A Thousand Summers Have Ended

Swallow, my sister, O sister swallow,
How can thine heart be full of the spring?
A thousand summers are over and dead.
What hast thou found in the spring to follow?
What hast thou found in thine heart to sing?
What wilt thou do when the summer is shed?

O swallow, sister, O fair swift swallow,
Why wilt thou fly after spring to the south,
The soft south whither thine heart is set?
Shall not the grief of the old time follow?
Shall not the song thereof cleave to thy mouth?
Hast thou forgotten ere I forget?

Sister, my sister, O fleet sweet swallow,
Thy way is long to the sun and the south;
But I, fulfilled of my heart's desire,
Shedding my song upon height, upon hollow,
From tawny body and sweet small mouth
Feed the heart of the night with fire.

I the nightingale all spring through,
O swallow, sister, O changing swallow,
All spring through till the spring be done,
Clothed with the light of the night on the dew,
Sing, while the hours and the wild birds follow,
Take flight and follow and find the sun.

Sister, my sister, O soft light swallow,
Though all things feast in the spring's guest-chamber,
How hast thou heart to be glad thereof yet?
For where thou fliest I shall not follow,
Till life forget and death remember,
Till thou remember and I forget.

Swallow, my sister, O singing swallow,
I know not how thou hast heart to sing.
Hast thou the heart? is it all past over?
Thy lord the summer is good to follow,
And fair the feet of thy lover the spring:
But what wilt thou say to the spring thy lover?

O swallow, sister, O fleeting swallow,
My heart in me is a molten ember
And over my head the waves have met.
But thou wouldst tarry or I would follow,
Could I forget or thou remember,
Couldst thou remember and I forget.
O sweet stray sister, O shifting swallow,
The heart's division divideth us.
Thy heart is light as a leaf of a tree;
But mine goes forth among sea-gulfs hollow
To the place of the slaying of Itylus,
The feast of Daulis, the Thracian Sea.

O swallow, sister, O rapid swallow,
I pray thee sing not a little space.
Are not the roofs and the lintels wet?
The woven web that was plain to follow,
The small slain body, the flowerlike face,
Can I remember if thou forget?

O sister, sister, thy first-begotten!
The hands that cling and the feet that follow,
The voice of the child's blood crying yet
Who hath remembered me? who hath forgotten?
Thou hast forgotten, O summer swallow,
But the world shall end when I forget.

-Itylus, by Algernon Charles Swinburne


The alarm went off and Joe rolled over and slapped the off switch. Blearily he opened his eyes, taking in the sun-drenched bedroom. "Morning," he muttered, closing his eyes again and snuggling up the warm body next to him. He'd face it in a minute. Or two.

Maybe ten.

The warm body in his arms scooted closer into his embrace, and he felt more than heard the satisfied sigh. There was a soft mumble which was meant to be a return "Morning", then he felt Levon slipping back to sleep again.

Joe sighed and buried his face in his husband's hair. Looked like they were going to be getting another late start today. Not that it mattered much, not the way that it used to. They'd been retired from the HPD for nearly five years now and the frantic rush of early mornings were a thing of the past.

They had continued to rise relatively early; Levon said he found it hard to sleep with the sun up. In the last year or so, Joe had managed to get him to see the value of sleeping in. This was the first summer they were able to really stay in as long as they liked. Up until two months ago they'd still had two horses needing to be fed and tended to. Angie and her husband had finally finished building a second barn on their property and had come out to take them-- the horses belonged, more or less, to Angie's children anyhow. Though he hadn't said so to Angie, Levon had been sorry to see them go. All his life he'd had horses around him and considered them part of the extended family.

Now all they had to see to in the morning were feeding the cats. This morning, that could wait a little longer, no matter what the opinion of the felines in question was.

Sleeping in had made the last couple of months seem like a vacation, or so his husband had said, laughing that first morning they'd risen at nearly nine. Joe had enticed him back into bed, and they'd ended up leaving the bedroom at nearly ten thirty. But it still felt odd, to lie in bed when for so long there had been things to do. They still had plans, obligations, but it was different when they were only voluntary.

Now they could take the time for themselves. Finally. Joe supposed they ought to stop setting the alarm as well, but the bullet-proof alarm clock was a remembrance of an old friend now long gone. Letting it ring each morning was a way of acknowledging the gift he'd made. Besides, it was more fun to sleep in if you knew you were sleeping in.

Sleeping in was fine -- wonderful even -- for the first few weeks. But by now Joe found himself at a loss for what he wanted to do. Levon seemed content to do little, himself. They'd stopped working with the Houston Youth Center last year, and despite having discussed what else they might do with their time, nothing had been decided. The summer was promising to be long, hot, and motionless. Joe decided he'd probably better get out of bed before he got poetic about the humidity.

Laughing silently at himself for that thought, he nuzzled at Levon's cheek, attempting to wake his lover in a more pleasant way than that alarm clock.

He heard a murmur, and Levon shifted slightly. He didn't seem awake yet, however. Over the years Joe had gotten skilled at detecting when Levon was faking it, hoping for more nuzzling, and when he was truly still asleep. This time it was the latter. No matter. It wasn't like what he was doing to wake Levon was much of a chore.

"Come on cowboy," he muttered, nuzzling again. "Up and at 'em."

Another murmur, and Levon rolled a little, moving his face towards Joe as if seeking a kiss. No doubt he was -- but he was still sound asleep. Joe complied with the unconscious desire, lowering his head and gently nibbling at his husband's lips. Asleep or not, Levon kissed him back eagerly. As the kiss continued, Joe slid one hand into Levon's hair, the other pulling their bodies closer together. He was rapidly forgetting what the original aim of the kiss had been.

A third face stuck itself into Joe's.

Joe jerked back in surprise. "Dreyfuss!" he yelled at the cat who was now giving him an innocent look.

"Wha-?" Levon opened his eyes, looking confused. Dreyfuss climbed down off them as Levon moved. "Joe, what're you doing?"

He sat up, still glaring at the cat. "Was trying to kiss you awake before this one decided he needed a closer look."

Levon gave Dreyfuss a curious look, then turned to Joe. "Kiss me awake, huh? So why'd you stop?" He leaned closer as he asked.

"Well, you're awake," Joe pointed out, even as he leaned closer himself, grinning.

"Oh?" Levon leaned back. "Well, if that's all you're after...." He turned and swung his legs out of bed -- moving slowly enough for Joe to catch him, if he so chose.

Which Joe did, tackling him around the waist and pulling him back onto the bed. "We can always find something more interesting to do now that you are."

"Only if you kick the cats out," Levon pointed out even as he let Joe settle him back onto the mattress.

Lifting his head, Joe saw that Dreyfuss had been joined by the other cat, Robelo, and that both were sitting watching them avidly. "Hold that thought," he said to Levon, giving him one more quick kiss then got up to shoo the animals out of the bedroom.

Naturally they thought he was getting up to feed them, so they ran eagerly ahead of him into the hallway. He paused in the act of shutting the door; if he didn't actually feed them, they'd be back at the door caterwauling until he did. "Be right back," he shot over his shoulder, then padded out to the kitchen to make sure they had some uninterrupted time.

Behind him, he could hear Levon laughing. The sound of it warmed him as much as the summer air coming in the windows they'd left wide open all night.


They spent a long, pleasurable morning in bed, making love with the enthusiasm of men half their age. Levon fell back asleep afterward and Joe just laid there watching him. Taking the quiet moment to count his blessings and marvel at how lucky he was.

Levon finally opened his eyes and smiled up at him. "We gonna have a shower and breakfast first this time, or you gonna wear me out again?"

"Shower sounds good. But it's going to be more like lunch than breakfast."

"Whose fault is that?" Levon levered himself out of bed, moving slowly towards the bathroom. He stretched a little, but said nothing.

Joe followed, wrapping his arms around Levon from behind. "A bit too much enthusiasm earlier?"

"Feels like. Maybe I should get someone to rub me down." He leered at Joe. "Then again, wasn't that what got me sore in the first place?"

"How about I brush you after lunch?" Joe offered, dropping a kiss on his husband's shoulder.

"I think we'd better get a move on, then." Levon tugged him towards the shower.

They nearly used up the hot water before ending the shower and getting dressed. Well, Joe got dressed. Lately, Levon opted to go without as often as he went with, unless they were expecting non-family visitors. Joe couldn't think of any reason to object. Even after so many years, he found the sight of his husband's body to be a wonderful thing.

The look he got from Levon as they headed for the kitchen told him it was one reason his husband went around without clothing.

"So what do you want to eat?" he asked, opening the fridge and studying the contents inside.

"Don' care," Levon said, as he headed over to the coffee maker. He began preparing a pot of coffee, stopping once or twice to glance back at Joe.

"What?" Joe asked as he turned back to the fridge and decided on sandwiches. Simple, filling and he wouldn't have to cook.

"Nothing," came an all-too-innocent reply.

"Yeah, right. Come on, cowboy, what is it?"

Before Levon could answer, the sound of a car pulling up outside diverting both of their attentions. It was soon followed by Laurie's voice calling out a "hello?" and the sound of the front door opening.

"In the kitchen," Joe called out, quickly straightening and putting the sandwich fixings down on the counter. Then he turned to greet their guests as they came through the kitchen door.

Laurie had to set her son down as soon as they entered -- he ran over to Joe as soon as he saw him, calling out "Grandpa!". Laurie went over to Levon, gave him a hello and a kiss on the cheek. "Here, Dad, let me do that. You always make the coffee so strong."

Levon grinned, but moved away from the counter. "Comes from drinking too much weak coffee at the station."

"Lots of times calling it coffee at all was being generous," Joe agreed, grinning down at the little boy attached to his leg. "Heya there, Jack, buddy. You're just in time to help me make lunch."

"Cool!" the boy jumped up and down, reminding Joe of the time Shensen had stayed with them. Jack was only a year older than Shensen had been, though his centaur heritage made him look nearly six. They'd never figured out exactly how much human and how much centaur the child was; whenever Joe asked Laurie about the boy's father she would just smile and tell him it was none of his business.

Levon was leaning against the counter, watching everything with a content smile on his face. Joe grinned back to him. "So what brings you two by?" he asked Laurie as he bent to pick up his grandson and set him on the edge of the counter.

Laurie grinned. "Since when do we need a reason? I asked Jack what he wanted to do today, and he said "go visit Grandpa and Granddad". So here we are." She finished preparing the coffee, glancing over at Levon.

He smiled back at her with a faintly odd look in his eyes. "Y'all are always welcome to stop by, you know that."

"Yeah. We're always glad to see you. Both of you." He winked at Jack who giggled.

"Can we come tomorrow, then, too?" Jack asked brightly. He'd been angling for permission to spend a week or more with them, during the summer holidays. So far his mother hadn't given him permission to stay more than a single night.

"You'll have to take that up with your mother." Joe looked over at his daughter as he spoke.

"We'll see," she said, in that tone that told them all that the answer would be no, but she wasn't going to discuss it right then. Jack frowned at his mother, but didn't argue.

"So what do you want on your sandwich, kid?" Joe asked, distracting the boy away from the subject.

It was a successful technique. They were able to keep the discussion on other things throughout lunch, although Joe knew Jack wouldn't have forgotten about it. He didn't envy Laurie dealing with Jack when he decided he'd waited long enough and started wheedling.

It made Joe think Jack was a little more human than centaur.

After lunch, Levon offered to take Jack outside for a run. Laurie agreed after a split second's hesitation, so brief that Joe wondered if he imagined it.

Laurie began helping him clear the table, and it was soon obvious she had something on her mind. She had never been one to speak her mind unprovoked, however -- too much like her fathers that way.

"Okay, out with it," Joe finally said, pausing in his clearing. "I know you want to talk to me about something. What is it?"

She sighed, and looked at him squarely. "You don't want to hear it."

Which meant, of course, he did. He sighed and pushed a hand through his hair. "You obviously need to tell it, even if I don't want to hear it. So tell me. What's wrong? You in trouble, Lor?" He was thinking of the last time she'd start a conversation this way. She'd told them about being pregnant with Jack.

"Me? No. I'm not in any trouble." She was looking at him, almost measuringly. "Dad... have you made any plans yet?"

Joe blinked. "Plans?"

"Plans. For--" She nodded towards the front door.

"A new door?" he asked, still bewildered.

"For Levon."

"Why would I need to make plans for...?" He trailed off as he realized what she was talking about. Plans for Levon when he started to decline. To get old. "That's a bit premature, don't you think?"

Her eyebrows went up in genuine surprise. "No, I don't think," she said carefully.

"He's fine."

"Dad..." she began, then shook her head. "You don't see it, do you?" Her tone was sympathetic.

"See what? There's nothing to see," Joe denied, clenching his hands tightly to keep them from trembling.

She set down the plate she'd been holding, and came over and took his hands in hers. "I know; I don't want to lose him either. But that won't--"

Joe jerked his hands free. "He's fine!"

"He's not going to stop getting older because you don't want him to!"

The words froze him in his tracks.

In a gentler tone, she said, "Do you want me to help you decide what to do when the time comes?"

"It's too soon," he whispered, half denial, half plea.

She moved closer, putting her hand on his arm. "It'll always be too soon. But that won't change the fact that it's happening. It's going to happen."

"Not yet." He looked up and met his daughter's eyes. "It can't-- I can't-- Laurie..."

"You're going to have to, you know," but her tone was capitulating. She leaned over, resting her head on his shoulder and held him. "Otherwise, one day you'll look over and he'll already be gone."

He held onto her tightly for a moment, trying to get his composure back. "I did make some decisions," he finally offered haltingly. "Before you were born."

"But you haven't done anything," she asked, looking at him, confused. "You haven't said a word about how you're going to take care of him."

"I'll do whatever I have to. What else can I do?"

"And you'll ask, when you need help?"

I won't need help, Joe thought but didn't say. Levon was his husband. His responsibility.

"Dad." Laurie looked at him, squarely again. Joe had to remind himself that his daughter probably knew him too well. "You will ask, when you need help, right?"

"If I need help, I'll ask."

She eyed him, her expression reminding him of Levon. "If I find out you're pulling some ancient, macho Italian bullshit and acting like you don't need help," she said, "I am going to call Angie. And Shensen, Rosa, Tony, Taylor, even Cordelia and Montgomery." She took a breath, then continued listing relatives. "Catherine, Stuart, Mike--"

"All right!" Joe interrupted with half a laugh. "I get the picture. No need to name off the entire herd and LaFiamma clan."

Finally she smiled. "You realize, don't you, that there are a hundred and twelve people who would help, if you ask?" She glanced towards the front door again. "I know it's hard. But he's our family, too. It isn't fair to keep him to yourself."

"I know." He reached out and tugged her ponytail, just like he used to when she was still a child. She giggled, sounding for a moment like a five year old again. "You were right," Joe told her, serious again. "I didn't want to hear it. But maybe I needed to."

"So what are you going to do? Until then, I mean?" The way she asked made him wonder what she knew. How she knew.

"What am I going to do? Go on with our lives. Until we-" He bit off the rest of the sentence as his throat threatened to close up around the words.

"I mean, practical things. Are you going to--" She stopped, shook her head. "Maybe it is too early for that. I guess...you'll know, when it's time to do something." She gave him a kiss on the cheek, then turned away. "I'm going to go see if I can catch up with them."

Suddenly Joe understood her worry -- why she hadn't let Jack stay, why she has almost stopped her young son from something as simple as a run with his grandfather. "Feel like having a rider?" Joe asked, feeling the sudden need to see Levon, to be near him.

"Of course." There was a shadow of Levon in her expression again. The one that said Joe was silly for even asking.

They walked out onto the porch and Laurie began to strip in preparation to changing. Joe found himself blushing and averting his eyes. He'd long since got used to centaur ways about clothing, but somehow it was different when it was his daughter.

She started laughing -- as usual. "Dad! You are so..."

"So what?" he challenged.

"So sweet." In a decidedly bemused tone, she said, "It's safe, you can look now."

He turned back only to see his daughter standing there, still in human form but sans clothes. "Laurie!" he yelled, squeezing his eyes shut.

She laughed, loud and hard. He heard her step down from the porch, then a moment later she said "I'm changed, now. Honest, this time."

He cracked an eye cautiously, when he saw her in centaur form, he opened them both and started down the steps. "Very funny, brat. Make your father blush."

"Well, it's so much fun," she retorted. "And easy. You know, you'd think after thirty years of being married to a centaur...."

"I don't blush when Levon does it," he pointed out.

"Actually, Dad, you do."

"Do not!" he countered, moving to her side. "Do I?"

She grinned, and nodded. "You do. Come on, get on already. Don't worry," she added, as he climbed on. "You look cute."

"Cute," he muttered, swinging astride. "My daughter thinks I'm cute."

"You're both cute," she said indulgently.

"I don't think you're supposed to think that."

"Dad! I don't mean it like that. I mean, you are, sure, but I don't mean it that way." She began cantering out into the pasture.

"You positive?" he teased.

"Dad, you're old and married. There is no way I'd call you "cute" that way."

"I'm not that old," he countered, the comment holding a bit more of an edge than he had intended after their earlier conversation.

There was a pause, then, "I'm sorry," Laurie said. She sped up a bit, heading for the field Jack loved best.

"I know, Lor," he said softly, squeezing her waist in apology. "Let's go find our waywards."

She sped up into a gallop, then, and they headed off.


They'd spent a busy day with Laurie and Jack. Although nothing had been planned, and, when he thought back on it, there didn't seem to be any one thing which had taken up their time -- the day had flown past as they'd been constantly busy. They'd had an early dinner, then Laurie and Jack had headed for home and Levon -- casually and unobtrusively -- had excused himself to take a nap. Joe had remained in the kitchen, cleaning up.

It occurred to Joe that Levon had been doing that a lot lately -- taking naps. He hadn't thought anything of it, it wasn't like they had something to do that Levon's sleeping was interfering with -- but in light of the conversation he'd had with Laurie that morning...

Stop that, he told himself firmly, denying the possibility. Hell he'd been taking naps too and he wasn't...

His brain refused to complete that thought. It was as if he didn't say it, didn't think it, then it couldn't be true. He wouldn't have to face it. He knew it was a defensive mechanism, that avoidance didn't stop reality. But he couldn't stop doing it. It was easier than admitting the truth. Easier than facing what that truth meant.

He managed to finish the kitchen without giving in to thinking about it -- difficult though it was. Then, in defiance to his own rebellious brain, he went to look in on Levon.

For a long moment he stood in the bedroom doorway, just watching. Soaking up the memory for...well just in case. The sunlight was still streaming in through the window; in another half hour it would have fallen far enough below the trees outside that the bedroom would become dark, cast into a false night. Joe was suddenly gripped by a fear of that darkness -- as if knowing Levon would only live with the sunlight on his face.

"Stop it!" Joe ground out, clenching his fists. Without thought, he found himself across the room, standing by the bed, staring down at his husband's face. Eyes closed, features relaxed in repose.... Suddenly it wasn't Levon asleep that he was seeing. It was Levon--

Abruptly he spun away, breath coming in gasps as he fought a sudden panic.

"Joe?"

The soft, sleep-muddled voice almost sounded like it was only in his mind. A shudder went through Joe and he moaned involuntarily, lost in a fantasy, a reality -- he wasn't even sure which any more.

Then he felt a hand on his back, and he nearly jumped. "Joe?" Levon asked again, and this time his voice was real.

With a gasp, Joe spun back around, pulling his husband into his arms, burying his face against the faded blond hair as shivers went through his body over and over.

After a moment of silence, he heard, "Easy, easy, now." Levon held him close, arms as tight around him as they'd ever been. No signs of failing strength there...not now. Not this time....

The thought calmed him down but made him hold on all the tighter. Levon didn't seem to mind; if anything he tightened his grip slightly and simply held Joe. He continued to whisper things soft and meaningless in Joe's ear -- confused reassurances that whatever had gone wrong could be righted. Joe barely restrained a slightly hysterical laugh at that; this was the one thing that they couldn't fix.

After a few moments, Levon's murmurs quieted, and, after another silence, he asked, "Joe?"

"Yeah." He took a deep breath and pulled back. "Sorry." He prayed Levon would leave it at that, knowing there was a snowball's chance in a Texas summer that he would.

He found his husband looking at him, worry bright in his eyes. The question was plain on his face, but he only raised a hand to wipe at Joe's cheek.

Joe reached up and covered Levon's hand with his own, holding it in place. "Sorry," he repeated in a whisper.

"Anything I can do?"

'Don't leave me.' The words were on the tip of Joe's tongue but he didn't say them. Instead he managed a weak smile. "You're doing it."

Levon gave him a gentle smile, tinged with an awareness Joe suspected meant he knew what had him so rattled. But Levon only pulled him back into an embrace and held him again.

"I didn't mean to wake you." The softly spoken words were offered as an apology, though Joe made no move to pull back again.

"S'all right. Didn't mean to sleep the evening away, anyhow."

"I don't mind. If you're tired."

"Ain't tired anymore," Levon replied lightly. There was an undercurrent to his words, which Joe didn't want to pursue. "Reckon you're finished with the kitchen?" he added lightly, as if getting out of the chore had been his only reason for napping.

Joe wished he could believe that. He tried really hard. "Yeah," he replied, managing to match his husband's light tone. "No thanks to you."

"Can I help it if my timing's good?" Levon grinned. It made him look 30 -- or four -- again.

Again Joe found himself catching his breath, but for an entirely different reason. A better reason. "Yeah, yeah. Y'know there are times I really miss being able to order you around," he teased.

"Then what do you call yesterday?" Levon teased.

"Yesterday?" Joe gave him a blank look.

"When you 'ordered' me to get my tail out to the barn and help you load up the stuff Angie and Shensen had left behind for the horses?" Levon was smiling, still, but when Joe didn't reply, a shadow flickered in his eyes. His smile faltered and there was the slightest hint of doubt there.

The fear that had faded somewhat came rushing back full force. Joe couldn't stop that fear from being conveyed through his body language.

"Wasn't it?" Levon asked after a moment of hesitation.

Joe wanted to lie, wanted to deny both of them the truth, but he couldn't. Not with Levon looking at him like that.

Slowly he shook his head.

He felt Levon's hands fall away, then Levon took a half step back. He could see his husband beginning to tremble. "I remember it," he began in a harsh, forced whisper then he cut himself off.

It was Joe's turn to move forward, offering what comfort he could with his body and his words. "It happened," Joe reassured him, holding him tightly. "Just not yesterday."

"When?" came Levon's confused question.

"Last Saturday."

There was no immediate response. Levon had his head pressed against Joe's shoulder, as if seeking solace from the truth in his lover's presence. In a rush, Levon finally said, "I knew I'd been forgetting things but I always noticed...knew what I'd forgotten. I didn't realize I mighta been losing things and not even know." The lost tone in his husband's voice ripped at Joe's heart.

"You just forgot you forgot," Joe said, trying for a lighter tone and failing. He sighed and pressed a kiss against Levon's hair. "It doesn't matter, Levon. If you forget, I'll remember for you. You've done it enough for me over the years."

He could still feel Levon shaking. "How am I gonna know?"

"I'll tell you. Trust me, cowboy." He kept his voice soothing even though somewhere inside he was screaming.

With that, Levon finally wrapped his arms back around Joe, and held on. Joe didn't say anything, just held on as tightly as he could. For as long as he could.

"Don't let me go," Levon asked softly.

"Never," Joe whispered, through a throat that was closing up. "I promise."

He seemed to relax a little then, though he made no move from Joe's embrace. For a long time, they simply stood there.


The next morning started earlier than their days had been recently. They were heading out to the herd's ranch to stay for the weekend -- or as much of the weekend as they cared to. Joe wasn't certain how well Levon would be able to deal with the chaos they would find at the ranch: an extra fifty visitors was a lot more to handle than the usual herd.

But this was a special weekend, the annual reunion holiday that Stuart had begun about ten years before. All of the family, both herd and humans did their best to make it to the ranch.

They'd told Stuart he was nuts when he'd first proposed it. That first year it was only Joe and Levon and their family, and a few close friends. But in the years that followed the reunions grew larger until now nearly the entire Lundy and LaFiamma clans gathered together.

Joe tried to ignore the little voice in his head that kept whispering that this could be their last one.

"Joe?" a voice interrupted his darkening thoughts. Levon sounded cheerful, had all morning. Either last night's events had rolled off him, or he was putting up a very good front. "Any more bags?"

"No, I think this is it," he replied, gesturing to the small pile by the door.

He watched as Levon glanced down at the bags, then seemed to stop and count them. He gave Joe a slightly quizzical look before ducking his head and going to pick two of the bags up. Joe picked up the others and started for the door. Levon stepped to the side, to let Joe precede him out. Joe glanced at his husband curiously then moved past him and outside. He didn't want to know why his husband needed to follow him out....

He felt a ghost of a touch on his backside as he stepped past. When he looked back, he found an old familiar expression of innocence staring back at him. "You know that look has never worked."

"Ain't trying to make it work now," he pointed out in a reasonable tone. "But if I looked like I was up to something, you'd worry."

"I have news for you cowboy. That is the look you wear when you're up to something."

Levon just grinned at him, and set the bags down to open the back of the truck. He held out his hand for the ones Joe was carrying. "I'll have to keep that in mind," he said in a light tone, but the shadows that appeared in his eyes as he spoke made Joe shiver.

He helped Levon load the truck, then caught his hand and pulled him into his arms. His husband gave him a small, pleased smile as he settled into the embrace. Joe kissed him and sighed. "If we didn't have to get to the ranch..."

"We in a hurry? I reckon they can start without us," Levon offered.

"And take a chance at missing whatever this year's big bombshell is?" he asked.

"Maybe if we aren't there to hear it, we can pretend it didn't happen?"

Along with the tradition of gathering, there had developed somehow the tradition of someone, each year, delivering news. One year it had been Angie and Shensen announcing their betrothal. Another year it had been Laurie announcing her pregnancy.

One year it had been Vinnie, simply showing up.

"I don't think it works that way," he said in answer to Levon's question.

"Too bad." Levon grinned, and made no effort to move out of Joe's arms.

"Can't help but notice neither of us are moving."

"Whose fault is that, oh dominant one?" From the way Levon grinned, Joe knew it wasn't a slip of the tongue. Thus, he was able to laugh in response.

"I'll move if you move."

So Levon moved. Closer. Kissed him again.

Joe kissed him back, closing his eyes and relishing the sensations. "That wasn't what I had in mind," he said huskily when their mouths parted.

"It wasn't?" The innocent look was back.

He laughed and shook his head. "I love you, cowboy."

"Love you, too. But you're right, we'd better get going...before we get going."

"Yeah. So why are we both still standing here?"

Levon shrugged. "You're the one driving." Still, he made no move to as much as let go of Joe.

"I suppose we could sorta shuffle together closer to the doors..."

"How do you plan on reaching the gas pedal?" There was a twinkle in Levon's eye which made Joe's heart skip. Lively, loving, and mischievous. He hadn't seen it very often lately.

"Gas pedal? I'm still working on how we're going to get in the truck without letting go." He grinned, letting the mischief in his husband's expression bring out a similar one in him.

Levon responded to that by kissing him again. A few moments into the kiss and it became clear that if someone didn't do something soon, they were going to be late.

"Levon..."

"Mmm?"

The hell with it. They'd be late. "Nothing," he said and dived in for another kiss.

Levon didn't seem to notice the aborted attempt at practicality. He grabbed onto Joe's waist, deepening the kiss. Joe let his husband push him backwards, until the door handle was digging into his back.

It definitely was breaking the mood. It didn't seem to be affecting Levon, of course. Even when Joe tried to gently nudge him backwards, so he could at least move sideways a bit, Levon stayed glued to his front like... a sex-starved centaur. Which he wouldn't have any problem with -- if the handle wasn't trying to leave permanent indentations in his back. "Levon..." he began but didn't get any further as Levon kissed him again.

When hands found their way to his jeans, he realized it was time to either stop or accept the new dent in his back.

"Levon," he repeated again, pushing a little harder.

"Hmm?" There was a faint note of awareness this time. The hands kept moving, however, until Joe put his hands over Levon's and stilled them.

"Would rather not make this a threesome with the truck, cowboy."

That brought his husband's head up. Levon looked at him, blinking as he tried to process Joe's words through an obviously offline brain.

"The door handle's digging into my back and you're not letting me move," he clarified.

"Oh." Levon nodded. He still didn't seem to be completely tracking what Joe meant, as he didn't move back to let Joe get away from the door handle. He blinked, then tilted his head to the side, and with a faintly self-amused smile asked in a clearer tone, "What?"

"You're pushing me into the door handle."

Immediately Levon stepped back, pulling Joe with him. His smile turned sheepish. "Sorry." He stood there for a moment, shifting slightly on his feet before asking, "Reckon we should head out?"

Joe grinned. "Isn't this where we were a few moments ago?"

"Promise to keep my hands to myself this time," Levon said almost solemnly.

"Damn."

Levon put his hands quickly back onto Joe's hips. Well, one on his hip, the other back in its previous spot right above Joe's groin. His husband's expression, however, made Joe laugh. He looked like a kitten hoping for a bowl of milk from the fridge you'd just closed.

Joe leaned in for one last quick kiss then let go of Levon and turned to open the door. "Later."

They managed to get into the truck without any more heavy petting or groping. Levon gave him a guarded look once, but said nothing. Just before Joe turned the ignition on, Levon started to open his mouth. He closed it quickly.

"What?"

He watched as Levon glanced quickly towards the back of the truck. Then he suddenly he realized what Levon was trying not to ask: had they packed everything.

Swallowing hard against the fear that once again swarmed up over him, Joe tried for a casual tone. "All packed, so let's get on the road."

His tone didn't fool Levon; he hadn't really expected it too. Levon nodded shortly, and turned to look out the window. Joe watched him for a moment, reached out and squeezed Levon's shoulder in reassurance, since there was nothing he could say. Then he started the truck and headed down the driveway.

The drive was quiet. Levon made no overtures at conversation, and each time Joe said something, Levon would respond quietly, simply, or not at all. Eventually Joe gave up and concentrated on the drive. He hated the silence, hated even more the fact the fear that seemed to be a third passenger in the truck.

Finally they turned onto the dirt wash which lead to the road to the ranch. Levon seemed to relax a bit as they draw near. In the distance Joe spotted the kids waiting to race their truck in and felt his own mood lightening slightly. It was hard to stay depressed with that kind of exuberance around you.

There were a few faces among the racers he hadn't expected to see -- some of his own grand- nieces and nephews, on top of bicycles, joining the race. Levon returned his grin when he pointed them out.

"LaFiamma ingenuity," he declared as he slowed the truck and let the kids speed ahead.

"Vinnie must be here," was Levon's only comment.

Joe glanced at his husband; though he and Vinnie had reconciled years earlier, Levon had never quite forgiven the man and at the most there'd existed an uneasy truce between the two. It pained him that they couldn't do more than agree to leave each other alone. There had been a time when he'd been glad to never see his cousin again, himself. But that had changed; Vinnie had changed. Now Joe found it comforting to have a connection to a part of his family that was otherwise long gone.

But Levon had never been able to set aside what were too clear memories of that first winter in Chicago. Levon had explained to him once that as long as the memories of the events remained so sharp, so did the memories of the pain. With uneasy guilt, Joe wondered if now Levon would be able to let go of that pain, finally.

He didn't have any more time to dwell on it however, when he brought the truck to a halt in front of the ranch house. There was quite a crowd waiting for them and both he and Levon were surrounded the second they got out.

"Dad!" he heard, his only warning before he was being given a hug.

"Hi, Cordelia," Joe said, hugging her back tightly.

"Oh, it's good to see you! It's been far too long since you two have been out here." She gave him a cheerful smile.

"You always say that. Even if we've just been here a week ago."

"Well, it's always true!"

He laughed and hugged her again. "We've missed you too."

"Was the drive OK?" She glanced over as she asked, a faint note to her question that made it more than 'how was traffic?'.

"Why wouldn't it be? You expecting us to get sidetracked by a crime in progress or something?" The joke only sounded a little forced.

"Last time it was ice cream, wasn't it?" she pointed out.

Joe gave her a mock frown. "Now, Cordelia, I thought we raised you better than that. You're never to pass up ice cream."

"You brought ice cream?!" an excited voice broke in. Joey turned to see Jenny, Cordelia's daughter, had run up. The eight year old grabbed Joe's arm. "Did you?"

"I don't know," Joe said seriously. "Maybe we should look in the cooler."

As soon as the words had left his mouth, Jenny was gone, running to the back of the truck, only to find it had been well unloaded already. Dismayed but not thwarted, she began looking around for a cooler.

Cordelia sighed. "Stuart says this sort of thing is all your fault, dad. Something about pixie sticks and chocolate cigars?"

"He's just sore that he didn't get any when he was a colt. Kids need to be pumped full of sugar every now and then. It's a rite of passage."

She gave him a dirty look, then smiled. "It's only because I know how often you babysat a herdful of hyperactive foals that I'm not going to argue with you on that one." She sighed as Jenny ran up, pouting, then smiled at her daughter. "He might have been teasing, you know," she said cheerfully.

"Now would I do that?" Joe grinned and winked at his granddaughter. "The ice cream is for after dinner, but I think I can probably find something for you now." He made a show of patting his pockets down.

That was all she needed. The filly leapt forward and dove directly for the inner jacket pocket where he'd hidden the candy. Joe laughed and braced himself against the enthusiastic retrieval.

She grinned when she came up with a small bag of her favorite hard candy. Cordelia gave Joe another dirty look. "Should I even mention what it does to her teeth?" The threat lost its edge, however, with Cordelia's sidelong, hopeful glance towards said candy.

"You still have all yours," he pointed out reasonably, digging out another bag for Jenny's mother.

"No thanks to you," she replied, though she took the bag quickly before Joe could pull it back.

She popped one in her mouth, then said, "Now that the important stuff is out of the way, Vinnie's out back."

Joe started to head that way, then stopped, looking back at his husband uncertainly. Levon was still on the other side of the truck, talking with Hannah, Corriane, and Justin. Joey reflected that Justin must be almost old enough to foster out.

"He's fine," Cordelia said quietly, her hand on Joe's arm.

He glanced back at his daughter, seeing both knowledge and compassion there. "Call if there's any..."

"They'll keep an eye on him, Dad. He's our family, too." She gently nudged him towards the backyard.

The reassurance helped loosen some of the tension in his muscles. "Thank you," he said softly before allowing himself to follow her urging and go search out his cousin.

It took him a bit to actually get around to the backyard. Friends and family kept stopping him to say hello. Finally, though, he rounded the corner and saw Vinnie. "Hey cuz," Joe called out as he headed over to join him.

Vinnie broke into a wide smile as he turned. "Joey!" They exchanged hugs, then Vinnie gave him a friendly once over. "Life's treating you OK?"

"Why wouldn't it be?"

"Because last time we talked, you were...not so happy." Vinnie shrugged. "But today you seem all right."

Joe sighed and ran a hand over his face. "There's...situations happening. But we decided to try and enjoy the day." The rest of the sentence, 'because it may very well be the last like it,' remained unspoken.

The way Vinnie nodded told him his cousin understood. "If there is anything I can do.... I know Levon probably won't want me around, but I can send Lou," he nodded towards his second oldest son, standing at his side.

"Anything at all, Uncle Joey," Lou said sincerely. "You know since I got to retire last year I can make my own schedule." He grinned briefly, and for a moment he looked exactly like his grandfather might have, had he left his business and made a pleasant way for himself as the family since him had.

"I'll keep that in mind, kid. Thanks." It was starting to sink in that he wasn't in this alone.

Lou smirked. "Nobody but you calls me 'kid', Uncle Joey. I've even got a grandkid of my own, now." With that, he pulled out his wallet.

The conversation degenerated into new baby and how are the new parents coping. Typical first-grandchild fare. That segued into a comparison of all the babies born lately, and the general state of the LaFiamma clan.

"You know, when we were young, I never thought there'd be as many LaFiammas in Texas as there are in Chicago."

"And now Susana is talking of moving down." Lou flashed a grin. "Something about that 'young hunk Draper'. I swear, at this rate the LaFiammas and Lundys might as well just consider themselves a single clan."

"Always wanted to start a trend," Joe said buffing his nails on his shirt.

"Yeah, generations from now will blame all this on you and Levon." Vinnie thumped him lightly on the shoulder. "Not enough I have one niece married to a centaur, I gotta have a daughter marrying one as well." He grinned at the mare who had walked by in time to hear the comment.

She glared, then laughed with him. "Fresh blood is good for the herd."

"And for the Family."

"Speaking of which, how's Angie doing? Her little ones still driving her batty?" Vinnie asked, though Joe suspected he'd talked with his niece recently, himself. Even now, though, Vinnie deferred to Joe as knowing more, as Angie's effective father.

"Mildly so." He grinned. "I keep telling her to be grateful they inherited at least part of the centaur obedience from their father."

Vinnie sighed. "I shoulda married a mare." His son looked offended.

"The LaFiamma stubbornness does tend to temper it a lot," Joe pointed out.

"If I didn't have kids of my own, Dad, I'd resent that remark," Lou said.

"They gonna be here later?" Vinnie asked of Joey, ignoring his son's comment.

Joe laughed. "Angie hasn't missed a get together out here since she and Tony came to live with us."

"She hasn't missed this one, either," Lou said, nodding. Joe looked over and saw Angie coming around the house.

"Angie!" Joe yelled, calling her over.

She looked up, searched the crowd for a moment, then caught sight of him. She made her way over, and there was another round of hugging and how are yous.

"You're looking good."

"Thanks, you too. Shensen and Anthony are talking to Levon -- I think they'll be there the rest of the day, arguing about lures." She rolled her eyes.

"As long as they don't expect us to join in."

"After fifteen years, you'd think they'd believe us when we say we don't like fishing. I'm glad we finally had a son who likes it as well as those two -- for a while I thought Shensen was gonna have Anna returned."

"If he'd tried, she would've just looked at him with those big brown eyes and that would've been the end of that."

"True," Angie laughed.

Joe hugged her again. "So come on, tell me what's been going on that's kept you too busy to visit."

"More of the same," she replied. "We've about four mares almost ready for sale; and as usual the waiting list is a half a dozen names long."

He smiled. "You're going to make that first million before you're thirty at this rate."

With an innocent look, she asked, "First?"

"Brat," Joe said affectionately.

"Well if Shensen wouldn't keep spending it," she admitted, with another roll of her eyes. Then, "I heard Laurie's going to Washington."

"What?"

Angie's eyes grew wide. "Uh... she didn't tell you? Oh, hell, I wasn't supposed to keep quiet about that, was I?"

Joe looked at her for a moment, then turned on his heel, going in search of Laurie. Behind him he heard an "Oops," and Vinnie's muffled laughter.

It wasn't the first time he'd had reason to be thankful of Angie's inability to keep a secret. But it was the first time she'd let slip something so serious. Laurie leaving...

Especially now.

He found her talking to Jody, both of them being hung onto and played on by several small children. Joe nodded to Jody then turned to his daughter. "Can I talk to you?"

"Er, sure, why?" Laurie looked confused. Then she caught sight of something behind him, and looked immediately innocent. She handed two of the kids off to Jody, then followed Joe a few steps away.

A quick look over his shoulder caught Angie just stopping her gestures. He briefly rolled his eyes then turned his attention back to Laurie. "Washington?"

"The state or the district?"

"You tell me. You're the one who's planning on leaving."

"That would be DC, then," she nodded calmly.

"When were you going to tell us?"

"Well, let's see, I'm going to be leaving next month, for about two weeks. How much warning do you need?"

He blinked. "Two weeks?"

She gave him a flat stare. "Yes, Dad. Two weeks." She waited, obviously not going to give him any help wriggling out of this one.

"You could've said something the other day," he muttered. "I'm getting too old for you to be letting me jump to conclusions."

She giggled. "The exercise does you good. Besides, I didn't want to say anything then...Jack would've asked if he could stay with you two while I was gone, and--"

"And what? Even if Levon is getting a little forgetful, we can still take care of our grandson when needed."

"I know, Dad, I just didn't know if you'd want to make arrangements. To have someone else at the house." She seemed uncomfortable, and Joe suspected he knew why. She would rather leave her son with Angie and Shensen, if Joe wasn't able to take care of them both.

He wasn't willing to admit that he was going to be anything but capable, but could understand her worry. "How about we say we'll take him, and if...circumstances change..."

She looked at him levelly. "Dad, you know I love you both, and I know Jack would love nothing more than staying with you two. But wouldn't it be easier if he stayed with Angie and Shensen? You two can go over there anytime, take him for the day a few times."

"You don't want to leave him with us." He wasn't really prepared for how much that realization hurt.

She opened her mouth, then stopped. The hurt he felt was reflected on his daughter's face. In a tiny voice, she said, "I'm sorry, Dad. You only just started admitting there was anything wrong with Levon and he's been forgetting things for months, now. I know you would take excellent care of Jack. But I can't ask you to take care of Jack and Levon. Not by yourself."

"You make it sound like Levon is-" Joe broke off, still unable to put his worse fears into words.

Laurie bit her lip, making her look five years old. "Dad," she whispered. "He couldn't remember how to make coffee."

Joe spun away. He didn't want to hear this. He couldn't--

As he turned, he caught sight of Levon. Standing with Shensen and Cordelia, they were talking. Levon was smiling, and as Joe watched he saw his husband laugh at something Shensen said. When someone tugged on Shensen's arm, the centaur turned away to follow.

As he watched, another centaur stepped into Shensen's place. Easily, as if simply milling around talking with everyone present. Except when Cordelia was called away by her daughter, another -- one of Joe's cousins, this time -- stepped into her place.

They were making sure Levon was never alone. Taking care of him without being obvious about it.

He wondered if that explained why Levon looked so relaxed. More relaxed than he had looked in a long time. Joe wondered how much trying to pretend everything was normal had made things harder for Levon.

A hand on his arm startled him. Laurie was looking at him, understanding and something else in her eyes. "He's known what's happening for a while hasn't he?" he asked.

"I think so. He's only talked to me about it once, after he realized that I knew. For the longest time, though, it was just little stuff. Things a human wouldn't even notice forgetting." She glanced towards Levon, obviously trying to decide if she should continue.

Joe nodded slightly, urging her to. He needed to hear it. Even if he didn't want to.

She slipped her arm around his waist, inviting herself into his embrace as if needing the reassurance herself as much as offering it. "He told me not to tell you. But dad, he was so scared. He tried to pretend he wasn't, but I could tell. I'm sorry I didn't tell you. But I couldn't. He told me not to."

"You finally did, though."

"I had to, dad. I...I've been trying for weeks to tell you. I kept hoping it wouldn't be necessary, that you'd see...."

"He was hiding from me."

"I know." She looked up at him. "But you weren't looking very hard, were you?"

He gave a half shrug, still unwilling to admit how willfully blind he'd been. They stood there in silence, both watching Levon. His husband was still being carefully surrounded by family -- never less than two, and never more than four after a group of six had tried to converge and Levon's expression grew strained. Joe recalled all the times members of the herd had grown old, that he'd been out to see how the herd had treated them. Watching them as carefully, if not more so, than foals.

Seeing them treating Levon the same way brought home all the harder what was happening. That his time with Levon would soon be coming to an end.

He didn't realize his grip on Laurie had tightened, until she started to move away. "Why don't you go on now, Dad. Spend some time with him before the babies start hogging his attention." She gave him a wink at the last, though the cheer hadn't quite reached her eyes.

Joe smiled back at her, knowing it didn't quite reach his eyes either. Then he headed over to join his husband.

David had just made the entire group burst into bellows of laughter when he reached them. Levon gave Joe a grin and reached for his hand. Joe squeezed Levon's hand, his own smile turning more real. Determined to try and live in the moment. Levon was here now, and that was the important thing.

"Hey, Joe, you got any stupid foal-- er, stupid youngster stories you wanna confess to?" David asked as the laughter eased enough for him to be heard.

"Me? I was the perfect child," he responded, grinning.

"Ain't what Rosa told me," his husband replied in an easy drawl.

"Well, I didn't paint anybody blue like someone I could name."

There were snickers, and Marika shook her head. "No, he already told us that one. If you can't confess to your own misdeeds, you have to at least share new misdeeds of his."

Levon tried to look offended, but nobody was paying him any mind. Joe thought for a moment. "Did he tell you about when he ran off at Six Flags?"

There were nods. Levon grinned unrepentantly. "You could tell 'em about the time you ruined your Aunt's dinner, right before the entire family showed up for the meal," he offered in a helpful tone.

That he remembers, Joe thought half grumpily. "That wasn't my fault. Tony and Vinnie dared me."

"Yeah, and who was it forced you to add the salt to the cake batter, as well?" There was a delighted glint in Levon's eye that made Joe want to throw his arms around him and kiss him senseless.

"That was pure revenge. It was Vinnie's birthday cake." He mocked glared at Levon, playing his part to the hilt. Anything to keep that look on Levon's face.

"Rosa said you claimed Tony did that part, too," Levon added thoughtfully.

"Well, yeah. Wouldn't you?"

"Luckily Mama and Pop believed me when I told them you had done it," came Vinnie's innocent-sounding voice from behind them.

"If you hadn't told Sara I liked her, I wouldn't have had to do it in the first place," Joe shot back.

"Sara?" Levon's eyebrows went up. Then he frowned, though his eyes were still dancing. "You never mentioned anyone named 'Sara'."

"Ooo, you're in trouble now, Joey," Vinnie taunted.

Joe responded to that by calmly turning to his cousin and sticking his tongue out. There were giggles throughout the group -- not a one of then under the age of thirty. Which was why, no doubt, the two five-year-old centaurs who were walking by stopped, looked at them, then shook their heads with airs of maturity.

Which of course, just caused all of them to burst out into even more laughter.

"I hear that happens when you get older," one of them said. "The mind--" she stopped suddenly and paled.

Looking mortified she galloped off. Her companion stayed long enough to stammer, "She didn't mean..." before faltering to a halt then running after her friend.

An uneasy silence had fallen over the adults left behind. Then Levon swore softly, and turned to follow the kids. Joe stood paralyzed for a moment longer then headed after his lover. Levon stopped and began removing his clothing. The kids could easily outrun them otherwise, on all four feet. Around them Joe heard conversations rise and fall, some muffled, some with the faint sense of urgency that told him within another five minutes everyone at the reunion would know exactly what had happened.

Joe just held out his arm for Levon to balance on as he heeled off his boots. Other than that, he stood quietly as Levon stripped and changed. Joe stepped up onto a conveniently placed stone, and settled onto his husband's back. Then Levon set out after the two kids.

They still remained silent, though Joe's mind was going a mile a minute. Thoughts he'd been trying to avoid looming up and refusing to be ignored any longer.

It wasn't hard to find the two fillies -- a couple minutes' ride and Joe could see them. Alana, the one who'd spoken, was standing with her head down. Liz was talking to her, trying to convince her of something -- either that she was an idiot, or that it was an honest mistake. There was really no way to know, with those two.

They both looked up when Levon galloped up. Alana stepped back behind her sister, not looking up at them. Liz just looked worried. Levon came to a halt and considered them for a moment.

"She didn't mean anything, Levon, sir," Liz said earnestly.

"I know," Levon said gently. He took another step forward. "Alana, honey, you didn't say anything wrong."

"But you- They told us-"

"They told you not to say anything about me forgetting." Joe heard his husband laugh quietly. "Saying we'd all lost our minds ain't the same thing." He held out his hand to the girl.

She took it tentatively. "I'm sorry."

"I know. You didn't mean anything by it," he said again. "Ain't no harm done."

"Truly?"

"Truly." He gave the girl's hand a slight tug. "Come on back now, Tory; folks'll be wondering what we're up to."

Joe felt something inside clench at the slip. He watched confusion cross the filly's face, but with a glance up at his face it smoothed out. "Yes, Levon," she said obediently.

Liz fell into step beside them, as they turned back towards the ranch. Nothing more was said until they reached the yard immediate to the house. Joe saw that, while most of them were hiding it, everyone was well aware of their return.

Stuart was openly watching. With a last glance up at Levon, Alana let go of his hand and ran up to her father.

Joe hugged his waist tighter. "You did a good thing, going after them, Levon."

"Couldn't rightly let her alone, could I?"

"Nope. Not you, cowboy."

Levon looked over his shoulder at him, and Joe could see that he was still worried.

"You did good," Joe repeated, trying to assure him.

"You OK with this?" he asked quietly. The question covered a thousand topics.

"I have to be." He forced a grin. "So I am."

"You know you don't have to...not talk about it." There was fear in his husband's eyes again, but for what, Joe wasn't sure. Fear that Joe would talk about it? Fear that he wouldn't?

Or just fear that he would forget? Laurie had said that Levon had been scared, since this had first begun. God, that had been weeks ago.... "Do you need to talk about it?" he asked, hating the thought of Levon dealing with it by himself for so long. Terrified and unable to say anything.

Levon shook his head, but turned a bit more, trying to reach out for Joe. Joe slipped off Levon's back and walked around so he could hold his husband.

"I'm here," Joe whispered. "I'm always going to be here."

Levon changed forms to rest his head on Joe's shoulder. "You'll take care of me?" came the soft question, light and half-uttered.

"Always," he promised, tightening his grip. As if he could hold Levon in this moment and stop the inevitable.

He felt his husband relax into his hold, though his grip didn't loosen, then tension -- the fear -- did fade. As Levon settled against him, hiding inside Joe's touch from the world, it felt to Joe as if an old mantle has been raised again, settling on his shoulders.

He could heard Taylor's voice, telling him what it would be like. When it comes down to it, you are not equals. If he feels secure that you will, when necessary, take care of him.... Full circle, he supposed. Dominant once more.

"Back to the beginning," he muttered under his breath. If that's what he had to do, he'd do it. Anything for Levon. His own pain and fear could wait.

Levon shifted a bit, then looked up at him, perplexed. Joe started to worry until he saw the smile hiding almost successfully.

"What?" Joe demanded, feeling his own smile threatening.

"Does that mean we're gonna start fighting and stop having any sex?"

Joe blinked then threw back his head and laughed.

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

Dinner that night was, as usual, excellent. It was a mixture of Texan barbecue and Italian home recipes, both handed down through the generations. A mealtime tradition itself, begun at Joe and Levon's wedding.

The chaos during dinner was a tradition as well, as dozens of voices carried on multiple conversations. Joe usually reveled in it, and part of him was definitely doing so this year. But this year he found himself also slightly distanced, observing and storing up the memories.

There, too, was the need to keep his eye on Levon. The activity and noise had never been easy for his husband to handle. Levon often let himself fade into the background, watching rather than participating. This year was no different, with the exception that Joe stayed beside him, rather than plunge headfirst into the excitement.

Most of the meal Joe was careful to keep some part in contact with his husband. A hand, a leg, a shoulder. He was very careful to make the touches seem casual, not purposeful.

Levon hadn't seemed to notice, or, if he had, gave no indication that he knew what they meant. Regardless, they worked. Levon remained calm and collected throughout dinner, and Joe could tell he was enjoying himself.

Finally they were finishing up the dessert course and everyone started looking around the table expectantly. No one said anything, of course. Finally, someone down the end of the table clinked their water glass. All eyes turned that way.

It was Jenny. The filly looked at everyone and cleared her throat. "I've got something I want to tell everyone."

There were smiles everywhere of the sort you saw on grownups who knew they had to act like they had to take what they were about to hear seriously. Jenny gave a couple of those faces a determined look, before proceeding with her announcement. "I'm going to be leaving the herd when I turn 17."

Centaurs and humans alike were astonished. "We'll be sorry to lose you," Stuart told her solemnly.

Cordelia was staring at her daughter, a mix of surprise and delight on her face. "Wha-- what are you going to be doing, Jenny?" she asked for them all.

"I'm going to go to MIT and learn to be a rocket scientist."

There was a brief moment of silence, then the room burst into congratulations and 'you'll be great's. Jenny stood there, grinning from ear to ear and soaking it all up, until Levon's voice cut through the babble.

"Don't most of the rocket scientists nowadays work on the Atlantis project?" The Atlantis project was a space station, orbiting the earth.

She nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah. And that's where I wanna be!"

That announcement was met with stunned silence. Jenny looked around the room, her determined look wavering slightly with doubt.

"Centaurs in space. Well, somebody has to be the first," Levon told her, cheerfully. That encouragement brought back her resolve, and she gave the rest of the room a 'so there' smile. More expressions of support and encouragement came from around the table, then, leaving Jenny beaming.

"Is that it for this year?" Stuart asked when the conversation had died down again.

"Don't we have a limit?" David asked. There was brief laughter, then more expectant silence.

Then someone cleared his throat. Joe looked over and felt a shock run through him. It was Tony.

Everyone was looking at Tony, now. From the way he was shifting nervously in his seat, Joe knew this was serious. He groaned.

"I..um...there's something I...we...need to tell people." Tony glanced at Taylor. The two of them had taken up where Joe and Levon had left off in HPD, both having been promoted to detective the year before and finally were able to partner with each other.

Levon and Joe had given them both lots of grief about it -- sometimes serious, sometimes teasing. In the end, though, they were both proud of their boys, and glad to see them following in their own footsteps.

Tony took a deep breath, and looked his uncles in the eye. "You know how you made a big deal about us following your example, when we both joined the police academy?"

"Yes..." Joe said, eyes narrowed.

Taylor was doing a remarkable job of pretending like he wasn't listening, and yet providing his partner with silent support. Levon had a suspicious expression on his face which matched Joe's.

Tony glanced over at Taylor; Taylor looked back and gave him a tiny grin. It looked just exactly like....

"Oh gods." Joe heard his husband whisper.

"You're really taking this following in our footsteps thing pretty seriously, huh?" Joe said with forced humor.

"Well, you made it look like so much fun," Tony replied lightly, but it was clear he'd heard the lack of sincere enthusiasm in his surrogate father's voice. Taylor peeked over at Joe, then Levon.

Levon's suspicious expression had grown thoughtful. The rest of the room was still silent, as if waiting for their judgement on the matter.

Joe looked at his husband then back at Taylor and Tony and their half scared, half hopeful, fully determined expressions. Remembered what it felt like to tell his own family about Levon and how much it had hurt when his aunt and uncle hadn't accepted them. "You two sure about this?" he finally asked.

They both nodded. Taylor said, "We wouldn't have announced it, if we weren't sure. We've been talking about it for almost a year."

Before Joe could respond to that, Levon nudged him. "Excuse us for a second," he said, then turned to Levon.

"We oughtta say yes," his husband said quietly.

"Was just coming to that conclusion myself."

"Oh?" Levon blinked at him. "Why were you thinking it?"

"I remember what it felt like when Aunt Teresa and Uncle Mikey wouldn't accept us. It would've meant a lot to me if they had."

Levon nodded, then smiled. "I was thinking we'd get to pass on Joanne's gift to someone else."

"Another good reason." He grinned then turned back to Taylor and Tony.

They immediately returned Joe and Levon's smiles with their own dubious expressions. "They're up to something," Taylor stage-whispered.

"Ya think?" Tony muttered back.

"When's the wedding?" Joe asked, still grinning.

That was all everyone else needed. The room exploded into congratulations and exclamations, people got up from their seats to go offer handshakes and hugs to the newly- engaged pair -- even if they hadn't actually announced it, exactly.

Levon muttered under his breath, "I hope that's all."

"What, Dad, you expect me to tell you Tony got me in trouble?" Taylor asked cheekily.

Levon shot him a glare. "You're hoping I've forgotten who got the two of you thrown in Juvenile Hall for two weeks?"

"And even if he did forget, you didn't expect me not to remind him, did you?" Joe threw in.

Taylor opened his mouth to retort, then stopped.

"Good choice," Tony told him.

Joe grinned, then started laughing. "Yeah, you two will do."

"Thanks, Uncle Joe."

There was general merriment, then, and both Joe and Levon simply sat back and watched.

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

It was hot. The breeze coming in the kitchen window was gentle, barely cutting the heat at all. He could have turned on the air conditioner, but he preferred the smell of the grass and the feel of the air on his face.

Joe knew his younger self would have been scandalized at the thought of him liking Texas summers. But over the decades they had grown on him. This was home. The greater part of home was currently outside, running in the pasture with Shensen.

In the last month, the signs of Levon's aging had become more obvious, a continuing reminder of how time was slipping away from them. Joe'd been doing his best to keep a positive attitude, trying not to dwell on his fears and anger, and he knew Levon had been doing the same thing.

But still the tension, the knowledge was there, in every moment, every breath, every heartbeat. And like it or not, it colored everything they did or said. That's why seeing Levon go out running with Shensen with a smile that wasn't the least bit forced or shadowed had meant so much.

Joe was grateful Shensen had come out. Angie had the grandkids with her, and that night they were all having dinner together. Hence his cleaning the kitchen so thoroughly while Shensen kept an eye on Levon. He hated thinking of it like that -- but that was the truth.

He had, if not accepted it, had at least come to acknowledge it. Though it caused an ache deep in his soul whenever he thought about it.

He tried to banish those thoughts. It was far to beautiful a day, and so far the day had been a good one. Not like yesterday, when Levon and he had pushed each other into an argument, fueled by Levon's misunderstanding of what he'd forgotten, and Joe's frustrations and fears. That had prompted the phone call to Angie, and the visit and time off for himself, today.

Levon had, this morning, apparently forgotten the argument. Or perhaps he had merely forgiven it, and saw no reason to mention it. Joe couldn't tell anymore. And that scared him as much as anything. It meant he was losing his ability to read Levon.

Losing Levon.

He stopped wiping the counter, hands on the counter, and stared out the window for a moment. The air was still hot, promised a hot, humid summer in the later weeks. The feel of it reminded him of days spent working, sitting on stakeout or pounding the pavement, Levon laughing and arguing with him every step of the way.

It reminded him of the first summer he was here -- hating every second of it, hating every part of Houston with one notable exception. It reminded him of the first summer he lived with Levon, and how the heat and humidity had barely made an impression over the heat of sweat-slicked bodies as they'd spent nearly every free moment they had grasping each other, grappling and groping and making love.

That was the first summer he'd known what Levon was as well. He had spent just as much time exploring that, reveling in that. Going for long rides and giving his partner equally long brushings afterwards. It had made his world so much bigger, and never s o much more than when it had been just the two of them.

Not that he begrudged any of their lives, any of the family and friends who had become a daily part of them. But that first summer together... perhaps it was just age and distance making it seem better. More romantic. When they'd had their entire lives before them, rather than behind....

Abruptly he turned away from the window, and went back to wiping the counter furiously. Banishing the memories. Banishing the fear and despair.

"JOE!!" A furious shout startled him, and he heard the thundering of hooves. "JOE!!"

Shensen. Joe ran for the door, a sinking in the pit of his stomach at the urgency in the young centaur's voice. Shensen came pounding up to the front porch, his body heaving with the force of hard breaths. His face was a frozen mask, his eyes wide with shock.

"Go on, he's that way," Shensen pointed back the way he'd come. "I'll go call Doc Lia and catch up, take you the rest of the way. GO!" And the centaur pushed past him, changing forms as he stepped onto the porch.

Levon. Oh god. Joe took off at a blind run, panic on his heels the whole way.

He wasn't sure how far he'd gotten, he hadn't yet caught sight of Levon when he heard Shensen running up behind him. "Joe! Hold up!"

With an effort he stopped. "Levon-" he gasped.

Shensen pounded to a halt. "Can you get on my back?" He was holding a hand out, going down on one knee to lower himself for Joe to mount.

Joe quickly climbed on. "Shensen, Levon..."

"He fell. Broke his leg, at least. I'm not--" Shensen barely paused as Joe found his seat, before he was running, again.

Holding on as tight as he could, Joe silently urged the stallion faster. It still wasn't fast enough. The panic had overtaken him now. Shensen wasn't trying to calm him down or reassure him. He didn't say a word; instead he simply ran. Finally Joe saw him -- lying on his side in the middle of the field.

Not moving.

For a moment it felt like time stopped. Or maybe it was just Joe's heart. He was sliding off Shensen's back even before he had come to a full stop, stumbling a bit when he hit the ground, but it barely registered. The only thing that meant anything was his husband's unmoving form.

As he dropped to the ground at Levon's head, he saw his husband open his eyes and look up at him. It was clear on his face that he was in pain, terrible pain. But he just reached out one hand for Joe.

Joe clasped it tightly, his other hand finding its way to Levon's face. But he didn't say anything. He couldn't. He heard Shensen moving, then he was kneeling beside Joe and Levon. He rested on hand on Joe's shoulder, but didn't speak.

Levon's front leg was lying awkwardly, the break in the thigh obvious. He was lying on his other side -- somehow Shensen must have gotten him rolled over, getting his weight off the break to lessen the pain from excruciating to a level that was making Levon unable to speak, able only to stare at him in that same way he always did when hurt or exhausted beyond thought.

It seemed to be more than just the thigh, however. He didn't dare touch it to be sure, but it almost looked as if the shoulder were out of alignment as well. Joe swallowed hard against the sudden lump in his throat. He wanted to pull his lover into his arms but couldn't without hurting him worse. He wanted to tell him it would be all right, but the words wouldn't come.

He was afraid they'd sound as hollow as they felt.

It seemed like forever that they sat there, none of them speaking, none of them moving. Joe focused on his husband's gaze, and the slow and unsteady rise of his chest as he breathed.

He only heard the approach of another centaur after Shensen stirred. Tearing his eyes away from Levon's he looked up to see Lia galloping up. "Please," he whispered as she changed back and knelt beside Levon's side.

She gave him a quick look, her demeanor calm and collected. Then she bent to examine Levon's leg. For several long moments she gently touched and prodded, her face thoughtful.

"Well?"

She looked up at him, eyes serious. "It's broken, but you knew that." Then she paused.

"But it'll heal, right? He's broken it before. It healed then. It'll heal right? Right?"

There was an answer in her eyes he didn't want to see. He didn't want to hear it, either, but he couldn't force words out before her soft voice came again. "I've seen breaks like this before, too often. Joe, at his age it could be months before it heals well enough to walk on. Chances are it will never heal well enough for him to change back." She had laid a hand on his arm, and he shook it off.

"No." He knew what was coming next and he wasn't going to listen. Wasn't going to agree. Couldn't agree. Not to that.

"Joe," she repeated in that infuriatingly calm, gentle manner, "He's never going to be out of pain. It could be a year before he's able to walk, if at all. He'd have to be held up and immobilized for months with no guarantee--"

"NO!" He bowed his head, resting it against Levon's faded blond hair. "No," he repeated more quietly. He wouldn't -- couldn't -- agree.

But she kept talking. Urging him to understand. "Joe, it would be kinder. You know how he hates being confined, being unable to walk around. We wouldn't be able to keep him free of pain. All that would be left is holding him, trapped in a stall, until he died."

Joe shook his head, denying her words. Mouthing "No," over and over.

She waited for a moment, just looking at him. He turned away from her, looking down at Levon, wondering what Lia's words had done to him.

But there was no sign he had heard anything. He was still staring up at Joe, eyes wide and full of trust. Trust that Joe would take care of him. That Joe would make everything all right again. That he would make the pain go away--

Trusting him to make the right decision. No matter the cost to himself.

"H-how...?" he asked falteringly, the one word feeling like a betrayal.

And a promise kept.

He could see the relief, but he heard only the same stillness in her voice. "We can put him to sleep. He'll feel no pain at all, and soon he'll wake up in the Elysian Fields where the herd gone before is waiting for him."

"Without me." The words were out before he had thought them.

That brought a flicker of surprise to her face. "Joe... I don't...." Confused, she glanced over at Shensen.

"I would think Zeus and your God would let you be together again," the young stallion said, but the uncertainty was evident. "Surely they wouldn't--"

"You don't know that. And neither do I." Joe shook his head, despair resting heavy on his shoulders. It was more than his heart breaking. It was his soul being ripped away. He felt, dimly, arms wrapped across his back. Mostly what he felt was the weight of Levon's head in his lap.

He couldn't let go.

"No!" he yelled, panicked, afraid they were going to do it right then. "No, please. Not yet. Please. I'm not- I can't-"

Someone hugged him tightly. If he listened, he could hear a voice whispering in his ear, but it wasn't the voice he wanted to hear. He couldn't let Levon go. Not like this. Not with the chance of never seeing him again. Not without Levon even able to speak to him, to say....

"Oh, God, please, no...."

It wasn't fair. Not like this. Not without even the chance to say a proper goodbye. He clung harder as his mind futilely, feverishly searched for something, anything he could do to help. Anything anyone could do to help. He wasn't ashamed to ask for assistance, not if it could save Levon.

'Please,' he thought furiously, casting the thought out to whoever would listen. God, Zeus, both, neither, names didn't matter. He'd beg help of anyone who could give it. 'Please, if you have to take him now, please let me stay with him.' He lowered his head, knowing that no one would answer, but unable not to hope.

"I don't think I can get him into your Catholic Heaven, Joey."

"Wha-?" He looked up at the unfamiliar voice.

There was a man standing there. A large man, white curly hair and beard, smiling at him. Standing on the other side of Levon as if he'd walked up without anyone noticing.

In fact, Lia and Shensen didn't act like they had noticed. Actually, now that he looked closer, they seemed to be...frozen.

Swallowing, Joe turned back to the man. "You're..." He couldn't quite bring himself to say it.

"Yes," he nodded. "My brother told me one of my children would be coming in today. He has everything ready; Charon's got the big boat out." But he was looking down at Levon with a curious expression on his face.

"He gets seasick," Joe said. He knew it was rather stupid when the words left his mouth, but it still seemed important that that was known.

Zeus just nodded, still smiling. "I know. I tried to fix that, but I never could get it right. Didn't matter at first, they weren't supposed to be leaving Greece at all." He sighed, though he acted more like he was proud of the scope of his centaurs' expansion.

"You're going to take him away from me, aren't you?"

The smile faded slightly, and the god looked at him squarely. "It would be cruel to leave him like this, to suffer."

"Then take me with him!" Demanding, desperate.

"Joey, it isn't your time." Zeus gave him a steely look which brooked no argument. "I should warn you, if you go through with your plan to follow him, you'll find yourself worse off. I understand your God doesn't take kindly to suicide."

Joe shrugged miserably. "Wouldn't matter what He did to me, good or bad. Without Levon, I'm going to be in Hell forever anyway." What was worse, he was sure Levon would feel the same way. That haunted him more than his own pain.

"I see. Throws a wrench in the bliss of afterlife thing, doesn't it?"

Joe's head snapped up at the note of amusement in Zeus' voice. "You think this is funny?" he demanded angrily.

"Oh, relax, Joe. When you're as old and godlike as I am, you learn to take everything lightly. Well, except jokes about bulls, but that's not important at the moment." He gave Joe a sharp look. "That is not, by the way, how centaurs got started. In case you were wondering."

"I'm a little preoccupied to be wondering about that kind of thing right now." Joe felt stunned, unable to tell if his grief should give way to anger.

"Hm, yes. We do have a problem, then, don't we?" Zeus folded his hands in front of him as he looked down at Joe, then Levon. "Like I said, I don't have any authority to get him into your Heaven. You can't die now, can't kill yourself without bollocksing it up, and I'm certainly not going to kill you. God gets so unreasonable about that sort of thing, anymore."

"So you're saying there's nothing you can do." Despair overwhelmed him again and he closed his eyes. Trying to keep from starting to bawl.

"No, I'm just saying that if you're both going to come into the Fields, you'll have to come in together. When it's your time to die."

For a brief second hope flared anew, but it died down almost as fast and Joe shook his head. "You said it yourself. He's suffering. Much as I want him with me, I can't keep him that way." His voice broke.

"He can be healed, Joey," Zeus replied, amusement gone from his voice as he sounded more like a kindly father than a deity with a sense of humour.

"He can?" Joe whispered. "And you will...?"

Zeus shrugged. "He'd have to be, to stay with you for thirty more years. Wouldn't be any point in making him hobble around--"

"Thirty more years?" He didn't --quite-- dare to believe what he was hearing.

"Oh, I'm not supposed to tell you that, am I?" But Zeus was grinning. "Well, as long as I haven't mentioned a specific date, I won't get into any arguments about it. You would not believe how long some beings can keep up a debate."

"I'm married to Levon," he pointed out in response.

"So you do know." Zeus looked down at Levon again. "Hmm. Have to fix that, too," he said to himself, then waved a hand.

Joe felt Levon stir in his lap and he looked down into his husband's brown eyes staring up at him, fully aware. "Levon?" he whispered.

"Joe?" His voice was weak, and confused -- and it was the most wonderful thing Joe had ever heard.

Tears that hadn't come before he could now feel running down his cheeks. "Hey cowboy," he said, smiling so wide his face hurt.

"Remember, Joey, you'll need a coin to cross." Joe looked up, and found that Zeus had vanished.

"Thank you," he whispered, heartfelt. Nobody had ever given him a greater gift.

"Joe?" He heard Lia ask in a confused tone.

"It's okay, Lia," he said with a grin, though he couldn't stop himself from glancing down into his husband's face just to make sure. Levon was still gazing up at him, still confused as he focused on Joe. Then he blinked, and an astonished expression came over his face as he looked down at his leg.

Lia gasped. "It's--" She reached out carefully and ran her fingers over the skin. When she looked back at Joe, her face was a mix of confusion and wonder. "How...?"

Joe tried for a light tone and almost carried it off. "Let's just say we have friends in high places." He felt giddy with relief and joy. He wasn't going to lose Levon. Not now, not ever.

Not even as he tried to move out of Joe's arms. As Joe reflexively tightened his hold, Levon gave him a quick grin. "Can I get up?" he asked.

"Can you get up?" Lia asked. "Your leg isn't broken anymore," she demanded a better explanation.

"Nope," Joe agreed, beaming as he climbed to his feet and helped Levon scramble to his own.

Both Shensen and Lia stepped backwards, staring at Levon as if he'd grown ten years younger with no warning. Then in a thoughtful tone, Shensen asked, "Friends in high places, Joe?"

"Yeah. Very high places."

Shensen stared at him for a moment, and Joe could practically see the gears turning in his head. When the centaur grinned, Joe knew he'd figured it out. "I can't wait to tell Angie." His tone was a bit soft with reverence, but the grin was pure delight as he looked again at Levon, who was standing now impatiently indulging their stares.

"Yes, cowboy?" Joe asked, still grinning.

"I think we'd better go start planning a barbecue," Levon said with a perfectly straight face.

"A big barbecue," he agreed easily, then paused as everyone looked at him. "What?"

"You finally gone native on us?" Lia asked, starting to grin though she was still taken aback.

"Nah," Levon answered for him, as he gingerly took a step, testing his leg. "Boy just knows he owes someone a sacrifice. A nice hog, or goat...." His serious expression has dissolved into mischief.

"Steaks," Joe decided, remembering the comment about bulls. "Has to be steaks."

Levon laughed. With a sudden step forward, he grabbed Joe's arms and pulled him closer. "Hey, you wanna go for a ride, old man?"

Joe caught, and ignored, Lia giving Shensen a pleading, perplexed look. "I'd love to, cowboy," he replied grinning, wrapping his arms around Levon's waist briefly before letting go and moving to swing aboard.

As he settled in, it occurred to him -- briefly -- how long it had been. The painful, difficult decision they'd made that Levon could no long carry a full-sized rider was now once again inapplicable. "Y'all hold down the fort!" Levon said to Shensen and Lia, before breaking into a run.

It was joyous, ecstatic. Joe felt like laughing out loud, he felt like crying in gratitude. He settled for pressing himself tightly to Levon's back, burying his face against his lover's shoulder as the emotions he'd been keeping under tight control for months threatened to break loose now that the impossible had happened. He felt Levon grab his hand and squeeze. When he looked up, he saw that the ride was going to be a short one.

They were headed right for the house.

"Have something in mind, cowboy?" he asked, unable to keep a tremor of anticipation out of his voice.

"Iced tea."

"With or without lemon?" Joe shot back without missing a beat.

"Lemon? Joe, when have you ever known me to drink lemon with my iced tea? Except for twice when you weren't even around?"

"Just checking." He couldn't stop grinning at the very typical I-have-the-memory-of-a- centaur answer, the kind that had become non-existent the last few months.

There was silence for a moment, then in a cautious tone Levon said, "Hang on."

Joe tightened his grip. "Always."

Levon simply ran for several more yards. Joe tightened his grip some more, knowing his husband's sense of humor. Levon responded by simply continuing to run. Finally deciding to just live in and cherish the moment, Joe closed his eyes and focused on the sensations of the run.

The reflection was broken, though not disturbed, by the sound of Levon's laughter again. "You'd just let me, wouldn't you?"

"Do what?"

"Whatever it was I told you to hang on for. Didn't realize you had that much faith in my gods."

"After today, how could I not?" His voice was low, reverent, grateful.

Levon came to a lithe stop, and twisted back to face Joe. He didn't say anything, he didn't need to. Joe met him halfway, and kissed him.

"Love you," he whispered when they pulled back again.

"Love you, too. Joe...I know you don't need me to say this," he paused. He turned back around. "So I won't." He broke into a run once more.

Joe laughed. "You can show me instead," he suggested.

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

The barbecue lasted well into the evening. Neither Joe nor Levon had ended up making any arrangements. When they'd emerged from their bedroom following a shower, they'd found Shensen, Lia, Angie and the grandkids just getting back from the grocery store. Phone calls had already been made, and an hour later people had started to arrive.

The impromptu celebration quickly hit full swing, with everyone laughing and having fun. The relief and amazement added a distinct flavor to the celebration. Every so often Joe would catch someone looking at Levon with a disbelieving or awestruck gaze. He didn't blame them. Every now and then he'd do it himself.

Levon never seemed to notice. In a bizarre way it was like the reunion -- everyone staring or trying not to, Levon pretending he didn't know. But the clear sound of his voice and the bright shine in his eyes told Joe over again that things had changed.

Finally people began to take their leave. Grandkids had started to fall asleep in their elder's arms, and said elders knew that Joe and Levon needed time together. Levon had already mentioned going away for a second honeymoon.

The wonder of the situation hit Joe again at that suggestion. He could've been mourning Levon tonight, instead of contemplating a romantic getaway. Wordlessly he sent another thank you up to Zeus.

A steak vanished off the grill.

"So this means we can leave the kids with your for a week or three?" Angie asked in an innocent tone.

"You think we've both gone senile?" Joe teased, then grinned and hugged her. "Give Levon and me a chance to reconnect and then we'll take them whenever you want."

Angie's face softened, and she leaned in to lay a kiss on Joe's cheek. "You take all the time you need." She stepped back, then grinned. "Then we'll leave them here for a month."

He laughed. "Maybe I am senile because that sounds great."

"What sounds great?" Levon asked with a note of suspicion in his voice. He eyed Joe and Angie as he handed Joe a tall glass.

"Having the kids for a month." His free arm found its way around Levon's waist without conscious thought on his part.

"Which ones?" Levon asked without missing a beat.

"Shensen and Angie's. Though if Laurie keeps making these trips to D.C...."

"Hmm," Levon looked thoughtful.

He looked seriously thoughtful long enough for Angie to say, "It wouldn't really be a month. Not if you'd rather not have them."

"Well, as long as they're yours or Laurie's, I don't mind."

"We love having them, Angie." Joe grinned. "Gives Levon someone to play with."

"Me?" Levon looked at him, surprised. "Who was it finally had to be hosed down in the yard?"

"Who was it who ganged up with the kids against me in the mud fight?"

Instantly Levon gave him a blank look. "Don't recall," he said casually.

Joe's stomach tightened as a by now familiar fear went through him. He could feel his expression smooth out to a mask-like calm. 'Don't be stupid,' he told himself. Levon was just teasing. He had to be.

The blankness on his husband's face melted instantly. "Joe, I was only--" He stopped, grabbed Joe, and kissed him.

Joe closed his eyes as the fear and tension melted away under his husband's touch, to be replaced by a different, much more welcome tension. He felt a hand run down his back, and he shivered.

"Well, I suppose we could stay and help clean up," he heard Angie's voice. "Or I suppose we could just walk out, and no one would notice."

"I think we should just walk out," he heard Shensen replying.

"We could stay here," Taylor said. "There's still beer and steak."

"You don't think they'll care?" Angie sounded amused.

"I don't think they'll notice."

Unwilling to release Levon's mouth to speak, Joe just waved in their general direction. Angie and Shensen both knew them well enough to decipher the vague gesture into a farewell, a thank you, and a promise to call them later.

In a few days perhaps.

"See? He's saying 'go ahead, enjoy yourselves'." Taylor said. There was a slight thump, then an 'oof'. "All right, all right. Geesh, your brother was right about you." Their voices began to fade slightly, as they moved away.

Levon was still holding onto him as if he'd heard nothing. Or, more likely, didn't care.

At the moment, Joe didn't much care himself. He had Levon alive and well in his arms. That made most other concerns shrink into obscurity. There was another comment he didn't quite make out, and another thump. "Ow!"

Definitely shrink into obscurity.

When they heard the sound of the vehicles' engines starting, Levon finally leaned back. "Alone at last." Joe grinned, rather fatuously he suspected.

Levon kissed him again, quickly. "Reckon they locked the door?"

"Does it matter?"

"Reckon we'll find out in the morning," Levon agreed. Then he stepped back, letting his hand slide down Joe's arm to take his husband's hand. He tugged for Joe to follow as he headed for the hall.

Which he did willingly. "I get the feeling you want something."

"Me?" Levon looked innocent for all of two seconds. Then his gaze turned smoky, and he raked Joe's body with a slow glance.

Joe felt a shiver go through him at that gaze. "Yeah," he answered, voice gone low and throaty. "You."

Slowly, Levon nodded. "S'what I want."

He let his own gaze rove over his husband's form. "Show me?"

There was the tiniest of pauses, and he saw a smile trying to fight its way free as Levon titled his head to one side. "I could probably draw a picture for you."

"I was thinking a more...practical demonstration."

"Hand shadows?"

"Can't you think of better things to do with your hands?"

Taking another step backwards down the hall, Levon didn't answer. His smile, mischief fading from it once more, said enough.

"I'll take that as a yes." He felt himself grinning again as he continued to follow Levon towards their bedroom.

Levon continued backwards another couple of steps before turning around. Joe didn't mind; he liked this view as well as the other. He said as much, enjoying the falter in Levon's stride at the words.

When he reached the bedside, Levon stopped again and turned. He looked at Joe with a serious expression, as his husband stepped into an embrace. "Feels...."

"Feels like what?" He knew what it felt like to him: heady relief and joy and arousal. A second chance, a new beginning, first day of the rest of their lives. Cliches all, but ones that fit.

"Like that first week you were staying here. Not when you moved in, but the first time you were here every night. We knew each other already, but I was still scared you were gonna turn around and go, if things didn't go just right." He shook his head, sharply. "I ain't worried, I ain't scared I'm gonna lose this," he said, tracing a finger along Joe's face. "I just feel like... this is all brand new, like nothing I've had before." He looked up at Joe, and his eyes, darkened though they were with the passion smoldering inside, were clear and full of wonder. Maybe even a little concern. "I've never owed my life to my god, before," he finished in a nearly inaudible whisper.

"A bit scary isn't it?" Joe asked, still feeling the awe and disbelief he had when Levon had first been healed.

Levon nodded. He took ahold of Joe's shirt at the waist, hanging on instead of wrapping his arms more comfortably around Joe. "The scary thing is," he began. He gave a half- laugh, and gave Joe a lop-sided smile, "is that we don't owe him a thing."

"Aside from the occasional steak." He smiled back then grew more serious, leaning forward until their foreheads touched. "I would've paid almost anything if I'd had to."

He felt his husband's grip tighten instantly. He didn't say anything at first, however.

"Levon?" Joe asked, knowing there was something his lover wanted to say.

Then he sighed, and looked him in the eye. "I wish I could tell you that some prices aren't worth it. But I can't tell you I'd wanna live past you dying, either. I just hate to think that my dying would have meant you would, too."

"You knew?" Joe supposed he should have felt surprised, but he didn't.

"You really thought I didn't?"

"Guess I should have known better, huh? I had hoped, though." He reached out and caressed Levon's cheek as he searched for the words for his feelings. "I didn't want you to think -- to worry... I didn't want to have that hanging over us."

"Well, now it won't be," Levon said decisively. He moved his hands behind Joe's back, pulling Joe closer. The conversation seemed to be over.

Joe smiled, feeling a bit of the awe come back. "No, it won't." All that was in the past. They would have each other. For the rest of their lives and beyond.

Forever.

"Doesn't mean I'm gonna wait patiently any longer," Levon said, his voice almost -- but not quite -- simply full of amusement and love.

"What's stopping you, cowboy?" Joe teased.

Startled, Levon asked, "I have to do all the work?" But he started unbuttoning Joe's shirt, anyhow.

"Figured I'd let you get a head start before your brain turns off."

"You always say that." Levon removed Joe's shirt and dropped it on the floor.

"Must be a reason then." He grinned and reached for the buttons on Levon's shirt.

But Levon shook his head. "Don't think so, because you never let me get a head start before you shut my brain off." He rested his hands on Joe's hips, hooking his thumbs inside the waistband.

"My powers of resistance aren't up to holding back for long." He pushed Levon's shirt off his shoulders, letting it slide down his arms and off.

"So you might as well...save yourself...time...." Levon's words grew more slurred as Joe slid his hands back up Levon's arms, across his stomach towards the fly of his jeans.

Undoing it, Joe leaned in and whispered in his husband's ear, "You want to take me? Or me to take you?"

Levon nodded. He reached for Joe, kissing him hard. There goes the brain, Joe thought fondly, before he gave up thinking as well. Feeling was more than enough at the moment. Without breaking the kiss, he managed to maneuver them over to the bed and onto it.

They bounced slightly as they landed, and Levon grinned at him. "Gotcha." Then he yelped, and grabbed for Joe's hand. "Careful with that!"

"What -- afraid it'll come off?" he teased, nipping at Levon's throat. He felt laughter bubbling up inside at the pure joy that he was basking in.

"Afraid it'll come too soon," Levon corrected. He held Joe close, however, wriggling eagerly beneath him.

"What happened to all that centaur staying power?" He reached once again for Levon's pants.

"Don't know," was Levon's only rejoinder -- obviously unable to spare the thought to think of anything clever. His hands were fumbling at Joe's pants.

And all they were doing was getting in each other's way. The laughter finally overflowing, Joe pulled away a little. "Maybe we should each take off our own if we want to get undressed some time this year."

Levon grabbed him quickly, and his eyes focused a little. "Stay here."

"Hey." Joe's laughter immediately faded and he caught and held his husband's gaze. "I'm not going anywhere." Ever, he added silently.

Levon met his gaze silently for a moment before finally nodding. "Sorry. Wasn't thinking clearly." He half-grinned.

"You'd think by now I would've learned to not turn your brain off until we're both naked," Joe teased, letting his expression show the more serious emotions: love and reassurance.

"Nah, gets boring." Levon pulled him down for a quick kiss, then began kissing Joe's chin, working his way down Joe's throat.

"We're still not -- do that again -- undressed," he protested, even as he tilted his head back, giving Levon better access.

Levon complied, with the 'do that again' part, anyhow. He kept on doing it, interspersing the touch with caresses and nibbling. He began pushing himself upwards against Joe, turning Joe over onto his back and lying on top of him. And Joe was reveling in it. It had been months since Levon had been the aggressor in their lovemaking, since he'd started declining, and Joe hadn't let himself admit how much he had missed it until now that he had it back.

Perhaps Levon knew; perhaps he simply wanted this and wasn't feeling up to being patient about it. Whatever the motivation, Joe groaned happily as Levon's hands began stripping him quickly, giving lie to the claim that he couldn't do so.

Levon's mouth was following his hands, now, as energetically as a man much younger. 'Maybe I should've asked Zeus for more energy for myself,' he thought giddily, as he arched up under his husband's touch, hands going to Levon's blond hair.

Then he reflected that he didn't really need it. All he seemed expected to do was lie there and groan. Since Levon knew damn well that doing what he was doing rendered Joe unable to do anything but.... Levon moved; Joe groaned again.

He lost his train of thought soon after that and what thoughts he did have were suddenly coming out of his mouth in between less articulate sounds. He could feel the steady, firm grip of his husband's hands on his waist. He could feel the hot, wet touch of his husband's mouth. He heard a low chuckle, but was barely able to wonder at its purpose as the vibrations the laughter caused hit his groin, then the center of his brain.

Joe yelled, arching up almost violently. He was suddenly on the verge of losing it. "Levon," he panted, trembling as he struggled to hang onto his control. "Gonna..."

But control wasn't necessary. Wasn't even desired. At least that's what Levon's hands were telling him, touching him over and over in that same, maddening way. He heard something, faintly, spoken in his husband's voice.

He looked down, finding Levon watching him with a heated gaze. That was all it took. With a violent thrust upward and an incoherent yell, Joe came.

When he opened his eyes again, Levon had moved up to lie on him, staring face to face. Grinning like a fool, more like, as Joe's thoughts regained coherency.

"You're looking pleased with yourself." He reached up a hand that was still trembling with reaction and brushed Levon's hair back off his forehead.

"Am." Levon kissed the hand as it moved away again.

Joe felt the deep breath that Levon took, his stomach pressing into Joe's. Then he felt the tremble that presaged a laugh. "What's so funny?"

"You are." Levon kissed his nose. "Don't even know what you said, I bet."

Joe blinked, vaguely remembering babbling as his husband was turning his brain inside out. "Um," he said intelligently.

"Yeah, that's what I thought. Tell ya what," Levon scooted up a bit, shifting them so Joe could feel him, still hard and fully aroused. "Why don't we switch places and I won't tell you about it."

He grinned. "I think that can be arranged." With a sudden surge upwards he rolled them over until Levon was laying beneath him.

He watched as Levon's eyes glazed over, though his grin didn't alter an inch. "Joe...."

Joe's grin faded into something more serious, though still a smile. "I love you, Levon," he whispered, then captured his husband's mouth in a long passionate kiss.

"I--" Then Levon was as incoherent as Joe knew he had been.

Incoherent but not quiet. A steady stream of pleas and groans rewarded his efforts at exploring every inch of his husband's skin. He seemed to grow louder as Joe progressed, and he wondered if the "Joe..ga.." was supposed to be an encouragement or direction.

Either way it was music to Joe's ears. He loved making Levon like this, making him feel this way. The fact he had almost never had the chance to do this ever again was heavy in his mind, turning every caress, every tease, into an act of worship.

That, perhaps, was what he owed the deity responsible. Treasure the gift he'd been given.

"Joe!!"

Make his gift come, before he hurt himself.

He stopped teasing and proceeded to do just that, lifting his eyes to watch Levon's face in those final seconds. For a moment he was frozen in that facade of pain, face tense and muscles stretched. Then he relaxed, slowly at first then his breath explode d out in a great rush. He watched as his husband lay still for a moment before he opened his eyes -- wide awake.

"Did I ever tell you how annoying that is?" Joe asked.

He wasn't as annoyed as he pretended to be though. A...more human recovery time had been another symptom of Levon's decline. To see his husband back to his normal -- if annoying -- centaur self meant more than he could ever verbalize. Levon was looking back at him, innocently. Joe snorted. "You want me to go to sleep instead of ravish you again?"

"I think you might be overestimating my recovery powers," Joe replied as he slid up to lay beside Levon, their faces mere inches apart.

Levon chuckled. "I can't practice, then?" He gave Joe a slow kiss before letting him answer.

"I love you." The words were spoken at the same time they were thought, as they were felt.

"Love you, too," Levon replied. Joe found himself smiling at the feelings his husband's words stirred inside. Words said a million times or more, but felt no less. "Is that a 'yes'?" a dry voice interrupted his thoughts of bliss.

"Huh?" Joe enjoyed himself for a moment, simply watching how his husband lost himself in delighted laughter. Even if said laughter was at his own expense. By the time Levon had calmed down, he had remembered the question. "Don't let this go to your head , cowboy, but you don't need much practice."

"Was trying to let it go to your head," Levon replied. But Joe saw the acknowledgment of the compliment, reflected in Levon's eyes.

"You know what I really want to do right now?"

"Cuddle?"

"First I want to go for a run. Then I want to brush you into a puddle and when you recover, I want you to nail me to the mattress." Joe grinned. "Then I want to cuddle."

Levon blinked. "But it's nearly dusk."

"You saying you're too tired?"

Levon started to reply, then stopped. He nodded, and pushed himself upright. "Let's go run, then."

"What were you going to say?" Joe asked, sitting up more slowly.

"You normally only wanna go for a run at this time of day when one of us.. needs it." He shrugged. "If one of us needs it, then let's go."

Joe's gaze dropped. "I've just...I've missed it."

Levon leaned back towards Joe, looming over him briefly before moving in to snuggle close. "Come on, then. We got time for a short run."

He pulled Levon to him briefly for a kiss before letting go and getting up. "Guess that would qualify as one of us needing it," he admitted with a wry smile as he pulled on a pair of jeans. His husband gave him a dry look as he fastened them. "What?"

"You sure you need those?"

Joe glanced down at his attire, then back up at Levon, with a raised eyebrow. Levon shrugged unrepentantly. He did, however, continue to keep a watchful eye on the jeans.

"The jeans stay, cowboy." He reached out for Levon's hand. His husband just laughed, and pulled Joe after him, down the hall.

The sun was almost to the horizon when they stepped out into the yard. Levon gave him a quick kiss and stepped backwards to change. His expression never wavered as he just looked at Joe.

Joe just stared back, once again strongly reminded what he could've been doing at that moment if Zeus hadn't intervened. He relished the sight of his husband whole and healthy, standing in front of him.

"Well?" Levon's question startled him, a moment later.

"Huh?" He shook himself out of his preoccupation.

"You gettin' on, or you just gonna take in the view?" The tone and expression had melted into fond understanding. Joe blushed.

"Sorry," he muttered, coming forward and taking Levon's hand to help boost himself astride.

When he was settled onto Levon's back, however, his husband didn't move. Levon turned his head back, to look at Joe. He considered for a moment, then his face broke into a smile.

"What?" Joe asked, but couldn't keep himself from smiling back.

"Love you," was all he got.

Joe felt his heart go soft at that. 'Mushy,' Tony used to call it when he was young. "Love you," he replied softly.

Without anything further, Levon turned and headed towards the fields.

Joe laughed out loud when he realized what they were doing. In a tone of voice that clearly said he thought his husband was nuts, Levon asked, "Joe?"

"I should've known if I stayed in Texas long enough this would happen."

"What would?"

Joe grinned. "Us riding off into the sunset together."

Levon snickered. "Here I thought the truck ten years ago was the last thing."

"Nah. That was just proof of insanity on my part."

"You picked out the colour," Levon reminded him. "Brought up the new hybrid instead of the old fuel cell engine."

"You asked me what color, I just answered. And you would've got the new hybrid anyway."

"Uh-huh. And the suede seats?"

"Can't fault me for trying to upclass it a little." He grinned, enjoying the banter that had been sadly lacking in their lives lately.

"You saying my other trucks were low-class?" Levon teased, a mischievously dangerous edge in his voice.

He shook his head. "Quintessential Texan." There was a thunderous silence, following that. Joe grinned. "Love you, cowboy."

There was another pause. Then, in a distracted tone, "Still trying to think of a retort that doesn't involve you, me, and things that'll make my brain shut off."

Joe chuckled again. "Take your time, Levon. I can wait."

They ran a few moments, before Levon came to a stop and looked over his shoulder. His eyes were already half-glazed. "You were gonna brush me?"

"Yeah." He reached out and caressed Levon's cheek, still smiling. "You want me to?" Teasingly. There was time for that now, too.

Levon blinked. His eyes cleared, and he suddenly began laughing.

"What's so funny?"

"Joe, in the last twenty five years, ten months and four days, have I ever -- more than four times -- refused a brushing?"

"Stupid question, huh?"

Levon replied by turning around and breaking into a gallop. Joe held on tight, his laughter trailing behind them as they rode out of the sunset.

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

Joe rolled over in bed, reaching out and dragging a warm, pliant body towards him. He couldn't tell if said body was awake or not, but it hardly mattered since he, himself, was barely awake. Awake enough to realize he'd stopped snuggling at some point.

But as he lay there, he found himself waking. Levon was curled up against him tightly, the heat of his body contrasted with the cool breeze generated by the fan overhead. It was going to be a hot one, he thought. At least until they got out of bed.

The chances of that happening anytime soon... were a lot better than he wanted to admit. Love and lust were almost enough, but even with his renewed health, neither Levon nor he had the energy of young men.

That didn't bother Joe as much as he once thought it would've. He found he didn't mind getting older, as long as he was getting older with Levon.

As he did every morning, he sent up a silent thank you to Zeus for his gift. Then he opened his eyes and looked at his husband.

Sound asleep. And after twenty five years, he could tell when Levon was faking. He looked wonderful, Joe realized. All the lines of stress were gone, smoothing his face; all his muscles were limp and relaxed. He looked exactly like the cat curled up sideways on his leg.

Joe hadn't realized how much the stress had lingered even in Levon's sleeping features when things had been...going downhill. Not until it had disappeared. He kissed a shoulder and leaned back a bit, so he could watch.

Levon and Robelo slept on, unaware of the attention. Joe was settling in to stay the morning that way, when he realized what had woken him -- Levon getting back into bed.

He opened his eyes again and propped himself up on one elbow, staring down at his husband once again, this time a bit suspiciously. But Levon was genuinely asleep. Whatever he'd done...hadn't kept him awake.

Maybe he'd just needed to make a trip to the bathroom. He laid back down again, though a part of him was still being wary. He settled back in to the pleasure of watching his husband sleep. It didn't take long before Levon began to stir, however. He rolled a bit in Joe's arms, face turning towards Joe as if seeking a good morning kiss before conscious thought could direct him.

Although granted, Levon looking for kisses without conscious thought was nothing unusual. And as he almost always did when his husband sought a kiss, Joe granted it, taking his time and making a thorough job of it.

When he was done Levon was awake -- at least his eyes were open and he was smiling. Joe returned the smile and headed in for another kiss -- which was forestalled by a hand on his chest. Levon gave him an apologetic look. "Remember all those chores we've been saying we'd do, instead of staying in bed all morning..for the past three days?"

"Don't want to go for four in a row?" Joe joked.

"I don't mind, myself," Levon replied with an innocent expression Joe knew all too well. "The cats are gonna get a might irritated, though, if they have to dig through any more layers of dishes to reach the sink."

Joe relented, holding up his hands. "Okay, okay. We'll spend the morning doing chores instead of cuddled together in bed."

Levon grinned, but didn't move.

"You're not moving."

"Aren't I?" Levon moved...closer.

"Not towards the dirty dishes at least." He grinned. "Change your mind?"

Closing his eyes, Levon said, "I'm waitin' for you."

Joe leaned in closer, brushing his lips lightly over his husband's.

Levon's eyes popped open. "I'm gonna have to try harder, aren't I?" He sighed. "One of us has to be responsible, here." He glanced down at his leg. "Wanna nominate her?"

The cat blinked sleepily up at them then turned and licked her shoulder.

"I seemed to recall giving up being dominant years ago. That means I don't have to be the responsible one, Mr. Ex-Herd Stallion."

"Yeah? Well, as Ex Herd Stallion, I don't have to, either." He nudged Joe in the chest. "As a member of the dominant species, you should set a good example."

"For who?"

"The cats?"

Joe snorted. "Anything other useless thing you want me to do?"

"Yeah. Sweep out the barn."

"And what are you going to be doing, cowboy?"

Levon sighed. "The dishes." He rolled onto his back, letting go of Joe.

He looked so wonderful lying there that Joe had to steal another kiss. His husband let him, for a moment. Then he heard a 'hrmm' and felt a hand pushing -- very, very gently -- at his chest. "Chores, right," Joe muttered.

"Look at it this way: the sooner we get 'em done, the sooner we'll get interrupted by something else before we can get back in here."

Levon dodged just in time to avoid being struck by the pillow.

"Fine, fine," Joe grumbled, and got out of bed, heading for the dresser to grab some clothes. He knew Levon was watching, and made no mention of it until he realized his husband was still lying on the bed. "Hey, cowboy, if I have to get up, so do you." He threw a pair of Levon's jeans at him.

He ignored the jeans, letting them fall onto the bed. "I'm getting up! I just figured since I don't need to put clothes on, I could wait a couple of minutes."

Joe just gave him a look perfected in raising two kids.

"Just two more minutes?" Levon whined, in a tone perfected in raising those same two kids.

Joe just kept on staring.

With a grin, Levon caved and got out of bed. The cat mered at him angrily, then stretched, long and hard. She went over to Joe's pillow, turned in a circle, then laid down in the center of it.

Levon watched her, then said, "Reckon you have to stay outta bed, now."

"Could just take your side." He pulled a shirt on and stole one more kiss.

"You could, but then were would I be?" Levon was pulling his jeans on, pausing long enough for the kiss.

"On top of me?"

Levon gave him a not-so-gentle shove towards the door. "Barn. Else I'm gonna throw you down and we'll never get anything done today." He didn't sound as if he minded, but he was frowning slightly in that way that said he was almost feeling guilty for letting the chores go so long.

Almost.

Joe had to admit they had been letting things slide just a bit. "You can throw me down later."

As he followed Joe out of the bedroom, Levon said with a tone of sincere surprise, "Really?"

"If I don't throw you down first," Joe tossed back over his shoulder with a wink and a grin.

For that, he got another shove down the hall.

Joe managed to get outside without being stopped for anymore kissing -- after the three stops in the hallway -- and headed for the barn. With Levon's divine recovery, they'd realized they could handle having horses again. Levon had never been without at least one horse, and giving the last two away had bothered Levon more than he'd tried to let Joe realize.

So a week after Zeus's visit, Joe had brought up the idea of getting a couple of horses. Levon had enthusiastically agreed and they had made arrangements to buy a couple of horses off of Shensen and Angie. They were being delivered in a couple of days.

Which is why Joe was heading out to sweep hay. They had to have the barn ready for the new animals. They'd had to argue with Angie and Shensen about actually paying for the horses. Joe and Levon had pointed out they could well afford to pay for them; Angie and Shensen had pointed out they could well afford to give them as gifts. The argument had gone nowhere until Shensen said he felt bad about charging his own family money, Levon had offered to 'pay' them with babysitting duty.

Two minutes later Angie had a couple horses picked out, and was making arrangements to leave town for a long weekend.

Joe grinned at the memory, looking forward to having the grandkids underfoot for a couple of days. Right now, though, he needed to clean the barn so he could go back inside and enjoy not having kids underfoot.

He grabbed the broom as soon as he stepped inside the barn and began sweeping the hay from the middle of the floor.

Suddenly he saw something that wasn't supposed to be there. Something that hadn't been there yesterday. A box, brightly wrapped in Christmas paper, adorned with a silver bow.

So that's where his husband had been this morning. And why he'd been harping on doing chores. "Levon..." He shook his head and chuckled as he leaned over and picked up the box. He was suddenly struck with a sense of deja vous. He'd seen this before, in a dream, years ago.

Or at least he thought it was a dream. Now, suddenly, he wasn't so sure. Maybe there really had been Christmas Spirits.

At least he was going to finally see what was in the damned box.

He stifled the urge to turn around and see if his younger self was standing there. Instead, he opened the box. And couldn't stifle a laugh at what laid inside. A hat.

A cowboy hat.

There was a note tuck into the brim; he pulled it out, already knowing what it was going to say. ""Put this on, take everything else off and come back inside." He read aloud, then stared down at the hat again.

Chores. Yeah, right. That sneaky....

He chuckled, and turned to head back to the house. If he knew Levon, his husband would already be waiting for him...undressed, ready, and glassy-eyed.

"Levon?" he called out when he stepped through the door.

"Yeah?" came the call back -- from the kitchen. The casual tone wasn't quite there, however. Glassy eyed, no doubt.

"You lose something in the barn?"

"Might have," came the suggestive reply.

Joe stopped in the kitchen door, leaning against the door jam. "What was with the Christmas paper?"

Levon grinned at him. "Couldn't find anything else." He was, as Joe suspected, naked. The dishes were already done; the kitchen was cleaner than it had been all week. When he caught sight of Joe, his face smoothed into blankness. "Didn't fit?"

"Haven't tried it on yet." He grinned, took a step forward and set the box on the table, then began undressing.

He heard Levon drop something, and didn't bother to glance down to find out what.

When he was naked, Joe reached out and picked up the hat. "You know the Christmas paper really through the Spirits for a loop. It's not nice to confuse them." He put the hat on.

"Spirits?" Levon sounded a bit dazed.

Joe laughed. "I'll explain later." He stepped forward, reaching for his husband.

But Levon didn't come forward, right away. He stayed back, looking Joe up and down. Finally he smiled wide. "Figured."

"Figured what?"

"You look like a Yankee with a hat on." Then he stepped forward into Joe's arms, tilting his face upwards, and kissed him beneath the brim.

"Probably because that's what I am." He grinned, kissed Levon back and moved the hat to his husband's head.

"Hate to tell you this," Levon said in between two more lengthening kisses. "You ain't been a Yankee for a long time," he whispered, and wrapped his arms around Joe.

"Them's fighting words," Joe whispered back, then leaning in for another kiss.

Life was good.


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