In the Centaur Ring

Breakfast was chaos again.

That was probably not going to change until the kids were both off on their own, college or homes of their own. Joe shook his head. 14 years, at a minimum. Between the cats on the table, the kids arguing over the cereal box (there was some sort of puzzle on the back, which Angie insisted Tony couldn't do, but which he didn't want his sister to have), and Levon abandoning him to the mess in favour of feeding the horses -- Joe was happier than he'd been in a very long time.

All the noise and chaos meant one thing: family. And he wouldn't change it for anything in the world.

Things were a bit more chaotic than usual this morning because this was Levon's and his first day back at work. They would take the kids over to Jesse's after breakfast before heading in to the station for the first time since they'd taken a couple of weeks off to babysit Angie and Tony while their parents went on a second honeymoon.

They'd originally taken a leave of absence; Lieutenant Beaumont had given them six months each once things had hit the fan. She'd been pleasantly surprised to hear they'd be back much earlier. The delight had lasted only a few minutes, then she'd told them to be in her office at eight.

Angie and Tony seemed to be looking forward to spending the day with Jesse. Joe suspected it was because Jesse had offered to bring them back over so they could ride Wildflower and Fuzzy Dice. Jesse was nothing if not familiar with how to deal with kids and keep them happy *and* in line. They would be in good hands.

It didn't stop Joe from having a twinge of guilt at leaving them, however. Even though things had had time to settle down some, the whole situation was still so new to all of them.

"What's wrong? Coffee too weak?" Levon asked as he came into the room. Tony looked up and complained that Angie wouldn't let him have the cereal box. Angie counter-complained that Tony couldn't read so he didn't *need* it.

Joe shook off his mood and grinned at his husband. "Weak coffee is the least of our problems. As usual."

"But the one easiest to solve," Levon replied as he grabbed Joe's mug and tasted the coffee. He spared a glance at Angie and told her to share the box, pointing out that if Tony couldn't read, it wouldn't take him long to be done with it. The girl pouted but did as she was told. Things quieted down then.

For a few minutes.

Levon made a face at the coffee and headed for the kitchen -- with Joe's mug. Joe sighed and followed grabbing another mug for himself. Things like that had never happened when he was dominant. At least he could have stopped them when they did, if he'd cared to.

He found Levon testing the coffee in the pot. His husband made a face and poured it out. "Which one of us made this? And *when*?" He got the grounds out and started to prepare a fresh pot.

"Didn't you make it when you got up this morning?"

"Yeah. Apparently I wasn't awake yet." Levon gave him a smile. They'd been up early, that morning. In a manner of speaking.

Joe grinned back. "I can put up with bad coffee for mornings like this one."

"Tell you what, I'll buy you a real cup of coffee at the station." Levon stopped before pouring any grounds into the filter.

"We have been away from work too long if you think the slop they serve there is real coffee."

"You're forgetting about Burglary." Levon grinned. It was an open secret at the station that the best place for a cup of coffee was the sixth floor. The trick was, of course, convincing Sergeant Anderson, whose desk was right in front of the coffee pot, that you had a reason to be there. The cops in Burglary were more than a little possessive about their coffee.

"Got a way to get by Anderson figured out?"

"Oh, yeah." Levon nodded, but didn't explain. He left the coffee pot sitting by the sink, and headed back toward the dining room just as Tony's voice raised in pitch and volume.

"Le' GO!!" he was shouting, tugging on the cereal box, as they walked back in. He looked up at them, retaining his grip on the box. Angie had let go of it as soon as Joe and Levon had stepped in the room. Tony frowned at Joe. "She won' gimme the box!"

Levon gave him a look. "I think from now on we should buy two boxes of cereal."

"Good call."

"You two about done?" Levon asked.

Both kids nodded, after shooting one last accusing look at each other over the top of the cereal box.

"All right. Get the table cleaned up so we can get going."

Angie picked up her bowl and glass and headed for the kitchen. Tony triumphantly grabbed the cereal box. After a moment he realised he didn't want it anymore, and set it back down and took his bowl to the kitchen as well.

"You know," Joe began conversationally staring after the kids, "I think work is going to be quiet compared to this."

Levon just grinned.

They dropped the kids off at Jesse's, though they could have easily walked the distance. Joe and Levon told each other that they wanted to make sure Jesse was ready for them -- but privately they'd admitted they wanted to make sure the kids made it that far. The corral was between the two houses, after all. Stopping 'just to pet the horses' had already proven to be a good way to lose a kid's attention for an hour.

At Jesse's, they each gave each kid a hug good bye and got back into the truck and started for work. Again Joe felt that twinge of guilt for leaving them. He sighed.

"You can call 'em when we get to the station," Levon said as he put the truck into reverse.

Joe's mouth quirked up slightly at the corners. "Am I that transparent?"

"No. I just know you too well." Levon paused, then said, "And I was thinking the same thing myself."

"Nice to know I'm not the only one." He reached out and laid a hand on Levon's thigh.

"Careful; don't make me drive into a tree." Levon sounded only half-serious.

Or was that 'only half-kidding'? Joe mused. "This is Texas. What trees?"

Levon pointed. "What do you think those are?"

Joe pretended to look. "Big shrubs?"

"Cottonwoods, Joe. Maples, willows...." Levon trailed off from naming each species. "OK, that one's a big shrub," he conceded as they went past a mesquite.

"Told you." Joe grinned smugly then looked back out the window. "All the rest have to be transplanted from somewhere else. Like me."

"You saying we've got Italian trees everywhere?" Levon asked in a clear tone of disbelief.

"Yeah. That's a spaghetti tree over there." He pointed.

Levon was suddenly laughing too hard to reply.

"What?" Joe pretended wounded dignity. "Don't you believe me?"

Levon nodded as he tried to maintain enough composure to drive without hitting anything. Including trees and shrubbery.

Joe was quiet then, letting Levon regain his composure. Then, totally straightfaced, he said, "Watch out for that linguini bush."

Levon gave him a dirty look. It was marred by the laughter he was struggling to hold back.

"What? Do you know how hard linguini is to get out of the front grill?"

This time Levon just rolled his eyes. "I think I'm gonna reconsider getting you a cup of coffee from Anderson. You're already wired."

"Oh, like you haven't been keeping up with me."

"Yeah, but I can pretend otherwise."

"Not that you're fooling anyone." He was still smiling; he just couldn't seem to stop. It felt so good to be on their way to work, teasing each other like this. Reassurance that for all the changes they had gone through in the last couple of months, some things had remained the same.

"I can fool Anderson. Ain't that all that matters?" Levon sounded and looked like he felt the same way.

"Only if you remember to get two cups. Otherwise I'll just have to steal yours."

"Hmm. Stealing coffee from Burglary... sounds kinda bad, don't it?"

"Only if we get caught."

By this time they were pulling up to the station. Levon fell silent as he negotiated a line of police vehicles all trying to leave and arrive at once.

"Sheesh," Joe muttered. "We need cops directing traffic in *here*."

"Careful, or the Chief'll let you volunteer."

"If I get volunteered, so will you," Joe pointed out.

Levon gave him a startled, outraged look. "Me? What makes you think I'll claim to know you?"

"What makes you think they'd take your word over mine?"

"Seniority." Levon managed to pull into a parking spot without being sideswiped, and got out of the truck.

Joe joined him, sidestepping a car that didn't seem about to stop. "And you complain about Chicago drivers."

Levon just grinned. "Must be the pollen from all them Italian trees, making everyone nuts."

"Must be."

They continued bantering as they headed for the elevator and then up to Major Crimes.

As Joe started to get off the elevator and Levon didn't follow, Joe stopped, and looked back. At his confused look Levon just mouthed 'Anderson?'

Oh. Right. "I'll meet you at our desks?" he asked.

Levon nodded. "Don't catch any crooks 'til I get back."

"I'll make sure to slack off."

Levon just grinned again, and motioned for him to step back so the doors could close. He did as he was bid, then headed into the bullpen.

"LaFiamma!" He heard as soon as he stepped past the door. He looked over at Beaumont, who asked, "Where's Lundy? I thought he was coming in today, too."

It felt.... strange. It had been so long since they'd been at work and things had changed so much in the rest of his life, it seemed like things should've changed here as well. And they hadn't. That's why it felt strange: because it was so normal.

Beaumont was giving him an impatient look. "LaFiamma?"

"Yeah, Lieutenant." That, too felt normal-strange.

"Where's Lundy?"

"Stopped to get some coffee. Should be right up."

"Coffee?" She sighed. "I want you both in my office ASAP."

That sounded serious. Joe felt a weird of combination of anticipation and worry. Not five minutes back at work and already it looked like something big was brewing. The lieutenant turned and went back into her office, closing the door firmly but not slamming it. Whatever it was, wasn't too bad news, then.

Joe sat down at his desk to wait for his partner. It wasn't very long before Levon was handing him a full mug of coffee. "Thanks." He took a sip then nodded towards Beaumont's office. "Lieutenant wants to see us."

Levon gave him a nod, and they headed over.

"What's up Lieutenant?" Joe asked once they were all in Joanne's office.

"The Cranston case, last fall." She pulled a folder out of the stack on her desk and handed it over to Joe.

He opened it and quickly scanned the contents. "This has been verified?" he asked, looking up quickly.

"Has what been verified?" Levon asked, even as Beaumont nodded.

"We've got a witness willing to testify against Cranston."

"Hot damn. Who? Where?"

Joe handed his partner the folder. "Some kid who was at the wrong place at the wrong time. He's in San Antonio right now."

"And now he's in trouble, and wants to bargain with the cops." Levon summed up the remainder of the report.

Beaumont said, "And since it was your case, you two are the natural choice to go get him. Unless it's going to be a problem for you, Levon?"

He shook his head, and smiled. "Not anymore."

"Other than making plans for the kids," Joe interjected.

"The herd can take care of 'em," Levon responded matter-of-factly.

"They could at that." He turned back to Beaumont. "So when do we leave?"

"This morning. SAPD wants to be rid of him -- apparently he's being 'annoying'."

"Is that a direct quote?" Levon asked.

She just turned a brief glare on him. "Here's the address. You'll be meeting a Sergeant Barnes."

"Got it. We'll leave soon as we make the arrangements for the kids."

She nodded, and they were dismissed. As they headed back towards their desks, Levon commented, "Hope you weren't serious about not wanting traffic duty."

"How's this translating into traffic duty?"

"Not this. This," Levon indicated Joe's coffee mug with his own. He was grinning devilishly as he headed for his desk.

Joe followed. "I might actually been worried if you got the coffee from traffic instead of burglary."

But Levon kept grinning. "Worked a trade."

For a few seconds Joe was concerned, but quickly dismissed it. "Guess you're going to have to work out another trade then, since we're not going to be around."

The brief look Levon gave him made him shiver. "Yeah, you can work it out in trade," he agreed.

"I'm sure we can come to some arrangement," Joe replied, letting his voice go husky.

Levon reached for the phone, not taking his eyes off Joe. He dialed, and a moment later was speaking to Carla.

Joe listened as Levon made arrangements for them to drop the kids off right before they left. He noted that it wasn't a question, Levon just assumed that they would take them.

And of course they would -- the kids were part of their family, besides which the herd did whatever Levon told them to do. Still, it was just another little reminder of Levon's new status. A status that Joe still hadn't completely assimilated.

When Levon hung up the phone he looked over at Joe, about to speak. He stopped when he saw the expression on Joe's face. "Joe?"

"I'm okay. I just..." He shrugged. "Still getting used to that."

Again the devilish grin appeared and Levon leaned forward, whispering, "You want me to help you get used to it? I can order you around...."

Joe had to fight not to shiver. "You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

Levon didn't reply. The look said it all.

"I hate to interrupt what looks like something very fascinating," Esteban said from beside Joe.

"Not interrupting anything that can't wait." Joe leaned back in his chair. "What's up Esteban?"

"Wanted to say 'welcome back' before you left," Esteban said with a laugh. "And to tell you Traffic called while you were in with the Lieutenant. They want you," he said to LaFiamma, "to call and let them know when you'll be down."

Levon stood up from his desk hurriedly, gathering his things and moving towards the door. "Thanks, Esteban. We'll catch you tomorrow when we get back." He pointedly kept the other man between himself and Joe.

"You can run but you can't hide, Lundy!" he called after the rapidly retreating form of his husband. Levon made a dash out of the bullpen, manoeuvring Williams to serve as another obstacle for Joe.

Some things never change, Joe thought as he chased Levon out.

Levon had said nothing for the first ten minutes of the drive. He'd given Joe a 'cute' look when they'd climbed into the truck, and received a scowl in return. He'd laughed, but kept silent.

They headed back to the house to pick pack a bag, and take the kids out to the ranch. The kids were naturally excited at the prospect of staying with the herd -- the excitement overcame their unhappiness at hearing that Joe and Levon were going out of town for a couple days.

The drive out to the ranch was full of excited questions from Angie and Tony that Joe and Levon were barely given a chance to answer. They were more than happy to finally hand the kids over to Joy, redirecting the focus of their questions with relief.

Levon excused himself for a few minutes, and went off to speak to Stuart.

Which left Joe at loose ends. He watched the kids interact with Joy and the young centaurs, leaning against the truck and waiting for Levon. Joy walked over to him with a cheerful smile. "Joe, how are you doing? Didn't get to see much of you last time you were here."

He felt himself blush. "Levon and I were sort of... distracted last time."

"Yes, I know." Her smile made him think she knew *exactly* what they'd been doing, right down to the individual positions, and words murmured. "Levon seems to be much happier," she continued with a glance back towards where Levon had gone.

Joe shrugged. "He's where he wants to be. Home."

She nodded. "I never had the chance to apologise to you, Joe. For calling him." Her smile was serious, now. "I know it disrupted things."

"I know it was necessary. If there had been any other choice, I know you wouldn't have."

"You still sound upset." Her words were hesitant, but certain. Joe realised she probably didn't know exactly where *he* stood, in the hierarchy of the herd.

He wasn't really sure of that himself. "I was upset at the situation, not at you, Joy," he clarified.

"And now?" she asked carefully.

"I've got Levon back. What could be wrong now?"

"Other than the fact that you're standing here, barely talking to me, looking as if you'd prefer to get back in your truck and drive away?"

Joe fidgeted uneasily. "Guess I still worry about him coming back to stay," he admitted quietly.

Joy gave him a smile, which looked more sad than anything. "And here I worry about him coming back, at all," she said in a hushed voice.


"I know how much he'd rather be with you. Even as much as we need him... I don't doubt he'll do his duty; I *do* trust him. But all the time he was here, his heart and mind were gone. Sometimes I find myself wondering what would happen, though, if Stuart couldn't handle the herd and I had to call Levon back. Whether he'd--" She shook her head. "I *know* he'd come. That's not what I'm saying. But I know he'd hate it."

There wasn't much Joe could say to that. She was right. If Levon had to come back he would but he would hate every minute of it. But if it ever happened they would find some way to deal with it, to cope and he said as much to Joy.

"I know. Luckily, I think Stuart is going to be wonderful as herd stallion. He needs a little time, of course. He hasn't matured yet, but by next season I think he'll be ready to take over for Levon"

Next season. For the most part Joe was relieved but there was a niggling fear at the back of his mind....

"When Stuart takes over, it'll be peaceful, right? No challenges at the last moment or anything?"

She shook her head. "No challenges, unless Levon changes his mind or Stuart decides he won't wait. But I don't see that happening -- they're both going to get what they want, there's not going to be anything to challenge for." She rested her hand on Joe's arm. "Besides, as I understand it you've offered to shoot Levon if he tries?" She was grinning now.

He found himself grinning back at that. "I've had to come up with more extreme threats since I'm not dominant anymore."

"You know, a water gun filled with koolaid works wonders."

Laughing, Joe shook his head. "I'll have to try that."

She glanced over to where Levon was heading back, and said quickly, "Grape. He hates purple."

Levon arrived before he could reply. "Everything okay?" Joe asked him.

"Yeah, fine," he answered with a nod and a quick grin. "You ready to head out?"

"Yeah." He turned back to Joy. "Thanks for the advice."

Levon gave Joe, then Joy, a suspicious look which only grew when Joy returned a look of polite innocence.

Joe did his best to emulate that look as he headed back to the truck. "Shall we get moving?"

"Reckon so," Levon agreed with no diminishing of his suspicion. But he only gave them each another look, then headed for the driver's side of the truck.

The drive to San Antonio was uneventful and they talked quietly about nothing in particular most of the way. It was actually fairly nice, even if the scenery outside the truck was a bit boring. Joe almost always enjoyed time spent with his husband, and lately they'd had little time to just sit and talk about nothing in particular.

He resolved to himself to try and make the time for that in the future.

When Levon pulled the truck into a Visitor's parking spot outside Station 21, he shook his head. "Must be something in the air, today. Everyone's driving like a -- like Yankees."

"Pollen from the Italian trees?"

Levon snickered. "Come on, let's go find Barnes. Maybe we can get this Davison kid back to Houston, today."

"I doubt it, but stranger things have happened."

They headed towards the front entrance as Levon asked, "Like what?"

"Falling in love with my partner who turned out to be mythological."

"That's strange?" Levon asked in the same tone of mild surprise. "Didn't you ever expect to fall in love?"

"Truthfully?" Joe asked, glancing sideways at his partner. "Not really."

That seemed to surprise him for real. "Huh." Levon just glanced over at him a few times as they entered the station and made their way to the front desk. No one in the lobby gave them a second look -- few even bothered with a first look. Finally he said, "You forget, though, you're the one who's mythological."

"I am?"

"Don't you remember my telling you about the stories I was told 'bout Santa Claus and Billy the Kid?" Levon gave the desk clerk a smile and introduced himself and Joe, and asked to see Sergeant Barnes. She told them to wait, and picked up a phone.

"So we're both mythological then," Joe said, continuing the conversation as they waited. "Depending on your point of view."

But Levon shook his head. "I can prove I'm real."

"This I've got to hear."

"I'm standing here arguing with you, aren't I?"

"I could just be imagining you."

"Nope." Levon just shook his head.

"You sure?"

Levon nodded. "You can't be imagining me, because you're mythological."

Joe was saved from answering by the desk clerk telling them they could go upstairs and giving them directions to Sergeant Barnes' desk.

Levon thanked her, and they headed around the desk and through the security gate. Barnes was on the third floor and when they started towards the elevators Levon stopped, and looked hopefully towards the stairwell.

"You wanna hoof it up?" Joe asked, trying to keep the question as casual as he could.

"You wanna feel the floor swaying underneath your feet as you dangle over a pit in the ground?" Levon returned the question equally casually.

Joe wasn't fooled. But he grinned and started towards the stairs. "When you put it that way..."

Levon followed. They headed up two flights, then emerged to find a typical mid-morning chaos at the police station. Uniforms and plainclothes officers heading back and forth, persons in handcuffs shouting for one thing or another, and amidst them all various clerks and support staff trying to wend their way through.

They found Barnes without any trouble -- five steps towards the bullpen and a man was approaching them, hand out. "You HPD?"

Joe nodded, shaking the man's hand. "I'm LaFiamma, he's Lundy." He nodded in Levon's direction.

"Barnes. Nice of you guys to get here so fast." Barnes sighed. "Too bad the paperwork is still on somebody's desk at HQ."

So much for getting back home that night. "So it's hurry up and wait, huh?"

Barnes shrugged. "You're welcome to wait here, but honestly I don't think he'll be released until morning. You wanna go find a hotel room, see the sights or whatever -- call me this afternoon and see if it's ready."

"We'll do that and get out of your hair," Joe answered without even glancing at Levon. He knew what his husband's preference would be.

"Wonderful. Here, take one of these," Barnes handed Joe a business card. "If you end up someplace with a phone, lemme know the number and I'll call when we're ready."

He nodded his understanding and thanks, then turned to leave.

When they were out of earshot, Levon asked, "What do you wanna do?" His tone was unmistakable.

Joe grinned. "Probably the same thing you wanna do."

"Figure there's a motel nearby?"

"I'm sure we can find one."

"Why don't we ask that nice desk clerk in the lobby?" Levon was hurrying them down the stairs, trying for casual unobtrusiveness. And failing.

Joe just shook his head, grinned and followed. Feeling less than unobtrusive himself.

There turned out to be a hotel just down the street. They were able to get a second floor room, and retired to it with all due haste.

"Second floor okay?" Joe asked as they headed up the stairs.

"Hell, yeah. Plan to be thoroughly distracted; besides which, you didn't hear me complaining back at the ranch, did you?"

Joe grinned. "You were distracted there as well."

"See what I mean? For a mythological creature, you can be *very* overwhelming."

"So are you, especially for a figment of my imagination."

"Wanna know what I'm imagining, right now?"

Joe figured it was a good thing there was no one else in the hallway, as he tried to unlock the door to their room. "You gonna tell me or show me?" The lock opened with a click and he held the door open for Levon before following him inside.


Joe grinned as he turned and closed the door behind him. Turning back, he found Levon looking at him like he was a dinner entree. "You look hungry."

Levon didn't bother to reply. He lunged forward and slammed Joe against the door -- which was only a few inches away so it did nothing more than startle him -- and kissed him, hard.

*That* did more than startle him.

The next half hour or so Joe didn't think much at all. Just felt. And acted. Afterwards they lay sprawled on the dishevelled bed.

"If you aren't real I've got one hell of an imagination," he muttered.

There was a moan which sounded utterly content, then Levon rolled over and grinned down at him. From the gleam in his husband's eyes, Joe could tell Levon was going to wear him out, completely.

"Give a guy a little time to recover will ya?"

"OK." Levon began nibbling at Joe's jaw.

He chuckled wearily. "That's your idea of giving some time?"

"You can wait," Levon told him. "Take all the time you need." Then he went back to nuzzling, kissing, and licking his way around Joe's face and chest.

Joe groaned. "You don't play fair."

Levon glanced up. "How do you *want* me to play?"

"Hey, I have nothing against not playing fair, cowboy."

Levon grinned at him, and rested his chin on Joe's chest. He lay there for a moment, watching Joe.

"What are you grinning at?" Joe asked, finding himself grinning back.

"Feel good," was Levon's reply.

Letting his hands roam aimlessly, Joe nodded. "Yeah, you do."

"You rested up, yet?" Levon's eyes were growing less focused.

Joe didn't answer in words, instead leaning in and kissing Levon lingeringly.

That seemed to be answer enough.

After more activity and a brief nap, Joe phoned the station and got the word that the paperwork had gone through and that they could go back to the station and pick up their witness. They would then have to guard him at the hotel that night, since it was too late to get back to Houston that day.

Levon said nothing about it after rolling his eyes and complaining about the hassle of convincing HPD to pay them back for the cost of staying the night. They got dressed and headed back to the police station.

Barnes met them on their way to the holding cell, paperwork in hand for them to sign. Levon took the papers and scanned them over while Joe went ahead. He found Davison was sitting in the cell, looking belligerent.

The uniform behind the desk seemed all to happy to hand Davison over to Joey. "We need the space, unfortunately; at least this way I won't have to listen to him anymore."

"Great," Joe muttered, eyeing Davison doubtfully. It was looking like it might be a long drive back to Houston.

Davison just eyed him back with the unmistakable attitude of a young man with an attitude. Davison was out to prove he was a real man, and no 'pig' was going to prove otherwise.

Levon joined him them, handing the paperwork to the officer at the desk. "All set?" Joe asked. He was startled, to put it mildly, when Davison sneered at his partner -- and when Levon just grinned, and shook his head.

"If I didn't have these cuffs on...." Davison began.

"You got a problem?" Joe asked him bluntly.

Davison didn't even glance his way; his attention was firmly on Levon.

Levon just nodded towards the door behind him. "Let's get going." He didn't take his eyes off Davison, despite his casual demeanour.

The man slowly and grudgingly got to his feet and proceeded them out of the room.

"What's going on? You know him or something?" Joe asked his partner in a low voice.

Levon shook his head, following Davison closely.

"You boys have fun," Barnes said before he took off down another hallway.

"Oh yeah. This is going to be a laugh a minute." Joe moved to catch up with his partner. As he drew near, he saw Levon reach out to grab Davison by the shirt sleeve, no doubt to steer him through the small crowd. Davison jerked away, turning on Levon.

"Hey!" he yelled, closing the distance and grabbing onto Davison's shoulder. "Settle down!"

Three other cops quickly moved forward, and Davison quickly stepped away from Levon. He gave Levon a fierce glare, but made no more moves towards him. Throughout this display, Levon merely watched him with what looked like tolerant amusement.

Joe was definitely missing something here.

As soon as they got him outside and away from the other cops, Davison stopped once more and turned to face Levon. "I'm not going anywhere with you."

"Who said you had a choice?" Joe asked.

Davison turned his arrogant sneer on him. Levon interrupted, "Don't worry about him, Joe. Just a colt with an attitude."

"I'm not a colt!" Davison hissed back.

Joe felt his eyebrows lifting. "He's a centaur?"

Levon nodded. Davison gave Joe a measured glance. "You're not gonna get in my way." He looked back at Levon. "You'll have to kill me before I let you drag me anywhere."

Levon raised an eyebrow. "So?"

"Hey, if you want to spend the drive back to Houston in cuffs buddy, that's up to you," Joe interjected.

Davison gave them both a defiant sneer, and Levon just reached over and gave him a slight shove towards the truck.

"You going to be okay with this?" Joe asked Levon in a low voice, remembering some of his lover's reactions in the past when faced with another stallion.

Levon gave him a smile. "I'm fine. Might have to tie him up and throw him in the back of the truck... but I don't reckon you'd mind?"

"You just saying that because I've got these on," the young centaur said, holding his wrists out. "If my hands were free I'd--"

"Get your ass kicked," Joe finished pleasantly. "Be thankful you are tied up, kid."

"What do you know, human? I can take this old man."

"More than you, obviously." He nodded in Levon's direction. "I've seen him take on a lot tougher than you."

"Yeah? You don't know how tough I *am*. You think you're so smart, got me in these cuffs. But you can't keep me in 'em forever. And as soon as I'm free... you're mine!"

Levon had listened to the tirade with the same amused grin on his face. When Davison fell silent, Levon just unlocked the door to the truck, and grabbed Davison by the arm. He tried to jerk away but Joe was there to help shove him into the vehicle.

Once they got him inside, Levon gave Joe a triumphant smile. "Like the man said, we're gonna have fun."

"I think you need to rethink your definition of fun."

Levon just laughed.

They managed to get back to the hotel without any threats or taunts -- or anything other than irritated silence -- from Davison. Once they got him into the hotel room, that changed. They listened to him for a few minutes, then finally Joe turned on him and yelled, "Either shut up or I'll lock you in the closet!"

Davison looked like he was going yell back, but the combined glares from Joe and Levon seemed to finally cow him. He subsided, and stalked over to sit in a chair.

Not sure how long that would hold the young centaur, Joe let out a weary sigh.

"Don't worry about him, Joe. I can handle him." Levon stepped forward, speaking softly, giving him a smile reminiscent of the loving smile he'd been so full of the last time they'd stood in this room.

"Just keep in mind we need to return him to Houston in one place," Joe warned.

"We do?" Levon gave him a surprised look.

Joe just looked at him steadily, knowing from long experience that it was the only way to deal with his husband in this mood. When he got an 'I'm really adorable and you love me' grin, he shook his head and smiled. "We gonna get some dinner? Or just order room service?"

"We'd probably better order room service -- unless you wanna go get take out?"

"Can I trust you two to play nice when I'm gone?"

Levon looked over his shoulder at Davison, apparently considering the question seriously. "Maybe I'll go get take-out," his husband offered.

Joe nodded. "Thought so. Just try and remember to bring me back something that isn't barbecued."

"In San Antonio?"

He sighed again. "Do your best, okay?"

Levon nodded, and gave him a tip of his hat. Then he gave Davison a cheerful, taunting grin, before he left.

Which left Joe alone with their witness.

Davison glanced his way, then dismissed him as unimportant. He began looking around the hotel room, as if it might be interesting. Joe wished him luck, settling down on the bed and picking up the remote to the TV.

Unfortunately, San Antonio daytime television was as boring as it was in Houston. Or Chicago. Or anywhere else, for that matter. Over by the window, Davison began kicking at the bed.

"Keep that up and I'll hobble you," Joe warned.

Davison gave him a sneer, but stopped the kicking. Instead he began to pace to short length of the room from wall to wall. "You know I'm gonna take down your partner," he said suddenly.

Joe snorted. "Yeah right, kid."

"You don't know." Davison shook his head, arrogantly. "I'll take him."

"It's your funeral." He shrugged and turned back to the TV. A second later though, he turned back. "But you better be aware of one thing Davison. If, by some fluke of the universe, you do manage to take down Levon, you won't have a chance to enjoy it. *I'll* take you out."

For a moment, Davison seemed startled. Then his bravado re-asserted itself and he sneered again. "Yeah, you think. I can take you easier than *him*. Don't have to fight by the rules for you, do I?" The young centaur seemed amused by the realisation, and jabbed a finger at Joe. "Yeah, I can do *anything*."

"Keep up with that attitude and all you'll be doing is bleeding."

"Heh." Davison resumed his pacing, with an over-stated cocky swagger. He kept quiet, though he sent Joe several smug glances.

Restraining his irritation, Joe went back to looking for something even vaguely interesting on TV. He hadn't found anything before there was a knock on the door.

Joe got up and looked through the eyehole. Seeing his partner loaded down with bags of food he unlocked and opened the door.

"Found a good barbecue place," Levon began with a grin.

"What a surprise," Joe replied, rolling his eyes for effect.

"Brought you this," he added, handing Joe a couple of paper cartons. He moved past Joe to set the other bags on the table, glaring at Davison when the younger centaur didn't move out of his way.

"Thanks, partner," Joe said, unaccountably touched by the gesture.

Levon gave him a nod before resuming frowning at Davison. "You gonna get out of my way, or you rather miss lunch?" supper

The tension surged between the two centaurs, building until it almost seemed to be a fourth person in the room. Joe held his breath, his hand involuntarily moving towards one of his guns.

Davison took half a step to the side, and Levon responded by simply pushing past him and setting the bags on the table. Levon seemed unconcerned. Davison lost his balance and fell against the bed. He turned, fists balled.

"Don't," Joe warned.

Davison looked back at him, and for a moment his expression darkened. Then he relaxed and walked over to a chair, brushing against Levon as he did -- obviously brushing hard, from the way he bounced off when Levon didn't budge.

Joe retook his seat on the edge of the bed and began eating. All the time keeping a wary eye on Davison. The immediate tension may have lessened but it was still very much present. Levon took one bag and dropped into the chair opposite Davison's, taking out his food and watching the centaur with an amused smile.

Davison scowled, and started to grab for the other bag. Then he stopped. "You're pushing it, fly-stand."

The tension once again spiked and Joe felt his appetite diminish. But Levon just looked at Davison, and took a bite of a barbecued rib.

Davison glared for a few more moments, then said, "You don't think I can take you? You're too old to be any one any good, you know. Out on your own, no matter what *he* thinks." Davison nodded towards Joe.

Ignoring Davison, Joe asked his partner conversationally, "Were you ever this much of an asshole?"

Levon grinned and started to shake his head. Then he stopped, and looked abashed. "Maybe with Alexander. Or Rudy. Possibly once with--"

"I'm glad we didn't get partnered until you grew up then," Joe shot back with a grin.

Levon returned the grin. Davison, however, seemed to take being ignored as an affront. He reached out and poked Levon in the shoulder. "Hey!"

Levon reacted instantly, knocking Davison's hand away and pushing his chair back, though he didn't stand up.

"You don't keep your hands to yourself, you'll find yourself in handcuffs." Joe pulled out the cuffs as he spoke.

Davison barely glanced his way. Levon grinned. "Boy, you got the worst sense of timing. You really think we're gonna have *any* kinda fight here? In front of him?"

"Ain't going to happen," Joe added.

Davison shook his head. "Knew you were a coward. Hiding behind a human...."

This time Levon made it to his feet, before he stopped himself. Joe shot him a look of concern. He didn't make any further move towards Davison, however. The younger stallion laughed, and shook his head. "Come on, old man, go for it. You know you'll lose... that's why you're hiding behind having a "witness"."

"Hasn't stopped him before."

Davison sent him a startled glance.

Joe shrugged. "Fair warning."

Davison frowned, and took half a step back from Levon. Levon went back to his dinner, confrontation apparently forgotten. Joe allowed himself to start to relax again and turned back to his Chinese food.

For a few moments it was silent. He and Levon ate, while Davison sat -- sulked, rather -- in his chair. He seemed to be waiting for another chance to antagonise Levon, but Levon wasn't giving him the opportunity. Joe did not relish an entire night spent with this tension. "You want to start back to Houston tonight?" he asked his partner?

Levon eyed Davison before answering. "Might be best."

Joe nodded. "As soon as we finish eating then."

With the decision made, the tension seemed to drop even more -- or perhaps it was merely overlaid with the re-focusing of their attention. Whatever it was, he and Levon were able to finish their meals in relative peace.

Davison was only halfway through his when Levon gathered up his trash, and told him to hurry it up. Joe's concern resurfaced at the unaccustomed harsh tone from his partner. Davison took offense - not surprisingly - and began eating more slowly.

"Smooth move, cowboy," Joe muttered.

The glance Levon sent him conveyed his apologies; as soon as he looked back, Davison threw a wadded napkin in his face. "You want my trash?"

Levon took a step forward and swept Davison out of his chair, and onto the floor.


Levon stopped, but only because he didn't need to make any further moves. Davison was sprawled on the floor, obviously half a second away from leaping up and going for Levon.

What was stopping him, Joe didn't know.

Joe himself hovered uncertainly, not wanting to break whatever fragile balance seemed to have been obtained, however momentarily. This wasn't like Levon's fight against Alexander. That had been out of control, this was... colder... more dangerous.

It was as if Levon were completely in control, and could easily choose to kill the young stallion, rather than ignore him.

Davison got to his feet slowly, seeming a little uncertain. Joe found himself reaching for his guns and what scared him was that he wasn't sure who he should be covering.

Levon suddenly took a step backwards, and it was if the tension -- his tension, anyhow -- had vanished. "I don't have time to waste on you, boy." He turned and walked towards, then past, Joe, giving him another repentant look as he went.

Joe wanted badly to follow and talk to his mate but he wasn't about to leave Davison alone and free. Walking over to the young centaur he pulled out his cuffs and one around Davison's wrist and the other around a bedpost. "Sit tight. I'll be back."

Then he went after Levon. He found him pacing the hallway, several yards away from the room. Still within sight of the door, and no doubt close enough to hear should Davison get himself into trouble. "Hey, cowboy?" Joe asked, stopping and leaning against the wall, watching Levon pace.

"Sorry. Temper started to get away from me." Levon's words were short, but he was clearly calming down.

"You're going to be able to handle the drive back?"

Levon nodded. "Just need some time to get things back into perspective. Instinct is telling me I don't have to put up with this. But his posturing... if he challenges me, it ain't like two unattached stallions fighting. I won't be able to not kill him, if he actually makes a challenge."

Joe frowned. "He's just a punk kid, Levon. Not a threat."

"He not a punk kid, Joe. He's a young stallion trying to pick a fight with a herd stallion. That's what it's all about -- that's why unattached stallions fights each other, to get ready for the real thing. So only the strongest survives to challenge for the herd." Levon was speaking calmly, but then he turned and looked at Joe, an expression of amused realisation on his face. "He doesn't know. With me here, out away from my herd..." Levon grinned. "He thinks I'm just another nobody." The grin turned mischievous. "Wanna see something fun?"

"What?" Joe asked suspiciously.

"Think it'll make him faint to find out?" Levon asked with an appearance of innocence.

"Either that or go after you even more."

"If he goes after me...." Levon shook his head.

"He's cuffed to the bed. As long as you stand back, he won't be able to touch you."

"Hmm. Then let's go tell him." Levon started back towards the room.


His husband turned back, and explained in a serious tone, "It'll get him to back off. I don't think he's up to making this sort of challenge. Once he knows what he's doing -- he'll most likely stop. Long enough for us to get him back to Houston, anyhow. Then he won't be my problem, any more."

"I can't let you kill him." Not that Joe had any idea how he was going to stop Levon if it did come to a challenge. At least not without hurting him.

Levon paused, and nodded. "I know, Joe. I... I wish I could just promise you I won't. But I tell you what -- if I tell him, and he still wants to fight, I'll let you take him back to Houston alone. He can meet up with me there, if he still wants to."

Joe smiled humorlessly. "Can't let you kill him then any easier, cowboy."

"Won't tell you about it, then."

It chilled his heart to realize Levon was serious.

His husband headed back towards the hotel room, not looking back to see if Joe were following. Which Joe did, still feeling unsettled about the whole situation.

Levon went to stand at the foot of the bed where Davison was still securely cuffed. The young stallion looked incredibly pissed; underneath the anger Joe thought he saw a little fear. Levon folded his arms and said, calmly, "I'm gonna tell you this once. Then you can decide what you want to do about it."

Joe stood quietly, watching, hoping Levon was right about the kid backing down when he found out. If it came down to a challenge...

Davison just continued glaring at Levon.

In a tone that sounded eerily like Taylor, Levon explained. "You're pushing me for a fight. As a cop, my job is to get you back to Houston in one piece. I'd just as soon do my job, as kill you. But if you push me, I will."

It took a lot for Joe not to object to that. Levon sounded absolutely serious. Serious about killing the kid if he was pushed.

"Yeah?" Davison sneered. "Talk is cheap when you've got me chained."

"And you're gonna *stay* chained, until I decide otherwise." Levon's voice dropped. "You're in my territory, and I'm getting real close to deciding you shouldn't be."

Joe watched the kid's face closely, wanting to see his reaction to the statement.

"Your territory?" he asked, the anger gone from his face. Nothing had replaced it -- yet.

Levon just glared at him, not deigning to continue explaining. Not that he needed to, Joe thought, as he watched dawning comprehension on Davison's face. Davison tried to scoot back, against -- or possibly through -- the wall.

Levon slowly grinned. It would've been comical if it hadn't been so serious.

"Your territory? But... what are you..." Davison stammered.

"Do you really want to know?" Levon asked, coolly. His smile was hard. "You want me to sit down and explain it to you?"

"No!" Davison squeaked, shaking his head. "I don't.. that is.. I'm.. I didn't mean... I won't, sir. I won't," he whispered. The change was incredible, from belligerent to totally cowed in less than a minute.

Joe wasn't sure if he liked knowing that Levon could do that to another centaur. Levon, for his part, lost his silent intimidation and smiled once more. Relaxed, confident -- hell, he had right to be. He gave Davison a friendly nod. "Fine. You behave yourself, then."

And as fast as that, the tension had disappeared. At least the tension between the two centaurs.

Levon glanced over, and asked, "You wanna head...." He frowned, but then simply asked, concerned, "for Houston now?"

"Yeah," Joe replied. "Let's go home." Home. Where hopefully he could forget how willing Levon had been to kill.

Levon nodded, and went over to uncuff Davison. Davison held very, very still. They got him down to the truck without any problem -- yes sirs and no sirs the entire way.

"You want to drive first?" Joe asked as they reached the vehicle.

Levon nodded, and got behind the wheel. Davison settled in silently behind the seat, apparently the very picture of cowed cooperation. Then again, Joe thought, could you say that about a centaur?

He was obviously getting punchy if he was wondering about bad puns.

The drive was long, and relatively boring. Levon didn't offer much conversation, and Davison, none at all. It left Joe with a lot of time to think. His thoughts kept going back to the confrontation in the hotel room and the conversation in the hallway that followed it.

It was, he tried to tell himself, something he should have expected. Now that Levon was Herd Stallion, certain things had changed. Levon had authority and power over other centaurs. And he used both well.

But the idea that Levon could and would kill if challenged...

He'd known that, already. When Levon had fought Alexander, Joe had known it was a fight to the death. But somehow... it wasn't the same. Maybe it was because with Alexander, Levon had seemed out of control, totally at the mercy of his emotions and instincts. But this....

It was all about control. Even if he knew it was still instinct, the way it came across now was that Levon was in control and was making a conscious decision. Joe had to decide whether or not he liked that. He had to decide whether or not he could accept that.

And if he decided he couldn't... what then?

He hadn't come to any decisions by the time they reached Houston. They went directly to the station and dropped off Davison. They decided to go home and get a few hours of sleep before driving out to the ranch to pick up the kids. Still, Levon said little. He didn't seem tense, or worried... or anything, besides a little tired.

It was like he'd already totally put the incident out of his mind. Joe wished he could as easily.

When they pulled up to the house, Levon jumped out. "I'm gonna go check on the horses."

As late as it was, Jesse would have already done everything necessary before putting them in their stalls. Joe just nodded and headed for the house.

It didn't take long for Levon to rejoin him. When he did, he gave Joe a determined look. "You gonna tell me what's on your mind?" he asked in a much gentler tone than his gaze.

Joe shrugged. "Not sure it's something you can help with, cowboy."

"You wanna try me?"

Did he? In the past when he'd had problems coming to terms with something centaur related, Levon hadn't taken it well. But that had been when he saw Joe as dominant. Maybe now... He sighed. Levon was still staring at him. "I'm having problems with this challenge thing," he finally admitted.

Levon nodded, his face changing from determined to understanding. "A bit extreme for you?"

Relief flooded him at his husband's calm reaction. "Yeah, a little."

Levon just shrugged, looked away. In a quiet voice he said, "I wasn't really thinking about it at first. Soon as I saw the kid I knew what he was up to. Didn't bother me a bit. Just a kid, no danger. Knew I could beat him."

"When did it change?"

"When I lost my temper." Levon looked back up at him, obviously trying to figure out how to explain it. "He kept pushing, and I... pushed back. Just to make him stop bothering me."

"And you would've... killed him? Just because he was bothering you?"

Levon didn't answer right away. He took a deep breath, then stared down at a cat who was wending its way around his feet. "If he'd challenged me, Joe, yes -- I would have fought him. And I would have killed him. Which is why I couldn't let him challenge me."

"I know. You told me that. I just..." He trailed off, frustrated by his efforts to put his feelings into words.

"Wonder what sort of person I am? Willing to kill if it comes to that?"

"I know what kind of person you are."

Levon gave him a pale smile at that. "What bothers you, Joe?" he asked, patiently.

It struck him, all over again, that he was not dealing with the submissive stallion he'd loved, fought with, and learned *not* to push around. That made it easier to talk about this kind of thing, even as it necessitated the talk in the first place. "I guess I'm worried about how I'll react if it happens. If I'll be able to deal with it."

"You mean if it comes to a challenge?"

Joe nodded mutely.

His hushand looked away again. "You want me not to tell you about 'em?"

"I didn't say that."

"Would it help if I told you why it happens?"

"Yeah," he said, after a moment's thought. "It would."

Levon nodded, and moved around to sit on the couch. He waited for Joe to sit, as well; Boots jumped onto his lap and began purring loudly.

Automatically he began petting the cat. "So?"

"You know what it's about when it's two unattached stallions," he half-asked, half-reiterated.

"Yeah." He half-smiled. "I've seen it enough."

"When it's a herd stallion... first off, it's always the other who makes the challenge. Ain't no point for a herd stallion to challenge another stallion. Because it's all about the herd."

Levon looked over at him, apparently checking to see if he were following, or had any questions. "Yeah. Family first. That I know about."

"If I let a challenge go unanswered, it'd be like saying I didn't want the herd any longer. And if I let a challenger go, leave him alive...."

Joe suddenly realised why Levon's tone sounded so odd. He was figuring out what to say, as he said it. As if he'd never put these thoughts into words, before.

"It'd show my *herd* that I wasn't able to protect them."

That made sense. With what he knew about centaurs, what he'd experienced being dominant for Levon, it made a hell of a lot of sense.

Levon continued. "I'd be showing them I wasn't qualified to be Herd Stallion. It may not seem... rational, to have to kill him when I could just leave him having lost the fight...."

"But you could never be sure he wouldn't come back," Joe finished. "He would always be a threat."

Levon nodded. "Even if he *knew* he lost, he'd leave thinking that maybe I hadn't killed him because I couldn't. And that would give him a good reason to try again."

"So you have to make sure he can't."

"Yeah." Levon looked uncertain, as he waited for Joe's response.

"I think I can understand that," Joe said slowly.

"Then you're all right with it?"

"As all right as I can be. Still don't like the idea of you having to kill anybody, but..."

"I know."

"But I'll deal."

There was silence, then, while Levon simply looked at him.

Joe grinned then. "I'm getting better at dealing with this centaur stuff I think."

With a laugh, Levon replied, "Should be an expert, before long."

Joe saw the look that followed the laughing smile -- saw and recognised.

"Requires a lot of hands on practice, though," he mused.

"That it does," Levon agreed. His smile became welcoming, and the glint in his eyes foreshadowed a more familiar vagueness.

"And no kids." He grinned back.

"So what are you waiting for?"

"Nothing." Joe leaned over and caught his husband's mouth in a passionate kiss.

"MWROER!" screamed Boots, before running for the kitchen. 'Forgot about the cat,' Joe thought vaguely before giving his full attention over to more important things.

Like the way Levon was pulling him back down, to the couch.

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