Centaur Lines

Part One

"You think she'll be all right sharing a room with her brother?" Levon asked as he came down the hallway, his arms full of linens. They were trying to get the house cleaned and ready for Joe's cousin's family, arriving today. They'd known about the visit for weeks, but work had interfered with getting ready until now. They'd spent all morning frantically trying to get everything in order.

"They've shared every other time they've visited," Joe pointed out, taking some of the sheets from his husband to put on the bed.

"Yeah, but for a whole week? Thought human siblings tended to beat up on each other if left alone together." Levon grinned. "Angie won't mind being stuck with her little brother?"

Joe grinned back. "Oh, I'm sure she'd rather have a room to herself, but for a week of being able to go horseback riding and maybe even a visit out to the herd's ranch, she'll make do."

"Hope you're right." Levon leant forward and gave Joe a quick kiss before heading back towards the bathroom across the hall. "We never found something for Tony to stand on...."

"We'll manage. And if it's too much of a problem, we can go buy a stool." Bed made, Joe stood back and gave the room a quick look over to see if they were missing anything.

Levon came up behind him and wrapped his arms around Joe's waist.

Smiling, Joe leaned back against him with a sigh. "You realize these are our last moments of peace for a week."

"Don't mind. It'll be nice having your cousins here." There was a pause, then, "There's a crate in the attic. We can use it for Tony to stand on, at the bathroom sink."

Joe chuckled. "Knew that centaur memory would think of something." He turned to face Levon, his own arm's going around the other man's waist. Levon was grinning at him; then he gave Joe another kiss. Joe returned it with interest, but pulled back before either of them could get carried away. "Don't have time for anything more," he said regretfully.

"Reckon their plane'll be late?" Levon asked, hopefully.

"Do you really want to take that chance?" Joe asked. "We don't want to give Tony and Maria any reasons to think we're not responsible enough to look after the kids for a week on our own. I know Maria's already antsy about going off without them."

"I wouldn't do anything to make them think they can't trust us with their kids, Joe," Levon said seriously. "Might not know what the hell to *do* with 'em, but I got an idea of what not to do."

"I know you wouldn't," Joe answered just as seriously, not wanting to even seem to imply otherwise. He grinned. "You've managed pretty well for not knowing what to do. You're their favourite relative."

Levon laughed. "That's because I'm a centaur. Ain't nothing to do with my parenting skills."

"The two aren't mutually exclusive you know."

"You saying I could not be a parent *and* not be a centaur?" he teased.

Joe blinked, trying to unravel the exact meaning of the sentence. Giving up, he just addressed the part he did understand. "You can't not be a centaur. As you've told me yourself over the years."

"I'd love to stay here and debate metaphysics with you, but if we want to meet their plane on time we'd best be going." Levon wrapped himself tighter around Joe, despite his words.

"You're not moving," Joe pointed out.

"Yeah, but I'm not the dominant one." Levon grinned happily.

"You remember that at most convenient times."

Levon winked at him, then let go. "Come on, I'll drive."

Joe grinned. "Lead the way, cowboy."

"You just say that so you can watch me walk."

"One of the fringe benefits of being the dominant one."

"So how do you explain me lookin' at you?" came the question over Levon's shoulder, as he preceded Joe out the front door.

"Never said you didn't," Joe replied as he followed, his eyes unabashedly on Levon's most salient feature. Tight jeans were his second favourite piece of clothing. Nothing at all was his most favourite. "But being dominant means I get the better view."

Levon stopped, and looked over at him, raking him from head to toe. "Wouldn't count on that. I've seen you smile."

Much to his surprise Joe found himself blushing at that. And smiling.

The way Levon was looking at him made him blush harder.

They stood at gate B4, waiting patiently. As patiently as they ever waited in airports.

The plane had indeed been late and Levon had shot Joe a 'told you so' look when they'd found out. But now, finally, the announcement came that the flight from Chicago was landing.

Joe heard Levon sigh, and mutter something about being glad he wasn't expected to get on one of those things.

"Told you cowboy," he replied, briefly swinging an arm around Levon's shoulders, "we take the train from now on."

"I remember," Levon replied.

"With your memory I'd be surprised if you didn't," Joe teased.

Further conversation was interrupted by the first passengers disembarking the flight.

"You see them yet?"

"Relax, Joe. You'll see them as soon as I do." Levon sounded amused. And anxious.

Joe laughed. "Sheesh, would you look at us? We've got to be as excited about this as the kids."

Levon gave him a half -grin, rolling his eyes as well in a mixed look of excitement and denying it.

"Uncle Joe! Uncle Levon!" a young voice squealed.

Turning to look, Joe spotted Angie and Tony Jr. running full tilt towards them. Tony Jr. leapt for Joe while his sister leapt into Levon's arms. Behind them, at a more sedate pace, their parents followed.

"You'd think they were glad to see us or something," Joe observed with a grin as he hugged the boy and set him back on his feet, only to have his sist er take his place.

Levon picked up Tony Jr., and by that time Tony and Maria were there, exchanging hugs as well.

"It's good to see you two again," Maria exclaimed.

"You too," Joe replied, leaning over and kissing her cheek.

"I can't believe you're willing to take these two monsters for a whole week." Tony ruffled his son's hair.

"Daaad-dy!" Angie protested, stamping her foot a little. "We are *not* monsters!"

"You better not be, or Joe and Levon won't let you visit again." Tony was only half-serious in his threat.

Tony Jr. was ignoring his father, tugging on Levon's shirt. He kicked his heels when Levon didn't look at him, and said, "Cen-ar!"

Levon grinned at him. "Well, not *here*, Jr."

"That's supposed to be a secret," Angie informed her brother haughtily. "You're not supposed to tell."

Tony Jr. looked abashed. "Fo'got. Sowwy."

"It's all right," Levon told him, and the boy smiled again.

"Let's go get your bags and grab a bite to eat before your parents' plane leaves," Joe suggested, trying to get everyone moving towards baggage claim.

"They're going to Acapulco," Angie said. "On a second honeymoon."

The four adults exchanged amused looks at the girl's serious mien. Levon asked, "Have y'all been to Mexico before?" As he began walking, Tony Jr. kicked his heels again, happily.

"No," Maria said. "We went to Italy on our first honeymoon -- it was a wedding gift from Mike and Teresa. It's the only time we've been out of the country until now. They tried to talk us into going back to Italy but I wanted to see someplace new."

"Mexico can be nice," Levon told her. "Long as you stay away from the tequila," he added with a grin.

"What's 'quila'?" Tony Jr. asked.

Tony half-stifled a smirk, and Joe grinned and looked at his lover. "You brought it up."

Levon gave him a perplexed look, but told the child, "It's a form of alcohol."

The child frowned. "'Cohol?"

"Alcohol," Angie corrected him. "Like beer or wine. Right?" She looked up at Levon.

"That's right," Levon nodded. He noticed the looks Maria and Tony were giving him, and shot a doubtful look to Joe.

Joe gave him a reassuring grin then asked the kids, "Do you know what the worst thing about tequila is?"

Both children shook their heads.

"They put a worm in every bottle. And if you're not careful you can eat it."

"Ewwwww," Angie said and Tony Jr. made a face.

Tony Sr. rolled his eyes. "I can see they're going to be in good hands."

"We'll do our best," Joe responded with a grin. "Hey, we handle all kinds of criminals every day, how much harder can it be looking after two kids?"

<p> Maria laughed. "I'll remind you you said that when we pick them up."

Three hours later they'd had lunch, and were standing at the international terminal. Tony and Maria gave the children last-minute hugs, kisses, and reminders to be good.

"Thank you both so much for doing this," Maria said, as she hugged both Levon and Joe goodbye.

"We're glad to do it. We like having the kids around."

"Just the same, cuz, thanks," Tony said. "We owe you big."

"Just enjoy yourselves," Levon said. "Don't worry about your kids."

"And don't eat any worms!" Joe added.

Joe and Levon took the kids to the window to watch as their parents' plane taxied away. Tony Jr. waved until it rolled out of sight behind another plane.

"So what do you want to do first when we get to the house?" Joe asked as they headed back to the truck.

"Can we go riding?" Angie asked eagerly.

"Ri'ing!" Tony agreed. "Cen- uh..." He looked around, worriedly.

Joe laughed and ruffled the boy's hair. "I think that can be arranged, don't you Levon?"

"I reckon so." They both laughed again when Tony Jr. cheered.

The trip back home passed quickly with both kids chattering a mile-a-minute the whole way. Joe doubted that he or Levon could have gotten a word in edgewise even if they had wanted to.

As soon as they pulled to a stop in the driveway, the two were out and heading for the corral to greet Fooler. Angie was telling her brother how she would get to ride the horse all by herself. Tony Jr. told her quite clearly in response that he would rather ride a "cen'aur" anyway. She looked unhappy about that reminder, but Levon reassured them both that they'd each have plenty of chances to go riding.

They spent the better part of the rest of the afternoon doing so, until finally Joe had to tell all *three* kids that it was time to come inside and wash for dinner.

Dinner was chaotic with both kids still trying to continue their nonstop talking, more than half the time, now, with their mouths full. This time, though, they occasionally let one of the adults say something, as together they planned the itinerary for the rest of the week.

After dinner Tony Jr. helped Joe clean the kitchen while Angie headed out to help with Fooler. Both chores took twice as long as usual with the kids' help.

It was when they were getting ready to send Tony to bed, that the call came.

"I got it," Joe called, leaving Levon to supervise the bedtime rituals. He grabbed the receiver and said, "LaFiamma."

"Joseph LaFiamma?" an unfamiliar voice asked.

"Yes. Who is this?"

"My name is Jack Harper. I'm a Lieutenant down here with Brownsville PD. Do you have a cousin Anthony LaFiamma?" Harper's voice was controlled, slightly sympathetic. It was a tone Joe recognised. A tone he'd used himself, when having to inform someone that...

He swallowed hard. "Yes," he said, the word clipped off, as he tried to keep control of himself through emotions suddenly gone chaotic.

"I'm sorry, Sergeant LaFiamma, to have to inform you that Anthony and Maria LaFiamma--"

The rest of the words faded out into incomprehensibility.

He wasn't sure how but he must've made all the right sounds, asked all the right questions. Maybe Harper was just used to dealing with people numb with shock and grief. Either way, he managed to finish the conversation and hang up the phone before he started trembling.

When he turned around Levon was standing there, taking hold of him and asking him questions.

Somehow he found his voice. Or a voice, what came out of his mouth sounded nothing like himself. "There was a plane crash. T-Tony and Maria-" he stopped unable to get the words out.

Apparently he didn't need to. Levon's face changed, first into disbelief then shock. He grabbed Joe into a tight embrace. For a long time, they simply stood there.

"Uncle Joe? Uncle Levon? What's wrong?" Angie asked from the hall.

The kids. Oh God.

Levon stepped back, giving Joe a look he didn't at first catch. Then he realised -- if this were a centaur family, the kids would simply be told and that would be that. Levon had no idea how to handle telling human children.

He wasn't sure if he had much more of an idea. He remembered his own bewilderment when his mother had sat him down and told him that his father was in heaven and was never coming home again. And he remembered the pain and the anger he'd felt when he'd been told his mother had been in their house when it had caught fire and hadn't gotten out. But just because he'd been through it didn't mean he knew how to break it to someone else. And at least he hadn't lost both of his parents at once.

How did you tell a child that she's suddenly an orphan?

Angie took a step forward, uncertainty on her face. Levon held his arm out for her and she came forward into his embrace. Levon picked her up and held her, glanced once at Joe, but said nothing.

Angie began to look more scared.

"Angie," Joe began, then stopped and cleared his throat when his voice threat ened to crack. "I just got some really, really bad news. There was a plane crash." He held her gaze steadily, trying to lend her strength, comfort and reassurance through his eyes. "Your parents... " He swallowed and then continued in a rush before the words could stick in his throat. "They didn't make it; they were killed."

Angie's eyes went huge. She wrapped one arm around Levon's neck, but stared at Joe. She didn't say a word.

After a moment she turned, wrapping her other arm around Levon, and buried her face against his neck. Joe just stood there and watched. He didn't know what else to do. Levon was rubbing her back, watching Joe. He looked like he wanted to ask a question, but was refraining from doing so in front of Angie.

Suddenly Angie turned to him. "They'll be found, won't they? Like we did you?" She was obviously struggling to hold back her tears.

He wished he could give her that hope but he couldn't. "They've already been found. I'm sorry, Angie. They won't be coming back."

"Yes, they will." She glared at him. "If they've been found, they'll be back. Like you were. They will be!" she shouted.

Levon tried to pull her closer, to hold her, but she turned and drove her fist against his shoulder. Joe moved closer then, wrapping his arms around both of them, sandwiching Angie in both his and Levon's embraces. He didn't try to say anything else, just held on as tight as he could.

As they held her, she began crying, sobbing loudly and calling out for her mama and daddy.

Joe held on even tighter, and cried along with her.

They got Angie to bed, finally. She cried herself into exhaustion, th en when they took her to the guest room, she crawled into bed with her little brother.

That was another discussion Joe wasn't looking forward to: explaining it to Tony Jr. Joe stood and watched as Angie drifted off, and continued to watch even after it was clear both children were deeply asleep.

Finally Levon came back and whispered, "You coming to bed?"

With one last look at the children, he nodded and followed Levon out of the room.

Levon didn't say anything until Joe had closed the bedroom door. Then, when Joe remained silent, he asked, "Did they say anything else other than the plane crashed?"

"They gave some details," Joe replied, staring at a random spot on the wall. "I didn't really hear it, though. Didn't hear much of anything after..." He trailed off with a half shrug, still staring at the wall.

Levon put his hands on Joe's shoulders, turning Joe towards him. "I'm sorry, Joe."

Again he gave a half shrug, eyes downcast, avoiding looking at Levon's face. He felt... numb. Empty, hollow. He knew he was in shock, but he embraced it, because he knew when it wore off...

Levon held him, then, and didn't say a word.

Joe didn't know how long they'd stood there when Levon asked, "Reckon we better call Mike and Teresa?"

God. Joe shuddered. The thought of phoning Uncle Mikey with this news... "I-can't," he said brokenly.

"You want me to call?"

Joe knew he should say no, knew he should do it himself, but it was just too much. "Please," he whispered, feeling both guilt and relief at passing on the responsibility.

Levon just nodded, though, and headed back out of the bedroom towards the living room.

Part of him wanted to follow, to at least be there when the call was made, but he didn't move. Just stood where he was, waiting for Levon to come back.

When he did, Levon stood just inside the door which he'd closed behind him.

Joe looked at him. "Well?"

"They're headed down." Levon had almost no expression on his face.

Joe just nodded. He stood there for a moment more. "Levon...?" he finally whispered desperately, feeling his armor of numbness slowly fading away.

Then suddenly his mate was holding him a gain. Joe found himself shuddering as he held onto Levon with all his strength. The numbness was well and truly gone now, replaced by a savage turmoil of grief and pain and sadness and anger that threatened to overwhelm Joe and carry him off. It would have, if not for Levon anchoring him. He heard somebody sobbing harshly and realized that it was him.

Through it all, he felt Levon holding him, though he heard nothing from his husband at all. Levon just held him silently, and tightly.

Joe wasn't sure how much time had passed before he got himself back under control. He pulled back out of Levon's embrace just far enough to meet his eyes. "Thanks," he said, his voice rough from crying.

"It's what I'm here for."

Levon was l ooking at him with gentle love and patience; Joe suddenly gripped him tighter. "I can't believe-" He stopped, and swallowed. "Always thought that I would go first. Or Vinnie. Tony was always the sensible one. The one who never took chances."

"Was n't taking a chance," Levon half-shrugged. "Ain't no way you could expect something like this."

Joe shook his head and pulled away to pace the room, to agitated to stand still. "You shouldn't have to expect something like this. It shouldn't have happened. Not to them, to Tony and Maria." He stopped on the opposite side of the room, and looked back at his lover. "Hell Levon, *I* was the one who suggested Mexico to them in the first place!"

"You gonna tell me you were somehow responsible?" The disbelief in Levon's voice was clear. He looked a little surprised, but otherwise calm. A little *too* calm.

"If I hadn't mentioned Mexico, they probably would've gone to Italy again after all. They wouldn't have been on that plane. I know it doesn't make sense but that's how I'm feeling okay?" Joe started to pace again. "I'm not a centaur; losing family hurts."

Levon didn't respond to that. Joe continued to pace, and Levon just stood there, watching.

"You just gonna stand there eyeing me?" Joe asked after several minutes. "This doesn't phase you at all does it?"

Levon frowned, slightly. He started to say something, then stopped. Then he sighed. "Joe, all I can say is I'm sorry."

"Yeah, so am I. Must be nice not to feel anything when someone close to you dies."

Levon's jaw clamped shut; then he turned on his heel and stormed out of the room.

Instantly, Joe felt remorse for what he'd said. What the hell had he been doing? He knew all about centaur nature; Levon couldn't help reacting the way he did. He would mourn in his own way and time, Joe knew, and just because it was different didn't make it wrong.

Knowing he owed an apology, he went looking for his husband. He heard the front door closing gently. Quickening his steps, he headed in that direction.

As he stepped onto the front porch he found Levon standing near the corral, leaning on the fence. Joe walked over and leaned on the fence next to him. "Sorry," he s aid in a low voice, as he stared out into the night.

Levon didn't turn around, didn't even let Joe know he'd heard.

'Great,' Joe thought. 'He's sulking.' There was no way he could deal with this properly. He felt like banging his head against the fence; it would probably hurt less than he was hurting right now. "Look, what I said was wrong and I apologize. But that's all I can manage right now. My cousin -- who was as close to me as a brother -- and his wife are dead, and there are two kids in the house who are never going to see their parents again. The last thing I have the patience to deal with is your bruised feelings because I don't understand some centaur thing."

When Levon looked up, his face showed nothing but regret. "Joe.. . is there *anything* I can do? I know I can't make it stop hurting...."

Joe fumbled for something to say for a moment. "Don't sulk," he finally said.

Levon looked surprised. "I wasn't sulking, Joe. Just didn't want to make things worse."

He stared at Levon for a minute, then turned and leaned his forehead against his hands on top of the fence. "I'm too tired to deal with this."

Levon reached over and pulled him close into an embrace. He tucked Joe's head onto his shoulder, leaning himself back against the fence to take both their weights. Wordlessly, Joe accepted the offered comfort, wishing there was some way to turn off his brain for a while. If he couldn't think, he couldn't remember. And if he couldn't remember, he wouldn't have to feel what he was feeling.

Levon was gently rubbing his hands up and down Joe's back; as he rubbed harder, once, Joe groaned. Levon gave him a kiss on the cheek and looked him in the eye. Then he nodded to himself and took Joe's hand. "Come on."

"Where--?" Joe asked, though he was following willingly.

Levon didn't answer, but it became obvious as Levon headed for the house. Joe let his lover guide him inside and into their bedroom, stood passive as Levon undressed him, then meekly obeyed when he was told to lie down on the bed.

Levon climbed onto the bed beside him, then began to rub Joe's back. There was nothing remotely sexual about it, just a comforting touch worked at relaxing too-tense muscles and reminded Joe that he wasn't alone. He sighed and closed his eyes.

Levon worked for what felt like forever, rubbing firmly, along his spine and out towards his sides, kneading his shoulders and even down his arms. He used the flat of his hands, as well as his fists, then fingers, eliciting first groans of pleasure, then soft sighs.

And somewhere during all this, it accomplished its goal. First Joe's mind quieted, then he slowly drifted off to sleep.

Levon waited until Joe was sound asleep, sitting still until he knew he could move without waking his mate. Then he stood, carefully and slowly, still making sure. Joe didn't even twitch. He reached down and covered Joe with a sheet, before quietly leaving the room. He stopped to look in on the kids as he went past; they were still sleeping soundly. Angie had her arm around her brother, a soft, worried frown on her face.

With a sigh, he continued on through the darkened living room where two balls of fur were curled up on the couch. One raised his head and regarded him sleepily.


He gave it a head rub; it purred and leaned its head into his hand. He stood there for a moment, petting the cat. Then he continued outside.

The night was cool and clear, and the almost-full moon, while not as bright as day, provided enough illumination to be able to move around comfortably and safely. He wanted to change and go for a walk, if not a run. But he wasn't sure Joe wouldn't wake up and panic to find him gone. He sighed, and considered sitting on the porch step.

Hell, if Joe saw his clothes piled here, Joe'd know where he was. Wouldn't stop him from worrying though. No, his best bet was probably the porch steps, after all.

Levon sat down with another sigh. Sometimes he wished for the days he'd lived alone. He'd spent nights out in the pasture, comfortable on four feet with the cool night air calming his mind. There'd been no one to ask him what he was doing, no one to stay beside him, pretending not to shiver.

No one to argue over meals with or to fight for radio stations with. No one to go for ri des with or to offer to brush him. No one to love.

He sighed.

There were always compromises. It didn't stop him from wishing things could be perfect.... But he knew his notion of perfect wasn't the same as Joe's. If he wanted to be with the man he loved more than anything, he had to give up some of the things he wanted. It wasn't like Joe didn't do the same.

He looked back towards the pasture. It might be nice to head out there, anyway. If he didn't go far, Joe would be able to spot him, if he came out looking. He glanced back at the house behind him, weighing his possible responsibilities.

His family was in there. Asleep, and grieving a loss as terrible as anyone could imagine. Any human. Levon had hidden his reaction after that first horrid mistake. But though he could feel the pain of loss from friends having died, he didn't grieve. It wasn't that Tony and Maria were people he'd barely known for a year. But he couldn't explain that to Joe, and trying would only add to his husband's pain.

He knew that intellectually Joe understood, or at least did his best to try to. But he also knew that in his gut and his heart, Joe didn't and couldn't understand -- or completely accept.

The thought made hi m feel more alienated. He wanted to change, and get out there -- to hell with fitting in to a human's world. To hell with trying to appease them and be like them.

He put his head in his hands and closed his eyes. Joe didn't need this. He'd have a tough enough time getting himself through this; he didn't need a contrary centaur making things difficult. He didn't need to deal with a partner doing anything other than being right there when needed, calm and collected and loving.

Levon would just have to be that -- no matter what he was really feeling. He stood up. Later. When everyone was awake again. Quickly he stripped and changed, then headed out into the surrounding fields, leaving his problems behind him.

He didn't worry. He knew they would still be there waiting for him when he came back. He walked until he was well away from the house, then broke into a gentle lope. Going nowhere, just stretching his legs.

Going nowhere. Gods, sometimes.... Sometimes he got so tired of trying to fit into the humans' world, having human goals and faking human reactions. It had been his decision to do so, and most of the time he didn't regret it. Much. But still...

But still sometimes he wished he had done otherwise. When he was trapped in the confines of a huge city, surrounded by concrete and humans, steel and asphalt, all he wanted to do was tear everything apart and escape. Run into the distance so far and so fast that nothing but the wind could catch him.

He unconsciously sped up.

Luckily the moon was bright enough that he could run without fear of stumbling. He could not, however, run forever the way his heart was screaming for him to do. The tree line, cast in shadows and in visible in the distance, would cut him off eventually. He was hemmed in not just by the trees, but by other less tangible things. Responsibility. Duty. Love.

Things he'd accepted, things he'd wanted, yearned for. Things he'd offered to trade this freedom for, when it had been freedom he'd had instead of Joe. And he didn't want to give Joe up, not really. But sometimes he just wished he could have both love and freedom.

He knew he wasn't going to find any answers out here, though. There was nothing but night air, and cold ground under his hooves. He came to a stop. None of it meant as much as he wished it meant. He closed his eyes, though, and for a moment pretended. Pretended that he didn't stand on two legs 17 hours a day, being shoved through the city like a cotton seed on a spring wind.

He thought about standing on land he could call his own, not lent him on the sufferance of his father. Surrounded by land, with--

He stopped that thought before he could finish it. No use wishing for something that will never be, he told himself. Especially not when it meant giving up Joe.

Suddenly he turned and began running back towards the house. Centaur he might be, and the outdoors might be more his home than any building, but what he *really* needed was his mate. Curled up beside him in bed, barn, or field, he didn't care. He needed his lover's presence, grounding him in a way his dreams could never do.

Except when he was dreaming of Joe.

The next morning began early. Joe woke as Levon got out of bed, blearily wondering why he was moving before the alarm had gone off. A moment later memory caught up with him. The plane crash. Tony and Maria dead. The kids...

Levon was suddenly holding him. "Joe? Come on, Joe, I've got you," he was whispering.

For a moment he allowed himself the luxury of just accepting his husband's comfort, but only for a moment. He didn't have time for any longer. With a shaky breath he pulled back. "Thanks," he told Levon. "For last night, too."

Levon nodded and let him go.

Joe ran a hand through his hair and slowly climbed out of the bed. "Man, I was hoping it was all a bad dream... ."

Quietly, Levon said, "Mike and Teresa should be here in another hour or so, unless they get delayed. You want me to get breakfast ready?"

"I doubt anybody's going to have much of an appetite, but yeah, we should probably go through the motions at least."

"Kids ain't up yet... don't reckon they will be for awhile," Levon added.

"Let them sleep," Joe said sincerely. "They don't have much to wake up for right now."

Levon nodded. "Do you wanna go for a ride?" he as ked quietly. "Or would you rather stay here with them?" He nodded towards the wall, the other side of which lay the guest room.

"I..." He hesitated, unsure. He didn't want to take the chance that the kids, especially Angie, who knew, would wake up to an empty house. On the other hand, he could *really* use the ride this morning, to remind him he had something to hold on to through the rest of what he was sure was going to be a horrible day.

"Maybe just a short one," he finally said, compromising.

Levon tugged at his arm and brought him in for a kiss. "We can stay near the house," he said, then he headed out. Joe followed as soon as he had thrown on some clothes. Conversely, Levon was shedding his clothes, few though he'd had on to begin with.

For some reason that struck Joe as funny and he found himself swallowing laughter that was more than slightly hysterical.

Levon turned back and saw him; he reached out and took Joe's hand. "Come on," he said, still sounding calm and soothing. As if he knew how close Joe was to breaking apart.

Joe nodded and followed meekly as the laughter retreated, insanely grateful for Levon. He had a feeling that if he made it through this without shattering completely it would only be due to his husband.

Levon took them outside, and changed. He gave Joe his hand. Solemnly, Joe took it and let Levon help boost him astride.

Levon was true to his word, and stayed near the house. They stayed close enough to see it which meant presumably they could hear if either of the kids should call out. They rode in silence for a while but eventually Joe felt the need to talk. He had to apologize again for his words the night before. "Levon?"


"I was a jerk last night. The stuff I said was way out of line, and I'm sorry."

There was a pause before Levon answered. "Joe, you don't have to apologise. I know you didn't mean to say any of it."

"I didn't mean to hurt you. I don't *ever* mean to hurt you."

"I know." Levon sounded like he'd already forgiven him, already forgotten it.

Joe just wished he could forgive himself as easily. He recognized that the guilt he was feeling was way out of proportion to what he had done, but that did nothing to ease the feeling. Levon didn't seem to be helping, keeping quiet as he was.

Almost too quiet. He probably was just trying to respect Joe's grief but still...

Turning his focus outward for the first time since last night, Joe nudged his lover's shoulder. "I know I'm a wreck, but how are you doing, cowboy?"

"I'm all right," came the subdued reply. It almost sounded like Levon hadn't quite wanted to say it.

Well, considering how Joe had lit into him the night before that wasn't surprising. "You'd tell me if you weren't, right?"

Levon glanced over his shoulder at him, looking startled. "I ain't--" He turned back around. "I'm all right, Joe."


"I wouldn't say I was, if I wasn't."

Joe nodded, slowly, even though he still wasn't completely convinced. "Okay. I just-" He broke off with a frustrated sigh. "I don't want you to get lost in all that's happening. If something *was* bothering you..."

Levon reached back and felt for Joe's hand. Drawing it forward, Levon held onto him. "Don't worry about me, Joe."

"Don't think I could stop worrying about you," Joe said shyly, squeezing Levon's hand. "Kinda goes along with loving you." Levon just squeezed back. "So you will tell me if there is something bothering you, right?" he pressed just a little, adding a hint of a command to his words.

"It ain't important," Levon said quietly.

'Thought so.' Joe felt a tiny bit of exasperation. "What 'ain't'?" he asked aloud.

Levon walked a few steps without answering. Then he said, "It doesn't matter, Joe. I'd rather not talk about it."

"If something's bothering you, it *does* matter," Joe countered. "Tell me ."

"Joe, it won't help. I don't want to get you upset again about... how I feel. And how I don't feel."

Joe could hear the strain in Levon's voice, that told him how upset his husband really was. "What if I promise not to get upset?" Joe started rubbing his free hand in soothing circles over Levon's back.

Levon remained silent, causing Joe to wonder if he would tell him what was wrong. Finally he said, "Joe, I'm not... I can't react to this the way you are. I'm sorry if that bothers you. But I can't be human. And I don't--" It sounded like he choked the rest of his words back.

"You don't what?" Joe asked gently, still rubbing Levon's back soothingly.

"I don't wanna be." The words were almost too soft to hear. "I'm sorry I can't grieve with you."

After a moment's silence Joe asked, "Did I ever make you think that I wanted you to be human?"

There was an even longer moment of silence before Levon answered. "I don't think you meant to. It ain't just you, though. Whole damn world seems to rather I was, sometimes. My world doesn't have any room for me in it."

Joe didn't know what to say to that. He didn't know if there *was* anything to say to that, other than "I don't want you to change."

"Sometimes I wish I could, though. Either so I could understand what you, what other folk around me, are going through. Or so I wouldn't have to care that I didn't."

Again silence fell for a few minutes, then Joe offered, "There are times I wish I could be a centaur."

He heard a smile in Levon's voice as he said, "But you are. A thirty-secondth."

He smiled back, but retorted, "That wasn't what I meant."

Levon gave him a grin over his shoulder. "Bet you just need to get in touch with your centaur side. Spend some time naked in a field...."

"Done that."

"More time, then."

"You just like seeing me run around naked."

Levon gave him a startl ed, innocent look. "You knew that already."

Joe chuckled and hugged him tightly. "Yeah, I did."

They rode in silence, then, for awhile. Eventually Levon turned back towards the house. He walked slowly, however, as if to give Joe the chance to ask not to go back yet.

Even if he had wanted to, Joe couldn't, not right then. The kids would be waking up soon. But he appreciated the gesture nonetheless. "We'll go for a real ride tonight," he promised, hugging Levon briefly.

Levon nodded. They returned to the house and Joe dismounted, giving Levon one last caress before his husband changed forms once more.

Joe watched with his usual leer, only a bit forced, as Levon got dressed once again. "I like that you're a centaur," he said quietly, suddenly.

There was a blink of surprise; Levon slowly smiled. It lit up his eyes and made Joe forget for that moment the pain he'd been feeling. He smiled back and moved in to claim a kiss.

When Joe released him, Levon was still smiling. "Better get started on breakfast," he suggested, obviously more than willing to remain there, instead.

"Yeah," Joe replied, regretfully. He would've liked to have remained where he was, doing what he was doing, too. Any day but today, he would've.

They went inside. Levon grabbed his shirt on the way and headed for the bedroom to get dressed. Joe headed for the kitchen and began breakfast preparations, even as his mind turned to trying to figure out how to tell Tony Jr. about what had happened.

Levon stopped by the kitchen for another kiss, before he headed out to give Fooler her breakfast, leaving Joe alone with his thoughts. He wasn't sure it was somewhere he wanted to be right then. Still, both the shock and the first edge of pain had eased, leaving him at least capable of thinking about the situation. He certainly hadn't been the night before. Not that he didn't still hurt at the thought of never seeing Tony or Maria again, but he was better able to control it, to not let it overwhelm him so much.

He heard a soft step behind him, and turned. Angie stood there, staring up at him, brown eyes huge with silent pleading. Wordlessly he opened his arms and hugged her tightly when she came to him. He didn't say anything. What was there he could say that would make her feel better? She held onto him, and he felt her begin to cry, soundlessly.

Joe kneeled down in front of her, and she immediately changed her grip, wrapping her arms around his neck and burying her face in his shoulder, still sobbing silently. He murmured to her comfortingly in Italian as he soothingly stroked her hair.

He was still holding onto her when Tony Jr. came in, rubbing his eyes sleepily and dragging a stuffed animal. He looked at his sister, confused, and turned a scared frown onto Joe. Before he could try to explain, Joe heard Levon come back in the front door.

Good, he thought. He definitely could use some reinforcements right then. Levon came into the kitchen, took one look at them, and crouched down beside Tony Jr. The boy, still looking confused, put his arm around Levon's neck. Joe shot his lover a grateful look, before turning his full attention back to calming Angie.

"Uncle Levon? What happened?"

Levon pulled the boy close and said, "Your momma and daddy were killed last night, Tony."

Angie whimpered and sobbed harder at the words. Tony Jr. just looked at Levon, confused. "In Me'ico?" he asked.

"On their way to Mexico."


Levon shot Joe a look, showing his consternation at explaining what was obviously incomprehensible to the child. "Here, take her, and I'll try." Joe gently disengaged Angie's arms from a round his neck and guided her towards Levon. Then he beckoned Tony Jr. over to him.

"Mama and papa are in Me'ico?" he asked, again.

"No, Tony," Joe told him solemnly. Taking a deep breath he continued. "Your mama and papa are in heaven."

Tony frowned. "With gramma?" Joe recalled that Maria's mother had died a year ago.

"Yes, Tony. With gramma." He searched the boy's face. "Do you understand what I'm telling you?"

He nodded, uncertainly. "When are they gonna be back?

Joe closed his eyes briefly. This was the hard part. "They're not coming back."

"Why not?" Tony's lower lip began to quiver.

"Because they're *dead*!" Angie shouted suddenly. Levon whispered something to her, but she just shook her head.

"Mama and papa not coming back?" Tony asked, eyes wide, bewildered.

"No, Tony. They're not coming back." Joe's heart was breaking all over again at the little boy's expression.

"Why not? Don't they want me anymore?" Tony looked to be on the verge of tears.

Feeling tears well up in his own eyes, Joe pulled him into a tight hug. "Oh no, Tony, no. They loved you very, very much."

"They why don't they wanna come back?"

"What did they tell you about why gramma couldn't come back?"

Tony was silent while he tried to remember. "Said she was still watching... like Santa Claus. She can see me but I can't see her." Tony looked up at Joe, tears starting to fall. "But I wanna see mama!"

"I know you do," Joe murmured, pulling the boy closer. "I know you do."

The four of them remained like that, huddled together on the kitchen floor, until they heard a car pulling up outside. Getting to his feet with Tony Jr. still in his arms, Joe went to find out who it was. Mike and Teresa were climbing out of a large sedan a Joe came to the front door.

"Gramma! Grandpa!" Tony cried out. As Joe opened the door, Angie pushed past him and ran to her grandmother.

Joe let Tony down to run to her as well, then followed at a more sedate pace, hoping the mess his emotions were in didn't show on his face. He heard Levon step out onto the porch behind him. Uncle Mike watched the children hug Teresa before he turned to Joe.

"Uncle Mikey," he said, settling for nodding at the man, when the part of him that was hurting wanted nothing more than to hug him like he would've before. Before Levon.

Mike gave him a nod, then sighed and held out one arm for a brief hug. "Joey," was all he said.

They all stood there for a long moment afterwards, looking at each other. Teresa came forward, carrying Tony and holding onto Angie's hand. "Have you had breakfast?" she asked. The kids shook their heads.

"Come on, then. I'll make us something."

As Joe turned, watching them head inside, he saw Levon start to say something, looking like he was protesting the implication that they hadn't been about to feed them. But he didn't say a word, and Teresa went inside unimpeded.

That left the three men outside. "We hadn't had time yet to make breakfast," Joe told his uncle. "We were too busy dealing with the kids."

"Don't worry, Joey. You know how your Aunt is. If she's cooking, she doesn't have to be thinking about it." Mike waved a hand towards the house, but made no move towards it.

"How is she taking this? How are you?" Joe may have lost someone who was all but a brother to him, but his aunt and uncle had just lost their youngest child.

Mike shrugged. "How am I supposed to take it? I've lost my last son. With Vinnie never coming home again...."

"Because of me."

But Mike shook his head. "No. Vinnie made his own mistakes. His leaving... that was his own fault."

"Maybe he'll be able to come home some day," Joe offered. "Maybe being exiled will change him."

"Maybe." Mike didn't sound like he was holding out any hope. Then he looked at Joe. "I suppose I'll have to go down there and identify their bodies. You think you could stay with your Aunt and the kids?"

Levon spoke for the first time. "We could do that, Mike. Let you stay with your wife."

When Mike hesitated, Joe added, "Please, Uncle Mikey. This isn't something anyone should ever have to do: ID their child's body. Let us do it for you."

Mike looked from Levon to Joe. Then he nodded, suddenly looking old and tired. "All right. I'll take Teresa and the kids back to Chicago and you can come up after you... take care of things."

Joe nodded. "We'll go now then. Feel free to use anything you need in the house."

Mike nodded. He took a step towards the house, then stopped and reached out and took Joe's arm. "Thank you, Joey."

Joe just nodded again, mutely, not trusting his voice to speak. Mike went past him, on into the house. Levon watched him go, then turned back to Joe. He came down the step and reached out for an embrace. Joe went into his arms willingly, resting his head on Levon's shoulder with a weary sigh. It was only nine in the morning and he was already exhausted.

Levon just held him. "You want me to find out where we need to go?" he asked.

"Yeah. They probably told me last night but..."

Levon gave him a kiss. "It's all right, Joe."

He managed a tired smile at that. "I'm lucky to have you. This would've been so much worse if you weren't here for me."

He got another kiss, for that. Then Levon took him by the hand and led him back inside. He left Joe to head for the phone. Joe could hear Teresa in the kitchen, asking the kids how many pancakes they could eat, and cajoling them into taking more than they thought they wanted.

It brought back vivid memories of his own childhood, when the kids she would've been cajoling were him and Vinnie and Tony. Things had been so different back then...

Except, of course, those mornings after his father had died, and then, his mother. Joe had been seated at his Aunt's table, surrounded by family, being told to eat when all he could feel inside was emptiness. It was one of the loneliest feelings anyone could ever experience: being surrounded by family who loved you and still feeling lost and alone.

And now that was what Angie and Tony were feeling. He wished with all his heart there was some way to make it better for them. Somehow.

But he knew there wasn't. Simply being around, letting them feel as if they weren't entirely alone, that they were still loved and cared for, was all he, and any of them, could do.

When he had raised his head out of his own grief, as a child, he had been grateful to realise he was still inside his family. Joe suddenly realised that this must be how it was for Levon. Knowing you were still loved and surrounded by family, easing the shock of having lost someone. Obviously centaurs felt it more intensely, from the way Levon described it, but it was really the same sort of thing.

Maybe centaurs and humans weren't so different after all.

Teresa saw him standing there, and handed him a plate, stacked high with pancakes. "Sit down, Joey. You need a good breakfast before you go."

Joe looked at her startled, for a moment, before taking the plate from her with a ghost of a smile. "Yes, ma'am," he said, then on impulse leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. She gave him a sad smile, and went back to her cooking.

Levon came in, and stood in the doorway. Joe watched him hover and wondered if Teresea was going to feed him too. But Teresa didn't appear to notice he was there. After a moment Levon said to Joe, quietly, "We can go down to Brownsville anytime. Lieutenant Baker'll be waiting on us."

Joe nodded, suddenly unable to stomach anymore of the pancakes he had automatically begun eating. Shoving the plate away, he stood. "Let's go then."

Levon nodded, and headed for the door, grabbing his jacket and holster on his way. Joe hesitated long enough to give both children hugs good-bye and to thank his aunt for the breakfast, then followed his husband outside.

Joe caught up with him at the truck; Levon was climbing in behind the wheel. "Joe? If you want I can do this, myself."

He shook his head. "No. I h ave to do this."

Levon nodded. Joe walked around the vehicle and got into the passenger seat, trying not to think about where they were going, and what they'd have to do when they got there. He was able to not think about it for nearly ten minutes before the silence in the cab became too much. Frantically, he fumbled after the radio's controls; even country music would be better than the silence.

Levon said nothing as he checked each station on the radio's memory, looking for one playing music instead of commercials. When he came across one that was playing a commercial for a funeral parlor, Joe yanked the radio off viciously. Leaning back in his seat, he took several calming breaths.

Okay. The radio was a bad idea.

He sat there in silence, while Levon concentrated on driving. This time the silence became too cloying even faster. There was no way Joe was going to survive three hours of it. He had to break it somehow. The radio was out -- even if he found music they'd be out of range before long. That left... conversation. If he only knew what to say.

He sat for several minutes, trying to think. But the weather was hot, like always and football season hadn't started. That left 'how was work?' and Joe ha d been there, for that.

Maybe his husband would be able to come up with a topic if asked. "Levon?"

"Yeah?" Levon sounded entirely to calm -- as if the silence weren't driving *him* crazy. Maybe it wasn't.

"Can we, y'know, talk?"

Levon glanced over at him, a sympathetic expression showing. "Sorry, shoulda thought...." There was a pause, then Levon asked, "You reckon they'll really nail Timerlain this time?"

Work. He could talk about work. "They better. We did everything but present him to the D.A. giftwrapped."

"You remember what happened last time he was 'gift-wrapped'," his partner replied, doubtfully.

"Yeah, but that time it wasn't our case."

They were able to keep work as the topic of conversation for nearly an hour. Whenever Joe began to flag, Levon would bring up yet another case of theirs, or someone else's. Joe was beginning to appreciate centaur memory -- Levon distracted him with cases and details he'd long forgotten, but was now happy to focus on.

But eventually even with a centaur's memory, the topic ran dry and silence once again descended. Joe frantically cast around for something else to talk about. What he came up with perhaps wasn't the best of distractions, but it was something he felt he needed to say to his partner. "About this morning, with Aunt Teresa, I'm sorry Levon."

"Sorry for what?" Levon sounded surprised. Joe couldn't tell if it was completely genuine.

"For her snubbing you. You shouldn't have to put up with that in your own house."

"Oh." There was a pause. "That ain't nothing you have to worry about, Joe," he said softly.

Joe looked at him. "You saying it don't bother you?"

"No, I'm saying it ain't anything you could help." He stopped, and sighed. Joe thought he was trying to figure out how to say what he wanted to say.

He stayed quiet, waiting for Levon to find the words he needed.

"I don't wanna tell you it isn't something you can help. Your aunt is gonna... be that way no matter what either of us do. I'm more sorry for how it affects you, than how she treats me."

"But it does bother you."

"Wish she'd treat me like someone who loves you," Levon replied, matter-of-factly.

"Yeah." Joe sighed in frustration as he leaned his head against the backrest. "If it's any consolation, I don't think she's seeing you at all. She's just seeing that I'm doing something that's against her beliefs, that she believes is going to end with my being damned." He snorted humorlessly. "Uncle Mikey's 'work' she can accept, no problem."

Levon spoke carefully, almost casually. "Then why worry about it? If you know that's what it is... and since you don't believe the same way, what does it matter what she believes?"

"I don't know." He shrugged helplessly. "It just does." He couldn't understand it himself. How was he supposed to explain it to Levon?

Levon said gently, "I know you'd rather she accepted you the way you are. "

Joe found a small smile for his lover at that. "You would know about that wouldn't you?" he asked, thinking of Levon's first marriage and his wife's rejection.

"Yeah," he replied, sadly. "You can take just about anything from someone except rejection...."

Reaching out, Joe took hold of one of Levon's hands and squeezed it. "Some things are worth risking it though."

Levon glanced his way and gave him a slight smile. They passed the rest of the drive in silence, but somehow it didn't seem nearly as oppressive now. Maybe because he still had hold of Levon's hand.

When they arrived in Brownsville it was quickly apparent that something had happened. News crews in vans, trucks, and helicopters were everywhere. Levon navigated the busy streets with barely more than a glare at those gawking at the spectacle.

Joe felt his stomach tighten as he stared out the window at the activity going on. This brought it home in a way the phone call hadn't. It was real. The plane had crashed. Tony and Maria were...

He swallowed convulsively, wishing suddenly he hadn't eaten those pancakes his Aunt had given him.

"You wanna stop someplace before we go in?" Levon asked.

Joe shook his head. "Let's just get this over with."

Levon nodded, and they continued to fight their way through the traffic. As they neared the City Morgue, the glut of vehicles tightened and policemen in uniform stood everywhere, directing traffic and trying to herd off those who had no reason to stay.

They were finally stopped themselves by a uniformed officer. Levon rolled down his window, showed his i.d., and explained who they were and why they were there. The young cop gave Levon long, detailed directions about where to park and whom to see. Levon gave him a nod and drove on.

"It's weird, you know?" Joe said suddenly, staring straight ahead.

"What is?"

"Being on this side of the situation. Usually, something like this happens, we'd be the ones out there."

"Know what you mean."

"I wonder if I look like a victim," Joe murmured more to himself than to Levon. "Does it show?"

As soon as Levon parked, he turned to look at Joe. He sat there silently for a moment, searching his partner's face.


Levon shrugged. "I can't tell. Your face is closed off -- can't see anything past your eyes."

Joe blinked, then nodded. "Thanks."

"Let's go find Lieutenant Harper." Levon headed towards a set of double doors. Taking a deep breath, Joe followed.

The building, when they walked in, looked and sounded and smelled like every other City Morgue. The only exception was the sheer number of people in the hallways and that rivaled Houston's. Joe could almost believe they were here on business as cops instead of next-of-kin.

If it wasn't for the way his stomach was still churning. He felt Levon's hand on his back as a harried-looking detective with a clipboard came up. "Names?" he asked in the tone of one who had done this much too often.

"We're here about Tony and Maria LaFiamma," Levon answered. "I'm Sergeant Lundy, HPD, and this is my partner, Joe LaFiamma."

The detective looked up. "Brother?" he asked, sounding sympathetic, but exhausted.

'Just about,' Joe thought, but shook his head. "Cousin."

He nodded, checked his clipboard, then said, "Room 12, down the hall. Dr. Madison will be there with all the forms."

Somehow, the formal and distant words didn't seem offensive. Reducing the tragedy to a pile of paperwork, the distance helped Joe move forward as Levon nudged. It helped him keep his composure as he filled out the forms and was led into the viewing room. He felt it crumbling though when he was faced with the curtained window.

Levon took a hold of his arm, and asked again, "You want me to--?"

Joe just nodded.

Levon went over to the doctor, identifiable by his long lab coat. Levon spoke to him quietly, then the man led him towards another door.

"Wait." The word came out barely more than a whisper, but Levon halted and looked at him questioningly. Joe swallowed hard. "I have to do this. "

"All right." Levon waited for him to walk over; as Joe stepped ahead of him Levon followed closely.

Dr. Madison took them towards a bank of cold-storage doors, and pulled one. He pulled the sheet back and Joe found himself looking down at Tony's pale, bruised face. A second later Levon's arms were around him, and his partner was telling him to take it easy. Joe found himself being lowered to a chair.

"I'm okay," he finally managed in a strangled whisper, reaching up and locking a white-knuckled grip around Levon's arm.

"All right," Levon said in a tone that sounded awfully placating and soothing. Joe tried to glare at him but Levon just continued, "How about you just sit there a minute?"

He opened his mouth to protest but a wave of dizziness came over him and he shut it again, giving in with a nod. Levon stood close, letting Joe lean against him. Dr. Madison moved away.

"Kinda blew my tough cop image, huh?"

"You and I know better. And Madison's probably seen it all." Levon put his hand on Joe's head briefly, pulling Joe towards him, then his hand dropped to Joe's shoulder.

The hell with it. Joe glanced around to make sure nobody was in the room then pulled Levon in for a kiss.

Levon kissed him willingly enough, giving him a sad, understanding smile when he leaned away. "Why don't you let me finish this up and we can go make arrangements?" he whispered.

"Okay." He watched as his partner moved away. "Levon? Thanks."

Levon looked back, then reached over and brushed Joe's cheek with the back of his hand. Then he went out; Joe heard him speaking to Dr. Madison a moment later. He leaned back in the chair, resting his head against the wall behind it with his eyes closed. He felt... He wasn't sure how he felt. Other than tired.

He wasn't sure how long he sat there, either, before someone touched his shoulder and he looked up to see his husband standing there. "Everything's taken care of here."

Joe nodded and stood. Levon guided him back out of the room, into the hallway, opposite the way they'd come in. "We need to make arrangements to fly the... bodies... back to Chicago," Joe said. "If we're lucky we can get tickets on the same fli-" He broke off as he suddenly remembered Levon's fear of flying.

But Levon was just looking at him, calmly. "Arrangements have been made, Joe. I talked to Madison, gave him the name and number of the funeral home in Chicago I figured Mike and Teresa would wanna use." Levon's eyes grew a little cloudy, then, but he didn't elaborate.

"Thanks." Joe paused and said, "That still leaves getting us up there. Levon I hate to ask this but there's no way we could make it in time by train. And... I need you with me."

"I know, love. I'll be all right. Haven't exactly practised, but Naomi *did* teach me a bit about her 'meditation' techniques. I reckon I'll be all right."

"I'm breaking a promise to you."

Levon stopped walking and turned to him, giving him a very direct stare. "Joe, this is *not* something you need to apologise for. I will be there with you, come hell or high water -- or high altitude -- as long as you need me."

Joe felt something relax inside him at those words. "That's a long time."

"It's what I promised you, when I married you," he said in a low voice. "It ain't gonna change because I have to get on a plane."

That brought a ghost of a smile to Joe's lips. "Thanks."

Levon gave him a satisfied nod, then continued leading him down the hallway.

It was mid-afternoon by the time they made it back home. With the worst behind him, the ride back had almost been pleasant for Joe, giving him a chance to relax just a little.

When they headed for the front door, it banged open and Angie came running out. She went straight for Joe. Joe caught her when she threw herself into his arms. She was trembling and crying almost hysterically. She was saying something, which Joe could not make out.

He did his best to calm her, picking her up and cradling her tightly as he looked at his husband in bewilderment. This was more than just grief. Levon came up behind her and crouched, holding her as well. They both turned as Mike stepped out onto the front porch, frowning in concern.

"Please, please, please, uncle Joe don't want to" they finally heard from Angie.

"Don't want to what, honey?" Joe asked gently, looking at his uncle in bewilderment.

She didn't answer. Mike, however, came over and said, "She doesn't want to fly home."

In his arms Angie shook and cried harder at the words and Joe turned his full attention momentarily back to comforting her.

"There a reason we can't drive to Chicago?" Levon asked after no one said anything.

Joe blinked. It would be a rough drive and they'd have to do it pretty much nonstop but it could be done. And if it made the hysterical child in his arms feel better they would do it. "Can't think of any," he replied.

Levon looked over at Mike. "You have any objections?"

Mike opened his mouth, took one look at his granddaughter and closed it again. He shook his head. "No. No objections."

Levon looked back at Joe. "I can go pack a bag and we can be outta here in fifteen minutes."

Joe nodded. "Sounds good. I'll help Angie get her stuff together." He looked down at the little girl who was no longer crying but staring up at him with wide eyes. "Sound good to you, Angie?"

She nodded quickly. She hung onto him as he stood up and looked over at Mike. "Can we all fit in your truck?" she asked.

Mike and Joe exchanged looks as it became obvious that Angie thought they were *all* driving up. It made sense, she would hardly want any of her family getting onto a plane.

"We can use the rental as well," Mike finally said.

"I wanna ride with you," Angie told Joe, still clinging to him.

"Okay," Joe replied. "Come on now, and let's go make sure you're packed." He headed into the house, still carrying her. Mike followed with an unreadable expression on his face, which Joe decided he wasn't going to worry about.

He heard his uncle go find Teresa and tell her of the arrangements; she came into the guest room a minute later and began packing Tony Jr.'s things. Boots tried to pack himself in Angie's suitcase, which made the girl smile.

"Seems you've got a friend there," Joe said, smiling back at her as he picked the cat up out of the suitcase for the fourth time. He made a mental note to call Jesse and make sure he knew to come take care of the animals when they were gone. And Joanne would need to be told as well... Shit he had a whole list of phone calls to make.

He left Angie with Boots, reminding the girl they could *not* take the cat with them, and went to find Levon. His husband was in their room, zipping up a bag. He looked up as Joe came in. "Just about ready," he said.

"'Cept for the phone calls," Joe replied.

"Which ones?" Levon looked confused.

"The ranch to let them know where we'll be, Joanne for the same reason, Jesse to let him know to come take care of the animals..." Joe ticked them off on his fingers.

Levon stepped forward and put his hands on Joe's. "I've already called them. Jesse will tend to the animals, Joanne gave us bereavement leave, and Carla's called up to Hensen, to let him know I'll be in town."

Joe blinked at him, then sighed and slid his arms around his lover's waist. "I should've known you wouldn't forget that stuff."

Levon kissed him, and then hugged him tightly.

The mention of Hensen made Joe think of something else. "You going to be okay driving up north? Are we going to have trouble with other centaurs because you're in their territory?"

"Won't be in any of 'em for long; doubt we'll even see any. If we do -- we'll explain things." Levon appeared unworried.

"You're the centaur," Joe said, uncertainly.

Levon suddenly smiled warmly. "And I'm all yours." He leant in and gave Joe another kiss. That was when Mike cleared his throat.

Joe pulled back slowly, refusing to be embarrassed for kissing his husband in their own bedroom. "Yeah, Uncle Mikey?"

"We're ready to go." He was frowning slightly, but said, "I wanted to verify the arrangements before we get on the road as the caskets will arrive in Chicago well before we do."

"Uhm, Levon made the arrangements," Joe said, shuffling his feet slightly as his uncle looked at him in surprise. "I- It was faster if he did it."

Mike turned his frown on Levon. "Where did you have them sent?"

"Santelli's," Levon replied without hesitation. "Called St. Michaels as well."

Mike looked surprised. "How did you know?"

Joe turned to look at his husband, equally surprised. He had just assumed that Levon had got the information from his uncle before they left. But it was obvious he hadn't, so how...?

Levon looked away and said, "Was who they called when you were--" He stopped and looked up at Joe, jaw slightly clenched and his eyes slightly angry.

When they had thought that he had been killed, Joe finished the thought, even as he reached out and twined his fingers with Levon's in an effort to comfort and reassure. "Forgot about your memory for a second there, cowboy," he said softly.

But Levon only shrugged. "Comes in handy at times." He glanced over at Mike. "If the arrangements are fine, we should get going."

Mike nodded and headed back down the hallway. Joe stopped Levon before he could follow. "You okay?" he asked, searching his partner's face.

"I'll be fine," came the quiet reply.

Running a hand up and down Levon's arm comfortingly, Joe asked, "What can I do to help?"

With a sigh, Levon said, "Just hold me for a minute."

"I can do that." Joe pulled his lover into his arms and held on tight. "Better?"


They held each other for a long moment, neither wanting to let go and return to the world waiting for them outside the door. But soon Levon loosened his hold and stepped back, grabbing the bag from the bed. "Will you take take this?" he handed it over.

Joe did so. "Anything else?"

"Nah, just have to grab a jacket."



"It's summer. It'll probably be ninety degrees in Chicago."

Levon looked at him doubtfully. "Last time you told me it wasn't cold. Nearly froze my tail off."

"It was November."

"Yeah? Only May, now. It was still snowing in Chicago 6 weeks ago."

Joe shrugged. "Suit yourself. But don't say I didn't warn you."

"You promise to keep me warm if it ain't 90?" Levon asked in a much more intense tone.

Joe moved close enough to run a hand down Levon's back. "Always, cowboy." He felt the shiver and smiled. It would be much nicer to stay home, make love with his mate all evening. But family was waiting, and there were things to do. He stepped even closer for a brief moment to give Levon a quick kiss. "Love you," he whispered, then moved away heading for the bedroom door.

He was groped, once, on his way out.

They'd been driving for three hours, heading north. Mike and Teresa, with Tony Jr., were f ollowing the Jimmy; Levon drove while Joe and Angie both stared morosely out the window. They'd tried to talk, at first, but none had been interested in keeping the conversation going. Finally they'll all fallen silent, lost in their own thoughts.

Joe had eventually dozed off, all that he'd been through finally catching up to him. Angie, however, was still wide awake and she watched Levon through wide solemn eyes.

Levon glanced back at her every so often, through the rear-view mirror, but the sight never changed. He wondered if he ought to say something, but he hadn't a clue what. He understood Joe's frustration, though, when Shensen's mother had been missing -- Joe had wanted to treat the boy the way Angie and Tony Jr. were now being treated. Levon felt as out of step as Joe must have, then.

He glanced up again and asked softly, "You doing all right back there?"

Angie nodded. "I'm fine." There was a pause and then her young voice asked softly, "Uncle Levon?"

"Yes, Angie?"

"How old were you when your Mama died?"

Levon tried not to react to the question. He probably should have anticipated it, but he hadn't. "I was about Tony Jr.'s age."

"Tony doesn't understand, not really. Did you?"

"Well, Angie, it's different for centaurs. We've got better memories than y'all do so by the time I was four, I knew about as much as you do now." His voice dropped. "I understood."

"Did you cry?"

"Yeah, I cried," Levon whispered. He remembered when Adele had taken his hand and walked him away from the barn -- he'd been outside, huddled in a jacket too big for him, waiting. He'd been hearing strange noises from the infirmary, then silence which had lasted a very long time.

He'd started crying, then, before he'd even known she was gone.

There was a short silence and then Angie very hesitantly asked, "Does it ever stop hurting?"

There was the question. He knew the answer was supposed to be, knew what he ought to tell the girl. There was no way he was going to tell her *his* truth. "No, Angie. You just learn to live with it. Someday the pain won't seem so bad... but it won't go away." He knew that, from watching his partner all these years. Joe had never gotten over losing his parents, and so Levon figured Angie wouldn't, either.

The silence descended again as Angie thought about that. Then she nodded. "I don't think I want it to go away, not entirely. Because that would mean I was forgetting them ."

"You won't forget them, Angie." Levon glanced over at Joe, and saw that he was still asleep. Levon half-smiled and checked the mirrors. Mike was still right behind them.

"Uncle Levon?"


"What's going to happen to me and Tony now?"

"I don't know, Angie. Joe, and your grandparents, are your closest relatives aren't they? Or does your momma have family?"

Angie shook her head. "Not since Gran'ma died."

"Then you'll probably stay with Mike and Teresa."

He knew Joe would offer to take the kids; he knew despite Joe's protests that he wanted kids and would do anything in the world for his cousin's children. Raising them would be little enough to ask. But Levon doubted the courts would assign the kids to live them -- two men living together, far away from the children's home and only other relatives.

"Will I still be able to see Uncle Joe and you?" Angie asked, in a very small voice.

"Always, Angie." Levon glanced back, over his shoulder. ""Maybe we can arrange for you to spend your summers with us."

The girl managed a tiny smile at that. "I'd like that."

"So would we, Angie. You and Tony light the place up."

"We do?" The smile was a little bigger.

"Yeah, you do." Levon smiled, wider. "Would love to have you with us all the time." Levon saw a highway sign coming up. "We're coming up on Dallas, soon. You getting hungry at all?"

"Maybe a little."

"We'll stop, then, get some dinner." He gave her a grin. "You reckon we can find a barbecue place, before Joe wakes up?"

She giggled and nodded. It was a wonderful sound to hear.

They ended up stopping just outside Dallas, in Ferris. They were getting low on fuel and Levon didn't know if Mike was up to driving through Dallas at 4.30 in the afternoon. Rush hour would last until well past 6, but at least with food and some rest, they'd both be better able to drive.

Joe woke when they stopped and offered to take over for a while.

Levon grinned. "Ain't going nowhere, Joe. Restaurant's right across the parking lot." He nodded towards the place Angie had agreed would be good -- Len's Barbeque Ribs.

Joe gave a long suffering sigh. " I should've known."

Angie giggled. "He *said* you'd like it."

"So you were in on this too?" he asked with raised eyebrow.

Angie looked innocent. Levon laughed as Joe turned his way. "Don't look at *me*. I just suggested it." He gave Angie a wink, and she grinned back.

Just then Teresa called the girl over to her. "Better see what your grandmother wants," Joe advised. "We'll fill up on gas and then go inside and try to find something edible, okay?"

"OK." Angie went over; they saw Teresa take her hand and speak to her.

Levon turned and found Joe already beginning to fill the tank. He looked up at Levon and smiled. "Thanks for that." He nodded in Angie's direction.

Levon was surprised. "Didn 't do anything," he said. He hadn't done anything in particular, except try to make Angie feel better.

"You got her to smile, hell, you got her to giggle."

Levon shrugged. "Wasn't like I wanted to her keep feeling badly." He was interrupted by a yawn, which he tried to hide behind a fist. He wondered if Len's would have decent coffee -- and if he really cared how it tasted.

"Thanks all the same." Joe finished filling the tank and moved the nozzle back to the gas pump. On the way by Levon, he plucked the keys from his husband's hand. "I'll drive the next stretch okay?"

Levon just nodded. He'd driven nine hours already, today, after having been woken early that morning. He hadn't felt tired until now, but as soon as the keys left his hand he felt like collapsing.

A hand caressed his cheek. "You okay, cowboy?"

"Yeah. Use some food and a nap. But I'm fine."

"I say you are," Joe teased.

Levon grinned back at him. "We better not keep them waiting," he said, with a nod towards the others.

"Yeah." They started walking across the parking lot. Joe chuckled suddenly. Levon looked over at him. "Stopping here might almost be worth it to see Uncle Mikey eating barbecue."

They all ate barbecue, even Joe and Mike. No one complained about it either, though Levon gave his partner a dirty look once, when Joe tried to find something else on the menu besides ribs, shredded pork, and beans.

When they went back to their vehicles, Joe and Teresa conferred on routes through the city. She'd taken the keys away from Mike, explaining to Mike when he protested that she was a better driver and had done *more* driving than he in the last few years, anyhow. Levon left them too it, heading back to the Jimmy. He climbed in the passenger's side, belted himself in, and closed his eyes.

When he opened them again it was several hours later and dark out. They had cleared Dallas and were heading north. Levon couldn't tell right away where they were, if they had made it into Oklahoma yet. Behind him Angie was curled up asleep on the backseat and beside him Joe was concentrating on the road ahead.

He yawned , stretched, and sat up. "Where are we?"

"Almost to Oklahoma City." Joe glanced over at him before turning his eyes back to the road. "You're looking better."

"Thanks. Feel a bit more centaur now," he said with a grin. "OKC, huh? Making pretty good time."


Levon yawned again. "Oh, that reminds me... turnpike up ahead. We'll need some change."

"Must be nice to have a map in your head."

"Never had to check maps outside of south Texas, before," Levon said. The words stung a little, though he wasn't about to tell Joe. No point in arguing over the little things, right now. "I only know about the turnpike because Carla checked the route. We're heading through Chester's territory, now."

"Chester Centaur?" Joe laughed. "Sorry," he said after a moment. "I must be getting punchy."

"Want me to drive?" Levon asked, deciding as well not to mention just what sort of person Chester was.

"Nah, I'm all right for a while yet. Just don't hold anything I say against me, okay?"

"Joe, if you aren't up to it I can drive. Or we can stop for an hour at a rest stop or something." Levon frowned. "We ain't in *that* much of a hurry."

"I'm fine."

"You sure?"

"I just said so, didn't I?" Joe snapped.

Levon subsided. He'd just keep an eye on the white lines. If Joe started to veer, he'd ask him again to pull over.

"Sorry," Joe said after a few minutes.

"It's ok." Levon continued watching out the window.

"I shouldn't have snapped."

Levon wrestled with asking again, not sure if Joe were really tired or if he were pre-occupied. Then he realised that if Joe were that pre-occupied, he shouldn't be driving. "You sure you don't want me to drive? I've had plenty of sleep."

Joe glanced over at him again, this time with the ghost of a smile. "This is really bothering you isn't it?"

"I just don't want us to crash into the ditch." Levon smiled back.

"I'm not going to cr-" Joe began but then sighed and signaled to pull into the next rest stop.

Levon didn't feel any victory -- if Joe were that tired he was glad he'd woken up. He whispered a silent thanks to Hermes, who watched over travelers, among others..

Joe stopped the truck and got out, walking around the front to the passenger side. Levon met him halfway, trying to tell himself to relax. Even *if* someone from Chester's herd were nearby, the chances of being spotted and stopped were low. He was fairly sure they were still a few miles south of the herd's land, anyhow.

As they met in front of the headlights, Joe stopped him for a kiss. "Hi."

Levon grinned. "Hi."

Joe leaned in for another kiss, this one longer. "I'm definitely awake now," he said with a grin as he pulled back.

"Good. You can keep an eye out for strangers while I get the hell back in the truck."

Immediately Joe's smile faded and he looked alarmed. "Problems?"

"Nah. Just nervous." Levon wanted to get past Joe, and get back in the truck. He also wanted to take some time for a longer embrace. Mike was heading over, so he figured a long snuggle was out of the question. But Joe kept an arm around him as he turned to face his uncle.

"Any problems?" Mike asked, as he stopped, just outside of a comfortable distance.

"No," Joe answered, his voice cool and professional. "No problems. Just changing drivers."

Mike nodded, then turned and went back to his car.

Joe turned back to Levon, worry in his eyes. "We'll get back on the road and then you'll tell me why you're nervous."

Levon nodded and headed for the driver's side. He saw Angie curled up on the backseat, asleep. Joe leaned over the seat when he got back in the vehicle and pulled the blanket she had up around her more securely. Levon pulled out of the parking spot and headed for the highway. As they left the rest stop he found himself relaxing, once more.

" So..." Joe said leadingly.

"Just nervous about being in Chester's territory, is all. I'm fine now we're moving again."

"Uh huh. What's the rest of it?"

"Rest of it?"

"The rest of what's bugging you."

Levon shrugged . "Chester ain't anyone I wanna run into, is all. Him or his herd."

"What's he like?"


Joe's eyebrow shot up. "Annoying?" he repeated.

"Annoying. He's..." Levon sighed. "He's what you'd call conservative. A traditionalist."

"Uhm, what does that mean exactly?"

"Anything you've ever seen us do, back at Taylor's place... imagine it taking three times as long and totally without any... imagination." Levon tried to figure out a good way to explain Chester. "Think of it as the difference between a Catholic service, and a Lutheran, in terms of rituals and rules."

"So, Chester is really strict about rituals, is that what you're saying?"

"Yeah. Absolutely no deviations, modifications, or evolution allowed. He'd never accept someone like Blair, for example. Got no use for humans, at all, as far as he can get away with it."

"Sounds like a *real* winner."

"Like I said, he's annoying. If I run into him... it'd take us four hours just to get to the fighting."

"Or I could just shoot him."

Levon couldn't tell if Joe was serious or not. "There's a ritual for that, too."

Joe grinned. "Nobody said I was ever any good at following rituals. Ask my catechism teacher."

Levon returned the grin. He saw another highway sign, and saw they still had nearly 12 hours' driving to go. It was going to be a long night.

It was early afternoon the next day, before they were ready to face the business at hand.

They'd left Mike, Teresa, and the kids at Mike and Teresa's, while he and Levon had gone to check into a hotel. Angie had asked why they couldn't stay at the house; none of the adults had been willing to tell the girl the truth, at first.

Their hesitation in answering her was answer enough in itself though. Her face had grown unutterably sad as she whispered, "We're going to lose that too, aren't we?" She hadn't cried, just sighed sadly, accepting the destruction of the last of her world, and that had made the moment even worse.

Teresa had just walked away, her face closed. Levon had then pulled Angie aside and told her she was losing nothing -- it was simply easier this way and would only last a short while. He and Joe didn't want to make her grandparents uncomfortable in their own home and her grandparents had the right to not want them together under their roof.

Angie had just looked at Levon and said, "They won't want us to come visit you in the summers either will they?"

"They might not, but I don't think they'll stop it. Not entirely."

They had left the kids then, giving Angie one more hug each, and promising to be back in a few hours.

Joe had been silent the entire ride to the hotel, trying to deal with conflicting emotions. He didn't like his Aunt's snubbing of his and Levon's relationship, but he understood it and respected her wishes as much as he could . It was, after all her house. But part of him was just plain mad. The kids needed all the family around them at the moment that they could get. You'd think in the circumstances Aunt Teresa could've made an exception, for the kids' sake.

Of course, she probably thought she was doing this for the kids, to keep them from being "corrupted". Joe felt sick to his stomach at even the thought.

When he stepped into the hotel room he stopped, and tried to think what had to be done next.

He couldn't.

His mate came up behind him and wrapped his arms around Joe's waist. "It'll be all right, Joe. We won't lose 'em. Even if we have to come up here and see 'em on their terms."

For a brief moment Joe allowed himself to lean a gainst his lover's strength, closing his eyes and letting his head fall back against Levon's shoulder. "They don't need any more of their family ripped away."

"We won't be. We might have to fight a little... but we aren't gonna give 'em up. You know that." Levon kissed his neck, then simply held him.

Joe sighed, then turned so he could wrap his arms around Levon as well. "I'm glad you're here with me."

They stood like that for a few moments, then Levon nudged Joe towards the bed . He moved willingly, allowing Levon to guide him until he was seated on the edge, looking up at his husband.

Levon held his head between his hands and simply looked at him for awhile. When Joe started to feel a little self-conscious, Levon grin ned. "Come on. I wanna hold you for a bit." He gave Joe another nudge, backwards.

Joe obediently scooted back. "I'd like that."

Levon smiled at him, and discarded his hat, boots, and a few other items, tossing them all onto the dresser behind him. Then he crawled onto the bed and very carefully, as if Joe had been spun from glass, took his lover in his arms.

Amused, Joe said, "I won't break, you know."

"I might," came the whispered reply.

With a start, Joe looked down at his partner. He slid a finger under Levon's chin and raised his face so he could meet his eyes. "Levon?"

But Levon was still smiling at him, looking nothing more than deeply, utterly in love.

"What did you mean by-"

Levon kissed him softly, then said, "Sometimes I feel like my heart will break in two, if I don't hold you close." As if proving his words, he pulled himself deeper into their cuddle.

Joe grinned. "Sap," he teased, holding him tighter.

In a distinctly sleepy voice, Levon replied, "Didn't I tell you centaurs get sappy when we're in love."

"No, actually I don't think you have." He nuzzled Levon's throat.

He felt Levon sigh, as he relaxed even more in Joe's arms. "We do. Start quoting all sorts of things.. mostly in Greek but trust me, it's sappy."

"This mean I need to learn Greek?"

Levon snuggled a little closer. "Nah. I'll translate 'em into Italian."

Joe laughed. "I told you -- you have the worse Italian accent..."

At that, his mate looked up at him with a woeful expression. "I don't."

"Trust me cowboy. Italian was not meant to be spoken with a texan drawl."

"*Everything* was meant to be spoken with a drawl."

"They brainwash you but good down there don't they?"

Levon chuckled, but said nothing.

"Whatever they use is in the barbecue sauce," Joe decided.

Levon just laughed, again.

It felt wonderful, lying there in a cuddle, listening to his husband laugh. Joe suddnely hugged him, tightly. "I love you," he blurted, heartfelt.

Levon looked up at him, slightly startled. But he quickly smiled, and returned the hug. "I love you, too."

"Thank you for coming." Joe knew he had said it before but he felt the need to say it again.

"Where else would I be?" Levon asked, surprised.

"It can't be easy for you. I know the whole human grief thing seems strange to you..."

"It doesn't, really. I mean I don't feel it the same way... but I've seen enough of it I guess I can understand why it happens." Levon frowned, slightly. "At least I think I do. I'm trying to do and say the right things...."

"You are, Levon," Joe hastened to assure him. "You are."

Levon pulled him down, and kissed him. For a moment everything vanished, except the taste and feel of Levon, lying beside him.

When Levon let him go, it took Joe a few minutes to get his thoughts back in gear. "Whoa," he chuckled. "I think you turned my brain off that time..."

Levon's grin was self-satisfied; it faded, though, and he said quietly, "I don't think Teresa appreciated the way I handled Angie's questions."

"She comes from the school that says you shield the children, don't tell them anything but the absolute bare minimum that they have to know." He shook his head, remembering how bewildering and scary not knowing had been, when his father had died. "She's wrong though. Not knowing is the worst."

Levon nodded, and seemed to want to add something, but he said nothing.


"Just didn't occur to me until after, that I might not oughtta be telling her everything. I tried not to tell her how *I* felt--" He stopped suddenly, flinching.

"That's something I've been meaning to mention to you," Joe said, grateful for the opening. "I've been remembering back to how I felt when my pop died and later when my mom died, and how, after the first shock, having my family around me helped. That's what it's like for centaurs isn't it? Being part of the herd makes it easier to go on."

Levon looked at him curiously, but nodded. "Reckon it's the same thing, or nearly. Never had a chance to feel alone, so missing my momma wasn't... well, it wasn't anything to panic over. Never thought that I'd lose 'em *all* and be left alone."

Joe nodded. "Yeah, that's it. It hurt like hell when my parents died but I always knew the family was still there. Would always be there."

"And we're gonna let Angie and Tony know it, too." Levon kissed him again, lightly.

"Yeah." He was quiet for a moment just looking at Levon. "You did miss your mother, didn't you? Just not in the way a human child would."

Levon nodded. "I did. I missed seeing her every day, hearing her tell me stories, missed running beside her... but I didn't much cry for her, after that day." Levon looked up at him, frowning again. "It doesn't hurt anymore, that she's gone. Not like it hurts you."

"I've got other issues tied up with my mom's death." Joe grimaced. "That's why it still hurts as much as it does. And even at that it isn't as bad as it used to be."

"Good." Levon squeezed him, hard. "Hate to think about you hurting."

"Works both ways partner."

They lay there, silent, then, until Levon said, "We oughtta get going to Santelli's. Told 'em we'd be there about 3."

Joe sighed, feeling reality settle on his shoulders once again. "Yeah."

But neither of t hem made any attempt to get up. After a moment, Levon snickered.

Joe couldn't help but join him. "We're not moving," he pointed out.

"Wanna try again?"

"We better."

"Count of three?"

Joe grinned. "Sounds like a plan."

Levon laughed again, then pushed himself up a little. He kissed Joe. "One." He sat up, leaning on one arm, and leant down to kiss Joe again. "Two."

Wrapping his arms around Levon's neck, Joe pulled himself up and initiated a third kiss, this one longer and more intense than the previous two. Levon ended up lying on top of him, looking down at him with a slightly dazed expression.

"Two and a half...."

"The hell with it," Joe growled, pulling Levon even closer. "If we're late we'll blame it on travel lag." He captured his lover's lips in an even more passionate kiss. Levon didn't argue. He didn't even put up a struggle -- except one small struggle to get his hands on Joe.

They were a bit late to the funeral home, but got away with blaming it on traffic.

Two days later was the funeral. Levon sat beside Joe through the Funeral Mass, doing his best to be supportive. He didn't have much idea what to do or say -- no one had briefed him on Catholic funerals and it was only when they'd finally arrived that he'd realised it would be involved. If he had known earlier, he'd have asked someone for pointers. But now he was simply trying to avoid offending anyone.

As it was, he just followed what Joe did, stood when he stood, knelt when he knelt and sat when he sat, and tried not to get out of synch with the rest of the crowd.

And there was quite a crowd. LaFiamma was a well-known name in this part of Chicago and Tony and Maria had had a lot of friends. The church was packed. Levon tried not to think about the fact that a good deal of the older men especially were probably "connected" to Mike's "business".

He'd been pleased to see Carl in the crowd, and hoped he'd have a chance to talk to the other stallion later, if only to compare notes and commiserations about human rituals. That reminded him they'd have to drive back through Chester's territory, going home, and he stifled a wince.

The kids seemed to be holding up fairly well, though Angie looked pale. She sat between Joe and Rosa, staring up at the priest as he spoke. Teresa had tried to get her to sit next to her, but Angie had run to Joe when they had shown up and refused to let go of his hand.

It would've caused a scene if Teresa had tried to pull her away, which was the last thing anyone had wanted so Angie had sat where she wanted. But Teresa kept shooting Joe and Levon looks that made it clear she was not happy with the situation.

Levon found himself wanting to read the woman the riot act -- tell her exactly what she ought to be doing instead of letting her narrow-minded ways inflict pain on his husband and Angie. But he held his peace, knowing that Teresa *believed* she was right.

If he and Joe *were* the sort that would be bad for Angie -- say, criminals, Levon told himself bitterly -- then he'd be glad Teresa tried so hard to protect her. As it was, Levon found himself daydreaming of Joe's taking him, Angie, and Tony back to Texas, never to return.

He was so caught up in it that he didn't even notice the service was over until Joe stepped away from him to join the other pallbearers around Tony's casket. He watched his lover go, worrying. Joe's face was stone as he walked forward and Levon wished he could do something for him. The pain he couldn't see made his own heart ache.

A small hand slipped into his and Levon looked down to see Angie staring at the caskets, face pale but dry eyed. But she held onto Levon's hand with a white-knuckled grip. He held her hand for a moment, then knelt down and took her in his arms. She grabbed onto him immediately.

As he stood up, watching the caskets being carried out, he had the urge again -- hang onto Angie and run, someplace safe. He stifled it, knowing it was neither his decision to make nor the appropriate time to make it. Instead he held Angie, carrying her out when Rosa took his arm and indicated it was time to go.

Joe rejoined him after the caskets had been put in the hearses, reaching out and stroking Angie's hair as Levon still held her. "How you holding up?"

She turned and looked at him, and shrugged. Levon kept his grip on her, wondering at the now-fierce determination he felt that he should not let her down. He recalled, suddenly, Taylor picking him up one day after a thunderstorm had scattered the herd. Levon had been about five, and had gotten separated from the others. Taylor had found him, huddled against a hillside. His father had picked him up and carried him home -- and not let him down for three hours.

Joe leaned closer and kissed her forehead. "I know it's hard, Angie, but just remember you're not alone. We're here for you and so are your grandparents and great-grandma Rosa."

Angie looked at him for a long moment then nodded. Then she buried her face back into Levon's shoulder.

"Looks like I'm going to be doing the driving," Joe said with the trace of a smile, snagging the truck keys from Levon's pocket. Levon smiled back, feeling not a bit apologetic. He hung onto Angie for the duration of the drive, and the burial, as well.

Afterwards they went back to Mike's and Teresa's. A number of people were already there, talking in hushed tones throughout the house. Levon finally let Angie down, letting Rosa take her and Tony Jr. Levon found himself rather at odds, in a house full of relatives and friends re-creating the scene which had, two years before, been the end of his world. Levon stayed beside Joe as best as he could.

Joe seemed to sense what he was feeling and went out of his way to not only stay close but to touch Levon as much as possible. Oh, nothing improper, just casual touches, a brush of the arm here, a touch to the back there. Small things.

It didn't prevent Mike or Teresa from giving them subtle, disapproving looks. Levon ignored them, but soon -- much sooner than he would have figured -- Joe was asking if he was ready to leave.

Joe went and made his good-byes to his family, double-checked the time of the reading of the will at the attorney's office the next day, then they were on their way back to the hotel. As they got out of the Jimmy, Levon got a good look at Joe. He walked around and took his mate by the arm to lead him inside. "Come on, love. How 'bout I put you in a hot shower, then tuck you into bed?"

That got him a tired smile. "As long as you're tucked in with me."

"Hell, I reckon on showering with you, too." Levon gave him an eager smile, and nudged Joe towards the hotel.

As soon as the door to their room closed behind them, Joe turned and pulled Levon into his arms. "Better," he sighed. "I've been wanting to do this all day."

"Hmmm...." Levon sighed and settled into Joe's embrace. He stayed there a moment before asking, "How you doing?"

Joe didn't answer right away, seeming to be taking inner stock. "I'm okay," he finally said, sounding almost surprised at the realization.

Levon looked up at his tone, and searched Joe's eyes. He looked calm. He even, to an extent, felt calm. "Then how about I get you stripped down and under some hot water?" he gave Joe a not-quite subtle leer.

"Sounds good, cowboy," Joe replied with a low chuckle.

Levon gave him a grin, and began stripping them both.

Little over half an hour later they were stumbling out of the bathroom, mostly dry, warm, and giddy. They managed to get into bed despite -- or because of -- the groping and laughing. When they finally settled into bed, Levon found himself at a loss for words.

Joe sighed contentedly and snuggled even closer. "Nice," he murmured.

"Yeah." Levon closed his eyes, and simply let himself be relaxed. "Have to do that more often."

"We need a bigger shower back home."

"Put the hose over the rafter in the barn?" Levon grinned up at him, knowing what Joe's response to *that* was likely to be.

Blue eyes that had been half closed opened and glared at him. "Maybe you haven't noticed this but there's a difference between getting hosed down and a hot shower..."

Levon tried to give him an innocent look, without spoiling it by laughing. "Is there?"

Joe rolled his eyes and muttered in a long suffering tone, "Centaurs."

"Got hosed down more often then anything else, when I was a kid. Always sorta enjoyed it." He added, frowning, "Except when I had mud in my hair...."

"I'm not gonna ask."

"You saying you never got mud washed off ya with a hose? You get the water squirted in your ears?"

"I can safely say that I was never hosed off as a child. Pulled into the bathroom by my ear to clean up, yes, but no hoses were ever involved."

Levon considered this revelation with a somewhat sad expression. "Boy, you missed out...."

"Did run under the sprinkler on hot summer days though."

"Not the same." Levon shook his head. "If you don't end up with a stream of water blasting the side of your skull -- it's just not the same."

"I'll take your word for it," Joe said around a yawn.

Levon gave him a kiss on the chin. "This mean we can't rig a hose in the barn?"

"Hey, if you want to be hosed down, I'll hose you down." He snuggled closer. "Still think hot showers are more fun."

"You could be right." Levon pressed himself closer to Joe, still feeling the warmth of the hot water that their bodies had soaked in.

Joe sighed again and dropped a kiss on Levon's forehead. "Love you," he said drowsily.

"Love you, too," Levon whispered. Then he laid still and silent, and felt his husband fall asleep.

Nine a.m. the next morning found them at the Tony and Maria's attorney's office for the will reading. Once again Levon was trying to remain at Joe's side at all times, offering silent moral support.

Joe didn't think his husband knew exactly how much that helped. To know he had somewhere to turn when the reality of this got to be too much, someone who wouldn't judge him or how he was handling the situation, that alone had provided Joe with the anchor he needed to get through this and be strong for others.

He was sure he would've managed to do so anyway but the emotional cost to himself would've been much higher. As it was, it enabled him to brush aside the looks he got -- and the things he did *not* get -- from his Aunt and Uncle. Granted, they'd just lost their son and daughter-in-law and could be forgiven a great deal.

But Joe didn't forget they'd behaved much this way, before. Levon simply stood behind him, hands on Joe's shoulders, when the lawyer finally began.

"I expect most of what I'm about to tell you comes as little surprise," the man said, his eyes glancing over everyone in the room. "Anthony and Maria left the bulk of their estate, including their house and all their investments, to their children, to be held in trust by their guardian until they turned 21."

Mike and Teresa just looked at each other, taking each others' hands.

"As for who that guardian should be, they were both very clear on their choice." The lawyer's eyes settled onto Joe. "They have requested that you, Joseph, take the children into your care."

No one said a word.

They all stared at the lawyer in disbelief, until Mike finally demanded, "What do you mean? What about--" He stopped, but looking very clearly at Levon.

"If you're referring to Joseph's partner, Anthony and Maria also addressed that." Now the lawyer was looking at Levon. "They were hoping you would consent to be guardian along with Joseph, Mr. Lundy."

Joe felt Levon's hand leave his shoulder and he glanced back at him. His partner was stunned, to put it mildly. "Wha--? Of course! Yes, of course I agree," he said quickly.

The lawyer nodded, then turned his attention back to Joe. "Anthony and Maria said that they had discussed this with you themselves and that you agreed...?"

Still feeling stunned, Joe answered. "Yeah, when Angie was born, and they asked me to be her godfather. But I thought that they'd changed their minds when I..." he trailed off glancing at Levon.

The lawyer smiled, sympathetically, but shook his head. "They changed their will almost a year ago, to include your partner, Levon. We discussed it at some length, and they insisted that the two of you were the best to raise their children." He glanced suddenly at Mike and Teresa, almost guiltily. But he didn't say anything else.

"This has got to be some sort of mistake," Teresa finally said. "Nobody in their right mind would give their children to-"

"To what?" Joe interrupted, feeling his tolerance of her attitude reaching the end of its tether. "To cops? To people who love them? To people that don't break the law for a living? To people who won't teach them to be bigots?"

Levon grabbed a hold of h is shoulder again, not quite holding him back. Teresa's face went white; Mike just glared at him. "We were good enough for you," he snapped, and suddenly Levon had let go of Joe and was headed for Mike.

Now it was Joe holding Levon back. "But I wasn't good enough for you, was I? When I dropped out of law school because I didn't want to become your pet attorney you didn't speak to me for a year. And when I told you about me and Levon you all but disowned me!"

Mike continued glaring, as if he wished Joe would let Levon go. But he turned to the lawyer and asked, "Is there any way we can stop this?"

The lawyer shrugged. "You can contest the will. But it's all legal, as it stands."

"You rest assured we will," Teresa said.

Back at the hotel, Joe angrily paced the length of the room. Levon had finally resorted to sitting on the bed, watching -- staying the hell out of Joe's way. Joe had been muttering under his breath in a mixture of Italian and English the entire time. The few words that Levon caught seemed to be a harangue about hypocrites and blind fools and how love was supposed to be unconditional.

He'd tried, at first, to calm Joe down, reason with him. Now he was simply waiting for Joe to wear himself out enough that he'd listen. There was no way they'd hand the kids over with a fight, and Levon *knew* Taylor would bolster their own financial resources, if necessary, to conduct as long a court battle as it took.

And if the judge tried to hand the kids over to Mike and Teresa in the meantime, Levon would simply resort to his *own* set of rules.

Finally Joe seemed to wind down, coming and flopping down on the bed b eside Levon. "This wasn't how I was expecting this to go."

He reached out and rubbed Joe's arm. "Don't worry, Joe. We'll make it."

"Those kids are *ours* and there's not a damn thing they can do to make it otherwise." Joe sighed. "They're going to try though."

"And we'll just have to be ready for them." Levon sighed. "I hate to think what this is gonna to do Angie and Tony. After this... they're gonna lose even more of their family."

"Not if I can help it." Joe looked up at Levon from his prone position on the bed. "I don't want to stop them seeing their grandparents, even if they try to take the kids from us. Uncle Mikey was right about one thing -- they were good enough for me when I was growing up."

Levon nodded. It reassured him that Joe was thinking clearly enough to realise the kids' best interests were in having their grandparents around. In short, supervised spurts, he admitted to himself. Let 'em come out to the herd's land to see them, where any attempts at kidnapping them back would be fouled by forty enraged centaurs.

He couldn't keep a tiny grin off his face.

"What?" Joe asked, seeing the grin.

"Was thinking about turning the herd onto Mike and Teresa -- let them argue it over with Joy and Carla."

Joe laughed. "Man, I'd pay money to see that!"

"Maybe we can arrange something."

He was interrupted by the phone; Joe practically leapt into the air, diving for it. "LaFiamma," he answered, and Levon grinned; cop habits were hard to break. A moment later Joe grinned, widely. "We were just talking about you! Yeah, hang on, he's right here."

Levon took the phone with a perplexed look at his mate. "Hello?"

"Levon, you have to come home right away." It was Joy and her voice held an urgency he had never heard before.

"What's wrong?"

"Taylor's dead."

Levon didn't even blink. He was too surprised. "How?" he finally asked, barely seeing Joe's concerned face, looking at him.

"Heart attack. It was from out of the blue. One minute he was playing tag with some of the colts, the next he was on the ground."

"How long ago?"

"This morning. I tried phoning earlier but you weren't in." Again there was an unaccustomed urgency in Joy's voice. "Levon, you have to come home. The herd needs you."

"What?" Levon tried to get his surpri se under control to find out what she was talking about.

"You're the only one who can take Taylor's place. There's no other stallions who are old enough. If you don't come..." Joy trailed off with something that Levon had never heard from her before: fear.

But that didn't quite overcome his shock. "Me? Joy, you know I--" he stopped before he said he couldn't. She *knew* about his relationship with Joe. She knew what it meant to him.

If she was asking him to come, anyway....

"Joy, do you know what you're asking?" Maybe she was just afraid and not thinking things through. He didn't believe it of her, but nor could he believe she would ask him to give up his life with Joe.

There was silence on the other e nd of the phone, then he heard her sigh. "I know. But there's no one else." Then, as if dropping a final bomb she added quietly, "Taylor's last words were to send to for you."

Levon closed his eyes. He knew she was right about one thing - there was no one else. With Duke gone to Washington, he was the only stallion in the area. Normally in the area, at any rate. Stuart was around, but he was only fourteen. Almost old enough to take a herd under such conditions as these.

But not quite.

"Joy, I'll have to--" He looked up at Joe, knowing he had to talk it over with him, let him make the decision. Except he couldn't leave Joy not knowing whether he was coming. "Explain things to Joe. I know. We can manage for a day or so, if we know you're coming."

That wasn't what he'd meant. But he couldn't say no. Even if Joe disagreed, even if *he* said no....

Levon couldn't tell her no.

"I'll be there, Joy. No sooner than tomorrow. OK?" He felt somehow defeated, as he said it.

"That's fine." Already he could hear in her voice that subtle submissiveness that Joy only used with the head stallion. Which as far as she was concerned he now was. "I'm sorry, Levon. If there had been any other way.. ."

Meanwhile Joe had been getting more and more alarmed. At Levon's last statement he sat straight up and reached for his husband. He didn't say anything though, waiting for Levon to finish with the phone call.

"OK, Joy. I'll be there as soon as I can. If you need anything, call the hotel and leave a message at the front desk. I'll check in with 'em as often as I can."

Joy agreed and he hung up the phone. Then he turned to his husband; from the way Joe's face paled, Levon wondered what his expression must look like. "Joe...." He had no idea what to say.

"What? What's happened? What's wrong?" Joe reached out and touched Levon's face gently.

"My father died this morning. Heart attack." He felt like he was cheating, telling Joe this news before telling him what he would hate to hear.

Joe's eyes widened and he reached out to pull Levon into his arms. "God, Levon... I'm sorry. I liked Taylor a lot. He was a good man. Centaur, I mean."

Levon allowe d the embrace for a moment, then he tensed. Joe felt it, for he loosened his hold and looked at him. "Joe...."

"You have to go back home. I understand. You should be there for the funeral."

"I am going home, Joe. But not--" He looked a way, then squared his shoulders and told him directly. "I have to go take the herd. There's no one else--"

That was as far as he got.

Joe pushed away from him, but still kept an almost bruising grip on Levon's shoulders. "You can't do that and still be with me. That's what you told me." The words came out steadily enough but the look in Joe's eyes...

Levon felt like he'd been kicked solidly in the chest. "There's no one else, Joe. If Angie and Tony didn't need someone here I'd just take you with me."

"But..." and Joe's voice dropped to a whisper. "I'll have to let you go."

"They're my family, too, Joe. I can't turn my back on them." Levon wanted to reach out for Joe, but despite the hold Joe still had on him , Levon felt oddly as if his own touch would be rejected.

"I know that! But-" Abruptly Joe let go of Levon and jumped up pacing over to the other side of the room. He didn't turn back around.

Levon watched him, wishing there was anything he could do. Offer to take Angie and Tony *now*, and all four of them return home? It was what he'd like to do, but the law would follow them, what with Mike and Teresa's contesting the will. "I know I told you I'd be here for you, for them... but I never expected this to happen. You know I'd stay if I could."

"You gotta do what you have to." Joe still hadn't turned around and there was something about his voice... he sounded like he was holding back tears.

"Joe?" Levon took a step for ward, hesitantly. "I could probably stay for another day or so... herd can manage that long if they know I'm coming." It wasn't much, but it was all the offer he could make.

Joe finally turned around and Levon could see the tears shining in his eyes that he had heard in his voice. "One last day, huh?"

Levon shrugged. "It might be a few months before I can come home. I don't wanna leave...." He trailed off as he saw his mate's eyes go wide.

"Come-" Joe's voice cracked and he cl eared his throat and tried again. "Come home? You're coming back?"

For a second Levon just stared at him, confused. "Well of course I--" Then he realized what had happened. What he hadn't said. He was across the room and holding his husb and's face with both hands, in a flash. "Joe, love, it's not permanent. Only 'til someone trustworthy can take 'em off my hands."

Joe stared at him for a long moment and then it was like someone had cut a puppet's strings. He collapsed into Levon's arms, muttering something under his breath that Levon couldn't quite make out at first but then realized was "Thank God" over and over.

Levon held him tightly, stunned at what Joe had thought. He tucked his head down, so he could whisper into Joe's ear. "I'm not leaving you, Joe. I'm not leaving you. I'm *never* leaving you. I'll be back as soon as I can but I am *not* leaving you for good. I'd die before I could." He kissed Joe's cheek, then kissed him again, over and over, everyplace he could reach without letting him go.

With a shuddering sigh Joe wrapped his arms around him and pulled him closer, then turned his head just enough to meet Levon's lips with his own. The kiss was desperate, searching each other's mouths for something , anything which would tell them the pain had been simple misunderstanding. Levon knew Joe understood, now. But the look in Joe's eyes would never fade from Levon's memory, and he sorely wished to replace it with something else.

The desperation, the wanting, didn't fade as they continued to kiss. If anything, it grew increasingly stronger. Joe's hands were moving restlessly over Levon's body, seemingly unable to remember how to get him out of his clothes. Levon took the problem out of Joe's hands by fairly tearing his own shirt off, followed with Joe's.

Joe growled and pushed Levon backwards until he was lying on the carpet, then lowered himself on top of him, hands still moving restlessly, but now over bare skin, while he attacked Levon's throat with his mouth. Levon put his hands on Joe's back, both to hold him down and to touch him, to feel the play of his muscles as he moved himself up and down. Levon groaned as Joe found a particular spot, his own fingers clutching aimlessly at the skin beneath his hands.

While repeating the movement that had initiated the groan, Joe also pushed his hips against Levon's at the same moment, brushing their cloth-covered erections together. Levon moved one hand between them, fumbling for zippers and buttons. He tried to get them opened while Joe continued licking him, which made it damned difficult to think clearly enough to maneuver.

One more kiss, and he grabbed at Joe's waistband, unable to do anything more.

Joe by this time had begun moving against him, his breath coming in harsh pants between kisses. The hot moist air that wafted over Levon's skin was just as much of a caress as an actual touch. Levon shouted, then, and tried to grab onto his lover and hold him down, keep him close.

If anything, Joe increased the intensity of his attack at that. It was like trying to hold a wild animal, or ride a bucking bronco, except this time the bucking bronco was riding *him*. He saw Joe caught in the moment before orgasm -- face tight, eyes staring right through Levon. Levon grabbed on for dear life, and shouted as his body exploded into a thousand pieces.

When he could think again, he found Joe slumped bonelessly on top of him, face buried in the side of Levon's neck. He didn't try to move, at least not until his body and brain were speaking to him again. With a smile, Levon closed his eyes and snuggled a little deeper underneath his love.

He felt a shudder run down the entire length of Joe's body, just as he felt the wetness against his skin where Joe had hidden his face.

"Joe?" he whispered, bringing one hand towards his lover's face.

"'M'okay," Joe muttered, still not looking up.

Levon lifted his head as high as he could at the awkward angle, and nudged him.

Joe finally lifted his head to meet Levon's eyes, his face still bearing the marks of the tears he'd been shedding. "Sorry," he said with a weak smile.

"Don't be." He gave Joe a kiss, then brushed his fingers along Joe's cheek. "Love you, you know."

The smile widened. "I know." Joe raised a hand to Levon's cheek in a mirror of his gesture. "I love you too."

Another kiss, long and slow, then Levon asked, "Are you sure you're all right?"

"Yeah. As long as I have you."

"Always, Joe. Even when I'm not in your arms, you've got my heart."

Joe gave a choked laugh at that. "You're right about centaurs and sap."

Levon grinned. "Maybe I should just grunt and tell you to get me a beer."

"I thought I was the one who got to tell you what to do," Joe teased, then the smile faded. "But that's going to have to change isn't it. Even if this is only temporary you can't have me dominant over you and still be head stallion."

It sounded silly to say, but he did, anyway. "I'm sorry."

Somehow that brought the smile back to Joe's face. "You know, considering how much I didn't want to be dominant in the first place I shouldn't be this bothered about not having to anymore."

"But you do now. We finally got our relationship all settled and more or less working. Now everything's going to change."

"Everything was going to change even before the phone call," Joe pointed out. "Because of the kids."

"Not between *us*," Levon countered.

"Wouldn't it? Maybe not as much as this will but-"

Levon gave him a kiss. "Guess we'll just have to wait and find out." Then he wriggled. "Mind if we put this conversation on hold while we clean up?"

Joe grinned. "This isn't the most comfortable places to talk, is it?" He rolled smoothly to his feet and held out his hand to haul Levon up as well. "Shower?"

"That ain't the best place for talking, either." Levon returned the grin.

"So we'll shower then talk." He headed for the bathroom, grimacing as he glanced down. "Another pair of dress pants bite the dust."


Joe stopped, turned around and hauled Levon into his arms. "Don't be," he said fiercely, his eye intense. "We needed that."

Levon was still grinning, and teased, "Maybe you should start wearing old jeans or something."

"Rather be wearing nothing at this point."

Instead of replying, Levon finished unzipping Joe's pants -- much easier to do with both hands and a little more room. Joe chuckled and returned the favor.

"Come on, cowboy. Shower, then bed and talk, okay?"

The shower was long, warm, and soapy. When they settled themselves in bed, Levon sighed. "We need to do this more often."

"Preferably without the proceeding floorshow," Joe replied, wrapping his arms around Levon and pulling him closer.

"That mean I can't seduce you beforehand?" Levon smiled as he cuddled in.

Joe returned the smile, but it faded quickly. "That wasn't the floorshow I was talking about."

"I know." Levon gave him a gentle kiss. "I'm sorry, Joe. I didn't realize you thought I meant I was leaving. I would never- -"

Fingers touched his lips, halting his words. "I know," Joe said softly. "Now. I should've known then, too."

Levon started to protest that, then realized they'd get nowhere. "You'll call me if you need anything, for Angie and Tony? Even if I can't get back up here I can ask Hensen to send someone." He wasn't convinced the local herd stallion would *want* to help him, but hopefully the stallion would still feel obligated towards Joe.

"I'll call regardless. Just to talk to you."

"You'll *have* to call, to tell me how things go. And so I can talk to Angie and Tony." Levon smiled up at him, feeling almost content, despite it all. "And so I won't have to spend a day without you."

Joe's arms tightened in response.

They lay there in silence for a moment, then Joe asked, "You're not going to have any problems dealing with Hensen are you?" He was obviously remembering Levon's reaction when the stallion had come to speak to them the last time they were in Chicago.

"Huh? No, not at all," he replied easily. Then he laughed. "Won't even have to worry about driving by Chester's land, either. Now I can just say 'no', and keep heading home."

"As easy as that, huh?"

Levon paused, then shrugged as well as he could, lying there. "Well, I...." He wondered how to explain something that he was only now realising he felt. "They ain't a threat to me, and as long as I'm not interfering with them -- I ain't a threat to them. We can afford to just be pleasant to each other, now. As long as we stay outta each other's way."

"You weren't a threat to them before," Joe pointed out. "The last thing you wanted was to be a-" Abruptly he cut himself off.

"I know. I still don't, Joe. But there ain't nobody else to take care of 'em."

"I understand. But-" He sighed. "You just seem to be taking to the idea almost too easily." Joe shook his head. "Never mind."

Levon didn't like the sound of that. "You think I oughtta have said no? Made them wait while I thought about it?" He caught the stubborn look on his lover's face and kept talking, trying to explain. "They're my *family*, Joe. How can I turn them down, when I'm the only one who can help?"

"I never said you should," Joe shot back irritably. "But you don't need to sound so damn happy about it!"

Shocked, Levon only gaped at him.

Sighing with frustration, Joe ran a hand over his face and pulled away. "Forget it. I shouldn't have said that."

"Joe, don't start shutting me out, now. What makes you think I'm happy about it? My father's dead and I have to leave you alone to fight your relatives for our kids...." He hated saying it, but there *was* nothing to be happy about.

"'Cause it's like a switch had been thrown. One moment you're afraid of Hensen, the next you're not! Nobody can switch their reactions that fast if they hadn't at least thought about it before."

Levon held himself back from his first response -- screaming back at Joe. He tried to calm himself back down before he said, "Soon as I said yes, I had no more reason to be afraid of him."

"Simple as that, huh?" The disbelief in Joe's voice was sharp enough to draw blood.

Furious now, Levon merely said, "Simple as that. Maybe a human *would* have to get used to the idea but I ain't human. I *never* thought seriously about taking Taylor's herd, and certainly not once I fell in love with you. But when Joy asked and I said yes -- that was it. Things have *changed* for me now. I *feel* the differences, I don't think about them. I'm sorry if you don't like it."

Throughout the argument -- so far -- neither had tried to move away from the other. Levon hoped that boded well for the shallowness of their anger.

"It's not a matter of liking. It's a matter of understanding. And I don't." Joe sighed again, less anger and more resignation in it this time. "But what else is new?"

"If I could explain it to you, I would. But it's how I *feel*." A thought occurred and he half-grinned. "It's just instinct, the way my brain shuts off when you kiss me. Or look at me. Or mention you're *gonna* look at me...."

That drew a reluctant smile. "Just as long as we don't go back to butting heads like we used to. Back when we were serious about it."

"Joe, I don't know *what* we're gonna do," Levon admitted. "All I know is that I love you, and I want you with me forever. However I can get you."

He felt Joe's body relax a bit. "That I can agree on," he said softly.

"Good." Levon kissed him on the nose. "Reckon I can get you scooted up a bit? Need to move my arm." Actually, it had gone numb several minutes ago, but it had hardly seemed important at the time.

They rearranged themselves into a more comfortable position. Joe sighed and nuzzled Levon's cheek. "We should start thinking about dinner soon."

"We gonna pick up the kids?"

"If we can do it without starting a war with Aunt Teresa and Uncle Mikey in front of them."

"Think they'll let us take 'em home, tonight? Stay with them? Legally, they're ours until the court says otherwise."

"I want to." He hugged Levon hard. "Want to let you spend some time with them before you have to go."

Ready now to change the subject to something more pleasant, Levon asked, "You wanna go for a ride before dinner?"

Joe smiled. "Yeah. I'd like that."

Giving his lover a sly smile, Levon asked, "You wanna go for a ride after dinner, too? In the morning before I leave? Half an hour after midnight when the kids are tucked in?"

That earned him a full-fledged laugh. "If you think you'll still be able to sit still for the drive after all that 'riding'," he t eased.

"I'll sit on a pillow." Levon pulled Joe down, then, for a kiss. After a moment he forgot about going for a ride.

Five minutes later he'd forgotten about dinner as well.

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