Gabrielle wrapped her shorter arms around Xena's back, and slowly rubbed away the tension that had built there. Normally their positions were reversed, but every so often lately it had become necessary for Gabrielle to take the comforting role. And that was okay by her. Whatever it takes, my love, whatever it takes!

Early the next morning, just before dawn's light crept in, Xena slowly opened her eyes. She had already taken a few moments to listen to their surroundings, and was content that there were no intruders, or problems in the vicinity. She looked up to see Gabrielle sleeping in the same position she had been in since the night before. Her arms were still loosely, but protectively wrapped around her companion's shoulders. Xena very carefully extracted herself from Gabrielle's embrace, then pulled the sleeping bard into her own warm arms. Gabrielle mumbled a little, and then settled against the warrior, like two pieces to the same puzzle.

Xena, not one to ask anything of the Gods, silently impeached any who might be listening, to keep a careful watch over her soulmate. She was genuinely worried about the possibility that she might be permanently damaged by the demons that so relentlessly seemed to be clouding her mind. She was even entertaining the possibility of leaving Gabrielle with the Amazons, or if not them, then maybe even some of the members of the Gathering. She knew in her heart of hearts, that if Cat could not help her with this problem, then she would most assuredly provide safe haven for Gabrielle, until she could find someone who could help her. Of course, Gabrielle would never allow it, but anything was possible.

A few moments later, Gabrielle began to mumble, and twitch in her sleep. Suddenly her eyes flew open, and she gasped deeply, as though drawing a breath were a major effort. Xena brushed her hair off her face, and then whispered in her ear, "I'm here love. Wakeup Gabrielle, I gotcha." Gabrielle focused her attention on the source of the whispered entreaty, and seemed to wake up. Her breathing slowed down, and then unbidden tears began to slowly slip from her emerald green eyes. "Were you having a nightmare my love?" asked Xena. Gabrielle looked at her as though for the first time, and then shaking her head, realized that yes, she had been dreaming.

Composing her thoughts so as not to alarm her mate any more than necessary, she took another shaky breath, and then attempted a smile. "It was just a bad dream. I started to feel like you were leaving me somewhere. Not a threatening place, but just leaving me behind. It felt . . . .terrible. As though a part of me, something very precious, had been abandoned. I started feeling like first my heart, and then my lungs were being squeezed, until they were about to burst." She stole a look at Xena, to see how she was reacting to this bit of information. She had been increasingly mindful of the effect the things she said to her lover might be having.

Xena pursed her lips, and then biting back a need to tell an untruth, she cleared her throat, and speaking softly told Gabrielle about her deepest feelings. "I honestly had considered separating from you for a while. I am so afraid of what's been happening to me, that I thought if I had you stay with my friends, or maybe with the Amazons for a short time, I might be able to find a way to cure this." She took Gabrielle's hands in her own, and gazed deeply into her eyes. "I realize now, that this is not an option. For you, or me. I . . . I need you so much. I need your smile, your words, and most of all, your love."

Gabrielle hesitated for only a moment, and then threw her arms around her companion's shoulders, and squeezing her as tight as she could, kissed her. And didn't stop kissing her, until Xena finally told her that if she didn't stop, they might have to stay another day. Gabrielle giggled, and then reluctantly agreed that they should probably get moving, or they might miss the impending party.

Xena busied herself packing their camp, and tending to Argo. Lost in her thoughts, she reflected on the irony that Gabrielle's heart had correctly interpreted her thoughts, and brought them to her in her dreams. She wondered if her soulmate had noticed that fact as well. Gabrielle was busying herself putting together a breakfast for them, and lost in her own thoughts. The irony hadn't escaped her, and if the truth were told, it almost scared her. She was beginning to wonder if it was some gift that may have developed from her time in the Elysian Fields, or just a coincidence. She made a mental note, to talk to Xena about it later.

Finally, all the preparations were completed, and the two were ready to continue down river from their camp to the place where the gathering seemed to be taking place. Fortunately, the oppressive heat that had pounded them the day before, seemed to have cooled down quite a bit. Xena bounced a little on her feet, and then launched herself into a half turn, and then a semi-roll into Argo's saddle. She reached down, and offered her hand to Gabrielle. Gabrielle rolled her eyes, and gently admonished her lover, "Xena, you are such a show off. I guess you want me to ride, eh? Get us there faster, eh?" She looked to Xena for agreement, and Xena just raised her eyebrow, and continued reaching to help her up. She put her hand into Xena's, and then the warrior carefully pulled her into the saddle in front of her.

Wrapping a long arm around Gabrielle's waist, Xena gently pressed her knees into Argo's sides, and the great war-horse slowly moved down the trail, towards their destination. Xena estimated that it would take no more than half the day to arrive at the camp down stream. Actually it wasn't really down stream, but upstream. A waterfall that gently cascaded down an outcropping of rocks fed the medium sized tributary. These rocks were set in a grassy pass that led into a beautiful valley. A large lake, fed the waterfall, through one of several tributaries. It was at the foot of this waterfall, that the women of "The Gathering" had set up their camp. The area afforded a rather large clearing, that could be used for a common meeting and cooking area, and then further around in the woods, was areas for individual camps. This allowed privacy, for individuals, as well as couples, or family groups.

This particular trip, did not include any children, but frequently they were a common site at the gatherings. Most of the visitors chose to leave their home lives behind, because this was a celebration. Weddings, or joinings tended to bring out the wildness in them. It was an opportunity to get crazy, and enjoy the company of their very unique group, without the responsibilities of their public existence. If the world could only fathom a tenth of the power they held, it would truly be brought to its knees in fear. For as Gabrielle's childhood legends had told, some very strong and powerful bonds brought this group together. Several of the members had gifts beyond even the wiles of the most powerful Gods. The difference was that they were still held by the rules of mortality. For none of these individuals had the bonus of immortality. Some had the ability to live longer than normal lives, but all could be killed, or succumb to the elements of nature.

The larger percentage of this group also had incredible healing powers. What could be considered a possible fatal wound to a normal person, may heal in less than a day for one of the Gathering. It was common knowledge that Xena had a better than normal ability to heal. This was suspected because of the rumors that her true father might have in fact been a God. But there were those, her friend Cat included, that believed that Cyrene, Xena's mother very possibly had some of the abilities of the members of the Gathering, and had never realized her potential. Cat had made a sometime hobby of researching both Xena's background, and that of her mother, and her grandmother. She intended to discuss some of this with Xena during the next few days.

As the two companions, and Argo approached the outskirts of the camp, Xena began to hear the telltale birdcalls, and other forest noises that alerted the group that they were approaching. The Gathering took no chances. There were still enemies, that were stupid enough to attempt to approach one or more of the members, and steal from them, or intend harm. Most did not live long enough to learn from their mistake.

Somewhere above their heads, on a high tree branch, Xena heard the sound of a rather large animal snuffling, and then purring. She carefully scanned the trees, and spotted one of the largest black panthers known to mankind. The cat spotted her at the same time, and dipped its head in acknowledgement, and then rose on its powerful legs, and with a swish of her tail began a slow descent from her resting-place in the tree. Xena whispered into Gabrielle's ear, "Shh, don't be afraid, but we are about to have some company." Curious Gabrielle followed Xena's gaze, and looking up into the tree above and caught sight of the graceful, yet imposing beast approaching them. She jumped, and turned in her seat to look at Xena, with a genuine fear beginning to build in her eyes. "Xena," she whispered back, "Why aren't we running? We could be killed." Xena smiled, and kissed the end of her nose. "It's okay, I know this animal, and she isn't going to kill us." As if to back up that statement, the giant cat jumped down from the lower branches, and then came up to Argo. Argo bent her head down, and the cat rubbed her face all over Argo's nose, and started purring again very loudly. Then she sauntered over to the side of the horse, and raising up on her hind legs, place her extremely large feet on either side of Gabrielle's leg, and then laid her head in Gabrielle's lap.

With a nervous and shaky hand, Gabrielle, slowly reached down, and placed it on the animal's head, between her ears. "Go on, she's a lush when it comes to having her ears scratched." Xena chuckled. Gabrielle looked at her in astonishment, and then petted the cat's head, and then scratched behind her ears. The cat slowly closed her green and golden eyes, and then began the low rumbling in her chest, that represented her form of purring. "Xena, she's so soft and cuddly. Kind of like Tayo and Keisha, but much larger." Xena reached down, and scratched the cat's head herself, and then to the cat, she said, "All right you old fraud, enough of this special attention. Lead us into the camp, so we can get settled in and then we'll talk." The panther opened her eyes, and blinking in Xena's direction, growled deep in her throat. "Don't growl at me, or I'll pull on those whiskers of yours, until you cry." The cat appeared to sigh, and then lowering herself to the ground, she nudged Argo, and the two animals strode swiftly side by side through the forest, and then into the camp.

Gabrielle was shocked, stunned, and speechless. She slumped back against Xena's chest, and made every attempt to make sense of what had just transpired. Mumbling to herself, and shaking her head, she could not fathom the events of the last few minutes. "Xena . . . Xena," she mumbled, "Who was that? I mean . . .you seem to be acquainted with that panther, on a personal level. I know you have had some strange experiences in your day, but . . . .but . . .but" Xena chuckled deep in her chest, a low rumbling, that Gabrielle felt through the warrior's armor. "That is NOT funny. I mean okay, I accepted the fact that we could talk with cats, but pulling the whiskers on a panther? I don't think so!" Xena chuckled again, and bent over and kissed the top of Gabrielle's head. "It's okay love, two more minutes, and you'll get to meet everyone. Be patient for a minute." Gabrielle slumped in the saddle, and sighed, obviously not happy she had to wait to find out what was going on. Her curiosity was raging at the prospects.

The frustration was rolling off Gabrielle in waves, and Xena could feel it like small little tugs to her soul. She still hadn't been able to tell Gabrielle that in her heart of hearts, she felt that this visit might be the only chance they have to cure her of her anxiety problem. She was also feeling almost sick with guilt that she hadn't told her about her early friendship with Cat. There was nothing else more important right now, than Gabrielle. Xena's fear was growing everyday, because she felt that should a situation arise, she may even injure Gabrielle herself. If this was truly madness trying to take over her mind, then it had to be stopped. Somehow. . . .

Xena shook herself out of her thoughts, and then directed Argo to a shaded area near the main commons. As news of their arrival swiftly moved through the camp, women of all shapes and sizes came to stand near and welcome the new comers. One woman stepped forward, and petting the panther on the head, whispered something in her furry ear, and then poked her in the behind with her foot. The great cat stretched languidly, and then sauntered off towards the rocky outcropping that bordered the waterfall. Gabrielle looked back at Xena, with yet another shocked stare.

Gabrielle turned back to scrutinize this woman who would be so bold as to kick a full-grown panther in the rear. She had eyes the color of the sky, and hair the color of summer wheat just before its cut. Underneath the sunny exterior however was the build of a warrior. Strong arms and legs, broad shoulders, and sturdy hands that looked capable of breaking a small tree in half. As Gabrielle looked at the group gathered around her, she began to notice that all of the women had that same strong warrior's stance. They moved gracefully, but each had an element of danger that surrounded them. Definitely not a group to mess with. Even her sisters the Amazons, did not have the same deadly air about them that this group did.

She returned her gaze to the first woman's, and realized that she was waiting patiently to assist her off of Argo's back. "Oh, I'm sorry, I must have, I mean I was just, well," she stumbled. "It's no problem, Gabrielle, welcome, and have no fear. We are used to a little scrutiny when strangers first meet us. My name is Chrisanna. I am the builder, and general repair person here. Please, join us, and I will introduce everyone gathered here now. Some are out hunting, and gathering supplies for the festivities. We have been anticipating your arrival. Your companion tells us you are quite the bard. We have a regular story time around the evenings fire, and we would enjoy having you share your talent with us." Gabrielle blushed deeply at the compliments, and then allowed the warrior to help her down from her perch on Argo's back. She almost gasped when she felt the warm strength in those arms. Muscles solid as rocks, yet with the warm suppleness of a woman. Again Gabrielle looked into those smiling eyes, and blushed deeply with embarrassment at being caught . . .looking.

Chrisanna carefully set her burden down, and then reached up an arm for the Warrior Princess. For even though Xena's past was colored by death, and darkness, the members of the Gathering respected her title. As she slid to the ground to stand next to Chrisanna, there was a small murmur through the crowd, and then the entire group honored their presence, with a collective bow. Then the talking resumed, and everyone began to press forward to greet their guests.

One by one they filed past, almost like a reception line at a royal gathering. Chrisanna introduced each one to Gabrielle. Their hostess also made certain that when introducing Gabrielle to the others, she used her title of Queen of the Amazons. The first time she heard it, Gabrielle blushed again, however, when the rest passed by, she grew used to hearing it, and actually felt a little pride at being treated with such importance. There was no real need to make the introductions to Xena, as she was already well acquainted with most of the women present. As they passed her most grasped her wrist, as she theirs, and several even proffered a hug. It never occurred to Gabrielle to question why so many knew Xena so well. And how did they already know about her?

As the last of the group filed past, there were just seven women left, besides the original three. It became apparent to Gabrielle that these were seven of the original nine. Chrisanna must be the eighth member. Then who is the ninth, and where is she? Gabrielle mulled in her mind. Hmmm, Cat of course, but I wonder why she isn't here with the rest of the group. "Gabrielle, this is the last of the immediate group. And as you have already guessed, these women, and myself represent the original group. With the exception of my missing mate, who should be with us shortly. First the introductions, Kitchen Warrior, cook extraordinaire, and teacher. Saleria, is KW's mate, and our financial officer. DaSis, our minstrel, as well as our chief negotiator. Ranger, DS' mate, and our chief scout and world historian. Lioness, captain of our hunting team. Quest, group historian, artifact collector, and teacher. Her soon to be mate, Hecate, problem solver, and researcher. Myself, I am the head of our security team, and responsible for building and repairing anything we might need."

Gabrielle shook hands with each of the women, and then took the time to congratulate the soon to be joined Quest, and Hecate. She took a moment to glance at her lover, who seemed to be in a deep conversation with someone or something in the branches above them. "Don't worry Gabrielle, Xena is trying to entice my reluctant lover from her perch in the trees. She is just being shy I think." Whispered Chrisanna in Gabrielle's ear. "Cat! Come on now, Gabrielle is waiting to meet you. Come down now!"

Suddenly with a crash, some colorful expletives, and a cloud of leaves, the group was rather abruptly joined by a none too happy Cat. Scowling first at Xena, for yanking her out of the tree, and then at the rest of the group for laughing, she finally jumped up, and brushed off her clothes, and then adopted an air of proud indignation. "Hmmph! Smart aleck warrior. Embarrass me will you! Remember, pay back is a harpy. Just don't look behind you." Cat grumbled. Stepping up to Gabrielle, she blatantly gave her the once over, and then slowly closing her eyes, she sniffed the air around her, and then taking Gabrielle's hand in her own, kissed it ever so softly.

Gabrielle was mesmerized. To be presented with this ever changing, raucous personality, and then to be treated so gently, she didn't know what to think. When Cat straightened to her full height, Gabrielle realized that they were exactly the same. Cat's eyes were just in keeping with her name, brilliant, glowing yellow green, much like the eyes of the panther that met them on their way to the camp. Hmm, much like the same eyes, must remember to ask Xena about that later. Xena stepped up to the pair, and shook Gabrielle out of her thoughts. "So, you old fraud you, how have you been?" Cat turned away from Gabrielle's questioning eyes, and with a whoop, and a holler, grabbed both of Xena,s breastplates, and pulled her down for a smack on the lips.

Gabrielle looked at Chrisanna with a question, and Chrisanna just rolled her eyes, and then taking Gabrielle by the arm, led her to the place where she and Xena would stay during their visit. Scattered throughout the rocky outcropping bordering the falls, were a series of caves, long abandoned by the original residents. Chrisanna brought Gabrielle to a comfortably roomy alcove that was protected by the plants that grew around the approach to the entrance. The ceiling was high enough that Xena could stand inside without bumping her head on the rocks above. And there seemed to be a natural warmness surrounding them. "Chrisanna, it's so pleasant and comfortable in here. It almost seems as though there were a fire ring hidden in here some where." Gabrielle said. "There is a natural hot spring, that feeds heat to some of the caves. Later we will tell you how to get there, so that the two of you may rest and restore yourselves. I understand that there has been a lot of trouble and stress in your lives, including your untimely death. Let us take care of you for a few days, Gabrielle. You deserve it." Then she turned and went back the way she came.

Gabrielle explored the cave, and was delighted to find that all of their things had been brought to them, and upon further exploration, a pallet had been placed there as well. She busied herself laying out their bedrolls, and then sat down on the pallet with her journal, to do some writing. She figured correctly that Xena was probably seeing to Argo, and then visiting with her friends. She knew she would be along soon. The little problem of her anxiety would draw her here sooner than later. In the meantime, she thought she would jot down some of her more curious questions, while she waited.

Whew, what a whirlwind this has been. So far, a panther, the entire camp, as well as the original members of the gathering have met us. Both Xena and Argo seem to be well acquainted with the panther. And strangely enough, she shares the same eyes as Cat. I wonder what is going on here. They seem to know a great deal about me, as well as Xena. Mysteries within mysteries. Maybe I can get Xena to tell me what's going on. I really like everyone, they are so polite, and pleasant. I hope we can find the answer to Xena's questions, and to her anxiety. She really seems to have a very close bond with Cat. I'm afraid, that if she doesn't destroy these demons, that I might lose her for good. I know she is afraid she might hurt me, but I have no fear. I know our love will win this fight. After all, I am beginning to believe that after what we have been through, nothing can break our bond again.

Gabrielle packed her diary back into her bag, and then curled up on the pallet to rest for a short time. She hadn't realized how tired she was until she laid her head down on the pillow she had made out of her bag. Slowly as she drifted, she became aware of a soft, warm, and rather large furry presence. Thinking it was just a dream, she mumbled quietly and fell asleep.

Of course, it wasn't a dream, it was Cat. For the one thing that nobody had told Gabrielle was that Cat had some very special gifts. The first and foremost, was her empathic abilities. She was able to feel and remove another's pain, simply by touching them. However, by far the strangest power of all, was her ability to change her shape. For she had truly been blessed by a Goddess or two, with this strange and wonderful magic. Her human body was her primary shape, she had been born as a human child. The other shapes came along later. Her Favorite, and most used besides her human, was the panther. She was capable of most any other animal, fish, or insect in the known world. She had to be careful though, to only use the right shape for the right need. Someday she may turn into a fly or something equally as small, and get squashed, and well, that would be the end of that.

Her main reason for coming and lying next to Gabrielle was to "listen" to her dreams. She had already spoken briefly to Xena, and knew that she was fighting a very large and painful emotional battle. Xena indicated that Cat might be the warrior's only chance, and that she may consider leaving Gabrielle with them, if she could not recover from her anxiety. Cat felt sure that with a little research, she might be able to solve this puzzle. She snuggled up next to Gabrielle, and emitted a low purring sound, almost humming a tune. Gabrielle shifted in her sleep again, and then settled down. Cat thought she might be able to find a clue by sifting through Gabrielle's dreams, and past events.

She had not prepared herself for the vast array of emotions, and pain that rushed over her from Gabrielle's mind's eye. When her journey was complete, she was unable to hold her shape, and shifted to her human self. Being an empath, she was nearly overwhelmed with pain, anxiety, and tears. Gabrielle's recent past, which would surely mirror a large part of Xena's, generated most of the reaction. Carefully extracting herself from her spot next to Gabrielle, she rushed from the cave, only to crash headlong into Xena's arms. Right behind Xena was Chrisanna, Cat's lifemate.

"Whoa, slow down there. What's wrong?" Xena asked. "Quick, give her to me, Xena. She just traveled into the dream realm with Gabrielle, and she needs to recover from her journey. You know what happens to her when she invokes her empathic skills. I'll take care of her, you tend to Gabrielle." Chrisanna took Cat into her arms, and the two went on to their own cave to rest.

Xena spent the next few seconds mulling over what Chrisanna had just said, then her anxiety kicked in full blast. She turned, and quickly vaulted through the opening to the cave, as though all the hounds of Hades were on her tail. Skidding to a halt at the edge of the pallet, her panic was coming in overwhelming waves. She quickly bent down, and scooped Gabrielle into her arms, only to stand there with a bewildered expression on her face, when she was met with a pair of sleepy emerald green eyes. "Oh, hi there love. Are you okay? I'm sorry, I must have drifted off." Gabrielle said sleepily. Heart pounding, sweat pouring down her face, Xena carefully laid her mate back on the pallet, and then sat down beside her, putting her head down in her hands.

Gabrielle sat back up, fully alert, and realized that Xena had been having another attack. She reached for the warrior, and pulling her close, stroked her hair, and rubbed her back. Even with the armor in the way, Gabrielle would not be daunted. "Shh, it's okay, I'm right here. I love you. Don't worry, I am not going to leave you." Rocking gently, she could feel the tension slowly fall away to her ministrations. Before too long, she looked down, and to her astonishment Xena had drifted off to sleep. Working around her lover with experienced and nimble hands, she carefully unhooked and removed first the chest and back armor, and then the smaller pieces that made up her protective gear. She never stopped to consider the much heavier individual she so carefully cradled in her arms. It seemed that not only had she developed strength in her character and will, but she had also developed considerable physical strength as well.

Several candlemarks later, the nine women that formed the original members of the gathering, assembled in Cat and Chrisanna's cave. "So, what's the story Cat? How are things with Xena? Can she be helped by us?" Kitchen Warrior asked. Cat sat up from her place on the pallet that occupied one corner of the room, "I believe we can help her, but judging by what I saw in Gabrielle's mind's eye, it is going to be an extremely painful, and hard task. I am going to have to rest some, and then take a stroll through Xena's mind as well. They are definitely in a healing process, but with Xena on the fritz like this, the progress is being seriously stalled."

"As far as I can tell, somewhere along the journey Xena and Gabrielle have been through, and if I am not mistaken, just recently, a rather dark and nasty little critter, managed to skim off a small portion of Xena's soul. It has caused her to be fearful, and suffer from great anxiety. Most often it is a repeated feeling of loss for Gabrielle. I believe that somewhere along the path that Xena followed to rescue Gabrielle from death, a minion, either of Hades' or Ares managed to reach into the well of Xena's being, her soul, and steal just enough to create this problem she is having. Our job is going to be to recover the vessel he has it stored in, and then restore it to it's original spot. This particular part of her soul belongs to both of them. It is fairly new, and had yet to be protected fully by Xena's natural defenses. It is the part that opened up to unconditionally accept Gabrielle into Xena's heart. Now the doorway has been damaged. Much longer, and she may lose her love for Gabrielle, which is what is causing her to lose her mind right now."

"Gabrielle has developed into a very strong and capable woman. It will be a great honor to help the two of them resolve this problem. She would be a great asset to the group. She has gained an edge, and an insight into this life, that goes beyond even the greatest scholars of our times. And her understanding of Xena, goes unparalleled. She has adopted, and accepted the role of protector during these uncertain times, and there is no doubt in my mind that she can indeed shoulder this responsibility. As strong as she has become, I feel that we may proceed, and that we may count on Gabrielle to stand watch over all of us, as well as Xena." Cat stopped for a moment and looked around her.

After a few moments, Quest stepped forward. She had a look of quiet concern, mixed with resignation. "I am guessing that we are going to take a little journey into Xena's mind, and that we have to do this before the wedding can take place, yes?" Cat nodded her affirmative. Standing, she paced, and addressed them all again. "I am going to go over to Xena and Gabrielle's cave shortly. I am going to explain to Gabrielle what I have to do, and then what we all must do to cure Xena of her anxiety and fear. It will be necessary to rest for a short time again, following my trip through Xena's mind's eye. Once I have located the information we need, I will return, sleep for a half a candlemark, and then we must all embark on our journey together. Spend the time that I am gone making preparations for our bodies, and teaching Gabrielle what to do."

The group scattered to their respective camps, to collect the necessary tools and weapons. Each of the women in the group possessed an amulet that had been given to them at birth. They were protected and kept by Quest, and only used in times of extreme need, such as this. The amulets when invoked, provided the necessary gateway for all of the women to travel to their chosen destination. Not a physical destination, but a temporal destination. In this case they hoped to open a gateway through Xena's mind's eye, and use that as a portal to find the thief that stole that most precious new part of Xena's soul.

Ranger and DaSis were responsible for the scrolls that contained the ancient chants, and spells to invoke the amulets, and to protect their souls while they were separated from their bodies. Lioness went with Saleria to collect their weapons. The ancient spells allowed them to bring any necessary items with them, should they need them. And, provided they could carry them. Anything too big, or unreasonable had to be left behind. Chrisanna joined Cat in her return to Gabrielle and Xena's cave. Hecate and KW gathered together food, and herbs for the journey. They also collected some full waterskins. It would be necessary for Gabrielle to administer water to each of the bodies left behind, to make sure they survived. They had chosen to use the cave with the hot spring for their travels. The warmth contained in the chamber would keep the bodies warm, and prevent hypothermia, and then death. If the body died, the soul could not return.

As Cat and Chrisanna approached the two lover's cave, Chrisanna touched Cat's arm, and held her back for a moment. "Are you sure you're up to this?" she asked. "I have to be, there is no other way to help them with this problem. And help them I must. Xena is officially one of us. We are sworn to protect and assist each other where and however possible. Gabrielle will be one of us soon enough. She has so much to bring to the gathering. So much to all of womankind. We must help them. We must . . . ." Chrisanna gave her mate a bone-crushing hug, and then called to Gabrielle, before walking in on the two women.

Gabrielle had been just sitting and watching Xena sleep. Making her presence known, so that she could hold any nightmares her love might have at bay. Looking up at the arrival of her guests, she jumped slightly in her skin. As if someone had walked on her grave. Even though she wasn't dead yet. She knew by the looks on their faces, that this was not a casual visit. Something was about to happen, and she knew it would involve her, and Xena.

The two women approached the pallet where Xena lay, and motioned to Gabrielle to join them. They did not want to wake Xena, because Cat needed her asleep, so that she could travel through her mind's eye. "Gabrielle," Cat whispered, "I think I may be able to help Xena. But I have to investigate a little further to make sure. It's time to explain to you what's going on. I know you've been curious about me, as well you should be. I was born with certain powers, Gabrielle, I am very different from the rest of the group." Gabrielle's brows furrowed, but she resisted the torrent of questions welling up inside of her chest, threatening to burst out. "I think the best way to explain most of this to you, is to show you. Give me your hand."

Gabrielle, shaking a little, reached out her hand to Cat. In a matter of seconds, she was no longer holding Cat's hand, but in its place was a small little brown field mouse. Fighting the urge to throw down the mouse, she held it up in front of her eyes, and looked very closely at it. It's eyes were the same yellow-green as Cat's, and contained a very formidable intelligence behind their gaze. Turning to Chrisanna, Gabrielle looked at her curiously. "It's true Gabrielle, that's Cat you are holding in your hand. She has the ability to change her shape into any living object she wishes. You have already met one of her more common identities." Gabrielle's eyes widened. She stood there for a moment as though Medusa had turned her to stone.

"Gabrielle, it's okay, we will explain more in a moment." Chrisanna assured her. As quickly as she left, Cat returned to her human shape. Holding Gabrielle's hand, she pulled her in close, and put her arm around her shoulders. "Don't fall out on me Gabrielle, this is way too important. We are running short of time, and I need to have a short recovery period before we embark on our journey to recover Xena's soul." Cat exclaimed. Gabrielle shook her head, and blinked her eyes a few times, and then finally found her voice.

"I . . .I . . .don't know . . . YOU'RE THE PANTHER!" She blurted out. "That's right, it was me, I must confess. And listen Gabrielle, I can be anything else too, but this is important. Look me in the eyes, and tell me you want Xena back to normal. Because, I have to hurry, or she might wake up too soon, for me to confirm what I feel is already true. Chrisanna can explain more, while I am gone." Gabrielle considered this, and then as Cat was sure would be the case, she agreed, that of course she wanted Xena back to normal, and soon. Cat nodded her head, and then quickly adopted the form of the panther. She rubbed her fur against Gabrielle's leg, to reassure her, and then snuggling Chrisanna, quietly lay down next to Xena, and then drifted off.

As her essence was leaving her body, Cat called upon her considerable resources to direct her travels to the right location in Xena's mind's eye. She traveled backwards, through Gabrielle's recovery from death, back through her grief, and Dayhok, and Hope, and the temple. It was there, at the moment of Callisto's death, and subsequently Gabrielle's death, that Cat discovered the culprit. As suspected, the minion belonged to Ares. It had been accorded him through his change of allegiance to Dayhok's side, and away from that of his family. At the moment when Xena's intentions were the darkest, when she was using the dagger with the Hynde's blood to end Callisto's existence, the minion simply approached her, and reaching into her soul pulled away the young essence, that contained her newly released bond with her love, Gabrielle.

Knowing she should leave Xena's memories behind, and return for her much needed rest, Cat decided to travel a bit further back, and get a feel for Xena's side of the past year they had suffered through. As Cat was well aware, her friend Xena was very careful about revealing her true feelings, even to those that love her, and know her well. Cat carefully proceeded back through the pain, the betrayal, and the loss. She was present at Solon's death, at Dayhok's temple, with Boadicca's army against Caesar. And in Chin, with Ming Tien, and her imprisonment, and the hurt and pain at finding Gabrielle there ahead of her.

Cat was surprised at the arrival of Xena and Gabrielle's descendant, and the two little animals that helped Xena recover Gabrielle from the allure of the Elysian Fields. She made a mental note to question them about these events later.

Traveling back through the temple, and the moment when Xena's soul was damaged, Cat was surprised to note that the minion had crawled inside Ares shirt, moments before Ares had disappeared. Having been through both women's minds, she was aware that sentence had been passed, and that he was not to interfere with the two women. She guessed that meant to him that he needn't return Xena's broken soul. Cat was sure that "Ares God of Chicken Guano", was probably sulking somewhere, reveling in the fact that even though he can't approach them, he is still ruining their lives anyway.

That was going to be the biggest part of their problem. First locating Ares, and then locating the minion. She made another mental note, to ask Gabrielle if any of the Gods might have any information. Or, if they would even bother sharing it if they did. I hate to think I am going to have to kick some God-like rear end to get help. Xena did say though, that they owed them a lot, like their lives. And judging by what I saw during my travels in her head, they are aware of their debt.

Slowly she became aware of her consciousness returning to the dimly lit room where her body was waiting for her. Gabrielle and Chrisanna were talking quietly, about the necessary responsibilities that Gabrielle will have to take on while the others embark on this mission. Cat stretched her feline legs, and shifted her tail from side to side, stifling a yawn. She noted that this time, she did not have quite as violent an awakening as when she traveled through Gabrielle's mind. She attributed this to the fact that she knew Xena's past like a book, and although all that had passed between the two was dark, and terrible, and full of pain, it just seemed harder to accept from Gabrielle's viewpoint. She had paid an extremely steep price to grow up the way she had in the last three years. Cat found it strangely heartwarming to know that Xena and Gabrielle's love was strong enough to protect them. Even from outside magic.

Yawning, she prepared herself to shift back to human form, when she noticed that Xena was beginning to awaken. Being a practical joker of sorts, she couldn't resist the temptation that was rapidly presenting itself. Opening her eyes, she watched as Xena worked her way out of the dreamscape. As she began to open her eyes, she was suddenly flattened to the pallet by several hundred pounds of warm, soft black fur. Cat licked her face in great long strokes, thoroughly drenching her prey. Spluttering damp expletives, Xena used her considerable strength to push the large animal off of her. Straddling the panther's back, she forced her to roll over, and then began a merciless scratch and tickle session.

A torrent of giggles met the two from across the room, as they both realized that they had an audience. Gabrielle and Chrisanna, both commented on how their respective soulmates were about the same age when it came to childish antics.

Cat chose the distraction, to shift back to human form, and then began her own tickling back. Both started to chuckle, and then rolling onto the floor, began a friendly wrestling match. "All right you two, that's enough fun for now." Gabrielle sighed, exasperated. "Chrisanna tells me that we have only a short time, and Cat needs to rest. XENA! I said let her go." Xena looked up at the shout of her name, and replied, "Tell her to let me go then. HEY! Get your hand out of there, that's NOT fair!" Cat rolled away, clutching her sides from laughing so hard. The difference in their heights made Gabrielle think of clowns in a show.

Settling down, the two women stood up, and brushed each other off. "Damn, I haven't had that much fun, in at least a day or so." Cat laughed. Hugging her victim, she walked over to Chrisanna, and curled into her embrace. "I have to rest for a short time, before we embark. Meet us in an hour in the hot springs cave. The rest of the nine shall join us then."

After they left, Gabrielle turned to Xena with a question in her eyes. Blushing, and suddenly finding interest in her boots, Xena half-turned, and then just shrugged her shoulders. "Xenaaa . . . .what's up with that? First you keep me guessing about where we are going, then you fail to tell me that you have a best friend, besides me I might add, and then you forget to tell me that your best friend is a shape shifter. I feel stupid and amazed at the same time. I didn't realize there is a silly side to you. Silly didn't fit the Warrior Princess job description in my mind I guess." Sighing, Gabrielle turned away, and much to her chagrin, tears began to fall.

Xena quickly stepped forward, and gathered her in her arms. "Why are you crying?" she asked. Sniffling, and brushing her tears away, Gabrielle pursed her lips in thought. "I guess it's because I feel like you don't trust me yet. It's almost as though you're afraid to show me anything but the tough warrior side of you. I realize that I have caught glimpses of that other you, especially in our most intimate of times. But somehow I feel left out. Like you are more comfortable with Cat, than you are with me. It hurts . . .really bad." Xena pulled her closer, and kissing her on the forehead, sighed deeply. "Gabrielle . . .I . . . I . . .I'm at a loss for words. So much has happened, and we really haven't had any extended time to just sit and talk lately. I didn't tell you about Cat, and her abilities, because I wanted you to be surprised. I thought it would be something special for you, I didn't want to hurt you."

Gabrielle gulped, and then squeezing Xena back, she kissed her on the lips, and then looked deep into her eyes. "I think my love, that we are just burnt out. Too much has happened over the last year. It's been like a whirlwind, with barely enough time to catch our breath. Promise me, when this is over, we get some time to spend alone, just by ourselves. In the forest, by a stream, with no friends, no enemies, just us." Xena managed a small smile, and then kissed her back. "I promise, as soon as possible." Then closing her eyes, she held back the "if" part of that promise. She was so afraid that they wouldn't be able to help her, and then it wouldn't matter anymore.

They separated, and Gabrielle busied herself collecting her staff, and any other small things they might need. Secretly she was watching Xena out of the corner of her eye. It was almost as though she could hear her thoughts, and feel the anxiety building up between them both. She knew in her heart, that Xena was scared. More scared than she had ever been in her life. And I had to go and make it worse, by complaining about stupid little things, like "Xena, you don't share your life with me". Zeus! There hasn't even been any time to talk about things like that. I can be so stupid and insensitive sometimes. Hmmm, I think I will ask Cat if I can go with them on this journey. I know some of the other women can monitor our bodies. I want to be there when they encounter this minion or whatever, and if Ares really is behind it, then he won't even get a chance to protect himself, before I nail him. Thinks he can meddle with us, then he better think again!

"A dinar for your thoughts." Xena spoke quietly. Gabrielle smiled nervously, and then walked over, and slipped in close to Xena, so her lover could put her arm around her. "Come on you, let's get over to the hot spring, so that we can get this show on the road. The sooner we get this taken care of, the sooner we can head out for our vacation."

Moments later, they entered the chamber to find the rest of the group gathered. Each of the women were carrying their respective equipment, and weapons. Quest was handing out the amulets, and KW was mixing a batch of herbs to put Xena back to sleep. Cat was napping in a corner while Chrisanna directed the rest of the group in their preparations. They had placed some soft blankets in a circle for the women's bodies to rest, while their spirits traveled. There was one in the middle of the circle, which would accommodate Xena while they traveled through her mind.

Xena and Gabrielle approached Chrisanna for their final instructions. Chrisanna gathered everyone together, and then finished the briefing. "We must all stay together while we travel. Xena is an extremely complex person, and there will be a number of obstacles, and possible dangers for us to encounter. Not much of it can cause permanent damage, but as we reach our goal, and approach Ares, and then the minion, we could potentially be in danger. Listen for Cat's instructions always. Do not venture out, or attempt to change or alter anything you see. Are there any questions?" Xena blushed deeply, when the group chuckled about her complexity. Not a single one of them doubted those words.

Gabrielle sat back and took a deep breath. She was waiting for Xena to be knocked out again, before she asked her questions. She knew that she was going to be met with resistance, but she didn't care. She had planned from the beginning to ask if she could go along with group. It might mean leaving one of them behind, but she if anyone knew Ares, and knew how to handle him. She felt that she could be more helpful with them, than to be left here. Besides, Xena was hers, heart and soul, and it was her right to challenge those that would do them any harm.

Xena sat down in her place, while the rest of the group milled around. Chrisanna had woken Cat up, and she came over to sit with the Warrior Princess. "So, how are you holding up there Xena?" she asked. Xena looked at her with a very weary, but wry "how do you think I'm holding up" expression. Taking both of Xena's hands in her own, she pulled Xena down so their foreheads touched. "You know, we've been talking, all of us, and we want to invite Gabrielle into the Gathering. She is a very strong and well spoken young lady, and we could use her talent." Xena smiled deeply, bursting with pride. "I appreciate that, Cat. I . . .I wanted to ask you if you could take care of her, in case, well, in case you can't fix this . . . . . problem I'm having."

Cat touched her nose to Xena's, never letting her forehead leave the other woman's. "Don't worry, brat, I'm not gonna kiss you, and I'm not going to fail you either. I would gladly accept responsibility for Gabrielle, but I'm not going to have to. I hadn't had a chance to tell you yet, but we figured out what happened. The hardest part will be finding Ares, but if one of your Gods doesn't show up in time, then I have another card up my sleeve just in case. Ahhh, and here comes that card now."

Both women separated, and looked up as Gabrielle approached. She plopped down next to them, and then grabbing Xena's arm, she looked at Cat with a withering glance. "So, trying to kiss my girl now are you? Better watch yourself, or I might have to show you who's boss around here." Cat burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. Jumping up onto her knees, she threw her arms around both women, and kissed them heartily on the lips. "Gods Gabrielle, you crack me up. I promise, as does Xena, that when we return, we will tell you our tale. And then maybe you won't get so jealous. Although, you're pretty cute, when you start flashing those green lantern eyes of yours."

It was Xena's turn to burst with laughter, when she noticed the deep red color sneaking up the back of Gabrielle's neck. Leaning over to whisper in her ear, she took a moment to breathe in her scent, and place a small kiss on her neck. "Don't worry Gabrielle, you are the only one who has my heart. Cat is as harmless as a fly. Matter of fact, she can be a fly if you want her to." Both of them started to laugh again. Xena had forgotten about Cat's back up plan. She and Gabrielle spent the next few minutes buried in each other's eyes.

KW was circulating through the crowd, handing out cups of a different herb mixture, than the one she had prepared for Xena. The group's drink would allow them to separate their essence from their body, and enter into Xena's mind's eye. DaSis was strumming a lute in the corner, and singing a quiet song, to soothe everyone's nerves. KW brought Xena's cup to her. It was time for her to sleep again.

Gabrielle smoothed Xena's hair back over her shoulder, and waited patiently while her lover downed the entire cup. Lying down, Xena pulled Gabrielle down next to her, and laid her head on Gabrielle's shoulder. "Gab . . .Gabrielle," she stuttered, "I asked Cat if they would care for you if this failed. I can't predict how I'll be if they fail, but I wanted to be sure that if it was bad, that you were taken care of." A look of pain and discomfort entered Gabrielle's eyes. "You are not leaving me Xena. I never let go of you before, and I don't intend to now. Forget it! I appreciate the gesture, and even though I'm still not too sure about your friends, I'm sure I would be well protected, at least until I decided what to do. But don't even think that I would willingly allow you to leave, or vice versa. Now, close your eyes and go to sleep. Cat says you have to be completely under, before they can enter your mind."

Proffering a weak smile, Xena closed her eyes, and nestled in next to her love. Her last conscious thoughts were of life without Gabrielle, and how terrible that would be.

Continued...Part 2