Chicago is Burning

And when ye come and all the flowers dying
If I am dead, as dead I well may be
You'll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say and Ave there for me

But come ye back, when summer's in the meadow
Or when the valley's flushed and white with snow
'Tis I'll be there in sunshine or in shadow
Or Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy I love you so

And I shall hear though soft you tread above me
And all my grave will warmer, sweeter be
If you will bend and tell me that you love me
Then I shall sleep in peace until you come to me


The car was still burning. People shouting, sirens wailing, someone in a uniform was trying to lead him away. Voices, below the shouting, speaking in a foreign tongue. It had to be foreign; none of it was making sense. He tried not to watch as they pulled a body free of the car.

Someone was calling his name.

He ignored it, staring instead at the firemen who had begun wrapping the body in black plastic. He'd seen all this before, of course, and somehow it felt like he was merely watching a replay. Like he could reach out and switch it off, and turn to Joe and tell him--

He staggered.

Strong arms caught him before he could fall. He turned and blinked up into worried, compassionate, brown eyes. He felt a surge of anger and fear -- for a second he did everything he could to fight his way free. Then he stopped. Did it really matter if this one killed him?

The stranger -- strange centaur -- was speaking to him and only now did he tune into the words. "-should sit down. Come on, my car's just over there." He tried to guide Levon away from the scene, towards a red Mustang sitting nearby. There was a red, flashing light on the dash, Levon noted listlessly.

"What?" He heard himself say. He felt another tug on his arm, and tried to look back towards the ambulance.

Joe was dead.

His knees buckled.

The stranger once again caught him and bodily hauled Levon over to the nearest curb where he slowly eased him down then sat beside him. Levon found himself shaking, staring at wet, litter-strewn asphalt. Staring for what seemed like hours, he only realized he had been speaking his thoughts aloud when the stranger responded.

"-not going to happen, Lundy. If I killed you I'd have to arrest myself and there'd be way too much paperwork. Besides, I don't want to fight you -- hell I've been looking forward to meeting you and comparing notes. But not this way." A hand reached out and gripped his shoulder. "Gods, I'm sorry about your partner. I was looking forward to meeting him too."

"Meet...?" He stared at the strange stallion for a moment. "Carl Barton?" Taylor had told him there was a centaur at Joe's old station, and they'd had plans to meet him later in the week. The centaur nodded in acknowledgment. Levon grabbed onto the other stallion's sleeve, gripping it as if for dear li-- "He's dead."

Another nod, this one accompanied by a solemn expression.

"What am I gonna do?" He couldn't speak louder than a whisper. The sirens were suddenly loud again, screeching in his ears. "What am I gonna--" He caught sight of the car, as the firemen worked on it to make sure all the flames were out. "What happened?" Levon frowned at the car.

"Best guess? Car bomb. Looks like maybe the hit on LaFiamma wasn't as off as it was supposed to be." Barton's frown deepened. "Hensen's going to be pissed."

"Hensen?" Why would the herd stallion care that a human had died?

"Yeah. If there's one thing Hensen can't stand it's someone making a fool out of him. He gave his word that the hit would be called off."

"The hit?" Levon looked again at the car. Oh gods... the hit. Joe'd been killed.... He looked up at Barton. "Where's Gillia?"

There was someone he needed to kill.

Barton obviously recognized the look in his eye and just as obviously didn't disagree. "Come on," he said, standing and reaching a hand out to Lundy. "I'll help you find him."

It took a moment to regain his balance, once on his feet. He had an instant's wish that he could change. This would be so much easier in his other form; he'd feel strong enough to kill the man, strong enough to avenge his mate. Strong enough to walk. He took a deep breath, looked around, and everything settled into place.

Barton led the way to the car he had pointed out earlier, and climbed behind the wheel. He waited for Lundy to climb in beside him then started the engine and drove away from the scene, the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles quickly growing smaller behind them. Levon kept his eyes away from the side view mirror, not wanting to see the retreating image. There would be enough to do later, arrangements to make about Joe's body -- he realized Joe's relatives would probably keep him here, bury him in some family plot. They wouldn't know Levon would want to take him home and bury him at the ranch.

It didn't matter. There were more urgent things to take care of now -- Joe's relatives could deal with the aftermath. He would deal with Gillia.

"We've got two choices," Barton said, once they were out of sight of the scene. "We can hit Gillia's businesses, hoping we catch him before he gets warned off. Or we can go to his house and wait for him to come home."

"Where's he likely to hide?"

"He won't. Not unless we scare him off. Gillia likes thumbing his nose at the cops, likes playing games. He'll carry on business as usual. As long as he doesn't know that what's after him is a bit more serious than a couple of cops."

"Then let's start hitting his businesses 'til we find him." Levon narrowed his eyes, not quite seeing the city flow around him.

Barton was silent for a moment. "We'll check out the most likely but if he's not there, we go and stake out his house, okay?"

"Whatever it takes, Carl." Levon settled back in the seat. However long it took, it didn't matter. He wasn't going anywhere.

Barton just nodded and drove.

Levon didn't try to keep track of where they were going. They drove, and after a while they pulled up over to the curb. Levon didn't ask, he just got out and followed Carl. The Chicago cop led him across the street and down a block to another Italian restaurant. "This is my best guess," he said conversationally as they approached the door. "This is the where the shootout took place that got the price on LaFiamma's head in the first place. If Gillia is gonna thumb his nose at the cops this is where he'll be."

Levon simply nodded, and let Carl maintain the lead. It occurred to him, as he walked inside, that he didn't have his gun with him - then he decided it would be better this way. Maybe he'd get to kick the hell out of Gillia.

The maitre'd regarded them coolly as they walked in the door. "Lieutenant Barton," he said with phony charm. "What a pleasant surprise. I didn't see your name on the reservation list but I'm sure we can find a table for you somewhere..."

"Not here to eat Paulie," Barton told him. "Need to see your boss. Is he in?"

"Probably," the man said, but made no move to do any about it.

"Why don't you go check?" The smile Barton gave him had more in common with an animal's baring of teeth.

Paulie gave them a sneer -- then turned and headed for the office. Levon watched him go. "You care how I handle this?" he asked quietly.

"Discretion is the key word here. I really don't want to have to arrest you and you know enough, I hope, not to go revealing any 'family' secrets. Other than that, I respect that it's your show."

Levon frowned. "So I can't just kill him here and be done with it." This wasn't good -- he was going to have to actually think this through.

"That wouldn't fall under being discreet, no." Barton sounded faintly amused.

He thought quickly, before Paulie could return and tell them that the man who needed to die was within reach. It would be best to simply take him someplace where he could be killed in private, body dumped never to be found. But chances were, Gillia's henchmen wouldn't let them leave with their boss. Barton stood beside him, waiting patiently for Lundy to make up his mind.

Paulie returned, with a very set expression on his face. "He has a minute or so he's willing to spare you. If you'll follow me?" The man made it very clear by his tone and posture that the two should feel honored and humbled by the gracious invitation.

Levon rolled his eyes. A glance sideways showed him Barton was doing the exact same thing. In other circumstances that might have brought a smile to his face but at the moment all it did was remind him again that the person he usually traded such looks was gone. His jaw tightened further as they were escorted into the back office.

Gillia was a middle-aged man, just starting to go gray and gain a paunch around his middle. He was dressed impeccably and expensively and regarded his visitors calmly as they entered. Levon walked up to the desk, and stared down at him. "What were you thinking, boy?" he demanded in his hardest voice.

One elegant eyebrow raised. "Do I know you?" he asked pleasantly, his eyes darting to Barton for clarification.

"This is Sergeant Levon Lundy, Houston PD," Barton replied. "Joe LaFiamma's partner."

Gillia leaned back in his chair, appearing even more calm and confident. "I see. And you're here because...? Let me guess. You're upset that Joey was stuck in Texas?"

Levon rested his fists on the desk, and said in a hard voice, "I'm upset because Joey's been killed."

Gillia's eyes widened, surprise and disbelief plainly written on his face. Again he glanced at Barton. "Hit?" he asked tersely.

"Looks like," Barton answered after first scrutinizing Gillia.

Gillia didn't say a word, for a very long moment. Levon watched as the blood drained from the man's face and his jaw dropped slightly, to hang in a stupefied expression. "He's going to kill me," Gillia finally muttered. Levon didn't ask who 'he' was. There were at least three of them, wanting to do it.

Barton's eyes narrowed as he continued to stare at Gillia. "Did you order the hit?" he asked point blank.

"No!" Gillia shook his head. "Christ, no I didn't. I'm not stupid, man! Do you think I want Mikey LaFiamma and Hensen after me?"

He was telling the truth, Levon realized. There was no way he could fake this kind of surprise, and one didn't get to Gillia's position by being stupid enough to infuriate two as powerful as Hensen, and Uncle Mikey. Levon felt the coiled, ready tension within him vanish. He'd been ready to simply get this over with, drag Gillia out of here and kill him, be done with it. Now he had no idea where to start looking.

"Nothing is ever easy," Barton muttered under his breath. "Guess we better start looking at any other possible enemies LaFiamma had." He paused then added almost thoughtfully to Gillia, "Or you."

Yeah, that made sense. Someone wanted Gillia out of the way, what better way to do it than this. Levon began tallying up the list of people who might want Joe dead, who would have access or reason to be in Chicago....

Oh gods, Joe was dead.

He turned to Barton.

Barton took one look at him and reached out a steadying hand. Telling Gillia curtly to make up a list of anyone who might've hated him enough to set him up, the Chicago detective cut the interview short and guided Levon back out onto the street.

It was suddenly a lot louder. Flinching, he wondered if he could leave now, go home where he could spend the rest of the day outside, where it was quiet. He'd go run--

He found himself sitting down again, Barton crouching beside him.

"You going to be okay? Or should I call the herd's doctor?"

"Okay?" Levon stared up at the other stallion. "How am I supposed to be okay with Joe dead?"

Barton grimaced and looked away, letting out a deep breath. He didn't say anything. What could he say?

"You help me find out who did this, Carl. You help me, then I can--" Die in peace, was what he was about to say. Eat a bullet. But 'peace' didn't have much to do with it.

That was sort of the point.

The other centaur was nodding slowly, solemnly. "I'll help you find who did this," he promised. "After..." He paused. "We'll deal with after when we have to."

Levon reached out, and took Carl's hand. Carl helped him to his feet. "There are--" He stopped when his voice came out a whisper. Trying again, he sounded almost normal. "There are a few people we should check out. Folks we ran across in Houston."

Barton nodded. "I'll pull all his old case records from his time with the Chicago PD. It would almost make more sense if it was a local grudge."

Levon tried desperately to focus. He did this all the time, investigating homicides.

He could do this.


Darkness.

Pain.

At first that was all he was aware of. As the darkness in his mind began to recede, the pain moved in and took over. And clamped down. He moved his head slightly and the pain flared so badly that the darkness came back.

Briefly.

When next he became aware, he was careful not to move anything. He lay still and waited for the pain to subside enough for him to think. To remember.

It took a long time.

"I don't know." He heard a voice, far in the distance. It sounded vaguely familiar, but it was difficult to concentrate.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" A second voice. This one he knew he didn't know.

"What else are we going to do?" the almost familiar voice demanded, agitated. "Everything's fucked up. Hell it was a fucked up plan from the beginning. I don't know why I let Scarpetti talk me into it in the first place."

"You owe him. That's why. You owe him big. And you value your own skin more than anyone else's. Even family." The second voice was openly contemptuous.

"Then why are you helping me?" The first voice said.

It sounded sort of like Vinnie. But why would Vinnie be here....

Hang on. Where was 'here'?

"'Cause orders or not, I ain't no cop killer. You have to draw the line somewhere." There was the sound of someone shifting, getting up from an old creaky chair. The second voice when it spoke again was much closer. "How's he doing?"

"I dunno... maybe we shoulda taken him to the hospital." Vinnie's voice was louder. "I think... hey, I think he's waking up." His cousin sounded like he was both glad, and not, to make the discovery.

Making a supreme effort, he managed to open his eyes. Squinting against the dim light that felt like laser beams shooting into his skull, he could barely make out the silhouettes of two men hovering over him.

"Joey?" A hand reached out and touched the side of his head. He flinched away, then moaned aloud as the sudden movement brought back in full force the agony that had begun to subside ever so slightly. "Oh god, maybe we'd better--" Vinnie began only to be cut off.

"We can't risk it, you know that. Bad enough we went against orders. We can't let anyone find out."

"Yeah? So what do we do with him, then? Keep him here forever?" Vinnie demanded. The argument raised their voices until Joe was wishing he could just shoot them both, for a little peace. His head hurt.

"I don't know!" the other man shouted back. "Look, it's for his own good right now too. If Scarpetti finds out your cousin's still alive, he won't only be after us, he'll go after him again as well. He's gone too far, committed himself too much. He can't just drop it now."

"So what do we do, huh?" Vinnie sounded like a petulant little boy. Joe had always hated when he got that tone -- it usually presaged Vinnie's running to his dad, complaining -- whining -- about something.

"We wait." The second, calmer voice replied.

"Until when?"

"Until it's safe!"

A heavy sigh and Joe heard the sound of someone moving away. He then sensed someone looming over him, but was too exhausted to open his eyes again.

"I'm sorry Joey," Vinnie's voice pleaded. "I never would've gone through with it. I promise. I just... I'm sorry."


Levon stared at the pile of folders. There were, even for someone with a near-perfect memory, too many. For some reason, reading and thinking about all the people his partner had helped put away only depressed him. For one very bad moment he had a flash of memory. Sitting in an office, much like this one, reading the files of the men who'd killed Caroline with a car bomb. He sat still and tried very hard not to see that memory; tried to shut everything out. Images superimposed themselves upon each other, of flames and emergency vehicles and funerals. He shut his eyes, then opened them and looked at the files.

He sat in Carl's office, ignoring the other officers' comments and questions. He did, however, finally understand Joe's early attitude concerning Texans. They were all like that, up here. He pushed his hat back, rubbed his forehead, and re-settled it on his head. Their opinions didn't matter.

"Barton? I got another one here." A cop stuck his head in, holding out another manila folder. "You better hope the Captain doesn't find out you're investigating this with him."

Barton reached out and snagged the folder from the cop without getting out of his chair. "He'd be investigating it anyway," he told the man with a nonchalant shrug. "At least this way we're not getting in each other's way."

"Your funeral," the cop said carelessly and left.

"Humans," Barton muttered.

Levon smirked. "You take what you can get." He grabbed a folder off the top of the pile he was working his way through. "Is it just me, or is this not going to work? Hell, could be any of 'em." He turned his head to ask Joe what he thought they should do -- and stopped, stared at the empty chair across from him for a moment, then looked back down at the folder. It took him a moment to be able to see it clearly.

"Come on," Barton said, after watching him for a moment. "Let's get some air."

Levon picked up his coat and followed him out. He saw the way the cops watched him go past. A few had expressions of sympathy and understanding -- most just stared at him as if he were walking through the room in centaur form.

They went down to the parking level and got into Barton's Mustang. Levon didn't bother asking where they were going; at that moment it didn't really seem to matter. They drove for a long time -- Levon stared out the window, not seeing much in the early dawn. They'd been up all night, talking to Gillia and then hunting through files. He could feel himself beginning to lose control. For all the arguments he and Joe had had about why he didn't miss his mother more, and whether he'd miss Joe....

It felt like his heart had been ripped out of his body, and he was expected to go on moving without it.

Finally, Barton pulled the car over and stopped. "Here we are," he said.

Levon let their surroundings register for the first time. The car was parked in front of a well-kept-up barn; there was a small house off to one side. Beyond the buildings there were open fields. There was no sign of anyone else around. He stared at Carl, eyes wide. Carl nodded, and Levon headed for the barn without a word. He left his coat and shirt on -- it was still damn cold -- but everything else was thrown into a locker, post haste. Carl was changing as well, but as Levon stepped out into the field, Carl hung back, giving him room.

"How far's it go?" He could only stand still for a few more seconds.

"Twenty acres," Barton replied. "There's warnings posted before you get to the edge of the property. Just keep an eye open and you'll be fine."

Levon shot out. Within three steps he was running as hard and fast as he could. It felt so strange, running so light. He hadn't run without Joe on his back since his lover had first found out what Levon was.

Joe was dead.

Levon pushed himself, running faster. He heard someone screaming, far off. His vision blurred, and he continued running. He ran, trying to get away, trying to get someplace where it would not hurt so badly. Then suddenly Barton was in front of him, attempting to cut him off.

He came to a stop, dancing sideways as his momentum tried to overbalance him. His lungs were hurting, so he just stared at the other centaur. Barton gestured ahead of them; less than 20 feet in front of them the ground dropped off in a sharp embankment, almost a cliff. "I tried to yell a warning but you didn't seem to hear me," Barton said breathlessly, obviously winded.

Levon looked again at the drop. He nodded slowly. Looking around, he tried to get his bearings. He had no clue where he'd run -- but he was hot, and now he realized his throat hurt, as well. He stumbled slightly as he turned around.

"Easy," Barton urged, reaching out a hand to steady him. The Chicago detective refrained from asking if he was all right though.

Because the answer was obvious.

Levon stood still for a moment, leaning slightly against Carl. He could do this. It couldn't take long, could it? He could do this for at least a few days. He nodded. "I'm okay." The fact that his voice broke into a harsh whisper belied his words. Or said just how 'okay' he could really be.

"Yeah," Barton agreed softly. "You are."

"We should get back to work." Levon made no move to return, yet. He had a flash of spending the rest of his life alone. Then he wondered if his gods would let him spend his afterlife with Joe, in his God's heaven. Or if he truly would never see his mate again.

Barton nodded though he stayed as still as Levon. "We can stop by Gillia's and get that list. I still think that's where the break is going to come from. Call it a hunch."

"All right." Levon began walking as Carl moved. They headed back the way, apparently, they'd come. Walking at first, Levon was struck with the impatience to get back to doing something he could focus on, and began a slow gallop. "Thanks for stopping me," he said quietly.

Barton had picked up his pace, keeping right in step. "You're welcome," he said just as quietly.


Two hours later they were standing in Gillia's office again. The Mafioso looked nervous, but determined. "I've already talked to Mikey. I don't know if he believes me or not, but he's agreed to give us a day to give him something. Otherwise he's going to come after me." Gillia handed over a folded sheet of paper. "These are the only names I know, who might have this sort of grudge."

Levon glanced at the paper as Barton opened it. It was longer than he might've hoped but shorter than he had feared. He had an idea of where to start, and it wasn't one that appealed to him. He gave Gillia a nod, and took Carl back out of the restaurant.

"I think we might need to ask Uncle Mikey about these names."

Barton's eyebrow raised. "'Uncle' Mikey?"

Levon closed his eyes. "Sorry... guess it rubbed off."

Releasing a sigh, Barton nodded. "Let's go talk to the man then."


They had to go to the house -- Mike had gone home, and Levon dreaded walking in there, surrounded by Joe's relatives. Carl stayed beside him as they walked up to the door, and he was grateful. He felt like an outsider more than ever, as the door was opened.

It was Tony who answered the door, his grief plain to read on his face. "Levon," he said, reaching out and hugging him, much to Levon's surprise.

He half-returned the embrace. "Tony... I'm sorry, is your father here?" Levon tried to maintain something resembling distance. He couldn't explain his own crushing grief, so it would be best not to even let on.

"Come in," Tony bid him. He looked curiously at Barton.

"This is Lieutenant Carl Barton. He's--"

"Investigating," Carl offered when Levon faltered. He wasn't in charge, or even officially on the case. Levon didn't even know who was.

Tony nodded. "Pop said Gillia claims it wasn't him...?"

"It wasn't." Levon confirmed. "He has too much to lose and he knows it."

"Then who was it? Who's the son of a bitch that killed my cousin?" Tony's voice broke, his anger and pain readily apparent.

"That's what Lundy and I are trying to figure out," Barton replied levelly. "We need to speak to your father, ask him about some possible leads we've gotten."

"Tony, who is it?" A woman's voice came from the hallway; a moment later she appeared. Her eyes were red, as expected. Levon hadn't met her the other night, but Tony replied, "It's Joey's partner, and a Lieutenant Barton. This is my sister-in-law, Tina." He introduced them off-handedly. "Where is pop, Tina?"

"In the study," she replied, giving Levon an assessing look. "He said he had some phone calls to make. I think he's trying to track down Vinnie..."

Tony's face darkened at the mention of his brother's name. "He should be here," he muttered.

Levon ignored Tina's appraisal. "We need to talk to him," he reminded Tony. "He's probably calling about some of the things we have to ask him about, anyhow."

Tony nodded and waved them down the hall. "You remember the way?" he asked.

Levon nodded, and they left Tony with his sister in law. Along the way they ran into nearly a dozen relatives, many of whom Levon had met earlier in the week. No one said much of anything to him, giving him and Carl curious looks but not stopping them. He heard Rosa in another room, and knew he'd have to stop in and talk to her before they left.

They found Mike in his office, as Tina'd said. He waved them in, still talking on the phone. "I don't care who he's working for or what he's doing. You find him and tell him to get his butt home. If he's a part of this family, he can damned well start acting like it!" He slammed the phone down, muttering in Italian what Levon was certain were curses.

After a moment, he wound down and Levon figured it was safe to speak up. "We got a list of names, wondered what you could tell us about them." He held out the list.

Mikey glanced at it, then looked up sharply. "This from Gillia?"

"Yes, sir." Levon winced inwardly. He'd never planned on calling this man 'sir'.

"Mike is fine, Levon," the man replied. "Anybody as close to Joey as you are... were... doesn't need to 'sir' me." He read over the list, stiffening as he got about halfway down.

"What is it?"

"Scarpetti."

"Who's Scarpetti?" Levon tensed -- sounded like they might have a lead.

"Small timer, looking to move up. He's gained a lot of power lately and is hungry for more." Mike's expression turned to one of disgust. "Vinnie's gotten tangled up with him."

Levon frowned. "Would he do something like this?"

"It's just the sort of thing he'd try. Scarpetti has no honor."

"Where can we find him?" Finally, maybe someone he could kill.

"He has partial interest in a bar over on First Avenue. Lucky's."

Barton nodded. "I know the place."

Levon gave Mike a nod. "Thanks. We'll let you know what we find."

As they left the office, Levon stopped. "There's someone I gotta speak to," he told Carl.

"Levon," Mike called out as they turned to go. When he looked back, Mike said, "Keep in touch, you hear? I need to know you're okay. For Joey's sake."

Surprised, Levon merely nodded again. Then he took Carl back through the house, towards the room he'd heard Rosa's voice coming from. He found her sitting in the living room, surrounded by family. Nervously, he made his way through them to her side.

Rosa gave him a welcoming smile when she saw him, even though her eyes were still sad. She opened her arms and Levon leaned over and hugged the old woman tightly. "I am so sorry Levon," she whispered to him, smoothing his hair back from his face.

He said nothing, merely soaked up her embrace. He felt warm, and almost like part of her family, as she held him. Then he let go and settled back to sit on his heels. He looked up, and found he could say nothing.

Reaching out and squeezing Levon's hand, Rosa smiled again. "That's all right," she said kindly. "I know what you want to say." She looked up and noticed Barton hovering. "But your friend is waiting. Go. Avenge my Joey." She squeezed his hand one more time before releasing it.

With a grateful half-smile, Levon stood. They managed to leave the room without anyone stopping them, although Levon caught sight of Angie, standing at her father's side, staring at him. The image of her wide eyes and solemn face stayed with him as they got back in the car and headed for Lucky's.

They'd gone barely a block when the radio crackled and called for Barton's attention. "I'm here," the Chicago detective said. "What's up?"

"Got some interesting news back from the coroner on that car bombing victim you've been investigating. Comparison of dental records has come up negative. Your body is not Joseph LaFiamma."

There was a moment of utter silence in the car. Then Barton spoke into the radio. "Repeat that last?"

"The body isn't Sergeant LaFiamma. The body's been ID'd as a Raymond Fraiser. We're pulling his records now."

Levon reached out and grabbed Carl's arm. "Turn around." Barton did so without protest. As soon as they were pulling to stop, Levon was out of the car and running up to the door. The first person he saw was Teresa. He grabbed her by the arm.

"It wasn't him."

She stared at him, not comprehending. "What?"

"The autopsy report just came through. It wasn't Joe." Levon's heart was pounding and he felt like shouting. Hell, maybe he ought to.

Teresa's eyes widened and she gasped as the news sunk in. Then she was crying and hugging Levon. "Oh thank God," she repeated over and over. "Thank God."

He held her, and looked over her his shoulder and saw Tony. He repeated the news. The tension went out of Tony's body all at once and he had to put a hand on the wall to steady himself. Someone else walked up behind them, and Levon heard Carl repeating the news a third time. This time, it spread like fire and before he knew it, Levon was surrounded by Joe's relatives, all demanding explanations and details.

It was little Angie who got his attention though when she voiced the question they were all thinking. "Where's Uncle Joey then?"

"We need to find him," Levon answered. He extracted himself from Teresa's grasp, and located Carl. "We still have a lead to follow."

Barton nodded. "Let's go."

As they left for the second time, Levon glanced over his shoulder. Still worried, the crowd of relatives was talking eagerly, almost happily. As if Joe were going to be found alive and well. Levon turned, and went back to Carl's car. This time they made it all the way to Lucky's. Again, Carl led the way inside. They bypassed the front and headed directly into the rear of the bar, towards the office. No one challenged them until they reached the first door.

The big burly man who tried to stop them was obviously hired muscle. Or somebody's escaped science experiment. Either way he gave Levon the excuse he'd been looking for to cut loose. He reached out, took a hold of the man's arm with one hand and laid a punch in the middle of his face. A quick tug and a stuck-out foot, and the man tripped onto the floor. Levon stepped over him and continued. Barton followed placidly.

They reached an office door and another guard. This one was dealt with equal efficiency. Kicking the body out of the way the two centaurs entered the office. "What--?" The man inside stood at their arrival, glaring. "Davis! Palomani!" He called sharply.

"Your guards ain't coming." Levon drawled. He moved closer. "You're Scarpetti?"

"Who wants to know?" the man asked belligerently.

"Does it matter?" Levon stepped up to the man and gave him a cold look. From the man's reaction, it had the desired effect. He backed up slightly.

The man -- Scarpetti -- reached for a desk drawer but Barton got there first. "Uh-uh," he said, slamming the man's hand down hard on the top of the desk. Holding it there, he reached inside the drawer and pulled out a loaded 9mm. "Didn't your mother ever teach you it's rude to shoot guests?" he asked, pocketing the gun and letting Scarpetti go. Scarpetti looked from Barton to Levon -- clearly not certain whom he should worry about more.

Levon took the decision out of his hands. "We want to know you did with Joe LaFiamma." He took a stance he'd seen Taylor make, more than once -- quietly not looming over Scarpetti because he knew he didn't have to physically intimidate him in order to intimidate him.

A glint of recognition and fear sparked briefly in Scarpetti's eyes before he regained control of his expression. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Scarpetti was suddenly up against the wall; Levon held him fast. "You know exactly what I'm talking about. What you may not know is how many people want you dead, because of it."

"Why would I want this Joe LaFiamma? I don't even know him. You've got the wrong man."

"No, we don't. Thing is -- we could kill you now and look for him elsewhere. Talking to you is just to save us time."

The way Scarpetti paled it was clear he believed Levon would do just that. "Won't do you any good," he finally said, voice shaking with false bravado. "LaFiamma's in the morgue."

"Actually, he ain't." Levon grinned when he said it. Pure happiness -- and it looked like that scared Scarpetti even more.

Scarpetti shook his head confused. "I don't know what you're..."

"Shall I explain it? I can use small words -- Joe ain't dead. You on the other hand, are."

"I had nothing to do with it!" the man yelled as he cringed away.

"I don't believe you." Levon said quietly.

"It wasn't me!"

"Then who was it?"

Scarpetti looked from Levon to Barton and back again several times, mouth opening and closing as he hyperventilated, eyes wide with fear. But he remained mute. Levon pulled him away from the wall, and tossed him. "Catch."

Barton did -- sort of. Scarpetti hit the floor. "Oops," Barton said, sounding remarkably unrepentant.

Scarpetti pushed himself off the floor, looking from one to the other. "Who are you guys?" He demanded.

Levon shrugged. "Who, us? Nobody." He helped the mobster up, and swung him into the desk.

"I'd tell him what he wants to know," Barton advised. "Else he might get upset."

Levon rested a boot on the man's back, holding him in place. "I've had a real bad day and I'm more than happy to take out my frustrations on you." Scarpetti just looked over his shoulder at him. Levon could tell the man knew, and it would only be a matter of pushing him hard enough to get him to talk. He shoved his foot forward. "Tell us where he is."

"I don't know!" he insisted, then as Levon exerted more pressure yelled, "Wait!"

"For what?" Levon snarled, and pressed again -- not as hard as he might have.

"I may have... heard something that can help!"

"I'm listening. But I'm not real patient."

Scarpetti licked dry lips nervously. "Word is three guys were behind the car bombing."

"So?" Levon gave another shove with his boot. This time he used a slightly upward angle... and was pleased to hear Scarpetti's resulting, anguished yelp. "Sensitive there, are you?"

"Give us names Scarpetti," Barton ordered.

"Ray Fraiser, Bruce Roffman and Vinnie LaFiamma!" Scarpetti shouted, ending in a yelp as Levon exerted more pressure.

Levon stopped, put his foot down, and stood very still. In a very controlled voice he asked, "What did you have to do with all this, Scarpetti?"

"Nothing!"

Levon nodded. "That's what I thought." He turned, raised his leg, and gave a kick. It landed on Scarpetti's right knee. The man screamed, and Levon looked up at Carl. "That way we can find him if we need to, later... he won't be running very far." He couldn't risk killing Scarpetti until Joe was found. After....

Barton nodded. "Thanks for your time Scarpetti," he said to the whimpering man on the floor, then led the way out of the office.

Levon remained silent until the exited the bar. Then he stopped. "Should we head back to talk to Mike LaFiamma? Or hunt down Roffman?" His blood burned at the thought that Vinnie would have anything to do with the attempt on Joe's life. He wondered if Mike would let him kill his own son if he had.

"From the sound of things when we were there, Mike doesn't know where Vinnie is any more than we do," Barton replied as he got into the car. "I'll put an APB out on both, see where that leads us."

Levon nodded. That, unfortunately, left them with little to do until the reports came back. He looked at Carl, uncertainly. "You reckon he's alive?" He asked, barely louder than a whisper.

"If he was dead they probably would've dumped his body by now and we would've found it. I think there's a good chance he's still breathing."

"You're right." Levon allowed himself to relax. There was always the chance, of course -- but he'd just spent all night thinking his lover was dead and it had been pure hell. He'd rather let himself believe Joe was alive out there -- and if he were proven wrong, he'd deal with hell then.

"So now we just have to wait." Levon frowned. He wasn't sure he could do that.

"We'll find him, Levon."

Levon watched the traffic speed by. "If he ain't in one piece I swear...." He let it drop. His heart wasn't in exacting revenge -- not now. Now he just wanted to find Joe. He wondered if Scarpetti had managed to find anyone to call him an ambulance. He sighed.

Joe was gonna scold him.

"Carl..."

Barton put down the microphone from radioing in his request for information and an APB. "Yeah?"

"Better call for an ambulance." He nodded his head back towards the office.

His companion didn't say anything, just picked up the microphone again and added it to the request.

Levon rested his hand on the hood of the car. Joe was out there in this foreign, freezing city. He felt suddenly drained. He leaned his head down on his hand. The voice from the radio a few minutes later gave him new energy, though. Barton's request for information had turned up a current address on Bruce Roffman.

They had another lead. He quickly got into the car as Barton radioed in his receipt of the information. "We got any back-up?"

"Do you want it?"

Levon considered it briefly. "No. If we find anyone...." Better not to have any witnesses who'd try to do something stupid. Like arrest him.

"Didn't think so." Barton put the car in gear and headed for the address they had just been given.

The siren cleared traffic for them, and they arrived in short order. Barton made the final approach silently, in case Roffman was the easily-startled sort. They parked a house away, and headed towards Roffman's house.

Levon took the lead, and knocked briskly on the door. There was no answer.

He tried the door; locked. Turning on his heel, he gave another swift kick. Even in human form, it was hard enough. The door gave way, and they went inside. There was no one in the area visible from the doorway though the disarray of things made it clear that someone had cleared out in a hurry. Levon headed down the hallway cautiously.

He froze as a low, barely audible, moan came from a partially closed door. It took him barely a second to reach the door and shove it open. He saw a figure huddled on the floor, and shouted back to Carl, "Call an ambulance! And check the house!"

Then he was on his knees beside Joe.

Joe's face was pale and drawn in pain, and there was a dirty bloodstained bandage pressed against his side. He looked horrible but at least he was alive. And going to stay that way, if Levon had anything to say about it. He touched his lover's face, first to check the extent of his injuries. Soon he had every bump and bruise catalogued, then he simply sat still, holding onto an uninjured hand.

"Joe...." He stared for a second more then kicked his brain back into gear. Carefully, he checked the bandage and found that the bleeding had been stopped. He heard Barton's footsteps behind him.

"Ambulance is on its way," Barton told him. A pause, then, "How is he?"

Joe moaned again, his expression turning into a grimace of pain.

"He's alive." Levon brushed Joe's cheek, carefully avoiding any bruised areas. "Find Roffman?" He suspected the man was gone -- he hadn't heard any sounds of fighting. He didn't think Carl would bother saving Roffman for him.

Barton shook his head. "Place was empty, 'cept for your partner."

"We gotta find them." His thoughts weren't on it, however. He was focused on his lover, staring at the face he'd thought he'd never see again. He wished he could take Joe in his arms, but didn't dare risk moving him.

Another groan, this one sounding a lot like Levon's name, and then, miraculously, Joe's eyelids fluttered open. Levon scooted down until he was on his side, his face only a few inches from Joe's. He grinned as Joe looked at him.

"... Levon...?" Joe asked, his voice not much above a whisper.

"If you ever die on me again, I'll kill you." He was smiling, but his voice broke halfway through the words. He leaned his forehead against Joe's and closed his eyes. He could feel his lover moving, feel the pulse where his fingers lay against Joe's wrist. He heard Carl leave the room, and opened his eyes again. He couldn't see.

Joe didn't say anything, just tightened his grip on Levon's hand, and slowly, laboriously brought his hand up to brush away the wetness from Levon's cheek. Levon caught the hand and held it. He tried to take a deep breath, and felt a sob try to break free. He held it back, and struggled for his composure.

"...Hey...it's not as bad...as it looks," Joe assured him in that same near whisper.

"It looks wonderful." He grinned at Joe's puzzled and somewhat offended expression. "I thought you were dead. Gods, Joe... I saw the car--" He stopped. Now was not the time to remember.

Joe's eyes widened in sudden understanding. "Shit."

Levon remained silent, holding onto his lover's hand and resting against him as closely as he could. Finally he asked, "Joe... who did this?"

"Only recognized... one of them." Joe's eyes were bleak. "Vinnie."

Levon nodded, slightly. "OK." That meant the other names Scarpetti gave them were probably right. Which probably meant Scarpetti was, in fact, responsible. But those interrogations could be conducted by others, now -- he wasn't going to leave Joe's side until they were safely home.

He realized he could hear sirens wailing, and a moment later Carl said, "The ambulance is here."

Levon had to move out of the way as the EMTs came into the room. He sat as close as he could, where he could see Joe and his lover could see him. They worked quickly, and Levon was relieved when they reported his serious injuries as only a concussion and bruised ribs.

"Explains... why there's four of you..." Joe joked when he heard the diagnosis.

"There should be five," the paramedic replied, smiling.

Levon remained silent as they prepared to place Joe onto a stretcher. He tried to smile as his lover made jokes -- and he wondered for whose benefit Joe was doing so. Joe winced in pain as he was moved, eyes closing and complexion going even paler. But as soon as the EMTs started moving the stretcher for the door his eyes flew open again and he called his partner's name.

"I'm right here, Joe," Levon replied. He was following the paramedics as closely as he could without tripping over the stretcher.

"Just checking," Joe murmured a little sheepishly, relaxing and letting his eyes close again.

The paramedics got Joe out of the room and out of the house with Levon half a step behind them the entire way. He was stymied briefly when the second paramedic tried to bar him from entering the ambulance. Barton came to the rescue. "Your patient is the victim of an apparent hit attempt," he told the man exchanging glares with Levon. "Sergeant Lundy here is guarding him against another attempt. He needs to ride along, just in case."

The paramedic just nodded -- looking a little worried about the possibility of a second attack -- and directed Levon to a place he could sit, out of the way. Levon gave Barton a nod of thanks, as the doors swung closed. Then he returned his attention to Joe.

Joe's eyes opened once again briefly, as the ambulance started moving; he spotted Levon, gave his partner a ghost of a smile and closed them again. The paramedic watched this exchange with amusement. "I take it you know each other," he said dryly.

"He's my partner," Joe said clearly, though his eyes remained closed.

The glance the paramedic gave Levon said he understood. Luckily, the trip to the hospital was uneventful. Joe was unloaded quickly and taken into the ER. This time Levon had to remain behind -- standing where he could see into the treatment room, but only just. Barton, who had had to wait for backup to secure the scene, came into the ER area about 20 minutes later and found Levon. "How's he doing?" he asked.

"Can't tell." Levon was getting frustrated. He felt like he was coming off a roller coaster -- fear and relief vying for attention. He had a mental flash of climbing out of the car of the Judge Roy Scream, with the 8 year old Joey. He grinned. He still hated roller coasters. Made him feel sick. "Anyone call his family, tell 'em he's here?" He felt tired, as well. He wanted nothing more than to sit down, with Joe in his arms, and rest. "Oh hell, I gotta call Taylor." He suddenly realized he hadn't spoken to his father -- hadn't even told him about the explosion.

"I've called Hensen," Barton offered, "kept him informed. I think he's been in touch with Taylor. And I was about to call LaFiamma's family but was wondering if you might want to do it instead?"

"Yeah, I reckon I'd better." He didn't glance around for a phone. He knew he ought to -- wasn't like there was anything else he could do while they were working on Joe. But he didn't want to leave.

Just then, the doctor came out. "Which one of you is Sergeant LaFiamma's partner?" he asked.

"I am." Levon was heading over before the man could finish his question. "Is he all right?" He had to be -- the paramedics hadn't been worried. What could have happened-- Levon told himself to calm down.

It didn't work.

The doctor smiled. "He has a concussion and several bruised ribs, along with assorted contusions and cuts, one of which was quite deep on his side, but barring unforeseen complications he's going to be fine."

It took a moment for the words to sink in. Rather, the words sank in quickly but their meaning took another few seconds. "He's gonna be all right?" Levon felt like he really needed to sit down. He also felt like running into the treatment room and grabbing his lover. Instead he nodded. "Thanks. How... how long he gonna be here?"

"We'd like to keep him overnight for observation because of the concussion, but he should be free to go home tomorrow morning." The doctor paused then added, "You can go in and see him while I phone upstairs to arrange for a room."

He didn't hesitate, pushing past the doctor as politely as he could and headed for the room. He stopped just inside the doorway -- Joe had his eyes closed, and looked as if he were resting, looked like he were still in pain but less so than he'd been when they'd found him. He almost hated to disturb him.

"Joe..." he whispered.

Joe's eyes flew open and he smiled at Levon. "Hey cowboy." His voice was a lot stronger than it had been when Levon had found him.

"How you feeling?" Levon moved to stand beside the examining table, and placed his hand on top of Joe's.

"Like I just played in the Super Bowl. As the ball." Casually, Joe turned his hand over and intertwined their fingers.

"Doc says you're gonna be fine... says you can go home tomorrow." As he said it, it occurred to him that 'home' might be Teresa and Mike's place. What chance was there that they'd let Joe go back to a hotel -- or fly back to Houston? He pushed the worry back. Joe was here, alive, and staying that way. It didn't matter where he was sleeping.

"Yeah, he told me." Joe studied Levon's face for a long moment. "You look worse than I feel."

"Been a long day." He squeezed Joe's fingers. "I'm glad you're all right." His voice broke halfway through the whisper.

Joe squeezed back, hard. "I'm sorry Levon," he said after a moment's silence.

"Ain't your fault." Levon was surprised. "I'm--" He stopped, and turned his head as two orderlies came in. One young man informed him that they'd be taking Joe to his room, and Levon would have to wait outside again. Levon gave Joe's fingers another squeeze, and stepped back.

"See you in a few minutes upstairs," Joe said, it more of a statement than a question.

"Right." Levon smiled to himself. Sometimes it was nice, being ordered around. He headed back out into the waiting room and looked around for a phone. He found one around the corner and quickly dialed Joe's uncle. The phone on the other end was picked up after barely half a ring.

"Yeah?"

"We found him. He's all right."

There was silence at the other end, and Levon could imagine Mike's eyes closing briefly in relief. When the man spoke again, his voice wasn't quite as steady as it had been. "Where?"

"St. Mary's. They're taking him up to a room right now." Levon paused, then added, "The doctor says he only has to stay overnight for observation. He's got a concussion and bruised ribs."

"Have you caught who did this?"

Levon took a deep breath. "No... but we know how did it. Ray Fraiser, Bruce Roffman, and...."

"And?"

"I'm sorry. Joe says Vinnie was there." Levon waited.

Silence stretched out for long moments. When Mike did speak again, his voice was all business, as if he had locked his emotions down tight. "Thank you for telling me, Levon. I'll let the rest of the family know about Joey."

After that, there was nothing more to say. Levon let Mike go, then dialed again, placing a collect call to the ranch house. His father answered, and Levon found out that Taylor had been keeping nearly closer tabs on him than had Mike LaFiamma.

Taylor had been in near constant contact with Hensen since Levon and Joe had arrived in Chicago, ensuring as well as he could that everything went smoothly. When the attack happened he had been beyond livid. He still wasn't too calm. "You know who did it?" Taylor asked tersely.

"Yeah. Well, couple of names... the third was Joe's cousin, Vinnie. I reckon Mike's taking care of things." Levon glanced at the wall clock. They'd surely had enough time to get Joe settled.

"If he doesn't, we will," his father promised. "This impinges on Hensen's and my honor, not to mention threatening my herd. I can't let it pass, even if I wanted to. Which I don't."

"Yes, sir. Look... they'll have Joe in his room now. I'll call you later?" He was glad to hear the people who'd done this would be taken care of. Until recently, he'd have willingly been the one to do the taking care. But right now he just wanted to be with Joe.

After he'd hung up the phone he took the elevator up to the floor the orderlies had told him they were taking Joe to. He glanced down the hallway, and found the nurses' station. He walked up to the woman there, and smiled. "Can you tell me where they've stashed Joe LaFiamma?"

After getting the room number he headed to it, to find Barton chatting quietly with his lover. Levon watched Joe's eyes light up when he spotted him. "Was wondering what was taking you so long."

He headed directly for the bedside and sat down. Joe scooted a bit to make room. "Had phone calls to make." He wondered if anyone would mind -- particularly Joe, who had the bruises -- if he leaned over and hugged his love.

"Barton was just filling me in on what you'd found out," Joe said as he reached for Levon's hand, entwining their fingers once again.

"Good." He paused, then let go of Joe's hand -- and leaned over, laying himself as gently as he could across his lover's chest. He closed his eyes.

Joe's arms immediately went around him, holding him. "Can we finish this later?" he heard Joe ask the other detective, feeling the vibrations of Joe's voice in his chest.

"Sure," Barton responded softly then, Levon heard soft steps retreating and the sound of the door being closed. Levon took a deep breath, and found himself relaxing. He could hear Joe's heart beating, and listened for a moment. He'd been so close to never hearing it again. His hold tightened reflexively, then immediately he loosened his grasp to avoid hurting Joe.

"You okay?" Joe asked softly, one hand reaching up and stroking Levon's hair.

"No...." His grip tightened again. "Joe, I thought you were--" He tried to take another deep breath. "It felt like I was dying myself, and couldn't."

Joe's arms held him tighter. "It's all right," he soothed. "I'm right here."

After that, he found he could no longer hold it back. Levon turned his face, pressing it against the hospital sheet, and let himself cry. Joe held him tightly and whispered soft words of comfort and love as Levon released all the pent-up emotion of the past 24 hours.

He wasn't exactly sure how much later he woke up. He sat up and smiled at Joe sheepishly. "Didn't mean to fall asleep on you."

"Literally." Joe grinned. "S'okay. You needed it."

Yawning, Levon looked around, then looked at his watch. Nearly half an hour. No wonder he still felt like hell. He'd gone nearly 36 hours without sleep. Rubbing his face, he tried to figure out what still needed to be done. Relatives would be arriving soon, Roffman and company were dealt with....

There was still Scarpetti, of course, but he wasn't likely to be far.

He became suddenly aware that Joe was watching him intently. "Do me a favor?" his lover asked.

"Name it."

"Before you start planning on going after the people who did this, get some more sleep?"

Levon grinned. "Afraid I'll shoot myself in the foot?"

Joe didn't smile back. "Afraid somebody else will if I'm not there to watch your back," he said seriously

Levon laughed, and shook his head. "Don't worry -- already been shot once this season. Ain't gonna let it happen again until at least spring."

"How comforting. Look, just get some sleep before you end up in here with me, okay? You're still recovering yourself."

"I promise, Joe," Levon said, finally serious. "Besides, I reckon with everyone else out looking I don't--" He stopped as the door behind him opened.

"Joe!" Teresa was the first one in. She made a beeline to her nephew's side, wrapping her arms around his neck like... well, like she'd never expected to see him again.

"Hi, Aunt Teresa," Joe replied, hugging her back, wincing slightly at the strain to his bruised ribs.

"Hey, cuz," Tony said as he came into the room. "You're looking pretty good for a dead guy."

Levon smiled at his lover's reactions to his family's greetings. Not as much back-slapping as there had been when they'd first arrived two days ago, but otherwise, nearly the same. However, he was torn between what he should do -- he couldn't bring himself to leave his lover's sight, but he did need sleep and there were still Roffman and Scarpetti to deal with. He hid a yawn behind his fist as two more LaFiammas came into the room and they all began talking at once. Somehow, in the middle of all this chaos and while carrying on about three different conversations, Joe still noticed. "Tony," he said, interrupting his cousin's description of Angie's reaction when she had heard Joe was not dead.

"Yeah, Joe?"

"Do me a favor and take my stubborn as a mule partner back to the hotel so he can get some sleep, will you? He looks worse than I feel."

Levon narrowed his eyes briefly. He mouthed, "I'm not a--" then Tony, who was giving he and Joe a smile he wasn't sure he liked, walked over and took him by the arm. He didn't argue, however, and left the room with only a single backwards glance -- one last look at his very much alive lover.

Joe smiled, and everything he couldn't say out loud because of his family being present was there in his eyes. Levon smiled back, only turning to leave when Tony yanked on his arm. "All right, I'm coming." Levon muttered. He followed Tony, finding himself glad, despite himself, to be heading for a bed. Even gladder that someone else was taking charge of getting him to it.

He was so tired that he didn't notice at first the looks that Tony was shooting at him every minute or so and even when he did notice it took him a few minutes to clue in to their significance. He remained silent, however. He wasn't up to encouraging the sort of conversation that warranted that many of that particular sort of expression.

Apparently somebody had forgotten to tell Tony that however because at the next stoplight he asked, "So what exactly is between you and Joey?"

"What do you mean?" Levon asked, carefully.

"Meaning I don't know too many friends who look at each other the way you two do."

"How am I supposed to look at him?" Levon frowned. He knew where this was going. Joe had said it would be all right if Tony knew -- but that didn't mean he wanted to be the one to spill the beans.

"The only person who looks at me the way you look at Joey is my wife."

Levon didn't answer. He turned to stare at the window -- perhaps he ought to just admit how he felt. After all, Tony didn't sound like he minded that much. But humans had such strong beliefs about these sorts of things, and he was wary, still, of saying something he shouldn't.

Tony was silent for several long moments, giving Levon a chance to explain. Finally, he sighed and asked point blank, "You're in love with him aren't you?"

Levon glanced over. Tony looked only mildly exasperated -- in fact, he resembled Joe with that expression on his face. He saw it often enough, usually with that wonderful grin hiding just beneath it.

So close to never seeing it again.

Levon nodded. "Yeah. I am."

"And he feels the same way about you." It wasn't quite a question.

"Yes."

Tony nodded but didn't say anything more. Levon wasn't sure whether to relax, or not. Would Tony leave it alone, now that he'd gotten his answer? Or was he merely getting ready for a long interrogation. He smiled, slightly. Couldn't be any worse than Taylor's. Or Joy's.

"How long have you two been... together?" Apparently it was going to be the interrogation.

"Two and a half years. He moved in about seven months ago."

"And you're... uhm... committed?"

"Yes." They still needed to make plans to that end. After he'd asked Joe to marry him, they'd talked about a ceremony. So far, they'd not done anything more than talk.

"Good."

"Huh?" Levon turned and stared in surprise.

"Good. Joe's happier than I've ever seen him. He's not as angry as he used to be and for the first time since his mother died he seems content with himself, with his life." Tony glanced over at Levon. "You're obviously just what the doctor ordered."

Levon continued staring. What was he supposed to say? 'Thanks?' He smiled, slowly, and relaxed.

"Thanks."

Tony grinned. "You're welcome." They turned into the hotel parking lot and Tony stopped the car in front of the door. Turning to Levon, he held out his hand. "Welcome to the family."

Levon shook Tony's hand. "I appreciate it." When Tony nodded, Levon got out of the car and headed towards the hotel.

One good thing, out of everything that had happened. Hopefully, it was a sign that things were going to get better. He headed for his and Joe's room, and let himself in. Grateful again at his lover's thoughtfulness at getting a ground floor room, he shed his coat and hat at the first step inside. His boots were next, and with a glance towards the bathroom he quickly removed everything else and headed for the shower.

Fifteen minutes later he was lying in bed, closing his eyes.

Half an hour later, he was opening his eyes again. He couldn't sleep. Despite knowing Joe was safe, despite knowing there were others looking for, and no doubt taking care of, Bruce Roffman and Scarpetti and Vinnie LaFiamma, he couldn't sleep. He kept rolling over, looking for his lover and, when he didn't find him, jolting back to wakefulness with a spike of fear that he had, somehow, dreamt it all.

Three times now, he'd had to tell himself 'He's alive, he's fine, calm down'. It wasn't working, though.

So now, after trying and failing, he sat up and admitted he wasn't going to sleep. Grabbing for the phone, he dialed the number Carl had given him.

It was answered on the fifth ring with a harried "Barton!"

"Carl, it's Levon."

"Levon. I wasn't expecting to hear from you until tomorrow. Is everything okay? Joe didn't -"

"He's fine. Look -- has Roffman been found, yet?"

"Officially, no. Unofficially..." Barton's voice trailed off suggestively.

"Unofficially?" Levon felt his heart-rate speed up.

"Hensen."

"Ah." Levon smiled, grimly. "And Scarpetti?"

"Scarpetti has gone from being a suspect to being a case. Just got the call. Someone snuck into his hospital room and smothered him."

"What a shame." He didn't ask if the cops had any idea who did it. Rubbing a hand over his face, he realized there was only Vinnie, left. He didn't dare ask Carl about that. Mike would tell him, when....

"Ain't it just. APB is still out on Vinnie LaFiamma but there's been no sign of him. Officially or otherwise."

"I figure Mike'll be taking care of him. I just hope--" Surely Mike LaFiamma, Mafia or no, wouldn't have his own son killed. Levon closed his eyes. What must Joe be going through, knowing his cousin had been one of the ones.... He ought to be there with him. Not that they could talk about it with relatives visiting, as he knew they would be for the rest of the day. "Thanks, Carl. Reckon there's nothing left to do."

"Not involving the bad guys, no," Barton agreed. "I'll still have to interview your partner, get a few details for my final report, but that can wait for a day or two."

Levon wasn't particularly happy to hear it, but he was relieved. "Thanks, Carl. For everything."

"Any time. We have to stick together." It wasn't clear if he was talking about centaurs, cops, or even centaur cops, but Levon appreciated the sentiment regardless. "I'm glad it turned out like it did."

"Yeah... coulda done without losing the car, though." Levon forced a light tone. He was feeling the exhaustion even harder than before. Maybe now he could sleep. "Look, I'll call you in a couple days."

"That's fine. Whenever your partner's up to talking."

With that, Levon hung up. He rolled onto his back, and stared at the ceiling. He closed his eyes. Half an hour later, he opened them again.

"Damn."


Four hours later, Levon stood in the doorway to Joe's hospital room.

He'd lain in bed as long as he could, then spent some time pacing the hotel room before heading outside to pace the sidewalks. Eventually he'd conceded that nothing was going to help except being here -- so here he was. Joe wasn't alone, though. His Uncle Mike was there and the two of them were talking about something intensely in quiet voices. At first neither man noticed Levon but then Joe happened to glance up and spotted him. "I thought I told you to go get some sleep."

Levon shrugged. He didn't feel up to asking for a cuddle in front of Mike. From their expressions, he figured they might be talking about the third, unaccounted for, target.

Something of his need must have shown in his face though because Joe's expression softened. Turning back to his uncle, Joe asked, "Could we continue this later? I think I need to have a talk with my partner."

The older man nodded. "I'm not giving up yet," he said as he stood.

Joe smiled. "Didn't expect you to. My answer's not changing though."

Levon waited patiently, and gave Mike a nod as the man went past.

As soon as they were alone, Joe held out a hand to Levon. He went over, gratefully, trying not to show just how desperate he felt, to be here. He sat on the edge of the bed and Joe pulled him into his arms. Levon hugged him back and felt some of the tension finally leave his body.

For a second he felt himself sliding towards sleep, and fought it off. "Roffman and Scarpetti have been dealt with," he said quietly.

"I know. Uncle Mikey told me." A hand reached up and began playing with Levon's hair.

The rest of his body relaxed, utterly. He had to force his eyes open. "Did he say..."

"He said a lot of stuff. I'll tell you about it later. You couldn't sleep at the hotel?"

"No."

"Care to talk about it?"

"Every time I closed my eyes I saw...." He stopped, then made himself continue. "Saw the explosion. And then you weren't there to tell me I hadn't just imagined us finding you alive -- I just couldn't sleep."

Joe's embrace tightened. "I'm sorry..."

"Ain't your fault," Levon replied. He felt himself beginning to fall asleep, and disentangled himself from Joe's embrace. Sitting up, he took a deep breath, letting the tiredness wash over him. He couldn't very well sleep on his lover, here in the hospital.

"You look awful," Joe told him, eyes alight with concern.

"Feel it."

Joe continued to look at him for a second then shifted over as far as he could to one side of the bed. He patted the space beside him. "C'mere."

"Won't the nurses object?" Levon moved closer, ready to settle in.

"Let 'em."

"You ok?" Levon asked, as he made himself comfortable. Two more minutes and he would be out like a light. But he had to know if Joe's ribs were giving him grief.

"Now I am."

That was all he needed. The sound of his lover's voice when he was completely happy with the world. Levon usually heard it on late mornings when they had the day off and they were halfway through a run, having stopped for a breather to enjoy the day.

Levon fell asleep with that image.


When Levon awoke he found himself alone in the bed. He was sitting up, then standing before he had a chance to put a thought together. The door to bathroom opened and Joe walked out, moving carefully in deference to his bruised ribs.

Levon tried to slow his heartbeat. Giving Joe a glare, he opened his mouth -- then stopped and went to help Joe back to the bed. "Sorry," Joe muttered between clenched teeth as he eased himself back onto the mattress.

"You okay?" He saw the lines of pain, and looked down for the callbutton. "You want the nurse?"

Joe shook his head. "Just... give me a moment."

Levon did so -- hovering, anxiously trying to keep himself from doing anything to try and make Joe more comfortable. He knew from experience that being jostled was worse than anything, when it came to damaged ribs.

Finally, Joe's expression eased and he relaxed back against the pillows. "I'm okay," he assured his lover.

"You're sure?" Levon frowned. He wanted to check Joe out himself -- run his hands over every square inch and see for himself just how damaged he was. Of course, that might not be a good thing, with Joe in this condition.... Levon tried not to grin. Then he tried to kick start his brain, which was happily losing focus.

Joe chuckled, then winced. "Oh no," he said, trying not to laugh. "That'll just have to wait until I get sprung."

"What I'd do?" Levon was surprised. Surely he hadn't said it out loud. He smiled, anyhow.

"Nothing yet," Joe replied, "but I know that look."

"Look?" Levon turned on one of his best expressions of innocence.

"Yeah. The 'my brain has turned off because all my blood's rushed south' look. Believe me, Levon, I'm very familiar with it."

"I wasn't going to do anything," Levon shook his head. "Was trying to stop it."

"Uh huh."

"I was," Levon protested.

"Do you see me contradicting you?"

"Yes." Levon knew that look of his lover's, just as well as Joe knew his own. He grinned, suddenly unable to stop the feeling of joy. He leaned forward, and gave Joe a kiss -- one as gentle as the feeling was strong. The sound of a throat being cleared caused him to jump back. He turned to see Tony leaning against the doorway.

He half-smiled, and looked down at Joe.

Joe was watching his cousin warily. "Uhh, hi," he said.

"Feeling better, I see," Tony replied laconically.

Levon laughed, once. "I didn't tell you he knows, did I?" he said to his mate.

"Well he certainly does now!"

"Relax, love. He got the truth out of me earlier." Levon picked up Joe's hand, entwining their fingers. "He gave me some nonsense about having virtuous intentions." He gave Tony a wink.

"I did," Tony said, sauntering further into the room. "Not so sure about your partner here though, Joey. Virtuous isn't the first word that pops into my head to describe him."

"Mine neither," Joe replied. Then added after a moment's thought. "Lecherous, maybe."

Frowning again slightly, Levon hesitated, then said slowly, "Have I just been insulted in some esoteric Italian fashion? Or are you saying you like me lecherous?"

"You have to ask?"

Levon kept his face serious and replied, "You were just telling me not to...."

"Good thing I did too or we would've given Tony more of a show than I think he's ready for."

At that, Levon reared back in surprise. "Would not!" Then he smiled. "I think he's ready for anything."

"It wouldn't be the first time I walked in on Joey and somebody," Tony said with a shrug.

At this, Levon's eyes grew wide. "Oh really?"

Joe was blushing. "Tony, don't you dare," he warned.

Levon carefully placed a hand over Joe's arm, to hold him back from stopping Tony from sharing. "What happened?"

Tony was more than happy to tell. "It was back when Joey was living with us after his mom died. You were what Joey? Seventeen? I came home unexpectedly one night when my parents were out of town for the weekend. Walked into the living room, flicked on the lights and...."

Levon laughed. "Oh man..." He glanced at his lover, hoping the look of 'die you scum' he expected to see wasn't actually an angry one.

Joe glared at his cousin. "It wouldn't have been so bad if you hadn't stood there laughing. And if that wasn't bad enough, you had to tell Vinnie about it the next day so he could torture me with it too."

That sobered them all. Guiltily, Levon glanced from Joe, to Tony. He still didn't know what had, or would, become of Vinnie. An awkward silence descended, then Tony said quietly, "He wants to see you before he leaves."

"Leaves?" Levon asked.

"Vinnie's being exiled from Chicago," Joe explained with no emotion. "Same deal as I was -- if he comes back he'll be killed."

"Really?" Levon looked from Joe to Tony and saw that each was serious. "Where's he going?"

Joe shrugged. "Don't know. Don't care." He seemed calm about it, almost detached, but Levon was pretty certain there were some conflicted emotions underneath the casual front.

He reached over and took his lover's hand. There wasn't much he could say. "You want me to stick around when he comes by?"

"I don't remember agreeing to see him," Joe said, glancing at Levon through narrowed eyes.

Levon smiled. "Can I see him before he leaves?"

"Not without me!" Joe objected automatically, then sighed as he rubbed his free hand over his face tiredly. Turning to Tony, who had been waiting silently, he said, "All right. I'll see him."

"Here?" Tony asked.

"Yeah, it better be. Medical treatment is close, just in case."

Levon frowned. "Yeah, but there're more witnesses." Then he shook his head. "Joe... you sure?" He tried to understand what his partner was probably feeling right now -- his own cousin had tried to kill him. It wasn't that he couldn't relate -- his and Duke's fights were not entirely for show. But they had an agreement, and he wasn't really in any danger from his brother. Alexander, on the other hand, would cheerfully kill him or Duke, given the chance. But Joe would hardly have grown up being told someday his life would be in danger from his own kin.

Levon realized he didn't have a clue what Joe would be feeling.

"If I ever want to put this behind me I think I have to," Joe replied, his expression serious.

Tony nodded. "I'll tell him he can come tonight."

"It better be tonight since I'm being sprung tomorrow."

"Is there anything you want me to do?" Levon asked, feeling a little lost. He didn't know of anything he could do to make this easier for Joe, and his heart was screaming at him to make it better.

Joe shook his head. "This confrontation has been a long time in coming. Vinnie and I have been on a collision course since we were kids." He paused and then added rather awkwardly, "You don't need to stay for it if you don't want. It's probably going to get pretty ugly."

"Do you want me here?" He asked softly.

"Yeah," Joe answered quietly.

Levon nodded. "I'm sorry, Joe." He finally offered.

Joe just shrugged. "Not your fault, cowboy."

"I know... just wish... wish there was something I could do."

"There is." Levon waited for Joe to continue. "Don't kill Vinnie when he comes. I don't want to have to testify as a material witness at your murder trial."

Levon nodded. "I didn't reckon you'd want him dead." He decided not to ask if he could damage him. What Joe didn't know, he couldn't scold Levon for.

"I don't want to testify at your assault trial either," Joe added, seeming to read Levon's mind. Or maybe he really did just know his partner that well.

Levon sighed, and then nodded. "Fine." He considered his options -- there didn't seem to be any.

Tony shifted, reminding both men of his presence. "I better get going then. Joey, I'll bring Vinnie by around eight okay?"

"Sure, whatever."

"Glad to have you back cuz," Tony said softly and then left the room.

Joe looked at Levon, and smiled in amusement. "You know one of these days I'm going to tell you to stop looking for loopholes, and then where will you be?"

"Asking you for loopholes?" Levon grinned as Joe rolled his eyes. Then he added, seriously, "You know I wouldn't do anything to him you didn't want done. I just... well, he's the only one left to take it out on." He'd almost said 'anger', but realized what it had really been, and knew he didn't want to say 'fear' out loud.

Something must've shown in his face though because Joe reached up and caressed his cheek comfortingly. "Want to talk about it?" he asked in a quiet voice.

"No." He wanted to lie down again beside Joe, but the nurses would be coming in soon, and who knew when more relatives would drop in.

"Need to talk about it?"

He dropped his head. "Probably. But not here?" Levon knew there was a lot he needed to say, a lot he needed to hear from Joe. But he felt awkward, here. Between relatives thinking he was nothing more than a friend in front of whom he had to pretend, and nurses and doctors who would interrupt as soon as he started, to all the myriad of things he was still feeling.... What he needed was to get Joe outside, on a long walk, where he could clear his mind and his heart all at once.

Joe nodded. "As soon as I get out of here, then. You're not the only one who needs to talk." He closed his eyes and leaned back against the pillows. "Damn. I just wish there was someplace we could go for a run around here. Gotten used to doing our serious talks that way."

"There is." Levon smiled and waited eagerly to see Joe's reaction. "At least, as soon as you're up for riding. Carl took me out... well, dunno where it is. Wasn't paying attention -- we can ask him."

Joe looked startled for a few seconds then grinned. "Good," he said, then softer, "I've missed that."

"I have too." Levon forced himself not to think about running yesterday -- thinking that he would never have Joe with him again, feeling that awful lightness of running without his lover on his back.

"This hasn't exactly been a vacation has it?" Joe asked ruefully.

"I dunno. Didn't lose our luggage, did we?" He tried for a light tone, but halfway out it fell flat. Giving in, Levon leaned forward and rested his head on Joe's shoulder.

He felt Joe's arms wrap around him, one hand creeping up to play with Levon's hair. "I'm sorry Levon," he said for the third time. "And don't start telling me it's not my fault -- I know that. But I'm still sorry. This isn't how I wanted your first trip outside of Texas to go. You probably never want to leave home again, now."

"You kidding? We have to come back here again, if only so you can prove to me this sort of thing won't happen every time." He felt himself beginning to relax again, but this time it didn't feel nearly as comforting. Maybe he was just getting overwhelmed, or maybe everything that had happened had sunk in, and his body had finally decided it was time to react to it all. He felt like screaming, running, or possibly breaking the legs of the first man who was responsible for this, who came in the room.

"If it does, I'll be the one who you won't be able to get out of Texas again."

Levon let himself stay in Joe's embrace for another moment, then broke away. He turned, paced the room once, then looked over at Joe. He needed to do something. If he didn't feel so tired, he would.

Joe was watching him, affection and concern shining in his eyes. "You still look like hell," he offered.

"Thanks. Still feel like hell." Levon returned the smile, and wondered if Joe could see how he felt as easily as he saw Joe's love.

"Think you could sleep some more?"

With a sigh, Levon shook his head. "I don't know. Way I feel I'd end up tearing the room apart if I tried." What he needed, he realized, was to get outside. But he wasn't sure he was up to letting Joe out of his sight.

Joe stared at him for a moment then threw the covers back and slowly started getting out of the bed.

"What are you doing?" Levon started forward, catching at Joe's shoulders.

"What does it look like?" With a slight grimace, Joe stood up and reached for his robe.

"Looks like you're going somewhere." Levon kept his hands on Joe's shoulders, ready to assist or push him back, depending on where Joe said he was intending to go.

"I am." Joe paused and looked seriously into Levon's eyes. "I think we both are feeling a little stir-crazy. A walk will do us good."

"You have permission to go wandering around the hospital?" Levon asked, doubtfully.

"Last time I looked I wasn't a prisoner," Joe shot back dryly.

"You sure the doctor said you could walk around?" Levon asked again, remembering all the times Joe scolded him for trying to get up when he wasn't supposed to.

"Levon, they're releasing me in the morning. I'm only here now as a precaution, because of the concussion. And before you ask, that's fine too. My head actually hasn't been throbbing for a few hours now. I just have to take it slow, all right?"

"You're telling me the doctor said you could walk around?" Levon persisted.

Joe sighed. "Yes, I'm telling you the doctor said I could walk around. Now are you coming or am I going to have to go by myself?"

"Oh, I'm coming," Levon said as he helped Joe put on his robe. He brushed his hands down Joe's chest, smoothing the robe before tying the belt. "Just didn't want your doctor scolding me for letting you out." He gave Joe a quick kiss.

"I'd just tell him you do everything I say," Joe teased.

Levon blinked, at gave Joe a startled look. "I what?"

"Don't you?"

Levon rubbed his nose once, thinking it over. He took a hold of Joe's arm and they headed for the door. He liked the excuse to hold onto his lover, even if he didn't particularly care for the reason for it. Joe was moving a lot slower than he normally did and a lot more stiffly, but didn't seem to be in too much pain, except when he made a sudden movement or twisted in a way that pulled on his bruised ribs. He wasn't talking, seemingly content to wait for Levon to say something, as they walked down the hallway towards the lounge.

"I reckon...." Levon began. He wondered how long Joe was going to let Levon tease him. He didn't glance over to see.

Joe remained silent, though Levon could almost feel the amusement coming off the man in waves.

"'Cept for the time you told me to use soap," he finally said. He waited, thinking of the time they'd been desperate for lubricant.

A brief silence and then Joe started laughing, his chuckles interspersed with the occasional "ow" as the action jarred his damaged ribs. Levon immediately moved his hands, trying to hold his lover as he laughed, to calm him down. He cursed himself for being an idiot.

Joe's laughter finally died down, and he looked up with the boyish grin that Levon loved so much. "Thanks. I needed that." Then much quieter Joe added, "I love you."

"I love you too." It was hard to be upset with himself, when he'd been the cause of that smile. Levon glanced around the lounge, at the people gathered there. The expressions he saw ranged from tired to cheerful, sorrowful to grateful. He looked back at Joe. He smiled, and brushed his hand along the man's cheek. "Glad to have you back, Joe." He barely kept his voice from breaking.

Joe didn't say anything, just smiled at him.


Two hours later they were back in Joe's room. They'd arrived half an hour before, just in time to be frowned at by the orderly who'd come to deliver dinner. Levon had promised to make sure Joe ate everything, and proceeded to talk about some of the things he'd seen at Teresa and Mike's house that he found odd or interesting. Pictures, curios, knickknacks, all of which Joe explained in between bites. He was trying to distract himself from Vinnie's impending visit.

As the clock hands moved closer and closer to eight o'clock Levon was getting more and more twitchy. It did not go unnoticed by his lover. "You going to be okay with this?" Joe asked finally.

"Don't reckon I have a choice. Ain't about to leave you alone with him, at any rate."

"You don't have to stay if this is going to be too much," Joe told him, eyeing Levon with concern. "I'll be okay."

"It won't be too much." Levon frowned. "I promised to behave, and I will." He looked at Joe. "Do I have to be quiet, too? Or polite?"

That caused Joe to smile. "Don't think I can ask you to do something I won't be able to do."

"Good."

The conversation stopped when the door opened. Vinnie, rather hesitantly and shamefaced, entered. "Uh, hi," he said.

Levon glared, and didn't say a word. He remained standing at Joe's side. "Vinnie," Joe said, his voice betraying no emotion.

The mousy-faced man seemed to cast around looking for something to say for a moment. "Pop said you were going to be all right," he finally settled on.

"I'll heal," Joe affirmed.

"No thanks to you," Levon added. The man could do with a cast, Levon said to himself. He made no move, however.

Vinnie flinched at that, eyes downcast. "Nobody was supposed to get hurt," he said softly.

His cousin gave a snort of disbelieving laughter. "You put a bomb on my car and 'nobody was supposed to get hurt'? Vinnie, not even you are that stupid."

Vinnie didn't answer, merely giving a half-hearted shrug that said, more than anything, that he hadn't wanted responsibility for any of it.

Joe gave him a look of disgust. "You haven't change since we were kids. You never thought about what you were doing, never cared what your actions did to others."

"Yeah, yeah. Save it, OK? I've been lectured enough already," Vinnie muttered.

Levon took a half step towards him. "Doesn't seem like it sank in."

"Levon," Joe warned.

"Don't worry, Joe. I ain't gonna hurt him." Levon continued glaring, holding his fists at his sides.

Vinnie flinched again and took an involuntary half step away from Levon.

Joe stared at his cousin, like he was trying to figure out what made the older man tick. "Okay. I can buy -- barely -- that you somehow thought that a car bomb wasn't going to get anybody hurt. Maybe you are stupid enough to believe that. But what the hell were you thinking when you dragged me away from the site?!"

"I was trying to keep you alive!" Vinnie protested, then stopped abruptly.

Levon shook his head. "And not taking him to a hospital was going to do that how?"

"I - I couldn't! It was too dangerous! Roffman said-"

"Roffman was trying to safe his own stupid neck!" Joe shot back. "And so were you! If you really had had my best interests at heart, you would've left me at the scene so I could've gotten medical help. And protection, if needed. You wouldn't have spirited me off, so I couldn't tell anybody what had happened, wouldn't have let Levon, the family, everyone think I was dead!"

Levon put a hand out, holding Joe back. It wasn't that he wanted to prevent his lover from doing Vinnie harm -- he just didn't want Joe to hurt himself doing it. Vinnie, for his part, deflated completely. "I didn't... I didn't mean for it to happen this way."

Joe stared at him for a long moment then looked away. "Get out," he said, totally disgusted.

When Vinnie didn't move, Levon did. "You heard him." He took another step towards Vinnie, raising his hands.

That stirred the man into action. With one last pleading look at his cousin and a whispered, "I'm sorry," he turned and fled.

For a long moment Levon watched as the door swung slowly closed. He looked down at Joe, and saw what he'd feared -- pain and misery hidden behind a frustrated, angry expression. "I'm so sorry, Joe." He reached out and caressed his lover's face.

Joe wrapped his arms around Levon, pulling him to him, and buried his face against Levon's shoulder. "He let y- everyone think I was dead," he muttered, voice muffled against Levon. "I could've forgiven him the rest but he let you think I was dead."

There wasn't anything Levon could say to that. He held his lover close, wrapping his arms around him as best he could.

Truth was, that was the one thing he couldn't forgive, either.


All too soon the end of visiting hours rolled around. Levon hadn't said a word about it, even when the nurse came in to remind them that he'd have to leave soon. He was still upset about Vinnie, and about Vinnie's having upset Joe.

"You going to be okay at the hotel?" Joe asked after the nurse telling Levon he had to leave in five minutes had left.

"Yeah, I'll be fine. How about you?" Levon regarded his lover. Joe hadn't said anything about Vinnie since his cousin had left.

"I'm okay." He gave Levon a weak smile. "As I said, I'll heal."

Levon leaned over, and gave Joe a long, slow kiss. He didn't want to leave, but there wasn't really any way around it. Besides, tomorrow night he'd be with Joe again, and he could wait that long. "Try to get some sleep tonight okay?" Joe ordered as Levon reluctantly started heading for the door.

"I will," Levon said. He didn't think he would be able to sleep; luckily Joe had only said he had to try. Then he opened the door, and stepped out of the room. He stood still as it swung closed behind him, then began walking. He walked all the way back to the hotel, not able to stand the thought of sitting still in a cab. The wind was cold, and he almost regretted it, except that it cleared his mind almost as well as running would have.

He felt totally empty, though, when he reached the hotel. Grimly, he set about getting as comfortable as he could for the night.

 

The next morning, as soon as he was allowed, he was back in Joe's room at the hospital. Joe was awake and staring down at his breakfast with a look of distaste. His first words to Levon were, "I can't wait to get out of here. I hate hospital food."

Levon couldn't help himself. He laughed. He went over to look at the tray Joe had been given, and nodded. "Looks like typical hospital food. Can't say Chicago's better'n Houston on this one."

"It's a national conspiracy," Joe agreed. He reached up and caressed Levon's cheek briefly. "You look a little better. How was your night?"

Levon smiled. "Better than the night before." While he hadn't been able to get any sleep, he had at least been able to rest. Lying in the bed, he'd been able to believe that Joe would be waiting for him this morning, alive and well. He'd called home, and talked with Taylor, as well as Joanne and Maggie. Maggie had talked with him nearly until midnight, helping him pass the time.

"I called Barton, told him I'd give him my statement this morning."

"Is he coming to us, or are we going to the station?"

"He said he'd come here. Easier to talk freely that way, with not having to make sure we don't mention anything non-official." Joe hesitated before continuing in an oddly diffident tone. "You don't have to be here for it if you don't want to."

"This ain't like Vinnie. I know you ended up being all right." He frowned, slightly. "Can't guarantee I won't get mad all over again, but at least they're all out of reach now."

Joe smiled slightly. "S'okay. I'm probably going to get mad about it all over again myself."

Any further conversation was forestalled when the door opened and Barton walked in. Levon gave him a friendly nod, which was returned. "You look a little better than the last time I saw you," The other centaur observed.

"That's what I was telling him," Joe said, shooting Levon a teasing smile.

"Y'all are enough to make a person paranoid." Levon gave each a quick glare. Then he stifled a yawn.

"First thing we're doing when I get out of here is go back to the hotel so you can take a nap," Joe declared. Levon rolled his eyes. But he didn't protest.

Carl chuckled, then settled himself in a chair on the other side of Joe's bed. "Are you ready to make your statement?" he asked carefully.

Joe nodded. "Yeah. What do you want to know? Or should I just tell the whole thing in my own words?"

"That'll be fine. I'll write the report up later, editing whatever's appropriate."

Another nod and then Joe started talking. "Levon and I had just finished having dinner at the restaurant. Levon went to pay the bill and I went to go get the car." Joe's eyes had taken on that distant look that people get when remembering something. "When I got close I saw someone meddling with the car. He had the door open and was doing something with the ignition. I thought he was trying to hot-wire it at first. Then I saw the explosives on the seat beside him."

Levon put his hand on Joe's, and held it tightly. Joe's expression didn't change but he did squeeze back. "What I should've done then was wait for Levon or call for backup or something. But the idea that some idiot would try to blow up my car, blow up me and my partner... I really lost it. I attacked the guy, dragging him out of the car. He fought back and we were really getting into it. I remember pushing him back against the car and the car jolting, then..." He fell silent for a moment.

Carl remained silent for a moment, then gently prompted. "Then?"

"The world exploded. The jostling must've triggered the bomb. I must've got thrown clear, hit my head. I don't remember anything after that, not until I heard Levon calling my name and I woke up in that house."

Barton sat a moment, then nodded. "All right. That's plenty for the report. Not like anyone's investigating, anyhow."

Joe nodded. "Carl?"

"Yes?"

"Thanks for looking after Levon."

Carl smiled. "You're welcome."

"You think we could head back to your pasture, later in the week?" Levon asked. "I don't know exactly where we went," he explained.

The detective's smile widened. "Anytime." He flipped to a clean page in his notebook and scribbled something quickly. Ripping it off he handed it to Joe. "Here's the directions." With that, Carl stood. "If there's anything else you need, just let me know."

"Thanks," Joe said. "Give Hensen my regards too. I've never met him, but I get the feeling I'd like him if I did."

Carl grinned. "You might get a chance. He's been rather irate about this whole business, and wants to make sure everything's taken care of. Wants to make sure you're all right."

Joe grinned, then the smile faded. "Will that be safe for Levon? Him being a stallion from another herd and all..."

"Oh, this is sort of a special situation." Carl looked suddenly rather astonished. "He's even mentioned coming into town."

Levon's eyes grew wide. "He what?"

Carl nodded. "He offered yesterday, when your father said he might come up to take care of things."

Now Joe's eyes went wide. "Taylor was going to come to Chicago?"

Carl nodded. "He was pissed. Not at Hensen, otherwise he wouldn't have told him. That would have led to a hell of a fight... But yeah, he was going to come up."

Levon was shocked. From the look on his lover's face, so was Joe. "I-" Joe glanced at Levon. "I'm right in assuming that's not normal for centaur head stallions?"

Levon stared for a moment. Then he explained, "It's like any other stallion, challenging a herd stallion... only worse. Last time it happened, thirty years ago, the herd stallions killed each other."

"Hensen wouldn't have fought him for invading his territory, given the circumstances," Carl interjected quickly. "But Levon's right. It's dangerous -- most herd stallions never even leave their herds at all. Can't leave them undefended."

"But Taylor was going to because of me?" Joe's eyes were still wide and stunned.

"Because of you, and Levon. Avenge your death and bring Levon home, is what he said. Hensen told me to take care of things... Taylor agreed, but only as long as the situation was resolved quickly."

"Which it was." Joe's mouth curled into a humorless smile. "I never planned on starting a major incident between herds with this trip."

"Only a couple minor ones." Levon said with a straight face. Then he added, before his lover could decide to strangle him, "I talked to Taylor last night. As far as he's concerned, everything's taken care of."

"Good. That just leaves Hensen, if he still wants to meet with us...?" Joe looked questioningly at Barton.

Barton nodded. "He does. He did say Levon needn't come out, if you don't feel comfortable." He said to Levon.

"But Levon has safe passage if he does want to, right?"

"Of course. This once." Carl nodded.

Joe glanced at his partner. "It's up to you, Levon. Do we go?"

Levon had been thinking it over, since Barton had first mentioned it. Worrying it over, rather. He knew Hensen meant what he said, and knew the local herd stallion would primarily be wanting to offer his apologies, and whatever assurances that something like this would never happen again.

He looked at Joe. "You can if you like. I'd rather not."

Joe nodded slowly, reaching out and squeezing Levon's hand. Turning back to Barton he said, "Tell Hensen thanks but we won't be coming."

Barton shrugged, apparently not concerned either way.

Levon left his hand where it was, and asked, "There ain't no reason for you not to--"

"Go somewhere you're not comfortable in going?" Joe finished. He grinned. "You're right, there's not."

For a moment Levon thought about trying to argue with him -- he knew that Taylor, in this situation, would be expecting Joe to come out. It wasn't like Hensen could come to them, after all. But he knew Joe would simply say no, in as many ways and volumes as Levon tried to get him to say yes. Levon looked at Carl. "You'll tell him it ain't that we don't trust him?"

Barton nodded. "I will." He looked from one man to the other. "Anything else you want passed on?"

"I can't think of anything," Joe replied. "Except... thanks for arranging for me to come back to Chicago in the first place. Even if this trip hasn't exactly turned out the way we had hoped."

Carl laughed. "You mean you didn't plan this?"

Levon laughed, as well. "If we had, we'd have had someone else's car blow up. I hate to see my insurance rates after this one...."

"Could've been worse," Joe added. "Could've been the Cobra."

"So? Rates on that thing are already--" Levon began.

"I know what the rates are. You're not the one paying them," Joe reminded. "But the cost of replacing it would be a lot steeper."

"I dunno. Might finally be what convinces you to get a truck." Levon settled himself on the edge of the bed, and gave Carl a sideways grin.

"Not in this lifetime."

Levon shook his head slowly. "Trust me, Joe, one of these days you'll be driving a half ton and hauling hay in the back."

"I'll have to be hit on the head a lot harder than I was for that to happen." Joe's expression was still serious, but his eyes were glinting with humor.

"Ok, I can see this is where I get off," Barton interjected with a grin. "I'll see you two around, OK? Joe, take it easy. Levon -- stay out of the wind."

Levon nodded. "Will do."

"Bye Carl," Joe added. "And thanks again."

"You're welcome." The centaur gave them each a nod, and left.

Levon was a hair's breath away from lying down for a quick cuddle when the door opened again. Teresa, Mike and Tony all came in. Joe shot one apologetic look at his lover before returning his family's various greetings with good cheer. Levon was quickly shuffled to stand near the headboard as relatives crowded around -- unwilling to totally surrender his place beside Joe. Teresa was already talking a mile a minute, in Italian and English, waving her hands and arms as she spoke.

Levon started, then froze, when he caught 'you'll be in Tony's old room'.

"Uhh, Aunt Teresa," Joe began, glancing uncomfortably at Levon, "that's something I've been meaning to talk to you about."

"What? Don't worry, everything's all cleaned up--" she gave her youngest son a loving glare which was returned with an innocent 'what'd I do?' expression.

"I'm sure it's fine. It's just... I'll be going back to the hotel when I'm released."

Teresa looked shocked. "Of course you won't! You're coming home. You need someone to look after you, just getting out of the hospital!"

Levon didn't say a word, and didn't look at Joe or Tony. He knew where this was going. Joe protested, "I have someone Aunt Teresa. Levon's staying there with me."

"But he's not family," she gave Levon an 'you understand' look. "And your family needs you as much as you need us, right now." Levon saw Tony take his mother's arm. He wondered if he ought to just tell Joe to go ahead.

"Yes he is!" Joe insisted, leaning towards his aunt and continuing earnestly. "For the last five years Levon's been the only family I've had. That hasn't changed just because I got to come back to visit."

Teresa patted Joe's arm, pulling her own out of Tony's grasp. "I know, Joey. But how can you be comfortable in a hotel? You're coming home with us. Tell him, Michael."

Levon spoke up, quietly, to Joe, "Look, you may as well do as she says." He was glad to notice he didn't sound as upset as he felt. But Joe didn't want them to know, which meant he'd be sleeping -- or not -- alone for a few more nights.

Joe turned and gave Levon a long assessing look. Without looking away he said quietly, "No, I don't think so."

"What?" Teresa looked surprised, then hurt as she rambled in quick Italian. Levon tried to interrupt her, to argue with Joe as well, but his lover's steely gaze stopped him.

Joe just waited until his aunt ran down. Then he said, "I appreciate the offer Aunt Teresa, but my place is with Levon." With that he reached out and took Levon's hand in his own.

For a very long moment no one said anything. Levon didn't look up at Teresa, nor Mike; he glanced over at Tony only briefly and saw sympathetic support. He turned his gaze back to Joe. His lover was staring right back at him, with none of the fear or worry that Levon may have expected. Instead he saw only love and acceptance on Joe's face, and a sort of peaceful patience as he waited for his family's reactions.

With a slow, deep breath Levon relaxed. Of all the people to be on his side, this man was the most important. He looked up at Teresa.

Teresa was still staring with open-mouthed shock at the two men, seemingly unable to find her voice. Then she shook her head, and resettled herself. "Joey, I know your friend means a lot to you, but we are still your family. We're perfectly capable of caring for you." She frowned at Joe.

Tony tugged at her arm again, trying to interrupt. "Ma--"

"Hush, Tony. Now, Joey--"

"I don't think you're understanding me," Joe interrupted. "Levon and I are together."

She blinked. "Joey, what are you... well of course you're together, you're partners. Do you think I'm dense? Now, Joey, be reasonable--"

Joe shook his head vehemently. "You're still not getting me. We're more than partners, Aunt Teresa. We're lovers."

Levon wondered if someone had opened a window -- he felt suddenly cold. Perhaps it was just the look in Teresa's eyes. He felt his stomach drop, then grew very angry. How dare she look at Joe that way, her own nephew? He tightened his grip on Joe's hand, and didn't hide his glare from Teresa.

"You-- He-- But--" Teresa seemed to be having a hard time stringing words together. "Oh Joey..." she finally sighed, her tone that of someone just told a loved one was ill or injured.

"Ma, maybe you should let me and Levon take Joe back to their hotel." Tony finally managed to get a word out. Teresa stared at Joe and Levon for a moment longer, then turned and walked out without another word.

Joe leaned his head back against the pillows and closed his eyes with a sigh. "That was painful," he commented neutrally.

Totally ignoring Mike's own look of shuttered anger and surprise, Levon turned, sat down on the bed, and gathered Joe into his arms. Joe came willingly, his own arms wrapping around Levon's body and laying his head on Levon's shoulder. "Definitely not the vacation you were expecting, huh?" he whispered.

"It's all right, Joe. It's gonna be all right." Levon heard footsteps leaving, and surmised that Mike had left.

"I'll uh wait outside," Tony said quietly, then also left, giving the two men a moment of privacy.

"I'm okay," Joe said softly as he pulled back a little. He attempted a smile, and mostly succeeded. "She took it better than I thought she would."

Levon placed a finger on Joe's cheek, in a half-caress. "I'm sorry, love." He almost suggested they should simply go home -- but couldn't bring himself to remind his lover that this, Joe's home, was rapidly becoming not so.

Joe shook his head. "Not your fault. I knew how they'd react. I just..." He trailed off with a sigh. "I guess I just got tired of hiding. Of lying about us. Of letting 'us' take a back seat to propriety." Joe shook his head. "I don't know."

Levon watched his lover's face, and wished he could somehow erase the sadness there. "Maybe they'll come around if you give 'em some time."

"Maybe," Joe agreed listlessly with a shrug.

Levon half-grinned for a second. "Maybe Rosa can talk some sense into your aunt."

That earned him a half-grin in return. "Maybe," Joe repeated.

He rubbed his hand through Joe's hair, and reminded him, "You still have family here."

"I know." Joe's voice became softer. "The most important is in this room right now."

Leaning forward, Levon kissed his lover again. Right on cue, the door behind them opened. Levon jumped back and tried to look innocent only to relax when he saw it was Tony returning. Tony laughed. "Joe, the doctor says they can discharge you whenever... you ready to go?" He asked the last with a look of innocence.

"More than ready," Joe agreed heartily, climbing off the bed and walking to the closet for his clothes. As he began to get dressed he said casually, "You know Tony, there's this custom they have down south. You might have heard of it -- it's called knocking?"

Tony shook his head. "You been gone too long, man. We don't knock, remember? Miss all the good stuff that way."

Levon helped his lover get his clothes on, easing the shirt up when Joe grimaced against the pain in his ribs. He started buttoning it, and Joe batted his hands.

"I think I can remember how to do up my shirt, thanks." He paused and said in a soft voice meant only for Levon's ears, "Though I won't object if you want to take it off me later."

"Was just practicing... usually don't get to do it this way." He stepped back and let Joe finish the shirt. As Joe moved to fasten his pants, Levon asked casually, "Need any more help?"

The look Joe shot him spoke volumes, none of it repeatable in mixed company.

Levon gave him back an innocent smile, and walked over to Tony. "They got all the forms we need to get signed? Last time we had to discharge him, took us four hours just to find the right paperwork."

"Pop's taken care of all that," Tony said. At Joe's questioning look he added in a diffident tone, "He took Ma home. Said he'd stop by the hotel later to speak to you."

Levon wiped the frown off his face before he glanced back at Joe. "Guess we'd better plan on behaving until then."

"You'll be too busy sleeping to misbehave anyway." Grabbing his jacket and slipping it on, wincing as he did so, Joe started for the door to his room. Levon slipped a hand under his lover's arm, and walked out with him.

True to Tony's word, it didn't take long to get to get Joe discharged. The nurse had met them only a few steps out the door with a wheelchair and a frown. Joe had given her a grin which would melt steel -- Levon knew from experience -- and they soon had him downstairs at the curbside, helping him into Tony's car.

Once buckled into his seat, he leaned back against the headrest with a sigh. "Feels good to be out of there."

From the back seat, Levon leaned forward. "Remember that. Don't be going back anytime soon."

Joe turned to look back over his shoulder. "Hey, it wasn't like it was a planned visit or something."

"Just the same... next time someone plants a bomb in your car, keep it in mind."

"There better not be a next time. Being blown up once was enough."

There was silence for a few minutes, then Levon said quietly, and with disappointment, "Thought you liked being blown--" He stopped as Tony nearly hit another car. Joe just chuckled quietly, one hand wrapped around his ribs as he did so.

"Are you two always like this?" Tony asked as he started the car moving forward again.

"Us? Never. It's just 'cause it's so damned cold."

"Yeah," Joe agreed. "Usually we're worse."

The conversation kept them going through the rest of the drive back to the hotel. Tony gave them a look, and merely said, "I won't invite myself in. But you're both coming over tomorrow night for dinner, got it?"

Levon stood with his arm half-around his lover's back, partly to support Joe and partly to support himself. "Thanks again, Tony."

"Yeah," Joe echoed, giving his cousin a serious look. "For everything."

Tony just grinned. "Anytime cuz. Don't forget about dinner tomorrow." And with that he drove off.

Levon looked at the hotel, then asked, "You plannin' on anything before we hit the bed?"

"Do you think either of us are up to 'anything'?"

Levon gave him a flat look. "I meant, did you want to take a shower?"

"Sure you did."

Rolling his eyes, Levon just headed inside, his arm still firmly in place around Joe. Once inside the room, he hung up his coat and hat, and went to help Joe undress. There were still a number of things they had to talk about -- Teresa and Mike, for one. The sight of the bed had reminded him how much sleep he hadn't had in the last three days.

Joe's thoughts seemed to be paralleling his own because his lover reached out and pulled Levon into his arms and whispered, "Bed first. Everything else can wait."

Levon felt himself shutting down as soon as his body touched Joe's. He had to force himself to back away long enough to get his own clothes off while Joe turned down the covers. Then, for the first time in what seemed like forever, he crawled into bed with his lover. The last thing he was aware of was Joe's arms wrapping around and holding him as he finally succumbed to sleep.


When he woke, the room was nearly completely dark. Rolling over, he discovered Joe lying beside him, only partly cuddled. It wasn't how they'd fallen asleep, and Levon had the feeling he hadn't moved an inch since he'd first closed his eyes. Moving closer, he slid an arm across Joe's stomach, carefully below any bruising. He heard Joe sigh, and then he closed his eyes again.


The second time he woke, the room was light and Joe was sitting beside him, smiling.

"Afternoon," Joe greeted him.

"What?" Levon sat up. "After... what day is it?"

Joe's grin widened. "It's tomorrow. Or what was tomorrow when you went to sleep."

"And it's afternoon?" At his lover's nod, Levon groaned. "Lord... no wonder I feel like my brain's turned to cotton."

"This might help," Joe said, handing Levon a cup of coffee. "I phoned room service."

Gratefully, he accepted the mug and leaned back against the headboard. As he sipped the coffee, his brain began to wake up. He noticed Joe was dressed, and recalled that Mike had been planning to stop by the day before. If he had, Levon had slept right through it. "Room service for what? Breakfast, lunch, dinner?"

"I ordered breakfast this morning but that's lunch." Joe nodded to the covered trays sitting on the table by the window.

Taking another swallow of coffee, Levon got out of bed and wandered over to the table. It took him a moment, while checking under each cover, to realize that he wasn't awake enough to be hungry, just yet. He set the covers back down. "Did... did Mike come by?"

"Yeah." The one word answer didn't give much away.

Apparently the conversation hadn't been heated enough to wake him. He wondered if he ought to ask what had been said, but figured it just might be none of his business. "Are you OK?" he asked instead -- which was.

"Yeah." This time the word was accompanied by a small smile. "He said he had pretty much figured it out already. He's not exactly thrilled, but it's not the first time I went and did something he disapproves of. He wasn't thrilled with me becoming a cop either. We're still family though."

Levon nodded. "That's something, anyhow." He took a deep breath, and sat down in one of the chairs beside the table. It was still cold -- maybe it was the huge picture window he was sitting near. Joe came over and sat in the chair opposite him. He was silent, just sat there and watched Levon.

Levon felt the corner of his mouth twitch, and tried to control it. At Joe's questioning look, he gave in and asked. "So now what? Go see the Sears Tower?"

Joe smiled. "If you want," he answered, continuing to watch him.

Levon tilted his head, then leaned back in the chair, crossing one leg over the other knee. "Or you gonna just stand there and stare at me?" He swallowed, suddenly hit once more by that awful, sinking feeling that two days ago he'd lost his chance to ever see Joe look at him this way again. That someone had given Joe back to him was a miracle he kept forgetting.

He was out of the chair and wrapping his arms around Joe before another thought could form.

"Hey..." Joe said softly, reaching out to hold Levon tightly in turn.

"I missed you so much...."

Joe didn't say anything more, just ran his hands soothingly up and down Levon's back as they continued to hold each other. Levon could feel his heart beating wildly; for a moment he wanted to pull Joe towards him hard enough to crush the man against him. Instead he merely began to tremble.

In response, Joe's grip tightened and he murmured soothingly to his distraught lover. The words didn't register with Levon but the tone of Joe's voice conveyed comfort and love. He buried his face against Joe's shoulder, not wanting to let the thoughts that were battering at his mind take hold again. He heard himself whimper, once, as he heard the flash of the explosion again.

"Joe...."

"It's okay Levon, I'm here, it's all right..."

The trembling grew until his entire body was shaking. He wanted to hang on tighter, but didn't dare for fear of hurting Joe. Finally, frustrated and feeling inexplicably scared, he let go and moved away.

Joe followed, reaching out and laying a hand on his shoulder. "Levon?"

Curling his hands into fists, Levon kept himself from grabbing Joe again. He looked over, and just shook his head. "I can't... I don't think I can take this, Joe. Don't you ever die on me again." His voice broke.

"Believe me cowboy, I'm not planning on it," Joe teased gently, his hand still resting on Levon's shoulder.

"I mean it," Levon snapped, not sure why he was suddenly so angry with Joe but unable to hold it back.

Joe backed off a little. "Whoa, take it easy-"

"Take it easy?!" Levon stepped away from Joe's touch. "Take it *easy*? Goddammit, Joe, am I just supposed to forget you were dead? That I was--"

"But I wasn't -- I'm not -- dead. You can see that for yourself."

"But you were." His voice had lost some of its vehemence, and hence some of its volume. "Joe... I thought you were dead, and it was like everything inside me was torn apart. I could barely breathe without feeling like I was going to die." The anger flowed out of him in a rush, and he sank to the floor. "Gods, Joe.... I was going to get Carl to kill me because I couldn't live without you."

For a long moment Joe stood stock still, staring at Levon in stunned disbelief. Then he seemed to shake off the shock and swiftly moved to his lover's side, sinking down onto the floor beside him and pulling him into his arms. "I'm sorry," he whispered against Levon's hair. "I didn't know, didn't think..."

"Didn't know? Didn't know how you dying made me feel?" Levon closed his eyes. He tried to focus on the sensation of Joe's embrace, but somewhere inside him there was still something missing. He grabbed onto Joe's arm. "All I could do was kill the ones who'd done it and then let myself die...." And he hadn't even been able to do that -- granted it was because they'd found Joe first. But he still needed to do something to get the rest of his anger out.

Maybe he'd find Vinnie, anyhow.

Joe just held him tighter, so tight that Levon was sure it had to be hurting his injured ribs, but Joe wouldn't let go. His fingers curled into Joe's shirt and hung on. He realized he was crying, must have been for some time. All he could say, though, was "Don't you ever die on me again." He whispered it over, and over.

And Joe was answering, "I won't, I promise," over and over, even if there was no logical way he could be sure to keep such a promise.

Finally, as Levon began to notice how his throat hurt and his eyes were stinging, he began to relax. He loosened his grip on Joe's shirt and tried to ease back so Joe could settle himself into a more comfortable position. He looked up at his lover and saw the same red eyes and tear-streaked face as he knew he himself had. He wiped a finger across Joe's cheek.

Joe turned his head and kissed the finger, reaching up and caressing Levon's cheek in return. "Maybe we're not so different after all," he said, his voice husky from the remnants of his tears.

Levon couldn't answer. He didn't have to; he took a deep breath and laid his head back onto Joe's shoulder. "Don't ever want to lose you," he said, more realistically. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be." He felt Joe drop a kiss on the top of his head. "I feel the same way about you."

"I know... I didn't mean to lose it like this, though." He rubbed his face, and regained control of himself. Then he yawned. Levon laughed. "Lord, you'd think after a day and a half...."

"Yeah, you would." Joe grinned at him, a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. "This mean you're too tired for... anything?"

It was on the tip of his tongue to say he was never that tired... except he had only just proven otherwise. So he said, "I suppose... are you offering 'anything'?"

Joe's expression suddenly turned serious. "I'm offering everything."

"Then I accept." Levon leaned forward and gave him a kiss -- long, deep, and loving.

Joe responded wholeheartedly, then broke off and stood, pulling Levon to his feet with him. "Levon?"

"Yeah?" He stood easily. His brain hadn't shut down yet -- for a change.

"Did we just get married?"

Levon blinked. "If we did, I want a cake."

"I think we can arrange something." Joe gave him a kiss.

Levon responded, and his body turned on very quickly. He'd felt drained, angry, and terrified, and he needed something else. He needed Joe. He wrapped his arms around Joe as he continued the kiss, not letting Joe move away. He heard a deep chuckle, and felt the vibrations of the swallowed laugh against his chest. Then he felt Joe's hands on his back, pulling him even closer.

He shivered; the wild emotions that had tried their best to tear him apart began to spin in entirely new directions. Rather, in directions he knew, loved, and wanted so much more than any other. He pushed himself forward, pressing his entire body against his lover's.

Joe turned him, and Levon found himself being laid gently on the bed. He smiled up at Joe -- seeing his lover standing above him, the light from the window peeking just enough through the curtains to reflect in his hair. He held up a hand when Joe started to move. Joe stood still, raising an eyebrow in question, but saying nothing. Levon watched him, staring at his face, his hair, his entire body....

"Can I get undressed now?" Joe asked a few moments later. Levon just nodded. "Thanks." Joe sounded entirely amused. Levon didn't mind -- he could stare this way forever, dressed or undressed, his lover was magnificent. As Joe began to move, though, he couldn't decide if he simply wanted to watch or if he needed to touch. He sat up, reaching out, and Joe moved closer, into Levon's touch.

He caressed the skin as Joe undressed, leaning forward and placing a kiss against Joe's stomach, then higher on his chest, then down, light as a breeze against his sides. He barely skimmed his fingers across the bandage, ignoring its meaning, in favor of the quivering skin he could feel. He heard Joe's breath catch, and heard what started out to be a comment, but then he trailed his tongue along that skin and Joe merely groaned.

He grinned, and glanced up. Joe looked down at him. "You keep that up and I'm going to take you right now."

Levon's grin turned into a leering smile. "Will you?"

Joe bent over and bit Levon's neck lightly; bit and then began nuzzling with more determination. Levon felt his body turning to liquid fire. He let Joe nudge him backwards, laying him flat on his back, and then he was being covered. Joe's body, naked from the waist up, pressed against his and he brought a leg up to wrap around Joe's legs and held him as close as he could.

Joe moaned in his ear, and Levon could barely move; the assault on his neck, and now his face and arms, was impossible to fight against. For only a moment did he think about trying - he wanted to hold Joe, make love to him as well - but he couldn't make his hands work, couldn't return any of the affections he was receiving.

With a defeated whimper he lay still, letting Joe do anything and everything - just as he'd promised.


It was much later that Levon moved, crawling out from under his lover where he dozed. He kissed a shoulder when Joe opened an eye to see if he should move; Levon held him in place on the bed as he slid out and got to his feet. He headed towards the bathroom, wiped himself clean with a cloth, then soaked another washcloth with hot water and took it back to Joe. Carefully he began to clean his lover - began by lightly wiping the cloth across Joe's torso, dabbing only sheepishly at the wide bandage and checking if it needed to be replaced, then using long, gentle strokes washed Joe's legs.

He went once to get a new cloth, also drenched in hot water. Joe hadn't moved at all, merely cracked an eye open when he returned and went back to groaning and arching his back as Levon began to stroke him again. Levon followed every line in his lover's body with the cloth; when the cloth cooled he dropped it to the floor and traced them with his hands. Pressing his palms against Joe's chest, he rested a moment, feeling the heartbeat with his fingertips.

"Love you."

Levon looked up at Joe's whisper. "Love you, too."

"Wanna come here?" Joe held out a hand. Levon took it, and let Joe pull him down to lie beside him. Nestled together, Levon held Joe until his lover fell asleep.


Joe was still in the bathroom after their shower, so Levon answered the phone when it rang. The conversation with Carl was short; he hung up just as Joe came out.

"Who was that?" Joe asked, towel drying his hair.

"Carl. He says he's got something he and I need to do for Taylor." Levon frowned, slightly confused by the other centaur's request. "Would it be all right if I meet you at Tony's? Carl offered to drop me off there in about an hour." He took the towel from Joe and began finger brushing his lover's hair.

Eyes closed, Joe leaned into the caress. "No problem. Or I can phone Tony, tell him we'll be a bit late and come along in case...?" His voice trailed off but Levon heard what he didn't say anyway. In case you don't want to let me out of your sight still.

With some difficulty, Levon told him, "Carl said it was something he and I needed to do. Didn't say what -- but he was sorta clear that we'd meet up with you later." He grinned, suddenly. "Might be smuggling a filly outta town who wants to go someplace warm."

Joe refused to rise to the bait, instead looking at Levon uncertainly. "If you're sure..."

With a shrug, Levon merely repeated what Carl had told him. "Said it was for me and him to do. It won't take long." Levon repeated it to himself silently, one more time. Joe would be fine for an hour. He'd be at Tony's, after all. He didn't want to let Joe out of his sight, but he suspected he had an idea of what Carl was up to, and he didn't want Joe to have to be there.

"All right. I better get dressed and moving then if I don't want to be late." He reluctantly moved out of Levon's arms and headed for his suitcase. Levon followed him long enough to take him back into his arms for a kiss. When he finally released Joe's mouth his lover said, "Be careful, okay? Whatever it is you're doing..."

"I will, don't worry." Levon let him go even they heard a knock on the door. He went to open it, and found Carl. "What'd you do, call from the lobby?"

"Patched through the radio from my car," Carl grinned. "Hi, Joe. You're looking better."

"I'm feeling better," Joe replied. He glanced down at his watch. "And late. I gotta get moving. See you later cowboy."

"OK." Levon nodded, and stepped aside to let Joe pass. He stared after him, as his lover headed down the hallway. His nerves were screaming at him to follow.

"Come on," Carl said, startling him. "We get this done quick and we'll have you back at Tony's before he realizes you're not there."

Grabbing his coat and hat, Levon followed Carl out.

They reached the lobby in time to see Joe getting into his cousin's car. Levon felt his heart stop -- then as the car pulled away safely, he looked at Carl. "Where we going?"

The smile that Carl turned on him was truly feral. "We're going to pay a certain LaFiamma a farewell visit."

Levon smiled, slowly. He nodded. "Let's go."


It didn't take them long to find him. Apparently someone had been keeping tabs on him -- probably to make sure he actually left. Carl parked the car halfway down the block from the train station.

Before getting out, Levon asked, "You sure no one's around?"

"I'm sure. Hensen called in some favors. Called in some of my own to make sure. The only ones watching are in the herd."

"Then let's go see if Vinnie needs any help finding his way outta town."

It wasn't hard to recognize the feeling as he stepped out of the car. As he walked along beside Carl, it was very nearly as if he and his partner were about to walk in on a suspect. No way of knowing if you'd get to shoot the guy, or have to run him through a ton of paperwork only to see him get off.

But it was more than that. Much more satisfying, because he knew he was about to do what he'd been needing to do, what deserved doing.

They spotted Vinnie LaFiamma standing near an alleyway. Carl gave Levon that feral grin one more time then stepped forward. "Hey Vinnie!"

The other man visibly started and turned wide panicked eyes onto the two centaurs. "Wh- Who wants to know?"

"Nobody, man." Levon continued moving forward. He and Carl backed the frightened man into the alley as they approached him head-on. For every step they took towards him, Vinnie skittered back three.

They passed under a street light and the light of recognition shone in Vinnie's expression. "It's you..."

Levon looked at Carl in surprise. "It is?"

Carl nodded, seriously. "I think he's right."

Two more steps, and Vinnie had his back against a wall, out of the circle of light.

"Wha-What do you want? I'm leavin' town just like I said I would... That was the deal-"

"That's right," Levon agreed. "You're leaving town." He stopped, facing Vinnie squarely. Carl was at his side, blocking all possible thought of escape. It was reassuring to know he, and the others he hadn't seen, were there.

He grinned, and was pleased to see Vinnie's startled jump. "No rough stuff! Pop said --"

"Said what?" Levon half-laughed. He knew exactly what Vinnie had been told. He'd be free to leave town, alive, unlike the others involved. Mike LaFiamma had negotiated for that much. Only that much -- no one had said 'unharmed'.

"That took care of your debt to your father's organization," Carl told the terrified man. "There's still your debt to my father." The feral grin was back.

"And mine." Levon added quietly. And the debt to himself.

Vinnie shook his head, confused. "Your fathers? I don't--"

"Hensen," Carl supplied, and Levon had the pleasure of watching Vinnie pale even further.

"Now... we have one request of you," Levon told him.

"Anything! What?" Vinnie leapt on the offer like a reprieve.

"Don't bother yelling."

Levon reached out and grabbed Vinnie by the collar.

Vinnie didn't entirely comply with the request but the sounds he did make were muffled enough that they didn't carry much beyond the mouth of the alley. It was barely ten minutes after they'd first walked in that Carl and Levon walked out of the alleyway. Carl nodded at a man as he passed them, heading towards the alley -- Levon caught the scent of another centaur but didn't say anything. It didn't matter who he was.

What did matter was that he needed to get back to Joe.

That thought stopped him, and he groaned. "He's gonna kill me when he finds out..."

"Joe?" Carl asked.

Levon nodded miserably. Much as he'd needed to do this, much as nearly everyone else involved would not think twice about it -- he couldn't stand the thought of what Joe would do, or say. Or feel.

"Does he have to find out?"

Levon shrugged. "I don't plan on telling him. But he's bound to ask where we were... and I can't lie to him."

Carl nodded, then after a few moments' thought said, "He may surprise you."

He raised an eyebrow. "I hope so. Otherwise... he's gonna kill me." With a sigh, he resigned himself to not trying to avoid it -- he needed to get back to Tony's right away, anyhow. He headed back towards Carl's car.

Carl dropped him off in front of Tony's place twenty minutes later. He gave Levon a "Good luck" and a thumbs-up, and drove off, leaving Levon to go inside and face the music.

He had barely knocked on the door when it was opened. He smiled, relieved. Joe was standing there, his nephew in his arms. "That didn't take long."

"Told you." Levon didn't try to wipe the huge smile off his face. Just seeing Joe standing there... he wanted to give him a kiss, but Tony, Jr. was running interference.

"Howse!"

Joe chuckled. "He's got you pegged," he told his lover in a low voice, eyes dancing with warmth and affection.

"Looks like," he agreed, and accepted the boy's out-stretched-arms invitation to hold him. Settling the boy on his hip, he let Joe lead him inside. Tony was sitting in the living room, leaning over and watching what his daughter Angie was working on. The young girl was sitting on the floor, doing what was most likely her homework at the coffee table. She looked up and began to jump up to greet them, when her father put a hand on her shoulder. Pouting, she sat back down.

"You put it off long already, Angie. It's due tomorrow -- you can spend time with your uncles after it's done."

"It's stupid anyway," she declared, glaring down at her books. "It's not like it's something I'm ever going to use. Just a bunch of old stories...."

Tony was kicking in earnest, now, and Levon gave him a look. The boy grinned. "I think the word you're looking for is 'giddeyup," Levon told him.

The little boy's grin grew wider. "'deyup!" he repeated dutifully, kicking Levon once again.

Levon nodded. "That's right." He turned back in time to see Joe smiling at him. "What?"

"Nothing," Joe replied, the smile still in place.

They were distracted by Angie giving a loud inarticulate yell. "Another ten pages? You've got to be kidding." She turned and looked pleadingly at her father. "Haven't I done enough for tonight?"

Tony gave his daughter a stern look. "And what happens when your teacher asks you tomorrow what you were supposed to have already read?"

Angie just wailed, again. "But I can't remember them all... they have stupid names and I can't keep them straight! The only one I remember is Athena because she has those neat owls."

Levon looked over. "Sounds like Greek myths."

"It is," Tony affirmed. "Angie's class is studying them this month."

Levon grinned, and saw Joe's patient grin in kind. He handed the boy back to his partner, and went over to Angie. "Would you like some help?"

"You know about Greek myths?" Angie asked, half suspicion and half hope.

Levon kept his amused grin down to a smile. "I know a bit about 'em. Might be able to help you keep all those weird names straight." He sat down on the couch behind and to one side of Angie, tucking the edges of his duster around his legs -- glad he was able to stay warm, for a change.

"Really?" Angie asked, even more hopefully.

"Who is it you're studying?" Levon leaned forward to see her papers.

"The Greek gods. Uhm, what's-his-name..."

Levon held back a laugh. She showed him the page she was working from. Only the major gods and goddesses were listed; he handed the sheet back to her. "Should be easy enough -- what you need is something to help you remember each one. You don't have any trouble remembering all your relatives' names and personalities, do you?"

"Of course not," Angie replied. "But they're simple."

"Well, so're these folks. You just have to know 'em. Take Zeus for example. He's the father of them all; it was his job to protect the family and the household. He also was in charge of the weather -- was always shown in pictures and stories as throwing lightening bolts around." He paused a moment, then asked, "Remind you of anyone in your family?"

"Grandfather?" she ventured.

"Exactly. He keeps the peace, and has the final word when there's trouble. That's who Zeus is."

Angie nodded thoughtfully.

"So, his wife Hera, goddess of marriage and childbirth, would be like your grandma." Levon carefully edited out the 'fought with Zeus every chance she got'.

"Who would Papa be? And Uncle Joey? And you?" The child shot question after question at Levon as she warmed to the game.

"Well, Zeus had a few kids... There's Apollo, god of agriculture and medicine. He was banished from Mount Olympus for awhile. Had to live on earth with the mortals."

Angie nodded, slowly. "Like Uncle Joey - had to go to Texas."

"That's right. And another son, Hermes. He was the gods' messenger. He was the most popular god, everyone liked him."

This time she grinned. "Like Papa!" She thought for a moment, glancing at her book, then said matter-of-factly, "Then Ares must be Uncle Vinnie. Always fighting and getting into trouble. Ares is the god of war."

Levon didn't respond, beyond simply agreeing with her. It didn't take long for him to get her scrounging through her textbook, hunting up names and relations to match with those of her own family. He filled in the brief passages of her schoolbook with a few details of his own hoping Hades wouldn't take offense at being likened to Uncle Mike's long-imprisoned brother Joseph.

The books were put aside however when Tony's wife informed them dinner was ready. Angie scampered off to wash up and Tony followed, carrying his son, leaving Joe and Levon alone in the living room for the moment. Levon looked up and saw Joe watching him with an amused smile. "What?" He asked innocently.

"I think you've got a new fan."

Levon glanced in the direction Angie had gone. "I think she's just glad to get her homework done." He stood up and walked over to Joe, stopping when he was toe to toe with him. He rested his hands on Joe's hips.

Joe's hands automatically came up and rested on Levon's shoulders. "You going to tell me what you were doing earlier?" he asked in a low voice.

All amusement died, and Levon said nothing. After a few moments, he looked away.

"Levon?" The tone was worried and concerned. A gentle hand forced him to meet Joe's gaze.

Joe was staring at him with loving, concerned eyes. He hated this. Hated not being able to lie to him.... "We found Vinnie. Before he left...." He swallowed, wondering if he should have told Carl 'no'. Ignoring the fact that he couldn't have.

"Did you kill him?" The question was free of the accusation that Levon had feared.

"No!" He found himself offended that Joe would even ask -- they had promised Vinnie would leave town alive. Then he shoved down the offense and looked at the floor. "I know I told you I wouldn't do anything to him--"

"It's okay."

"It is?" He looked up again, surprised.

"Yeah." The corner of Joe's mouth curled up into a half smile. "Saved me having to track him down and do it myself."

Levon let go a sigh of relief. "Lord, Joe... was sure you were gonna hang me by my thumbs when you found out."

Joe glanced away. "Yesterday I probably would have."

"What's changed?" Levon's relief began to dim -- if Joe had changed his mind so recently, he might change it back... especially if he found out just exactly how long they'd delayed Vinnie's departure. Carl'd told him he'd be taken to a hospital outside of town and tended to before being kicked out of state.

Joe's answer wasn't what he had expected though. "I saw what he'd done to you."

"Done to me? Joe, you're the one he tried to--" He stopped as Tony stepped into the doorway.

"Sorry, can't knock -- no door." Tony grinned at them.

"S'okay Tony," Joe told his cousin. "Could you give us a minute here? Feel free to start dinner without us."

"Maria would have my hide if we did. We'll wait." Tony turned to go. "Just don't make us wait too long or you'll have to deal with her."

Levon waited until Tony had gone, then looked back at Joe. He found his lover still looking at him with the same expression of love, and concern. Apparently that was all he needed for the penny to drop. Everything he felt towards Vinnie because of what he'd done to his mate, Joe felt as well. For exactly the same reason. He smiled, sheepishly. "I did warn you sometimes I'm a little dense?"

Joe grinned at him. "Hell, I figured that out about two minutes after you met me at the Houston airport."

Levon rolled his eyes. "We'd better go in before the little ones start missing their dinner and start yelling."

"Yeah." Casually Joe swung his arm around Levon's shoulders as the walked. "Levon?"

"Yeah?"

"If you want to survive dinner you'll take off the hat. I don't want to tangle with Maria either."

With a defeated sigh, he removed his hat and placed it on a table as they left the room. He only got one step further before Joe tugged on his coat.

"That too."

"You want my belt, next?" He shucked his coat, and left it as well.

"Later."


The rest of their Chicago visit passed pretty uneventfully. Joe and Levon spent their time sight seeing and resting -- and not resting -- in their hotel room. Joe was recovering quickly, so much so that the day before they were scheduled to leave, he asked if Levon felt up to a run.

Levon met the question with a loud yell. He jumped over a closed suitcase in the middle of the hotel room floor and put his arms around Joe's waist, then grinned. "Maybe."

Joe laughed. "Hate to see your reaction if the answer was yes."

"You still got the address Carl gave us?" Levon still had no clue where they'd gone that day.

"Yep." Joe held up the small sheet of paper that Carl had given him with directions.

"Then why are we still standing here?"

They set out in the replacement rental, Joe driving with all the assurance of a native towards the outskirts of the city. Levon divided his time all but bouncing in anticipation and watching his lover's profile as he drove. Consequently, when they arrived, he still had no idea where they were. It didn't matter, as long as Joe knew how to get them here again tomorrow morning before their afternoon flight back.

He wasted no time getting out of the car -- which the rental company had, mysteriously, been willing to give them -- and headed for the barn. Joe followed right behind him and Levon could feel his eyes on him the entire way. As soon as he was inside he began to strip -- he didn't have to look over his shoulder to know Joe was watching closely. When he'd changed, he turned sideways and regarded his lover.

Joe was standing, leaning against the doorway, head tilted to the side, watching with a smile on his face. "Doesn't matter how many times I see that..." he began.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. You wanna watch me change back and forth or you wanna climb on?" Levon tried to stand still, and failed miserably.

"Feeling frisky are we?" Joe asked as he walked over.

"You know how long it's been since we went riding?" Levon asked, almost seriously.

Joe ran a hand down Levon's flank as he walked towards Levon's front. "Yeah." His fingers stopped on top of the gunshot scar, now barely noticeable if you didn't know it was there.

"So come on, already," Levon said softly. "Let's go forget everything's that's happened and make a day of something pleasant." He placed the palm of his hand on Joe's cheek, smiling as the man looked up at him. His eyes were shiny, and Levon leaned down to kiss him. When he let go, Levon knelt on his front legs to let Joe climb onto his back more easily.

Once astride, Joe's arms went around Levon's waist tightly. Carefully getting back to his feet, Levon sighed at the familiar weight on his back, too long absent. For a moment he stood still, soaking it in. He could feel every tiny point of pressure where Joe touched him, from the press of his knees to the wisp of his chin as it brushed the back of Levon's neck as he kissed Levon's shoulder.

Then he walked out of the barn, and headed into the field. This time he looked at the pasture, seeing what he had missed the first time. Tall, thick trees ringed the field on three sides in the distance; the fourth edge would be the drop-off, he realized.

He headed away from it, towards one line of trees. As he moved smoothly from walk to cantor, he heard Joe sigh contentedly in his ear. "I missed this."

"Me, too. Your ribs doing ok, back there?"

"Fine. You going to speed up now?"

"Yeah... holler if anything so much as twinges," Levon warned. He sped up a bit, then moved quickly into the smoothest pace he had -- a run. Joe let out a yell of exhilaration as they raced across the field.

It was perfect.

Levon couldn't begin to describe it any other way. The ground beneath his hooves, the wind -- cold though it was -- whipping past them, his lover on his back.... everything melted away from the previous few months' until all that was left was he, Joe, and the field.

He ran.

All too soon, they had reached the edge of the property and had to start back. Levon slowed his pace to make the ride last longer.

Rubbing his face against Levon's back, Joe said casually, "I packed your brushes."

Levon sped up again.

Joe's laughter trailed out behind them all the way back to the barn. There Levon stopped, completely and utterly still as he rounded the side of the barn. He took a slow step backwards.

"Levon, what-" Joe's voice broke off as he looked up.

Levon didn't answer, and made no further moves. The man was in human form, but there was no mistaking who he was. Shorter than Taylor, stockier and nearly a decade younger, he still looked and felt exactly the same.

Joe's grip around Levon's waist tightened. "Hensen, I presume."

The man nodded. "Joe, Levon."

Levon took another half step backwards.

"Relax, Levon. I've no quarrel with you. On the contrary, I came to ensure that you and your mate were satisfied with the arrangements."

"Oh, everything's fine," Joe told him, even as he attempted to sooth Levon with his touch. "Aside from the exploding car bit, the trip's been a dream."

Hensen didn't look amused. He did, however, look apologetic. "If there is anything I can do, to make up for that... I told Taylor it would be safe for you to come back. That it was not is entirely unforgivable."

Levon stopped backing up, but wished Joe would get the hell off his back and get between him and the stallion. He needed someone to hide behind.... Promise of safety or not, his instincts were screaming at him. He knew Hensen probably didn't know it -- the herd stallion had probably never spent a day in his life feeling subordinate and in danger.

Joe shook his head. "You got Gillia to call off the hit. You couldn't have known what would happen."

"I know. But I need to offer, regardless -- if there is anything I can do, to make up for what has happened. And to assure you nothing like it will happen again, all you need do is ask."

"There is one thing you could do..." Joe started thoughtfully.

"Name it."

"Give Levon carte blanche to come to Chicago whenever he likes."

Hensen blinked. "Of course. I thought that was understood."

Levon didn't, however, relax. It was one thing to be told you were safe. It was entirely another to stare the man in the face and know it was only a word keeping you that way.

"I'm not sure it was," Joe said. He slid off of Levon's back and turned to get a good look at his lover's face. "I'm not sure it is yet, either."

Hensen looked from Joe, up to Levon, then back. He half-smiled. "That. He'll be fine once I leave." His face softened, slightly. "Didn't intend to upset him, but I had to speak to you."

"Every heard of a telephone?"

Hensen's eyes narrowed. "I thought it important to speak to you face to face. He's not in any danger," he reiterated.

Levon put his hand on Joe's shoulder, squeezed once, and took a half-step sideways so Joe was in front of him. He relaxed, all at once.

Sort of.

"Okay you've talked to me. We done?"

Hensen nodded. "We are. Unless you have anything else you need to say?"

Joe shook his head. "As long as Levon's safe you and I don't have any problems."

"Very well. You know how to get in touch with me; don't suppose we'll see each other again." Finally, the stallion turned and walked back towards a long, black sedan. Levon watched as he got in and the car pulled away.

He felt his legs shaking. "Good thing I ain't wearing jeans -- I think I'd a peed in them."

Joe turned and hugged Levon as best he could when his lover was in centaur form. "He never would have gotten close to you," Joe told him.

Levon switched back, and nestled himself into Joe's hold. "I know... I know he wouldn't come near me. But that didn't change how it felt.... Like a scared mugger pointing a gun in your face and swearing he doesn't want to shoot you. You hear what he's saying but you're still staring down a barrel."

"I wouldn't have let him." Joe stroked Levon's hair soothingly. "He would've had to get through me first, partner."

"That makes me feel better," Levon said with a tone of sarcasm. "Been awhile since I got to watch you trade blows with a crazed man." He referred to a case they'd been on six months before, where Levon had come running up to help Joe subdue a suspect, and found himself unable to get to them. Fallen debris and scaffolding had barred his way, and he'd ended up watching Joe fight it out.

Afterwards, he'd asked for popcorn. Once he'd determined Joe was unhurt. He wondered if he was making jokes to hide how scared he'd been and why, if so, he was bothering.

"Are you shivering because you're cold or because you're scared?" Joe asked.

"Both," he managed.

Joe hugged him tighter. "Come on," he said, backing towards the barn but not letting go of Levon. "Change back and I'll brush you. That should help both problems."

Levon nodded, and did so. Joe led him back into the barn and indicated he would go get the brushes from the bag he'd left near the side door. However, Levon walked along beside him as he went over. He was calming down already, but he hadn't expected to see Hensen here, and that upset him nearly as much as actually seeing him, had. He felt like a four-year-old colt, clinging to his elder's foreleg.

Joe said nothing about his four-legged shadow, just retrieved the brushes and walked back over to stall area, which was farthest from the door and therefore the warmest. Levon settled himself in place as Joe began to brush him. After a moment he closed his eyes.

"Better?" Joe asked quietly.

"Yes." He relaxed further, as Joe continued brushing. Finally, the last of the tension seeped away. He locked his knees and sighed.

"Feels wonderful...."

"Good." Joe continued brushing in silence for long moments then said, "I'm sorry this trip has been such a disaster, Levon."

"Mmm-hmm..."

Joe chuckled. "I'll apologize again when your brain is functioning," he teased, all the while continuing to brush.

"OK." Levon took another deep, slow breath and let it out, and felt his lover continue to brush him.


Levon opened his eyes, not sure how long he'd been standing there not being brushed. He looked over at Joe who was leaning against a stall, smiling.

"Wondered how long it'd take you."

"Can I help it if I fall asleep on my feet?" Levon unlocked his knees, and walked over to his lover.

"Are you feeling any better?" Joe looked him at him with a serious expression.

Levon slowly nodded. "I think, for maybe the first time since... hell, since before we left Texas, I'm feeling all right."

"I'm glad."

There was something in his lover's tone that made him look more closely. He recognized the hooded look in Joe's eyes, saw the tension he was trying to hide. He changed, and put his hands on Joe's shoulders. "Are you all right?" He realized that he should have been asking this, all along.

"Yeah, I'm fine. We should get out of here, Tony'll be--"

"Joe," Levon interrupted. "Don't try to lie to me."

Joe looked up, a shocked expression on his face which gave way quickly to a resigned smile. "I guess not." Joe shook his head, and finally said, "Levon, I'm sorry. If I had had any idea what was going to happen, I'd have never brought you here."

"Joe..." Levon put his hands on Joe's face, and stared into his eyes. "How were you supposed to know?" He watched as his lover struggled to find the words. He knew what Joe was feeling -- guilt, for everything that had gone even remotely wrong. He had to wait until Joe talked to him, though, before he could know what to say to convince him otherwise.

Or did he?

"Joe, I've been meaning to tell you...." Joe looked at him, expectantly. "Thank you."

"What?" Joe's eyes got big. "For--"

"For bringing me here. For showing me your home, introducing me to your family."

"For making you think I'd been killed, for getting hurt?"

Levon shook his head. "For letting me be here. For giving me a part of your life I wasn't sure I'd ever get to share."

For a long silent moment Joe looked at him. Levon could see his words getting to him, and ran a finger along Joe's lower lip, as if to press them in the rest of the way. "I wish...." Joe began.

"I know. But even if -- even if it had been real, I wouldn't have wanted not to come."

This time Joe looked completely astonished. "How can you say that?"

"Because the alternative woulda been seeing you pretend you didn't mind that I couldn't be a part of your family. The way you're already a part of mine."

That finally got to him. Joe looked away, but moved slightly towards him. When Levon gave him a gentle tug, Joe moved into his arms.

"I love you, Joe. Even though it'd kill me to lose you -- having you at all is worth that."

The arms around Levon's waist tightened.


The airport hadn't changed.

He hadn't expected it to, of course, but he was somewhat dismayed to discover he hadn't changed in how he felt about standing in the middle of one, waiting to take-off. The only consolation was that the huge gaggle of LaFiammas was treating him with nearly as much hugging, kissing, and high-speed jabbering as his mate.

He glanced over at Joe and saw his partner looking off towards the entrance with an expression made of equal parts expectation and resignation. Levon sighed. He knew Joe was still hoping that his Aunt Teresa would show up to say good-bye. It didn't look like she was going to, though. He felt a tug on his sleeve and looked down to find Angie holding out a piece of paper for him. "I made you a going away present," she told him.

Levon crouched down beside her, giving his hat a slight nudge upwards, so he could look up into her face. He'd worn his hat since he left the hotel room today, in sheer defiance of any North Yankee attempts to make him remove it. Joe'd just grinned at him. "Did you now?"

She nodded enthusiastically and handed him the paper.

He took it, and unfolded it. He stared for a moment, grinning. "Angie... this is wonderful."

She'd drawn a pegasus, flying through the clouds. In the background was an airplane; both were headed towards a large brown patch labeled "Texas".

Angie blushed. "I figured if you thought about flying on a horse you wouldn't be so scared about it."

Levon's grin grew even wider. Glancing up, he saw his lover watching them, a shy, but pleased, smiled on his face. "That was real thoughtful of you, Angie." He wondered when, and why, his lover had been telling Angie about his feelings on flying.

He gave her a hard hug. "I'm gonna miss you."

She hugged him back. "Me too. But we can come visit maybe this summer? And you'll show us your horse?"

"Absolutely. Fooler'd be real glad to meet you."

He let her go, and she went over to hold onto her mother's hand. Levon stood up -- and saw Teresa and Mike threading their way through the crowd. He nudged Joe and gestured toward them.

Joe stood there tensely as he waited for his aunt and uncle to make their way to where the group was standing. The other LaFiammas, having seen them approaching, all fell silent, also waiting and watching. Levon remained at Joe's side, making no effort to move or even look away when either of them caught -- however briefly -- his eye. They came to a stop in front of them, and both looked only at Joe.

Joe looked at them, looked down as he shuffled his feet nervously, then looked back up again. "I wasn't sure you were coming."

Teresa sighed, looked at Mike, and answered. "You're our nephew. That doesn't change..." It was obvious what she didn't say -- 'though we wish it did.'

Levon bit back his own sarcastic reply. He felt Joe stiffen beside him, saw the brief flash of hurt and anger before Joe's face smoothed out into his professional mask, giving nothing away. He was unable, however, to keep the trembling out of his voice when he told her to "Take care of yourself."

Levon reached out and took Joe's hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. Most of the family began to drift away, until only Tony and his family were left. Tony gave them each a handshake, Maria gave them both hugs, and Angie got two more promises that she would be able to visit that summer.

Then the boarding call for their flight was being announced over the PA system and they had to go. Levon shouldered his bag, placed the folded picture into his duster's inner pocket, and followed Joe to the gate. As he handed over his ticket and was faced with the long, carpeted tunnel, he realized -- that morning's run had almost done the trick.

"You okay?" Joe asked as they started down towards the plane.

"Oh, sure. Nothing like a little family in-fighting to relax a person."

Joe made a face. "Sorry about that..."

"Not your fault. Actually, I'm glad they came by. Better than not seeing us off at all." Levon softened his tone. It was better, even if they hadn't been able to entirely hide how they felt. As he stepped onto the plane, he said in a lighter tone, "All in all, it's been a long, strange trip."

"Yeah, and all we need now is a vacation to recover from our vacation."

Levon laughed. They stowed their bags and coats, and settled themselves in their seats. Levon glanced over at Joe. "You got anything in mind I should know about?"

"What do you mean?" Joe asked innocently.

Levon glared. "I mean should I have worn looser jeans or are you gonna just get me drunk this time?" He teased his lover to disguise his real worry. He wished, not for the first time and he realized not for the last, that heights didn't affect him this way.

But they did, and all he could do was cope as best he could. As best as he and Joe could.

"Which would you prefer?" Joe's voice had dropped in pitch and volume sending a shiver down Levon's spine that had nothing to do with fear.

He should have definitely worn looser jeans. He gripped Joe's hand tighter, and started to tug him closer.

"Don't forget your seatbelt, sir," a cheerful voice said. Levon looked up at the stewardess. And blinked. Seatbelt?

Joe chuckled. "Let me." He reached over and did up Levon's seatbelt, copping a quick feel along the way.

"Hey!" Levon jumped -- as the hand went away. He glared again, and gave the friendly, and now giggling, stewardess a nod. After a while he began to get the feeling she was in cahoots with Joe, because the two of them had his head spinning by the time they were airborne.

Finally he closed his eyes, and leaned his chair back. 'Zeus, if you can hear me... a double scotch, no ice.'

A long sigh from beside him made him open his eyes again. Joe was staring out the window with an unidentifiable expression on his face. He sat forward, and touched his lover's cheek lightly. "Wanna talk about it, love?" he asked quietly.

Joe shrugged. "I'm not sure I can put it into words, y'know?"

Levon just waited. There were a dozen things Joe could be brooding about. Until he did put some of it into words, Levon would just have to be patient.

"Last time I left Chicago I was... well, 'upset' would be an understatement. It was my home, and I didn't want to leave. Even after all this time in Houston and us building a life together I still thought of Chicago as 'home.'"

Levon didn't say anything. He didn't like the way Joe said 'thought'. Maybe his aunt and uncle's rejection hit him harder than he was letting on. Levon knew Joe was making a home for himself in Houston, but that wouldn't change how he felt if he thought he wasn't welcome back in Chicago, among his family.

His lover continued, "I figured leaving this time would be hard too -- not as hard as before because I know I can come back and I know what's waiting for me in Houston," Here Joe reached out and squeezed Levon's hand, "But I still expected it to hurt a little."

Levon rubbed Joe's fingers against his other palm. He still had no clue whether he should be offering sympathy, or be glad that Joe considered Houston home. He knew, however, if he asked Joe would laugh at him... He looked up, and asked in a hesitant tone.

Joe grinned at him. "I don't need sympathy," he told him. "Well, maybe for the fact that the city I consider home doesn't have a single decent Italian restaurant but other than that..."

"Are you gonna go on about that for the next thirty five years? If you are, I've half a mind to ship Rosa down to Texas and make her cook for us."

"I 'go on about it' because it's true."

"You'd think you were the only Italian in all of Texas. At least, the only one who cares what he eats." Levon thought back. "There has to be someplace in the state you'll eat at." He'd looked through the phone books in the library one day, checking all the Italian restaurants he could find, intending to also check each town's local paper for restaurant reviews.

"There is. Your place. As long as I'm doing the cooking."

"You didn't like my ribs?" Levon gave him a shade of a pout.

"I didn't say that. I like your ribs just fine." Joe gave him a once over that made Levon wonder what ribs Joe was talking about. "But we were talking about Italian."

"I like Italian ribs, too," Levon offered, feeling amicable. "But what does that have to do with Julio's?" He named a place in Dallas that was, according to Uncle Mike, the best place in the south.

"If we'd ever been there I'd be able to tell you."

"We haven't." Levon said.

"That's what I just said."

"Well, that's my point. How can you say there aren't any good Italian restaurants if you ain't tried 'em all?"

"I'm psychic," Joe replied dryly.

"Guess I won't be taking you there, after all, then." Levon said it as if he were disappointed.

"It's in Dallas," Joe pointed out.

"So?" Levon didn't show his surprise that Joe knew the place. "We went to Chicago didn't we? A bus ride to Dallas is no big deal."

"Bus?" Joe sounded scandalized. "What's wrong with taking the Cobra? Or even the Jimmy? That is, if we go by highway."

Levon raised an eyebrow. "I'm not sitting in the Cobra for two and a half hours." He leaned back. "Now, if you were to pack a saddlebag--"

"Don't you think a centaur on the interstate might cause a bit of a disturbance?"

"Who said anything about the interstate? I was thinking of Mason's Trail."

"Mason's Trail?"

"Path up from the gulf, to near the Red River. Used to go camping and packing along it when I was younger. It heads close enough... well, we could catch a bus into Dallas city-limits from near the trail."

"There's that bus thing again."

"You got something against buses? Or are you thinking after two days of being centaur-back you'll be up for more?" Levon was leaning towards Joe, speaking softly -- and glanced out the window at the clouds. His stomach did a quick dive, and he looked back at Joe. Wings, he reminded himself. Zeus gave at least one of 'em wings; he could do it again if he had to.

Joe leaned closer recapturing his full attention. "When the centaur in question is you, I'm always up for more," he said, his voice going husky.

Levon's gaze went back to his lover; he stared for a moment into deep blue eyes then tried to remember just what the hell they were talking about.

Joe grinned affectionately. "There goes your brain again..."

"Is that my fault?" He continued, "Anyhow, we going to Dallas or not?"

"Yeah. We are." Then almost shyly, "I like the idea of camping out with you."

Levon grinned. "Looks like we got our next vacation planned out. Let's not invite anyone who wants us dead, though, OK?"

"Deal."


Four hours later Levon was standing on firm, Texan ground. He didn't disguise his relief, even when Joe chuckled. He did take great delight in shedding his coat, and breathing in warm, moist air. He could feel his bones soaking up the warmth.

"It's good to be home," he said, intending to tease Joe but in the end, only meaning it truthfully.

"Yeah," Joe replied, with a warm smile. "It is."

Levon looked at Joe, and saw the contentment, the sincerity, and the pleasure there.

"Let's go home, then."

Joe laid a hand on Levon's back. "Right with you partner."


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