Centaur Lines

Part Two

Levon made a perfunctory call, to Carl, letting him know he and Joe were going to be using the acreage in town. Joe noticed that Levon didn't ask, he simply told. Neither did he mention telling Hensen.

This was going to tak e some getting used to, he told himself. That was all. Just some time to get accustomed to the changes in Levon. After all, it wasn't like the changes were all that big or important.

Were they?

Everything seemed normal enough when they drove out, then got ready for their run. Levon grinned at him while Joe watched him strip. That was certainly normal.

"Too bad we don't have time for a brushing," Joe commented absently while he mounted. Levon missed a step in response. That was normal, too. When Joe was up on Levon's back and they headed out at a slow canter, it *still* felt normal.

So why, Joe asked himself, did he feel so sad?

He tried to convince himself that it was just because he and Levon were going to have be separated for a while. That was reason enough to feel sad, wasn't it? Even though it was a temporary separation. He ignored the little voice at the back of his mind that insisted there was more to it than that.

He had almost managed to do so for the entire evening's run. Levon certainly seemed relaxed, Joe noticed. Of course, he hadn't exactly been upset, either... Joe cut off that thought, once more.

Levon was leaving in the morning and he wasn't going to spend what time they had left brooding. There'd be plenty of time for that after.

When they'd returned to the barn, Levon stopped short of going in and looked over his shoulder. "You wanna go get Angie and Tony?"

The question seemed to be asking more -- like, was he ready to face Mike and Teresa, or did he want one more turn around the pasture? The problem was Joe didn't know if he would ever be ready for the upcoming confrontation. Putting it off was alluring, but it wouldn't solve anything. "No time like the present," he responded.

Levon waited until he'd dismounted, then he took Joe by the shoulders, and kissed him soundly. "Joe, I'm sorry I can't stay--"

"I know. I understand, really." 'In my head at least,' he added mentally. His heart was having a harder time coming to terms with it.

"Maybe, if things drag on, I can fly up every couple of weeks, for a day or two?" Levon sounded reluctant as he said it; Joe didn't exactly blame him.

"Your new status may have changed a lot of things but I doubt that fear of flying is one of them." He wrapped his arms around Levon.

"Joe, if you need me, I'll do it. You might have to pick me up at the airport and bring me here first... or the shower," he gave Joe a wink.

Joe chuckled, then sobered quickly. "Thank you," he said softly, locking gazes with his husband, letting him know how much the offer meant to him.

Levon changed, and embraced him. "I mean it, Joe. If you need me -- I'll come up. As often, and for as long as I can. It might not be much, but please -- don't think you shouldn't ask."

"You're going to make a good head stallion," Joe said, swallowing around the sudden lump in his throat.

Levon looked at him, and finally Joe could see the sorrow in his eyes. "Wish I didn't have to go."

Joe pulled him closer and hugged him tightly. "So do I, cowboy, so do I."

It took them a minute to let go so Levon could get dressed again. When they did, though, Joe found he felt a little better about the whole situation. This might change some things but not the really important ones.

He found he finally believed that.

The drive to his aunt and uncle's was much less tense than their earlier drive. He found himself even once or twice joking with his husband about topics totally unrelated to anything that was happening. They even fought over the radio, with Levon complaining there wasn't a decent county music station to be found.

"That should tell you something, then," Joe had responded with a smug grin.

"Tells me I'm in a foreign country," Levon had said, rolling his eyes and adjusting his hat. He was probably one of five people in all of Chicago wearing a cowboy hat. He still looked perfectly natural, rather than out of place. Or maybe Joe was just used to seeing it.

"It's called 'civilization,' cowboy," he shot back, even as he was smiling fondly at his husband's hat.

"Yeah? That why y'all have them cops on horseback ?" Levon gestured out the window at a cop near the intersection.

Joe was about to respond when he noticed the horse turn their way, watching as they drove past. "Friend of yours?" he asked blandly.

Levon glanced over, then gave Joe a grin . "Nah. They can just recognize us."

"Somehow that doesn't surprise me. It probably should but it doesn't."

"Can't you recognize *your* own kind?" Levon asked, sounding entirely too guileless to be trusted.

"Last I checked you weren't a horse, though. Astonishing resemblance aside."

"As I recall, there was that time we had to go to Dr. Norton's animal studies lab to interview a graduate student...."

"It was a cute chimpanzee, okay?" Joe shot back somewhat defensively, well remembering how the animal in question had latched onto him, refusing to let go even when coaxed by her regular trainer.

Laughing, his mate only said, "Only proves you're human."

"Not entirely. One/thirty-second centaur remember? "

"Then how do you explain the chimp's attraction?"

"It had good taste?"

"You tasted it?" Levon asked, blandly.

Joe threw him an exasperated look that quickly faded into an affectionate grin. "Love you."

"You better . Otherwise we'd end up with a primate in the herd." Levon paused, then said, "Another primate, that is."

"Yeah, can't have that. All the other Head Stallions would tease you."

"Call me names. Wouldn't invite me to the Herd Stallion Annual Convention in Hawaii." Levon looked suitably troubled.

Joe snorted. "Considering centaurs' fear of flying I doubt that convention would be well attended anyway."

"They have boats!"

"Centaur Cruises?"

Levon started to nod, then stopped. "Nah, on second thought that wouldn't work, either."

"I know I'm going to regret asking, but why not?"

He smiled, apologetically. "We get seasick."

"Not very fun on vacation, are you?" Joe shot back, deadpan.

"I'm not the one who gets blown up, am I?"

Joe's grin turned lecherous. "Naw, you just get blown."

"Thought that was you last time."

"So it'll be you next time." He shrugged.

"Actually, if we're keeping score...."

"Are we?"

Levon gave him a look. "You wanna know?"

Joe actually thought about it for a few seconds. "Nah," he finally answered. "It doesn't make a difference." He looked at Levon. "Does it?"

"Nah." Levon leaned back in the seat. There was silence for a bit, then, "Unless the 3:5 ratio bothers you."

Them turning onto the street that his aunt and uncle lived on forestalled Joe from answering. It was probably for the best.

He felt Levon tensing up as they drew nearer the house. Reaching over, Joe laid his hand on his husband's arm. "It'll be okay," he said softly, surprised that at that moment he believed it would be.

But Levon nodded. "I know."

Joe left his hand where it was until Levon pulled up in front of the house and killed the engine. As soon as they stepped out of the truck, the front door slammed open, and Angie came running out.

Joe leaned down and caught her as she ran straight into his arms. "How you doing, Angie?" he asked softly, giving her a big hug as he did so.

"M'ok," she said quietly. She leaned back and looked at him with a worried frown. "Can we go home, yet?"

"Do you want to?"

She nodded. "I like staying with Grandma and Grandpa and Grandma Rosa but I want my own bed." She moved forward, again, hugging him. "Even if mama and daddy aren't there."

That eased one thing Joe had really been worrying about: that Angie and her brother wouldn't want to leave. "We can go right now," he told her. "Let's go get your brother and your stuff, okay?"

She nodded and put her face back on Joe's shoulder. She looked over, though, and said, "Hi, Uncle Levon."

"Hey, Angie."

Still holding onto the child, Joe walked up to the house, feeling Levon at his side. Teresa met them in the foyer. She started to hold her arms out to Angie, but stopped and gave Joe a quiet look.

"Angie wants to go home," he said calmly. "Are her and Tony's things together or do we need to do some packing?"

She looked startled. "Angie, don't you wanna stay with us?" She put her hand on the girl's back, asking in a surprised, enticing tone.

Angie just shook her head, but looked uncertain.

"It's not an either/or choice, Angie. You'll still come for visits." Joe stared directly at his aunt when he spoke. 'I'm not going there, Aunt Teresa. I won't make them choose between us.'

"We can?" She asked, this time looking confused. "But...." She looked at her grandmother, again.

Teresa looked back at Joe with a harder expression.

"But what, honey?" Joe asked, looking down at the child.

"Grandma says we're living here. I thought... mommy said you were our godfather and that meant we'd live with you. But grandma says--"

'Pre-emptive strike Aunt Teresa?' Joe thought. "We're still discussing it actually," he said, once again careful not to make Angie think badly of anybody. "But for the moment, it looks like you're going to be living with me. In your house, until we get everything figured out. Okay?"

She smiled at that, and nodded. When Joe started down the hall, Teresa stepped in his way -- and Levon moved between them, creating room for Joe to walk past. Joe caught sight of Levon's face; there was no doubt in his mind Levon was going to make a good herd stallion. He already had Taylor's glare down pat.

Joe was glad he was on his side.

They went upstairs with Angie and Joe helped her pack up her and her brother's things. Levon was standing in the doorway, watching. "Where is Tony Jr.?" Joe asked, still having not spotted the boy.

"He's in Grandma Rosa's room," Angie responded, not looking up from her packing. "She was telling us centaur stories."

"I'll go get him, if you can get his stuff together?" Levon offered. "I wanna talk to Rosa, anyhow."


Levon headed back down the hall. Angie continued transferring clothes into a small suitcase. She was frowning, again. "What's wrong, hon?"

"Do you want me an' Tony?" she asked in a tiny voice.

Joe immediately went to her side, kneeling down in front of her so they were on the same eye level. "Of course I do, Angie. Levon and I both do. We want you very much." 'Enough to fight for you,' he thought, but didn't add.

She bit her lip, then said, "Grandma said... that we'd be happier, here. But I wanna be with you and Uncle Levon. Because mama and daddy wanted us to be."

"If that's what you want, we'll do everything in our power to keep you, Levon and I both. I promise. Okay?"

She answered by throwing her arms around him, again. Joe hugged her back, tightly.

They finished packing hers and Tony's things, then Angie told him the only things left were their toothbrushes in the bathroom. As they turned to the door they found Tony, Jr., standing there.

"Hey kiddo. Didn't Uncle Levon find you?" Joe asked.

He nodded. "Tol' me to come up an' find you."

"Well, you did. He tell you we're taking you two home?"

Tony nodded.

"That okay with you?" Joe asked, not really being able to get a bead on the boy's emotions.

Again, he nodded, but this time he came over and held up his arms. With a smile, Joe picked him up. Tony Jr. wrapped his arms tightly around Joe's neck. Joe just stood there and held him until Angie came back into the room with the toothbrushes.

She put them in the suitcase, closed it, then looked up at Joe. It was rather clear that she would have liked to be carried down as well, but she picked up the smaller suitcase, instead. He gave her an approving smile and a quick one-handed hug before picking up the other, larger suitcase, shifting Tony Jr. to one side as he did so.

They headed downstairs, and found Levon coming out of Mike's den.

"Y'all ready to go?" Levon asked, calmly.

"Looks that way," Joe replied, giving his partner the eye. He set Tony Jr. on his feet beside his sister. "You go say good-bye to your grandparents, okay?"

"OK!" He ran into Mike's den, followed by Angie.

Joe watched them go, then turned back to Levon. "Have a nice chat while you were waiting?" he asked in a low voice.

Levon nodded. "Told him what he'd be up against. So he could decide if he really wanted to take us to court."

"That must've been interesting." He could just imagine his uncle's reaction to that.

"Not sure how much it helped," Levon added with a shrug. "But at least now he knows." He stopped when the kids came back out, and headed past to find Teresa.

When they were out of sight again, Joe said, "You didn't tell him about... y'know."

"No." Levon shook his head quickly. "Just that ... I've my father's estate, now. All his resources -- explained they were as much as Hensen's. Figured he'd understand the comparison. Practically had to spell it out, though, that I've a damn sight more money than he does now, and I'll spend it *all * to keep our kids if I have to."

Joe felt a warmth spread through him at Levon's last words. "Our kids. I like the sound of that."

"Well, that's what they are." Levon returned the smile.

Angie and Tony returned at that moment. Angie headed to Joe and looked up hopefully as Tony Jr. was hoisted up into Levon's arms.

Chuckling, Joe lifted her into his arms. "All ready?"

Levon took the second suitcase, and nodded. "Looks like we're ready."

"Let's go then."

As they headed out for the truck, Joe felt someone watching him. He turned and looked back at the house to see Aunt Teresa standing in the doorway staring after them. She stood there until Angie turned, and waved. Then Teresa waved back with a smile. Joe nodded to her respectfully, then turned and finished walking to the truck.

That night, after dinner and more stories told to distract the two children, Levon found himself in Angie's room, tucking her into bed. "Do you really have to go tomorrow?" the little girl asked wistfully.

"Yeah, Angie. I do. Wish I could stay, though." He sat down on her bed; she sat up and pulled her knees up.

"I 'm sorry about your daddy," she said, resting her head on her knees and watching him.

"Thanks." He swallowed the words 'you don't have to be'. He didn't know if she could understand. Probably not; Joe barely did, himself.

"Is it different for you? Because you're grown up? Do you miss him? I know I miss my daddy."

"I miss him, Angie. That doesn't change just because I'm grown up."

She nodded solemnly. "I remember meeting your daddy when we came down to go to your wedding . I liked him, he was nice to me. Did you cry when you found out?" She paused and then said, "I'm not asking too many questions am I? Mama always says... said... I ask too many questions."

"You're not asking too many questions, Angie. I'll answer any that you have, as best I can. But... you probably should know that centaurs don't always react to things the way humans do. I didn't cry when I heard about my daddy. But that doesn't mean I don't miss him, or that I didn't love him."

Again Angie nodded. "Everybody reacts differently. That's what Grandma Rosa told me. So it's okay if you didn't cry."

"And it's ok if you *do* cry. As often as you need to." Levon put his hand on her cheek, rubbing his thumb gently up and down. He could feel the dampness there.

She moved then, crawling into his lap and leaning her face against his chest. "I don't want you to go," she whispered.

Holding her tightly, he said, "I know. But Joe'll be here. I'm gonna call you every day -- and if you need me, I can come back for a little while." He kissed the top of her head. "Don't worry, Angie. It'll be all right."


"I promise." Even if I have to turn the world upside-down, it'll be all right, he added silently. The feeling was a little overwhelming -- to feel so responsible for her, and her brother as well as the entire herd, back home, and know beyond a doubt that he would do *anything* in his power to see they were safe and happy.

"Good," Angie murmured, snuggling closer with a yawn.

He continued to hold her, rocking her gently. It wasn't long before he felt her body go totally boneless and heard her breathing even out into the rhythms of sleep. He continued holding her, though, for quite some time.

Morning, as far as Joe was concerned, came all too soon.

After they had put the kids to bed, he and Levon had sought their own. They had made love well into the night, the impending separation adding a sense of desperation to their every move. Finally, exhausted, they had just held each other until the light of dawn filtered into the windows.

Joe hadn't slept at all, and he was pretty sure neither had Levon. He was almost tempted to ask him to stay one more day, just so he wouldn't be travelling exhausted. Only the knowledge that his husband's leaving would only get harder to face the longer it was put off had held his tongue. Once he'd left, Levon could stop somewhere along the way and get some sleep.

Finally Levon stirred, and made as if to leave the bed. Joe tightened his grip reflexively, then let him go.

"I'm gonna go make some coffee," Levon said quietly.

Joe nodded. "I'll be down in a minute," he replied, equally quietly. 'As soon as I convince myself I can face this morning without breaking into a thousand pieces.'

Levon got out of bed, still looking at Joe. Then he leaned over and kissed him. He rested his head against Joe's. "I don't wanna leave you."

One hand came up to cup the back of Levon's neck. "I don't wanna be left," he whispered.

They stayed like that for a few more minutes, then Levon moved back again. "I have to...."

"I know." He tried to summon up an understanding smile as his hand slid reluctantly away.

Levon looked at him, obvious longing on his face. Then he turned and walked out of the room. Joe stared at the door for a moment, then rolled over so he couldn't see it. He'd get up and go downstairs in a few minutes.

Just as soon as he stopped shaking.

"Uncle Joe?" Angie's timid voice came from behind him.

Forcing his emotions ruthlessly back under control he rolled over to see Angie standing uncertainly in the doorway. "Yeah, hon?" he asked, pleased that his voice didn't tremble.

She ran to the side of the bed and looked down. She'd been crying, but she'd wiped her face dry. "Can't you make him not go?" she whispered.

He sat up and pulled her into a hug. "He has to, Angie. We can't make it any harder for him than it already is."

"But I don't want him to go. I want him to stay."

"Sometimes we have to accept things we don't want to." Joe stroked her hair. "You're having to do that a lot lately I know. It's not easy."

She sniffed, and held onto him, harder. "Will he come back?" she asked in a tiny voice. "Maybe for the Fourth of July?"

"If he can't maybe we can go to him," J oe said, giving them both hope.

"Can we?" she looked up, hopefully. "Can we spend the summer there? School's over and we don't have to stay in Chicago...." She trailed off, obviously remembering the two weeks vacation that had had ended so disastrously before it had barely begun. Her face crumpled up and she dove into his arms once more.

Joe just held her tight for a few minutes, wishing there was some way he could make her hurt less.

"Why does he have to go, anyway?" She asked after a bit. This time she sounded more petulant than scared.

"We told you last night. Taylor died and Levon has to go back to take care of the herd. Like I'm staying here to take care of you and your brother. You wouldn't want someone trying to convince me not to do that, would you?" he asked, trying not to think of his Aunt and Uncle.

"No!" She tightened her grip even harder. "I don't," she said a little more thoughtfully. "Why can't we go with him?" She was repeating most of her questions from last night, but Joe figured she hadn't understood all of their conversation the first time. *He'd* been in shock just after Levon had told him, after all. It followed that maybe Angie had been, as well.

"We have to stay here until I can settle some legal stuff. Make sure you two can stay with Levon and me permanently." He kissed the top of her head. "Then we can go."

"How long?"

Possible months of separation and court battles loomed up in front of Joe in his mind's eye. "I don't know, Angie. I wish I did."

Levon appeared in the doorway, carrying two mugs. He stopped, upon seeing Angie.

"It'll happen though," Joe told her, looking up at Levon. "I promise." And he wasn't sure who exactly he was making the promise to: Angie, Levon, or himself, but he knew it was one he was going to do his all to see kept.

Levon came over, and handed Joe one of the mugs. "Angie? You all right?" he asked, crouching down beside the bed.

She shrugged, not looking up.

"Angie? You know I'm gonna call as often as I can?"

Joe heard the anguish Levon could not completely hide. He reached out and touched his husband's cheek in an instinctive attempt at comfort.

"Promise?" came Angie's small voice, drifting up from the vicinity of Joe's chest where she'd hidden her head.

"I promise, Angie. And you know you can call me, once I get to the ranch." He put his hand on hear hair, right next to Joe's. It looked as though they were finally getting her calmed down. Accepting, if not happy about it.

"Unca Joe! Unca Levon!" Tony cried out, as he barreled into the room. All three of them looked up as a four-year-old bundle of energy dove onto the bed, grinning. He leapt onto the bed, and bounced. "Can we have cereal for breakfast? We have Count Chocula!"

Joe felt himself smiling back at the boy. "Do we?"

Tony Jr. nodded earnestly. "Mama always makes sure we have some."

He felt Angie tense, but Tony was still smiling. 'He still doesn't understand,' Joe thought with a pang, even as he squeezed Angie harder.

"Come on," Levon stood up and took the boy's hand. "I'll get us some breakfast."

"Sounds like a good idea, cowboy." Joe released Angie and reached for his robe, he'd left at the bottom of the bed so he wouldn't give the kids a show. That's when it occurred to him that while reaching for a robe was second nature for him, it wasn't for his partner.

'And I'm so used to him running around like that that I didn't even really notice it,' Joe thought ruefully. But they didn't need someone stopping by and seeing him -- and giving Mike and Teresa more ammunition to convince the courts he and Levon would be poor parents. Out loud he said in a casual tone, "You might want to put something on."

Levon looked at him with a startled expression. However, he went and picked up a pair of jeans and put them on. Then he took Tony Jr's hand again and led him out.

Joe shook his head with a fond smile, then pulled on his robe and slid out of bed. "What do you want for breakfast?" he asked the girl who was still sitting on the edge of the bed.

"Can I have cereal, too?"

"Count Chocula?"

She nodded, giving him a half-smile. "I like how it makes the milk chocolate."

He chuckled a little at that, remembering eating the stuff for the same reason when he was a kid. "Come on," he said, holding out a hand to her. "Before Levon and Tony eat it all."

She nodded, taking his hand. They made it almost to the kitchen before they heard Tony crying, "I'm Supaman!"

Curious, Joe quickened his pace, only to stop dead in the kitchen doorway when he got there and stare.

Levon had hoisted Tony into the air and was swinging him around the room on his stomach... and it did look like Superman flying, Joe thought rather numbly. Levon caught sight of him, and changed directions. Tony giggled and yelled "ZOOM!" as he headed for Joe.

"This mean I gotta get you a cape and tights?" Joe asked the boy, as he plucked him from Levon's grasp.

"Yeah! I wanna cape!" Tony bounced against Joe.

Levon gave him an apologetic grin. "And I haven't even fed him the sugar cereal, yet."

"Great, Levon. Get him all riled up and then leave me with him." The words came out a bit more sharply than Joe had planned. To counteract that he added, "I should send a few boxes of the high sugar stuff with you for the kids in the herd as payback."

"You wouldn't." Levon looked startled. And slightly worried.

"Those kids deserve a treat every now and then, too," Joe said thoughtfully. "Maybe not cereal, though. Maybe candy of some kind."

"Pixie sticks!" Angie chipped in.

Levon gave Angie a softer version of the 'you're not helping' glare and turned back to Joe. "You wouldn't dare." When Joe didn't immediately admit otherwise, Levon said, "Joe, you are *not* getting all my kids on a sugar high. Do you have *any* idea what it's like to have eighteen four-legged youngsters on sugar?"

Joe grinned. "I can imagine."

"You'll do more than imagine, if you try sending that stuff down. I'll hang onto it until you come out -- then leave you in charge of everyone under the age of four."

He couldn't quite suppress a shudder at that. "Have to send it to them directly then," he said making it sound like absent-minded thinking out loud. Beside him Angie was giggling.

"Wouldn't work," Levon countered. "Have to go into Prairie View to pick up the mail, and if I tell the mares not to let through any packages from you to the kids...."

"There are ways around that," Joe assured him blithely.

"FedEx doesn't deliver to the ranch." Levon told him, his stern frown quivering slightly as Angie continued to giggle at them.

"Did I say anything about using FedEx?"

Levon glared at him a moment more, then turned a smile onto Tony Jr. and Angie. "Come on, you two. Let's get you your breakfasts before I have to hit the road and leave you with your Uncle Joe all day."

"Count Chocula!" Tony demanded, squirming in Joe's arms to be let down. Joe did so, quietly thankful that there weren't any pixie sticks on the premises.

They got the kids settled at the table with cereal and juice. Levon glanced over at him and asked, "You want some, too?"

"Why not?" Joe asked. "Sounds like I'm going to need all the energy I can get."

Angie giggled again as Joe accepted a bowl. Levon went back to digging through the icebox, and proceeded to make himself some toast and fried eggs.

"Not joining us?"

"Hell, no." Levon managed to look above that sort of thing.

Tony bounced in his chair. "Unca Levon had some fruit loops."

Joe grinned at the boy then turned his attention back to his lover. "Busted."

Levon just returned the grin. "Why do you think I need the protein now?"

The rest of the meal passed in kind, with them bantering back and forth, deliberately keeping things as light as possible. But all too soon breakfast was over and the time for Levon to leave loomed ever closer.

Angie tried to latch onto him, at one point. Though she didn't ask aloud for him not to go, they both knew that was what she wanted to say. Levon picked her up and held her, and promised to call that night.

Tony Jr., on the other hand, made no secret of his feelings. "Wanna go too!" he yelled, glaring at both Levon and Joe.

"Tony, we told you last night why you can't," Levon said patiently.

"Don't care! Wanna go!" The boy stamped his foot and pouted.

Joe watched as Levon frowned, slightly, then his mate simply knelt down in front of him, and held the boy close. He hadn't let go of Angie, and the three of them made a tight embrace. Joe stayed back, letting the kids have their own goodbye. He tried to ignore the urge to throw his own tantrum over his husband's leaving.

When Levon let the kids go and came over for one last hug, Joe had to fight the urge even more. He buried his face in Levon's neck and held on for all he was worth. Then, knowing he had to, he let go and stepped back, swallowing against the pain of separation that was already settling on him.

"Remember to phone," he said roughly, holding onto control with his fingertips.

Levon half-smiled. "I'll remember."

The half-smile almost did him in. "Levon," he whispered, then stopped. There was too much he wanted to say that he didn't have the words or the time for.

"I know." Levon reached over and rubbed his thumb along Joe's lower lip. "It won't be for long."

The words would have encouraged him if his husband's voice hadn't broken partway through. Unable to stop himself, he reached out and pulled Levon to him again in a crushing embrace.

This time it was Levon who pulled away. "I have to go," he said quietly, and he turned to walk away. He stopped long enough to give each child a last, quick hug.

Joe took one involuntary step after Levon before he could force himself to stop. 'Pull it together!' he told himself sternly. 'It's not forever. It's only a few months. You can do this. You and Levon both. You have to.'

He managed to stay put as Levon let the kids go, and left the room. Angie started to follow him, and stopped herself; then, as they heard the front door open, she ran after him. Joe reached out and caught her as she went past, hugging her tightly.

"Don' wan' Unca Levon to go!" Tony Jr. declared, lip trembling, eyes wide and tear filled.

They stayed there, listening, until the truck's engine started. None of them moved until they heard the truck pull out and leave. Or for a long while after that.

The drive was more boring than he would have thought. He had plenty of things to think about to occupy himself, but somehow, once he got south of Chicago, he couldn't bring himself to focus on any of it. Nothing that he could do about any of it until he stopped somewhere; nothing he could do about most of it until he got home.

The quiet didn't help. Even with the radio on it was too quiet, with out his lover's inevitable complaints that had accompanied every long trip he'd taken for years. He found himself glancing continuously at the empty passenger seat, missing the sight of Joe as much as the sound of his voice. He finally stopped at a truck stop and picked up some books transcribed onto tape. He wasn't sure exactly what he'd bought, but listening to them helped keep his mind focused enough to drive.

He stopped for the evening at a motel on the outskirts of Joplin, Missouri. The first thing he did after he had brought his stuff into his room was sit down on the bed and reach for the phone. His heart was pounding as he waited, but it had only time to ring once before a breathless young girl said, "Hello?"

Levon smiled. "Hello, Angie."

"Uncle Levon!"

He held the phone away from his ear as she screamed, again. A moment later, Joe was on the phone. "Hey, cowboy," his husband greeted him in a cheerful enough sounding voice.

"Hey. How was your day?" He was torn between wanting to know the truth, and wanting to hear that everything had been OK.

"Quiet. Angie spent most of it in her room and Tony Jr's seemed to have decided he's had enough of people vanishing on him and latched onto me like Velcro." There was a hint of laughter in Joe's voice but Levon could hear the sadness underlying it.

Levon sighed. "I miss you. Hell, it ain't been more'n 12 hours, and already I miss you."

"I miss you too. Hell, I missed you the second you walked out the door." He heard Joe sigh. "I don't know how I'm going to manage feeling like this for months."

"Hopefully it won't *be* months." Levon had no clue how they would manage it, but there had to be a way. If Joe were stuck in Chicago with the kids, he'd just have to fly.

"I don't know Levon. I hope so too, but realistically..."

"I know." Levon laid back on the bed. The mattress was practically stiff; he considered sleeping on his feet tonight. He found himself with very little to say -- all he could think of was 'I miss you'.

Joe cleared his throat. "How's the drive been?"

"Long. Boring. I've been listening to some English guy read 'Silmarillion'."

"How far did you get today?"

"Joplin. About halfway home. Should be there tomorrow evening."

"Home," Joe repeated wistfully. "Wonder when I stopped thinking of Chicago as home and started thinking of Houston that way...."

"Four years ago, August." Levon picked a number and month out of thin air, just to hear Joe's reaction.

There was silence for a moment. "What?" Joe asked laughter in his voice.

Levon grinned, but answered in as serious a tone as he could. "That was the first time you said 'home' and meant Houston. Can't tell you when you started *thinking* of it that way...."

Joe laughed. "Centaurs and their memories," he muttered good-naturedly. Then in a more serious tone, "Actually I think I do remember when I started thinking of Houston as home."

"Yeah?" Levon found himself interested in hearing the answer. "Wasn't August?"

The reply, when it came, was said softly, almost shyly. "Was when I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you, and you were in Houston."

Levon didn't try to stop himself from smiling. "I love you, too." He thought back on that, then said, "That would have been six years ago. July 12?" That was almost out of thin air, but he was pretty sure he had it down to the right season.

Joe laughed again. "You'll have to tell me. I didn't look at the calendar, though maybe I should've. Was too busy falling in love."

"That'd have been it, then," Levon said, wondering if Joe would *ever* twig that Levon was pulling his tail, or if Joe really didn't remember when it had been. "Second time you ever ate barbecue -- willingly," he continued.

"You're talking about a time that hasn't happened yet, cowboy."

"Excuse me, who's got the perfect memory, here?"

"Just goes to prove I've gotten good at faking it."

"You sayin' you'd fake that sorta thing?" Levon put as much shock and disappointment into his voice as he dared.

"That would be telling, wouldn't it?"

"Does that mean I can admit I don't like Alfredo sauce?"

"How do you explain the three helpings you had last time I made it?" Joe asked, and Levon could hear the smile in his voice.

"'Cause you're too damn cute when you're serving something you're hoping I'll like." Levon swallowed. For a moment he had lost track of the fact that when he hung up, he would be heading even further away. The good cheer vanished like dandelion seeds.

"There's something other than Alfredo sauce I'd rather be offering you -- if I was there." Joe's voice had quieted as if he, too, suddenly remembered the distance separating them.

"Joe...." Maybe they should just hang up -- surely this was only making it worse?


"I wish...."

This wasn't helping. There was silence for a moment and then, in a voice barely above a whisper, "So do I, cowboy, so do I."

"I've half a mind to keep you on the phone all night, just so I don't have to let you go."

"I've half a mind to let you. I don't want to let you go either."

Softly, Levon forced himself to say, "If I don't let you go now, I may not be able to hang up at all."

"Levon..." He heard Joe swallow. "Me neither. Damn, I miss you." He took a deep breath. "We better hang up now, then."

"Yeah." Levon made no move to hang up, though. He clenched his jaw. He *had* to do it. Just say goodbye and hang up.

A soft chuckle came through the phone. "Neither of us are moving."

"Should we count to three? " Levon smiled.

"Yeah, and then we'd still be sitting here at the end of it. That never works."


"Yeah, Levon?"

"I love you. I'll talk to you tomorrow." He took a deep breath. "Good-bye."

And he hung up.

Then he swore, as he realized he'd forgotten to give Joe the number of the motel he was at. He considered phoning back to give it to him, but hesitated, not sure he'd be able to hang up twice.

Instead he lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling, and wondered if he would grow tired enough to fall asleep.

Three hours later he was still staring at the ceiling. With a sigh, he stood up and paced the room. It didn't help. With a low growl, he grabbed his bag and repacked it, left the key on the dresser, and left. If he got tired later, he'll pull over again. Otherwise, he might as well keep heading for home.

At least by continuing the drive home he was doing something. It didn't make the emptiness go away, but it did make it a little bit easier to deal with. He slipped " Silmarillion " back into the tape player, and drove.

Back in Chicago, Joe was finding the night no easier to get through.

He had had plenty of distractions earlier, when he'd try to put Tony Jr. to bed. The boy had clung to him, crying, begging to be able to sleep in Joe's room. It looked like Levon's leaving had made his parents' absences more real. He hadn't had the heart to tell the boy 'no', so now Tony was curled up with his stuffed dragon, sound asleep at Joe's side.

Which was a state that Joe seemed to be unable to reach himself. He thought that with the little amount of rest he'd gotten in the past few days he'd be able to sleep tonight, if for no other reason than exhaustion. That wasn't proving to be the case.

He knew why he couldn't sleep -- but knowing didn't help either. He could rationalize all night how Levon's absence was temporary, remind himself that Levon hadn't wanted to leave him, even think about how soon it might be before they could see each other again. But every time he tried reasoning through it, he started thinking about how good it felt to have Levon beside him.

And how wrong it felt when he wasn't.

He couldn't even toss and turn for fear of waking Tony. Joe sighed and settled his head deeper into his pillow. Life wasn't fair.

He caught sight of the boy beside him. No, life wasn't fair. But at least he would see Levon again. Reaching down, he brushed a lock of hair off Tony's forehead gently; the child sighed and snuggled closer. Joe smiled slightly, then sighed and resolutely closed his eyes. Maybe if he faked sleep, he'd eventually manage the real thing.

It must have worked, because the next thing he knew Tony was bouncing on the bed, asking him if he were awake yet.

"I am now, kid," he muttered, opening his eyes on way-too-bright morning sunlight streaming through the blinds.

Tony scooted down beside him until he was just a few inches away. "Can we have cereal again?"

"Is that what you want to have?" Joe asked, feeling a smile come to his lips as he looked at the boy.

Tony nodded. He didn't l ook quite as happy as he had yesterday -- there was a slight droop to his smile and a dullness in his eyes. "Want cereal every day."

"Count Chocula?" He wanted somehow to bring the light back to Tony's eyes, but knew only time could do that.

Tony crawled forward. "Can I have Fruit Loops?"

Like Levon'd had the morning before. Joe felt a small pang at the thought. "Sure, kid," he said softly.

Tony moved into Joe's arms, bringing his dragon with him. Joe hugged him tightly. A soft sound alerted him and he looked up to see Angie hovering uncertainly in the doorway. It only took holding out his arm to get her across the room and onto the bed.

After a brief hug, he looked down at her and said as cheerfully as he could manage. "We were just discussing breakfast. Tony's decided to be daring and wild, and have fruit loops. What's your poison?"

She wrinkled her nose. "I want poached eggs. Can I?"

Ignoring Tony's "yuck," Joe smiled and nodded. "Eggs sound good."

Angie took his hand and tugged. Joe grinned and got out of bed. "Hungry, I take it?"

She just nodded, and continued to tug. "I didn't wanna wake you up but I knew Tony would."

Tony just grinned, looking not the least bit repentant.

"Yeah, he's better than an alarm clock," Joe agreed, ruffling the boy's hair. He stood up and grabbed his robe. "Breakfast it is."

He was able to get them downstairs with some semblance of order -- but only by accepting ' running' as orderly. He had started to get breakfast together when the phone rang. Angie grabbed it before he could even reach for it. He heard her say, "Hello?" and then, "Uncle Levon!"

It was all he could do not to snatch the phone out of her hand. 'Patience, LaFiamma,' he told himself. 'They miss him too.'

"Yes," he listened to her say. He found himself trying to figure out what Levon was saying, as she continued, "Almost. Yes... yes."

The conversation continued in the same way for a few minutes more and then Angie held the phone out -- to Tony Jr. "He wants to talk to you," she told her brother.

Joe had to counsel himself to patience once again. The one-sided conversation was more of the same. Unexplained 'yes's ' and 'we did' and one 'not yet' with a quick glance towards Joe. Finally Tony held out the phone to Joe.

Joe took it, even managing to do so calmly, and gestured to the kids to continue with their breakfasts. "Levon?"

"Hey. How're you doing?"

"I'm managing. Miss you, though." Joe found himself smiling at just the sound of his husband's voice. "How about you?"

"I'm all right." He could hear Levon smiling.

"What time do you think you'll make the ranch?"

There was a pause, then, "About two more hours. I couldn't sleep last night...."

"What? Levon, was that safe? You barely got any sleep the night before..."

"I'm all right, Joe. There were half a dozen places along the interstate to stop if I got tired, not to mention all the little towns with motels. I was fine."

"'Cept you didn't get any sleep." Joe found himself almost feeling guilty now that he had.

"I'll sleep all afternoon, Joe. I promise. Once I get ho-- home, I can sleep."

He sighed, letting it go. "You could've phoned me, you know," he said instead, softly.

"I know. But I'd never have been able to let you go, if I had."

"I don't want you to feel like you have to. I wouldn't have minded if we'd been on the phone all night." Joe paused and then added almost diffidently, "I would've liked it."

"Maybe I'll call you tonight, then," Levon said seriously.


There was silence, then. It wasn't uncomfortable, but neit her did either of them appear to know what to say.

Joe searched for a subject. "So, umm... you'll be reaching the ranch in two hours... What happens then?"

"Depends on what needs doing. Mostly, they just need me to be there. In case of emergencies." There was a hint of amusement in his voice, now.

"So you just hang around? Waiting for something to go wrong?" Joe chuckled. "Sounds sorta like our jobs."

"Don't it? No wonder they thought I was qualified."

"I thought you were the only stallion available..." Joe teased.

"Yeah. I am." The amusement had died.

Silence fell again, and again it was Joe who broke it. "I love you," he said softly.

"I love you, too." Levon laughed. "But I can't stick around not hanging up, this time. I'm at a payphone and I'm gonna run out of quarters before too awful long."

"See? Told you we needed a phone in the Jimmy."

"After this, I may agree with you."

"Or we could break down and get cells."

"Or we could stay home, in the bedroom, and not need phones at all."

Joe sighed, wishing they were there right now. But they weren't and it didn't look like they'd even be in the same state, much less the same room, for some time yet.

"I gotta go," Levon interrupted his depressing thought with something equally depressing.

"I know. Call later?"

"I will. Soon as I get to the ranch."

"Love you," Joe said and then hung up before they could start talking again. He stood there for a moment, wondering if it was going to feel like this every time they hung up: like Levon was leaving all over again.

The kids' chatter partially distracted him. They were arguing over something -- he wasn't sure what -- but they weren't arguing very heatedly.Yet.

Sighing, he pushed his longing for Levon back once again and turned his attention back to the kids. He went over and asked what the problem was.

Angie looked up. "Nothing." She looked innocent. Tony was scowling at her.

"Define nothing." Joe gave her a slight modification of his best interrogation look.

She squirmed slightly, but shook her head. "I didn't say anything. Tony's just a baby."

"Am not!" Tony shot back hotly. "I'm not, Unca Joe, right?"

Joe reached out and laid a restraining hand on Tony's shoulder. "You know he hates it when you call him that," he said levelly to Angie.

"I didn't *call* him that," Angie protested.

"Did!" Tony interjected.

"I just heard you call him that, Angie," Joe pointed out.

"I didn't say it to *him*," she explained.

"She said I shou'n't bring Benny to the table," Tony interjected.

Benny being the stuffed dragon, of course. Joe sighed and tried to figure out how best to resolve this. "Angie," he asked, "is the dragon bothering you in some way? It's not growling at you or anything is it?"

She stifled a giggle, then shook her head. "No." She gave her brother a glare, then added, "But he's too old to be dragging it around with him."

"I see. I think I must have missed the law that nobody who is four years old may carry a stuffed animal."

"But--" she stopped, gave Tony a glare, and stared down at her plate.

Reaching out, Joe caught Angie's hand and pulled her out of her chair. He sat down in his own and pulled her into his lap. "What's really bothering you, hon?" he asked, knowing it was more than a stuffed dragon and hoping she'd be abl e to speak about whatever it was.

"He can't be a baby anymore," she said fiercely, but quietly as if to keep Tony from hearing.

"Why?" Joe pressed, though he was fairly sure he knew the answer.

She glanced at Tony again, then up at Joe. "He just can't."

"Because of your parents?"

She just shifted a bit, not looking up.

"You know you can talk to me about this right?" Joe asked, pushing ever so slightly. This was where he had to be extremely careful not to push her too hard.

She looked up at him then, and he could see her chin shaking ever so slightly. "He has to grow up, Uncle Joe. He can't be a baby anymore."

Joe pushed her hair back from her face gently. "He will grow up, hon. When he's ready. So will you. Your parents wouldn't want either of you to rush it."


"That's why they asked Levon and me to take care of you. So you wouldn't have to grow up before you were ready."

"But what if you can't? Tony has to be able to take care of himself. In case--"

'In case they lose us too.' Joe's heart ached for her; no child should be afraid of such a thing. "That's not going to happen," he told her fiercely. "And even if it did, you'd still have your grandparents. And if not them...Levon's herd would take care of you. You're both honorary members now y'know, through Levon. You're not going to be left on your own Angie, I promise."

"We *are*?" She brightened a little, with surprise. "Would we get to live on the ranch?"

Joe chuckled a little, caught off guard by how fast the child's mood changed. "I take it you'd like that."

She nodded, thoughtfully. "I would. But I'd rather live at home with you and Uncle Levon."

"We're working on it, kiddo," Joe assured her. Then, seeing this as an opportunity to bring up something he had been worrying about in the back of his mind -- the front being too involved worrying about other things -- he asked, "How do you feel about leaving Chicago and moving to Houston?"

Angie broke into a huge smile -- which faded a little a moment later. "To live, you mean? For always?"

Joe nodded. "When we get everything straightened out here."

She chewed on her lip, and asked, "Away from Callie? And Christine? Do we have to?" She was obviously trying to control herself, but it was clear the news was upsetting her.

"I know what it's like to be forced to move away from Chicago, Angie. I wish there was another way, but... Levon's and my jobs and lives are in Houston. I don't know if we could start over up here. I don't even know if Levon would be allowed to move up here for good."

In his mind, though, a small traitorous voice was whispering that it was only Levon who couldn't start over up here. That he, Joe, could do so easily. 'There's no way I could do it without Levon,' he told the voice viciously, silencing it.

For now.

Angie pouted as she looked down. "I don't wanna move." She sat there a moment longer, then suddenly pushed away from the table, and ran out of the room.

Joe sighed and leaned his forehead against the table's surface. 'Blew that big time.' He looked down to see Tony frowning up at him. When Tony saw him looking, he stood up in his chair and held out his arms for Joe.

Swallowing the sudden lump in his throat, Joe leaned over and carefully enfolded the boy in a hug.

Levon could hardly believe it when he drove up the long dirt road towards the herd's ranch.

His herd's ranch. His ranch. His stomach knotted, and he wondered if Taylor had ever asked himself what the hell he'd gotten himself into. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of something moving and grinned slightly at the kids who turned to race alongside his truck.

His kids now.

As soon as he came to a stop in the driveway -- after having lost the 'race' -- he was surrounded by eager kids. None of them came forward until he held out his arms. Then, one by one, they launched themselves into his arms for a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

None of them said anything; they merely collected their greeting then stepped aside for the next sibling to get his or hers. It was different from all the other times he'd visited -- but he wasn't visiting this time, was he? Before, they'd treated him like an older brother or favorite uncle. The affection was still there, but now there was something else as well. Respect.

Unconditional trust.

As each one came to greet him and receive his greetings in return, he realized what they were doing. Each was making sure of his or her place in the herd. Levon could simply and easily send one a way at this point, merely by refusing to say hello. The power and the responsibility that went with it became real in that moment and settled heavily onto his shoulders.

He made his way inside the house, intent on calling Joe as he'd promised. Marta was standing on the porch, grinning at him. He ran up the steps and hugged her.

"Now aren't you sorry you teased me all those years?" He grinned back at her.

"What makes you think I'm going to stop now?" she asked, eyes twinkling. "Somebody's gotta keep you from getting too big for your britches."

He wrapped an arm around her waist, pulling her close. "If Joe couldn't do it, what makes you think you can?"

"I'm your sister. It's my job." She hugged him tightly again. "I'm glad you're here, Levon."


He let her go, and headed on into the house. He found Carla just heading out of the dining room; she broke into a huge smile as soon as she saw him. He went over and hugged her, lifting her off th e ground as he did. She laughed and sort of halfheartedly swatted at him to be put back down.

He gave her an innocent look and a smile. He set her down, though, and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "You been behaving yourself?" he asked sternly.

"Unlike some colts in my memory," she teased, but he saw the same thing in her eyes that had been in all the others.

He was the herd stallion.

Luckily, it meant he could tease back without getting whapped. Whapped seriously, anyhow. "You know I could tell you to forget all about those incidents."

"You could, but you won't," Carla replied confidently.

"Oh? And why not?"

"Because you're not one to abuse power."

Levon pouted at her. "You're taking all the fun out of it." Then he sighed, and got down to business. "Where's Joy?"

Carla nodded towards the door to Taylor's study. What had been Taylor's study. Levon supposed it was his now.

"Thanks." He let Carla go, and headed over. He found Joy sitting at Taylor's desk.

She looked up from the books she was going over and gave him a smile. "Levon."

"Joy." He suddenly felt a lot better about this whole thing. He wasn't going to be thrown in to sink or swim -- most of the things he was responsible for were being handled ably by Joy. "How're things going?"

"The world or even the ranch isn't about to come to an end, at least not for the next week or so."

Levon raised an eyebrow. "And after next week?"

"Mating season starts. Things always get just a little crazy around here then, you know that."

He probably should have laughed, or smiled. Instead Levon plopped down in a chair and groaned. "I know. Gods, I never thought...." He trailed off, not sure Joy would want to hear his reservations.

He heard the scrape of a chair being pushed back and a second later Joy was kneeling in front of him, meeting his eyes. "I know, Levon, and I'm sorry. If there had been any other way, I wouldn't have called."

"I know." He leaned forward and took her hands. "I *know*, Joy. Believe me, if I'd have thought of a way, I'd have told you... but with Stuart not able to sire foals yet, the mares going into heat would have--" He cut him self off. Joy knew as well as he how bad it would have been.

"A disaster."

Levon nodded. After a moment, he said quietly, "I didn't tell Joe."

Joy regarded him for a moment. "Do you think that wise?"

Levon shrugged. "Seemed a lot wiser than telling him. He's got so much to handle right now -- he didn't need worrying about... what this would mean, afterwards."

"You know him best, I suppose." She sounded like she wanted to say something else but held her tongue.

Levon grinned. "Which means you think I should tell him. Hell, I probably should. But--"

She raised an eyebrow. "But?"

"But I'm scared. Joy -- when I told him I'd be coming down, the first thing he thought was that it was for good! That I was leaving him. If he... if he assumes that I'm willing to give him up for the herd... how is he gonna react to knowing why I had to be here now? That I'm going to have kids of my own? And what with the legal battle over Angie and Tony... he might realize it'd be a hell of a lot easier for all the kids if he stayed in Chicago and I stayed here." He leaned back in the chair, trying to fight off the doubts, and the tears.

Joy reached out and took his hands in hers, squeezing them comfortingly. "He loves you. Trust him, Levon. He could no more leave you than you could him."

"I trust him, Joy. I just... he's been thinking about it. Leaving. I just didn't want to give him another reason to think I was leaving *him*." He sighed again. "I'm not making much sense. Haven't had any sleep; sorry."

"Time to remedy that, then." Joy stood and tugged on the hands she still held, pulling Levon to his feet. "Go on upstairs and get some rest. Everything else can wait until later."

"I need to call Joe," he protested faintly. The thought of sleeping sounded much better than anything else, though. As he got to his feet he realized he'd be able to sleep outside again, every single night if he wanted.

"With the state you're in now, you're just end up angsting at each other. Get some rest, then phone. If he complains, blame it on me." She winked at him.

Levon laughed. "He won't fall for it -- he's been in charge of me long enough to know I coulda put my hoof down." A thought occurred to him, and he said, "On the other hand, he knows how well I manipulate *him* into doing whatever I want."

"He's also met *me*," Joy said with no false modesty.

"Good point." He gave her a smile. "I'll be upstairs if anyone needs me." H e gave her a kiss on the cheek before heading out.

"I don't want to see you back down here until supper," she called out after him.

He turned and gave her a look -- but nodded and headed for the stairs. He met, and gave out hugs and kisses to half a dozen more of his charges on his way. He knew he ought to take time to reassure everyone he hadn't met yet, let them all know they were welcomed, before heading upstairs.

He considered it for a few seconds, then decided he didn't want to run afoul of Joy. It would keep until supper, when everyone would be gathered here anyhow. In the meantime, he really was exhausted and there was a bed with his name on it upstairs. He managed to get through the small crowd of centaurs, and went up to find it.

When Levon finally woke, the late afternoon sun was shining through his window, casting long shadows on the floor. He felt half-awake, his brain still foggy from the out-of-sync sleep. He saw the phone nearby, and realized he couldn't put this off.

Much as he wanted to. He scooted over, and picked up the phone. The phone was picked up at the other end before the first ring had completed. "Levon?"

"Joe. Oh, hell, you were worried about me, weren't you?" Since he'd told Joe he'd have been home hours ago, and would call....

"I was about five minutes away from phoning Joanne and getting her to put an APB out on you. You said you'd phone when you got there and that you were two hours away. By my reckoning that makes this call about four hours overdue." Joe was silent for a moment then continued in a softer tone. "I thought maybe you'd fallen asleep at the wheel and crashed or something."

"I'm sorry. If I had thought, I would have called as soon as I got here. Joe, I..." Levon closed his eyes. And he wanted to follow this up by telling Joe about what he'd have to do here? "I got here and went right to bed. Didn't even think of you worrying."

There was a brief silence. "You must've really been wasted," Joe finally said, sounding almost conciliatory.

"I shoulda called. I let Joy talk me into getting some sleep before tending to anything else." He wasn't about to play on being too tired to think of calling -- Joe would just worry more, for his having driven in such a condition.

"Joy, huh?" There was definitely an undercurrent of humor in Joe's voice.

"I think someone forgot to tell her I'm in charge now," he said softly, hoping it would only amuse Joe more, and not remind him of the reasons he had to be upset.

"Don't think it would've made a difference, cowboy. She used to order Taylor around too."

"I always thought it was because he let her. Now I'm not so sure."

Joe chuckled. "How are things going?"

"Not sure yet. Walked in, said hello to fourteen folks, and crashed upstairs. Everyone seems fine; Joy said there wasn't any pressing business--" He clamped his jaw shut. 'For a couple weeks', he'd been ready to add. "How's things going up there?" he asked instead. Joe wasn't likely to take the news any way but badly right now, he suspected.

He heard his husband sigh wearily. "I really blew it with Angie this morning."

"What happened?" For the moment, all thought of *his* problems vanished.

"I broached the subject of moving back home. To Houston. The idea did not go over well."

"She doesn't wanna leave home." Levon wasn't surprised.

"No, she doesn't. I know how she feels, Levon, I do. To be told you have to leave the city where you've lived all your life..."

To leave your family behind, leave the only home you've ever known to live with strangers whose ways were not your own and who could barely understand you. Levon could understand, as well.

"Do you think she'll come around eventually?" He hated to ask, for what the question might lead to.

"I did," Joe pointed out. "Yeah, I think so. Just, with everything else she's been through in the last week..."

"Yeah. Probably better, then, that y'all are gonna be there for awhile. Let things calm down." Before they uprooted the children and created chaos again. "I wish y'all were here, though."

"So do I. Or that you were still here. I miss you."

"Is there anything I can do?"

"You're doing it. Just hearing your voice..." Joe trailed off as if embarrassed.

"Yeah, I know. I'm trying to ignore that I can smell dinner."

"When was the last time you ate?"


"Don't tell me, fruit loops here before you left."

"I had some coffee and something that passed for soup in Tulsa."

"Uh huh. Bet your stomach's growling righ t now."

"I'd rather stay here with you."

"I would, too, but I don't want you passing out from hunger. And you probably have... herd stallion things to do."

Levon's jaw tightened. If he was going to tell him, now would be the time. "Joe...."

"Go eat, Levon. I'll call back 'round 11 okay? We can talk each other to sleep."

"OK." Perhaps it was just a reflex of obeying. Perhaps it was cowardice. Either way, he let Joe cut the conversation short.

"I love you ," Joe said softly.

"I love you, too." Levon felt his throat closing. "Joe--" He tried one more time. He heard the phone click as Joe hung up.


He hung up slowly, and lay in bed for a long time. He didn't move until Carla knocked lightly on the door.

It was almost time for dinner, and Angie had yet to make an appearance. After shutting herself in her bedroom, Joe had left her pretty much alone . He'd knocked, once, at lunchtime and she'd called out that she wasn't hungry.

Joe had seen no reason to force her to eat -- one missed meal wouldn't hurt, and she certainly had reason enough to need time alone. But by now, he figured, she'd be hungry, and if not, it was probably time she had some company anyway. He knocked on her door and called out, "Angie? You mind if I come in?"

There was silence, then a very quiet, "I guess not."

He opened the door and walked in. Angie was lying on her bed, staring out the window. She didn't look up or otherwise acknowledge Joe's presence. Joe pulled out the chair from her desk and sat down. "You're still mad at me, huh?"

She shrugged, and still didn't look over.

"Yeah, I thought so." He sat and watched her quietly for a moment, wondering what he could say to make this better.

Finally she glanced over her shoulder at him. "I don't want to move." Her tone brooked no nonsense.

"I know," Joe acknowledged.

She continued to frown at him. Then, when Joe said nothing to either convince her it would be ok, or suggest a compromise, she wilted. "We have to, though, don't we? Can we stay at least a little while? So I can spend the summer with my friends? "

"We won't be leaving for a while. There's stuff that's got to be figured out first. I can't promise you all summer though, hon."

This time she gave him a woeful expression. "Will there be anyone to play with? You and Uncle Levon don't have many neighbors...."

"There's kids around," Joe assured her, thinking of Judy, from whom they'd gotten the cats. She had several children. He just wasn't sure about the ages. "And you'll meet other kids in school too."

She seemed partially mollified by the news. "And we'll still come back, right? To visit grandma and grandpa and I can see my friends then?"

"Of course." Joe got up and moved closer, sitting on the edge of her bed. "I'm not trying to make this harder on you, Angie. If there was a choice about staying in Chicago..."

"I don't want to move," she repeated, but her voice was soft, and almost defeated.

For a moment, Joe wondered if he should give Angie the option of changing her mind and staying with Teresa and Mike in Chicago. The thought of losing the kids now, though....

She scooted over, then, and crawled into his lap. "But I guess, if that's where you and Uncle Levon are, it's ok."

"You sure?" His arms went around her in a loose hug.

She nodded, snuggling deeper into his embrace.

He hugged her tighter. "I'm glad." He held her tightly for a few minutes -- then he heard a loud gurgling. Angie giggled. "Somebody is hungry," Joe observed, grinning down at her.

"Maybe a little," she admitted.

"Feel like coming downstairs for some supper?"

"Yeah. Can we have linguini?"

Joe's smile widened. "I think I can manage that. Can I get you to help me make it?"

"Yeah. I make a great sauce." Her grin faltered a little. "Mama taught me...."

Joe hugged her a little tighter. "You'll have to teach me all the family secret recipes, then."

She whispered back, "OK."

They sat as they were in silence for a moment and then Joe gently set Angie on her feet and stood up himself. "Come on," he said, holding out a hand to her. "I hear that linguini calling us."

She took his hand, nodding.

As they headed downstairs, she tugged at his hand and said in a sta ge whisper, "If Tony wants to help, don't let him hold any of the pots. He'll drop them."

"Just empty pots for Tony then," Joe whispered back with a wink. She smiled back.

They managed to all help prepare dinner -- Tony Jr. was given the task of tearing up lettuce for the salad, and buttering and garlicing the bread for toast. Even with the extra garlic, the dinner turned out well.

After dinner, the three of them settled down in front of the TV and watched a movie. The movie wasn't something Joe would've normally watched, not being particularly fond of children's films, but somehow having Angie and Tony cuddled up to him while they watched made all the difference. All in all, it was a very relaxing evening.

There was only one thing missing.


Dinner at the ranch was noisy, chaotic, and involved having a lot more food put on his plate than Levon wanted. He *didn't* want to argue with Carla, however, so he ignored her as best as he could. Afterwards, he went outside, officially greeting those who hadn't yet a chance to talk to him and reassert their places in the herd.

It turned into a rather pleasant evening; Levon found himself relaxing and enjoying being caught up with all the herd's news. The kids played in the pasture near the house, chasing one another and laughing. After a while, though, most of the herd moved on, leaving him alone.

He appreciated the solitude, but wasn't sure which of the two things he needed to do he wanted to do first.

Call Joe. Visit Taylor's gravesite.

He checked the time; it was still early enough that Joe would be busy with the kids. This would be a conversation best held away from small ears. He sighed. Looked like he was going for a run.

He went to the barn and changed quickly; no one who saw him asked where he was going. He felt a thrill of freedom as he stepped out and headed towards the North Fields. As he broke into a run, the missing weight on his back disturbed him. It always did when he ran without Joe. He'd gotten so used to having his lover with him that on the rare occasions when he wasn't it just didn't feel normal. It didn't feel right.

And for him it wasn't. Not anymore.

He knew there was nothing to be done about it, not today, and not for several days to come. As he ran through the pasture, living exactly what he'd found himself wanting once again the night Tony and Maria had died, he found it was everything he didn't really want. He wanted to be home, with Joe. With Angie and Tony, too, now -- but home.

'Be careful what you wish for,' he thought. 'You might get it.'

Taylor had been buried in one of the far fields; it had been a favorite spot, a place he'd gone when he needed some peace. Not that he had ever been able to get away from the responsibilities of being herd stallion, Levon realized, but when he went out to this particular field, at least he had been allowed the illusion. Everyone knew to leave him alone unless it was a true crisis situation.

Or unless invited along, which happened a few rare times. It had to Levon just before he'd left the ranch. Taylor hadn't said much, just ran with him, side by side. It had been that day as much as anything else, which had cemented Levon's original decision to never challenge Taylor for the herd. He had a great deal of respect for Taylor, and had never felt his father was unable to care for his family.

Levon realized he would have to make equally sure of Stuart before allowing the boy to take over for him. If Stuart were not ready for the responsibility... Levon realized he might have to stay longer than he'd first thought ne cessary.

If, for some reason, Stuart was never able to take over....

He pushed the thought from his mind. It wasn't something he wanted to contemplate for too long. Instead he thought about the other reason he might have trouble simply going home once this was all over. That he *did* have to think about, as much as he might not want to.

Mating season. How in the hell was he going to tell Joe about this and not lose him?

It wasn't so much that he thought Joe would object to Levon's having kids. It was, rather, the way in which he was going about it. As Levon came upon Taylor's grave, identifiable only by the freshly packed dirt, he realized that not telling Joe at the first was only compounding the problem. The longer he waited, the harder and worse it would be -- but the harder it got and worse it threatened to be, the more Levon wanted to avoid telling him.

He stopped beside Taylor's grave, and looked down. While he didn't feel the same incredible grief a human did when they lost a parent, Levon did feel some sadness and regret. He would miss having Taylor to talk to, to come to for advice. He certainly could use some right now.

"Don't suppose you have any, anyhow?" he asked aloud. "I surely don't want to come to choosing between Joe and the herd... but if he has a problem with why I'm here, I'm afraid I might have to." And that was the crux of his hesitation. *If* Joe couldn't accept it, Levon would have to choose.

And either way he would lose. His only hope was that somehow Joe would understand and not force the choice.

He tried to imagine what Taylor would say, if he were here. 'Probably tell me to trust Joe enough to come out and tell him. Which is about all I can do anyhow.'

He glanced down at the grave, then looked up, at the surrounding field. It was nice and peaceful. The sort of place he'd come to, when he needed to be alone -- if he were here long enough to have the chance. In two weeks things would go a little... crazy... and he wouldn't be able to get away at all.

After that, well, hopefully after that he won't have to stay much longer, and he'd be able to go stand in his own field for peace. He sighed. Standing *here* wasn't solving any of his problems.

"I'll come back another time, Taylor. I--" He stopped, and realized there was one thing he had to say. "I hope I'm able to do you right, and take care of them properly. Whether it's two weeks or two months... or more. But I know you'll understand if I light outta here just as soon as I can."

There was no answer, of course, but Levon felt the better for just saying it. He could only hope that that would hold true when he talked to Joe.

He ran back towards the house, not sure if he wanted to go slowly and put it off, or at top speed and get it over with. The indecision kept him at a moderate pace, and the debate kept him distracted. Again no one bothered him as he approached the house.

He knew that would change once he let them know he had settled in -- and gotten this last detail taken care of. He was going to have to get used to all over again how little privacy there actually was in the herd, beyond the polite respect of ignoring what everyone knew.

He changed back, dressed and went inside. Then he headed upstairs to make the call. He had to tighten his hand into a fist as he picked up the phone, to keep it from shaking. He told himself sternly he was overreacting, and dialed.

It rang a few times before it was answered. "LaFiamma," Joe's voice rang in his ear.

"Joe." Levon found it hard to speak.

It must've been audible in his voice because Joe's next words were, "What's wrong?"

"I'm sorry. Joe, I know I shoulda told you everything before I got here." He cut himself off, knowing it was useless and that he ought to just say it all, now that he was committed. He slid down, and sat on the floor, leaning up against the wall.

"Levon?" His husband's tone was worried, but also soothing. Loving. "Should've told me what, cowboy?"

"Joe... I didn't explain exactly *why* the herd needed me here so badly. I was afraid of how you'd react. But I can't lie to you about it, either. And not telling you's the same as lying."

There was the sound of rustling on the other end and he could imagine Joe shifting in his seat to a more comfortable position. "I'm not going to like this am I?"

"I don't know," Levon replied honestly. "If you have a problem with it...."

"If I have a problem with whatever it is, we'll deal with it okay? We'll talk it out." He paused, then added, "There's nothing you can tell me that will change how I feel about you. You know that, right?"

"I know. It's just...." Levon took a deep breath, and said all at once, "It's just that it's gonna be mating season in a couple weeks and Stuart ain't old enough."

Silence. A silence that stretched on and on, with Levon feeling worse with every second it continued. Finally in a strangely calm tone, Joe asked, "Does that mean what I think it means?"

"Yeah." Levon was glad he was already sitting down.

"Oh." Just that, nothing more.

It took him a few tries, to ask, and then his voice was barely loud enough. "Joe?"

The voice that answered him wasn't much louder. "You're still coming back though, right?"

"If you still want me to."

"Of course, I still want you to!" Now Joe sounded angry, but only at the presumption that he wouldn't want Levon.

Levon found himself relaxing, and with the ease of tension he realized, "That was probably a stupid thing to ask. But--" But he'd been scared. The thought of losing Joe made him a little crazy.

"You needed to hear it," Joe finished for him, calmer again. "I love you, Levon. I don't care what you have to do, I still want you back. Okay?"

"I'm sorry for not explaining it sooner."

"Explain it to me now. I need to know what's going to happen. What you're going to... do."

A bit of hysterical laughter grabbed at him, which he fought down. Explaining birds, bees, and centaurs to his husband wasn't anything he'd *ever* imagined doing. He quickly sobered up, though, as he realized why he'd never imagined it. He took a deep breath. "In a couple weeks, some of the mares'll be going into heat. Usually about six or seven go in a season. Typically about half get pregnant."

"And you have to..." Joe's voice trailed of f.

"If I don't, the women'll get sick. Really sick." Never in Levon's lifetime had any mare in a herd gone through heat without the services of a stallion. He'd heard stories, though, and *everyone* knew how bad it could get.

Again there was silence on Joe's end. Then, "It-It's just something you have to do, right? Instinct. No feelings involved."

"Joe, I love my family as much as I ever did. It never has and never will affect how much I love you, how much I need to be with you ."

He heard a long sigh. "I needed to hear that," Joe said, his voice slightly husky. "Thanks."

"Joe, I love you. I wish you could be down here, with me." That reminded him, and he asked, "Any idea how long your aunt and uncle are gonna fight this?"

"I don't know. They could drag this out for months."

Levon sighed. "Well, maybe I can turn the herd over to Stuart sooner than later, and come up to join you."

"After mating season." It was said quietly with no inflection. Almost too quietly.

"I'm sorry," he found himself saying again. "It'll be at least a month before I can come up. Joe, if there were any way I could--"

"I know. I just..." Joe sighed deeply. "I think maybe it's better that I'm not there after all."

Levon wrapped an arm around himself, wishing that Joe were here. If he could hold Joe, then maybe he'd feel better about doing this to him.

"I just don't know if I could handle being there when you were... And not get resentful." Joe's voice got softer. "And I don't want to do that to you."

"It's ok, Joe. I'm not sure I wouldn't feel badly, myself, if you were here. Too self-conscious; hell," he laughed, "I'm not sure I could mate with any of the mares if you were here. I'd get turned on and go right for you each time."

Joe laughed as well, but it sounded slightly forced. "Can't have that, can we?"

"I think the herd would probably not appreciate it." Levon too, felt the lightness straining. The conversation was not going well, for all that they both seemed to accept what would have to happen.

"So...uh... this means you're going to have kids of your own, huh?"

"If... yeah, most likely." Levon wasn't sure how he felt about that -- every time he'd thought about mating season, he'd been too worried about Joe's reaction to think about his own.

"You'll make a good father."

Levon closed his eyes. "I won't be here to be a father. Stuart'll be raising 'em."

"Are you okay with that?" There was concern and worry in the question and a hint of something else underneath it. Fear.

"I don't know," Levon told him honestly. "I mean, I don't wanna stay here without you, and I don't see bringing them home to raise. I guess I'll just have to get used to seeing them only every once in a while."

"That sucks, Levon."

"I don't know what else I can do, though. I--" The impact of what he'd just said hit him, then. He'd have kids, and never be their father. What he knew of Stuart made him think the boy would be an excellent father, at least in years to come. But suddenly the thought of fathering children and leaving them behind -- possibly leaving before they were even born -- sounded unacce ptable. He had to fight from saying so out loud.

He didn't have to say it. Joe said it for him.

"You could stay." It was clear Joe'd tried to keep his voice neutral but there was a bleakness that seeped through nonetheless.

"Gods, Joe, I couldn't. I can't stand being here a *week* without you. I could never stay...."

But how in the world, could he leave?

The next few days seemed to pass in a haze for Joe.

Ever since Levon had told him about mating season, Joe had not been able to shake the conviction that he was losing his partner. Oh, he had no doubt that Levon would keep his promise and come back. At least he'd be back physically. But Joe wasn't so sure about emotionally.

Would Levon be able to leave his children -- his kids -- to be raised by others and not have it destroy him?

He'd worried about it nearly every spare moment he had. Those times when he *wasn't* worrying about Levon, he was worrying about Angie and Tony Jr. He'd gotten to the point that he was looking forward to this afternoon, when Mike and Teresa came over to visit. Joe needed some time away from everyone.

The doorbell rang and Angie ran to answer it. Joe glanced at the clock and saw they were early. That was fine; they were welcome to as much time as they wanted with their grandkids -- as long as that time was visits only. He heard Teresa greeting Angie, and asking where Tony was.

Joe looked down at the boy who was still sitting beside him, making no move to get up and go greet his grandparents. "You gonna go say hi?" he prodded gently.

Tony looked up at Joe, then over towards the doorway, then went back to his playing.

Great. Just what he needed -- they'd probably accuse him of turning Tony Jr. against them. Joe leaned his head against the back of the couch and closed his eyes.

However, Teresa didn't seem to mind -- at least she didn't say anything out loud when she came into the room and found Tony Jr. unimpressed by their arrival. Mike walked over, gave the boy a glance, then said "Joey? I need to talk to you."

Warily, Joe agreed. "We can go upstairs," he offered.

Mike nodded, and led the way.

They settled in the bedroom that Joe had been using. "So what do you need to talk to me about?" He wasn't totally able to keep hostility out of his voice.

Mike faced him squarely, and said, "I've been thinking about Angie and Tony. And of your having been given custody of them."

'Is this where you tell me I'm not good enough again?' Joe thought, but managed to keep from saying it aloud. Instead, all he said was a neutral, "Oh?"

"They've become very attached to you, in a short period of time." Mike's voice still gave little away.

"It's not like Levon and I were strangers. Tony'd been bringing his family to visit us three or four times a year."

Mike's face clouded slightly at Levon's name. "Yes. Well. I was thinking...Teresa and I are getting too old to raise two young children."

Joe's eyes narrowed as he looked at his uncle in suspicion, although he couldn't stop the flicker of hope. "You telling me you're not going to fight us for custody?"

"I'm offering you a deal."

Hearing those words from his uncle gave Joe a very bad feeling. "Your last deal got me exiled from Chicago for five years."

Mike narrowed his eyes at Joe, but said, "And this deal will bring you home. I'm offering not to fight you over custody of the children."

The flicker of hope grew stronger. But the suspicion remained. "And what do you want in return?"

"I think it would be best if you honoured the original terms of the will. For the children's sake."

Joe shook his head. "I'm not sure what you're getting at. That's what Levon and I have been trying to do."

"The *original* terms of the will," Mike repeated.

Original terms? The only thing, as far as Joe could see, that Tony and Maria had changed was adding Levon's name. He frowned. "You don't want Levon to officially be co-guardian?"

"I don't think it creates a proper environment for the children to be raised in," Mike said in what seemed like a neutral tone of voice. Joe knew better. Mike continued, "If you -- just you -- move back to Chicago, raise Angie and Tony Jr. here, Teresa and I will not contest the will."

For a moment all Joe could do was stare in disbelief. "You want me to leave Levon?" He couldn't believe his uncle would ask him to do that, not when he knew how Joe felt about his partner.

"That's the deal." Mike shrugged. "Take it or leave it. And them."

Disbelief was rapidly giving way to anger. He wanted to scream at his uncle, curse him, tell him exactly what he could do with his offer and where he could stick it. But he couldn't. Not where Angie and Tony Jr. could possibly overhear. Instead Joe took a deep breath and said very quietly, very calmly, "I'll see you in court."

Mike looked startled, then his face closed and Joe found himself facing the man most people knew as "Mr. LaFiamma, sir." "If that's the way you want it, Joey."

"It's not the way I want it, but it looks like it's the way it's gonna be." He clutched his hands into fists, to keep them from trembling in rage.

Mike just nodded, and walked past him, out of the room. As Joe turned to watch him leave, he caught sight of Angie ducking behind the door of the room across the hallway. He closed his eyes and groaned inwardly; the last thing she needed to see was her relatives fighting over her.

He really didn't feel up to dealing with it, but he knew he couldn't leave it. So he went into the hallway and waited un til his uncle had disappeared back down the staircase. Then he said, "Angie."

She cracked the door open, and peered out. She glanced down the hall, then opened the door the rest of the way. "I didn't mean to listen," she began.

"How much did you hear?"

"A...a lot." Angie looked up at him. "That wasn't nice of grandpa, was it?" Her voice shook slightly.

Joe started to make excuses for Mike, not wanting to disillusion Angie about her grandfather, but the words stuck in his throat. "No," he finally answered with a sigh. "It wasn't."

She held out her arms, to him. "I don't wanna live here without Uncle Levon."

Joe knelt down, and pulled her close. "Even if it means moving to Houston?"

She nodded. " You and Uncle Levon *can't* break up. You love each other. I'd move to *California*, if it meant we could stay together."

Joe chuckled a little at the distaste with which she'd said that. "Even California, huh?"

She nodded earnestly. " Yeah. But Houston'd be OK."

Joe just hugged her in response.

After a moment, Angie said, "I'm sorry he said that."

"So am I." It was all he could think to say.

Later, the kids were more or less safely playing with their grandparents outside -- Angie was rather pointedly ignoring her grandfather, but Tony Jr. kept him distracted while Angie stayed with Teresa. Joe called Levon to tell him about Mike's "offer". "Hey cowboy," he said when Levon's voice came over the line. He found himself smiling at just the sound of it.

"Joe!" Levon sounded happy to hear from him. Much happier than he'd sounded last time they'd talked.

"You sound like things are going good down there."

"Been stuck babysitting the little ones." Levon sounded like being 'stuck' was the best thing to happen to him in a week.

"Thought you were in charge, so how do you get stuck doing anything?" Joe waited a beat and then answered his own question. "Don't tell me -- Joy, right?"

"Well, actually Danny asked. Boy looks *just* like Taylor -- didn't have the heart to say no."


"Like you've been any better than me?"

"Nah, I guess not." Joe smiled. "It's good to hear your voice."

"Good to hear yours, too. Joe...I'm glad you called."

Joe realized with a start it was the first time he'd been the one to phone, instead of vice versa. And there was a note in Levon's voice that told him his husband had been reading more into it than there really was. "Yeah, for once I beat you to the phone," he joked deliberately. "I keep telling you I'm going to phone but then you turn around and call me first."

There was a slight pause, then a chuckle. Joe was glad to hear it, even if it sounded a little bit forced. "How are the kids?" Levon asked.

"They're holding up." He took the opening to bring up the real reason he had called. "Uncle Mikey and Aunt Teresa visited them today."

"Oh?" Levon apparently had picked up on his less-than-pleased tone of voice.

"Uncle Mike wanted to talk."

"What about?"

"Making a deal." He knew he most be driving Levon crazy by not just telling him everything all at once but Joe couldn't seem to bring himself to start talking about it. It was far easier to just answer Levon's questions.

"A deal? What for?" Levon sounded patient enough to ask them.

"For the kids."

"What'd they want?" Levon asked in a tone that said he would give them nothing.

"Uncle Mike said they'd drop their custody bid, if I moved back to Chicago." He paused. "Alone."

There was silence.


"He's got a lot of damn gall," Levon finally said. Joe heard the outrage in his voice, carefully controlled.

"He's got a lot of something all right," Joe agreed, feeling his own anger rekindle.

"What did he say, when you told him 'no'?" Levon stumbled over the word, as if realising Joe might not have *said* no.

"Not much. Just walked out." He sighed. "I think my refusal to go along with his great plan burned some bridges though." And even after everything, that hurt. He'd had a lot of time to get used to his uncle's opinion of his life, but there had always been, he realised now, the hope that he'd come around someday.

"I'm sorry, Joe. I wish...is there anything I can do?"

"You're doing it. Just having somewhere I can get this off my chest is a big help."

"Well, rant away, love," Levon said quietly.

He opened his mouth to do just that and found himself instead saying, "I love you."

That elicited a laugh.

"What?" Joe smiled.

"You don't normally rant about that."

"And I'm not now. I just needed to say it."

"Glad to hear it," Levon replied, sounding cheerful. "You wanna rant for real, or lemme tell you how much I miss sleeping with you?" His cheer faded into wistfullness.

"I miss you too," Joe replied softly, closing his eyes. "It's hard to get to sleep without you beside me."

"Yeah. Even sleeping outside ain't worth sleeping without you."

"Has the...thing...started yet?"

"No." Levon's voice lost all of its longing, as well as cheer. "At least another week," he clarified.

'Damn,' Joe thought. He hadn't meant to bring back the awkwardness between them. "I'm okay with it," he told Levon, trying to put things back the way they were. Even if he wasn't sure if he *was* okay with it, he was sure that he would be . Eventually. What other choice did he have after all?

"You don't have to keep telling me, Joe." The resigned tone told him that Levon knew he wasn't OK with it, but, as they had for the last few days, neither knew anything to do to make it more acceptable.

"Don't I?"

"Not unless you're still trying to convince yourself."

There wasn't much Joe could say to that. "I'm *trying*." Even he was surprised at the raw pleading that was in his voice.

There was another silence, then Levon said in a pained voice, "I *know*. Joe, don't you think if I could make this better for you, I would? If I could tell them 'no' and head back to Chicago I'd be on the next flight out. But I can't *change* any of this. Not unless you want me to go let Alexander out." He heard Levon take a long breath, then he asked in a quieter voice, "Does the idea of me having kids hurt you so much?"

He thought about it. Was that the thing the was really bothering him? Surprisingly, it wasn't t he act inherent in getting the kids, that he was sure of. He thought about a bunch of little centaurs that looked like Levon and when he had to fight the urge to smile realized that wasn't it either. "No," he replied honestly. "I kinda like the idea of a lot of little Levons running around."

"Then what *is* it? Do you know?" Levon asked, with more patience.

It took long painful moments for Joe to finally bring himself to tell Levon of his fears. "I'm afraid they'll make you change your mind about giving up the herd. Or, if you do give it up, that you'll end up resenting me for making you leave them behind."

There was a brief silence, as Levon absorbed what Joe had said. Then, "Joe...all I can tell you is I love you more than *anything*. I know you're afraid that'll change. But I can't prove it won't, except by loving you. I don't know what else I can do."

"It's enough," Joe replied softly. It had to be.

The rest of the conversation was casual, and short. Finally they were saying their goodbyes, interspersed with a half a dozen more 'I love you's.

Joe laughed suddenly. "I feel like I'm back in high school, trying to hang up on my first girl friend."

"See you tomorrow in class?" Levon offered.

"I'll even share my notes with you." Joe grinned.

His husband laughed, then, "Goodbye, Joe. I'll talk to you tomorrow." Then he hung up.

The next morning Joe went to the front door to answer the bell. A delivery boy was standing there with a dozen long-stemmed, red roses. The note said, "Wanna wear my letterman's jacket?"

Levon hung up the phone after verifying with the florist that his order would be delivered promptly. Then he dialed another Chicago-area number.

He was sitting in Taylor's -- his -- office, after trying to help five one-year-olds eat their cereal without making a total mess. His decision to sit at the kids' end of the table had amused the rest of the herd, although only half of them had remarked upon it. The elder half -- everyone over the age of 10. He'd actually enjoyed it, although he was glad he didn't share his partner's taste for clothes that were dry clean only.

The kids had had a blast, and that had been the most important thing. Attention from the herd stallion was special -- Levon remembered, from being a kid himself. The herd might be large, with any number of grownups willing to spend time with you - - but there was only *one* herd stallion.

That hadn't prevented him from getting cereal on his shirt.

Somebody finally picked up the phone on the other end and a female voice said, "Hello?"

"I'd like to talk to Hensen. It's Levon." The simple act of leaving off his last name let the mare know everything she needed to know. He no longer carried his father's name in herd business.

"Just a moment," she said politely.

A moment later Hensen's voice came on the line. "Levon?"

"Hensen. I was wondering if you could do something for Joe?"

"As long as it doesn't compromise the herd in any way. I still owe the two of you for what happened last time you were in Chicago."

"It shouldn't. Though I don't know if there is anything you *can* do. But I'm not exactly free to come up and help him, myself." Levon quickly explained the situation, including his newly-won herd, and therefore his inability to leave Texas, ending with Joe's newest threat from his Uncle. "The man's trying to take our kids away from us and I can't get a hand on him," Levon concluded. "I don't know that you'd want to get involved...."

"I'll be honest with you, Levon. Normally I wouldn't. But, as I said, I owe you two ." Hensen was quiet for a moment, obviously thinking. "What you need, then, is some way to get LaFiamma to back off. That I might be able to help with."

"That'd be all we'd need," Levon told him, relieved. He hadn't expected Hensen to really *care* that Levon was unable to take care of his family. But he'd been unable to think of anything else to do to get Mike under control. He'd considered calling Carl -- he would have helped, willingly enough. But there was little Carl would have been able to do.

"I keep records on all the...organizations...we've had to do business with. I'm sure I can put together quite an incriminating little package of information."

"What do you reckon on doing with it?" He wasn't sure Joe would appreciate getting his uncle arrested, just to counter his challenge.

"Figured on sending it to you -- or perhaps Joe, you said he's up here right now? -- and letting you use it as you seem fit. Used right, it should be all the leverage you need."

He thought over the options, quickly. "Send it to me, if you would. I ain't so sure Joe'd use it against his own uncle. Man raised him, after his dad died. This way, I can simply call Mike and explain to him the risk he'll be taking, challenging us for the kids."

He could almost hear Hensen's grin in response. "Will do. And if that doesn't get him to back down, let me know. Maybe I can come up with something else."

"I will. Thanks, Hensen. I appreciate this."

"No problem. Oh, and Levon? Good luck with the herd. You're a good choice."

"Thanks." Levon wasn't sure the other stallion's approval meant anything to him. Now that they were on even footing -- and Hensen was committed to helping, at least this much -- Levon was free to admit to himself that the stallion was an arrogant bastard. He did take good care of his herd, though, Levon had to admit, and was conscientious about paying his debts. That was a good thing, since it meant he was going to help with this situation.

When he hung up with Hensen, Levon felt the weight on his back finally lifting. Not completely, but for the first time he felt in control of the situation. Mike would be dealt with, and Joe and the kids would come home.

Everything else would take care of itself, in time.

Levon was out near the nursery, when Joy found him.

"Morning, Joy," he smiled at her. He'd always been fond of the elder mare, but found her to be especially a treasure, now. He wasn't sure he'd have been able to do this if she hadn't been here to help ease the way.

"Good morning," she replied with a smile of her own. She moved to stand beside him, her own gaze follow ing his, to watching the youngest members of the herd at play. "You've been spending a lot of your time out here," she noted.

"Yeah. Not sure I could tell you why. Ain't just... thinking about my own, though that's part of it. I just...." Levon shrugged, and looked over at her. "I find it makes more sense, when I'm out here. These little ones, they make me feel like I'm really in charge. They remind me of what I'm responsible for." He grinned. "Don't reckon that makes much sense?"

Joy looked back at him with approval. "It makes a lot of sense. Taylor used to come out here for the same reason."

He laughed. "So that's why he was always here, watching us. I figured it was to keep us from getting into more trouble than our mamas could keep us out of."

"Well, there is that fringe benefit," Joy agreed with a smile.

Levon turned back to the kids, watching as two older foals tried to help a younger get his legs moving into a near-run. They were holding him up so he wouldn't fall when he tripped, and encouraging him with "Frontleft, backright! No, at the same time!"

As he watched, a thought occurred to him, one which had begun slinking around the back of his brain for the last few days. Three days ago, his husband had finally admitted what bothered him about Levon's participation in the mating, and since then they'd managed to honestly come to some acceptance of it. But it had gotten Levon to thinking about other aspects of his duties. Like handing the herd over to Stuart.

"Joy? I wanna talk to you, privately?" he asked.

Catching his serious demeanor, she nodded. "Of course."

Levon gave Deanne, the mare in charge of the nursery this afternoon, a farewell nod before moving off. Joy followed at his side, and they headed away from the populated areas of the herd's land.

"Been thinking about Stuart," he began.

"What about him?"

He thought about how best to voice his concerns, how to explain to Joy how he *felt * about giving up his responsibilities, his herd. "Trying to decide how I'm gonna know when he's ready," he finally said. "Ain't like I can go spend a few days with him, see how he's turning out."

"I've never heard of a stallion that could put up with another looking over his shoulder," Joy agreed.

"I thought about asking Maggie, or maybe when Joe gets home he could...."

"I'm not sure if Joe would know what to look for. He's adapted incredibly well to the herd and centaur etiquette, but he is, after all, human."

"Yeah, but I trust his judgement. I could tell a lot, from what he'd be able to say." But Joy had a point. Joe *wouldn't* know what, or how, to look for everything Levon would need to know. He sighed. "I just can't figure out how to be sure."

Joy stopped and looked at him seriously. "Levon, no one is ever sure how a new head stallion is going to react, whether they will be able to handle the job. You can make your best guess but you can't be *sure*."

"Yeah, but normally you don't have a choice. In this case, *I* do. I can hand over the herd, or hold off until-- well, in theory until he challenges me." Levon gave her a grin. "Joe'd kill me if I did, though."

She grinned back. "That would be all we need -- a human as head stallion by right of combat."

That made Levon chuckle. "He did all right by me...eventually. Most of the time." Levon considered what he was saying. "OK, he'd probably make a poor herd stallion." He knew it a fair assessment, if only because Joe would go nuts after the first day, from trying to keep everything straight. An advantage of relying on instinct, Levon realised.

And that answered his question. If he knew Stuart was ready, he'd know. I f he didn't know it...then, he wasn't.

"I see you've figured it out."

He nodded. "Yeah. Thanks, Joy."

She reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder. "That's what I'm here for."

"That and to make sure they," he nodded at the four older kids coming at top speed over a low rise, "don't overtake me when I take off for the spring? It's getting embarrassing how often I lose a race nowadays."

"Sorry. You're on your own there."

"Thanks for nothing," he replied, then he sidestepped away from her, so the kids wouldn't have to dodge her, then turned and began to run as they drew near. They shouted happily, and the race was on.

Levon spent the next few hours racing and just horsing around (no pun intended) with the kids. That's what he was doing when Marta caught up with him to say that a priority mail package from Chicago had just arrived for him.

He didn't ask whom it was from; he told the kids he'd catch them later, and headed back to the house at top speed.

He found the package in his office, sitting on the desk. It was a large envelope from a PO Box with the name H. Barton above it. He sat down and tore open the envelope. Inside was a veritable treasure trove of information that any organized crime police unit would kill to get a hold of. There were files with names, times, dates, photos, some audio tapes, and even a couple of video tapes.

He spent the rest of the afternoon reading through everything. Committed to memory, the information would come in very handy, not only now, but to keep Mike in line for a very long time to come. He considered the power he held in his hands to destroy Michael LaFiamma's life.

All he needed was *one* piece of cooperation. And that was all he would go for. He picked up the phone, and dialed.

Joe was on the phone with his lawyer, discussing what the custody case was going to entail, when the doorbell rang.

"I'll get it," Angie, who had been watching television with her brother, called out and ran to the door. Joe heard Uncle Mike greet her, and was dismayed to hear Angie's rather rude reply. "Oh. Grandpa," was all she said, before coming back into the living room.

He gave her a *look*, then turned his attention to his uncle. Telling his lawyer he'd have to phone him back later, Joe hung up then stood. "Uncle Mike," he said warily.

"Joe." Mike seemed angry. In fact, Joe realised, he looked positively infuriated. "We need to talk."

Joe nodded. Glancing at the kids, both of who were staring at them in open curiosity, he gestured towards the staircase. "Upstairs." To Tony and Angie he said, "You two stay put down here, understand?"

Tony nodded, turning back to the television. Angie sighed, and nodded. Satisfied they were going to obey, Joe led his uncle upstairs to his bedroom again, sure that this discussion wasn't going to be any more pleasant than the last one.

And he wasn't wrong.

"Joey...how could you?" Mike demanded.

"How could I what?"

Mike glared at him. "How could you do *this*? I thought we were family!"

Joe stifled the urge to roll his eyes, but thought, 'You're planning on taking me to court for the kids, but we're family. Right.' He still didn't know what his uncle was talking about and said as much.

"You're telling me you don't know what that 'partner' of yours said to me?" Mike obviously found the claim unbelievable.

Levon? Joe blinked, wondering what Levon could have said to get Uncle Mike so riled. "Yeah, I guess that's what I'm telling you. Since it's the truth."

Mike glowered for a minute. "Perhaps...perhaps I should have known." His anger seemed to fade, then.In its wake all he looked was defeated. *What* had Levon told him?

Suddenly, Mike looked uncomfortable. "I suppose, then, if you don't know.... Joey, I'm going to drop our contest of the will. You may keep Tony's kids."

For a long moment all he could do was stare at his uncle open mouthed. Hardly daring to believe it. "That's it? It's over just like that?"

The glare he got in return told him there was much more to it. "Just like that, Joey. I'd appreciate it if you told your partner. I don't care to speak with him again."

'Wonder if he feels that way about me, too,' Joe thought idly as he watched the other man walk back down the hall toward the stairs. Surprisingly, the thought didn't hurt as much as he might have expected.

Mike stopped, and turned, looking back over his shoulder. "I imagine I've ruined any chance of you allowing us to see our grandchildren...?"

Joe shook his head. "You can see them whenever you want. Or we can set up some kind of visitation schedule." He paused before continuing, with heartfelt honesty, "I never intended to keep them from you. You were very important to me when I was growing up and I won't deprive them of having that, just because you don't..." Another pause, this time to swallow a lump that had suddenly formed in his throat. "...don't consider me one of the family any more."

Maybe it did hurt as much as he expected, after all.

"Joey...." Mike came back, a couple steps, then stopped. "A lot is between us, Joey. I don't approve of this partner of yours. I certainly don't approve of the things he does," he added with a murderous scowl. "But you're still my nephew. You'll always be part of the family."

He was surprised at how much it meant to hear those words from this man. "Thank you for that."

Mike nodded. "I'll go, now. If...Teresa would like the kids over for dinner, tonight. If that's ok with you."

The diffidence made Joe uneasy. What *had* Levon said to him? "That's fine. You want to take them with you now? I can pick them up, say, around 8:30 tonight?"

Mike seemed to relax, finally. "Sounds fine to me, Joey." He turned, then, and headed down the stairs.

Joe followed, to let the kids know about the evening's plans, and to see them all out of the door. That accomplished, he headed back into the living room. There was a phone call he had to make.

Carla answered the phone and sounded completely unsurprised to hear Joe's voice. "I need to talk to Levon," he told her.

"So he said," Carla replied. "Hang on."

A moment later, Levon's somewhat sheepish voice came on the line. "Joe?"

"What did you say to Uncle Mike?"

"Figured he'd have talked to you by now."

"Oh yeah. He came over here in a rage, wanting to know how I could do whatever it was you did. Then he said he wasn't going to contest me having custody. What the hell did you say to him? "

"He did? Good. He hung up on me before I could get an answer out of him. I told him to lay off, or I'd send certain pieces of information to the Chicago police," he finished quickly, as if hearing Joe's temper running short.

Joe froze . "What pieces of information?"

"Stuff I got from Hensen. Names, dates, numbers. You know." Levon's voice was subdued, now, as if he understood the gravity of what he was describing.

Joe groaned, understanding now the hurt look of betra yal he'd seen in Mike's eyes. "No wonder he was so pissed at me...." Levon didn't respond. It took a few seconds for the silence to register with Joe. "Levon?" he asked softly.

"I'm sorry. I knew he'd be mad, but I never told him you knew anything about it."

"Don't apologize. You only did what you had to do. I mean it's not like he wasn't planning on playing dirty to get the kids."

"It was the best way I could think of, to protect our kids," Levon replied, sounded reassured, but continued explaining.

"You're probably right," Joe admitted, with a sigh. "I can't think of anything else that would've gotten him to back off so completely so fast."

"You don't mind?" Levon asked, half-teasing, half still serious.

"The truth? I probably would've told you not to do it if you had asked me beforehand, but I can't argue with the results."

"Figured. That was why I didn't tell you about it, before." There was a short pause, then, "Other than being pissed at me, how's he taking it? Did he make any threats?"

Joe shook his head, even though he knew Levon couldn't see him. "Nothing other than stating he doesn't want to see you again, and I don't think that can be considered a threat. He's more worried about us not letting him see the kids, I think. And he didn't disown me, which might mean some hope for future relations." He paused. "Though I think he's always going to hate you now, cowboy. You certainly have a way with people."

"He shouldn't have pushed me," came the angry response.

"Yeah. He didn't know what he was getting into, challenging a head stallion," Joe half-teased.

"Knew that'd come in handy," Levon joked back.

Suddenly serious, Joe said, "Thanks ."

His mate sounded surprised when he said, "You're welcome. Hey, this means y'all should be coming back down to Houston now. That is, soon?" The hope in Levon's voice was clear.

"Yeah." He couldn't stop the grin or keep the happiness at that thought out of his voice. "Maybe within the week if we're lucky. Don't want to rush the kids too much, especially Angie. I want to give her time to say good-bye to her friends and all that."

"Yeah. Don't need to push them. But...I miss you . Want to see you, again. Before--"

Before mating season started. Joe swallowed. "When...?"

"Soon as you can?"

"That close, huh?"

"Probably less'n a week. I know you can't get moved down here that fast...but maybe you could come down for a couple days, before moving?" Joe could hear the need, in Levon's voice. Hell, he could *feel* it, himself.

He couldn't bring himself to deny it. "I...I'll try and work something out."

"Don't...if it don't work out, it's all right," Levon offered.

"I said I'll work something out and I will, okay?" He moderated the sharpness that had suddenly come into his voice. "I miss you, too."

"OK. Lemme know before you come down? I wanna make sure the kids know they can't eat anything you bring 'em."

Joe grinned again. "You spoil all my fun."

"Not *all* your fun, I hope."

The words seemed to go straight to Joe's groin and he shivered. "Give me two days and I'll be on a plane."

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