Due North

"Levon, how would you feel about taking a trip?"

Levon looked at Joe, confused. Taylor called, now Joe wanted to go on a trip? From the expression on Joe's face, it had to be.... "Joe?" He didn't dare suggest what had just occurred to him.

"That was Taylor," Joe said unnecessarily. His tongue flicked out to lick nervously at his lips. "He said that the hit's been called off. I can go home." Wondering eyes looked out at Levon.

Levon sat very still. He knew his father had mentioned doing this, but he'd thought Taylor would have warned them, or done it for a reason. Not out of the blue... Not that he would complain. Not after seeing the sheer joy on his love's face.

"Back to Chicago?"

Joe nodded. "Yeah." He reached out for his lover's hand, entwining their fingers together. "So you feel like taking a trip?"

Levon nearly spoke the hundred details that came to him -- how could he go into another herd's territory being the upmost in his mind. Instead he smiled, focusing instead on Joe's bewildered delight. "Right now?" he gently teased.

"Not right this second, no," Joe replied in kind. "But as soon as possible, yeah."

Levon grinned. "So we can get dressed first? Call the airline to expect us?"

"Among other things." He laid his free hand against Levon's cheek. "Like calling Maggie and getting the all clear for you to travel." The hand slid down Levon's body until it came to rest over the just healed scar.

Levon leaned into the caress, letting his eyes close. There was a lot more to do to get him 'cleared' than talk to Maggie. Would Hensen let him into Chicago, for one? There was also the cold, northern winter to contend with. But none of that was worth mentioning just yet. Not when Joe was brushing his fingers across his skin....

Abruptly the fingers disappeared. Levon opened his eyes in time to see Joe leaving the bed and reaching for his discarded clothes. "You wanna phone her and ask while I talk to Jesse about kittensitting?"

In reply, Levon rolled over and reached for the phone.

Joe grinned, paused in dressing and leaned over for a quick kiss. "Don't push her," he ordered. "If she thinks you need more recovery time we'll wait."

"Yes, Joe," Levon agreed meekly. He dialed Maggie's number, keeping half an eye out for Joe's reaction.

Joe's grin just widened, and he went back to dressing, though he made a show of listening at the same time.

Levon hid his own grin. He knew Joe was on to him, making a show of doing whatever he was told -- but it was the only way he knew to hide the fact that he did. He knew it disturbed Joe, so he tried to make it into a joke. Half the time Joe didn't seem to notice when it was serious.

Maggie's cheerful voice answered, interrupting his thoughts.

"Maggie! Gotta ask you something -- would it be all right if I went with Joe out of town?"

"What do you mean by 'out of town'?"

"Chicago." He grinned, seeing Joe's glance at him. But he waited.

"Chicago?" she repeated. Maggie continued and he could hear the doubt in her voice. "I don't know Levon... that's pretty far. Can it wait?"

Levon hesitated. He didn't want to say no, but neither did he want to delay Joe's homecoming. "Well, Joe just found out he can go home again. I think... we could wait, if need be."

"So this isn't work related?"

"No! This is the first time Joe'll been home since he came to Texas. Maggie, please -- if I told him we had to wait even a couple days... I don't want to see the look on his face. He's been taking lessons from the kittens." Levon glanced up at his lover, winking.

Rolling his eyes, Joe looked at him, his heart clear in his expression then he reached out and gently took the phone from Levon. He ran a hand through Levon's hair fondly even as he brought the phone to his mouth to speak. "Maggie? Joe. Listen, the trip's important but Levon's health is more important, so if you think we should postpone..." He was silent for a moment, listening to her answer.

Levon waited anxiously. He couldn't tell from Joe's expression if Maggie was giving them good news or bad.

Joe's answer, when it came, was no more enlightening. "Okay. You're probably right... Uh huh. Yeah, I will. Thanks Maggie. We'll be in touch." Quietly he hung up the phone.

Levon held himself back from jumping up and going to Joe. He swallowed once, then asked, "What did she say?"

The smile that Levon so loved appeared on Joe's face. "Start packing."

Levon jumped out of the bed and grabbed his lover. After giving him a long, hard kiss, he whispered, "Congratulations, Joe."

"Thanks." Joe's eyes glanced downward, and his voice softened. "I'd pretty much given up hope..."

"I know." Levon caressed Joe's cheek, wanting to rub that slight frown away. "But now you can go home. Whenever you like -- whenever you can afford it, anyhow." He grinned.

"Whenever we can afford it," Joe corrected, returning the grin.

Levon grinned even wider. "Speaking as one who doesn't even have credit cards to run up, I could afford it anytime I liked." He leaned in, pressing himself against Joe. "Now if I was to be persuaded to buy a couple tickets...."

Joe gaped at him for several long moments. "Levon, you don't have to-"

Levon laughed. "And how did you think we were gonna get up there today? I saw your last credit card statements. You don't have enough credit to buy lunch, much less two airplane tickets." He gave his lover a kiss on the chin, knowing that he was exagerating slightly, but knowing as well that Joe knew darn well he wasn't exagerating by much.

"I wasn't going to ask... I'd never assume that you... I would've found a way," he stammered.

Levon frowned. "You were really gonna -- Joe, what are you thinking? That you have to do everything and I'm just here to amuse you?" The frown became a glare.

"You're much more than that and you know it." Joe paused then added a little uncertainly, "At least you should."

"Then why were you thinking you had to pay for the tickets when I have the cash and you don't?" Levon didn't try to mask his anger.

"Levon...." A hand raised to cup Levon's face, but fell away before touching. Joe sighed heavily. "I never want to take advantage of our relationship. It isn't about money. After what happened the last time I asked to borrow some cash, I made a promise to myself that I'd never ask you again."

"You don't think that now that we're--" Levon stopped, not wanting to say the word 'married' because he'd only asked, and while Joe had accepted they had never done anything about it. "--together, that I don't have just as much interest in this as you do? You think I'd refuse you money for something like this?"

Joe looked him seriously in the eye. "I know you wouldn't. You never refuse me anything. That's why I wouldn't ask."

Levon sighed, and let his head drop forward onto Joe's chest. "Joe -- this ain't about that." Unfortunately he didn't know how to explain it. Apparently Joe had a different view of just how permanent this relationship was. A live-in lover wasn't like ly to borrow money, or feel comfortable doing so.

A mate, on the other hand, wouldn't think twice.

At a loss as to how to handle this, Levon stepped away. "Fine, Joe. Figure out a way to pay for your ticket on your own."

Joe stood there for a long moment, just watching Levon. Again a hand reached out for his lover only to fall back before making contact. "Will you still come with me?" he asked finally, sounding like he was almost afraid of the answer.

"Didn't think that was an issue," Levon all but snapped.

Flinching back from Levon's sharp tone, Joe swallowed and spoke again, his expression a clear indicator of just how miserable he was. "You don't have to if you don't want to," he said softly.

Levon spun back. "I thought I was going because you were going, because you could finally show me your home and introduce me to your family. I didn't think you wanted to go by yourself!" Then he turned back around and left the room. Fuming, he headed for the back door.

"Levon!" Joe's voice called after him, a lost desperate note in it he hadn't heard in ages.

He hesitated, but continued out through the door. He knew Joe would follow him -- it wasn't like Joe to drop an argument. There were a few brief moments though that he thought he might be wrong about that, when Joe didn't follow right away. Finally, just before Levon was about to go back inside looking for him, Joe appeared in the doorway.

Levon stared at him over his shoulder. He made no effort to speak to the man -- he was too upset and knew he couldn't say anything intelligible. Nothing except "you're an idiot, Joe!" and he wasn't sure he ought to say that.

Just yet.

Joe was looking everywhere but at him. "Will you please come with me to Chicago?" he asked in a low voice.

Levon turned. "I was already going, Joe. I assumed that's why you had me call Maggie." He didn't try to wipe the frown off his face.

"It was." Joe's eyes met his for a brief second before skirting away again. "But you're acting like you..." He stopped and sighed before starting to speak again. "What the hell did I do wrong Lundy?"

He felt himself jolt; Joe hadn't called him by his sire's name -- except at work -- in months. He looked away and replied softly, "Why didn't you think I'd pay for it? Joe you... it's like you think this is some casual thing that's gonna end any day as soon as we get tired of each other. You call this 'my house' when you live here too and now this. I thought...." He took a deep breath. "I asked you to marry me. I thought...."

He heard Joe's swift intake of breath and then suddenly found himself wrapped in his lover's arms. "That I had committed to spending the rest of my life with you? Levon, I have. I love you. Don't ever doubt that. Please, don't ever doubt that."

"Then why are you acting this way? Like you're just here for the ride--" Levon tried to step out of Joe's arms; he couldn't get free.

Joe shook his head vehemently. "God, that's the last thing I was thinking. Or feeling. I just... this whole dominance thing... I saw the look on your face when you first told me about it. You were afraid I was going to take advantage of it. I never want you to feel like I am. I don't want to run roughshod over you, Levon."

Levon blinked, and stared at Joe. "What the hell has that got to do with this?"

Joe stared back. "What do you mean what has that got to do with this? It has everything to do with this!"

"I mean, what has that got to do with me going to Chicago with you? Did you think I wouldn't want to go or help pay for us to get there?" He felt a little confused.

"Of course not! I just..." Joe sighed and shook his head with frustration. "If I asked you, I'd never know if you were doing it because I asked or because you wanted to. Hell, I knew -- know -- you want to but that wouldn't stop that one little irratio nal doubt from creeping in. You had to make the first move." He looked beseechingly at Levon. "Do you get what I'm saying?"

Levon thought back over what Joe had just said.

He thought back over it again.

Then he tilted his head. "You're saying that I should have offered before you had a chance to ask?" he asked carefully.

"I'm saying I couldn't ask... not when I know that even if you didn't want to you'd still say yes."

Levon tried very hard not to smile. "Joe, I did offer before you had a chance to ask. I said I'd pay for the tickets...."

Joe shook his head. "No, you said you might be persuaded to pay for tickets. I knew I could persuade you. That was my point."

Levon stared, then shook his head slowly. "All I mean was we could have a little fun in bed, first. Dammit, Joe, since when do you take me seriously when I talk to you like that?"

His lover didn't answer, just shrugged, eyes once again downcast. Levon waited for a moment, then realized that there would apparently be no way out of this, for him. Joe was so hung up on not making him do anything -- ironic since he did it daily without ever seeming to notice -- that he wouldn't be likely to give in about this.

Unfortunately, he could think of no graceful way out. He was beginning to be very sorry he'd ever mentioned it to his lover in the first place. Joe sighed and mumbled something so low, that Levon couldn't make it out. But he thought he had a good idea what it was. Instead of asking for Joe to repeat it, Levon decided to say it, himself. "Joe, I'm sorry. I know this is hard for you -- I guess I shouldn't be making it any harder."

He told himself to simply start being more careful about what he said, and how he said it, so that Joe couldn't misinterpret his words.

"So... we're okay?" Joe asked with a hesitancy that telegraphed exactly how off-balance he was.

Levon wanted to shake his head and say they were just at a truce. But he hated seeing Joe look at him so uncertainly. He half-smiled. "I reckon."

He felt the tension leave Joe's body at that. "Good," Joe said, then leaned in and kissed Levon in a manner that left no doubt how Joe felt about him.

Levon wondered if he should draw attention to the fact that he was still naked. That would give them two choices -- go for a ride, or hit the dirt. As Joe finally broke off the kiss he had to take a deep breath.

Before he could say anything, Joe reached up and laid a finger over his lips. "So was that enough persuasion?" he asked with a slight smile, though his eyes were serious. And full of love.

"Think so," Levon managed. He was rapidly losing his train of thought and could only guess at what it was he thought Joe was talking about. He pressed himself against Joe's body.

"Good." Suddenly Levon found himself standing alone while Joe was heading for the front of the house. "I'll leave the flight arrangements to you then while I go talk to Jesse about keeping an eye of the kittens."

He watched his lover disappear. For a long moment he remained where he was. There was something simply not fair about a human's ability to turn himself off at will.

He headed inside to make a phone call. Joe returned just as he was hanging up. "He say he could take the kittens?" Levon asked.

"Yeah. Just need to let him know when and for how long." He looked at Levon for the answer.

"Oh, uh, haven't called the airline yet." Levon ducked his head, and looked for the phonebook.

Joe frowned. "Who was that on the phone, then?"

"Taylor. Said Hensen says it's all right if I go to Chicago."

That stopped Joe short. "That could've been a problem?"

"Oh, well." He wondered how casually he should try to brush this off. "It ain't a problem, Hensen says it's fine -- I can come anytime, seeing as how I'm not looking for--" He stopped again. "You know, a herd."

"Damn, I never even thought of that..."

"Don't worry, Joe. Hensen knew I'd be coming with you before he ever talked to Gillia. We just need to let him know when I'm gonna be in town." He paged through the phone book, and found the airlines. Glancing up, he asked, "When did you wanna leave? Tonight? Tomorrow morning?"

"Uhh..." Joe blinked. "I hadn't..." He stopped and started again. "I don't think we could get everything ready in time to leave tonight. Could we?"

Levon laughed. "I doubt it. You have to call home, let 'em know you're coming for one thing. Not to mention packing, driving out to the airport at this time of day... So early morning is okay?"

A slow smile started to spread across Joe's face. "Yeah. More than okay."

Levon gave him a nod, and dialed the airline. It didn't take long to arrange for two tickets to Chicago in the morning. As he hung up he debated teasing Joe about just how much they'd cost -- last minute tickets weren't the cheapest, apparently. The lady had told him that if they waited seven days the price would drop almost in half.

But he wasn't going to make Joe wait, and he could afford it, so he said nothing.

"Tickets all set?" Joe asked, obviously trying to play it cool. He wasn't succeeding very well though, Levon thought with fond affection.

He stood up and gave his lover a slight nibble on his neck. "All set. We leave at eight thirty."

Joe tilted his head, giving Levon better access. "When's the return date?"

He grinned. "Thursday after next." That was twelve days away. He nibbled again.

Joe sighed in contentment, his eyes closing, hands coming up to wrap around Levon's shoulders. "I should phone Uncle Mikey... let him know we're coming..." he said, though he made no move towards the phone.

Levon put his arms around Joe's waist, and ignored his lover's mutterings. After too many weeks without being able to do more than hold and kiss Joe, he wasn't going to be satisfied with only -- he checked the clock -- three hours' loving. And that included the nap, afterwards.

Besides, they had all evening to make phone calls.

Joe's protests slowly faded away into breathy moans as Levon found a particularly sensitive spot and concentrated on it. Levon smiled, and rubbed his cheek against Joe's shoulder. He loved how Joe sounded when he moaned that way. He brought one hand around and began searching for shirt buttons.

The phone had rung twice before either man noticed it. Levon pulled away from where he'd been caressing a very erect nipple, and looked phone-ward.

The phone rang a third time. Joe opened his eyes and followed Levon's gaze. On the fourth ring he groaned and banged his head against the wall. Levon reluctantly reached out a hand and snagged the phone. "Hello?"

There was a brief hesitation, then a male voice asked, "Is Joey there?"

"Hang on." Levon tried to get the phone cord around himself without either strangling himself or letting go of Joe.

Finally succeeding, he handed the receiver to Joe who took it and said, "LaFiamma." A brief pause and then his voice warmed considerably. "Uncle Mikey! I was going to call you. I just heard-" Absently he continued running his free hand over Levon.

Levon bit back a groan, but didn't move out of reach. He knew better than to distract Joe, however. Much as he wanted to go back to licking at his chest.

"Yeah... We'll be flying into O'Hare tomorrow... Me and my partner, Levon Lundy. I promised him if -- when -- I ever was able to come back I'd show him the town."

Levon waited patiently -- sort of -- while Joe talked. He leaned against his lover's hand as it touched him again, trying to encourage another caress.

"...Thanks anyway Uncle Mikey but we've already got hotel reservations... Yeah I'm sure. You know how it is..." Joe smiled as he listened. "Tell Aunt Teresa we'll definitely be there."

Levon reminded himself to make hotel reservations, and turned his head to give the wandering hand a quick kiss as it went by.

"Right. Look Uncle Mikey, there's a lot to do if we're going to be ready to leave tomorrow so I'm... Three or four, depending on traffic. Right. Give Aunt Teresa my love. Bye!"

Levon moved with him, as Joe leaned over to hang up the phone. He wrapped his fingers back in the opening of Joe's shirt, to pick up where he left off.

"Aunt Teresa wants us for dinner tomorrow night."

"Okay," Levon answered, looking for the exact spot he'd been at. He ducked his head to give it a lick.

One hand sliding up to tangle in Levon's hair, Joe continued talking. "We should make hotel reservations and start packing," he said, though he made no move to do either.

Levon gave an 'mm-hmm'. His mouth was too busy to bother with actual words.

"And phone Joanne and let her know," Joe continued.

"Uh-huh." Levon found a button he'd missed unbuttoning earlier. He did so now, using his foot to nudge away something small that was batting itself against his ankle.

"RREOWWW!"

The feline yeowl was accompanied by small sharp needles sinking themselves into Levon's ankle.

"Ow! Dammit." Levon jerked away from Joe and glared down. Boots stared back up at him, a viciously accusatory expression on his face.

Joe chuckled. "I think you stepped on his tail."

"Sorry," Levon muttered. Boots gave him another frown and walked over to wrap itself as best it could around Joe's foot.

Bending down, Joe picked up the kitten, which started purring loudly as it cast disdainful looks in Levon's direction.

"Now wait a minute." Levon moved half a step back to give Joe room to hold the kitten. "I was here first." Boots just looked at him and snuggled closer to Joe, who was trying desperately not to laugh. Levon gave the kitten a frown, and leaned back against the kitchen counter. Crossing arms, he looked at his lover. After a moment of Joe simply standing there with the kitten holding back his laughter, Levon shook his head. "Fine. You call the hotel. I'll go find a suitcase."

"Right." As Levon turned to leave the room, Joe called out hesitantly after him. "Hey Levon...?"

Levon glanced over his shoulder. "Yeah?"

"Uhm... you going to... what I mean is... the hotel..." Joe stammered to a halt then tried again. "Are accommodations included with the airfare?" he asked finally in a rush of words, looking everywhere but at Levon once again.

Levon grinned, then hid the smile before Joe could look up again. "Depends. You prefer the motel 8 or The Ritz-Carlton?"

Joe blinked, obviously not expecting that response. "Doesn't matter," he replied finally. "I'll be bringing the most important thing with me."

"Fine." Levon gave him a nod. "Ritz-Carlton." He turned and walked back to the bedroom to look for a suitcase. After a moment, he heard Joe's voice as he phoned and made the reservations.

He found the duffel bag where he'd left it -- oddly enough. He gave it the once over and decided it was a little too beat up. After thinking for a moment, he realized he still had some real luggage stashed in the guest room closet.

He went after them, and as he threw them onto the bed he stopped. Just what was he going to pack? He didn't own anything that would keep him warm in Illinois in the winter.

"What's wrong?" Joe asked as he came in, catching the expression on Levon's face.

"Joe? How cold is it liable to get?"

"Cold enough that you'll need clothes." Joe deliberately raked his gaze over Levon's still naked body.

"Cute." Levon wondered if he could get away with tipping Joe over the bed. Probably not, if he wanted to stay warm after tomorrow morning. He made no move to find his clothes, however.

Joe's expression widened into a smirk. "You do remember what clothes are, don't you? I know it's been a while, Levon, but..."

Levon turned towards the dresser, and pulled a drawer open. In doing so he managed to position himself just so -- just so Joe would be staring. "Yeah, I seem to recall. This what you mean?" He pulled a shirt out.

He glanced at the clock. Plenty of time to still go out and buy a coat.

"Yeah." Joe moved closer, wrapping his arms around Levon's waist and answering the question from a few minutes ago. "Temperature can vary but usually it's in the 30's or 40's this time of year." He leaned over and started nibbling on Levon's ear.

"30 degrees?!?"

"Yeah. It doesn't really get cold until December usually." Joe's lips were now travelling down the side of Levon's throat.

Levon couldn't believe what he was hearing. Nudging Joe away, he shook his head. Coat, scarf, long underwear... gods, he'd have to buy out the store just to stay warm. Else not let either of them leave the bed.

"Levon?"

"What?" Where was he going to get this stuff, anyhow? Maybe Tenner's would have something...

"You look... skittish."

Levon couldn't help it. He laughed. Then he just said, "I'm gonna have to go shopping before we fly out tomorrow morning."

Joe shook his head, puzzled. "What for?"

"What for? Joe... I gotta get a warm coat and who knows what else. Unless you want me to freeze?"

"I guess I just expected you'd borrow some of my stuff," Joe said with a shrug. "Though a coat might be a good idea."

"You have enough?"

Joe just looked at him. "Think for a moment who you're talking to."

Levon did, for a moment. Then he grinned slowly. "You weren't planning on packing it all, were you?"

"Just enough to keep us both warm. And looking good."

"Still gonna need a coat, though. Can't go out in just silk underwear."

"Too bad," Joe commented with a grin, eyes once again deliberately raking over Levon's form. "But you're right."

"You wanna come with me?" Levon asked, not sure just how long it actually took for his partner to pack a bag for twelve days. Might well take the rest of the day.

"Yeah," Joe answered immediately. "No telling what trouble you'll get into otherwise."

"Me? What happened last time you went to buy a new pair of shoes?"

"That wasn't my fault. What about the last time you took the Jimmy in for a tune-up?"

"It needed new tires, Joe. You trying to tell me you needed three new pair of pants?"

"After the Collins case, yeah I did. I was averaging a ruined pair a day on that case."

"And how many did you still have in the closet? I ask as the one who does the laundry every week."

"Those were dry clean only."

Levon rolled his eyes. He apparently was not going to win this argument and he'd lose valuable time trying.

"Fine. You can come with me."

"Great. I'll go start the Jimmy. Just one thing Levon..."

"What now?"

"Put some clothes on?"

Levon looked down at himself. "What for? I'm gonna get a duster--"

He didn't quite duck the shirt that hit him in the face.


"Would you calm down already?"

Levon shifted from one foot to the other, trying to stifle the urge to run through the crowd of people. The airport was busy this time of morning, full of men in suits with briefcases.

"I am calm," he answered, and he tried to actually calm down.

Joe looked at him for a moment then snorted. "Yeah, sure you are."

"I'm trying," he admitted. After a moment of trying to distract himself watching the crowd, he looked at his lover. "You think that Boots and Trouble will be OK?"

That elicited a weary sigh from his partner. "They'll be fine. I told you that when we took them over to Jesse's. I told you that when we left. I told you that three times in the Jimmy on the way here. I'm telling you now. They'll be fine."

Levon shifted his suitcase to his other hand. The line in front of them to the ticket counter didn't seem to be moving. "You just telling me that so I won't worry?"

"Levon I-" Joe began, his voice loud enough to attract the attention of those around them. Instantly he modified his volume but his exasperation still rang through loud and clear. "I'm telling you they'll be fine because they'll be fine."

Levon sighed. "Fine." He stared at the crowd for a few seconds. The line had moved. Slightly.

Joe watched him for a few minutes, then sighed again. He reached out and ran his hand briefly down Levon's back in a soothing though innocent looking caress. "The kittens will be fine," he repeated in calmer tones. "You know Jesse will take good care of them."

The touch felt good -- actually it felt wonderful. Levon tried not to lean into it. After a minute he felt a little better. Enough so that by the time they made it to the ticket counter he hadn't said a single word about the kittens.

He'd thought it, but hadn't said it.

Joe was silent as they checked their baggage and got their boarding passes, was silent as they headed for the gate their flight would be leaving from. It wasn't until they were sitting in the waiting room that he turned to Levon and asked, "First class?"

Levon stretched his legs out in front of him. "Yeah... do you mind?"

"'Course I don't mind. It's just... that's awfully expensive, when coach would have gotten us there at the same time."

"Joe..." He stopped. "It ain't a big deal."

Joe opened his mouth to answer then closed it again. Finally he just said softly, "Thanks."

Levon couldn't help smiling. His lover looked adorable when he smiled like that. It made him want to lean over and kiss him.

"I don't want you to bankrupt yourself on this trip though," Joe warned. "One of us in debt is enough."

Levon grinned. "Take more'n that to bankrupt me, Joe."

"Oh?" Joe's face took on that inquisitive look he got when he was searching for facts. "How much more?"

The question surprised him. Surely Joe knew... then again, maybe he didn't. He said, very carefully, "We could fly up every weekend for a year before I'd notice. Taylor sorta makes sure his kids are taken care of when they leave home," he explained quickly.

Dead silence.

Turning his head he found Joe staring at him. "You didn't know?"

"How the hell would I have found out?" Joe asked.

At that Levon shrugged. "I don't hide the bank statements. I guess I just thought...."

"You thought I'd go through your bank statements?" Joe looked and sounded hurt by that assumption.

"No!" Levon sat up, but kept his voice low. "I just mean... Hell, I don't know. I guess I just thought you knew."

He wondered just how he was going to talk his way out of this one. He had just assumed it. Maybe because centaurs simply were less private about everything than humans were. He'd grown up knowing all the details about his relatives' lives. Apparently he'd begun to think of Joe as one of those relatives.

Just as he thought it, he realized what he'd done. He quickly repeated the words to Joe.

Joe was quiet for a long moment after Levon finished speaking, then reached out and briefly clasped Levon's shoulder. "That means a lot to me, Levon. Thanks."

"That mean I'm not in trouble?" Levon tried not to grin just yet, and failed.

"You're off the hook," Joe replied, returning the grin. "This time."

Levon settled back down in the seat, enjoying Joe's smile again. He still wanted to kiss him. To distract himself this time, he turned and looked out of the window. A plane was pulled up at a gate. He felt an uneasy sensation in his stomach -- one he'd been ignoring all morning.

"You okay?" his partner asked, obviously having caught the anxiety as it passed over his expression.

He glanced back at his lover. "Yeah, I'm okay."

Joe didn't let it go so easily though. "Something's eating you," he persisted. "The kittens again?"

"No, not the kittens." Levon heard what he'd said and swore silently to himself. There went denying anything.

"Then what?"

With a sigh, Levon looked away from the airplane. "Have you flown a lot?"

"Some." Joe's eyes widened in sudden comprehension. "You haven't."

Levon couldn't stop the brief half-smile. "I've never flown. Never left south Texas before."

"You're nervous."

Levon nodded, slowly.

"But you're coming with me anyway," Joe observed more to himself than to Levon. Then he leaned over and nudged Levon with his shoulder affectionately. "Don't worry," he said. "Nothing's going to happen."

"I know... I mean I know it ain't anymore likely to crash as we are to get shot at."

Joe looked at him and snorted. "If that's what you're thinking no wonder you're worried. Considering how often we get shot at."

Levon laughed, but shook his head. "I meant -- I'm not worried about it. I just...."

"You're nervous," Joe repeated.

Levon nodded. "I don't like being off the ground."

A look of concern passed over Joe's face. "I'd forgotten about that."

"Yeah. You humans," Levon teased, though it didn't do much to alleviate his worry.

"You going to be okay?"

He shrugged, trying to look casual. "I reckon I'll live."

"Levon if you don't think you can handle it... there are other ways to get to Chicago. They'll just take longer, that's all."

Again he had to fight off the urge to embrace Joe. Levon sighed, and shook his head. "The flight ain't that long. I'll be ok... but I might need you to distract me now and again."

Joe smiled wickedly. "Aiming to join the mile high club on your first flight?"

"Can I?" Levon asked with his face in as near a perfect look of innocence as he could manage on such short notice.

Appearing to give it serious thought Joe said, "We'd have to use the bathroom. And they're small. Though probably a little bigger in first class. Thought you didn't like enclosed spaces."

"Like I said, you'd have to distract me."

Joe leaned in close. "My pleasure," he said in a low husky voice.

Levon was trying to remind himself that they were in public, and that human society didn't care much for seeing two men kissing each other. But that tone in his lover's voice made it very, very difficult. It also reminded him that he wore his jeans tight.

The call for first class passengers to board was a welcome distraction.

"That's us," Joe said, standing. "You ready for this?"

"I suppose." Levon was glad he had his new duster in his hands. He held it in front of himself as he followed Joe to the gate. He told himself that he had one last chance to get out of this if he wanted.

He looked at Joe, and realized that regardless of how else he might feel, he would go anywhere and do anything for this man. He smiled a little, and handed his ticket to the attendant.

Joe smiled back, blue eyes warm with love and followed Levon to their seats. The flight attendant smiled prettily at them, as they walked by. Levon took one look at the seat by the window, and stepped aside to let Joe take it. With a knowing look, Joe slid into it.

Levon tossed his coat into the overhead bin and sat down beside Joe. He told himself he wasn't nervous. He told himself that he could do this. He told himself Joe would make it worth his while.

He prayed silently. 'Zeus, if you're listening, please let me get through this without totally losing my mind.'

Joe did up his seatbelt and Levon followed suit. Then Joe's hand casually crept over and captured Levon's, giving it a comforting squeeze. Levon squeezed back. He thought about how Joe was going to take his mind off this when they arrived. The hotel would have nice, soft beds.

And probably several stories tall. Levon wished he had something hard to hit his head against.

Suffering through the emergency procedures lecture given by the flight attendants, Levon tried to concentrate more on Joe's hand in his than on the thought of the plane going down. He was letting himself think about the plane going -- or not going -- down because it distracted him from the fact that he wished it would. Go down and stay there, where it belonged. Where he belonged.

Maybe he should have asked Maggie for some tranquilizers.

Then the plane began to move and the engines roared louder and.... Yes, tranquilizers would have been a very good idea.

"You okay?" Joe asked rather inanely as Levon's grip on his hand turned white knuckled.

"No." He stared at the seat in front of him. It was blue. Looked like fake leather. Probably wasn't.

He took a deep breath. The plane barreled down the runway and left the ground. Joe's free hand reached over and caressed Levon's inner thigh in a very distracting manner. Levon whipped his head around to stare at Joe. Joe looked back at him innocently.

"You didn't."

"Didn't what?" Joe was still projecting puzzled innocence, even as his hand continued to run over Levon's thigh.

Levon closed his eyes. He did, he had, and he was. He wondered briefly when Joe had overcome his reluctance to have sex in front of other people and whether the other passengers would object too loudly.

Some of the fear-based tension eased, only to be replaced by a different sort of tension. "Better?" Joe asked.

"Huh?" Levon blinked and tried to clear his head. All he saw was his lover watching him, all he felt was the still-tingling sensation in his leg where'd Joe'd been touching him.

Joe grinned. "I'll take that as a yes."

"Yes what? Joe, what are you up to?" His head still wasn't clearing. His lover didn't answer, just grinned wider.

Levon groaned, as his brain finally switched back on. Leaning back against the seat he told himself this was going to be a long flight. Not only for being airborne, but because he'd brought along a lover with an evil sense of humor.

Then he half-smiled, and glanced over. "Thanks, Joe."

"Any time."


It was, as Levon had suspected, a long flight. It had been necessary for Joe to distract him several times -- not always by getting him turned on but that had worked the best. But he had survived, and he hadn't started ripping his lover's clothes off so he supposed the trip was a successful one.

As soon as they disembarked, he muttered, "You are gonna have to wear me out before we head for home. Maybe then I can sleep the flight down." A low chuckle and a brief caress to his back were the only reply. Levon stopped, and looked around them. O'Hare was only slightly larger than Houston's International airport, but by this time of day it was much busier.

"Where's Baggage?" he asked -- and as he did so he realized that Joe was home, for this first time in years. He looked over.

His lover was staring at his surroundings with the strangest expression on his face. Part disbelief, part wistfulness, part joy, part fear, he looked for all the world like a man who couldn't decide what he felt.

This time Levon reached out and took Joe's hand. Giving it a slight squeeze, he waited patiently as the crowd pushed past them.

Joe squeezed back and seemed to finally find his voice. "I never thought I'd be able to come back," he said softly.

"I'm happy for you, Joe," Levon whispered, wanting to take his lover in his arms but not knowing just how liberal Chicago was -- or if he'd be able to only hug him. Instead he watched his lover's face, and grinned. He looked exactly as he had as a child, staring in wonder at the rides at Six Flags. Levon chuckled, remembering.

Joe's eyes slid to his partner's face and he grinned ruefully. "I can't believe I'm getting this worked up about standing in an airport. Even if it is O'Hare."

"Don't take much, does it? Last time it was a Parachute Drop."

A moment of puzzlement and then memory came and Joe laughed. "It was a big drop," he said defensively. He slung an arm around Levon's shoulders and gave him a brief hug. "Come on. Baggage is this way."

With another laugh, Levon followed him. They spent the requisite several minutes waiting for the baggage to start arriving, then Levon let Joe push forward to claim their bags. The first two arrived fairly quickly and Levon stood with them while Joe waited for the third. After ten more minutes Joe walked over with the last bag. Levon grinned. "If you hadn't packed two we'd have been outta here already."

"Hey, I have a certain reputation to maintain in this town." He led the way towards the exit. "Besides," he added, almost an afterthought, "half the clothes in that last bag are for you to borrow."

Levon spent a minute trying to think of a suitable retort, then figured Joe knew he'd rather spend the trip naked in bed keeping warm, but that wasn't the reason they'd come. He wondered if this was how Joe had felt when they'd driven out to the herd the first time. "So. Where are we off to, first?" Levon looked around at the city. It was cold -- even with his new shin-length winter coat it was cold.

Joe didn't answer right away and when Levon looked back at him, he saw the same strange expression he had had on his face when they had first got off the plane. Gradually though the expression relaxed into one of happy contentment as Joe breathed deeply. When he noticed Levon staring at him, he just shrugged and said, "Chicago air," as if that explained everything.

And maybe it did.

"Is that what you call it?" Levon teased, breaking the spell only slightly. It wasn't that he minded Joe taking his time savoring the experience of being home -- but it was cold and he wanted to be indoors. He wasn't going to say so, not just yet. He wasn't going to rush Joe through any of this.

It was a few more minutes before Joe finished communing with the air or whatever it was he was doing. He then signaled one of the waiting taxis and led Levon over to it. They quickly stashed their bags in the trunk and climbed inside. Levon waited patiently for the cab's heater to hit him as Joe gave him the hotel's address.

The drive there was uneventful, with Joe and the cabbie debating the chances of the Blackhawks to make it to the Stanley Cup this year. Both sides seemed to swing from "possible" to "no way in hell" with very little warning.

Levon didn't try to follow the conversation; he'd figured out it concerned a hockey team, but only after the first ten minutes. He spent the trip alternating between staring out the window at something he thought he'd never see -- a city that wasn't Houston -- and watching Joe out of the corner of his eye.

Joe was in his element, practically giving off waves of happiness and contentment as he continued the argument with the cabbie. Hell, even his accent was growing more pronounced.

Levon grinned. It was about time he had proof his lover talked funny.

Before long they pulled up in front of a tall, brownstone building. Levon let Joe pay the cabbie -- not knowing if the tipping rate differed from home, he didn't want to insult the man. Then, standing on the sidewalk, he stared up at the hotel.

And up.

Before he could start to really worry about exactly how tall the building was Joe was back leading the way inside. Levon followed him silently, wondering if they could go find a restaurant or something, before heading up to their room. After five hours of being at 20,000 feet above the ground... Levon stumbled slightly, and caught himself before Joe could notice.

Joe was talking to the clerk now, signing them in and getting their room keys. Then he turned back to Levon and grinned. Levon was instantly suspicious. He knew that grin.

He frowned. "What?" He stood still, knowing he wasn't going anywhere until he knew exactly what Joe was up to. Or at least had a healthy idea, if it involved living up to some of the promises Joe had made on the flight.

"Come on cowboy. Room's ready," Joe said instead of answering and started across the lobby.

Levon followed without a word. Okay, so he'd told himself he wasn't going anywhere but it wasn't like... well, if he wasn't going to refuse Joe in the privacy of their own home why would he start in a hotel lobby in Chicago?

To his surprise Joe didn't head for the elevators. Instead he turned down a corridor to the left, past a gift shop and restaurant to... rooms. Joe was stopping in front of one of the doors and inserting the key. Levon blinked. A ground floor room? He blinked again, and made no move to join Joe when the door opened and his lover turned.

Then, very slowly, he smiled.

Joe returned the smile, eyes full of affection. "You didn't think I was going to make you sleep on the 20th floor or something, did you?"

Levon moved forward then, stopping in the doorway. Leaning against Joe he gave him a quick kiss. "Have I mentioned today that I love you?"

"Not since this morning," Joe replied wrapping his arms around Levon's waist and pulling him even closer. "Have I mentioned today the feeling is mutual?"

Levon kissed him again, and pushed them both through the doorway. As it swung closed behind them, he dropped his suitcase and brought his hands to hold Joe's face. Levon kissed him hard, and long. It had been a long flight.

Never releasing the kiss, Joe walked him backwards until Levon's legs ran into the bed. Then in one smooth movement, Joe pushed him down, covering his lover's body with his own, hands going up to hold onto the sides of Levon's face as they continued kissing. Levon arched his hips upwards, then stopped and reached into Joe's pocket.

That made Joe break off the kiss. "What?" he asked rather breathlessly.

He fished around and finally dug out a large ring of keys. Tossing them aside, Levon pulled Joe back down on top of him. Joe chuckled and went back to nibbling on Levon's throat. Levon, for his part, held Joe tightly against him -- now that he could without hurting himself. Grinding his hips against Joe's, he felt the tension of the last several hours spinning away. He reached for Joe's zipper, and tried to give it a one-handed tug. There wasn't much room, but he wasn't moving away to give himself more.

Another pair of hands joined his in the small space and started to fumble with his zipper. For a few seconds they seemed to be working at cross purposes but eventually both zippers had been conquered and a hand reached in and caressed him even as his own hand was reaching for Joe's erection. They quickly had each other moaning, rubbing in nearly identical rhythms. Levon kissed his lover again, pulling him close, and felt the shuddering response. He moved his hand a little faster. Joe reciprocated, adding the occasional gentle squeeze that always caused Levon to gasp and thrust even harder into Joe's hand.

Then he stopped thinking about what he was doing to Joe... and stopped thinking about what Joe was doing to him as his body released itself into Joe's embrace. He hung on as tightly as he could as he bucked against his lover. Joe buried his face in the side of Levon's neck, thrusting back just as hard. With a muffled cry, he came, every muscle trembling as he rode out his climax.

For several long minutes Levon lay there, Joe's body covering him. He was a welcome weight, holding him close and reminding him just why it was he'd stepped onto an airplane. He brushed his hand down Joe's back, and hoped they could stay as they were.

Though he wouldn't mind getting undressed and cleaned up.

Joe finally stirred, pushing himself up on his elbows and looking down into Levon's eyes. He smiled. "Hi," he said softly.

Levon returned the smile. "Hi yourself." He made no effort to ease Joe off him, and tightened his hold when Joe tried to move.

Joe gave in willingly enough, cuddling close once again with a contented sigh. But after a few more moments of peaceful silence he pointed out, "Aunt Teresa is expecting us for supper."

"Reckon we oughta change before we go?" Levon kissed Joe lightly on the lips, then again on the cheek.

"I think it might be a good idea, yeah." He sighed contentedly again and nuzzled the side of Levon's neck.

Levon ran his hands up Joe's back, wriggling as Joe touched his neck again. "Mmmmmmm."

Joe pulled away reluctantly after another moment. "Later," he promised, dropping a quick kiss on Levon's lips.

Levon let him go this time. He stayed where he was on the bed, watching as Joe stood up and tried to rearrange himself. He gave up after a few minutes and instead stripped unselfconsciously. Naked, he walked over to where they had left the suitcases, opened one up and rummaged around for a clean outfit. He glanced over his shoulder, feeling Levon's eyes still on him. "Enjoying the view?" he asked with a wicked grin.

"All the time. Figured turn about's fair play, though. Given all the times you've stared at me."

Levon stood up, and began stripping as well. His shirt was sticky -- a sudden thought made him look down. He sighed in relief -- his coat was still clean.

Joe caught the gesture and chuckled. "Next time, it might be a good idea to strip before we get started."

"At least the outer layers," Levon agreed. He left his clothes lying in a pile, duster carefully set aside on a chair. Naked, he started forward and caught sight of Joe, still naked himself. He moved forward quickly and pressed himself against his lover.

Joe leaned into Levon for a moment before pulling away. "Later," he promised.

"I know." He smiled. "I just wanted to feel you one more time."

That earned him a long look, a tight embrace and another kiss.

"I thought we had to be somewhere?" Levon asked when Joe pulled away.

That earned him a pinch. "Put some clothes on," Joe ordered as he did the same.

"Yes, sir." Levon grinned and accepted the long johns that were thrown at him.

It didn't take them long to get dressed, in spite of the fact they each kept glancing over to watch the other. When they were ready, Joe made a quick call to his Aunt to tell her they were on their way, then led the way back to the street where he hailed another cab.

Levon had his hands jammed in his pockets. The extra clothes Joe had lent him helped, but he couldn't help shivering. When Joe smiled at him, though, and started telling him all about the people he'd be meeting, he began to feel warm.

"Don't know for certain who is going to be at the dinner tonight but Aunt Teresa and Uncle Mikey will be there for sure. Try to let the Wise Guy thing slide okay? We don't mention it at family get-togethers. My cousins Vinnie and Tony may be there -- and probably my grandmother." Joe grinned. "You'll like her."

"I probably shouldn't mention the centaur thing either, huh?" Levon winked.

Joe laughed. "Actually you probably could tell my grandmother. Knowing her she'd just ask you not to get hoof marks on her floors and continue with the conversation."

After a moment he asked, "Reckon we won't be telling them about anything else? About why we're in a hotel?"

Instantly Joe's smile faded and he looked down as he shook his head. "I'm sorry Levon," he said softly. "I just... they wouldn't understand."

"I know." He reached over and took Joe's hand. "I don't mind. Really -- I'm just glad you brought me."

"Was there ever any other choice?" Joe replied, squeezing Levon's hand and looking at him with eyes full of affection.

"No." Levon gave him a confident grin.

As they got closer to their destination, Joe started pointing out places he used to frequent either from his years as a Chicago cop or from his childhood. Levon sat back and listened happily as Joe told story after story of his past. He made mental notes to ask for further details of some of those stories from any of Joe's relatives who seemed willing. He had to make up for those stories Joe had heard from Marta. Probably the grandmother Joe had mentioned would be the best to ask.

Soon, though, they pulled up in front of a large house. Joe suddenly seemed nervous. "This is it."

"Yeah. Hope you told me everybody's name. I'd hate to have to start calling them all 'Rufus'," Levon said with a straight face.

"I'd just explain it was typical Texan brain damage and they'd all feel sorry for me," Joe replied with an equally straight face, but he did relax slightly. Giving one last squeeze to Levon's hand he said, "Come on."

"Well, I couldn't just call them all 'Joe', could I?" he asked, reasonably. They got out of the cab and Joe led them up the front walk. Levon noticed the air still smelled -- like 'Chicago' no doubt. He wondered if it explained anything about his partner.

They reached the front door and before Joe could even raise his hand to knock, it was thrown open and a middle aged woman pulled Joe into a warm hug, babbling at him in Italian. Levon grinned. This was going to be a hell of a lot of fun. Glad for his near-perfect memory, he was going to enjoy asking for elucidation for every little thing tonight -- starting with what that last phrase meant that made Joe's ears turn pink.

Joe smiled, answered in the same language and then turned to Levon. "Aunt Teresa, this is my partner Levon Lundy. Levon this is my Aunt Teresa."

"Nice to meet you, ma'am." He held out a hand.

Teresa smiled as she shook it. "Likewise Levon. Joey's told us a lot about you over the years. I know he thinks very highly of you."

"Thank you." He'd had to swallow a dozen teasing remarks that had jumped to mind. No point in making Joe want to strange him, just yet, though. Besides Adele'd have his hide if he weren't polite. Nevermind that Adele was dead. She'd come back just to pin his ears.

"Look at me, keeping you standing out in the cold. Come in, come in." Teresa ushered them into the entranceway and closed the door behind them. "Dinner is almost ready. Mike and the boys are in the study doing whatever it is men do when women aren't around. Joey you know the way. I've got to get back to my cooking."

"Yes, Aunt Teresa," Joe replied dutifully, then reached out and hugged her one more time before letting her go off.

Levon followed Joe inside. First they stopped in the front hallway, where they shed their coats. Levon ignored the pointed look that told him he ought to hang his hat up.

Just as Joe ignored his protest when he snatched it right off Levon's head and hung it up himself.

"Boy, you got a problem?" He almost sounded irritated.

"My Aunt Teresa has a rule," Joe replied calmly. "No hats in the house. You want to argue with her?"

He sighed. "Rule like that don't seem right." But he made no more protest, figuring that Yankees were going to be an odd bunch, and he'd probably better get used to it.

Joe just shrugged. "You can tell her that if you want. I won't." He proceeded to lead Levon deeper into the house.

"You'd let me, too, wouldn't you? Just to see if I'd really get myself into trouble?" Levon followed Joe -- reflecting that he was probably going to be spending a lot of time either following his lover, or hanging off to the side waiting for him.

He could hear several voices ahead, and knew he was about to meet some people he had never cared for, even when he hadn't known them. He reminded himself of Adele's lessons in manners -- and especially the way the switches had stung.

They reached the door of the study and Joe hesitated for a moment, his hand on the knob. Levon raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything. He reached out, and in a repeat of Joe's own gesture, placed his hand briefly on his lover's back. It didn't matter who these people were. They were Joe's family and that was all that mattered. He felt Joe's tension ease a little under his hand and he returned the smile that Joe sent his way.

Joe opened the door and walked in, interrupting the conversation. "I've been gone five years and you're still having the same argument?"

Levon stayed back and watched the reactions. The room was full of men of all ages -- and each of them was on his feet instantly, yelling things in what Levon hoped was Italian because it certainly didn't make sense. They seem to be taking turns grabbing onto Joe and slapping his back, hugging him, and throwing greetings at him. Levon grinned. Joe was clearly delighted to be in the midst of the chaos.

It was a few minutes before things had settled down enough that Levon was even noticed. One of the men gathered around Joe looked up and caught sight of him, and his expression changed instantly from welcome to guarded suspicion. "Who's that?"

Joe looked up and met his lover's eyes with a happy smile. "That, Vinnie, is my partner, Levon Lundy. I've had to listen to him go on and on about Houston for years so I figured it was about time I showed him the error of his ways."

Levon gave the man a shortened nod as he stepped forward. Vinnie's suspicious look didn't go anywhere, but the older man behind him smiled. He stepped forward, through the small crowd, and held out a hand.

"It's nice to finally meet you, Levon. I'm Michael LaFiamma."

Levon was suddenly very glad that Adele had been so stubborn in teaching him to behave. He took the man's hand and shook it. "Nice to meet you, sir."

The man standing over to their left came forward with a similar friendly smile. "I'm Tony." Levon shook his hand, finding himself more pleased to make this man's acquaintance. That left Vinnie, who was still frowning, but managed to mutter his name though he didn't offer a hand; and a fourth man, who looked to be Mikey's age. He came forward when the others had finished and introduced himself shortly and simply, as Lou.

Joe shot Vinnie an irritated glare but otherwise ignored the lack of hospitality. Levon noticed that Tony was also giving Vinnie annoyed glances before turning back to the new arrivals. "So did you run into Angela yet?" he asked.

Joe shook his head. "Nah, Aunt Teresa shooed us down here as soon as we came in. How old is she now? Eight?"

"As you well know, considering you sent her that expensive paint set for her birthday last month," Tony shot back.

"That's what she asked for," Joe replied with a shrug. "Said she'd be a world famous artist some day if she got them. I didn't want to be the one to stand in the way of that."

Levon enjoying watching Joe interacting with his cousin. He knew, from the few stories his lover had told him, that he and Tony had always gotten along. It was pretty easy to see why.

"Artist or a con artist," Tony said with a fond smile. "She certainly has you wrapped around her finger. And over long distance as well. She's looking forward to seeing you again."

Joe smiled back. "So am I. She was what-? Two and a half? Three? the last time I saw her." His expression grew a bit wistful.

Levon had no trouble noticing the expression and he felt momentarily regretful. True, they'd had this argument already and come to the only realistic conclusion -- but apparently that wasn't going to stop Joe's feeling about kids of his own. At least now, though, he could be an uncle again.

"And you haven't seen Anthony Jr. at all." Tony reached out and grasped Joe's shoulder in a friendly gesture. "We'll fix that now though. Glad to have you back, cuz."

Joe grinned and ducked his head to hide the pleased flush that was suddenly gracing his cheeks. "Glad to be back," he said softly. Then added, in a playful tone, "Somebody's gotta keep you bums in line."

Vinnie snorted. "Yeah right. We weren't the ones who had to run for our lives."

Levon decided that he really didn't like this man. He was pleased to see that Tony turned on his brother even more quickly than Joe did.

"That's because no one would waste the price of bullets on you," Tony all but snarled at the older man.

Vinnie returned the snarl, but not the remark as their father slapped them down. "That's enough you two. Joe, it's good to have you home." He smiled. "Why don't you go find the kids; I know Angie has been waiting rather anxiously to see you."

Eyeing his two cousins who were still glaring at each other, Joe nodded. "I'll do that. Thanks Uncle Mikey. It's good to be home." 'In spite of certain people,' his expression seemed to add.

Tony had the decency to look abashed. "Joey..."

Joe's expression softened and he squeezed his cousin's arm as he went by. "We'll talk later Tony. Levon and me will be here for two weeks so we'll have plenty of time to catch up."

Tony nodded, then offered, "I think Angie's upstairs. Why don't we go find them?"

Storm abated, the three of them left the study. Levon trailed behind the other two, eyeing the pictures and other knickknacks decorating the place. The home was filled with such items -- it spoke of a large, close family, which never let go of anything.

"I see Vinnie hasn't changed much," Joe commented idly as they walked through the halls.

Tony laughed. "Did you really expect him to?" he asked.

They crossed what looked to Levon like a sitting room and headed for a flight of stairs. Again, the room was packed -- furniture, photos, lamps, memorabilia and who knew what else. It was a vivid contrast to the ranch house the herd kept. That house was spartan, decorated with mostly handcrafted items and thick, heavy, simple furniture. The rooms were large and mostly empty -- but, Levon realized, these rooms weren't designed to allow for the occasional four-footed inhabitant walking through them. One glance at this room, and he knew if he were changed in here he'd knock over and destroy at least half of its contents.

With a grin to himself, he headed up the stairs after Joe and Tony.

As they reached the top, Tony turned to him and grinned. "So Levon, how long was it after meeting my cousin that you first wanted to kill him? And don't tell me you never have -- I won't believe you."

"Kill him?" Levon said, in a serious tone. "I don't reckon I wanted to kill him until at least the second day. Coulda done with shooting him two minutes after I met him." He gave Joe a grin -- they both knew exactly what he'd wanted to do the moment he'd laid eyes on the newly arrived cop.

"Well considering you had just called my name over the loudspeaker at the airport when there was a hit out on me, I think I had a reason to be a little surly," Joe retorted in kind, his eyes glittering with mischief. This was an old familiar argument that hadn't held any real heat for years.

"He did what?" Tony's eyes slide from Joe to Levon and back again.

"All I was told," Levon began, in the same argumentative tone he used to tease Joe with, "was to go pick you up at the airport. No one told me a flight number or arrival gate and nobody told me about any hit."

"Considering there was only one flight coming in from Chicago at the time, you should've been able to figure that much out, cowboy." He turned to Tony. "Gotta tell you cuz, had to work on his observation skills. He's the best partner I could ask for now but it took a hell of a lot of work breaking him in."

Levon just raised an eyebrow. "There were three flights in from Chicago that day."

"With that arrival time? Which you had been given."

Levon just shook his head. He could tell Tony was enjoying this nearly as much as they were. He continued, "And the fact that I didn't know what you looked like? I shoulda just asked each guy walking off the plane if he was Joe LaFiamma?"

"You knew wha-" Abruptly Joe broke off and glanced at his cousin.

Tony just smiled and said, "Continue."

"Nah, you're getting too much enjoyment out of it," Joe replied.

Tony didn't deny it. "Can you blame me? I tell you, Levon, I never thought I'd see Joey here meet his match in stubbornness. Until now."

"Stubborn?" Levon gave him a surprised look. "I ain't stubborn. Joe just keeps forgetting that I'm never wrong."

Joe shook his head sadly. "Suffers from delusions." He leaned in conspiratorially towards Tony but spoke loud enough for Levon to hear. "Was kicked in the head by a horse as a child."

"Wasn't a horse," was Levon's reply.

Luckily they were interrupted at this point by loud, excited voices. "Daddy! Daddy!" Two bullets of brightly colored, high-velocity creatures zoomed in on Tony and attached themselves.

Tony laughed and bent down to pick up the smaller of the two children, a wide eyed little boy who looked to be about two or three. Both children were now staring at the newcomers. Joe was staring right back. Finally he cleared his throat. "Hi Angie," he said to the little girl who was pressed up against Tony's side. "Do you remember me?"

Angie's expression brightened the second she heard his voice. "Uncle Joey!" she cried and threw herself at him with all the abandon and trust of a child. Laughing, Joey caught her and hugged her tight, a wide smile on his face.

The look on his lover's face made the long, horrible flight worthwhile. Levon found himself smiling, looking forward to making many more of those flights in the future. He was glad he hadn't been kidding when he'd said he could afford to fly them up here every weekend. Once a month was beginning to look realistic.

Joe pulled back and made a show of looking Angie over. "You've grown!" he told her with exaggerated surprise.

She giggled. "'Course I have! All kids do, Uncle Joey," she informed him knowledgeably.

He ruffled her hair. "Looks good on you kiddo."

Levon found himself suddenly looking into wide, serious brown eyes. He smiled at the young boy sitting in the safety of his father's arms. Without speaking, the boy held out his hands, indicating he wanted to be taken and held.

With a laugh, Levon did so. "Ain't shy around strangers, is he?" Levon asked Tony.

"I don't think the LaFiamma's have a gene for shyness," Tony admitted.

"That's Anthony," Angie informed them. She looked up at Levon. "Who are you?"

"This is my par-... friend Levon," Joe told her.

She brightened. Curling a finger she beckoned for Joe to lean over so she could whisper to him. He did so, then smiled and said, "Yes, that's the cowboy I was telling you about."

"You been telling tales about me again?" Levon asked, enjoying the way Angie smiled at him. Tony, for his part, was inspecting the buttons of his shirt and apparently content to ignore the conversation.

Levon figured it was normal -- as much experience as he had with kids, they were mostly centaur kids and they started talking at only a few weeks.

"So you have a horse and everything?" Angie asked him.

"Howse," Anthony repeated clearly, looking around as if expecting one to appear.

"Yeah, I've a horse. Her name's Fooler -- been trying to teach Joe how to ride her."

"You think, if I ever visited, I could ride her?" Angie turned pleading eyes on him.

Joe laughed softly.

"I don't see why not. She's a gentle mount." Levon glanced at Tony, making sure her father wasn't rolling his eyes and making 'please don't promise her anything' motions.

Tony, Jr. kicked his heels against Levon's sides and cried, "Howse!"

Angie giggled at her brother. "Levon's not a horse silly!" she told him.

Joe snorted with amusement and met Levon's amused gaze. "You wouldn't think so, would you Angie."

Tony, Jr. glanced over at his sister, and said again stubbornly, "Howse."

Levon shrugged one shoulder at Joe. "Guess we'll have to bring them to Houston sometime and show him what a horse looks like."

"Guess so," Joe replied, not quite hiding a smile.

Tony shook his head. "You two don't know what you're letting yourselves in for."

Just then a yell of "Dinner" from downstairs interrupted them. The kids seemed to teleport out of the adults' arms and out of the room. Tony shouted after them, "No running in the house!"

Joe laughed. "You sound like Uncle Mikey when we were kids."

Tony sighed. "Well, there was no running in the house back then, either."

"Never did understand that rule, myself," Levon commented.

"Then I'll tell you what cowboy," Joe began, "if the kids break anything because they're running you can be the one to deal with the aftermath." He started towards the stairs. "Come on. I'm starving."

As Tony moved ahead of them, Levon leaned closer and whispered, "Must be a human thing. We never had that rule." He laughed, and moved past Joe to follow Tony downstairs.

Tony led them down the stairs and through the hall to the dining room. The room had a long table, which was packed with food and people sitting around it. This, for the first time since he'd arrived, reminded him of home. Everyone was in everyone else's way, talking and trying to arrange chairs and count heads, as well as help move all the dishes out to the table.

There was a pause in the activity when Joe entered the room and those who hadn't already had a chance to greet him came up to him and did so now. Levon caught some names, like Tony's wife Maria but there were enough that he missed most of them. He figured, if worst came to worst he could ask Joe later.

Teresa appeared at his side, and took his arm. "You're sitting over here, Levon, next to me. I want to hear all about how Joe's doing in Texas -- I know he isn't telling me everything."

Levon let the woman guide him to a spot near the head of the table, opposite where Joe was still surrounded. "Don't know I could tell you anymore than he has -- lessen it's something neither of us would want you to know." He gave her a wink.

Teresa responded with an easy smile. "Well, at the least I can hear about the things he has told us from your point of view."

The commotion around Joe was settling down now as an old woman entered the room, leaning heavily on a cane. Joe caught sight of her and immediately went over to help her. The rest of the family fell silent. Joe offered her his arm. She looked up at him with humor in her eyes. "So formal Joseph?" she asked him in a heavily accented voice. "Not even a hug for your old grandmother?"

"Of course Grandma," he said, his eyes suspiciously bright as he embraced her.

Levon stared at the woman Joe was hugging. She was obviously the matriarch of the family, and not only because of the way everyone in the room treated her. There was something else about her that made Levon want to treat her as he had Adele. Or -- he realized, as he caught scent of something totally unexpected -- as he would Taylor.

She smiled at Joe as they pulled apart. "You've been gone too long," she told him, reaching up and ruffling his hair as if he was still a boy. "It is good to have you home."

Joe's smile lit up his whole face. "It's good to be home."

Maybe twice a month, Levon amended. He responded to Teresa's prods, and moved through the throng towards his partner. Both Joe and his grandmother looked up as he approached. "Grandma, this is my partner Levon Lundy," Joe introduced him. "Levon this is my Grandmother, Rosa Dafallco."

"Pleased to meet you, ma'am." Levon took her hand, and the scent hit him even stronger. He knew it -- but wasn't sure he believed it.

"Likewise, young man." She looked at him piercingly for a long moment before a secretive smile graced her lips. "We're going to have to have a long chat at some point before you leave."

"I'll look forward to it." Levon managed to keep his face mostly straight, and decided to ignore Joe's look of inquiry.

With the introductions apparently over, dinner was declared ready to begin. Everyone settled into their places, and after a moment, Rosa asked Tony to say grace. He did so, with everyone remaining respectfully silent throughout. It was only after the "Amens" were said and people started reaching for the food that the conversations started up again.

Levon found himself immediately set upon by Teresa, asking for details about his partner. He tried not to say anything he knew would worry Teresa, nor anything which would get him in trouble when Joe found out he'd told her. She didn't let him get away with telling her the barest details, however -- and she gave him a steely look every time he tried skipping over something.

Fortunately dinner didn't last more than a couple hours, so he was able to stick to only stories which didn't involve either of them being seriously wounded, threatened, or dealing with friends who had been. He reflected on the last few years and realized there was a lot more violence than not.

Once Rosa declared the end of dinner, the younger kids scampered off and the older ones began clearing the table. When Levon had taken Joe home to meet the herd, this had been when Taylor had grilled his lover. And judging from the looks Rosa was shooting him, he was about to undergo a similar experience. He resigned himself cheerfully, and headed over to her.

"So are you ready for that chat now, young man?" she asked him.

"Absolutely, Rosa." It occurred to him, too late, that he might have been expected to call her "Mrs. Dafallco" until told otherwise. But from her dimpled smile, he knew she didn't mind the informality.

"We can talk in my room," she said, getting to her feet. Looking around she caught Joe with her gaze. "You too, Joseph."

"Yes, Grandma," Joe replied immediately, hurrying over join them.

She took them each by an arm and let them escort her out of the dining room. In the hallway she let go of Joe's arm and he trailed them to the rear of the house. Rosa's room turned out to be a cheerful place, much less cluttered than the rest of the house. In fact Levon couldn't help but notice that it would not have looked out of place in the house he grew up in. His suspicions grew.

Rosa went to a soft, comfortable chair near a large picture window. Joe sat on the edge of the bed, leaving the second chair for Levon. He took it, and waited patiently. A glance at Joe told him his partner intended to do the same. Fair enough -- this was Rosa's show and she should call the shots.

"So, tell me," she began, looking back and forth between them. "How long have you two been lovers?"

Levon didn't blink. "A year and a half." He heard Joe choke.

Rosa nodded sagely. "I had thought as much."

Levon didn't try to hide his surprise. He could have sworn he was being subtle. He hadn't touched Joe since they walked into the house, anyway. If he was surprised Joe was flabbergasted. He gaped at his grandmother, mouth opening and closing several times before he managed to make any sound. "How...?" he finally managed.

The old woman just smiled. "There is a connection between the two of you that is there for those who would see it."

"Oh. For a minute there I thought I'd said something I shouldn't have." Levon gave her a smile and continued ignoring his partner, who was apparently doing his best to disbelieve the conversation. Either that or dinner hadn't agreed with him.

"No, you did not 'blow your cover' I believe the phrase is?" Rosa gave him a mysterious little smile. "I'm sure you're quite adept at keeping secrets."

For a very short second Levon stared at her. Then he relaxed, deciding that if she wanted to tell him what she wasn't saying -- then she would. Otherwise....

He gave Joe a pleased grin. "Joe, how come you haven't told me about your grandmother before now?" He suspected the question might get his lover in trouble. He continued to grin.

"You never asked," Joe replied, visibly starting to shake off his shock.

"I did so!" Levon gave him an affronted look. "I asked you once if your grandmother didn't ever teach you any manners--"

Rosa laughed at that. "I tried Levon. Though I'm not sure how well I succeeded." She smiled fondly at her grandson. "But even if he's a little rough around the edges, Joey is a good boy. Always has been."

"Grandma...." Joe protested, ducking his head in an attempt to hide his embarrassment at her words.

Levon loved the way Joe looked as he blushed faintly, grinning that little boy's grin. He watched his lover for a moment, then tried to rein himself in before he let everyone know just how much he loved his partner.

"I reckon you did a good job with him, Rosa."

"I did my best," Rosa answered, turning her smile on Levon. "And from what I've seen -- and what Joe has said -- and hasn't said -- in his letters to me, someone did a good job with you as well."

"Lot of someones... but thanks. Adele'd be glad to know her efforts weren't for nothing."

Rosa nodded as if his words had confirmed something. "Welcome to the family, Levon."

Joe still looked as if he was waiting for the ax to drop. "You're... not upset?"

"Should I be?" Rosa asked him.

"We weren't expecting anyone to accept this -- weren't planning on anyone finding out," Levon explained. "But I appreciate the welcome, Rosa. I really do."

"I'd be a fool not to welcome you." She turned her head to look at Joe as she spoke. "All I've ever wanted was my grandson to be happy. And it's clear that he is."

"I think some of that has to do with being home again," Levon said quietly, but he had to agree. Joe looked happy. For a long, long time down in Houston he hadn't been.

Joe looked up then and caught his gaze. "Not all though, cowboy," he said softly. "Not even mostly."

We'll definitely have to watch ourselves, otherwise the whole family will know how we feel! Levon laughed at himself -- and Joe. Then again, watching each other is what's gonna get us into trouble! Rosa let them stare at each other for a moment before she spoke again. "You'll forgive me while I do my grandmotherly duty here and ask what your intentions towards my grandson are."

Levon's eyes went wide. Her tone was just like Taylor's. He considered his answer for just a moment, then replied, "I intend to make him happy -- keep makin' him happy. Make him scream, once in a while."

"Lundy!" Joe protested, as he turned red.

"What?"

"That's my grandmother!"

"Yeah? You don't reckon she's never had sex, do you?" He turned to Rosa, and found her smiling delightedly. Joe looked even more mortified. "It's alright Joey," Rosa assured her grandson. "It would take more than that to offend me."

Levon offered his lover a tentative smile. "Am I gonna be sleeping on the second bed tonight?"

"You'd be sleeping in the barn if we were at home," Joe shot back.

"And where would you be?" Levon shot back.

Joe hesitated before answering. "Out in the barn too. But that isn't the point."

"Then what is?" Levon saw that they were still entertaining Rosa -- and it was a good thing, too. Wasn't likely they'd have behaved any other way had they been alone.

Joe opened his mouth to answer, then closed it without saying anything. "You're embarrassing me!" he finally managed.

"Oh." Levon blinked, and subsided. After a moment he said, "Didn't mean to."

Rosa stepped in then. "It is my fault. He was just answering my question after all. And giving me the answer I wanted to hear as well. You should not feel embarrassed over the truth Joseph. What Levon said was the truth was it not?"

Joe let out a sigh and nodded, still a bit red. "Yeah."

Levon looked from Rosa, then to Joe, then back to Rosa. Apparently playing them off each other was working a little too well.

Not that he was going to admit to anything. He let out a relieved sigh, and shifted slightly in his seat. He was glad it was comfortable, because he was beginning to get tired. Only yesterday since he'd been allowed to change back into this form, and here he was, halfway across the country surrounded by Joe's relatives. No wonder it felt like it had been a long day. It had been.

Something in his posture must've alerted Joe because suddenly his eyes were alight with concern and he was leaning towards Levon, everything else forgotten. "You okay?"

"I'm fine," Levon began. Maybe it wasn't such a good thing the chair was so comfortable. He suddenly felt more tired.

Joe didn't seem to be taking his word for it. His hands skimmed over Levon's chest, stopping on top of the mostly healed scar, his eyes never leaving Levon's face. Levon closed his eyes briefly, then looked at Joe -- or tried. He got his eyes halfway open then they closed again, of their own volition. "I'm just tired," he muttered as he felt his lover's hands on his sides.

"Is something wrong?" he heard Rosa ask, her voice seeming to come from a great distance.

"I don't-- He was injured recently, is still recovering. Dammit, I knew we should've waited to come up here." Joe's voice was angry but underneath it Levon could clearly hear the fear.

"Joe, I'm just tired," Levon said more forcefully, as he opened his eyes. He'd stayed awake on stakeouts often enough to be able to force himself to stay alert and pretend he wouldn't rather be asleep. "I would like to go back to the hotel, though," he added softly, hoping that if he admitted to being that tired, it would convince Joe there wasn't more to it, because there really wasn't.

"Sure cowboy," Joe replied, bodily hauling Levon to his feet... and into his arms for a quick hug. Levon sighed and for a brief moment allowed himself to just lean his head against Joe's shoulder and enjoy the embrace. When he realized he was in danger of falling asleep on his feet -- literally, as it was a skill carried over from one form to the other -- he stepped away. "Maybe you'd better tell your Aunt Teresa while I call for a cab?"

"Yeah." Joe released him, albeit reluctantly, and went to his grandmother, leaning over and giving her a quick hug and a kiss on her cheek. He whispered something to her that made her smile, but his voice was too low for Levon to make out. Then with a "Meet you at the front door," Joe was out of the room and down the stairs in search of their hostess to explain their leaving.

Levon turned to Rosa. "I'm sorry, Rosa. Maybe we could talk again tomorrow?"

She smiled at him. "Whenever you would like Levon. Go on, boy, before you fall asleep where you stand."

"If it were up to me, we'd come see you everyday, Rosa." He gave her a wink. "Might even take you home with us."

He let her chase him out of her room, then, and then stood by as Tony, at Rosa's direction, called a cab to come pick them up. It took a few minutes for the cab to get there -- and for Joe to extricate himself from his family. It seemed now that they had him back they didn't want him to go. Even for the night.

Levon waited patiently in the foyer as yet one more relative came forward to grasp Joe's hand and get reassurance that tomorrow there were plans for more reunion. Levon didn't try to make sense of it all -- it didn't seem possible that they'd be able to do everything Joe's family seemed to have planned. He leaned against the wall as Angie squeezed forward and grabbed her uncle's hand. Levon closed his eyes for a second.

He woke up when he heard Joe say his name softly.

"Cab's here," he said, smiling fondly at Levon, though his eyes were still worried. "Come on."

Levon gave him a drowsy smile. Like he wouldn't have followed Joe anywhere, especially when he sounded like that? He made it down the steps and out to the taxi before he remembered he'd left his hat in the house. "Joe, I gotta get--" He stopped, as Joe reached over and put his hat on his head. "Oh. Thanks."

"You're welcome. Now get in the cab."

Levon didn't argue. He slid across the seat and settled himself near the door. He heard Teresa calling out to Joe one more time, and the next thing he knew Joe was shaking him awake and they were parked in front of the hotel.

"Think you can make it inside under your own power?" Joe asked as he watched Levon struggle upright out of the cab.

"Sure." Levon blinked. "Just get me pointed in the right direction."

Joe did more than that; he slipped an arm around Levon's waist and guided him towards the hotel doors.

"Don't have to carry me," Levon mumbled. "I won't fall over." But he didn't pull away from Joe. It was nice, almost like being held.

Fortunately their room was close by, and it wasn't long before Joe had them inside, and Levon was standing beside the bed. He flipped his hat aside, watching to make sure it landed crown side down, and then let himself fall onto the bed.

"Need help with your clothes?" Joe asked, both humor and concern in his tone as he sat on the edge of the bed beside him.

"Sure. Do what you want with 'em." Levon didn't move. Now that he was lying down it was harder to pretend he wasn't exhausted. He smiled as he snuggled into the pillow. It felt wonderful to be lying down.

He felt his boots being tugged off, then hands skimming lightly up his body and down his arms, grabbing onto his own hands and bodily hauling him up into a sitting position. "Need to get that sweater off," Joe's voice whispered in explanation and apology all in one, and then suited actions to words, pulling the sweater and shirt under it over Levon's head.

During all of it, Levon didn't try to help. He just lay on the bed, unable to stop himself from smiling widely. It felt nice to be cosseted for a change without being in any pain. When Joe had him stripped down to his underwear, he rolled him under the covers, then sat for a long moment just staring down at him. "What are you grinning at?"

"Nothing. Feels good... You coming?" he asked, when Joe made no immediate move to join him.

Joe shook his head. "Was gonna take a shower first." He started to stand up then paused. "Unless you want me to stay?"

"Nah. You could probably use a shower." Levon curled up a little, grabbing onto a corner of the blanket.

"You sure?" He reached out a hand and caressed Levon's cheek.

"Mm-hmm..." Levon felt the bed dip, but hadn't figured out whether it was from Joe moving closer, or leaving, before he fell asleep again.

When he next awoke the sun was streaming in between the curtains and Joe was curled up around him, fast asleep. With a grin, he leaned in and gave his lover a kiss on the nose. Then he lay still and watched as Joe slowly woke up. "Welcome to Chicago, boy," Levon said, when his lover finally opened his eyes.

He watched the events of the past couple of days come rushing back to Joe, watched his eyes practically sparkle with the excitement of being home, watched as that boyish grin he so loved appeared. "Isn't that supposed to be my line?" Joe asked, fingers threading through Levon's blond locks.

"Yeah... just wanted to see your face light up." Levon kissed him again.

Joe responded wholeheartedly, then pulled back examining Levon's face closely. "How are you feeling?"

"Good as new," Levon responded through another kiss. He wriggled closer to his partner, and was pleased to find him naked. He grinned.

It was an hour later than they had originally planned, before they left the hotel. Tony had invited them over to spend the day; Joe wanted to swing by although he'd told Levon he wanted to spend most of this day re-visiting his old haunts. While Levon was in the shower Joe had snuck out for a few minutes and arranged to rent a car; he told Levon about it over breakfast in the hotel's dining room, as well as laying out his plans for their day.

Levon enjoyed hearing how every minute of their visit seemed to be fully planned. He still wasn't sure there was enough time in one day to do everything Joe was describing, but he was looking forward to seeing as much of it as they could. Especially since the day was starting out to look almost sunny; he'd caught a weather forecast in the morning paper, and saw with trepidation the warnings of snow later on in the week.

Suddenly his attention was drawn back to Joe's words in a big way. "And... if you wanted to go visit the local herd..." Joe began diffidently as they were enjoying one last cup of coffee before starting out.

Levon stared for a second. Then he quickly shook his head. "If you wanna get rid of me, Joe, just leave me with Rosa. Ain't no need to send me out to get--" He stopped himself and took a swallow of his coffee.

"Why would I want to get rid of you?" Joe asked, honestly puzzled.

"No reason, just suggesting I go get myself into a fight with the local herd stallion for intruding on his home ground?"

Joe stared at him, speechless.

Levon realized that his partner truly hadn't realized what he'd been saying. He sighed, and shook his head, and knew that he was going to have to deal with a very over-protective lover for the next several days. Once he explained. "Joe... Hensen invited me -- permitted me to visit Chicago. His land is as far away from here as Taylor's is from Houston. If I showed up there I'd be treated like any other strange male." He reached over and touched Joe's hand, briefly. "I know that wasn't what you were getting at -- but it ain't the same for me, as it is for you." He left the word 'humans' unspoken, knowing that Joe would hear it, anyway.

"I didn't know," Joe said softly, looking down at his cup of coffee.

"I'm sorry, I thought you understood from when I explained about my going to Taylor's herd. I didn't realize... I'm sorry, Joe."

He felt badly, because he knew Joe felt bad. It wasn't as if he was in any danger, and Joe had probably just been trying to be nice, offering him the chance to be with his own kind.

Sometimes the differences just snuck up on them and smacked them in the face.

Joe shook his head, reached across and laid a hand on top of Levon's. "I'm the one who's sorry," he said softly. "I know enough about centaurs now that I should've been able to figure that out on my own."

Levon wasn't quite sure what to say. He knew he probably ought to just let it go, and change the subject back to their sightseeing plans. But he wanted to remove that look in his lover's eyes; the one that said he was going to be slightly haunted by his thoughts for a good while. He grinned, forcing his mood to change. "Though I could do with a harem--"

"Wha-?" Joe's eyes widened comically.

Levon shrugged. "It'd give me something to do while you visit your family."

Joe stared. "You're putting me on, right?" he finally asked weakly.

Turning his head slightly, Levon gave his partner a look that left no doubt as to how badly he wanted to take Joe in his arms and hold him forever. He waited until Joe's expression began to soften, then replied, "You usually ain't so gullible, Joe."

His partner shrugged slightly. "You caught me off balance," he said defensively, but the twinkle of good humor was back in his eyes.

Levon laughed. "I was trying to." Setting his cold coffee back down on the table, he added, "I think I'm ready to brave Chicago's weather now, if you're ready to get going."

"Sure." Joe stood up, grabbing for the coat he had slung over the back of the chair. "I'll go see if the car's here and ready." He headed off to talk to the concierge about his rental.

Levon dug a couple dollars out of his wallet for the waitress, and gathered up his own coat and hat. He'd left the hat hanging on the chair after Joe had glared at him again. Apparently all Yankees had a thing about hats indoors.He headed into the hotel's lobby, and found Joe walking towards him. "All set. Let's go." Joe led the way outside to a fairly nondescript brown sedan.

"You get extra insurance on this thing?" Levon asked as he opened the side door.

"You trying to imply something about my driving?" Joe shot back as he unlocked the doors and slipped in behind the wheel.

"No. Trying to imply something about their," he pointed at the vehicles careening past them, "driving. I don't want to have to pay for a brand new car."

Joe shot him a feral grin. "I learned to drive on these streets. I know how to deal with the crazies. Trust me."

Levon just put on his seatbelt, and didn't say a word. Not until they'd made it through the first intersection, when he said quietly, "I could walk you know. Folks here might not even notice."

"On two or four legs?"

"Either."

Joe just chuckled and dodged around a van that had pulled out in front of them. Levon gripped the armrest, but didn't say a word. He did, however, wonder if he'd been allowed to survive the flight only to be killed in a traffic accident. Surely it would have been more efficient to kill him back home. Houston had vans, too.

After a moment he asked, "How far to Tony's?"

"We're not heading to Tony's just yet." Joe glanced at him. "Thought I'd show you where I lived when I was a kid first," he said a bit diffidently.

"Yeah?" This sounded more interesting than watching the local insanity that was passing for traffic.

"Yeah. The house is gone now, but you can at least see where it was and what the neighborhood's like."

"This the neighborhood you and Danny lived in?"

Joe's turned his head so fast to look at him that Levon was surprised his partner hadn't given himself whiplash. "How did you know about Danny?"

"You can show me the tree y'all managed to knock down." Levon gave his lover an innocent look.

"Who-? Aunt Teresa, had to be. That tree thing is one of her favorite stories." Joe sounded halfway caught between amusement and annoyance.

"I notice you don't deny it," Levon observed.

"Can't. There's pictures around somewhere." Joe chuckled. "That was the last time I ever let Danny talk me into getting on that motorcycle with him."

"I still don't see how you managed it -- wasn't the cycle a little heavy for two kids to balance?"

"We propped it up with a couple of pieces of wood till we got it started. Once it was going balance wasn't a problem." He chuckled ruefully. "Stopping however..."

"Hence the tree." Levon laughed, shaking his head. "No wonder Tony said--" Levon stopped himself.

"What did Tony say?" Joe asked, glancing suspiciously at Levon.

"Said you almost became a tree surgeon after high school." Levon smiled, then turned and looked out at the buildings they were passing. So this was Chicago. He wrinkled his nose. It smelled strange.

"That's Tony's idea of a joke. He's been saying that for years." Joe sighed. "You'd think in five years he would've gotten some new material."

"I don't mind, I ain't heard any of 'em." Levon glanced over, still smiling. "Glad I finally can."

Joe smiled back. "Me too."

They drove in silence for the next few minutes until Joe made a right hand turn at an intersection. "This is the street," he said.

"Looks ordinary enough."

He glanced over at Joe; his partner had a wistful smile on his face. "Looks like home," Joe said simply.

Levon watched his lover; even as the other man began pointing out places he'd played with friends, or the house where the girl lived who he'd had a crush on when he was nine, he watched Joe. No matter what else he did, he was going to have to think of a way to thank Taylor for this.

Joe looked transported, as if he were seeing everything he were describing, and his eyes were alight in a way Levon had never seen before. But as they drove around a curve, Joe's smile faded. He pulled up in front of a vacant lot and stopped the car. "This is it."

Levon stared at the empty lot, then slowly looked at Joe. "It's gone?"

"Yeah." Joe was staring out the window at the lot, but it was clear he was seeing something else. "Burnt down when I was 16." The information was offered in a monotone. Moving closer, he touched Joe briefly on the arm, then slid his hand down to take Joe's. Joe started as if he had forgotten Levon was there, then squeezed Levon's hand tightly.

"Was that when--" Levon stopped, not sure if he was right. But all he'd ever heard from Joe about his mother's death made him think-- He didn't ask. If Joe wanted to talk about it, he would. Levon didn't want to bring up a painful memory if his lover didn't want to discuss it.

But Joe seemed to hear the unspoken question anyway. Or maybe he just needed to talk. "She died in the fire," he said and Levon didn't need to be told whom he was referring to. "It happened in the middle of the night, a fault in the circuitry. She never made it out. I wasn't there. I'd gone to a school dance and crashed at Danny's place. If I had been home...." Joe's voice trailed off.

Levon looked at his lover in surprise. "You think you might have saved her?" He asked it very softly, very calmly. Joe had never let on that he felt any guilt for what had happened -- not until now.

It took a few moments for Joe to answer. "Sometimes," he finally admitted. Then he gave a humorless laugh. "Don't know why. I used to be able to sleep through everything. Ma used to say that I'd sleep through the world ending... If I had been home I'd probably have died too."

Levon gave his hand a squeeze. "Does it matter?" He wasn't sure how Joe would react to the question, or whether he'd had the chance to explain.

Joe didn't say anything, just gave a half-hearted shrug.

"Or do you have a way of going back and changing what happened?" He said this a little more sharply.

Joe glanced at him equally sharply. "I'm not obsessing over this, Levon..."

"I didn't say you were, Joe," Levon interrupted quickly. "I just--" He glanced away and offered the only explanation that made sense to him. "I don't like seeing you hurting so much over something that can't be helped."

"There's nothing you can do to stop it hurting," Joe replied, reaching out and clasping Levon's hand. "It's something I have to live with. I've come to terms with it. Mostly."

Levon sighed. Humans were really confusing, sometimes. He let Joe hold his hand, and surveyed the empty lot. He could see where the foundations had been, where some trees had grown in the back yard.

"Do you want to get out and take a closer look?" Joe asked, watching Levon look at the lot.

"Do you wanna show me?" There wasn't much to see -- not without the memories to fill in the empty spaces.

Joe seemed to think it over for a long moment. "Yeah," he finally answered with a slow nod. "I just-..." He trailed off with a self-conscious shrug. "Yeah."

Levon squeezed his lover's hand, and smiled. "Then I want to see it." He paused, then asked, "You still have that little tin box buried here?

"How did you-" Joe asked surprised then stopped as he remembered. "Oh yeah. I told you about that when we met at Six Flags." He grinned. "Yeah, it should still be buried in the backyard. Come on." With that Joe opened the car door and climbed out.

Levon followed, calling after him, "Did you bring a shovel?"

"Won't need it," Joe called back, heading for the biggest tree on the lot. "It wasn't exactly buried."

"You said you'd buried it... and yes, that's exactly what you said," he added when Joe turned to protest.

"You gonna hold something I said when I was seven over my head, 'Lee'?" Joe asked.

"If I have to," Levon answered seriously. He ignored the accusation that he had lied to Joe about his name on the grounds that if he ignored it, Joe couldn't keep arguing with him about it.

"Uh huh."

By this time they had reached the tree and Joe knelt beside its base, hands running over the point where the ground, trunk and roots intersected. "There should be an opening right about... here!" With a triumphant grin, Joe pulled out a weather worn, battered, rusty tin box.

"You finally gonna tell me what's in here?" Levon peered at the object in Joe's hands and was, for a moment, amazed the thing was still intact.

Joe shrugged. "Nothing much," he answered. "Just bits and pieces of things."

"Well open it already, then." Levon let his eagerness show -- Joey had teased him mercilessly for nearly half an hour, back when they'd been kids, not telling him about the secret things he had tucked away.

"It's locked," Joe reminded him. "And I don't have the key any more. Besides it's more than likely rusted shut. We'll have to get something to pry it open with."

Levon reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his knife. Flicking it open, he handed it over.

"You're not in a rush here or anything are you?" Joe teased as he took it and used it to pry the lid up.

"I've been waiting 28 years to find out what's in that thing."

"'Fraid it's gonna be a letdown," Joe muttered as he worked at the lid. With a final effort and a horrendous squeaking of rusted hinges he finally opened it.

They stared into the box. Several of the items were immediately recognizable -- even if Levon didn't know why Joe'd bother keeping them. Others were more readily understandable... He spotted a photo, and snatched it up.

There he was, standing next to Joey, both of them dressed up as sheriffs.

"I got the pieces back after Vinnie and Tony ripped it up," Joe said softly. "Put them back together as best I could." He reached over and ran his hand over the scotch tape, now yellow with age, holding the picture together.

"You put it back together?"

Joe shrugged. "It meant a lot to me okay?" He looked up and caught Levon's gaze, a small smile appearing. "No big deal now. After all, I have the real thing."

"You saying that's why you became a cop?" Levon teased.

"Being a cop is all I ever wanted to do." Joe went back to sifting through the contents of the box, adding, "But that wasn't what I meant." He laughed suddenly as he pulled something out.

"What's that?" Levon asked.

Grinning Joe handed it over. Levon took it and realized that he was holding a toy horse. "You told me to look for horses in Chicago," Joe explained, still grinning. "This was the best I could do."

Levon took the small toy, and turned it over in his hands. After a moment, he glanced up at Joe. "How'd you know to get a palomino?" The horse's coat was -- or had been, when new -- nearly the same color as his own.

"It was the prettiest," Joe replied, then in a softer tone, "It reminded me of you."

Levon grinned again. "Boy, comments like that will get you kissed -- not here, mind you, but soon as I get you back indoors...."

Joe looked around, then leaned over and caught Levon's lips in a brief kiss. "Why wait?" he teased as he pulled back. "Come on. Tony's gonna wonder what's keeping us."

"Better hope the neighbors don't mind." Levon shook his head. "Sides, if Tony wants to know what's keeping us we can always describe it to him later." He leaned forward, wondering if he could get another kiss.

Apparently the answer was yes as Joe closed the remaining distance between them. Levon closed his eyes and opened his mouth, and forgot about the fact that they were standing in a more or less quiet residential neighborhood in Chicago. Joe finally pulled back after a seemingly endless moment with a sigh of regret. "Come on cowboy," he said, starting back towards the car, still carrying the box. "Family obligations call."

He almost said, "They can wait", when the fuzziness in his brain cleared slightly -- Joe's family had waited a few years already.

He followed Joe back to the car, and accepted the box when Joe handed it over. He tried to remember why they were stopping by Tony's place, but apparently his mind was still dwelling on Joe's mouth. And other parts.

Joe glanced over at him as he pulled the car out of their parking spot. Chuckling he said, "You look shell-shocked."

Levon attempted to re-arrange himself on his own side of the car, and tried desperately to kick-start his brain. Or at least kick his libido down to where it ought to be while his lover was behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. Joe wasn't helping, glancing at him sideways every few seconds, still chuckling, eyes shining with good humor and affection.

When they pulled up in front of Tony's house, Joe glanced over at him, apparently assessing Levon's mindset. "You ready for more of my family, or you in need of a cold shower?" he asked, leering at Levon's jeans, which still hadn't quite got loose yet.

"And I've got a feeling I'm gonna be stuck like this for awhile. Come on, let's go." Levon sighed. At least when they'd gone to visit his family, they'd been able to duck out for a quick -- or slow -- one whenever the urge struck. Gods. Humans.

"We'll duck out early," Joe promised.

As Levon climbed out of the car, he adjusted his coat. Tony probably wouldn't appreciate Levon's tight jeans nearly as much as Joe did.

Tony opened the door before Joey could knock. "Bout time!" he said. "I expected you an hour ago."

"Yeah, well I was showing Levon some of the old neighborhood," Joe explained as they walked inside. He added almost casually, "Showed him where the house used to be."

Tony gave him a sharp look at that but didn't say anything. Levon waited patiently, standing just behind his lover. They all turned when Angie's delighted voice called out Joe's name. Tony grinned. "She's been waiting for you."

"Yeah, I told her she could show me her room today," Joe replied with a good-natured smile. "Guess I better go keep my promise." He squeezed Levon's shoulder on the way by as he headed up the stairs.

Levon watched him go -- trying not to stare the way he really wanted to -- then turned back to Tony. He found the man watching him carefully.

"You and my cousin are pretty close." It was a statement, not a question.

Levon shrugged. "We're partners."

Tony shook his head. "You're more than that."

For a split second Levon was ready to deny it -- which would only have confirmed the truth. Then he realized Tony probably didn't mean anything by it, and gave the man a careless shake of the head. "He's my best friend, has been for a long time." Inside he was worried. All he needed now was to out Joe to his relatives and get his lover estranged yet again. He'd deny anything and everything long and hard before he let that happen.

"Joe took his mother's death very hard," Tony said, in an apparent non-sequitor. He paused before continuing. "He refused to go back down that street after the house burned down. As far as I know he's never been back. Until today."

"Maybe it was finally time to go back. First time he's been able to come back here since he came to Houston. He'd have gone with or without me there."

"Maybe," Tony allowed. "But I'm glad he had someone with him who cared when he did."

At this Levon simply nodded. "He's been there for me a time or two," he allowed, after a moment of silence.

Tony nodded. "Joey's a good guy. He's always been more like a brother to me than a cousin. More a brother to me than..." He trailed off.

Levon didn't know what to say. There was little point in admitting he had seen just what a jerk Vinnie was.

The other man shook himself and changed the subject. "So, tell me honestly, how has Joey been doing down in Houston? I never could get a straight answer out of him."

"He's doing well enough." There wasn't much more he could say without saying more than he ought. He couldn't say Joe had found a home there, found reasons to love Houston.

"That's what he says. Good, bad, that's all I ever get outta him."

Seeing Tony's frustration, Levon tried to think of something more to add. Finally he said, "I think he got used to being in Houston -- I think the worst part of being there, for him, was not being able to come back and see his family."

"But is he happy there? That's all I wanna know."

Levon could barely keep the smile off his face. As it was, he merely controlled it. "Yeah, I think he's happy. He says he is, and I don't have any reason not to believe him."

Tony stared at him for a long moment, and Levon had the uncanny feeling that the other man was seeing Joe's and his relationship branded plainly on his face. Finally Tony seemed to relax and nodded. "Thanks," he said softly.

"For what? It's just the truth."

Anything more they might have said was lost when Joe and Angie came down the stairs. Angie was still chattering wildly, and Joe was grinning as he took in every word. Joe looked up then and met Levon's eyes. Perhaps it was because of the conversation he had just had, but Levon could almost see the connection between them. A glance at Tony's expression told him that he wasn't the only one. He still intended to deny it at every possible opportunity, though. He looked at Joe again. Well, at least when anyone asked.

He tried to turn his attention to the young girl hanging onto Joe's hand, and realized she was talking about the places she wanted them to go. He raised an eyebrow at Joe. His partner shrugged. "Looks like we've got ourselves a tour guide," he said.

"Couldn't have asked for a prettier one." Levon looked at the smiling face staring up at them. Her smile widened, and Levon was reminded of Tory -- both girls had the same dark hair and the same happy smile.

"If she's too much of a bother..." Tony began, frowning at his daughter.

"Daaaaaad..."

Joe grinned. "No bother," he said. "It has been a while after all. We could use someone who's up-to-date on everything."

Angie gave her father a triumphant look. "You see?"

Levon laughed. "Good to know you've got them both wrapped around your finger," he told the girl, with a wink. Angie just blushed. "So where are we going, anyhow? I've been hearing about how much better Chicago is than Houston for four years now."

"It is," Joe assured him.

"Time to prove it, ain't it?" Levon caught a glimpse of Tony watching them closely and sighed, inwardly. He was going to have to work harder at this -- but how was he supposed to act like he didn't love Joe?

"Where to first, Ang?" Joe asked the girl.

"The ice cream parlor!" was the enthusiastic answer.

Levon exchanged a grin with Joe. "Sounds like a plan."

They spent the rest of the morning and the early part of the afternoon following their pint sized tour guide's directions. Levon enjoyed the sightseeing but even more he enjoyed watching the look on Joe's face as he and Angie took in turns explaining the significance of each site to him. It was rare that Joe was ever this carefree.

He felt a pang of something when he realized it. No matter how much Joe had grown to accept Houston as his home, there had always been something, deep inside him, that kept him tense and uncomfortable. It was this -- not being home. Wonderful as it was to see, Levon found himself wondering if Joe would regain that discomfort when they returned to Houston, or if the freedom to return to Chicago would give him the ease he needed.

It was only after they had dropped Angie off and were headed back to the hotel for a change of clothes before heading out to one of Joe's favorite Italian restaurants for dinner that he realized that Joe had guessed his thoughts.

"Okay Levon, talk."

Levon looked up, startled. "About what?" Actually, he knew of three or four things Joe might be referring to -- his lover had become entirely too good at reading into his worried silences -- but he wanted to know which one Joe meant. No point in bringing something up he wasn't already concerned about.

"Why you've been walking around with that worried look on your face since before we dropped Angie off." Joe gave him a concerned look of his own. "What's bugging you?"

Levon shrugged. This wasn't helping. Should he mention that Tony seemed to know more than he ought to, about their relationship? Or should he mention the vague, nagging suspicion that something was up with Rosa, only he didn't know what?

No, definitely not that one. There was no point in worrying Joe because of an undefined feeling that something was wrong. Meanwhile Joe was waiting for him to speak, and the longer he kept silent the more worried Joe appeared.

He sighed. Better pick the easy one. "I'm just glad to see you enjoying being home, is all... and wondering how you're gonna take to staying in Houston after this."

"Is that all?" Joe asked, relaxing with a grin. "I was starting to think we had a real problem." He continued before Levon could take umbrage at his concern's dismissal. "Levon, being back here, seeing my family, showing you around, it's great. It's something I've wanted to do for a long time. But my home now is in Houston, with you. That's where I belong -- even if there isn't a decent Italian restaurant in the entire state."

Levon stared at him for a second, offended. "You said Fusili's was good!"

"For Texas it is."

Rolling his eyes, Levon breathed a short prayer. "Give me strength." Then he shook his head. "I don't know why I even bother. From now on I'm only taking you to rib joints."

Joe laughed. "That's all you do, now. I'm the one who takes us to the Italian places. And we're going to be late to the one we're going to tonight if we don't get a move on."

"You're the one who decided to talk." Levon took the hint, though, and finished digging out the nicer clothes Joe had told him to pack. He grabbed a long sleeved shirt and put it on before anything else -- knowing they'd be coming back to the hotel late. Late, in Chicago in November, meant cold.

"Talking beats watching you brood all evening," Joe replied as he pulled a dressy sweater over his head, his hair becoming adorably tousled in the process. Levon took advantage of the opportunity and indulged himself. Stepping over as he tucked his shirt in, he reached up and ran his fingers through Joe's hair. "I wasn't gonna brood."

Joe leaned into the caress. "Better safe than sorry."

Levon repeated the gesture, enjoying the way his lover's eyes half-closed and his face relaxed. He waited until Joe looked like he was about to fall over on top of him then removed his hand.

Dazed eyes blinked up at him. "Wha-?"

"I thought you wanted to go to dinner?" Levon gave him his best innocent look.

"Smartass," Joe accused, grabbing for his jacket and heading for the door.

Levon quickly sat down and tugged on his boots, grabbed for his hat and coat, and ran towards the door after Joe... only to find him standing there, waiting patiently with an amused smile.

"Come on cowboy," he said, swinging a companionable arm around Levon's shoulders as they started down the hall. "Time for you to see what a real Italian restaurant is like."

"You gonna translate the menu for me?"

"If you don't trust me to order for you, sure."

Levon laughed, and they headed out to the car.


The restaurant was, as Levon had suspected, very nice. Not quite as formal as a few places he'd been but still, he could see why Joe had insisted he wear something other than jeans. At the coat-check he gave his lover a tiny, pitiful 'can't I keep my hat for once?' look before sighing and handing it over.

"The food is worth giving up the hat for, I promise," Joe told him as they were seated and handed menus.

"Can't wait till we get home and I can wear it anyplace I please." He glanced at Joe, and grinned. "Glad I finally get a chance to complain about your home town as much as you did about Houston. Reckon I've got about five or six months' worth--"

"This is Chicago. What's to complain about?"

"It's cold, people drive like morons, according to the phone book there ain't a single hole-in-the-wall barbecue, and we can't go running."

Joe looked at him a long moment. "The running I'll give you."

"You don't think it's cold?" Levon asked in amazement as he glanced over the menu. It was all in Italian. He laid it back down.

"Not this time of year," Joe replied, looking over the menu with great relish. "If we had visited in January maybe. Besides Houston's too hot."

"Remind me not to visit in January." Levon shivered, just thinking about having to be outside when it was even colder. He waited patiently for Joe to decide what to order and wondered if maybe he ought to mention Tony. Joe had said his family would n't understand, but Tony seemed like he didn't mind -- if in fact he had figured anything out.

"You want me to translate or do you trust my judgement?" Joe asked, looking up from the menu.

"You can order for me."

Joe grinned at him, and when the waiter came, placed their order in fluent Italian. So even after their order had been taken, Levon still had no idea what they would be eating. Though he had to admit that Joe speaking Italian was certainly sexy. It didn't happen often, but every once in a while Joe would start speaking in Italian when they were in bed -- or near one. He decided he needed to ask Joe to do it more often. The way his tongue rolled over the words.... Levon blinked and gave himself a shake.

His slight distraction didn't go unnoticed. "Something bothering you, caro?" Joe asked, his deliberate use of the Italian endearment and the sparkle in his eyes telling Levon that Joe knew exactly what was bothering him.

"Not at all." Levon felt himself beginning to stare.

"Uh huh."

Playing with his fork, Levon asked mildly, "Would they mind if I dragged you across the table?"

Joe grinned. "They just might," he said mildly. "After all it's bound to make the other customers jealous that they don't have someone dragging them across a table."

"Figured as much." He sighed and dropped the fork. He paused a moment, then asked tentatively, "Joe? Would you...." He stopped.

"Would I what?"

"I think Tony knows. Suspects, at least."

"Suspects what?" Joe asked blankly.

"I ain't sure, mind you, but he was asking... he asked if we were more than just partners, just friends."

Joe seemed to mull that over for a few minutes. "What did you tell him?" he finally asked.

"Told him you were my best friend. He didn't say anything after that, but I think... he's likely to figure us out. Especially if he keeps seeing us together."

"That might not be a bad thing," Joe said slowly. "Tony is the most likely to be able to accept this -- accept us."

Levon felt a wave of relief. "I wasn't sure what to say to him -- after you'd said you didn't want them to know. So it's okay if he figures it out?"

"Yeah, I think so. Won't know for sure of course until it happens -- if it happens but I don't think Tony will freak out. Vinnie, on the other hand..."

"Don't worry. I already figured out about Vinnie." It hadn't been hard to figure out the sort of person Vinnie was.

"Every family has to have one I guess and he's ours."

"Maybe we should introduce Vinnie to Alexander. He left the herd about three years before I did. Real unpleasant personality...." Levon grinned at the thought of those two butting heads.

Dinner was as good as Joe had promised and Levon had to admit, if only to himself, that it was substantially better than the Italian he'd had in Texas, with the possible exception of the times Joe cooked for him. Not that he was about to admit that out loud however. But the smirk that Joe was wearing during the meal made Levon think that he didn't have to. Joe already knew.

They opted out of dessert -- the look Joe gave him told him his lover knew exactly how long it had been since he'd promised 'later'. Levon paid the check and headed for the washroom while Joe went to collect the car.

He was just heading for the front door where Joe was supposed to pick him up when he heard the explosion. One hand strayed towards where his holster normally was, as he pushed the door open and ran outside.

Only to stop and stare in stunned silence. The world around him faded away as he stared at the car in flames. Their car.

'Joe'


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