Centaur Lines

Part Three

It had been nearly three hours since Levon had sent Marta to Houston International airport to pick up Joe. He was trying not to pace, or worry, or be anxious at all.

From the looks Carla kept sending, he figured he wasn't succeeding.

"Haven't seen you this skittish since you were a colt," she said conversationally.

"Blame me?" he asked her. He didn't particularly want to talk about being nervous, but at least talking about *anything* was better than simply obsessing, and being nervous.

Carla shook her head, smiling. "It's sweet, actually."

"Sweet? Great."

Her trilling laughter ran in his ears then, just before she stepped closer and laid a hand on his shoulder. "That isn't an insult, you know."

He gave her a grin. "I know. Just ain't used to anybody calling us 'sweet'. Being given disapproving or confused looks would feel more normal."

"This isn't the human world," she reminded him gently.

"Believe me, I know." Levon found, in his short time back, that there were so many things he'd never realised he'd missed. Simply staying in his four-legged form so often that his feet hadn't hurt in days was enough to make him consider moving Joe and family out here.

Not that it was something he could consider seriously, not if he wanted them to keep their jobs. The commute was too long. Still, the thought had crossed his mind....

His thoughts were broken off by a shout in the distance, signaling Marta's return with Joe. He ran for the crest of the first hill in front of the house. He'd told himself over and over he was *not* going to meet Joe at the highway. But he couldn't simply stand here and wait, either.

He saw as he came up, the kids gathered, waiting to race the truck in. He couldn't join them. He was head stallion after all, and had to maintain at least some dignity. But even as the words ran through Levon's head, his hooves were carrying him over to join the kids.

They were ready to race the truck when it appeared. They giggled, and Shensen reached up to take his hand. Levon gave the boy a smile, then the truck came into view. The kids braced themselves...and the truck stopped. Levon saw Joe getting out.

He let go Shensen's hand and moved carefully through the disappointed group of kids. Then he was flying, at top speed, across the short distance to his lover. He came to an abrupt stop, then Joe was in his arms, hugging him back just as tightly. Half a minute later Joe pulled back, but only far enough to be able to drag Levon's head down for a kiss.

He dimly heard Marta's laughter before the truck moved past them. The kids cheered and Levon guessed they 'd begun their race. He paid them little attention, though, as Joe held him.

Joe let go of Levon's mouth and grinned at him. "Hey, cowboy."

"Hey. Wanna ride?" He could hardly believe how the words stuck in his throat. Apparently he'd resigned himself to spending *weeks* without seeing Joe. The unexpected boon of having him here, now, was overwhelming. He leaned down and kissed Joe again, before his mate could answer. "You wanna head to the house and make my brain stop working?"

"Too many people at the house. How 'bout somewhere more private? Like where we spent our honeymoon?" Joe leered at him.

"Actually ain't too difficult to get the house cleared..." Levon hesitated, and realised the source of his hesitation to simply say 'yes'. "I don't wanna be that far away, in case they need me," he said, wondering how Joe would take that.

His husband looked at him for a moment, then nodded. "So how fast can you clear the house?"

"Gimme three seconds."

"I'll time you." He stole one more kiss before moving out of Levon's arms and swinging up astride.

As it turned out, he didn't have to clear the house. When they arrived, Carla was shooing the last of the fillies outside, telling her not to come back until dinnertime. Levon gave Carla a smile, determined not to say a word to Joe about the fact that the entire herd had been waiting eagerly for Joe to arrive, if only to calm their herd stallion down -- or at least exhaust him so he'd stop fidgeting.

Carla smiled back, and with a cheery "Hi Joe, bye Joe," followed the others outside.

Leaving them alone.

Levon stopped, one hoof on the front step. "You want me to carry you inside? Not sure I can make it up to the bedroom but I can get us close." He couldn't resist teasing Joe; he could barely resist shouting for sheer joy.

"I think I can walk from here, thanks." Even so, it was several more moments before he slid off Levon's back.

Levon reached back and took his hand, and held onto it when Joe finally did get down. He held on tightly as he changed, then as he walked backwards, across the porch pulling Joe along behind him. He found he didn't want to take his eyes off Joe for a moment.

Joe followed willingly, his own eyes raking over Levon's form from head to toe and back again, his heated gaze enough to cause Levon to move quickly. By the time they hit the stairs Levon could feel his rational thought vanishing happily. He moved faster.

Joe chuckled, but showed no signs of wanting to slow down, matching Levon's pace until they had reached the bedroom. Levon managed to get the door open, but then stopped and grabbed Joe for another kiss before making it inside.

Somehow they managed to make it to the bed without breaking off the kiss. Then Joe was squirming in his arms and it took a moment for Levon to figure out that he was trying to get out of his clothes, while still kissing. Levon tried to help, reaching for the edges of Joe's shirt and tugging. He only managed to get it untucked, but it let him touch skin and he decided that was good enough. He rubbed his hands across Joe's stomach and listened to him groan.

Joe's hands faltered, then left his clothing to wrap around Levon's shoulders instead, as the kiss grew even deeper. Levon held him close, feeling the urgency to not let him go, to never let him go. He grabbed Joe tighter, trying to drag him farther in than physics would allow. His lover seemed to be in complete agreement, his hands drifting down Levon's back to cup his buttocks and pull him even closer.

He wondered briefly where his hands were, what they were doing. All he felt was Joe: skin, heat, power, hunger, threatening to wrap around him and choke him if he didn't move, didn't keep pushing them both closer and closer together. He heard a whimper, felt a moan.

Suddenly the world tilted and he found himself flat on his back on the bed with Joe on top of him, his weight pushing him down further into the mattress. He welcomed it; clutching at Joe, Levon tried to hold him still, conversely at odds with his need for motion, for the touches his body was screaming for. He bent one knee, placed his foot on the bed and pushed, raising himself up and against his lover.

Joe's weight slammed into his in response. He did it again.

And again.

They quickly established a rhythm, moving against each other fast and fierce. Somebody was moaning continuously and Levon couldn't catch his breath. There was no way this was going to last much longer.

He heard Joe shout, and his grip tightened as muscles tensed. Levon tried even more to hang on, wanting to come right with him, connecting with him in their release. Something touched him, and he opened his mouth to cry out. No sound came, breath still caught in his lungs. But it didn't matter, any more; the need for breath dimmed as he came.

Through it all, as his climax poured over and through him, he was aware of only one thing: Joe was there with him.

For several long moments his awareness was focused on one thing -- trying to breathe once more. He thought vaguely that it would be easier without the weight on his chest, but he would not let go of it.

"Levon?"

"Mmm?" He tried to nuzzle Joe, turning his head to find flesh to kiss.

Joe chuckled even as he shifted slightly, allowing Levon access to his throat. "Brain still turned off, I see."

Levon ignored the noise, and kissed Joe. He returned it, then started to pull away. "Mmm?" Levon hung on tighter.

Another chuckle. "Easy, cowboy. I'm not going anywhere. I just want to finish getting undressed. Didn't get very far before we..."

But Levon didn 't let him go. Joe was trying to get off of him, and he wanted him right where he was. He did notice it was easier to breathe, suddenly, but still didn't let go.

"Levon..." The name was said in tones of fond exasperation.

"Yeah?"

"You need to let go for a minute."

"Why?" If he let go, he wouldn't be able to reach Joe's chin. He leant towards it to kiss him there.

Joe laughed again and reached for Levon's hands, pulling them away enough so that he could stand up.

As Joe moved away, Levon frowned, sitting up to follow. "Where're you going?" He tried to pull Joe back down onto the bed. A frightening thought occurred. "You don't have to leave?"

His husband leaned back over at that and gave him a brief kiss. "No, I'm not leaving. Not until tomorrow night. What I am doing is undressing. Okay?"

"Oh." Levon blinked. Now that his brain was slowly firing back up, he recalled Joe saying just that. He gave his lover a sheepish smile. "Sorry."

In response, Joe just kissed him again and stood back up, quickly getting out of the rest of his clothes. Levon watched, then held out his hand when Joe stepped towards him. He pulled his now-naked husband back onto the bed and back on top of himself. A sigh of contentment reached his ears. "Much better," Joe murmured, snuggling closer.

Levon could only agree.


They spent the hours until dinner like that, not really talking or doing anything serious, just concentrating on being close and enjoying each other's presence. Neither was anxious to leave the bed, much less the room. Soon, however, the smell of dinner preparations from below began to remind them there were other things that needed to be done.

"Suppose you gotta go put in an appearance at least huh? Being head stallion and all..." Joe made no move to let Levon up, however.

"I should," Levon conceded. But it felt so good, lying here in his husband's arms. It made all the problems and worries of the last several days fade away until they meant nothing.

Dinner could wait. Joe was leaving tomorrow -- holding him now, therefore, could not.

There was a knock at the door .

Joe raised an eyebrow. "Room service?"

"Who's there?" Levon called out, hoping it wasn't anything that would require his presence outside of these four walls. These two arms.

The door opened and Marta stuck her head in. "Not interrupting anything, am I?" she asked cheerfully.

Levon considered throwing a pillow at her, and settled for glaring. "You need something?" he asked.

"Just brought you two up some dinner." She moved further into the room and Levon caught sight of the covered tray she was carrying. "Joy and Carla figured you'd probably need the energy."

"Thanks." He wasn't sure he didn't suspect there was more to it -- given the way the herd *usually* kept a watchful eye on each of its members. Then again -- being brought dinner meant they wouldn't have to leave the room. He grinned, and took the tray from her.

"You're welcome. You can go back to whatever you were doing now." She winked then turned and left, pulling the door shut behind her.

Beside him, Levon heard Joe let out his breath. "I'm surprised she didn't ask if she could stay and watch."

"She probably knew I'd throw her tail outta here if she tried." He settled the tray on the bed, and half-rolled over to give Joe a kiss. "Least now maybe they'll all relax."

"I think they're more worried about you relaxing." Joe reached up and laid a hand against Levon's cheek as he spoke.

"I think I'm as relaxed as I can get, and still talk."

"So I don't need to give you a brushing after we go for our evening ride?"

Levon felt his eyes glaze over. "Yes," he managed, as he tried to pull Joe closer to him for another kiss. He heard a clink of metal and ceramic, then Joe was pushing him back.

"I think maybe we better eat this before we end up wearing it," Joe teased, reaching out a steadying hand to the tray which had been teetering on the bed's edge.

"Sorry." Levon grinned. "You should know by now to be careful when you say things like that."

"Yeah, probably, but...I like watching what it does to you."

"I'm damn glad centaurs don't blush. I have a feeling I'd be red from head to hoof right now." He took a plate from Joe, and held it carefully -- wishing that balancing it wasn't keeping him from another kiss.

"Eat first, kiss later," Joe said, seemingly reading Levon's thoughts in that uncanny way he had sometimes.

"You're no fun... sometimes," he amended quickly. If he got himself kicked out of the room, the herd would *never* let him live it down.

That earned him a grin that faded when Joe looked down at his plate. "It had to be barbecue didn't it?"


After dinner, and an after-dinner snuggle, they headed down for a ride. They managed to avoid being stopped by anyone, though Carla had given them a cheerful wave and called out that the western field was clear tonight.

"I missed this," Joe said, sighing in contentment as Levon headed away from the house.

"I missed you," Levon returned. "Ever since I got here, I've been wanting you here. Almost had to tell the littlest kids I had an invisible friend, to explain why I kept turning to the side to say something when no one was there." He broke into a slow lope, running easily now that Joe was here.

"I know the feeling. I've gotten used to having you back me up; throws me off-balance when you're not there."

"Guess now we'll just know we can't spend more'n a few hours away from each other," Levon half-teased. Then he reached back with one hand, and felt for Joe's. Finding it, he gave it a hard squeeze. "How soon do you think y'all be able to move?"

"We've already got the packing started. Probably the middle of next week. It might have been sooner but I promised Angie she could have her friends over for a going-away slumber party." Joe sobered. "It's tough to leave everything you know."

"Yeah. I don't wanna to rush her, or Tony. They can go back and visit, while it's still summer." The sun was sinking towards the horizon; they rode towards it, Levon not really looking at anything. He had the vista memorised, anyhow.

Joe chuckled. "Uncle Mike might've unintentionally done us a favor on that front." Levon listened as Joe told him of what Angie overheard and how she had reacted.

"Remind me to thank him," Levon said drily. Then it occurred to him that he probably ought to act like he didn't hate the man, for Joe's sake. "Sorry."

"You're entitled to your feelings, Levon." He sighed. "It would be a lot easier if I could hate him too. But I can't."

"I don't want to...I dunno, rub your nose in it. I don't wanna make it any harder for you."

Joe's arms tightened around his waist and he felt a kiss dropped on his shoulder. "You're the reason why this is as easy as it is."

"How long has it been since I told you I loved you?" Levon came to a stop, and twisted back as far as he could.

"A couple of hours, I think."

"I love you," he said softly. The light was fading more quickly, now, and soon they'd have to head back. But right now, the sun's rays were highlighting Joe's face and all Levon could do was stare.

Joe reached up and traced Levon's lips lightly with a finger. "I love you too," he said just as softly. "More than anything. More than..." He shrugged and dropped his eyes. "I don't have the words."

"Then how about you tell me with a brush?" Levon said, trying very hard not to smile. As Joe grinned, and was about to laugh, he gave his husband a pleading look and added, "It's been ten *days*, Joe."

"What, you couldn't get one of your herd to do it?" Joe teased.

Levon forced himself to smile, but the words to his reply stuck. In less than a week.... He cut those thoughts off, but not before they must have shown on his face.

Joe's smile quickly faded. "Sorry."

Levon turned back around from necessity -- his back was straining -- but what he really wanted was to hold his mate. He reached back and tugged at Joe's arm.

Joe quickly complied, sliding off Levon's back and moving around in front of him as Levon changed forms. "That was a stupid thing to say," Joe muttered, as moved into Levon's embrace.

"It ain't that," Levon said, pressing his face against Joe's shoulder. "Joe, I'm scared," he whispered.

His husband's arms tightened around him. "About...?" Though from the tone Levon guessed that Joe probably had a pretty good idea.

"What if I mess this up? I've got forty women and kids looking to me to take care of them. I...what if I make a mistake? What if-- Joe, what if I hand the herd over to Stuart and he ain't ready?" Levon looked up at his husband. "What if I think I have to stay longer, to be sure he's ready?"

"First of all, you're not going to mess this up." Joe's eyes burned into his. "If you make a mistake -- which you might, nobody's perfect -- you 'll fix it. You can't tell me Taylor never made a mistake. I don't believe for a second that you'd hand the herd over to Stuart if you weren't 110% sure he was ready. And if he isn't, and you have to stay here longer...." Joe took a deep breath and sighed . "We'll deal, okay? It'll be a lot easier once I'm back in Houston."

Levon wanted to believe what Joe was saying, wanted to hope that it would be so easy, to simply correct whatever he did wrong. But he was afraid he wouldn't know he'd made a mistake until damage had been done. That realisation suddenly explained why his husband had fought so fiercely against the power Levon had had to give him. He looked away and asked, "What if it's a year?"

"Then it's a year. And the kids and I will just have to get in the habit of weekend trips."

Levon grabbed onto Joe tightly. He hated the thought of seeing his family so rarely...but if it meant sparing the *rest* of his family the protection and rule of someone who could not handle it, he would have to. He suddenly hated the fate that had brought him here, forcing him to accept the responsibility that cut his heart in two.

Joe continued, "Hey, I know you're scared. I'd be more worried if you weren't. But from what I can see, you're doing a great job. I understand what it's like to be caught between family responsibility and the life you want. We'll work it out somehow though, okay? It might not be perfect, but we'll manage." He gave Levon a shake. "I'm not letting you go."

"I ain't gonna *let* you let me go," Levon countered, feeling a little better. But it didn't change how he felt inside, and didn't change how much he desperately did not want to let go.

Stuart was only fifteen. Stallions rarely took a herd be fore they turned nineteen. How could their marriage possibly survive three years apart? But what if they had to?

And what if they couldn't?

Levon grabbed Joe harder, then, and buried his face on Joe's shoulder. Doubts and tears he hadn't felt since he arrived, suddenly broke free. Joe held him as he cried, murmuring soothing words in both English and Italian as well as gently stroking Levon's hair.

It was half-dark before Levon pulled his head up, and tried to wipe his face dry. "Damn...I needed that." His voice was shaking, slightly.

"Did it help?" Joe reached up and helped to brush away the last of the tears.

He nodded. "Didn't solve a thing. But it helped."

"Things *will* work out, Levon," his hu sband told him again. Then he smiled suggestively. "And I bet I know what else will help."

"What?" Levon frowned slightly.

Joe gave him a rather lecherous grin. "I believed somebody mentioned a brushing...?"

The look on his lover 's face made him smile, more so than did the thought of a brushing. He nodded. "It might be a short one -- its dark enough that we'll have to walk back and the herd'll be down for the night soon."

"I can work fast."

Levon placed his hands on either side of Joe's face, and kissed him tenderly. "How about you work real slow...once we get back to the house?"

"I can do that, too." Suddenly serious, he reached up and covered Levon's hands with his own. "Anything you want Levon. Anything you need."

"Thank you."

"I love you."

"Love you, too." Levon kissed him, again, and held him until the dusk's breeze reminded him they still had somewhere to go.

"Come on," he said, stepping back and changing. He hel d Joe's hand while he leapt onto Levon's back. "Let's get going."

"You're driving," Joe pointed out.

"Wanted to make sure you were hanging on," he replied, not quite feeling up to the teasing.

He felt hands tighten around his wais t. "Told you, cowboy. I'm not letting go."

He didn't answer. Instead he simply began walking, cautiously in the growing darkness, back towards the house.


They spent the rest of the night, and the entire next day, together. Most of the time was spent alone, together, though they spent part of the morning playing with the kids. Levon had a smile on his face again by that time, but Joe could still see the worry in his eyes.

He did what he could ease it, or at the very least to distract Levon from it, but it never totally disappeared from Levon's gaze. He knew that it wouldn't; this was something that ultimately Levon would have to deal with himself. It wasn't something Joe could fix.

But all too soon evening drew near. Joe hated leaving, and from the way Levon stayed at his side and reached out for him every few minutes, he knew his husband was feeling the same. Somehow, leaving this time was even harder than it had been to part ways the first time.

He tried to console himself with the fact that it wouldn't be for long, that by the end of next week he'd be back in Houston with the kids. It wasn't helping, though. Maybe it was because he knew that even though he'd be back at home, Levon would still be here.

And they'd both be alone.

They managed to say goodbye, simply and quickly -- a hug and a kiss and an 'I love you'. Then Joe had climbed into the truck and Marta had started off. The kids had raced them out, shouting and waving in much subdued manner. He even thought he heard one girl call out, 'Don't go'.

Resolutely he didn't look back.


Trying to get everything ready to move was a hassle. Calling for a truck, arranging for most of Tony and Maria's furniture to be stored, packing the rest without feeling like he was invading their privacy.... It was a hassle.

On the other hand, Teresa came over each day to help. She helped the kids pack their toys and clothes, made huge lunches, and continually reassured them all they would see each other often, Christmas and birthdays and summer. He was grateful for the help and told her so. In some ways it felt good to have her there, still in his life, even if there remained an awkwardness between them that he wasn't sure would ever fade.

She also offered to stay the night for Angie's slumber party, to provide extra parental supervision. Though he had some misgivings, he accepted. The idea of trying to cope with a housefull of ten year old girls, alone, was not one he wanted to entertain if he didn't have to. Besides, it gave Teresa one more day with grandchildren she was used to seeing every week, if not more.

She came over early that day and helped them clean. Joe wondered why she was bothering, with everything in boxes, but when he tried to mention it she'd merely shushed him. He'd grinned and replied, "Yes m'am, " and for a moment it was like he was a kid himself again.

Angie was bouncing all over the house, unable to sit still or even light for more than a few seconds at a time. Tony was wandering the boxes, playing fort, or some such thing. Joe couldn 't make sense out of the snatched bits he overheard from the boy. Soon, though, Tony went to hide in his room -- girls had started to arrive.

He squelched the urge to join the boy.

Luckily he had to do little, at first, other than maintain an adult presence. The girls were gathered in the living room, talking all at once. Joe stayed in the kitchen with Teresa, helping her make pizzas. He'd suggested ordering them, since all Maria's kitchen stuff was packed. Teresa had brought over her own pans.

"Guess I should've known better, huh?" he said as he was put to work grating cheese.

"I wouldn't feed those girls 'pizza' from some restaurant. Who knows what they'll make? I can do it myself just fine." She spoken in English and Italian as they worked, reminding him of meals she'd made and restaurants which had failed utterly to meet her standards.

On impulse, he leaned over and kissed her cheek. "You should've opened your own restaurant, Aunt Teresa."

"Oh, no. I would have been working all the time and never home with my children--" She fell silent.

Both of whom were beyond her reach now. Tony was dead and Vinnie banished. And himself, the child she'd all but adopted? Well, according to her faith and beliefs he was lost, too. Joe wished there was a way to convince her he wasn't.

She resolutely went back to preparing the food. "Did you get sodas for the girls? Normally I wouldn't approve, but they'll be up all night anyway, and it's a special night." She sounded a little sad as she spoke. Joe couldn't blame her, but allowed her to avoid speaking of it.

"Yeah I got them. And some ice cream sandwiches as well." He answered the question, ignoring the undercurrent as best he could.

"Good. Angie loves those -- sometimes in summer it's hard to get her to eat *food* she'd so much rather have them." It sounded like last minute advice, passed on before the child was out of her raising, out of her reach.

"You'll have to surprise her with some when you come visit," Joe responded, trying for casual. Trying to let her know once again that she wasn't going to be cut out of the kids' lives.

She smiled warmly, though she looked surprised at the offer. "Perhaps I will," she allowed. "Now, you better go make sure none of the girls has any allergies before we put these pizzas in to cook." She gave him a nudge towards the living room, from which could be heard loud laughter.

"Yes, m'am." He headed for the kitch en door, trying to ignore the twinge of apprehension in his stomach. It was just a roomful of preadolescent girls after all. Not a serial killer. He should be able to handle this.

There were nine girls in the room -- or so he assumed, since that was how many Angie had invited. The room was overflowing with giggling, bouncing, and questions once he stepped into the room. Angie pushed her way to his side and grabbed his arm.

"This is my Uncle Joey! Uncle Joey, this is Callie, Christine, Dori, Helen, Alice, Maria, Stephie, and Trudi." She pointed out each girl as she introduced them.

"Hi," he said, wondering if he really was expected to remember all the names. And wishing he had Levon's memory so he could do so.

"Are we gonna eat soon?" Angie asked.

"Pizza's about to go in the oven. Your Grandmother wanted to check and make sure no one had any allergies...?"

All the girls shook their heads. One of them said, "I'm allergic to science homework!" and that started them giggling again.

Joe heard one girl whisper to Angie, "I thought you had two uncles?"

Angie nodded her head. "I do. Uncle Levon had to go back to Houston early, though."

"You're really moving to *Houston*? *Texas*?" another girl asked. Joe was fairly sure it was Alice, but didn't want to risk calling her by the name.

"That's what I told you wasn't it?" Angie looked up at her uncle. "Tell her Uncle Joe. They don't believe me." Obviously irked.

"It's true," Joe confirmed.

"Texas?" One girl repeated, incredulously. "That's like...way down by Mexico!"

"Aren't they all cowboys and oilmen down there?"

"Don't they talk funny?"

"Isn't everything really big, and it's all flat land with just dirt?"

The questions would have made Joe laugh, had he not had much the same stereotypical illusions about the place when he'd first moved there.

"I guess they do talk a little funny," Angie admitted. "But you get used to it. And it's not *that* different. And I guess it is pretty flat and there's lots of open fields around where I'll be living, but that's a good thing. 'Cause Uncle Levon has a horse and he lets me ride her!"

That got the attention of all the girls, who 'ooed' and 'ahed' jealously. The distraction allowed Joe to make his escape, to tell Aunt Teresa she could go ahead with the pizzas. She gave him a questioning look when he reentered the kitchen. "No allergies," he said, still faintly bemused at the girls' reactions to what Angie was telling them.

Teresa nodded, and put the final touches on the pizza, along with a heavy hand of cheese on each. While Joe put them in the oven, she went and got a bottle of wine, then poured two glasses. She went to the kitchen table and sat down out of sight of the girls, but where they could overhear any loud disturbances. She gestured him over, and Joe went willingly enough.

Once seated, however, she didn't immediately say anything. She toyed with her glass, and sipped from it. Finally she looked at him. "Joey...what do you know about raising kids?" The question wasn't asked offensively.

Because of that he answered honestly, without being defensive. "Probably about as much as any new parent ."

She nodded. "Normally you have a couple years to get used to it, before they start...." She smiled. "You know. Children can be more difficult than babies. Babies take more time, but children take more attention."

"We're going to do our best to give them all the attention they need, I promise you, Aunt Teresa. I love those kids." He paused then added, "We both do."

She looked down at her wineglass. "Yes, I suppose you would have to, to agree to take them. We love them too, Joey. As much as you do and we've seen them almost every day of their lives. I'm so used to having them over the weekend, having everyone over for dinner." Her voice faltered as she said, "And now there won't be any family in Chicago, anymore. Just Mike and I, all alone."

Joe reached across the table and touched her hand, unable to be unaffected by her pain, even after all that had happened between them. "I'm sorry. If there had been some way Levon and I could have relocated to Chicago...but that isn't possible."

"They don't need cops in Chicago?" she asked, the bitterness finally leaking into her tone.

"There's...complications...especially since Levon's father's died. He's sort of become the patriarch by default." Joe was pic king his words carefully, trying to get the main points across without giving away any secrets.

"And they need him down there?"

"Yeah. Badly. That's the only reason he left before things were settled up here. Because he had no choice."

"Oh. Then they need him more than my grandchildren need their family?" She nodded to herself, saying the words as if accepting Joe's claim, though it was obvious what her statement was designed to do.

"Levon and I are their family," Joe replied, tone short. "Just as much as you and Uncle Mikey are."

But she shook her head. "Joey, I don't want to argue. I just want what's best for those two children. They've lost everything, their parents, and you're making them lose their home, now, as well. Their friends, their school. You think you and your partner can replace those things?"

"Yes, I do. And at least we won't cut them off from what family they have left." Joe's own pain was clear in the words.

"You wouldn't have to, if you stayed here. You could live here, or move closer to Mike and I and we would help you raise them. You know we would, I'd love to have them. I could watch them when you had to work late; I know as a cop you have such a bad schedule sometimes."

This time her malice was covered over with her pain. She desperately wanted to keep what was left of her family near her, Joe realised. And if Levon was not what he was, they might even had been able to reach a compromise and move up here. But the way things were, even if there weren't the animosity between his aunt and uncle and his husband, it was impossible. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

"Does he mean so much, that you can't move here and let me keep my family together?" she asked, forlornly.

"Would you be able to leave Uncle Mike and move to Houston to keep the family together?" He shook his head. "That's what you're asking me to do. I'm every bit as committed to Levon as you are to Uncle Mike. And if Levon were a woman you wouldn't even dare ask that of me."

She frowned. "I don't see how, Joey. If you were married, really married, of course I wouldn't ask you. Marriage is sacred before the eyes of God. What you're doing...it isn't marriage, Joey. No matter how much you think you love him."

Joe felt his temper fraying but held onto it by sheer willpower. "'Think' I love him? I don't think I love Levon, I know I do. Maybe we can't get married legally, but we're married every other way, all the important ways. We even had a wedding at Levon's ranch, almost two years ago now. Tony and Maria and the kids were there."

At that she stared at him, jaw dropped open. "You...you never said.... They never told us. Not even the kids, they would have mentioned something like *that.*"

"Ask them. Or ask Rosa -- she was there too."

"Mama Rosa was...?" Suddenly she looked defeated. "You're going to take them, then, aren't you? Take them to Texas, your and your 'partner'."

"Me and my husband," Joe corrected, emphasizing the relationship. "Yes. It was what Tony and Maria wanted."

She waved her hand, towards the other room. "I'd like to be alone, for a bit. Please."

Sighing, Joe got up and left, feeling rather def eated himself. He had hoped, that maybe.... But it didn't look like there was ever going to be any middle ground with his aunt, that they were going to be at loggerheads for the rest of their lives.

On the other hand, maybe once the shock of losing her son and daughter-in-law eased, she would be able to open her eyes and see that she still had family, if only she would allow it. Joe by-passed the living room, still full of happy voices. He hoped their conversation hadn't been overheard, but from the volume level of the girls' conversation, he rather doubted it had.

That was good, Angie didn't need to hear her Grandmother and Uncle arguing; it had been bad enough when she'd overheard Joe arguing with Mike. Suddenly weary, he headed upstairs to check on Tony Jr.

He found Tony in his room, playing with Benny, and a stuffed bear. As he watched, Benny stomped his way over to the bear, and roared. Grinning, Joe moved forward, taking up the bear and moving it back towards Benny. "Grr," he said.

Startled, Tony grinned. Then Benny attacked back, roaring once more, and waving its front paws at the bear. Joe had the bear growl again, leaning into Benny's face intimidatingly as it did so.

Tony giggled, then made Benny leap into the air and land on the bear's head, knocking him over. Before Joe could retaliate, Tony dropped the stuffed animal and scuttled into Joe's lap.

"I think Benny won," Joe said conversationally.

Tony just nodded. "Benny was madder at Bear."

Sensing there might be more to this than just play Joe asked, "What was Benny mad about?"

Tony frowned, and turned in Joe's lap until he was facing the discarded animals. He didn't answer, at first. Then, without warning, he kicked the dragon.

Startled, Joe's arms tightened around the boy. "Tony...?"

"Stupid dragon," Tony said, kicking at it again.

"Why is he stupid?" Joe asked, all the time wondering if logic might be the wrong approach to take here.

"'Cause he's stupid," Tony answered. He kicked again, this time landing a foot squarely on the dragon's head. Benny flew backwards from the force of it, and out of reach.

Joe had a sudden flashback to his own childhood, and the temper tantrums he had been prone to after his father had died. Suddenly Tony Jr's behavior was making much more sense. "You need to hit something?" he asked the boy, as he reached behind him and grabbed a pillow. "Here, you can hit this."

Balling a fist, Tony did just that. Over and over again, he struck the pillow until Joe saw his face was getting flushed. That was when he moved in and wrapped his arms around the boy again. "It's okay," he murmured, even as Tony Jr. stopped struggling and went limp a gainst him. "It's okay to be mad."

Tony didn't say anything for a while. Joe heard him sniffling a couple times, but he never really began to cry. Then Tony jutted out his lip. "Stupid Benny doesn't *have* a mama and daddy."

"You do, though. Just because they're not here anymore, they're still your mother and father. And they still love you."

"They do?" Tony looked at him, surprised.

Joe's heart nearly broke at the look in the boy's eyes. "Of course they do. Did you think they'd stopped?"

"Well, Mama always tells me when she tucks me in at night. She hasn't since she went away." Tony looked worried.

"I bet she has," Joe told him. "You just can't see or hear her anymore. But I bet if you closed your eyes and remembered her voice and her face, you'd be able to feel her. That's what my mama told me to do when my daddy died."

Tony's eyes grew wide as he absorbed what Joe was telling him. Then he closed his eyes with his face screwed up tight. "I don't hear her," he said after a moment.

"Think back to the night before you all left for Houston. You get in bed and your mama comes in...."

Tony sat silently a few moments more. Suddenly his face changed, losing all its anger. It was replaced with wonder. "I can see her!" He bounced in Joe's lap. "I can!"

"Told ya, kiddo." Inwardly he breathed a sigh of relief. If this hadn't worked....

"And she can tell me good night, every night?"

"All you have to do is clo se your eyes and remember."

The boy nodded, and closed his eyes once more.


Two days later they were packing the last of the stuff they were taking with them in the truck Joe had rented. Joe found himself caught between conflicting emotions; he wanted to leave as soon as possible, the prospect of seeing Levon at the end of the trip inspiring him to even greater speed. On the other hand, he wanted to take this as slow as possible, to give Angie and Tony as much time to say good-bye to their old home as they needed.

The kids seemed torn as well, alternating between asking excited questions about Houston, and running up to their grandparents for one more hug. Mike and Teresa had come to see them off. Carl Barton had shown up also, to help Joe load the van. Joe saw Levon's hand in that by way of Hensen. Not that he was complaining. He definitely could use the help.

"Thanks," he said as Barton handed him another box.

"It's no problem," Carl grinned. "Not when I've got two herd stallions telling me it'd be a Good Thing if I showed up... but honestly, I was glad to have the excuse to come down and see you."

"Yeah? You didn't need the excuse, you know. I owe you for looking after Levon last time."

Carl ducked his head. "He's a good person. It was awful to see him...well, like that. But I would have done it for any visiting stallion with a male human mate," Carl said with a completely straight face.

Joe's lips twitched. "Get many of those?"

"Of course! Why, you and Levon were our second in...132 years."

"I trust no one got blown up in the first case?"

"If they were, that part of it wasn't passed a long in the history." Carl paused in lifting another box, to look down at Tony, who had come to stand at his feet. "You must be Tony Jr."

The boy nodded, eyes wide.

"Tony, this is Carl Barton. He's a friend of your Uncle Levon and me."

"You're a--" he glanced over at his grandparents, then whispered, "A cen-aur?"

Carl grinned and nodded. "You know about us, huh?"

Tony nodded vigourously. "An I've ridden on Levon's back, and I met his whole herd." He leaned closer, and whispered more earnestly, "And I haven't tol' *anybody*! Not even Benny, my dragon."

"Glad to hear that. Wouldn't want too many dragons finding out about us after all." He winked at the boy.

Tony shook his head, seriously. "Sometimes Benny talks when he's not supposed to, so I didn't tell him."

"You think you'll be able to train him out of that?" Joe asked, dropping a hand onto the boy's shoulder.

"I'm gonna try," Tony replied. "If we're living with Unca Levon, I'm probably gonna have a *lot* I can't tell anyone else, and I'd like to be able to tell Benny."

Joe looked down into his eyes, serious for a moment. "You know you can always talk to me about anything, right?"

Tony nodded. Carl gave Joe a smile, then crouched down beside Tony. "You know, dragons are pretty easy to train. You just gotta give 'em a chance. They're like horses that way -- not as smart as the rest of us, but real eager to please."

"'kay," Tony said. Then he looked up at Joe. "We're getting some horses?"

"Uhm..." Joe blinked. "We'll have to discuss it with Levon when we all get home. Okay? Why don't you go check and make sure we haven't left anything upstairs, OK?" Joe asked, seeing the boy start to fidget.

"OK." He ran off towards the house.

Joe watched him go then smiled self-consciously at Barton. "He's a good kid."

"Yeah, I can see that." Carl was looking after him, with an expression Joe suddenly recognised. He'd seen it on Levon's face.

"So has Hensen designated a successor? Or however it is you do that?"

Carl shook his head. "He doesn't 'designate'. Someday, someone's just gonna have to--" He stopped, with a glance towards Angie who was helping her grandmoth er nearby move smaller items to the truck.

"Challenge?" Joe asked, as he watched Barton watch Angie.

Carl nodded. "Probably soon, now, too. Hensen's nearly 58, and I'm--" He stopped again, and shrugged. "If I decide I'm interested, I'm not getting any younger, either."

"You're not any older than Levon."

"Yeah, but that sort of fight is easier if you're younger. Levon's lucky. If I don't wait long enough, Hensen might still be strong enough to kill me. If I wait too long, I might not be strong enough to kill him."

Joe felt his insides tighten. "Does it have to be to the death?"

Carl nodded.

"I guess I have problems understanding that. I mean you're blood, family." Joe shook his head. "Forget it, I know it's a centaur thing and I'm human so I can't be expected to understand."

But Carl just smiled. "That's OK, Joe. I don't expect you to understand. I was raised to think it was normal; you weren't."

That pretty much summed up the whole centaur experience. Though, all in all, he didn't think he was doing too bad. He'd come to redefine his notion of normal until now it almost matched up with the centaur definition. "Well, if it does come to that and you do Challenge, I'll be rooting for you. From what I've seen, you'd probably make a great head stallion."

"Thanks, Joe," Carl said with a surprised smile. "That means a lot to me."

'Maybe they should've asked Carl to come down and take over the herd,' Joe thought suddenly, selfishly. 'Then I'd still have Levon.'

He figured the herd had rather had someone they knew, than an unknown. Joy had talked to him about it once in a slightly different context, but Joe had gathered that each herd was territorial in ways more than simply their land. It explained why Rustin's herd had only tried to seek a new herd stallion from among those who had once been part of their herd, instead of looking to any of the dozens Joe supposed must be out there in the whole of the United States.

He didn't understand it, of course. Biologically speaking it made more sense to *him* that they'd want the outside genes. That, however, reminded him why Levon was down there in the first place and he shoved the thought aside. Humorlessly, he smiled at himself. He'd managed his whole life to stay away from politics, both on the job and in the Family. Figures he'd end up caught up in the centaur equivalent.

"Uncle Joe?" Angie interrupted.

Shaking himself free from his musings he turned his attention to the girl. "Yeah, Angie?"

Her eyes were glowing. When she said, "Tony said we were getting more horses," Joe felt a groan of dread.

"I said we'd discuss it," he clarified but he already knew he'd lost the battle.

Her hopeful expression faltered a bit, then she said, "But I already know how to take care of Fooler. And we really *need* another horse. Tony and I can't both ride Fooler, and you're always on Uncle Levon."

Joe tried to stop himself from blushing, telling himself firmly that she did not mean it like *that*. "We'll talk about it when we get there okay? Maybe...just maybe," he held up a hand to forestall any comment, "the herd will have a horse or two that we can get. No promises though, okay?"

The way her face lit up, he knew he was in trouble. The herd had *better* have a horse they could take.


When the truck was loaded, Carl took off with a final request that Joe let Levon know how helpful he'd been. He'd been grinning as he'd said it, but Joe suspected it was still said in seriousness. It was weird to think about Levon being in that sort of position of power. Weirder still to envision him wielding it. It was something he tried not to think about too much.

Leaving the kids with their grandparents, Joe went back inside the house to phone his husband and let him know they were about to leave.

"How far you gonna be driving today?" was the first question. Joe foresaw half a dozen more like it: worried, 'drive safely' questions.

"Don't know for sure. Until the kids get tired probably. We don't need to push quite as hard as we did on the way up."

"Good. Don't want you driving all the way down, like some folks," Levon said lightly.

Joe grinned. "Just goes to prove who has the horsesense in this marriage."

Levon laughed.

The comment reminded Joe of the little 'horse problem' they had, with the kids and he asked, "There any horses at the ranch looking for a good home?" he asked, making his voice sound light.

"Excuse me?" Apparently he'd taken his partner completely by surprise.

"Angie and Tony have been asking abo \ut getting some horses."

"They have? What for? Huh -- I guess Fooler ain't gonna be enough for both of 'em, though, will she? I'm surprised they're asking, already, though."

Joe squirmed, if only mentally. "Well, Carl and I were talking with Tony and the conversation sort of led the kid to the subject."

"And he got the idea that he and Angie needed more horses?" Levon asked, sounding highly amused.

"Guess so. Angie sees it as one of the advantages to moving to Texas."

"Well, lucky for us both, we've several horses ready to be sold. I can pick out one for Angie...though we might let her have Fooler, and pick out a older mount for Tony. It'll be a couple years before he could handle much horse on his own. You want her when y'all arrive, or you need a few days to settle in?"

Joe blinked. "Uhm... depends. I'll let you know when we get there." He grinned again suddenly. "Gives us an excuse to come out and visit, though doesn't it?"

"You don't need an excuse," Levon said softly.

He felt a warmth spread through him at that. "I know. The fact that you're there is all the excuse I need."

"Yeah...you might wanna call before you come out," Levon added in a voice so quiet Joe could barely hear.

"It's starting?" he asked, even as his stomach clenched. He didn't want to think about this.

"Not yet. Soon, though. By the time you get home.... I won't really know until the day of. That's why you should call first."

"Okay." He hesitated, then asked, "How long will it last? When it does start?"

There was a muffled laugh before Levon answered, "Don't know. Won't, until it starts, and ends. Usually no more'n a few days."

A few days. Maybe, if he was lucky, he wouldn't even know until it was over. Joe didn't know if he could handle thinking about it, imagining what Levon would be doing for those few days.

"Joe?"

"Yeah?"

"I gotta go."

There was an urgency in Levon's voice th at alarmed Joe. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing. I-- it's started. I'll talk to you later. I love you." The last words were spoken in a rush. And then Joe was left listening to a dial tone. Mechanically, he hung the phone up and headed for the door. He wasn't going to think about it, he wasn't....

But the images were already forming in his mind.

It was going to be a long drive.

He found Angie and Tony with their grandparents. Mike was crouching in front of them, talking to them earnestly. He cut off suddenly when Joe walked up, then said, "This is it. Come here, gimme a hug." He pulled the kids towards him for an embrace. Teresa leant down and did likewise.

Joe hung back and watched them. There was no doubt that they loved the kids or that the kids loved them -- though Angie had continued to be a little cool to Mike. He couldn't blame her, though he intended on trying to reconcile them. It might take a while, but he didn't want Angie growing up harbouring those sorts of feelings about her grandfather. Even if he deserved them.

Joe stepped forward to say his own good-byes, feeling the now familiar combination of love, sadness and awkwardness facing his aunt and uncle. Mike and Teresa each simply said goodbye, and drive safely, as they each gave him a hug.

Then Joe was herding the kids towards the truck. Angie paused at the truck door, glancing back over her shoulder at the house she'd lived in all her life. Joe didn't push, just stood and waited while she looked her fill. Finally she turned back with a small sigh and looked up, meeting his eyes. "I'm ready," she said with determination.

Joe smiled at her and reached out and squeezed her shoulder supportively. "Let's go, then."

They scrambled up, Tony getting a lift from Joe. He made sure they were both belted in, as well as Benny, who had been nearly and disastrously packed. As Joe backed down the drive, Angie and Tony began waving at their grandparents. Tony didn't stop until they reached the end of the street.

They were all quiet then, as Joe negotiated the city traffic and headed for the interstate. It wasn't until they were on it and Chicago had been left behind that Angie turned to him and in a somewhat forced-bright voice began, "Now, about those horses..."


Three days later, Joe pulled the truck up into his own driveway. He hadn't realised how much he'd missed being home, or how thoroughly he'd been convinced it was going to be a long time before he'd be able to be here again. But now, most of the tension that he'd been unconsciously aware of, was gone.

Not all of it -- that would only happen when Levon was home as well -- but a lot of it. Enough that its absence left him feeling like he could collapse and sleep for a week, in his own bed. The thought brought a smile to his lips and a lightness to his heart that had been missing since he'd gotten the phone call about the plane crash.

Angie and Tony were out of the truck as soon as he put it in 'park', calling out and heading towards the corral. A minute later Angie came back, frowning. "Where's Fooler?"

"This time of day, probably out to pasture," Joe replied, closing the truck door behind him. "Jesse's been taking care of her and the cats for us."

They both perked up at mention of the cats, and Joe was hard-pressed to get to the front door to unlock it ahead of them. The house, oddly, didn' t smell musty they way he'd expected it to. Maybe Jesse had taken time to let it air out when he'd come to feed Boots and Trouble. Whyever he'd done it, Joe appreciated it. For a moment he simply stood where he was, just relishing in the feeling of being back.

Then he became aware of being stared at.

He looked back at Boots and Trouble. As soon as they saw him looking, they each stood up, turned around, and sat back down. Angie giggled. "I think they're mad at you, Uncle Joe."

"You think?"

"Why are they sitting wi' their backs to us? Don' they like you, Unca Joey?" Tony asked, coming in behind them.

"Yeah they like me. Otherwise they wouldn't be putting so much energy into ignoring me." He grinned. "They're just annoyed that we went away and left them."

"Oh." Tony nodded, then went up to the cats. He reached down to try to pet Trouble, but she moved away. Not too far -- she sat down again where Joe could see, clearly, that he was being ignored.

Joe chuckled. "They'll come around," he promised the boy. "They did this for a few days after we got them fixed, too."

"Uncle Joey?" Angie asked hesitantly, looking around the living room.

"Yeah, hon?"

"Which room am I gonna have?" She looked confused, which was understandable.

He blinked. There was only the one bedroom aside from his and Levon's. One bedroom and two children. What was fine for a two week vacation probably wasn't going to fly on a permanent basis. Which meant... "Looks like we're going to have to add on a room for you. But in the meantime, would it be okay if you shared the guestroom with your brother?" She nodded, but didn't look too happy until Joe added, "You'll have to pick out paint or wallpaper for it."

She grinned. "Can I get roses? Like Grandma Rosa has?"

"Sure. We'll see what we can find okay?" And maybe while they were building, they could finally add on enough room for that hot tub that Joe had been wanting.

"OK. Can I get my bag off the truck?" she asked, eager now. Tony was ignoring them, still trying to pet Trouble. The annoyed cat kept moving out of reach, but never moving out of Joe's line of sight.

"Yeah. The sooner we unload, the sooner we can get settled in."

Just then he heard an engine pulling into the driveway. Surprised, Joe headed back out onto the porch to see who it was. He recognised Chicken's pickup pulling in beside the moving van. There were two other people in the truck with him.

It wasn't until the vehicle stopped and the doors opened that Joe realised they were Maggie and Esteban. He went outside to greet them. Chicken stopped beside the truck, looked at it, then shook his head. As Joe walked over Chicken said , "That's a big truck, LaFiamma. I hope it isn't completely full?"

"Nah, not quite. About half full. We left the furniture in storage back in Chicago." He heard the door open and close behind him and turned to gesture the kids over. They came over hesitantly, Tony staying behind his sister as they drew near. Angie smiled, though, at Maggie and Chicken before taking Joe's hand.

"You remember Chicken and Maggie?" he asked. Angie nodded shyly; Tony did the same after a moment's hesitation. "And this is Esteban. He works with Levon and me."

"You're a po'iceman?" Tony asked hesitantly.

Esteban smiled, and knelt down. "I am."

Tony regarded him for a moment, then held out his dragon. "This is Benny."

"Nice to meet you, Benny," Esteban said, reaching out to shake the dragon's paw.

Angie giggled.

"So, are you ready to get unloaded? Or do you need to make room in the house first?" Maggie asked.

"Let's unload," Joe said after a moment's thought. "We can shove things around inside later if we have to."

"And there's always the barn, if we run out of room," Chicken added. "It's closer, too."

Joe saw Angie frown and quickly said, "Make sure you get all the kids' personal stuff in the house, though."

"How about you and Tony direct, then," Maggie suggested to Angie. "You can tell us where each box needs to be taken."

Angie immediately brightened. "Okay!" Without missing a beat she headed to the back of the truck and waited for someone to open the doors. As soon as the doors were opened, Tony climbed up as well, and they began giving out directions.

It didn't take long to get everything unloaded with so much help. Joe fell back onto the couch, in a room now full of stacked boxes. Esteban, Chicken, and Maggie were similarly flopped onto other pieces of furniture. The cats were sitting nearby, still pointedly ignoring Joe and seeming even more bent out of shape because of all the unauthorised boxes in their domain.

"So. Don't ever move again, Joe, OK?" Esteban finally said.

"Wasn't planning on it," he answered, eyes closed. "Like it here too much."

"Good. I don't want to carry any more boxes."

Chicken laughed. "Remember that when you're ready to leave that apartment of yours."

Maggie asked innocently, "Does this mean you won't help when the clinic moves into a bigger office later this year?"

Esteban just groaned and threw a pillow at her.


Levon sat down at his desk. It still felt like Taylor's desk, somehow, though everything else here had begun to feel like his. The land, the house, the herd. Everything felt right excep t the desk. Maybe he just needed to clean it out and rearrange things, or something. He didn't know, and right now he barely cared. He swung his legs up onto the desktop and picked up the phone. He dialed, then closed his eyes as it began to ring.

After the third ring, it was picked up and a weary voice said, "LaFiamma."

"Joe." He found himself scared, relieved, and encouraged, all at once, to hear his husband's voice.

"Levon!" Joe's tone immediately went from weary to warm and welcoming.

"You get home all right? Everything unloaded?" He focused on the easy things first, hoping they would be enough.

"Yep. Thanks for calling Chicken and the others and having them come help. I'd probably still be at it otherwise. "

"Welcome. I figured as much; I remember when we moved *you* into the house. Damn near took all weekend." It felt wonderful, hearing Joe's voice. He wondered if he could get away with keeping Joe on the line all night. Probably not, he realised. Joe would be exhausted from the drive and the unloading.

"That might have had something to do with the number of 'breaks' we took, cowboy." Levon could hear the smile in Joe's voice.

"Oh yeah." He grinned. "Reckon we coulda finished sooner. How're Angie and Tony? They settling in OK?"

"More or less. Angie's not thrilled with having to share a room, though. We're going to have to build an addition."

"Yeah, reckoned she wouldn't be. There's a contractor you can call, name of Conley. He's done work for me before; was gonna call him earlier but--" But he wasn't going to talk about why he'd been too busy.

Something in his voice must've given something away however because Joe was quiet for a few seconds then asked seriously, "Are you all right, Levon?"

He wanted to say 'yes' and get back to talking about the house. Or the move. Or anything. "I'm--" He didn't know how to explain it. "I'm tired," he finally said. He knew as soon as he said it Joe would probably take that the wrong way -- though he was tired for *that* reason, too. He rubbed a hand over his eyes.

There was another pause. "Do you need me to come out there?"

"No," he said sharply. Maybe too quickly, but the mating wasn't over and neither he nor Joe wanted Joe to be around to face it. "I am gonna come back for a day, after it's all over," he said more calmly.

"When is that going to be?" Joe asked worriedly. His concern for his husband was obvious.

"Couple more days or so." The funny part was, that part he didn't mind. Physically, at least, *he* needed two more days. It was probably all part of the season -- if he cared, he could probably ask Maggie for a medical explanation. All he knew was ever since he'd first caught scent of the mare in heat, half of his brain had been shut off and his entire body had been turned on. The half of his brain that hadn't shut down was aware of just how uncomfortable it was to be reacting on instinct, instead of acting, or even reasoning. He told himself that in a few weeks he was going to give Duke a call and see if his brother felt the same way about it all.

Joe's question interrupted his thoughts. "You going to be able to handle it?"

"Oh, I can handle it." He grinned at himself, not entirely amused. He dropped his voice, in case there were any of his herd close enough to overhear. "I just don't want to be." He'd managed to keep them from knowing just how he felt about all of this. Being herd stallion was, in all other respects, something he wasn't convinced he wanted to give up.

He wouldn't, if it weren't for Joe. But this... it was *because* he was in love with Joe, that made this so difficult.

"What can I do to help? " Joe asked immediately. If he was still having his own misgivings about what Levon was having to do, he was disguising them well.

"I just needed to hear you." The conversation was already helping. He'd felt unable to talk to anyone, even Joy, about how he felt.

"Good, because I have a three day trip to tell you about. And we have to discuss what we're going to want in the addition. And we need to start making arrangements for the kids' horses. I have the feeling we could be on the phone all night."

Levon grinned slowly. "You need to grab some coffee?" He settled back in his chair a little, happy at the prospect of staying on the phone. He had no intention of keeping Joe awake *all* night, but an hour or two would do them both a world of good.


Standing beside his truck, Levon made no move to go. "Are you sure?" he asked for the third time. Joy rolled her eyes.

"Do I have to knock you out and drive you there myself?" she asked exasperated. "Go. We will be *fine*."

Finally Levon nodded. "All right. And you'll call--"

"If something comes up we can't handle, I'll call. But it's not. Now *go*." She smiled at him. "Joe's waiting."

Levon smiled, and jumped in his truck. He'd been anxious to leave for 24 hours, but had been obliged to wait, to make sure no more of the mares were going to go into heat. He hadn't tried to hide his impatience to be gone to visit Joe -- no one blamed him for missing his husband.

No wonder his last second hesitation had exasperated Joy. Truth to tell, it exasperated him as well. He badly wanted -- needed -- to spend some time with Joe, but he couldn't shake the feeling that he was abandoning his responsibilities by doing so. As long as he returned as soon as he could, he figured he'd be OK. They'd be OK. With this one trip home, and mating season over, he'd be better able to settle in to his position.

Besides which, Joe would now be able to come out and visit *him*.

As he drove out, he turned his thoughts away from the herd and towards other matters. He still had to call Conley, for one thing, and make sure the plans for the hot tub didn't show up on the papers he gave to Joe. And he had to pick out a couple of horses and had them taken to the house. He suspected that neither Joe nor he would get any peace until that was done.

The long drive felt longer, somehow, and he found himself speeding up several times. He wanted to get home. As much as he distracted himself with other thoughts, underneath it was that thought. He needed to be home.

It seemed to take forever, but finally he was stopping the truck in his driveway behind Joe's Cobra. There standing on the porch were Joe and the kids. He was out of the truck and heading for them before the engine even died. The kids reached him first, and he scooped them up into his arms.

They hugged him back tightly, both of them babbling away about the trip down here and the addition that was going to be built and we missed you lots and by the way did Uncle Joe mention to you about the horses?

He laughed. "Yes, he mentioned the horses. I've got Sarah picking a couple out. We'll get 'em out here as soon as we can," he promised.

"YEA!" Angie and Tony both jumped up and down. As they let go of him, he stood and took a step towards Joe. His husband closed the remaining distance in a split second and pulled Levon into a fierce embrace. Levon didn't ever want to be let go of. Everything else could vanish, as long as he could remain right here.

But then someone was tugging at his arm and Joe pulled back, though he didn't fully let go.

"You've got to come inside , Uncle Levon," Angie was saying still tugging on his arm.

"I do?" Levon asked, vaguely amused. She was right, of course. There was something he needed to do, inside. Two things, actually, he corrected himself with a glance at Joe. The warm glow in Joe's eyes told him his husband shared that thought.

"Yeah, you do," Joe told him, sliding his fingers down Levon's arm and catching the hand that Angie hadn't commandeered. Tony moved in front of them, and lead them to the door. He opened it with a flourish, as Angie tugged him into the house.

The living room was just the same as the last time he'd seen it, except that it had boxes piled along one far wall and a giant banner that read "Welcome Home Uncle Levon" hung over the far doorway.

"Do you like it?" Angie asked, fidgeting in her eagerness for his reaction.

"It's beautiful." He turned to her, and gave her, then Tony, a hug. "Thank you." It was wonderful, and he was grateful to be home. Inside, he began shaking.

Joe seemed to sense something wasn't right. "Angie, Tony, why don't you go out and take care of Fooler? You're going to need the practice for your own horses."

Angie looked between her two uncles and nodded shrewdly. "Okay, Uncle Joe. And we'll take our time too, make sure we do it right." She gave Levon one more hug, then took Tony and went outside.

Finally alone, Levon gave Joe a grin. "Don't suppose we fooled her, did we?" He wasn't sure he wasn't too tired to *do* anything, however.

"She's a smart kid. And she saw your face." Joe reached out and cupped his cheek. "What's wrong?"

"Mind if I take a shower?"

Joe looked puzzled. "Of course not."

Levon headed for their bedroom, then, moving quickly. He shed his hat and stopped to remove his boots. He needed a long, hot shower, though he couldn't explain just why. He'd showered that morning at the ranch. But he knew that before he could continue to hold Joe, he needed to get clean. So intent was he on doing so, that he didn't even notice that Joe had followed him until he touched his shoulder.

He jumped, startled. He continued shedding clothes, even as he turned to Joe. Joe asked again, "What's wrong?"

"I need a shower," he repeated, and headed for the bathroom. When he got there, he stepped right into the shower and turned on the water, ignoring the initial blast of cold water before it began to warm.

He looked up and saw Joe standing in the doorway, looking at him hesitantly. "Mind if I join you?"

He faltered, then. He managed to nod, but he found himself shaking. Joe quickly stripped and slipped in beside him, arms automatically going around Levon.

Levon tried to hold onto him, but it was too soon. He needed to get clean, first. He needed to do something he'd been unable to do his entire life: he needed to forget. Forget how it had felt these past few days, mindlessly servicing the women who'd needed him, being used for nothing more than the services of a stud, and then sent back to a husband who loved him -- and who hadn't wanted it to happen.

"What is it?" Joe asked, pulling back as he sensed Levon's agitation, but not letting go. Before Levon had a chance to even think of an answer, he asked, "What can I do to help?"

"I just need to get clean," he whispered. "Please...." He wasn't sure what he was asking for: to be left alone until he was through, or for support. He reached for the soap blindly through the spray of hot water on his face.

Joe took it from his fumbling hand. "Let me," he said softly, meeting Levon's eyes with all his love apparent in his own.

"I..." Levon put a hand on the shower wall, and let him.

He stood still as Joe washed him, his husband's movements soothing, almost reverent. After a moment he leaned back against Joe. Arms wrapped around him, his chest and stomach still soapy. He felt a kiss on his neck, and he sighed. "How can--"

"What?" The word was breathed into his ear, as hands continued to caress him.

In a voice he could barely force out, he said, "How can you stand to touch me?"

The hands froze for a moment and the body behind him pulled back, but only far enough to turn him around. Levon found himself looking into his lover's blue eyes as Joe answered. "I love you."

Levon felt himself shaking, again -- or was it still? -- and he shook his head. In a barely audible whisper he said, "Gods, Joe...I've never felt so used in my life." Then he moved forward, hoping...and Joe engulfed him in a hug.

"You did what you had to do," Joe said softly, arms tightening around him.

Levon didn't reply; he let his head fall onto Joe's shoulder and he stood there, letting the hot water run over his back. It felt good, it almost made him feel clean again.

For a long moment Joe just held him, then he gently pushed away again. "Need to finish your shower," he said with a soft grin, and he went back to running his hands over Levon's body gently. He hadn't retrieved the soap, however. Levon shivered. It was taking more and more of his concentration to remain standing.

Then Joe's hands wandered below his waist. Suddenly, all of his concentration stopped caring if Levon remained standing. He leaned forward and grabbed onto Joe, instead. Smiling, Joe leaned forward and kissed him tenderly, then pulled back and dropped to his knees in front of Levon.

Levon shoved his hands against the shower walls to either side of him, bracing himself as firmly and as quickly as he could before he fell. Falling was *definitely* one of the top ten available choices for what he could do next, along with screaming at the top of his lungs and hitting his skull on the shower nozzle.

He managed to groan, loudly.

Joe teased him for a long time, bringing him right to the edge before pulling back, again and again. All Levon could do was tremble, moan, and whimper, totally overwhelmed by what Joe was doing to h im. He felt the wall touching his back; the cold tile made him shiver even more. But he leant against it, trying to grab onto something, anything....

And then suddenly Joe wasn't teasing anymore and Levon felt himself being forced higher and higher, knowing that this time Joe wasn't going to pull back. He felt himself crying out, though he could hear little over the rush in his ears. His throat began to throb, scraped raw all over again by the long shout. He hand slipped, hit something hard and cold and he pushed; then he heard himself call Joe's name, and it hit him.

When he came to, he was sitting on cold, wet tile at the bottom of the shower stall and Joe was crouching before him. "Levon?" he asked, reaching out to gently touch his face, worry in his eyes.

Levon smiled slowly. He reached up and hooked his hand behind Joe's neck, then drew him in and kissed him.

Joe responded wholeheartedly. He was grinning smugly when he pulled back. "Feel clean now?"

Levon ran his fingers under Joe's chin, touching him and realising suddenly that he felt free to do so, once again. He nodded. Joe leaned in for another kiss. When they finally broke it, Levon looked upward and got a faceful of water. "You reckon we should get out while there's hot water left?"

"Might be a good idea." Joe held his hand out and hauled Levon to his feet and into his arms.

It took him a moment to gain his balance, then he leaned against Joe. Giving him a hug, he said, "Thank you."

"What I'm here for, cowboy."

After a moment he reached back and shut the water off. His throat was sore; that last scream had apparently been one too many. The reminder didn't hurt so much, though, now. He kept his hold on Joe as they stepped out of the shower and searched for clean towels.

"How long can you stay?" Joe asked, as he handed Levon a towel, taking another for himself.

"Until tomorrow," Levon admitted reluctantly. It wasn't so much that the herd needed him home, but that *he*, herd stallion, needed to be home with his herd. Feelings about the mating season aside, everything else called to every instinct he had, saying he had to be *there*, tending to his herd.

Joe sighed. "I wish..."

"I know. I wish it, too. I just -- I can't, Joe." He wondered if he could explain this without Joe assuming it meant Levon didn't want to come home, for good. The moments of relaxation he'd felt were vanishing, quickly.

Another sigh. "I know."

He took Joe's hand and tugged it gently as he headed out of the bathroom and towards the bed. Joe followed obediently, not resisting but not initiating anything else. Levon tugged and he followed. That was it.

Levon reached the bed -- one look at it reminded him how much he wanted to be asleep, curled around Joe. He sat down, pulling Joe towards him. Then he held his husband, his face pressed against Joe's stomach. Joe remained perfectly still for a moment, then one hand came up and entwined itself in his hair. "I love you, Joe," Levon whispered. "I don't wanna leave."

"But you have to." It was said with an air of defeat.

Levon heard the tone, and was afraid he understood it. He looked up at Joe. "If I thought for a moment that Stuart could handle the herd I'd call him right now and send him over." He wanted nothing more than to do so -- but he couldn't. Not until he *knew*.

"But you don't. And you don't know when you will." Joe pulled away, moving to the other side of the bed. "I don't know, Levon. I guess I'm just afraid that the longer you stay out there the greater the chance becomes that you'll never come back."

"I have to come back," he said, unthinking. But he looked over at Joe. "This is my home. This is where my family is. Just because my responsibility is out there," he nodded in the direction of the herd's land. "Doesn't change how much I would rather be here."

Some of tension seemed to leave Joe's body at that, and he reached out a hand towards Levon. "I miss you, too," he said with the bare hint of a smile.

"I just need to figure out a way to know when I can trust Stuart with the herd." Levon turned a bit, sitting sideways on the bed, still wishing he could lie down and ignore his problems.

Joe moved closer to him. "Too bad you can't just give him a probation period or something."

Levon stared at him. "A probation period?" It was, he realised as the details of such a notion exploded in his mind, one of those 'why didn't I think of that obvious answer myself' ideas. He grinned. "Joe, have I told you today that you're brilliant?"

"Huh?"

"You're brilliant," he reiterated. "If I retain ownership of the herd, I can simply leave him in charge. Answerable to me, they *all* would be, but he'd get to, well, practise being in control." Levon considered it, and realised -- "Hell, I could send him out next week."

Joe blinked. "Does this mean you'd be able to come home to stay?"

Levon found himself grinning, unable and unwilling to stop. "Unless there were an emergency, or some problem arose Stuart couldn't handle by just calling me on the phone."

"But otherwise we could just go about living our lives like normal?"

"Normal as they ever are," Levon replied.

"Next week?"

"Well, I can't make any guarantees. I gotta call Stuart, make a few arrangements. Warn Joy...." He trailed off, mentally making a list of everything that would have to be done.

"But you could be home by next week?" Joe persisted.

Levon nodded. The next thing he knew he was flat on his back with a very happy, very amorous lover on top of him. "Would that be OK?" Levon asked mildly.

"Okay?" Joe rolled his eyes. "Okay, he says. Levon, that would be so beyond okay that there aren't words to describe it."

"Then you don't mind if I fall asleep, instead of letting you ravish me? Although I suppose we could do both," he added thoughtfully. Then he couldn't hold it back any longer, and he laughed.

Joe watched him, a fond smile firmly planted on his face. "You can't go to sleep, not yet. The kids have a whole supper planned out for you."

Levon groaned. "Not even a nap?" he pleaded. It was suddenly, bizarrely, good to know that he could beg and plead and demand, and Joe still might say no. It was nice not being obeyed all the time. That was another realisation for what it had been like for his husband. When this was all over....

"They've been working on this all day. You're not going to disappoint them."

He sighed. "I won't. But I can't promise to stay awake for long, after." He gave his husband a pleading look.

Joe chuckled, shaking his head . "I've missed you."

"That mean you've missed giving me a rubdown?" He hadn't been *about* to ask for that back at the ranch, though the herd members all took care of each other with brushings and cleaning and anything else that was needed. Levon shivered against the ghost-return of memories of things that were needed, and focused harder on Joe.

"Yeah," Joe said simply.

"Missed giving me a foot rub?" he asked, guilelessly.

"Yeah."

"Missed making me barbecued ribs? "

There was a pause, then Joe said darkly, "Don't push it."

Levon grinned. "So how long before dinner, then?"

Joe craned his head to look at the bedside clock. "Got about an hour."

"You sure I can't take a nap?" His cute look was spoiled by the yawn that cracked his jaw.

Joe's expression instantly softened. "You haven't been sleeping lately, have you?"

Levon shook his head. He'd been getting some sleep, but he'd been... well, mating season took a lot out of a stallion. He didn't want to try to explain that to Joe, however.

He found himself pulled into Joe's arms. "Go ahead. Dinner will keep if you oversleep."

He closed his eyes, then, and tried to tell Joe to wake him when the kids were ready to serve them dinner. He only realised he hadn't, when he awoke.

It was the giggling that woke him. He cracked one eyelid to see Angie and Tony creeping towards the bed. He quickly shut his eye again, and lay still. It was a struggle to keep his face expressionless, but he managed -- until the moment he heard Angie suck in her breath right before they leapt.

He rolled over and caught them as they jumped onto him. They squealed and laughed, then snuggled close. Holding t hem, he looked up and found Joe watching from the doorway. "You trying to tell me it's time for supper?"

Angie nodded. "Tony and I helped make it," she announced.

"You did? What'd you make?" He knew it was a sure bet it wouldn't be barbecued. Luckily Joe had already taught him how to eat pasta without making rude faces.

"It's a su'prise!" Tony told him.

"Oh!" Levon nodded. "I reckon I'd better get out of bed, then, so we can eat."

"That would be a good idea," Joe said from the doorway.

With the kids still in his arms, Levon brought his legs under him, and levered himself out of bed. Tony settled onto one hip, and Angie onto the other.

Joe went to the bureau and pulled out a pair of jeans which he held out to Levon. "New household rule," he announced. "No pants, no dinner."

Levon stopped, and glared. As soon as he realised how fiercely he was glaring he tried to soften it. But instead of arguing about it here and now, he set the kids down, and accepted the jeans his husband was holding.

When he finished donning them he turned back, only to see both kids, but especially Angie, looking at him much subdued. He gave himself a mental kick in the flank, and gave them a smile. "Sorry, guess I ain't completely awake yet. Forget sometimes my family's mostly human." He gave them an apologetic smile.

"S'okay," Angie said and visibly tried to work her enthusiasm back up again and for the most part succeeding. "You ready now?"

"I'm so hungry I could eat a horse," he told her with a straight face.

"Wouldn't that be a bit too close to cannibalism?" Joe asked innocently.

"Always did wonder where the expression came from," Levon admitted. He'd been hoping for more of a giggle from Angie; of all the things he didn't need to do, making things uncomfortable for the kids in their new home was top of the list.

Hell, maybe he *was* still half-asleep.

Joe shrugged. "Sounds better than 'I'm so hungry I could eat a monkey.'"

That got the giggle Levon had been looking for, along with a heartfelt, "Ewwwwww!"

"I dunno. Monkey brains are supposed to be a delicacy," he offered. That was rewarded with an enthusiastic 'eew!' from both Angie and Tony. He glanced down at them. "That ain't what we're having, is it?"

Angie wrinkled her nose. "No!"

He reached out for her hand. "Glad to hear it."

Tony grabbed his other hand and started tugging. "Come *on*!"

Levon went, willingly. The kids dragged him down the hallway, with Joe following along behind. The table had been set quite elegantly, more elegantly than he would've expected actually, and he was pushed into his seat. "You wait here and we'll go get the food," Angie told him.

"Wow." Levon smiled, taken aback by the lengths they'd gone to. "This is wonderful."

Angie's smile lit up the room. "You really like it?"

"I love it, Angie. It's been a long time since I had a table set this nicely for me."

Not that he didn't enjoy the 'table' Joe set for him, using his own body as a plate.... But that was something he was awake enough to know not to mention aloud. The look Joe sent him made him think he wasn't the only one remembering that.

Angie gave a little bounce of excited happiness at the compliment. "Wait until you see the food!" She headed into the kitchen, corralling her brother with her gaze on the way past. Joe made to follow, but was stopped by one tiny imperious hand. "We've got it, Uncle Joe."

"You sure?"

Angie's nod was emphatic.

"Looks like you'd better just sit down, and be served, too." Levon grinned.

"Looks like," Joe agreed and made his way to his own seat. "Yell if you need any help."

The girl rolled her eyes, gave a huge put-upon sigh, then turned and walked into the kitchen.

After a moment, to make sure the kids were out of earshot, Levon leaned towards Joe. "You know what they've made?"

"Of course. Who do you think helped them?"

"Then I don't have to worry about being nice and eating it anyway?" he whispered.

Joe just smiled mysteriously.

He gave Joe a mild glare, which he squashed almost immediately. Angie was heading back to the table, Tony trailing behind. The boy was carrying a basket of buns and Angie...

Angie was carrying a serving platter heaped high with barbecued ribs. Levon felt his jaw drop. Then he was grinning, unable to stop long enough to say a word. "Surprised?" Angie asked, grinning back as she carefully placed the platter on the table.

"Dumb-founded," he agreed. "I never thought I'd see the day a LaFiamma willingly served barbecue for supper."

"Don't get used to it ," Joe warned.

Levon gave the kids a wink. "I reckon, they're still young enough... I can teach 'em to like barbecue."

"I'd have to arrest you for corrupting a minor."

Levon just laughed.


After dinner, Joe and Levon cleared the table. At one point, when both were in the kitchen and the kids were elsewhere, Levon gave Joe his best 'too cute to strangle' expression. He hoped it would soften Joe up enough to let him apologise.

Joe's eyes narrowed. "I know that expression. What is it?"

"I'm sorry. If I'd realised why you were telling me to put on a pair of pants, I'd never have blinked. You just took me by surprise."

"No permanent harm done," Joe replied, waving it away. "Guess I won't be able to just tell you what to do from now on, huh?"

Levon smiled. "Depends on the situation. You tell me something when you've got brushes in your hand, I'll do anything you say." He moved forward and gave his husband a kiss.

"Nice to know some things haven't changed."

Levon remained where he was, happily pressed against Joe. There was a giggle from the doorway. He looked over and saw Angie standing there, her hands on her hips. "Are you gonna do that all *evening*?" she demanded.

Joe looked from her to Levon and back again. "Was considering it," he admitted. "Not going to fly, huh?"

She shook her head, seriously.

"Think we could bribe her?" Levon asked. "Pay her to look the other way?"

"I don't know...what would it cost us?"

She folded her arms, and gave them a Look. Then she asked hopefully, "A horse?"

Levon grinned. "Already taken care of. What--" He was drowned out, then, by happy squeals.

"So does that mean we're off the hook?" Joe asked teasingly.

Angie glared at him. "No. You still have to let go of him." She moved forward, grabbing Levon's hand and pulling at it to get him away from Joe. "You had him this afternoon. We want him this evening."

Levon didn't look over at Joe, to see if his husband was blushing.

"Does that mean you want me to leave?" Again Joe's tone was teasing.

"No!" She grabbed his hand too. "You just have to share."

He looked at Levon and then back at her. "Share, huh?"

She nodded emphatically.

Levon gave him a smile. "Which third do you want?" he asked, as innocently as he could as Angie tugged again, and they followed her into the living room.

Joe leered at him. "I'll tell you later."

Levon laughed. When they got to the living room Angie dropped their hands and turned to face them. Levon asked, "So, what did you want me for?"

She shrugged .

"Any ideas what you want to do?" Joe asked.

She shrugged again.

Casually, Levon asked, "You wanna get some of these boxes unloaded?" He waited a moment as Angie and Tony looked decidedly unenthused, and added, "Or would y'all rather go for a ride?"

"Ride!" both kids shouted.


They stayed out for nearly an hour, with Angie and Tony taking turns on Levon's back and Fooler's. Joe rode with Tony, muttering under his breath that they needed another horse for *him* as well. Levon had laughed long and hard, before calming down enough to tell Joe he was now, officially, a Texan.

Joe had shot back his denial, saying he was still missing the hat, boots and truck.

"So far," Levon had replied. He'd looked over his shoulder at Tony and asked the boy if *he* wanted a hat.

Tony had shouted a cheerful, "Yes!"

Levon had just winked at Joe. His husband had just quoted him back the regulation number on corrupting a minor.

They let Angie handle Fooler, once back at the barn. Levon kept an eye on her as she stripped the saddle, and rubbed Fooler down. She was doing rather well, and he suspected that by summer's end she would be an old hand at horses. When she got the curry combs out, Levon gave Joe a hopeful look.

Joe turned to the kids. "Why don't you two go back in and get ready for bed? We'll be in a bit."

"I have to get Fooler into her stall," Angie explained.

Tony was throwing fistfuls of hay -- at what, no one could tell. But he scooted out of the barn, at the reminder of bed.

"We'll do that," Joe assured her. "Just this once. Go on okay?"

Angie looked from Joe to Levon and back. Then she sighed. "Sharing time's over, isn't it?"

"I'll see you in the morning, Angie," Levon said patiently.

That elicited another sigh, but the girl obediently turned to leave. She paused at the door. "Tuck me in when you come in?" she asked.

"I will, Angie. And remember, it's only gonna be about another week. Before you know it, you'll see so much of me you won't know what to do." Levon gave her a smile, which she finally returned.

She ran back over and gave both him and Joe a hug before finally leaving the barn. Levon waited until they heard the front door banging shut, then he returned his hopeful look to Joe.

Joe lifted an eyebrow. "You want something?"

Levon grabbed Joe's shirt, wound his fingers into the fabric, and pulled Joe a step closer. He kept the pleading expression on his face, watching as Joe struggled to keep his own face straight. When he judged Joe was about to give in and admit he knew what Levon wanted, he said in a pitiful tone, "I've a stone in my hoof."

"Which one?" Joe asked, reaching out and running a hand down Levon's chest.

Levon tried to remember, as he shivered at Joe's touch. Joe moved to the side, his hand sliding along Levon's skin and then down his left foreleg. "This one?"

"Mmmmm." Levon shifted his weight slightly, to allow Joe to pick up the foot. "No," he managed.

He felt his partner move to the other side and pick up the other foreleg. "This one, then?"

"Mmmmm," was all Levon could manage that time. It was strange how a simple touch could make him feel so good, so relaxed. But it did, and it was shutting down his brain rather quickly. He jerked himself back to his senses, setting his hoof back down as he tensed, alert.

"Levon?" Joe had straightened and laid one hand along his withers.

"Sorry. Forgot where I was for a minute, there." Levon tried to shake the memory.

"You okay?" The hand was now rubbing absently.

"Yeah. Just took me by surprise, is all." He sighed, and tried to retrieve his previous mood. "Stone ain't in that one, either."

"One of the back hooves, then?" The concern was still there and the words had lost their teasing quality.

Unfortunat ely, the mood seemed stubbornly to resist returning. Levon sighed again and admitted, "I'm fine, Joe. Just wanted...."

"A brushing?"

"Wanted you waiting on me, hand 'n hoof," Levon answered with a grin. "Love feeling your hands on me." And with that, the mood returned. He relaxed, muscles quivering as Joe patted him.

"I think we can manage that for tonight." Again Levon felt hands trail lightly over his coat, this time sliding down his left rear leg. "Since I've checked the ot her three, the stone must be in this one, huh?"

"Yeah," Levon said, not sure what it was he was agreeing with.

His leg was lifted and he heard the rustle of clothes as Joe leaned over to get a good look at the hoof. He could feel Joe's fingers on him, brushing lightly. He shivered, feeling goose bumps all over his skin.

"Hm. Doesn't seem to be a stone in this one either." He let the hoof down and stood. "Must've worked its way loose huh?"

"Must've," Levon agreed. He turned slightly, towards Joe, and reached for him. Joe moved willingly into his arms, and Levon bent his head and kissed him. He pulled Joe as close to him as he could manage, in their disparate forms.

Joe wrapped his arms around him and held on t ightly. "You want that brushing now or do you just want to go back to the house and to bed?" he whispered.

Levon kissed him again, not bothering with trying to decide. It hardly mattered which they did -- as long as Joe was here, with him, it didn't make a difference.

His husband cooperated for several moments then pulled back and gave him a questioning look. "Well?"

"Huh?"

Joe laughed, shaking his head. Then he leaned in for another brief kiss. "I love you, cowboy."

"I love you, too."


Breakfast the next morning was a rather chaotic affair with two cats underfoot and two kids vying for Levon's undivided attention. Joe just sat at the table and watched in amusement at the by-play happening between his family. He was impressed at how well Levon handled the chaos -- before, he'd always seemed unsettled by it, and had tried to stay out of it. Apparently being herd stallion had changed him in this way, too.

It was definitely another unexpected change, but one that Joe thought he wouldn't have much problem getting used to. He liked this new Levon and was looking forward to them relearning how to relate to each other.

And it was a relief not to have to guard his words quite so closely anymore.

Levon seemed to be handling parenthood well, also. Not that he'd ever been bad at it, but he *had* been uncertain about his ability to raise two human children. Now he easily cajoled Tony into eating his cereal without spreading it all over the tabletop in between explaining to Angie what her responsibilities would be towards her horse. Between all of that, he stopped and sent smiles and kisses to Joe -- and managed to eat his own breakfast.

Joe himself was content this morning with just watching. He knew most mornings he would be in the middle of the chaos as much as his husband, so just this once he wanted to sit back and observe, taking the time to cherish what he did have.

As the kids were sent to clear the table, Levon came over and raised Joe's chin. He leant down and kissed him. When the kids were out of earshot, he whispered, "I need a break!"

Joe almost laughed but he could see the beginning of desperation in Levon's eyes. Instead he just squeezed Levon's arm and told the kids to go make their bed and tidy their room. "We'll be in to inspect it in half an hour so do a good job."

Angie rolled her eyes, but took Tony by the collar and nudged him ahead of her. Levon sighed, and sat down on Joe's lap.

"Overwhelmed?"

"A little. Ain't so bad, at the ranch -- enough mares to distract the kids when they start ganging up on me. And there's so *many* of them...well, I don't get too much of any one kid. If that makes sense?" He grinned. "Besides which, I don't have to worry about talking them *into* anything."

Joe smiled back. "You're doing great with them."

"Thanks." Levon leaned against him, and Joe c ould feel him relaxing. "Do most human parents run away from their kids every so often? Hide in the barn for an hour?"

"Most don't have a barn, but yeah. Most parents need a break every now and then. They'll go out for a night and leave the kids with a sitter or a relative or even go away for a weekend or so, without the kids." He sobered suddenly. "Like Tony and Maria were doing..."

Levon nodded. He put his hand on Joe's cheek, and smiled, softly. "I love you. Realise it's been nineteen minutes since I told you, last."

"You were busy," Joe teased.

"I was," Levon replied, and kissed him again.

They were on the third, or possibly fourth depending on how you counted them, kiss when they heard Tony asking, "Are they always gonna be doing that?"

"I think it's romantic," Angie said.

Joe looked at her. "Know a lot about romance, do you?"

She nodded. "And I think it's nice that you two are. My friend Christine, her mom and dad don't even like to hold hands or hug when anyone's around. Christine says they don't fight, but they don't get all romantic, either."

Levon gave Joe a smirk. "Sounds to me like we've permission to keep on." And he gave Joe a fifth -- or whatever -- kiss. Angie giggled and out of the corner of his eye Joe noticed her hustling her little brother out of the room. When Levon broke the kiss, he asked, "Reckon we oughtta go inspect their room?" He wriggled slightly, indicating what he'd rather be doing.

"Yeah." Joe didn't move though except to tighten his arms on Levon's waist. "In a minute. Or two."

"We still have time before our half hour is up."

"Want to be romantic some more?" He gave Levon his best leer.

Levon just kissed him, again.


The drive back to the ranch seemed to take no time at all. Levon was distracted by plans for the additions to the house which they'd discussed briefly that morning. They'd agreed to let Joe contact Conley and make all the arrangements, so they could get the room finished as soon as possible.

He was also thinking of everything he'd need to explain to Joy, when he ran his plan by her. It wasn't that he had to convince her it would work -- he simply had to *tell* her, and the rest of them, to do it and they would. But he didn't like to resort to mere commands. If Joy went for it straight away, things would go a lot more smoothly. And Stuart would stand a chance of surviving.

Levon knew he'd have to clear everything with her before arranging to meet with Stuart. The boy would have to come out to the ranch, as the only safe place the two stallions could talk.

It took him a few hours once he was back before he was able to pull Joy aside and broach the subject to her. To his relief, she endorsed the plan wholeheartedly. The next step was talking to Stuart himself. Levon phoned and made arrangements for the young stallion to come out to the ranch in a couple of days to discuss the situation.

The next two days were spent in nervous anticipation. He hoped he had everything worked out -- and that any problems which arose could be dealt with enough to allow the arrangement to work . The whole point of it was, after all, to allow Levon to go home.

He talked briefly to Joe on the phone in the evenings, but aside from informing him of the timetable, Levon had avoided the subject. Instead they'd talked about the kids, the construction which was scheduled to start next week, anything but Stuart and the plan. There was just too much at stake. Neither of them wanted to jinx it somehow.

Finally Levon was pacing the yard beside the house. Most of the rest of the herd was out in the fields, giving him space to work off his anxiety, as well as giving him privacy for when Stuart actually showed. Carla had shooed him out of the house after he'd tried pacing in there. Some things not even a herd stallion could get away with.

It seemed an eternity but the call finally came that a truck was heading in from the road.

Stuart.

Suddenly the nervousness left him -- no matter what Stuart said about the offer, right now Levon was in charge. The position gave him the authority to relax. He waited, watching the road until the truck came into view.

Stuart pulled up in front of the house, got out, and walked over to where Levon was standing. He'd grown a lot since Levon had last seen him, the time he'd first brought Joe here to meet the herd. Gone was the angry, confused kid. In his place stood a confident and self assured man. A young man to be sure, but a man nonetheless.

Levon felt himself relaxing just a bit more. He held out his hand, an d was glad to see Stuart accept it, willingly. Levon led him inside, to his office, and told him to sit down.

The younger stallion did, then gave Levon a frank look. "You wanted to see me."

"I did. Stuart... you and I both know you're gonna be taking the herd over, when you're ready."

No one had made a big secret of that, although Stuart himself had not been told until *after* mating season. Had he felt obligated, he might have come to take the herd before Levon could do so, and been unable to hold the herd at all.

Stuart smiled slightly. "Bet you never thought I'd be taking it from you when you had that talk with me four years ago."

Levon laughed. "Sure as hell didn't. But -- I reckon I'm glad it turned out this way." He could tell Stuart was not entirely at ease with him. He couldn't blame the boy -- they didn't have the sort of truce Levon had had with Taylor. Stuart didn't know, yet, what his relationship with Levon was going to be.

It could always, if Levon decided to hang on, still come to a challenge.

He was hiding his unease well though, another good sign. "You told me to learn all I could and be patient, that my time would come. It was good advice then and it is now. I don't want to fight you, Levon. As long as the herd is in good hands I can wait. My time *will* come."

Levon nodded, calmly. "I know. Wondered how you felt about getting ready a little early, though?"

"What do you mean?" Stuart asked, looking puzzled .

"I mean, everyone knows I'd rather be home. But I can't -- I have a responsibility to be here. Rather, I have a responsibility to make sure the herd is being taken care of. If I had someone here keeping an eye on the daily stuff, I could come out just when I was needed." He watched Stuart's face, as he spoke. The boy understood what he was saying, but was obviously hesitant to jump to conclusions.

"Like a stand-in? Or something like a...a.. vice president? Or a runner up in a contest?"

"Like my lieutenant. You'd be responsible for taking care of things as if you were in charge -- but I won't hand the herd over until I *know* you're ready." He had to make sure that point was very clear. "This ain't just for show, but it ain't you being herd stallion, either. If you aren't willing or able, we'll wait until you are, and you can go home right now, no harm and no foul. But if you *are* interested, it'll be a way for you to learn your job without either of us making any moves we can't undo."

"Herd stallion-in-training? It's never been done before." Stuart smiled. "Maybe it should've, though. There'd be fewer cases of stallions taking over who have no business running anything."

Levon nodded. "If it works, we can start a trend." Then he laughed. "If you think we can convince ones like Chester...."

"If you came up with a lot of long, boring rituals around it and translated them into Greek, you might have a chance."

"We might," Levon replied, seriously. At Stuart's look of horror, he grinned and explained, "For Chester, not you. So, what do you think?"

"When would I move out here?"

"Soon as you like. I've everything already taken care of; it's just waiting for you to agree."

Stuart nodded. "I'll need probably a week to get all my loose ends tied up. Give notice at my job, that kind of thing."

And with that, it was done. There were details to be solidified, of course, but Levon found himself looking at a guarantee that he could go home, and *stay* home, in a week's time, rather than the half-year or even year he'd counted on. He couldn't wait to phone Joe and tell him.

Stuart stood to go. "I should probably start getting everything ready. I'll keep in touch, let you know exactly when I can come out." He started for the door, then stopped and came back. Holding out his hand to Levon, he said softly, "Thank you."

Levon took it, grateful he felt confident about his decision. "You're welcome, St uart. I know you'll do me right."

"I'll try. But more than that, I'll do right by the herd."

At that, Levon smiled, wide. Stuart was going to make a fine herd stallion -- soon as he grew a little. He already had the attitude for it. "Feel free to pester Joy for anything you need," he told Stuart, as he saw the boy out of his office.

Stuart grinned wryly. "That'll be a change."

"Don't I know it."


Five days later, Levon pulled up in front of his house. For good this time, he told himself, and he leapt out of the cab with a huge smile. He grabbed his duffel bag off the seat and slung it over his shoulder, shut the door with a satisfying slam, then turned towards the house. As he walked towards the house, the front door banged open; seconds later he had his arms full.

"Uncle Levon! Uncle Levon!" That was about all he could make out of the steady stream of chatter from both kids hugging him. He laughed and hugged them back tighter. He heard the front door open again and looked up to see Joe leaning against the doorway smiling at him.

"Hey, partner," Levon greeted him. He wanted to grab Joe and not let him go for a year; however, there was something to take care of first. A lot of somethings, he added, ruefully. But as soon as two wriggling apes were safely preoccupied, he was gonna latch onto Joe and not let go 'til morning. He looked down at aforementioned kids and asked, "Did somebody here order a couple horses?"

The resulting squeals of delight almost deafened him. He led them around to the trailer, trying to get them calmed down before he opened the gate. He'd had Sarah pick out two of the gentlest mounts who were used to, and liked small children. But that didn't mean they needed to be startled by hyperactivity their first minute here.

It took some doing but both children managed to calm themselves somewhat, though Tony still bounced in place and Angie was practically vibrating with the effort of staying still. "We cleaned out and got ready two stalls," Joe said, as he walked over to join them.

"Good. Fooler'll be glad to have more company. Been after me for years--" he cut himself off a she headed into the trailer to back out the first horse.

"Sometimes I worry about the relationship you have with that horse," Joe commented.

Levon didn't dignify the jib with a response -- if he explained just how much Fooler *did* nag at him...no pun intended...Joe would never let him hear the end of it. He instead concentrated on getting the first mare out, and handed the reins to Angie. "Her name's Wildflower. One of the toddlers named her," he added with a smile. Sarah had tried to talk the girl into naming the horse at least with the name of a specific flower, but the foal had been determined.

Angie took the reins, staring up at the mare reverently. "She's really mine?"

"She's really yours. As long as you take proper care of her."

Joe pulled a couple of carrots out of his pocket and handed one to Angie. "Here, you can give her this," he said.

"OK." Angie took the carrots, and, with a serious expression, held one out. Wildflower accepted this as the treasure it was and happily began munching.

"Is that one mine?" Tony asked, tugging on Levon's pantsleg, and pointing.

"When you're older, she'll be all yours. For now, your Uncle Joe is gonna help you take care of her." Levon quickly busied himself on guiding the horse out of the trailer, ignoring the look he knew Joe would be sending him. He handed the lead rope to Tony, keeping a hand on the mare's halter. "This one's name is Eurydice."

Tony's face scrunched up in concentration as he tried to repeat the name. What came out sounded more like "Furry Dice."

Levon just nodded, and told Tony to take her to the barn. As Tony began to lead her away, Levon stepped back, then looked at Joe. "Well, you gonna just stand here?"

Joe reached back into his pocket and pulled out another carrot, holding it out to him like he was a horse. Levon stared at it for a moment, then grabbed it and took a bite. Laughing, Joe moved in closer, slipping his arms around Levon's wa ist. "Welcome home."

Happy now that he was right where he wanted to be, Levon returned the embrace. "Nice to *be* home. Much as I'd love to stand here and get molested, I think we'd better go make sure Tony hasn't got his hands too full."

"Yeah." He leaned in for a quick kiss before letting go of his husband. "And what was all that about me helping him with the horse? Don't you mean 'we'?"

Levon looked back at him, surprised. "I've already *got* a horse. Well, 36, actually."

Without missing a beat, Joe shot back, "Then helping out with one more won't make that much of a difference."

But Levon shook his head. "Don't have to. That's what *my* herd is for. To tend to the horses." He kept his face as straight as he could, while his comment sank into Joe's brain.

"Is this where I point out we're your family, not your herd?"

"Depends. You reckon on doing whatever you're told?"

Joe just snorted. "Yeah, right."

"You think the kids'll do whatever they're told?" he persisted.

"They're LaFiammas. What do you think?"

Levon rubbed the side of his nose. Then he shook his head. "Ain't herd, then. Though y'all are herd-headed enough." He ducked out of Joe's reach, and headed into the barn.

Joe caught up quickly. "You're still helping with the horses."

"Only 'cause they'll *listen* to *me*," Levon replied.

"Considering your relationship with Fooler, you sure that's not the other way around?"

"Why do you think I picked these two?" He nodded at the two newcomers who were eyeing Fooler, the barn, and the kids. Angie was showing Tony how to brush his horse.

Joe laughed softly as he watched Tony stand on tiptoe and still not reach the top of Eurydice's back. "We're going to have to get him a stool of some sort."

"Nah, just start feeding him grits. He'll grow soon enough."

His husband made a face. "Grits are almost as bad as barbecue."

They took a few minutes to make sure the kids knew what they could, and could not, do with their new horses. They weren't allowed to go riding without adult supervision until Levon and Joe were confident they wouldn't get into trouble, but the list of what they were allowed was long enough to keep them occupied. Once the kids were firmly focused on the horses -- and would be for hours, Levon knew -- he turned to his husband. "You think they'll be all right, by themselves?" He grinned, knowing perfectly well they would be. At least, they'd *better* be.

Joe grinned. "You kidding? We're probably going to have to bodily drag them in when it's time for bed."

"Think they'll mind -- or notice -- if we head to the house?"

"What did you have in mind?" Voice low and husky, Joe's eyes glinted with anticipation.

Levon glanced sideways; Angie was trying to help Tony reach 'Fuzzy Dice's' back. He looked back at Joe. "Something I shouldn't describe in front of the kids? Or the horses, for that matter."

"Was hoping you'd say that. Though I thought we'd end up having to wait until the kids went to sleep."

"Why do you think I brought the horses with me?"

"I thought because the kids would've sent you back to the ranch to get them if you'd shown up empty handed."

Levon shrugged, though he knew Joe was right. "Does it matter? You wanna stand here and debate it, or go inside?"

"When you put it that way...."

Joe hesitated just long enough to tell the kids where they were going and to ask not to be disturbed for anything short of an emergency. Angie nodded, a tiny smile on her face. She spoke quietly to Tony, when he frowned their way and he went back to brushing Eurydice's foreleg.

Levon took Joe's hand, then, and led him out of the barn. They walked to the house quickly, neither saying anything and neither touching the other save for where their hands were clasped. As soon as the front door closed behind them, Levon let go of Joe's hand and touched Joe's back. He ran his hand down, onto the swell of Joe's buttock, and then back up -- all the while gently pushing his lover farther along, towards the bedroom.

Joe chuckled at his eagerness, but cooperated easily enough. Looking back over his should er he asked, "Shouldn't your brain have shut down by now?"

"Not yet. Give me a couple seconds." Levon let Joe move ahead of him, and he put his other hand on Joe's butt, briefly, giving it a squeeze then placing both hands flat on Joe's back and pushing. "If you'll stop loitering, I can get you horizontal while I can still make plans."

"Plans?" his husband asked, even as he complied with the request and started for the bedroom again.

"Something other than 'strip him down and grab him'. Although that'll do, too." Though his husband was moving, Levon couldn't keep his hands off him; he followed as closely as he could without tripping them up. "I wanna know what we're doing, for once...not just feel it and react to it."

J oe paused then, turning to pull Levon into his arms. "You need to be the one in control this time, don't you?" he asked seriously. "Because of...."

Levon shook his head. "Will be, anyhow. I just wanna see you--" He stopped as Joe's jaw dropped . They were just inside the bedroom, Levon standing in the doorway. He smiled at Joe and asked, "Do you mind if I take you this time?"

For a long moment all Joe did was stare at him. Then, seeming to shake off his shock he gave his answer in actions, not words, as he leaned forward and kissed Levon passionately.

Levon started unbuttoning Joe's shirt, shoving it down and out of the way before Joe broke the kiss. When he did, Levon put his hands on Joe's chest and asked, "That a 'yes'?"

"Hell, yeah!"

"Then how about you get undressed while I watch?" Levon leaned against the wall, casually. Faking it, rather.

Joe blinked at the request, not moving as he seemingly took a few seconds to process. Then with slow, deliberate moves and the leer that Levon loved so much, Joe stripped in front of his lover.

Levon simply watched. It was a gorgeous, wonderfully arousing thing to see -- bit by bit more of Joe's body was revealed. A body he had memorised that first time he'd seen it, albeit briefly, that morning so long ago, but the impact never faded. By the time Joe was standing naked before him, Levon was more than ready to throw him onto the bed.

But Joe held up a hand in a stopping motion, before moving closer. "You're a bit overdressed for this party, cowboy," he said, before he deftly started undoing Levon's shirt.

Levon held himself still, as Joe undressed him. It was difficult, fighting the urge to grab Joe anyhow. But he remained standing, offering no hindrance, until he was as naked as his lover. He was trembling, though, and as soon as Joe stepped back, he moved.

First he grabbed Joe by the waist and kissed him, as thoroughly and deeply as he could. It wasn't like Joe was trying to get away, if anything he was trying to press himself closer, returning the kiss just as thoroughly.

Levon kept his grip on him, but tried to move him towards the bed at the same time. When he reached the point of let go or fall, he stopped.

When the cessation of movement penetrated Joe's brain, he pulled back, looking at Levon with passion-dazed eyes. "What?"

"Trying to decide...." It was growing much more difficult to think, even though he was struggling to keep his focus and not lose himself. But the longer he stood there, with Joe's body pressed against him, with Joe looking at him with such clear, open blue eyes....

Joe seemed to sense what he was feeling, because after he leaned in and gave him a soft lingering kiss, he pulled away and laid down on the bed and closed his eyes, waiting for whatever Levon chose to do. Levon decided it was simplest to start with what was closest. He knelt beside the bed and kissed the instep of Joe's left foot. Then he kissed the side, then the ankle. He worked his way slowly up Joe's leg, stopping at the knee. Then he went down to the right foot and began again. He heard Joe catch his breath and felt him shift his weight involuntarily, but other than that he remained still. Passive.

Submissive.

Levon growled, low in his throat, and continued working his way up. His hands clenched a little harder as he grabbed Joe's legs, moving his way slowly up. He nuzzled at Joe's erection but then moved past, continuing to place kisses up Joe's stomach. There was a soft whimper from above him and out of the corner of his eye he could see Joe grabbing the bedspread in a white-knuckled grip.

He chuckled, once. "You don't have to lie still, you know," he whispered, and placed another kiss on Joe's chest, moving his own body up -- and on top of Joe.

Immediately Joe let go of the bed spread and wrapped his arms around Levon, hands roaming restlessly over his back. Levon groaned happily and continued tracin g a long, circuitous route up Joe's body. By the time he reached Joe's lips, his husband was squirming under him, hands gripping Levon's hips to get leverage to thrust up against him. Levon held him down by lying his weight as fully on him as he dared, and kissing him again, opened mouthed and with as much tongue as he could. He let Joe thrust against him until he felt his husband begin to shake uncontrollably.

Joe cried out in wordless protest when he moved away then, and tried to pull him back down. But Levon slid to one side, pulling Joe over. He reached down and began playing his hand up and down Joe's buttocks, squeezing gently once, then running a finger down the cleft.

Joe shivered even more at that, burying his face against Levon's shoulder as he panted for breath and held on like his life depended on it. Levon wrapped one arm around him, holding him tightly as he continued to move his hand closer. He felt Joe trembling against him, felt his own urgent need to climb on Joe's back and take him, take him now and to hell with waiting until he was ready.

That was the other reason he needed to keep his wits about him. The mares he'd been unable to hurt, ready and able to handle the ferocity of his mating. Joe, on the other hand, had been years without this particular act of loving and Levon would never forgive himself if he injured his husband simply because he couldn't keep his head.

Joe wasn't going to be much help, seemingly totally caught up in the sensations, too far gone to worry about things like being injured, just wanting it and wanting it now. Levon held onto his control as tightly as he could, drawing himself back away from his lover as he slipped one finger inside. Moaning, Joe thrust back, begging for more.

Levon gave it to him -- getting one finger inside, feeling the muscles clenching hard and tight. A single thought of what was next hit him then, and all thought vanished. He rolled Joe over and positioned himself behind him, ready to thrust. But Joe pulled away when he realized what was happening, rolling over to fumble in the drawer of the nightstand. Rolling back, he kissed Levon, then pressed a small tube into his hand. Lube.

Levon barely managed to flip the cap off and squeeze some into his hand before his body screamed at him to move. He quickly spread the lube over himself, and thought to do the same to Joe -- stretching him again as well. Then he grabbed onto Joe by the shoulders, and shoved.

Joe yelled and pushed back, taking all of Levon in one long thrust. Then he froze, his breath coming in short gasps, bracing himself against the headboard he was gripping for support. Levon didn't stop moving. He thrust forward, again, and again. He held onto Joe tightly, fingers digging into Joe's shoulders. He heard himself begin to scream and clamped his jaw shut in the last vestige of rational thought left to him.

Below him, Joe bucked and moaned, moving with him, shifting slightly as much as he could to change the angle of penetration until he suddenly stiffened and yelled again. Levon shifted his own knees up, giving himself more leverage. He pounded into Joe, pushing them both up, threatening to slam them into the headboard if Joe's hold slipped. Levon didn't care, he barely noticed. He held Joe down and took him with everything he had.

Joe was crying out with everything thrust, trembling and panting for air. The tiny part of Levon's brain that was still noticing things knew it wouldn't take much more to push his lover over the edge. He wasn't far, himself. He reached around and grabbed his lover's erection, tugging on it only twice before Joe stiffened underneath him. Levon held himself still for the brief moment it took for Joe to c ome.

Then, when Joe began to collapse bonelessly to the bed, Levon braced both of them and started moving again. He rested his head against Joe's back for a moment, soaking up the heat and the scent of his lover. He moved more slowly now that Joe was loose and relaxed. Joe stirred and moaned slightly after a moment, but the sound was more sated than aroused. He seemed content to lie there and let Levon take whatever he needed.

Levon continued thrusting, holding onto Joe with one arm wrapped around his waist and one hand braced against his back. He moved one leg, trying to wrap it around Joe's. Another moan, this one a bit louder, as Joe shifted, cooperating and moving in tangent with Levon.

Now able to hold on better, Levon was able to put more power into his thrusting. Each one was hard, and as deep as he could go. He started panting, and bit back another outcry. Joe was making noises with each thrust again, little grunts that were more than half air, but they were enough to egg Levon on even more. He continued thrusting, mindless, but with the feeling of love and passion that had been missing when he'd mated. He held onto Joe tighter.

Levon had no idea how long it was before he was throwing his head back, grip tightening. His body began shaking out of control and he screamed, long and hard as he shoved himself inside Joe, one more time. As he came, he continued moving with tiny, ineffectual thrusts.

Still tangled, they slumped down onto the bed and just lay there for a moment catching their breaths.

Levon made no attempt to move away, and thus out of, Joe. He let his head fall onto Joe's shoulder and left it there, trying to catch his breath. After a moment, Joe fumbled until he was able to find Levon's hand with his own and entwined their fingers together with a contented sigh. Levon snuggled in a bit more, and closed his eyes.

"Levon?"

"Mmm." Levon sighed, and felt himself turning into thin mud.

"Move."

"Erm?" Levon leant back slightly, even as he tried to figure out what his husband was saying.

"Move, will ya? I'm lying in the wet spot."

He leant back farther, certain that Joe was saying something important -- in that tone of voice he had to be. But his brain was completely shut down, and his body was demanding why he was still trying to move away from his husband. As Joe shifted in his arms he automatically tightened his grip; then the words registered, and he scooted backwards. "Sorry ," he offered, sheepishly.

Joe winced slightly as Levon left his body, then turned over onto his back, shifting to the other side of the bed. He squirmed around a bit, getting comfortable, then held out his arm for Levon. Levon scooted back into his embrace, ready to shut back down again. But his brain was working again -- if slightly -- and he asked, "You all right?"

The arm wrapped around him tightened at the question. "I'm great. May have trouble sitting down tonight but it was worth it."

Levon smiled at him, slowly, feeling so completely and thoroughly content that he couldn't bring himself to worry much about tonight. Then he blinked. "We doin' something tonight?" If they stayed in bed, who cared if Joe could sit down?

Joe quirked an eyebrow at him. "Nothing out of the ordinary. Just that we're doing it with the kids. Our kids. Remember?"

Levon blinked. "Angie, Tony? Dark hair, dark eyes? Tendency to giggle?" He still had no idea what they were *doing* . Unless, of course, Joe meant supper.

"That's them. They're not going to stay out in the barn forever, new horses or no new horses."

"Bet they will, if we give 'em sleeping bags." Levon closed his eyes again and cuddled his husband.

"We're not making them sleep in the barn," Joe stated firmly. "Well, not the first night we're all home, at least."

Levon laughed. "Gonna wait until they misbehave?" He raised his head, though it felt like it weighed a freaking ton, and gave Joe a light kiss.

"Wait until they ask, which they probably will, first time there's anything wrong with any of the horses."

"Hell, *I* usually sleep in the barn when there's something wrong with the horses."

"*We.*"

"So, we need a bigger hayloft." Levon stretched as well as he could without letting go of his husband. Then he tried to see if his brain was more awake yet.

Didn't seem to be.

"What are we doing, then, tonight? Besides letting the kids back in the house?"

Joe shrugged the shoulder Levon wasn't lying on. "Didn't have anything particular planned. Just...act like a family?"

"Ah. I can do that." He grinned, though he knew Joe couldn't see it. "Just making sure I hadn't forgotten any plans. Feels like I mighta lost some brain cells, there."

"Yeah. That was...intense."

"Have to do it again, so we can get used to it." Levon smirked.

"Look forward to it." Joe grinned but there was something in his tone that told Levon there was something he wasn't saying.

Levon raised his head again, and looked at him, fully awake. "What?"

Joe shook his head. "It's nothing really."

"What?" he asked again, softly.

"It's just...you don't see me as dominant over you any more, right?"

Levon shook his head. "You ain't, anymore. See you as my equal." He started to reach for Joe's face to caress him, and stopped as he saw the relief. "You worried about--?"

Joe gave him a ru eful grin. "Didn't think I'd be any good at being dominant, but I managed that. But I think I would've been a hell of a lot worse at being subordinate."

With a grin, Levon hugged him, then continued his move to caress Joe's cheek. "I think you'd be *hell* as a submissive. Last about ten seconds, then you'd pout and decide you didn't want to, anymore." He kissed the closest spot on Joe's chest, then added, "But you were, you know."

A faint blush tinged Joe's cheeks. "That was different."

"I mean -- you were good at being dominant." Levon grinned at Joe's embarrassment, but scooted up a bit, and forward until his forehead rested against Joe's. "I love you."

The arms around him tightened. "I love you too." Joe kissed him gently, then whispered, "Welcome home Levon."


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