Centaur Stage

Levon checked the duffel one more time. He knew what was in it, and there was little chance anything had added itself since he'd zipped it shut half an hour ago. But he was nervous, and it was either tell Joe where they were going, or recheck the bags. He'd asked his lover to take a three-day weekend with him; he hadn't told Joe where he'd planned to take him. At the time Levon had asked, Joe had just grinned and said it sounded good. Now, though, Levon was beginning to wonder if not giving Joe the chance to back out was really a good idea.

Joe appeared in the doorway of the room. "Okay I'm all loaded up," he said. "You going to tell me where we're going now?"

Levon gave the bag a check quick, and told himself he was being foolish and zipped it shut. He tried smiling and teased, "You don't like surprises?"

"Depends on the surprise." Leaving the doorway Joe moved over to Levon's side, reaching out and laying a hand on his lover's shoulder. "But the way you're tensed up, I can't help but wonder what you think is going to go wrong."

"Yeah." Levon finally left the bag alone and looked at Joe. He told himself that given the ease with which his lover had accepted everything that had been thrown at him thus far, he shouldn't have any trouble with this. Maybe he'd better just tell him. "I called Taylor and he said I should bring you out to meet the herd."

For a long moment Joe froze, not moving, not saying anything. Finally though he licked his lips and said too casually, "So you're finally taking me to meet the folks, huh?"

Levon watched the way the Joe froze, then how his eyes got bright and his tone forced. Quickly he offered his backup plan -- one he'd made in case he hadn't been able to go through with it, or, worse, if at first sight Taylor and Joe hated each other and made staying there for three days impossible. "We can go out to Brisken Lake if you'd rather. There's a cabin we can use, belongs to a friend of a friend." He'd already called about the cabin just in case, and the bags were, conveniently, packed for either trip.

"No." Joe shook his head his tone becoming surer as he spoke. "You want me to meet your family, so do I. I'm just..." He paused shrugging self-effacingly. "I'm a little nervous okay?"

"I'm sorry, I should have said something before now. I just couldn't decide... I didn't know if I ought." Levon stepped back, away from his lover. He wasn't sure if he ought to try to explain -- maybe it'd only make Joe more nervous.

But Joe wasn't letting it go. Looking at Levon through narrowed eyes he asked, "Is there something more to this that you haven't told me?"

Levon looked away, out the window where he could see the pasture stretching out towards the treeline. He and Joe had been riding only a few times, so far. "If Taylor decides he doesn't approve of us...I mean it ain't like I live there and he can't really enforce anything he tells me to do." Levon took a breath and finished, knowing he owed his lover the truth. Lying to him was no way to start -- well, to continue -- this relationship. "If he tells me to break it off with you and I don't, he can cut me off. Completely, couldn't ever go back, couldn't call out there... wouldn't be allowed to see Mother Minnie, even."

He knew there wasn't much chance of it happening. The chance was slight, at least, but it worried him. Taylor hadn't been thrilled with his marriage but he'd accepted it as a way to keep the young man from returning to challenge for Taylor's position. Given how that had gone, it was possible Taylor would prefer that Levon stay out of pairings with humans. Permanent ones, that is.

Again Joe was silent for a long moment. "You're risking a lot claiming me," he said finally, his tone soft and wondering.

With a sharp look, Levon turned back. "It ain't so much compared to what I've already got. Joe... If it weren't worth it I'd never have told them in the first place." He didn't move towards his lover, despite his words. He wasn't sure if it was because of Joe, or because of himself.

"Still Levon... your family." Joe looked more taken aback by this revelation than he had by anything else. Time to try and reassure them both, before Joe tried backing out. Before Levon wanted him to.

"Chances are that he won't say anything against it. The fact that you're... all right with knowing what I really am will go a long way. That's what he never liked about my being married to Caroline, that she didn't know. He said I shouldn't--" He stepped back up to stand next to his lover. "Chances are we've got nothing to worry about. But if we do... if he says no, then I've still a lot more to lose by letting you go, than by not listening to him."

"I just don't like the thought of making you choose," Joe said, reaching out and caressing Levon's cheek. "I know how much Mother Minnie means to you."

Levon shrugged. "He'd only tell me not to see her if he really wanted to keep me away from you. I don't think--" He stopped, and thought out the realization he'd just had. "I think if he'd objected that much, he'd have said so on the phone. But he didn't try to talk me out of it, just gave me the third degree and told me to bring you out." Levon started to smile slightly. "I think he wants to make sure of your intentions. See if you're good enough for me."

Joe grinned back. "I'll be on my best behavior then."

He leaned forward and rested his forehead against Joe's. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you earlier. I guess I just got worried."

"And when you're worried you clam up." Joe slipped his arms around Levon's waist and pulled him close. "That's something you've got to work on."

For a moment Levon just stood in his lover's embrace. It felt so good to be held, so good to have Joe with him it was hard, now, to remember why he'd been so concerned.

"Levon, how does Taylor feel about punctuality?" Joe asked after a few moments.

"Don't know, never had it come up. Why?"

"Because if we don't get a move on, we're going to be late. You said you wanted to be out of here by 8 am. It's a quarter after now."

"Oh hell!" Levon jerked away from Joe, and looked at the clock by the bed. Rather, he looked at where the clock had been before Joe gave in and shot the thing last Monday. Of course, he'd shot it with a rubber band, but Levon had thought it prudent to move it over to the bookcase regardless. He looked, and saw that Joe was right. "We'd better get going." Grabbing his duffel, he scanned the room. "Your bag in the truck?"


"Then what're you still standing here for? You got the cooler in the truck, too?" Levon headed for the bathroom, to triple check he'd packed his dittybag. It wasn't like there wouldn't be anything they couldn't borrow if they forgot something, but he'd get teased within an inch of his life from Marta and Jolene if he did.

Seeing nothing in the bathroom that he'd meant to pack, he headed for the kitchen. "Joe? You got your dittybag in there?" He didn't see Joe's stuff.

"My what?" Joe asked, in total non-comprehension.

"Lord," Levon sighed. "Your toiletries. Shampoo, toothbrush?"

"Yeah. It's packed, my clothes are packed, the cooler is packed. Everything but your stuff is packed already. So can we get going now?"

"My stuff is packed!" Levon gave the kitchen a last glance-over. "Fine, fine, we're ready. Let's go already."

As Levon rushed towards the door, Joe reached out and stopped him with a touch to his arm. Pulling Levon to him, he hugged him tightly again, then leaned in and kissed him gently. "It'll be all right," he said softly, resting his forehead against his lover's.

"I hope so." Levon returned the hug, hanging on for a moment before he let go reluctantly. "But we do need to get going, else we won't be there till lunchtime."

"Right." Joe followed Levon out to the truck. "I'll even let you listen to your damned country music while we drive," he said as he climbed into the passenger's seat.

Levon stood beside the open driver's door and peered in. He discarded the first thing he wanted to say, teasing Joe and giving him a hard time. Instead he said, "Thanks."

"You're welcome," Joe replied simply. He was silent as Levon climbed in and started the engine. "Just don't get too used to it."

"Hell, I figure on making you drive home; you'll be making me listen to rock on the way back."

They drove for an hour, long enough to get well shut of Houston. Levon had said nothing as he drove. At first he had to concentrate on navigating morning rush hour; soon though they passed the major exits and were relatively alone on the road.

He hadn't been home in nearly four years; usually he just went to Lombard to see Minnie. He wondered if anything had changed. Usually he found it didn't.

Joe had been unusually quiet since they'd left Houston, just staring out the window at the passing scenery. But now he seemed to mentally shake himself and turned to look at his lover. "So," he began a little too brightly, "just how should I act when I meet your father?"

Levon grinned at Joe's obvious nervousness. "Just act natural, Joe. He's seen too many headstrong colts to be fooled by any act."

"Act natural, right," Joe muttered. He glanced sideways at Levon. "It isn't every day I meet a whole herd of mythological creatures you know."

"How do you know you humans ain't the mythological ones? I heard some pretty strange stories when I was young, before they told me y'all were real."

"There's more of us than there are you. That makes you the myths." After a moment Joe asked curiously, "What kind of stories?"

With a laugh, Levon answered, "Some of the older fillies told us stories about humans roping centaurs, keeping 'em as pets, slaves, whatever." He gave Joe a wink. "Was just to keep us in line, and away from humans until we were old enough to stay out of trouble. The other stories were your legends -- Santa Claus, Paul Bunyan, Billy the Kid, things like that."

"Billy the Kid was real," Joe pointed out.

"So're centaurs."

"I'd noticed."

Levon knew they had at least two hours of driving ahead of them, maybe three if the road between Prairie View and the ranch's drive was washed out again. Better put the time to good use. "Anything else you want to know? Other than when I stopped believing in Santa Claus?"

"Yeah! Everything!" Joe's expression softened a little and he reached out and ran the back of his hand along his lover's cheek. "I want to know everything about you Levon. Everything you feel comfortable sharing at least."

Levon concentrated on steering, until Joe dropped his hand. Unfortunately he dropped it to Levon's leg. "I don't think there's anything I'd feel uncomfortable telling you--" he stopped, knowing what sort of look he was getting. "I mean, once you drag it outta me. If you ask me something I'll tell you. I just..." He shook his head. "I've never done this before. I don't know what you'd need to know."

"Well," Joe grinned, squeezing Levon's leg, "you can start with the Santa Claus story."

Levon blushed. "It was Marta's fault. She's four years older'n me and she... well, she made me think she knew everything. When you're a kid you can't tell when someone's telling you crazy stories." He glanced at Joe, hoping his lover would concur.

"Growing up doesn't necessarily mean you can either."

Astonished, Levon turned to gape at Joe. "Are you saying I'm telling you tall tales?" He tried to hold back a grin.

"Have to admit sometimes I wonder, Lundy." He grinned back, his hand moving up Levon's thigh. "Course with you, the more outlandish a tale is the more likely it is to be true."

"Watch it, boy!" Levon jumped slightly as Joe's hand moved from a friendly fondle to a near-grope. "Might not be any traffic on this road but I can still run us into a tree."

"Into a field maybe," Joe said, glancing pointedly out the window at the treeless landscape they were driving through.

"See what I mean? You've got me too distracted to even notice where we are."

"Well, if you'd rather I stopped..." Joe retrieved his hand from Levon's thigh.

"Just keep it out of trouble." Levon placed Joe's hand firmly on his thigh -- halfway between his knee and groin.

Joe squeezed Levon's leg gently again as he prodded, "You were telling me about Santa Claus."

With a sigh, Levon continued his story. "Marta told me about Santa Claus. We don't celebrate Christmas as such, but the herd elders had to help us -- the colts -- get ready to leave the herd someday. We had to be ready to get tossed into living in human society, so they let us celebrate human holidays if we asked to. Marta told us all that Santa wouldn't stop because he didn't know centaurs were real." Levon shook his head, smiling. "No matter what I tried to prove he did know and would stop, she had an answer all ready. Elves were real, and he knew about them of course but they were the ones telling Santa we weren't real because they had a deal with the reindeer to protect their jobs. They were afraid we'd want 'em."

"Sounds like she was getting her kicks yanking your chain." Joe's voice held more than a hint of disapproval for the absent Marta.

"Sure. She was older'n us, but still a filly herself. Human kids do it, too."

"Doesn't make it right."

"She didn't do no harm, Joe." Levon defended who was now one of his favorite sisters. "We all got presents that year, even some from her -- Maggie told me later that Marta went with 'em into town to buy the toys."

"Yeah but..." Joe sighed and shook his heads. "Kids get disillusioned fast enough. They don't need anybody hurrying the process."

"If it makes you feel better, I was 14 when Mother Minnie finally told me the truth about Santa." He wondered what had happened to his lover that made him sound so angry. Now wasn't the time to ask, though.

Joe looked at Levon. "I'm overreacting aren't I? Sorry."

Levon gave his lover's hand a squeeze. "It's all right, Joe. I figure you're entitled." He glanced at the sign coming up, and realized they had reached a stop. "Gotta pull off up ahead. Fill up on gas."

"Okay." Joe let go of Levon's hand, raising his arms above his head as much as he could as he arched his back in a stretch.

The exit was less than half a mile ahead. Levon began slowing down to let the truck behind him pass. As it zoomed by on the two-lane highway, Levon looked over at Joe. He seemed only a little more relaxed, but at least his tension didn't seem to be about meeting Taylor.

"You wanna grab anything to eat? There's a cafe at this stop makes a good plate of biscuits."

"Do we have time?"

"Well, no..." Levon squirmed in his seat. "Didn't think about it earlier but we skipped breakfast."

"It isn't the first time," Joe said, shooting Levon a lecherous look reminding his lover exactly why they'd missed breakfast in the past. "I can wait to eat. Don't want to keep your family waiting after all."

Levon just nodded. Carla would have a huge lunch ready for everyone soon after they arrived; if either of them were calm enough to eat they'd be well fed all weekend.

"So just who all am I going to be meeting? And what do I call them? Taylor's your father but you don't seem to call him that, and you haven't said anything about your mother or any brothers or sisters..."

Startled, Levon looked at him. "Hell, Joe, I didn't.... My birthmother died a long time ago. All the mares in the herd raise the kids, so all of 'em will be acting like my mother." He grinned. "Don't know if that's reassuring or not."

Joe grinned back. "Kinda like an Italian family. My aunts are worse than my mother ever was."

"So you're used to it, that's good." Levon relaxed. "As for brothers and sistersÂ… well, basically everyone younger than 40 is Taylor's get. So we're all related. There won't be any males there older than thirteen, though. They'll have been fostered out, or living on their own somewhere. All in Texas, though."

"That had to be tough, having to leave your home when you were only thirteen?"

Levon pulled up to a pump at Marvin's Fuel. The only pumps were full-service so he simply waited. "Not really. I mean, I always knew I'd be going. Mother Minnie came out a lot, so I knew her pretty well before I moved in. It wasn't like anyone let me think I could stay." Levon watched as the old man came slowly walking out. Marvin. He returned the wave, and rolled down a window. When Marvin reached the truck Levon smiled. "Hey, Marvin. How's it going?"

Marvin stood at the window, chewing on something and giving them both the eye before responding. "Fair. Ain't seen you around for a while, Levon."

"Been four years, Marvin. This here's Joe LaFiamma. Takin' him home to meet the herd."

"Hi," Joe said then shot a dark look at Levon. Under his breath he said, "Just how many people know about centaurs again?"

'Calm down,' Levon mouthed, giving Joe a wink. He turned back to Marvin who had given Joe a nod. "Marvin, were you gonna fill us up?"

Marvin blinked, looked at the pump, and nodded. "You want regular or unleaded?"

"Unleaded, please," Levon answered, knowing full well the regular leaded pumps were empty and had been for nearly seven years.

Marvin shuffled towards the pump, and unhooked the nozzle. When he got it placed in the tank and set 'on' he came shuffling back. "You want it filled up, Taylor?"

Levon smiled gently. "Yes, sir." He glanced over at Joe.

'Taylor?' Joe mouthed at him.

Levon shrugged. He knew it'd become obvious soon enough that Marvin had seen better days. He hoped Joe would have the presence of mind not to mention it to Marvin, himself, as the man hadn't ever realized he'd gone senile.

"Who's your friend?" Marvin asked as he leaned over to clean the windshield.

Levon answered, telling him Joe's name again. Marvin nodded hello, then headed back to the pump. As the automatic sensor shut the pump off, he replaced it. Levon held two folded bills when Marvin came back to his window.

"Thanks, Levon. I'll get your change."

Levon put his hand out. "Marvin," he said carefully. "You already gave it to me, remember?"

"I did?" The old man looked confused, then his face cleared. "Did I count it right?" he asked, tentatively.

"You sure did. Thanks, Marvin. Tell Milly we said 'hi'."

"Will do, Taylor. You stop by soon, you hear? And tell your pa we've that tractor blade he wanted."

"I'll tell him." Levon waited until Marvin had shuffled back safely to the shop, where a young woman had come to the door. She waved as they drove out.

Joe just looked at him and grinned. "Nice move, talking him out of giving you your change," he commented.

"Well, Marvin doesn't do too much business out this way. We try to give him what we can. Taylor's dad and he were sorta friends."

"That brings up something I've been meaning to ask..." Joe got quiet for a moment. "Just how long do centaurs live?"

"Nearly as long as humans," Levon responded quickly. "Mature a little faster at first, then we just hang around for about fifty more years. Oldest centaur I heard of died of old age at 76. Normal's about 65." Levon headed the truck back towards the highway. He'd tried to answer casually, though he knew how important the issue was -- now that Joe had brought it up. Horses lived only a few decades. If Joe had held to his threat to learn more about horses then he'd have found that out and, knowing Joe, been worrying about it since.

Joe didn't say anything right away. Then finally he reached over and captured Levon's hand in his own. "That's still not nearly long enough," he said quietly, squeezing his lover's hand.

Levon held Joe's hand tight. "I love you, Joe. You know as well as I do that if either of us makes it to old age we'll be pretty lucky."

"Yeah, you're right. We should just be grateful for what time we do have." Joe's voice became even quieter and more intimate. "I still want to grow old with you though."

Levon took his hand from Joe's, putting it on the wheel and quickly pulled over to the side of the road. Throwing the truck into park he turned to his startled partner and leaned forward, grabbing him by the lapels. Pulling him close, Levon kissed him deeply.

For a few seconds Joe just sat there but then he started kissing Levon back, wrapping his arms around his partner and holding him tightly. When they finally drew back a little he asked, "What was that for? Not that I'm complaining..."

"Not for anything in particular." Levon looked at his lover. He'd just suddenly realized that he would give anything to have ten more years with this man -- he had never thought much about living a shorter life than humans, not even when he'd married Caroline. But now he could see himself, age 65, begging for just one more year. One more day. He closed his eyes and grabbed Joe. He could see his lover at the same age, trying not to let Levon see his own fears, hear his own pleading. Maybe it would have to be something he would have to keep not thinking about.

Strong arms wrapped around him again in return, imparting what comfort they could through touch. Joe didn't ask why again, just continued to hold him tightly. After a moment Levon told himself they couldn't spend the day like this. He let go of his lover and put the truck back into drive.

"I really know how to kill a mood, don't I?" Joe said after a few minutes of heavy silence hung between them.

"It's OK, Joe. It's the kinda thing it's best to know sooner, than later." He glanced sideways at his lover as he pulled the truck up to speed again.

"It'll all be moot anyway if Taylor kills us for being late so you better step on it."

Levon just laughed, and nodded.

The rest of the trip was spent in casual conversation and companionable silences. When Levon finally pulled off the main road and onto what looked like a dry wash, Joe asked him if he was nuts. Levon explained that the herd's ranch house wasn't exactly meant to be found. The dry wash turned into a dirt track behind a small rise several hundred yards away from the road. After a mile the track became hard-packed, smooth to drive on if not less dusty.

"I can see now why you have the four wheel drive," Joe observed dryly.

"Kidneys okay over there?" Levon grinned as he steered with both hands. He was glad it hadn't rained in the last week. Sometimes the road became completely impassable to vehicles.

"Yeah, fine," Joe replied with little conviction. "How much further is it?"

"Not much farther now." He slowed down a little, letting the truck take the bumps at a slightly gentler pace. "In about ten minutes we'll be able to see the ranch house. If you keep an eye out you might spot the sentries in another minute or two. Once we're cleared you might see a lot more'n that." Levon grinned. "The little ones like to race any cars in, after the sentries send the all-clear."

Joe grinned back. "I can just see you doing that."

"Well, centaurs are built to run. We'll race just about anything, for the heck of it."

"Really? I hadn't noticed," his lover teased. "Tell you what, one of these days I'll race you in the cobra. 'Just for the heck of it.'"

"You're on," Levon replied. "But you-- look there." He nodded towards the right.

Joe turned and looked out the window in the indicated direction. He frowned as he tried to make out exactly what he was seeing in the distance then started laughing when he figured it out. "You weren't kidding were you?"

"Would I kid you about something like this?" Levon shook his head quickly. "Don't answer that." He waited until they began angling closer, then gradually began to increase their speed. They'd been crawling along at 10 mph to navigate the rougher spots left by last month's rains but as the youngsters got up to speed he could tease them, pushing them to nearly 15 mph before letting them win.

Joe's eyes were glued on the youngsters racing the Jimmy. He shook his head, turning to grin at his lover. "I feel like I've fallen down the rabbit hole or something."

"Well, hang on, Alice, it's only gonna get weirder. Wait till the youngsters ask you to strip so they can see if humans have legs like centaurs in standing form." Levon smiled.

"You're putting me on."

Levon shrugged as he nosed the Jimmy up to nearly 13 mph. "We did." They only had a short ways to go before they hit the driveway. He held their speed at 13, and grinned as the four young centaurs shot ahead of them, yelling and cheering.

"Why doesn't that surprise me?" Joe asked. Then leaned over and whispered low, "There's only one centaur I'll strip for."

"You better not strip for anyone but me," Levon warned. He parked alongside the garage and soon the truck was surrounded by the four young centaurs who'd raced them. As Levon stepped out one ran up, calling, "We beat you! Did you see? I won!"

Levon scooped the colt into his arms and swung him around. "I sure did. Gonna grow up into a fine runner." He set the laughing child down, and looked over at Joe. Two of the three-year-old fillies were staring at him, wide-eyed, from a safe distance, just out of arm's reach.

"You going to introduce me, Levon?" Joe asked, smiling at them, though his nervousness was obvious to someone who knew him as well as Levon did.

"Well, lemme see." He walked around the truck, hand held fast by the colt who walked with him. The boy's hooves thumped lightly on the paved driveway. He hadn't been out here since these kids had been a year old. He knew who they were, of course, but teasing them always made them giggle.

Levon stared seriously down at the two fillies, who giggled then stared back bravely. "This one here looks like May's foal." He tapped the dark-haired, chestnut-coated filly on the top of her head.

She nodded eagerly, then said to Joe, "My name's Hanna. This is Tory. That's Bill and Rusty's hiding behind your truck."

"I'm Joe." He gestured back to the driveway. "That was some pretty fast running you four were doing earlier."

"Thanks." Hanna looked at Joe seriously. "You're Levon's mate. Momma told me I had to be polite to you. Can you race?"

The other two centaurs looked up at Joe, waiting for his answers. Levon glanced around the edge of the truck and spied Rusty, hiding. He waited, letting the shy colt get up his nerve on his own.

Joe appeared to give the question serious thought. "I suppose I could," he said finally, "but you'd beat me hands down every time. So I think I'll stick to watching you race, okay?"

"Oh." Hanna looked disappointed. She glanced to her sister, who looked at a loss.

Levon guessed their problem -- what to talk about with this strange creature with whom they had very little in common. "Hanna, anyone told Taylor we're here yet?"

He almost laughed at the way her young face showed a nearly adult concern. "Oh! I don't know. Come on, we'd better go find out!" She herded Tory and Bill out, calling for Rusty to get himself in gear to join them to find the Herd Stallion. Rusty gave them both a timid glance, then as the other three began to gallop off, raced off to join them.

Levon watched them run, knowing Taylor would have been told of their arrival nearly an hour before when they'd stopped at Marvin's. His granddaughter would have called ahead; but the youngsters wouldn't know that, and this would distract them while he got Joe oriented.

"Cute kids."

Levon grinned. "They'll try to monopolize us for about the first day, then we'll be old news. Short attention spans." Glancing towards the house he saw Carla step out onto the porch in human form and fully dressed -- no doubt for Joe's benefit. Normally they wore shirts and coats in the winter and nothing at all when it was warm, to make it easier to change back and forth between forms. Two feet was normal for a centaur in the house; elsewhere they tended to stay on four feet. "Come on, we'll start introducing you around." He took his lover by the hand, and led him towards the door. Joe followed along docilely.

Carla didn't wait for them to meet her, she came down the steps, smiling widely. "Levon! It's so good to see you." She wrapped her arms around him in a fierce hug, then, letting go with only one arm, she turned to Joe. "You're Joseph LaFiamma. It's nice to meet you." She held out her free hand.

Joe shook it, nodding politely. "Ma'am."

"Oh, don't call me 'ma'am'! I'll think you're talking to Joy. She's head mare around here, ever since Adele died last year." Carla's cheerful energy seemed to bounce off in waves, and Levon couldn't help smiling. "Come on, boys, before everyone descends and crushes you!" She tugged them both towards the house.

Joe turned and mouthed at Levon, 'What's her name?' as they were dragged inside.

Levon gave a half-nod of acknowledgment, and said aloud, "Carla, is Taylor heading in or was he gonna give us a chance to settle in first?"

She glanced over her shoulder as she brought them inside. The house was spacious, well lit, and decorated solely with handmade crafts. "He'll be in soon. Didn't want to scare your mate off, straight away." She addressed Joe, "Wanted to see how you'd deal with the kids, first, break you in gently. Have you eaten lunch?"

"No, we haven't." Levon answered, not bothering to explain why they'd missed breakfast as well. Carla wouldn't be shocked, but he reckoned Joe wouldn't appreciate it.

"Good! I've something ready. You two come on in. Stuart's been helping me." They walked through the living room into a large dining room where they saw Stuart setting the table. The twelve year old looked like a human fourteen.

"Hey, Stuart." Levon nodded at the colt. Stuart just frowned at him and headed back into the kitchen.

Joe exchanged looks with his partner. "Guess adolescents are the same no matter what their species," he said neutrally.

Levon waited until Carla headed into the kitchen as well, and replied in a low voice, "Not exactly. Stuart's getting to the age where he's gonna be sent out -- otherwise he'll start picking fights with every other colt in the herd. Males are threats to each other around here, when they're old enough. Carla'll tell him to stay out of my way, but he won't be happy."

"You trying to tell me he wants to pick a fight with you?"

"Yeah. Well, he probably wouldn't, knowing there's no way he could beat me, but he's wishing I'd go away." He glanced towards the kitchen, then back to his lover. "It ain't really his fault. Just the way we're built. Fight for dominance."

"Instinct," Joe nodded, then looked sharply at Levon. "It affects you too?"

"Yeah, a bit. Don't get me wrong, I don't feel no need to fight the boy -- he's just a kid, ain't no threat. But I can understand how he feels."

"Is that part of the reason why we were always butting heads when we first met?"

Levon blushed. "Not exactly...." He glanced towards the kitchen door, but it remained closed.

"What do you mean not exactly?" Levon could sense Joe's increasing curiosity.

Lowering his voice further, in case Carla should return, Levon admitted, "Soon as I saw you I wanted to... wanted to jump you. Didn't figure I stood a chance. Might have made me a bit -- frustrated."

Joe grinned. "Frustrated was an understatement for me, too." He shook his head with chuckle. "I can't believe all the time we wasted butting heads when we both wanted to be butt-" he broke off quickly as Carla reentered the room.

Levon grinned and faced Carla. From her sudden knowing smile, it was clear she'd guessed what they were up to. "Come on, boys, sit down. Lunch won't take long and you can head upstairs for a bit before Taylor gets here." She set a platter on the table and headed back towards the kitchen for more.

Levon laughed. "Did I ever tell you adult centaurs ain't generally shy?"

"I kinda figured that out, thanks," Joe replied, still blushing though with a smile on his face.

Levon laughed, and they sat down to eat. Carla kept busy bringing more dishes, sitting for a few minutes to chat -- usually catching Levon up on all the gossip and explaining the names and backgrounds to Joe -- before jumping up and heading back to the kitchen. Stuart made no more appearances, and other than a young girl who stopped in to say 'hi' briefly and tell them where their bags were, no other centaurs made an appearance.

Finally Joe sat back with a contented sigh. "So far, so good," he said. "This is a nice place."

"Thanks. It always felt..." Levon stopped, wondering how he could describe how being here felt. Finally he shrugged. "Always felt homey. You know? Not like Minnie's place -- that's like going home. But this..." He looked around, seeing the house around him and, in his mind, the acres surrounding it. "I never thought I'd be back here. But every time I return, I feel like--" He broke off, unable to explain it.

Joe reached over and squeezed Levon's hand. "Like stepping back in time?" he suggested.

"More 'n that," he shook his head. "Out here I'm surrounded by my own kind. I can't ever stay, and I don't really want to. But it just feels so good to be out here." He glanced up at his lover, and suddenly realized his exiled-from-home partner understood exactly what he felt.

A half-smile quirked Joe's lips upwards. "One day I'll take you to Chicago and show you around there," he said, showing his thoughts were running parallel.

Levon leaned forward and gave his lover a kiss. He was still kissing him, opening his mouth and caressing his lover's mouth with his tongue when he heard an 'ahem' behind them. Joe pulled back quickly, his cheeks stained with red.

"When you're ready, Levon?" The man looking at them was, in every definition of the term, distinguished and foreboding.

Levon grinned, and turned towards him. "Dad, he followed me home. Can I keep him?" Joe just groaned and buried his face in his arms in embarrassment. Levon spared his lover a short glance, grinning at the top of Joe's head.

Taylor half-smiled then gave him a very grave look -- spoiled only by the smirk in his eyes. "Levon... is this any way to present yourself and your companion?"

"Uh, yeah?" Levon tried. He could feel his lover's tension and wondered if maybe Joe didn't realize they were only joking with each other. He tried again for some semblance of seriousness, to reassure him. "Dad, this is Joseph LaFiamma. Told you about him...." He stood awkwardly, waiting for Joe to look up and say something.

Joe took a deep breath and raised his head, holding out his hand to Levon's father. "Hello, sir," he said with some dignity though his face was still quite red.

Taylor nodded as he took Joe's hand. Levon watched to see if his dad was going to try any subtle -- or not so subtle -- power plays, but Taylor simply let go of Joe's hand after a moment.

"Nice to meet you, Joe. Levon hasn't told me very much about your new relationship -- I heard all about you from a professional standpoint from the moment you set foot in Houston." Taylor gave Levon an amused look. "He used to complain about you all the time."

"I can imagine. He used to complain to me about me all the time, too."

Taylor laughed. Levon grinned, consoling himself that at least Joe didn't appear quite so embarrassed.

"I'm glad to see he finally got his head out of the bushes." With another flat glance, Taylor waved them towards the double doors, which headed towards the back yard. "Now Joe, if you're up for this, the rest of the herd would like to meet you. I understand you've met most of our youngest already." He leaned closer to Joe and said in a confidential tone, "Relax. The real interrogation won't start until later."

Joe smiled a bit uncertainly, eyes sliding momentarily to his lover. "No time like the present," he finally said, answering Taylor's first statement about meeting the rest of the herd.

Levon stepped over and took his lover's hand. "Come on, Joe. We get this over with and maybe we can give you the whole tour. Nearly three hundred acres out there of unspoiled Texas territory."

"Great," Joe said with a seemingly distinct lack of enthusiasm but when Levon glanced at him he could see the humor glinting in Joe's eyes.

Ignoring his father for a moment, Levon stepped closer to Joe and said in a low voice, "Only one way to reach most of it, and that's on all fours or someone else's back."

"Lucky then you taught me how to ride then, isn't it?"

Levon shook his head, and as he stepped away to take Joe outside, said, "I gotta start flirting with you more often if that's all I can get from you."

"Oh, you'll get more than that from me," Joe promised then leaned forward to add something in a low voice meant for Levon's ears only. "Just not in front of certain centaurs I'm trying to make a good impression on."

Levon glanced guiltily over, and saw Taylor pretending not to pay attention. He knew of course his father had heard every word. He explained quietly to Joe, before letting it drop and heading outside, "He'd be worried if I didn't flirt with you, Joe. They'd all wonder just how much I--" He stopped, and asked, "You want me not to while we're here?"

Joe looked at him for a long moment then abruptly leaned in and kissed him hard. When he finally let Levon go he smiled softly and caressed his cheek. "Nah," he said. "I don't mind."

Levon smiled back, loving the way Joe looked at him right after they kissed. His eyes turned a warmer blue, like they'd been dipped in the corner of the sky. Abruptly remembering they were headed out back where two dozen or so relatives were waiting to see them, Levon took Joe's hand again. "We'd better get out there before they send a scout in to find out what's happened to us."

Two hours later Levon dug his lover out of a tangle of fillies, all simultaneously trying to ask him a dozen questions about Chicago and how it compared to Houston. The young teens had captured Joe as soon as they could get him away from their elders, wanting to know all they could about the faraway cities they'd never get to visit. Joe had been friendly and charming throughout, but for the last few minutes that had become less sincere and more forced. Levon knew his relatives wouldn't notice but after being on the pointed end of Joe's verbal spars he could tell Joe was ready to quit.

With a few forceful elbows in the ribs, Levon made his way through the group of girls and took Joe's arm. "That's more'n enough, ladies. You can bug him tomorrow -- right now he's mine."

"Just right now?" Joe teased as he allowed Levon to lead him away.

Levon waited until he got Joe free of the fillies, and saw that no one else was taking the opportunity to approach them. Then he replied, "For as long as I can keep ahold of you, you are. But I better warn you, Joy has her eye on you... said something about her own interrogation." Levon continued walking away from the group, away from the house.

"Great. Now I don't know who to be more worried about...her or Taylor."

"Her. Definitely her," Levon admitted. He headed them towards the barn behind the house, to the lockers where everyone stashed their clothes while they weren't needed. "Taylor's gonna be glad to get me safely hitched--" Levon stopped as he realized what he'd said, then pushed past it hoping Joe hadn't heard. "Joy on the other hand doesn't see me as competition. She's free to do whatever the hell she pleases and if she wants to make sure you're good enough for me..." He stopped, and gave his lover an apologetic smile. "Luckily I ain't one of her favorites."

"What you don't think I'd be able to convince her if you were?" Joe challenged, just a hint of insecurity in his voice.

Levon stopped, and faced Joe. "I think you'll do fine. I think if she's paying attention she already knows what kinda of person you are, and how much I love you." He leaned forward and gave his lover a short kiss. Then he added, "But she makes me nervous. She's a lot calmer now that Adele's gone but man, I still remember the time she caught me stealing blackberries from the kitchen..."

"Oh, this is the result of vivid childhood memories? Past misdeeds coming back to haunt you?" Joe teased.

Before he could answer, they reached the barn. Levon grabbed the door and pulled it open then stopped. "You wanna head out and look the place over?" He'd realized he hadn't actually asked Joe if he wanted to go for a ride when he'd rescued him from the girls.

"Yeah, sounds good." Joe smiled. "I want to see where you grew up."

"Come on. I gotta get changed." Levon stepped inside the barn. There were more than two dozen small lockers, all along one wall. The rest of the barn was given over to what you'd expect to find in a barn. Stalls for when someone needed to be kept in an enclosed space, for injuries or a difficult pregnancy; and of course the shelves full of tack and grooming supplies. Levon went over to one of the unlabeled lockers, and set his hat on the hook inside.

Joe had wandered over to the shelves and was looking over the grooming stuff. "I, uhh, packed your brushes," he offered diffidently.

Levon dropped his belt on the ground. Grinning, Joe walked over and picked it up, leaning past Levon to hang it in the locker. After giving himself a mental shake, Levon concentrated on undressing, putting his clothes away. He didn't look over though he knew Joe was staring, leaning back against the lockers, arm crossed, obviously enjoying what he was seeing.

"You know," Joe said conversationally, "I think this is one of my favorite parts of this whole centaur thing."

Naked, Levon turned and faced his lover. "One of these days I'm gonna hide all your clothes, make you run around naked until we're even." He leaned against the locker, watching Joe stare at him.

"Promises, promises." Joe moved in closer, leaning over till their mouths were just centimeters apart. "Will you brush me too?" he asked softly before claiming Levon's lips in a gentle kiss.

"I'll do whatever you like, " Levon told him. "But now we'd best get going or we're gonna have knee-high spies watching us make out."

"Thought adult centaurs weren't shy." Joe nonetheless stepped back, giving Levon the room necessary to change.

"I ain't. Thought you--" Levon stopped as he heard the soft noise. Looking towards the large rear door, he saw a tiny brown-hair head peeking in. It wasn't one of the four they'd met earlier. With a gentle smile, he changed forms quickly, and stepped towards the shy colt. Joe hung back a little, having also caught sight of the youngster.

"Hey, come on out here," Levon coaxed.

The colt didn't move, staring at them both with wide eyes. Levon took a step towards the door. He saw the colt watch him less fearfully, then shoot a quick look towards Joe before looking back.

"He won't hurt you, none," Levon encouraged. Slowly the colt took one step into the barn. The boy was much smaller than the kids who'd raced them that morning. Levon suddenly smiled. "You must be Shensen."

The boy grinned quickly, nodded, then looked at Joe and his smile disappeared.

"You wanna meet him?" Levon asked the colt in a tone that said the privilege wasn't one many got to share. Joe smiled encouragingly at the colt but didn't say anything. Levon walked forward, until he was almost within reach of the colt. Shensen hadn't moved, either forward or back, but was now watching him instead of Joe. Levon stopped, and asked again, "You wanna say 'hello'?"

Shensen shyly nodded. With a grin, Levon turned carefully until he was facing Joe. Shensen came the rest of the way inside the barn and immediately grabbed onto Levon's front leg. Levon took careful steps forward, letting the colt hang on as they approached Joe. When they were two feet away he stopped. He could feel Shensen's grip tighten. Glancing down, he introduced him. "Shensen, this is Joe LaFiamma."

Joe knelt down so he wasn't towering over the child. "Hi, Shensen," he said gently, holding out his hand to the colt.

The colt stared at him for a moment, then held his hand partway out to Joe's. They both heard a soft mumble that was intended to be a 'hello'.

Levon grinned as Joe glanced up at him. "Shensen's from this spring's births. His mother's probably standing right outside." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder towards the door Shensen had come in through.

Suddenly Shensen spoke up in a loud, toddler's voice. "Mamma says you human."

"That's right," Joe replied, nodding and smiling encouragingly.

"She says that means you only have two feet all the time."

Joe nodded. "Yep. I can't change like you can."

"Why not? Don't you want to?" Shensen forgot his shyness in his curiosity.

"Sometimes. But I only have the one form. That's what makes me human instead of a centaur." Joe leaned closer and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "I'll let you in on a secret though."

"What?" Shensen leaned forward eagerly, loosening his hold on Levon's leg as he did.

"I really wish I could run like a centaur."

Shensen nodded wisely. Suddenly his face lit up. "I know!"


In a very knowledgeable tone he said, "You can ride Levon."

Levon barely stifled his laugh.

"That's a very good idea," Joe said seriously. "You think he'd let me?"

Shensen nodded. He patted Levon as high up as he could reach, near the top of his leg. "Levon, you have to stand still." He let go of Levon's leg completely, and walked over to point to a short footstool. "You'll need this," he told Joe.

Joe nodded and picked up the footstool. "He is pretty tall isn't he?"

"Yes," Shensen agreed. They walked back over to Levon, where the colt directed Joe to set the stool down, and climb on. "Don't move," he warned Levon. "He might fall off."

"I'll be real careful," Levon assured him.

As soon as Joe was settled across his withers, Shensen looked up proudly. "There!" Then he held up his arms towards Joe. "Me, too! Me, too!" Grinning, Joe leaned down, caught Shensen under the arms and lifted.

Halfway up the colt changed forms, and Levon felt Joe settle him safely in front of him. With a glance over his shoulder he asked, "Everyone ready back there?"

Shensen nodded. Exchanging grins with Joe, Levon began walking -- carefully, as Shensen warned him -- towards the door.

When they got out of the barn they found Shensen's mother waiting for them. From her wide smile they could see she'd heard every word they'd said.

"Mama! Look! I'm teaching Joe to ride!" Shensen called out.

"I can see that," she answered, smiling. She walked up and held out her arms for her son. "Why don't we let Levon and Joe go riding, and you and I can play tag with Bernadette?"

"Yeah!" The young colt jumped into his mother's arms, and changed as she set him down on the ground. Levon stood still as the colt got his balance, and ran off towards the pasture west of the house, commonly used as the nursery.

Joe watched him go, a fond smile on his face. "Cute kid."

Levon turned and smiled at him. "Reminds me of myself when I was that age," he teased.

"You weren't kidding when you said centaurs grow fast. He's only a couple of months old?"

"Yeah. Grow fast for the first six years, then about the same rate as humans for the next ten or so."

"How far back can you remember?"

Levon was walking slowly towards the northwest, skirting the nursery pastures, to head out to the ranges that weren't usually occupied. He wondered how Joe would react to his answer. "I can remember all the way back."

"From birth?" Joe asked, his tone disbelieving.

"Well, few minutes after, I reckon. I remember trying to stand up the first time. My mom was about a foot away, watching me. Taylor was off aways, watching too, from the other side of what looked at the time like a wall of mares." He smiled, remembering being totally overwhelmed at the sight, until his mom stepped forward and took him in hand.

"I can't imagine what that must be like," Joe admitted, shaking his head. "I barely remember anything before I was about four or so."

"What do you remember?" Levon asked, sudddenly curious.

"First memory? First thing I remember was taking a header out of my crib. I think I was about two." Joe grinned. "So yes, I did fall on my head when I was young."

Levon laughed. "I'd never have guessed." As they passed a short rise that marked a boundary separation between where they'd likely find others, and likely not, Levon picked up the pace.

"So what does one think about minutes after birth?"

"What the hell are these things, and how do I stand on them?" Levon paraphrased the impressions he had in those first few minutes of his life.

Joe laughed at that. "Everything must've seemed real overwhelming," he said, once he'd quieted.

"It was, at first, but... well, I guess I just didn't know what to pay attention to so it all sorted faded out. It's like..." He suddenly made a connection he thought Joe might understand. "It's sorta like being on a stakeout. You're sitting there, no idea what's gonna happen, but even though you're trying to notice everything, you don't always understand what anything means until later."

Joe nodded, frowning as he tried to grasp exactly what his lover was trying to explain. Levon sighed. "Maybe it's just that I understand what was going on now, looking back. But at the time I was just... interested. I was the fourth foal that year, anyhow, so no one was particularly hanging on me." He grinned back at his lover.

"I bet your mother was."

"Well, besides her. Anyway, I was her third foal. Being a mom was old hat; she didn't worry about me much. 'Cept the time I got sick eating ragweed."

"You ate ragweed?" Joe asked chuckling.

"Hell, I didn't know what it was. I was seven months old."

"Lucky you didn't come upon any poison ivy then."

Levon didn't say anything, concentrating instead on the lay of the field.

Joe looked suspiciously at him. "You didn't." Levon still didn't answer. "Didn't you learn your lesson with the ragweed?"

"Well, the older kids keep the grounds in and around the nursery cleared of anything poisonous."

"But that didn't stop you did it?" Joe chuckled. "Always were resourceful."

"You mind if we change the subject?"

Joe laughed harder. "Sure Levon, whatever you want."

Levon sighed, wondering how long it would be before Joe brought the subject back up. Would he ask him, or, worse, ask one of the older mares who'd remember what he had done as a child?

Maybe coming back wasn't such a good idea.

"Feel like a run?"

"Yeah," Joe said. "Can't disappoint Shensen, can we?"

"Can't do that," Levon agreed and he broke into a fast trot. When he felt Joe settle into rhythm, he began to gallop.

Joe sighed happily, tightening his grip ever so slightly. "You know, I really love this," he called out over the wind.

"So do I," Levon said, letting the wind carry his soft words back to his lover. It was beautiful country, the land where he'd grown up, running with his siblings, learning about himself before he had to face the humans' world. He angled slightly, heading nowhere in particular just loving the feel of the gentle slope beneath his hooves. Joe was silent as they ran, just a comforting presence on his back, sharing with him the joys and freedom of an all out gallop.

They ran for a way, neither caring how far or how long. Neither spoke aloud, communicating only with a squeeze of a hand or a 'hug' with the legs.

Finally Levon slowed, and came to a stop near a shallow running stream. The water was clear, and as the source spring was on the herd's property, he knew it would be clean.

"This is a nice spot," Joe said, sliding from Levon's back as the centaur came to a stop. "Peaceful."

"Yeah. Sometimes, when I got old enough to leave the herd by myself, I'd come out this way. It was always nice--" He smirked, and added, "The fillies never understood it, said it was proof the boys were inferior creatures. That we'd ever want to be alone."

"Alone..." Joe repeated mostly to himself. He turned and looked up at Levon. "How old were you when your mother died?"

"My third winter. I was nearly four."

The look Joe sent him was full of compassion. "How did it happen?"

"Pneumonia; caught it in her centaur form, so they couldn't take her in town to the hospital. They gave her antibiotics, but it wasn't enough. She died." Levon walked up to the edge of the stream, and changed form. It was possible to kneel in centaur form and drink, but it was more comfortable this way and he knew Joe wouldn't mind seeing him like this, naked. He lay down in the grass on his belly, and scooped water with his hands.

"I'm sorry." Joe's words were said quietly, sympathetically. "That must've been rough."

Startled, Levon looked up. "It wasn't -- she was pretty sick. If she'd have lived she'd never have been very strong. The last few days she hurt so bad... well, it would have been kinder to let her go, if there had been the choice."

"Yeah but you were just a kid. To lose you mom like that..."

Levon rolled onto his side, to get a better view of his lover. "Joe, it ain't like that. Sure, she was my birthmother, but I had a herd full of moms lookin' after me. We lose one or two every year, from foals to elders. It ain't nothing strange."

Joe looked at him for a long moment before responding. "You're telling me that losing your mother didn't hurt?"

"It ain't like I knew her very long," Levon said carefully. He knew humans felt differently about their folks than did centaurs. It came from having only two parents most of the time. "Hurt more when Joshua died, when we were eight. He was only a couple years younger'n me, and we'd been good friends."

"But she was your mother," Joe protested. "How can it not have affected you to lose her? I know you had others to take care of you but still..." He truly looked at a loss to understand Levon's feelings on the matter.

Levon rolled into a sitting position, and reached up to take Joe's hand. Pulling him down to sit beside him, he said, "It ain't the same, Joe. It really isn't." He stopped, and studied his lover's face before asking, "You were pretty young when you lost your mother, weren't you?"

"Not as young as you. Fourteen."

"That why it's hard for you to understand? How I feel, I mean." Levon held his lover's hand loosely, wanting to reach him but not wanting to trap him if this was a subject he didn't want to discuss.

Joe shook his head. "I don't know if I can understand this, Levon."

Levon didn't answer right away. It wasn't something he could make Joe understand; either he got it or he didn't. He fingered the palm of Joe's hand, wondering if he could at least bring himself to accept it.

After a long silence, Joe spoke hesitantly, staring down at their joined hands. "What if..." he swallowed and started again. "Would anybody dying get to you? Or do you see it as all just a part of life or something?"

"Joe," Levon suddenly saw his lover's problem. He scooted forward, catching the chin and raising Joe's head to meet his gaze. "Joe, I love you with all my heart. With everything that I am. As a grown man who has known a lot of living. How can you compare how I'd feel to lose you, to that of a child losing a companion he barely knew?"

"I'm sorry," Joe said softly, gaze dropping again. "I guess I just can't see it that way. It hurt when my mother died. It hurt when my father died -- I was only six at the time and he had always been working so I didn't get to see him that much. But it still hurt."

Levon tried to pull his lover into an embrace, but when he felt a slight resistance he let go. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry it hurt, and I'm sorry you lost your folks so young. I know it ain't the same for humans... I don't expect you to dismiss how it felt, for you, just because of how I feel about my own mother."

He waited a minute, to see whether his words would register. He'd never been able to make Mother Minnie understand how he felt, he wasn't sure he could explain it to Joe. When Joe said nothing, he let go of his lover's hand and stood up.

"Levon?" The soft hesitant unsure tone wasn't one he was accustomed from hearing from his lover. "If... If I died..." Joe trailed off, unable to finish the question.

"Joe, I can't even bear to think about you being gone for a day, outta my sight. What makes you think I could lose you forever?" Levon remained on his feet. He knew what his lover needed. Knew Joe just wanted to hear the words. They were true, but they didn't answer his own question.

Joe didn't answer, just shrugged, eyes firmly fixed on his hands in his lap.

"Joe?" Levon asked quietly. "Do you really think you mean so little to me?"

"I know you love me. I don't doubt that. It's just..." He broke off again, with another shrug.

"Just what?"

The words, when they came were barely audible. "I need to know you'd miss me as much as I'd miss you."

"Ain't you been listening to me?" Levon lost his cool. He didn't quite yell, but if his idiot partner was going to insist on wallowing when he'd been trying to explain that the man meant more to him than anything.... "Said I couldn't lose you at all! What's that mean for me missing you if you die on me?" Angry at Joe's inability to understand, he began to walk off. He changed back, more at home out here in centaur form than human, but went no further away from his lover.

There was silence behind him for a long moment and then the slight rustle as Joe got to his feet. The next thing Levon knew Joe had come close enough to reach out and touch him which was what he did, tentatively stroking the soft hair. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I'm sorry. I just needed to hear the words. I'm sorry."

Levon sighed, breath rushing out in one explosive rush. "Don't be sorry. I just... Hell, Joe, I can't lose you. Not dying, not-- leaving me. Scares the hell out of me. I don't wanna think about it." He didn't turn around but was glad for the hand still touching him.

"Me neither. It's just..." A sigh and a soft exhalation of breath. "Never mind. You love me, I love you. That's all that should matter, right?"

He looked back at Joe. "Is it all that matters?" Levon swallowed, and tried again. "Joe, I can't lose you. If I did it would be like losing my soul. I couldn't li-- I couldn't stand it. Is that enough?" he finally asked.

Instead of answering verbally, Joe took a couple of steps forward and hugged Levon tightly. "It's enough," he whispered hoarsely after a moment.

Levon didn't try to move away. He held Joe as close as he could -- deciding he didn't care for embraces in their disparate forms as much as when they were both human. He shifted back in Joe's arms and rested his head on his lover's shoulder. "Are we okay now?" he whispered.

Joe nodded, his face still buried against Levon's neck. After a moment he pulled back and met Levon's eyes ruefully. "I really know how to kill a mood, don't I?" he said, ruefully.

"Wasn't your fault." Levon replied, still whispering. He wasn't sure what it was, but all he felt was that none of the unpleasant emotions he had in him right now were directed at Joe. He pulled himself back into Joe's embrace and stayed there. Joe held on to him tightly.

After a moment Levon realized two things -- the wind was getting cool, and he was standing naked with his back to it. Second, he was still thirsty enough to drain the stream. He considered the matters while he held onto Joe. Soon as his soul was soothed, he'd tend to the body.

A few more minutes and he was beginning to shiver. Cooling down from his run a lot faster than he'd have expected. He snuggled closer to Joe.

"You're shivering," Joe pointed out in a conversational tone, still not releasing his hold.

"Yeah." Levon wasn't ready to move. Soon as he did, they'd realize it was time to head back to the house. He didn't want to leave this just yet. Whatever this was.

"Next time I'll make sure we bring a blanket with us," Joe vowed, hands rubbing up and down Levon's back, trying to chafe some warmth into him.

With a grin, Levon looked up. "Have to bring one anyway -- give us something to lay on."

Returning the grin Joe asked, "What makes you think that wasn't what I had in mind?"

In reply, Levon leaned in and kissed his lover, long and deep. When he broke it off he felt a little warmer. "Lemme fill up and I'll change back."

Joe leaned in and kissed him again. "Good. Then you can continue showing me around the old homestead. I think our next stop should be our room." The grin he shot Levon was more a leer than anything.

Levon grinned back. "Love to, but by the time we get back they'll be waiting dinner on us. And Taylor wants to talk to you." He walked back to the stream and laid down, resuming the long drinks he'd had interrupted earlier.

"I'm not the only one who knows how to kill a mood," Joe muttered, as he waited for Levon to finish.

When he was full to bursting -- a condition that would change as soon as he changed -- Levon got to his feet. In another instant he was back on all fours again, and held out a hand to Joe. "I reckon I can get you back in the mood once dinner's over."

"You're assuming there'll be anything left when Taylor gets through with me." Taking Levon's hand, Joe let him help boost him onto the centaur's back.

"There'd better be," Levon warned him. "Otherwise I'm gonna get real cold at night."

"Can't have that."

Levon grabbed Joe's hand, and pulled it across his chest. He was still cold, but he'd warm up fast once they started moving. For now Joe's hand was a spot of heat on his skin and it made him shiver -- in anticipation.

Joe's other hand came up as he leaned forward, plastering his body against Levon's bare-skinned back. "Still cold?" he whispered in Levon's ear.

The touch of Joe's body against his back was like fire -- heat of all kinds, spreading throughout his torso. "Not cold... thinking of how you're gonna warm me up." He turned for an awkward kiss, and smiled.

"Better get moving then, partner," Joe advised returning the smile. "The sooner we get back, the sooner we can get everything over with and be alone."

Levon broke into a gallop and headed for the house.

They got back to the ranch just in time for dinner.

Carla hurried them in to get washed up before she allowed them in to the dining room -- treating them both the same as she did Bill and Rusty, just in from playing tag. Levon heard a distinct, "You kids!" as she headed back into the kitchen.

He laughed once she was safely out of hearing. The four of them shared the back sink, washing hands and helping the colts wash the more obvious dirt from their faces. As soon as Carla yelled "Dinner!" they abandoned their efforts.

Joe seemed a bit more relaxed than earlier during the meal. When Levon leaned over to ask him about it, under the cover of a rather loud discussion some of the colts were having, Joe just shrugged. "It reminds me of family get-togethers back home," he said with a small grin.

Levon nodded, and let himself relax. If Joe was enjoying himself, there was no reason why he shouldn't. He let Cory distract him into conversation, keeping only half an ear on his lover. His relatives were more or less taking turns tossing questions Joe's way, keeping him busy. By the time the meal was over Joe had charmed most of the young fillies and more than a few of the older ones as well.

All at once, as if by prearranged signal, every colt and filly under the age of seven asked to leave the table. Several had been moving restlessly in their seats for several minutes before clearing their plates enough to warrant the request to leave. This sparked a general exodus; anyone who had something to be doing made excuses and left. The rest simply watched eagerly, as Taylor finally looked over at Joe, and addressed him for the first time that evening.

"So, Joseph, would you care to join me in the den? Or would you prefer to talk out here?" The older man was smiling, a look which made his dignified composure no less intimidating.

Joe glanced at Levon for a second before answering. "Whichever you prefer sir."

"In that case, I'd prefer to send these nosy mares out while I finish my dessert and we can talk in private." He gave each remaining centaur a steely look. Suddenly each woman found something she ought to be doing, elsewhere -- with the exception of Carla, who simply 'hmphed' and began clearing the table.

Levon picked up his cup of coffee and settled in, earning himself a rather intense stare from his father. "Levon?" he asked, leadingly.

Levon just shook his head. "I ain't leaving him alone in here with you."

For a moment Taylor's stare didn't waver; then he nodded. Levon realized how tense he was when his father didn't press -- he hadn't stood up to him since the day before he'd left home. He glanced at Joe. At least he had a good reason.

Joe took a sip of coffee, waiting for Taylor to speak. Outwardly he appeared calm but Levon knew him well enough to see the little telltale signs that let on how nervous his lover really was. Taylor gave him another quick look then dismissed him, focusing on LaFiamma. "I understand you came to Texas under unusual circumstances." He held up a hand to forestall any interruptions. "Now, I have no interest in your working relationship with Levon. I had you checked out the first week you arrived, and found nothing to object to."

"And if you had?" Joe asked, eyes narrowing slightly.

Taylor shrugged. "My influence inside the city of Houston is limited -- but I certainly would have done everything I could to keep my son safe. However your Lieutenant Barton -- I don't know if you'd remember him, he said he rarely ran into you -- spoke very highly of you, both as a cop back in Chicago and as a human."

"I remember Barton. He's a good cop." He glanced at Lundy. "He isn't a..."

Levon shrugged -- he didn't know centaurs outside his own herd. Taylor, however, nodded. "I keep track of unattached stallions -- all herd stallions do. Most of the time, we stay on good terms." Taylor set his plate aside, took a cup of coffee from Carla as she passed, and returned to his question. "What will you do once the contract is lifted, and you're allowed to return home?"

Joe didn't hesitate in answering. "Go home -- for a visit. I'm hoping Levon will come with me, I want to show him where I came from. But my life is here now."

Taylor appeared mildly surprised. "Your family would accept Levon as your lover?"

"I don't know," Joe replied, his voice soft, his eyes downcast. "Probably not."

Levon reached over and took Joe's hand. Leaning in he said, "That don't matter, Joe. It ain't your family's opinion I'm interested in." He gave his father a glance, making sure he caught the unspoken reference.

Joe squeezed his hand. "Maybe they'll surprise me. But it's a moot point anyway, as long as I can't go back. This isn't something I can tell them over the phone or in a letter, you know what I mean?"

"So you see it as merely a rhetorical question." Taylor leaned back in his chair, regarding them.

"I see it as a serious question," Joe countered. "It's just not one I can give you any better answer to."

"I see." Taylor waited a moment, then asked, "It is, in fact, one you shall need to consider carefully. You see, your Mr. Gilia owes ... an acquaintance of mine a rather important favor. One which I have the opportunity of calling on. So you see, Joseph, that I am in the position of telling you I can get the contract on your life dropped."

For a long moment Joe just stared at the older man. "You're serious."

"I am." Taylor returned the stare, obviously waiting to see how Joe would react.

"Why-why would you do that?"

Taylor seemed to find the question surprising -- although Levon suspected it was exactly the question he'd been angling for. "To keep you away from my son, of course. Send you back--"

That was as far as he got before Levon was on his feet. "Damn it, Taylor! I'm not--" He stopped as Joe was now standing as well, in front of him.

"If that's the deal, I'm not interested. The only way I'd leave Levon is if he asked me to go. And if you thought you could buy me off, well obviously your information on me wasn't as accurate as you thought." Joe glared at Taylor then abruptly turned on his heel and started to leave the room.

"How about as a wedding present then?" Taylor's calm tone stopped them both.

Joe turned around. "What's that supposed to mean?" he asked, expression still wary and hostile.

Taylor started to wave a hand at their chairs, indicating they should sit, but stopped as it was apparent neither Joe nor Levon was ready to simply forget what he'd said. In a peaceful voice, he explained, "Simply that. From what I know about you, Joseph, second to my son, your family is the most important thing in your life. If you were likely to leave him for something, I judged it would be for the chance to return to your home. I imagine you think my tactics to be lacking in tact, but," his peaceful tone became near threatening, "the last time Levon asked me for my consent to let him marry, she nearly destroyed him. If I thought you were going to do the same, I'd prefer you did it now, before things go too far."

"I'd die before I'd let that happen." Joe's tone was steely and determined.

Taylor considered him, as if gauging his sincerity. Behind him, Levon watched them both. He'd managed to follow what his father was doing, and Joe's responses weren't unexpected. So why did he feel as if things had just begun?

Taylor finally nodded. "So I see. Would you like to sit back down, or are you still thinking of storming out of here?"

After a moment's hesitation, Joe returned to the table and retook his seat in silence. Levon remained on his feet, standing behind Joe's chair and regarded his father with a frown. Taylor, for his part, continued to ignore him.

"So you say you're serious about Levon. The fact that you're here speaks of your acceptance of who, exactly, he is, so I won't go in to that." Taylor suddenly noticed his coffee cup had been refilled, and gave Carla a glare as she came back in to collect more dishes. She ignored his silent reminder that he'd asked for privacy and gave Levon an encouraging smile as she went by.

Taylor shook his head. "Has Levon explained the need for you to keep silent about our existence here?"

"Not in so many words but I'm not stupid. I know the whole centaur thing has to be kept secret."

"Of course. You are aware that a few humans do know about us but usually it is only on my discretion that anyone is told." At that he gave Levon a scolding glare.

"Hey, it wasn't like Levon just mentioned it in casual conversation over lunch or something," Joe protested.

"Yes, but I gathered from his phone call last week that he had been planning on telling you regardless."

Joe met Taylor's gaze squarely. "Just what are you trying to say here Taylor? You don't think I'm trustworthy?"

"No," Levon said when Taylor didn't reply. He placed his hand on Joe's shoulder. "He's trying to tell you that I was gonna tell you. Not let it be an accident." When he saw Joe's confused expression, he continued. His father merely nodded. "Caroline found out by accident. Taylor always told me; before I ever asked her to marry me, all throughout our marriage, he was after me to talk to her."

"I doubt you would have married her at all, had you told her the truth." Taylor spoke up. He turned back to Joe. "She came to resent having been lied to. A great deal."

"And you're wondering if I feel the same way," Joe said, finally figuring out what Taylor was getting at. "I don't. I already knew that Levon was going to tell me on his own. And I'm not Caroline. I understand why he waited so long."

"You do?" Levon asked. Though they'd already talked it over that first day he'd taught Joe how to ride, he found himself wondering at the way Joe was saying it now.

"Course I do." Joe turned his head so he could look up into his lover's eyes. "I know what Caroline did to you, and that you were terrified I'd do the same thing. She put you through hell and it's no wonder you didn't want to give me the chance to do the same thing."

"I think this is my cue to leave... or tell the two of you to head upstairs and let me harass Carla." Taylor's voice interrupted them.

"This mean I pass inspection?" Joe challenged.

"This means if I try to keep you here for more questions I won't get very coherent answers. If you're anything like Levon -- his brain tends to shut down when he's thinking of--"

"That'll do, Taylor." Levon interrupted, frowning.

But Joe was grinning. "Yeah, I noticed that. We'll head upstairs."

Levon stared at Joe in disbelief. "What are you taking about?"

"Why don't we go upstairs and I'll give you a demonstration?"

Levon saw Taylor smirking, and gave him a glare. "Like you're any better," he told his father.

"I never claimed to be otherwise." He stood up, and took a step towards Joe. "Joseph, it was nice meeting you. I hope you enjoy your stay here; you're welcome back anytime except early spring." Then he turned, and headed towards the kitchen.

"Early spring?" Joe asked Levon.

"Mating season. Outsiders aren't allowed. Keeps things from getting ugly." He grabbed his love's arm and started pulling him towards the stairs.

Joe shook his head as he followed along docilely. "I did not need those pictures in my head..."

Levon grinned. "I think I can give you something else to think about." He stopped, turned on his heel, and pulled his lover to him for a kiss. Joe went willingly, returning the kiss with every bit as much enthusiasm as Levon was putting into it.


Levon looked over to see Hanna and Bill watching them from where they'd been hiding, possibly throughout the entire interrogation.

Grinning ruefully Joe looked at his lover. "Maybe we should take this somewhere a bit more private."

But Levon grinned and told the kids, "You don't like it, you don't gotta watch."

Hanna stuck her tongue out at him, then stood up and pulled Bill after her. "Come on!" They ran outside.

Levon turned to Joe. "What were you saying about someplace private?"

"Yeah. You still haven't shown me our room..."

Levon pulled Joe up a few stairs, trying his best to kiss him again at the same time. Somehow they managed to make it to their room.

The following day things were fairly casual. Levon took Joe out for their usual early morning run, showing him more of the herd's land. When they returned, Carla had breakfast waiting for them. She also had a favor to ask -- Stuart needed someone to talk to, to convince him that leaving next winter wasn't such a horrible thing. Levon agreed to talk to the boy, knowing that Stuart's natural aggression towards him would make the conversation interesting, to say the least. He left Joe with Carla 'for safe keeping', and went to look for Stuart.

He found the boy in the storeroom, restocking the shelves. Stuart glanced up at him when he entered then went back to piling cans without a word.

"Carla told me to come talk to you," Levon said, making it clear why he was here and whose fault it was. Carla's place in the herd was fairly high -- she had every right to order Levon around.

"So talk." The stacking of the cans continued.

"What'd you wanna hear?" Levon knew the only way to get anything from Stuart -- and get him to hear anything Levon said -- was to keep him off balance, get his mind off fighting.

"The sound of the door hitting your butt as you leave."

"That's real original, Stuart. Want to try again?"

There was silence for long tense moments as Levon waited the kid out. Finally Stuart sighed and said, "I want to hear that I don't have to leave."

Levon shook his head. "Only one way to do that. You up for fighting Taylor?" He said it seriously, knowing that every one else would have simply been talking about where he'd go, and who he'd be living with once he left.

"You know I'm not."

Levon noted the way the boy was standing, the way he said the words -- as if he were repeating them because he wasn't sure he believed otherwise. Well, he could suggest it -- someone would be taking over the herd in the next ten years or so. "You sure about that?"

Stuart looked up at him. "What do you mean?"

"Ten years from now -- you'll be 23 and Taylor'll be 64. How hard could it be to fight him then?" he asked, casually. He had to be careful, though, not to encourage the boy to try a fight too soon. Ten years was a long time -- time enough for Stuart to leave and decide whether he really did want the herd.

"I've thought about it," the boy admitted.


"And nothing! I don't want Taylor to die. I just..." he sighed, shaking his head, turning back to the shelves.

"You just can't see him being herd stallion much longer, can you?" Levon walked closer, staying out of the boy's space, but close enough to give him the feeling that everything they said was in confidence. Mutely Stuart shook his head. "Want some advice?"

The boy turned to look at him. "What?"

"Get out before Taylor realizes you're thinking of it. Get someplace safe where you can finish growing up, learn how to fight, learn how to take care of a group of people depending on you for everything... find out if you want the job. Find out if you're up to it, before you worry about what taking it will mean."

Stuart was silent for a moment, absorbing what Levon had said. "You really think I can do it?" he asked finally.

Levon shrugged. "Only one way to find out. But I think you've got a good chance. Do me a favor, though?"


"Don't tell anyone I told you this. Taylor'll have my hide."

Stuart suddenly grinned, the first one Levon had seen on his face since he'd arrived. "Promise."

"Then I'd better go find out what's happened to LaFiamma. Take care of yourself, Stuart."

The boy nodded, then called out as Levon turned to leave. "Levon?"



Levon simply nodded. Then he grinned. "Wasn't what you were expectin' to hear, was it?"

Stuart grinned back. "Not by a long shot!"

Levon laughed, then left the storeroom. Looked like he was on Stuart's good side, now, which meant they should be able to avoid snarling at each other for the rest of their visit. Joe would appreciate that, if nothing else. He headed through the kitchen, and out into the dining room. Joe wasn't there.

Checking the other rooms, he finally spotted Joe sitting on the front porch, down on the steps. He headed for the door, and stopped when he saw who was walking up. He watched as Joe looked up when a shadow fell across where he was sitting.

"Hi. I doubt you remember me from yesterday. Sea of faces, all asking the same questions over and over?"

Joe smiled back. "You're right. I have a good head for faces and names but I reached my limit pretty early yesterday."

She held out her hand. "Hi, I'm Marta."

"Marta," Joe repeated, automatically shaking her hand. Then he stopped. "The one who told Levon that Santa didn't believe in centaurs."

Marta looked surprised. "He told you about that?"

"Yeah, on the ride down here."

She shook her head. "And now you're holding it against me... Joe, Levon doesn't even hold it against me anymore."

"Levon's more forgiving than I am." Joe smiled but it was more a baring of teeth than a real grin.

Startled, she slowly sat down on the steps, leaning against the railing opposite Joe. "You're really mad at me, aren't you?"

"Yeah, I am. That was a rotten thing to tell a little kid."

"Come on, Joe. I was only a kid myself."

"Did you ever apologize?"

"Of course I did! Well, a few years ago. But he accepted it. And besides, Taylor made me help buy the Christmas presents that year. I picked out Levon's present, myself."

"So you didn't volunteer to go buy the presents like Levon told me." Joe was hammering away at Marta like she was a suspect in a homicide.

"Huh? No, not that year. I thought the whole thing was silly. I mean, Christmas? What was the point? But afterwards, well, the little ones got so excited by it all... I couldn't exactly tell him I'd been forced to help."

"You lied to him."

"Was I supposed to tell him I thought something that made him happy, was dumb?"

"Oh and I suppose it's just a byproduct that the story you told him made you look good."

She narrowed her eyes. "Joe, it's obvious you've a bone to pick with me. Did he tell you anything else about me, or are you judging me by one thing I did when I was nine?"

"I don't like to hear about Levon being hurt," Joe stated stubbornly.

Marta suddenly lost her defensive frown. "Joe, I wasn't doing it to hurt him. I was only teasing him. And it was the worst thing I ever did to him; we're friends now."

Joe was silent for a long moment. Finally he asked, "You really apologized?"

"I really apologized. Right before he left for college, he came back here for a month and we talked about it. He told me why he'd wanted to celebrate Christmas so badly. He had his holidays a little confused," she smiled fondly. "Since his mother had just died, he wanted Santa Claus to take--"

"Oh god, that was the same year?" Joe sounded appalled; Levon frowned, wondering if he ought to interupt.

Again, Marta looked startled. "Yeah, she died about a month before. Levon wanted Santa to take her a present." She obviously didn't understand Joe's anger.

"And you- you--" Joe was so angry he couldn't complete the thought.

"I what?" Marta shook her head, baffled. Levon opened the door and stepped out. There was no way that Marta, who had never spent more than a day in town among humans, could guess how Joe felt about this particular issue. The trouble was, he didn't know how to calm Joe down without just making it worse.

"How could--" Joe was still having problems putting a complete thought together.

Levon hurried onto the porch and sat down behind his lover, wrapping his arms over Joe's shoulders. "Joe, listen to me before you tear her head off."

"Levon she-- when you'd just lost--"

"She lost her mother, too. Marta's my older sister."

That got through. Joe froze. Marta just watched them, still with a confused look on her face. Levon kept ahold of Joe's shoulders, afraid he might yet go for Marta's throat. But Joe didn't make a move, just sat there within the circle of Levon's arms, obviously thinking madly.

"Joe?" Marta spoke carefully. Joe looked up but still didn't speak. "Do you want me to say I'm sorry?"

Joe opened his mouth then closed it again. "You already apologized, you said," he finally managed to get out in a hoarse quiet voice.

"I meant to you," she clarified. She glanced up at Levon, but he just waited. He didn't know what to tell her. He had no idea what to say at all.

Another long pause before Joe answered. "No," he said finally. "You didn't do anything to me you need to apologize for."

"It sounded like maybe I'd hurt you, too. Because of what you thought I'd done to Levon."

Joe shook his head. "You don't need to apologize." He paused. "Though I may owe you one."

Marta glanced at Levon again, and he could tell she was wondering if he knew what Joe was talking about. He shrugged; she turned back to Joe. "You don't have to, Joe. I'm glad to see someone who loves him enough to defend him so strongly."

Taking a deep breath, Joe asked, "You think we can try this again?" He stuck out his hand to her. "Hi, I'm Joe LaFiamma."

She smiled, and took his hand. "Hi, I'm annoying. Or so Levon likes to tell me."

Joe chuckled. "We have something in common then, because he tells me the same thing."

Levon dropped his forehead against Joe's skull, feeling relief that these two were not going to bite each other's throats. Then he had a sudden feeling of trepidation at the realisation of what was going to happen next.

Marta smiled. "You wanna know what Levon did when he was three? It was the first time he ever said I was annoying."

Levon stood up, and went back into the house. There was no way he could stop her, but he didn't want to sit around and listen to her embarrass him. Maybe Carla could use some help in the kitchen.

Finally it was Sunday afternoon and they packed up their duffel bags -- as well as two borrowed bags, filled with various gifts from various relatives. As they stood beside Levon's truck, each centaur came forward with a hug goodbye for each of them. Shensen wrapped his arms around Joe's leg -- as he had been doing all weekend, whenever he could -- and looked as though he didn't want to say goodbye. Getting down on his knees so he was face to face with the colt, Joe hugged him tightly, promising to come back for another visit really soon.

"Next week?" Shensen asked, tearing up a little.

"How about I phone you next week?" Joe suggested. "And Levon and I will try to make it back out here next month. Okay?"

"Phone me?" The boy's eyes grew wide. "No one's ever called me before..." He suddenly grinned in excitement. "Really?"

"Cross my heart."

Now bouncing, the young colt ran back to his mother to share the good news. Smiling indulgently, she listened as he repeated Joe's words. Levon gave Joe a smile. "You ready to get going?"

"Yeah," his lover replied, standing up again, his eyes still following Shensen fondly.

"Relax, Joe. Next month we've a state holiday, remember? Three days off." Levon grinned as he headed for the driver's door.

"If we're not in the middle of a big case," Joe reminded as he walked around the front of the Jimmy towards the passenger side.

"If we are, we can just take the time off later." Levon stopped as his father came forward.

"Levon, Joe... take care of yourselves. If you ever need anything, you know how to get ahold of us."

Joe nodded. "It was good meeting you, sir."

Taylor smiled. "As it should have been. I'm very important." He winked at Joe and gave Levon a clap on the shoulder.

Chuckling, Joe opened the passenger door and climbed inside. Levon just laughed, and got into the truck. The centaurs all moved back from the vehicle as he started the engine -- the kids waiting eagerly to race them back towards the end of the drive.

"Almost looks like you should have someone with a starter's pistol," Joe commented, watching the kids prancing in place.

"Actually," Levon nodded at one of the mares, who had moved to stand in front of the kids. They were lined up, antsy as Levon backed the truck up and turned it in a tight circle. He gunned the engine once, and the mare stepped aside as Levon pressed the accelerator.

"I should've known."

Levon grinned as he steered carefully away from the side where the kids were running. Watching his speed he kept them at just below 13 mph so the kids wouldn't hurt their lungs pushing themselves too hard. He let them beat the truck to the short rise that marked the first sentry's station and waved as they came to a reluctant stop.He waited until they were nearly out of sight before speeding up. No point in letting them know he'd thrown the race.

They drove in companionable silence for a bit. "Thanks for bringing me," Joe said after a while.

Levon looked over, surprised. "You're welcome." He paused, then said, "I couldn't exactly not bring you out here. Once you knew."

"Sure you could've. I wouldn't have pushed. But I'm glad you did."

"Nobody gave you a hard time, I hope? Other than Taylor, I mean?"

"Not even Joy," Joe gloated with a smile.

"She didn't?" Levon was surprised. "She didn't collar you?"

"Oh we talked. But she likes me. Warned me if I ever had any berries though to lock them up around you."

"One of these days I'm gonna run her into the ground." Levon sighed. "While you were playing with the kids yesterday morning she grabbed me and started asking me... well, a lot more than Taylor did. I think she got me to tell her what size underwear you wear."

"That would explain the boxers or briefs question."

"What?" Levon looked over, looking back at the road only when the truck hit a bump and sent them both bouncing.

Joe grinned. "Gotcha."

"Lord..." Levon steered for a few minutes, then gave his lover a glare.

"Hey, I could bring up some of the stuff Marta told me."

'Do I want to know?' Levon asked himself. 'No, I don't.' He didn't respond to his lover's taunt.

"I'm sorry about the scene with her the other day," Joe said after a few moments.

"It's all right, Joe. I know you feel strongly about it." Levon didn't look over -- the road had vanished and was now the dry, hard-packed wash left to make people think there was nothing back here to find. His lover's comment reminded him that Joe had never said that he could accept how Levon felt about his mother. He'd treated Marta decently, after they'd agreed to start over. But Joe hadn't emntioned Levon's mother at all, since.

"I overreacted. It wasn't my place. I know that." Joe's tone was matter of fact.

"It sure as hell is your place. You're--" He stopped. After a moment, "You're family now, Joe. You got every right."

"Family," Joe repeated.

"Yeah. Guess I ought to make it official, but I'd as soon do it while I wasn't driving." He looked over at Joe, and said, "If you'll have me, that is."

Joe opened his mouth to answer then closed it again. "Just what exactly are you asking? Just so I don't leap to any wrong conclusions."

Levon brought the truck to halt, and turned to face Joe. He knew the last sentry was still able to see them and wondered if they'd figure out what he was doing. "I'm asking you to marry me."

He looked a little stunned, but Joe nodded. "That's what I thought." He reached out and took hold of Levon's hand. "We can't do anything legal..."

"I know." Levon held Joe's hand.

"I would if we could," Joe stated, then was silent for so long that Levon began to get nervous.

Levon said nothing, waiting. Joe might not be able to say yes, he realized, not if his family had expectations of him... plans he couldn't get out of.

"Guess we'll have to settle for some kind of centaur ceremony or something huh?" Joe finally said, allowing the smile he'd been hiding to manifest.

Levon sat still for a moment, then mirrored his lover's smile. He pulled Joe over to him. "Think we can whip up something." Then he kissed Joe, like he meant to do it every day for the rest of his life.

Because he did.

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