Left of Centaur

"Tell me again how you talked me into this," Joe asked, looking dubiously over the cluttered attic which his lover was already happily sorting through.

Levon stopped as he hefted another box. "Because you love me, boy. You'll do anything I ask...."

Joe snorted. "You've been breathing this dust too long, cowboy," he replied, even as he privately admitted that his partner's assertion was probably true. He couldn't imagine anything he wouldn't do if Levon asked him. Not that he'd ever admit that to the man, however. No need for him to know that he had Joe wrapped around his finger. Or in Levon's case, hoof.

Levon laughed, then he coughed. Shaking his head, he finally replied, "Sooner you get over here and help, sooner we'll be back downstairs."

"Yeah, yeah, I'm coming," Joe muttered as he carefully made his way through the piles of boxes and other clutter to his partner's side. "What is all this stuff anyway?"

"Oh, nothing much. Things I've been hanging onto for awhile. Might ought to throw some of it out." Levon looked into the box he was kneeling beside, to determine what was in it.

Curious now, Joe peered over Levon's shoulder, grinning when he saw what his lover had in his hands. "So even centaurs don't escape the plaster of paris castings huh?" He reached down and took the object from Levon. "Though I just made an impression of my hand. Course I didn't have hooves so..."

"Jolene found out about plaster casts one year. I was about seven. We all made 'em. Course, you can't really tell one centaur from another by his hoof impression."

Levon continued pulling things from the box he'd unearthed. Some items Joe recognized: crafts and momentos such as kids made at summer camp. One particular object caught Joe's eye: a brightly colored, messily wrapped Christmas present. "What's that?"

For a second Levon didn't answer. Then Joe heard his lover whisper, "I forgot I had that...." Levon pulled it out and held it carefully in his hands. He stared at the package, not answering Joe's question.

"Levon?" Joe asked softly, reaching out and laying a comforting hand on the other man's shoulder as he sensed Levon's change of mood.

"Oh, sorry. Was just thinking about... you know, when I made this. Wouldn't let Marta help me wrap it -- you can probably tell I did it myself." Levon smiled, holding the package up. Quickly he elaborated, "Was a present for my mother the Christmas she died. The one I wanted Santa to take to her."

Joe froze for a second, unsure of how to respond to that. Whenever the subject of Levon's mother dying came up it always seemed to lead to misunderstandings and fights. Levon kept insisting that it hadn't really affected him but Joe just couldn't understand how that could be. So they had avoided talking about it. But now...

"What did you get her?" he finally asked, deciding on a neutral approach.

Levon laughed. "You know, I don't even remember what I made her. I wasn't old enough to go into town yet, so I couldn't buy her anything." Levon grinned down at the package, obviously wondering if he should open it to find out what was inside.

Biting back his initial response of stunned disbelief -- how could he not remember? -- Joe instead asked gently, "You going to open it?"

Again Levon didn't answer right away. He stared at the package, before finally setting it down. "Nah. Don't need to." Joe noticed he put it right back in the box from where he'd pulled it.

"You remember what it was?"

"No. But... well, I don't feel right. You know, opening her present." Levon glanced up, a hesitant expression on his face. "Does that make sense?"

That Joe could understand. "Yeah," he said with a soft smile, "it does." Again he reached out and squeezed Levon's shoulder. "Whatever it is, I'm sure she would have loved it."

Nodding, Levon went back to searching through the box. To Joe it seemed as if the importance of the found package simply disappeared.

He wasn't going to say anything, he wasn't going to -- the hell with it. "That's it?" he asked.

"Huh?" Levon looked up. "What's it?"

"The gift to your mother. You can just forget about it that fast?"

"Joe, I--" Levon stopped, obviously frustrated. They both knew the crux of this argument. Levon sat by the boxes, making no attempt to stand and confront his lover. "Yes, Joe, I can forget about it. It don't *mean* that much."

"If it doesn't mean that much why have you kept it all these years?" Joe asked, voice raised in frustration.

"Hell, I don't know. Didn't want to throw it away when I left the herd. Put it in a box and forgot about it." Levon shoved the box to one side.

Joe looked at his lover in silence for a few moments then shook his head in exasperation. "I just can't understand that Levon."

Giving the boxes surrounding him a shove, Levon got to his feet and stepped over to face his lover. "Then why don't you just *drop* *it*? You can't understand, fine. But stop expecting me to *change* how I feel because you don't like it!"

Damn. He knew this was what was going to happen if he pushed it. It always did. So why hadn't he just left it alone? Was Levon right? Was he trying to change his lover's feelings?

He looked into Levon's eyes, saw the anger there and the hurt hidden behind it. God, he had to stop doing this to both of them. Taking a deep breath, Joe made an effort to let the whole thing go. "Sorry," he said softly, meaning it.

Levon looked him in the eyes. "Joe, I--" He stopped as they heard the phone ring from downstairs.

"You expecting a call?" Joe asked.

"No," Levon replied as he headed for the ladder. Joe followed; Levon reached the phone on the fifth ring. "Hello?"

Joe came forward as his lover's face suddenly became alarmed. "Yes, I know him. What's--" He fell silent for a few moments, Joe growing worried as he waited.

"Yes, we will. He's all right?" Another pause, and then, "We'll be there in an hour. Might be I can get ahold of some of his kin closer by; if they show up he'll know them."

Joe tried to ask what was going on, but Levon waved him silent. "You have any leads?" He tried to reign in his impatience as Levon listened intently before finally saying, "Okay. We're on our way."

He hung up, and headed towards the front door. "Joe, lock up the back and then call Jesse, tell him we need him to watch Fooler for awhile."

"What's up?" Joe asked even as he moved to do as Levon had bid.

"Police up in Highwater called." Levon raised his voice as they moved through the house. "They found Shensen. His mother's missing. Mine was the only phone number the boy knew."

A picture of the young centaur flashed through Joe's mind. The only reason the boy had known Levon's phone number was that Joe had been talking to him on the phone at least once a week ever since they had got back from their trip to the herd's ranch. Shensen meant a lot to him. "Is he okay?" Joe asked, his worry plain in his voice.

"He ain't hurt, but he's in town and they can't find his mother. I gotta call the ranch." Levon came back into the room and grabbed the phone. After a moment, he frowned and hung up, dialing the operator. Explaining who he was, he asked her to test the number. Another minute went by, then he thanked her and hung up. "Damn! The line's dead at the ranch. No way to know what's happened..."

"Is there anyone you can phone who's nearby who can go check?" Joe asked as he headed into the bedroom to put on his guns. Just in case.

"Not any closer than we are to Highwater. We need to go get Shensen, and find out what's happening. Hell, we need to call Joanne... I'm gonna go use your car phone while you call Jesse, okay?"

Joe nodded even as he was heading for the phone to make the call.

Less than ten minutes later they had the house locked up, and were heading for the Jimmy. Levon had said nothing, the worry as plain on his face as what Joe himself was feeling.

He reached out and lay his hand on his lover's arm just before Levon started the engine. "It'll be all right," Joe said quietly, as much to reassure himself as his partner.

"Joe, Shensen's only a few months old. What if he... they're gonna find out what he is. They won't hand him over to us--" Levon stopped himself.

"Yes they will," Joe vowed, adding to himself 'or else.' He pulled Levon into a momentary tight embrace. "He's a smart kid. He knows the centaur thing is a secret. He's not going to give anything away."

"Herd don't usually let kids into town until they're at least ten -- in case something happens, you never know what's gonna give it away. Joe, if he... if he lets on that there's *anything* odd..." Levon's fear was palpable as he moved out of Joe's arms.

"Let's just get there okay? If there's anything we have to deal with then we will. Whatever we have to. We're not going to let anything happen to Shensen." That much Joe was sure of.

"Right." Levon fell silent, and just drove. After a moment he reached down and grabbed the red light and placed it on the dash, flicking it on and speeding up.


They made the hour long drive to Highwater in forty minutes, the entire trip made in worried silence. There wasn't much they could say or plan until they knew for sure what had happened. And they wouldn't know that until they talked to Shensen.

Levon headed directly into town; luckily the town was small and there was a green sign proclaiming the location of the sheriff's office. As soon as he parked outside he leapt from the truck and practically ran inside.

Joe was only a step or two behind him, wondering how he was going to restrain his partner if they did try to keep them from seeing Shensen. And who the hell was going to restrain *him*?

Fortunately, as soon as they walked in they heard Shensen cry out both their names; a second later Levon was on his knees, arms wrapped around the frightened child.

Turning to the deputy who had been sitting with the boy, Joe held out his hand. "I'm Sergeant LaFiamma, Houston PD. That's my partner Sergeant Lundy." He nodded towards Levon. "What can you tell us about what happened?"

"You're cops?" The man looked surprised, then somewhat relieved. Joe was glad, he didn't want to have to fight with the man just to get information. "We don't really know. Boy won't tell us anything except your partner's name and phone number. Harold found him hiding behind his cafe -- didn't have any clothes, wouldn't say anything but his momma was gone." The deputy looked over at Levon and Shensen; Levon was talking quietly to the boy, apparently getting answers as Joe could see, but not hear, Shensen replying.

"Shensen's not really used to strangers," Joe explained to the deputy. "He's pretty shy around people he doesn't know. There's been no sign of his mother?" He gave a quick physical description of her.

"No sign at all. We checked all the hospitals, jails, everything we can but the storm's knocked out a lot of communication and at least three of the hospitals we called didn't have current lists of patients. Lots of folks hurt or missing. Thunderstorm was real bad." The young man looked sincerely concerned about the welfare of those people.

Joe relaxed slightly when he heard that. That probably explained why they hadn't been able to contact the ranch if the storm had knocked down phone lines. He saw Levon catch his eye and motion him over. Excusing himself from the deputy, Joe joined his lover and Shensen.

Levon was holding Shensen tightly, as if now that he had the boy safe in his arms he wasn't going to let anyone take him. In a low voice, Levon said, "Shensen and Jolene got separated from the others, during the storm last night. She just picked him up and ran; they ended up near town so she came in and tried calling home. Some guys came along and started hassling her -- she'd had to change, didn't have no clothes. They took her, probably didn't even didn't even see Shensen."

"Shit," Joe said with feeling. He looked down at Shensen, his heart going out to the boy. He could only imagine how terrified the child had been to be in this strange place and to have his mother ripped away from him by strangers. "How you doing kid?" he asked softly, reaching out and touching the boy's hair.

"M'ok... wanna go home." Shensen had his head resting on Levon's chest, looking nothing more than tired.

The deputy walked over, stopping a polite distance away, and clearing his throat. "He tell you anything?"

Levon nodded, and repeated most of Shensen's words, carefully edited.

"Would he be able to identify the men?" the deputy wanted to know.

Joe put the question to Shensen, who nodded, still clinging to Levon. "Probably," Joe replied, stroking the child's hair soothingly.

"You wanna give us a description of them?" Levon asked, getting another nod. "How many were there?"

They all heard Shensen whisper, "Four."

The deputy had out his notebook, taking notes, as Levon proceeded to ask Shensen questions. Hair color, height and build as compared to Levon, and clothing. Joe was amazed at the boy's level of recall. Not that he should be, he thought, remembering Levon telling him about the first few moments after he was born.

He noticed Shensen's energy starting to flag so when the boy had finished describing his mother's attackers Joe asked the deputy if they could take him home now.

"Of course. We just need to know how to get in touch with you, if -- when -- we find anything."

"Won't matter. We'll be back by tonight, if your motel has any vacancies," Levon told him.

"You can get hold of us at the number you reached us at before. Or through major crimes at Houston PD," Joe said, overriding Levon.

"Wha--?" Levon protested.

Joe shot him a look that said 'we'll talk later.' This wasn't the time or the place for them to argue it out. "Thanks again," he said to the deputy. "We better get the kid here home before he conks out on us." He looked pointedly at the drowsy child in Levon's arms.

Levon didn't say anything else, silently following Joe out of the station. Joe walked towards the driver's side of the Jimmy, and Levon took the passenger side, still holding Shensen tightly. Once in the cab, Levon waited.

"The deputy told me that the storm did a lot of damage out the way of the ranch. Knocked down wires, flooded out roads and all that," Joe said as he started the engine. "We're not going to be able to get Shensen home until it dries up some. And do you really think that staying at a motel is better for him than your place?"

"If we're here, there might be something we can do..." Levon trailed off, looking down at Shensen, now sleeping calmly in his arms. "Hell, I don't know. Whatever you think we should do." Levon rested his head against the back window, sounding tired and momentarily defeated.

Joe let go of the steering wheel with one hand and reached out and caressed Levon's cheek. "I'm not saying we give up on the case," he said softly, "but the kid has to come first."

Levon slowly nodded. He moved one hand to briefly grasp Joe's hand, then down to hold Shensen securely against his chest.

Joe watched the two of them for a moment before putting the truck in gear and starting the drive home.


An hour later Joe pulled into the drive at Levon's place. Shensen had slept the entire way, and Levon had remained silent. Now, as he parked the truck, Joe realized what they'd just done. Brought an infant centaur home with them.

Levon held onto Shensen as he climbed out of the truck, heading towards the house. Joe followed, remaining silent as he watched Levon lay the boy gently on the bed in the guestroom. Shensen muttered a little when Levon let him go but settled back into a deep sleep almost immediately.

The boy was dressed in gray sweats, obviously from the sheriff's department. Joe watched as Levon looked at the sleeping child for a moment more, before turning and heading out. "We gotta call the station, run those descriptions he gave us. See if we can find anything," he began.

Joe nodded. "You know though that we can't officially work the case," he pointed out, following his partner out to the kitchen to make the phone call.

"Doesn't mean we can't do everything we can to find Jolene or the guys who -- who took her." Levon picked up the phone and quickly made the call, making his request as if he and Joe were on the case, and there was no reason he shouldn't have been asking for the information.

"Never said we weren't going to." Joe waited until Levon had hung the phone up and then wrapped his arms tightly around his lover. "We'll find her Levon," he said softly. "I wish I could promise we'll find her alive and unhurt but..." He let his voice trail off. Both of them had been cops long enough to know just how unlikely that was in this kind of situation.

Levon let his lover hold him. "It's gonna take awhile for the ranch to be accessible again. Shensen's gonna be here for a few days." It sounded as if Levon was trying to force himself to focus on the small details, to avoid worrying about what they couldn't affect, yet.

"We'll take care of him," Joe agreed, running his hands lightly up and down Levon's back, trying to comfort both of them.

Levon sighed, and Joe could feel him relaxing. "Gonna have to get him some clothes, and call Joanne about some time off. You wanna--" He stopped, and asked carefully, "You want us to both take off, or switch off?"

"I think," Joe answered just as carefully, "that this is going to take both of us, isn't it?" In a softer tone he added, "We're partners, remember? We work together."

Levon looked at his lover, an almost unreadable expression in his eyes. "I love you, Joe. Don't reckon I've told you that lately." For a moment he was silent, then he tensed again, and looked up at Joe with an apologetic expression.

"Joe, I know you're probably used to being around kids...."

Joe smiled. "You can say that. Plenty of cousins at the family get-togethers." His smile widened as he remembered holiday get-togethers that always had at least five or six kids underfoot.

"Well, figure you know a centaur kid ain't like a human kid." Again Levon stopped, as if unsure how Joe would take the news.

Before Joe could tell him to go ahead and say it, they heard Shensen's happy voice. "Levon! Joe!" The boy was jumping into Joe's arms a half-second after he called warning.

Reflexively Joe caught him with a soft 'oof'. "Taking up flying now?" he asked the boy while shooting a questioning glance at his lover. Levon was certainly right. No human child would've bounced back this fast.

"Is this your home?" Shensen asked, looking around from his perch in Joe's arms.

"Yeah kid," Joe answered, quietly stunned at the change in the child's demeanor. "How you doing?" he couldn't help but ask.

"I'm OK. Do I get to stay here while they look for momma?" The boy sounded excited.

Levon answered, "Yeah, Shensen. The road back to the ranch house is washed out. Gonna be a few days before we can take you home." Joe noticed that Levon said it as if nothing terrible had happened.

'Centaurs,' he thought. He'd definitely have to have a talk with Levon the first chance he got.

But not now, with little ears listening. Looking down at the boy in his arms, Joe said, "I bet you're hungry."

"Yeah!" Shensen's face glowed.

Levon smiled, and said to Joe, "Why don't you two go on and make some dinner, while I call Judy Devonshire a call and see if they've any of Mark's old clothes we could borrow." He referred to a neighbor down the street with a four-year-old son.

"Sounds like a plan, partner," Joe said. "You can make that, uh other phone call you need to as well."

Levon nodded, and headed towards the den while Joe took Shensen to the kitchen.

Once there Joe set Shensen down on his feet while he tried to decide how to handle this. Well pushing his lover for an emotional reaction he didn't feel he could give had caused them nothing but trouble. So for now, he decided he'd take a page from the centaurs' book and pretend nothing was wrong. "So, Shensen," he said smiling down at the boy. "What shall we cook?"

"Peanut butter and apples!" the boy answered, taking Joe's hand and bouncing slightly.

From the boy's manner, he figured he'd better ask -- despite having seen Levon and the other centaurs eat perfectly normal, 'human' food, he knew kids could be tricky in asking for treats their folks would never let them have. "Peanut butter and apples, huh? Does your mom let you eat that?" he asked, then could've kicked himself. He didn't need to be bringing up Jolene to the boy right now.

"Uh-huh," Shensen nodded. "I got to pick the apples last time. We have an… an... okid, on our land."

Joe didn't know whether to be relieved or frustrated at Shensen's lack of response to the mention of his missing mother. Still, dealing with this version of Shensen was much easier than dealing with the traumatized child he had been expecting. "Well maybe we can have peanut butter and apples for dessert. But how 'bout I make some spaghetti for us to eat first? You like spaghetti?"

"Yeah!" Once again Shensen looked excited. Joe suspected that perhaps Shensen simply liked to eat. "You have to cut it up for me," the boy instructed.

"I can do that," Joe promised, smiling at the boy. He couldn't help it. Shensen's mood was infectious. "You want to help me make it?"

"Can I? I don't know how. Do you know how to make s'getti?"

"Yeah I do. My grandmother taught me when I wasn't much older than y-" He broke off, as he belatedly remembered that Shensen was not the four years old that he looked like. Sometimes the differences came up and hit him broadside. "When I wasn't much bigger than you," he amended. "Would you like me to teach you?"

"Uh-huh! Carla taught me to cook. I can make cereal and milk." Shensen followed Joe as he found a chair and set it against the counter. He climbed up and looked at Joe, bouncing slightly in place.

Joe got a pot out and put it under the tap. "You think you could fill this up with water?" he asked.

Shensen reached over and turned on the tap, and watched the pot intently as the water filled it.

Joe told him when he had enough and then put the pot on the stove to boil. He continued with his preparations, giving Shensen small tasks whenever he could, such as pulling the spaghetti out of the package and handing him spices and stuff that he added to the sauce he simmered on the burner next to the pasta. Shensen stood beside him, helping as directed.

Levon came in and they heard him laugh. "You two look adorable cooking together."

Joe mocked glared at him for a moment, then grinned. "At least he doesn't want everything barbecued."

"Barbecue! Yeah! I wanna barbecue," Shensen cried before Levon could answer. Levon just gave his lover a look.

"Must be a Texan thing," Joe muttered under his breath. He tried to look annoyed but found he couldn't, not in the face of Shensen's youthful exuberance. "Maybe next meal kid," he said, ruffling the boy's hair. "But you'll have to talk Levon into cooking."

"Okay," Shensen readily agreed.

Levon leaned up against a counter, and told them, "Judy has a few things Shensen ought to be able to wear. She's gonna drop them by in about an hour. Joanne said we could have the rest of the week -- if we need more time, we'll have to take vacation days."

"Yeah well hopefully this will be wrapped up by the end of the week," Joe said as he got down plates and started dishing up the spaghetti. He didn't say what Levon already knew as well as he did -- that if it dragged on much longer than that, the chances of finding Jolene alive would be very slim.

"Road'll be dried out by then, anyhow, unless it keeps raining. We'll be able to take Shensen home."

"Yeah. It will be good for him to be with family." Joe put the plates on the table. "Okay boys," he said for Shensen's benefit, "dig in!"

Shensen froze as he'd been about to pick up his fork. He turned a confused look towards Levon, who explained, "He means we can eat now."

"Oh," the boy said, then happily began eating. Joe couldn't restrain another smile at that.

They talked while they ate, the tenor of the conversation remaining light and cheerful despite the previous night's scare for the child. He acted like he'd forgotten it completely, but Joe knew he hadn't. Finally Levon cleared the table, leaving them to wonder what to do with the rest of the evening.

The question was answered when the front door opened, and Jesse called in, "Boys? You home?"

"We're in here!" Levon replied.

Jesse appeared a few seconds later at the kitchen door. "Evening," he said.

"Hey, Jesse." Levon walked over to Shensen, who was trying to hide behind the chair. "It's all right, Shensen. Jesse used to foster grown colts." Levon coaxed the boy out to meet him.

Jesse smiled at the boy and held out his hand. "It's nice to meet you Shensen," he said.

Shensen looked seriously at the man. "Are you gonna foster me when I'm bigger?"

"Well I don't do that much any more but for you I might make an exception. Would you like me to?"

Shensen chewed on his lip, and looked up at Levon, then Joe, uncertainly. "Are you nice?" he finally asked.

Jesse seemed to give the question considerable thought before answering. "Most of the time," he finally said.

Joe was watching the interaction with a small smile, remembering his own first meeting with the colt.

"Okay..." Shensen still sounded doubtful, but held out his hand to take Jesse's. "If Taylor says it's okay."

Jesse solemnly shook the boy's hand before turning to Levon and Joe. "You boys look like you have some things to discuss. Why don't I take the young 'un out to the barn and introduce him to Fooler?"

"Who's Fooler?" Shensen asked, as Jesse led him away in response to both Levon's and Joe's nods.

"Fooler is Levon's horse," Jesse told him, as they exited the room, their voices trailing off as they moved away.

After they left there were a few moments of silence between Joe and Levon, as neither seemed to want to be the one to start talking. Levon resumed cleaning up the kitchen, making no real effort to meet Joe's gaze. "Maybe Jesse could watch Shensen if we get any leads we have to follow up."

"Maybe," Joe answered noncommittally. Realizing that if he didn't start the conversation it wouldn't get started, he asked, "You wanted to tell me something about centaur kids?"

"Oh, yeah..." Levon started running the sink of hot water. "They don't sleep alone. Usually out in the pasture with the entire herd...."

"He was sleeping alone earlier," Joe pointed out, letting himself be distracted from the subject for a little while longer.

"For about fifteen minutes," Levon pointed out. "He won't be able to sleep the night through by himself. Not until he's a lot older." He glanced up quickly, then back down. "If it's a problem maybe we can ask Jesse--"

"No." Joe shook his head. "No problem. Truth be told, I thought he'd have trouble sleeping anyway with what he's been through," he commented, again bringing the conversation back to the topic he wanted to discuss.

He heard his lover sigh, then in a low, controlled tone Levon said, "He won't have trouble on account of that. He might worry about Jolene, when she's gonna be back, but not like you're expecting." It was obvious Levon was gearing up for a harsh fight.

A fight was the last thing Joe wanted. He just wanted to understand so he wouldn't put his foot in it. "So this is... normal for centaurs?"

"Yeah, it's normal. Maybe we don't form the kind of attachments humans do, to their folks. The 'bonding' or whatever. But Shensen won't think anything's wrong unless we act like there is." He gave Joe a direct look, asking him not to do so.

"Don't worry. I won't freak the kid out or anything."

"Thing is, Joe, he's already thinking of every mare in the herd as his caretaker. Jolene was just like... hell, I can't explain it. I grew up a centaur, not a human. Shensen will miss her but he won't be frightened or anything. Being passed from adult to adult is normal."

"So forming strong attachments to others isn't normal for a centaur..." Joe ventured slowly.

For a long moment Levon didn't answer.

Joe moved closer to his lover and laid a hand on his arm. "I'm not saying you haven't," he said quietly.

Levon looked up at him; Joe could see the pain in his eyes. "Joe, I love you more than anything in the world. When you start asking things like this I wonder... if you love me a hell of a lot more, just because you can. If maybe I don't love you as much because I can't."

Joe pulled Levon into his arms and held him tightly. "Levon, nobody's ever made me feel as loved as you do."

Levon didn't reply, simply letting himself be held.

Tightening his hold, Joe wished he had never started this conversation. He hated to see his lover hurting and he hated it even more when he was the cause of that hurt. Like now. Sighing, he rested his chin on Levon's shoulder. "I'm sorry," he said softly.

"Joe, all I can say is that I *feel* like you say you do. But then you go... acting human on me and I can't help but wonder if we're really all that alike."

"Does it matter?" Joe asked, wondering himself if it did.

Levon looked him in the eye. "I don't know. You act like it does, but I don't know what to say to convince you it don't."

Joe felt a stab of guilt at that. He took a good hard look at himself. Did it matter? Really? Looking at the man he loved, who had trusted him with everything he had, everything he was, and who, Joe was sure, he couldn't survive very long without, he found his answer. "It doesn't matter."

Levon watched him for a moment, then slowly began to relax in Joe's embrace.

"You think it's too early to call Dustin to see if he's found anything?"

Joe fought the urge to smile at how Levon's mind worked. As soon as everything was settled between them his mind was back on the case. Though admittedly, this case wasn't that far removed from what they'd been discussing. "Couldn't hurt to phone and check."

"Yeah." Levon rested his head on Joe's shoulder. Pulling Joe closer, he rubbed his hands along Joe's back as if reassuring himself, before letting go and concentrating on finding Jolene.

The sudden absence of touch was something Joe found he wasn't ready for. Not after the emotional talk they'd just had. He found he needed a bit more reassurance before he could put it behind him. Almost of their own accord his hands reached out and pulled Levon back into his arms. "In a minute," he said, before leaning over and nibbling on Levon's neck.

Levon stood completely still, making no move away -- or towards -- Joe. His eyes closed and his head tilted slightly back, giving Joe all the room he might want. Joe's lips traveled around his lover's neck and up over his jaw before taking Levon's mouth in a tender kiss. He sighed as his partner's lips parted beneath his and granted him access.

Levon grabbed his waist and pulled him closer -- the remaining two inches of space between them. The grip told Joe that Levon had no intentions of letting him stop this any time soon.

Not that this distressed him, if anything he wanted to be even closer to his partner. He wanted to feel skin. As they continued kissing, Joe's hands stroked down Levon's back until he came to the waistband of his jeans. Then he grabbed the back of the shirt and pulled it out, sliding his hands underneath to caress Levon's bare back.

His lover moaned, and moved backward slightly into Joe's touch. He began to tug at Joe's shirt, trying to get something but not making it clear what. Joe suspected his lover didn't know, himself. Taylor hadn't been kidding when he said Levon's brain shut down.

Joe had to admit that his brain wasn't that far behind. But he still maintained enough presence of mind to decide on a course of action.

Releasing Levon's mouth, Joe dropped gracefully to his knees, fingers working quickly to undo Levon's jeans. He eased out his lover's cock and then swallowed it whole in a single deft move. Levon groaned loudly, reaching behind him for the kitchen counter. Braced, he groaned and cried out as Joe began working him over.

Joe wanted to draw this out but knew they didn't have the time so he kept his teasing to a minimum, working to bring Levon off as quickly as possible. His own aching hardness he ignored, needing this more for his lover than for himself.

Levon was soon moving in short, barely controlled jerks. Joe could feel Levon's legs shaking, and suddenly his lover's panting breaths became loud and interspersed with shouts.

He wondered belatedly if anyone could hear them, say, from out in the barn.

But then his attention was diverted as Levon climaxed yelling his name. Joe continued working him all through the spasms, only releasing him from his mouth when his lover had begun to calm.

Levon grabbed him by the shoulders, obviously forestalling a tumble to the floor. After a moment the grip strengthened and Levon opened his eyes. "Come here," he whispered, as usual immediately recovered.

Smiling, Joe instantly complied, climbing back to his feet with the same innate grace he'd used in falling to his knees.

Levon pulled him close, taking him in a deep kiss. His hands moved as if by instinct alone, caressing Joe first through the layers of clothing and then inching inside. Joe moaned against Levon's mouth at the first touch of those fingers where he really wanted them to be. His brain shut down as he pushed his hips forward mutely asking for more, his hands holding onto his lover's shoulders tightly in an effort to keep his feet.

Levon held him steady with one hand as he loosened Joe's jeans with the other. Working his hand inside the boxers Joe wore, he soon had a firm grip on his lover's cock. One smooth motion upward, and Joe moaned again.

It didn't take him long to go over the edge, shuddering and moaning Levon's name against his mouth as he did so. Levon held him as he lost himself, and as he slowly regained his facilities. When Joe finally looked up, Levon was smiling at him.

Joe couldn't help smiling back. "I love you," he said, reaching up and caressing the man's cheek.

"Mmm, I love you too." The smile became a wide grin. "You wanna wash up before our guests come inside?"

"Yeah, might be a good idea," Joe said, reluctantly releasing his lover and heading for the bathroom.

Levon caught his arm before he could take more than a step, and pulled him back for another kiss. "I love you," he said when he finally let him go.

Joe smiled. He'd never get tired of hearing that. "I know," he said softly, squeezing Levon once before releasing him and once again heading for the bathroom. "Never doubted it."

Levon followed him, and quickly they washed up, and changed -- after finding semen on Levon's shirt and Joe's pants, they decided it would be easier to throw everything in the hamper.

"You going to phone Dustin now?" Joe asked as he headed back to the kitchen to clean up the dinner dishes.

"Oh, right. Forgot about that," Levon said sheepishly, and he headed for the phone. Joe shook his head with a rather smug smile. Levon's brain still wasn't totally firing on all thrusters.

Levon looked over in time to catch the smile, and blushed. He quickly dialed the station and spoke to Dustin; Joe overheard enough to know that nothing had been found on the four men.

"No luck, huh?" he asked after Levon had hung up.

"No luck. I'm gonna--" He broke off as the front door opened, and Jesse's voice called out, "You boys decent in there?"

Feeling the heat of a blush climb up his cheeks -- either sounds had carried out to the barn or Jesse just knew them too well -- Joe exchanged rueful looks with his partner and called out, "Yeah, come on in."

The two walked into the kitchen, Shensen hanging onto Jesse's hand until the last minute when he let go and ran over to Joe. "I fed Fooler!" the boy cried happily. "And brushed her!"

"You did?" Joe asked, smiling at the exuberance of the boy. "I bet she liked that huh?"

"Uh-huh, and Jesse says I can help take care of her while I'm staying with you." Shensen paused in his excitement and looked curiously up at Joe. "Is it mating season already?" He asked innocently.

"Uh..." Joe could feel himself blush even redder as he looked at Levon for support.

"Shensen, humans don't have mating seasons as such," Levon answered the boy in a completely straightforward manner.

"Oh." The colt considered the matter for a moment then asked, "Then how can you have babies?"

Levon gave his lover a grin, which quickly faded as he replied, "Not gonna be a problem here, Shensen. Two males can't make babies."

Joe could not believe they were having this conversation.

Shensen appeared to accept Levon's answer, and proceeded to regale them both with a detailed account of everything he'd been allowed to do or watch, while caring for Fooler.

"If there's nothing else, I'll just leave you boys to it then," Jesse said, heading for the door. "If there's anything I can do, you know how to reach me."

"Thanks, Jesse. We might need a colt-sitter sometime during the week if you're willing," Levon followed the man to the front door, leaving Shensen to explain just how one cleaned a horse's hooves to Joe.

"You think you might want to help us with Fooler tomorrow?" Joe asked when Shensen paused for breath. He was determined to keep the tone of the conversation light, keeping in mind what Levon had told him.

"Can I? Momma hasn't let me have a horse of my own but I get to help take care of Juji and Mitzi -- those are Carla's and Dena's horses and they're real old and nice."

Shensen was still bouncing from foot to foot, eyes wide and alert. Levon came back into the room and sized the boy up. "Shensen, are you ready for a bath?" he asked.

"Do I have to?" he asked, pouting. Joe couldn't help but smile at the child's reaction. In whatever ways centaur children and human children differed, in this they were alike.

"I reckon you haven't had one in a couple days," Levon responded, trying not to mirror Joe's smile as the colt looked up at him. "You aren't gonna argue with me, are you?" he asked sternly.

Joe was surprised when the child merely shook his head 'no', giving in to having his bath with no more argument. Maybe there was something to this herd mentality thing after all.

"Come on, we'll let you pick out a towel and washcloth then." Levon held out his hand. Shensen started to take it then looked back at Joe. "Can Uncle Joe help me?"

Levon just looked up at his lover, not certain if Joe had *that* much experience with children. Joe smiled at his partner's expression then held out his hand to Shensen. "Sure I can. What color of towel do you want?"

"Blue!" Shensen let Joe led him down the hall, with a stop at the linen closet. Levon stayed behind to finish cleaning the kitchen -- Shensen had been as enthusiastic as unskilled in his help.

Like most kids, once Shensen was in the tub he enjoyed the water. Joe found some empty bottles and sponges and gave them to the kid to play with for a while before the real cleaning started, while he sat on the closed toilet seat and watched. Shensen was again making a liberal mess -- luckily this time it was only with water.

"Momma gives me a bath twice a week," Shensen talked as he played. "And other times Marla or Cory give me a bath but if I've been real good or if I'm really muddy Taylor squirts me off with the hose and then *he* gives me my bath!"

"You like it when Taylor is the one giving you a bath huh?"

"Uh-huh… I like it when he plays with me. He doesn't have time to play with me as much as Momma and Cory do but I like they way he laughs. He's the only stallion in the herd."

"But other stallions come for visits occasionally, don't they? Like Levon..." Joe knew he couldn't judge the dynamics of the herd by human standards but sometimes it was hard to remember that.

"Only if daddy says they can." Shensen said with a child's seriousness. "Momma says there's five others that can't ever come back because they won't do what Taylor says while they're on our land."

"It happens sometimes," Joe said, thinking about his own exile from home.

"I'm gonna be good and when I'm old Taylor'll let me come home to visit sometimes. Like Levon and Duke." Shensen suddenly threw his hands down onto the top of the water, punctuating his words with a tremendous splash!

Joe jumped a bit as the edges of the splash caught him. "You trying to make sure I get a bath too?" he teased.

Shensen laughed, his high-pitched voice echoing staccato off the tiled walls. "I'm done!" Shensen said, standing up in the tub carefully.

"I don't think so, kid," Joe said as he picked up a washcloth and soap. "Not until there's been soap involved. You want to do it or shall I?"

"Nooooo! I don't need soap." Shensen held his hands out, pushing the soap and cloth back. "Centaurs don't need soap. We're lergic to it. It makes me itch!"

"Allergic, huh?" Joe kept a straight face as he looked at the boy.

"Uh-huh! Rashes and bumps and everything!"

"Well I guess I'll just have to go ask Levon what to use instead..." Joe said as he began to stand up.

"He'll say this is fine, just water. I'm all clean now," Shensen asserted.

"I don't know about that, kid. I can still see some dirt. I think I better go talk to Levon." He turned and grabbed the doorknob.

"No!" Shensen said quickly. When Joe looked back at him, the boy was standing in the tub, obviously trying to think of a way to prevent both the bath, and Joe's fetching Levon. Finally he looked up at Joe, pleading, "What if I wash my face?"

Joe made a show of considering. "If you wash everything, I'll rinse you off with the shower. It's kind of like using a hose, like what you said Taylor does."

Shensen perked up, nodding. "Rinse me now? Then wash?" He was back to bouncing, pout long gone from his face.

"How 'bout I rinse you before and after then?"

"Okay!" Shensen stood mostly still, waiting for his rinse. Joe unhooked the shower massager and turned on the taps. As he aimed the stream at Shensen, the boy giggled and turned his face up into the water, squeezing his eyes tightly shut.

Joe gave Shensen a thorough soaking then turned off the water and handed him the soap and washcloth. "Time to keep your side of the deal."

Grinning, Shensen took the washcloth and soap, and proceed to expertly soap himself up. The layer of soap he applied conflicted with his claims that soap was a Bad Thing; Joe was impressed to see him get all the used 'missed spots' like toes and behind the ears.

When he'd gotten everything, Shensen put the cloth down and held his arms up again for a rinsing. Joe complied, giving the boy a thorough drenching before turning off the water and enveloping him in the huge blue bath towel.

As Joe turned, holding the towel-wrapped child in his arms, they saw Levon standing in the doorway. Shensen immediately frowned, appearing as if he were seconds away from bursting into tears. "Uncle Joe made me use soap!"

"Well, of course he did. We don't have any sand." Levon just grinned.

"Trying to get me in trouble?" Joe whispered to Shensen, tickling the boy as he did so. Giggling, Shensen lost his woebegone expression.

"Judy brought these by, figure you can sleep in them," Levon held out some pajamas. Joe could see a picture of a cowboy on horseback, on the front of the shirt. When he looked at Levon, his lover just grinned and shrugged.

"Texans," he muttered just loud enough for Levon to hear, then set about helping Shensen get dressed.

As soon as he was ready for bed, Shensen asked, "Where are we sleeping?"

Joe looked at Levon. This was one question he'd leave up to his lover to answer.

"Inside tonight, Shensen," was Levon's reply. He glanced up at Joe, the question clear on his face. Did Joe object to sharing the bed with the colt?

"Have to warn you though, kid," Joe said conspiratorially, "Levon snores." He met his lover's gaze, letting him see that he wasn't bothered by the idea.

The relief in Levon's eyes was obvious. "Come on, Shensen, it's time for you to be asleep."

They took the boy into the bedroom, and quickly got him settled in the bed. After assuring him that they would soon be in, themselves, Shensen let them tuck him in. Joe hesitated for a sec, then leaned over and kissed the boy on the forehead, like he remembered his mother doing to him. "Sweet dreams, kid," he said softly.

Shensen smiled as he fell asleep. They left the room, Levon turning off the light as they went.

Looking back after casting a fond look at the closed bedroom door, Joe caught his partner watching him with an amused look on his face. "What?" he asked defensively. "So I like kids..."

"Looks like," his lover agreed. Then his amusement faded and he turned and headed for the living room.

Joe followed, wondering what his partner was thinking. Somehow he thought it was more than Jolene's disappearance.

Levon sat down in one of the chairs, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. It was obvious he was worrying about something -- also obvious that he wasn't going to say a word unless shoved, hard.

Fortunately Joe had always been extremely good at pushing his partner. "So you just going to sit there and brood or will you tell me what's eating you?"

Levon gave a sigh, and said, "I just realized... I never even thought if you might *want* kids... of your own."

Joe blinked. It was a subject he hadn't thought about in quite a while, not since he realized he was in love with his partner and that said partner felt the same way. It had seemed impossible so he had just put it from his mind. "I did, I guess," he said slowly, choosing his words with utmost care. "But I haven't thought about it in a very long time."

"You stopped thinking about it because of me? Because you fell in love with another man or because I'm a centaur?" The expression on Levon's face was one of calm, as if it didn't matter what Joe's answer was, as long as he explained his feelings.

"I had doubts about having kids even before we got together Levon. Cop's life is dangerous and mine is worse than most with the hit hanging over me." He looked up at his lover, and added, trying to be as honest as he could, "But yeah, when we got together I stopped thinking about it altogether."

"Joe, you gotta understand something. You might say you've changed your mind but it ain't even an *option* for me." Levon's tone was quiet but urgent. "There is *no* way I can have kids, not unless I take over Taylor's position. I have no intention of doing that, so I'm never gonna have kids. I've known that all along...." He trailed off again, apparently frustrated by fear that yet again he would not be able to make himself understood.

And Joe wasn't sure he *could* understand, not fully, not without being in his partner's shoes. But he was going to do his best. "How do you feel about that?" he asked, needing to know whether this was something that was bothering Levon for it's own sake or just because of how he thought Joe would react.

Levon looked startled. "Never seemed to matter how I felt -- won't ever have them, so I never bothered thinking about it... much. Hell, Joe, everyone wishes they could have at least one kid. But in my case... the cost is too high to seriously consider." Levon stood, suddenly, pacing slightly across the room as he continued. "I don't want the herd, don't want to give up my life here. It's like asking you if you wanted to give birth -- you might think about it, but there's no way it'll happen so why think too hard?"

Joe nodded. This he could comprehend. "That's how I feel," he said, eyes watching Levon move back and forth. "When we got together I knew I wanted it to be for good. We couldn't have kids so I just put them out of my mind. It wasn't an option so why dwell on it?"

"You don't... Joe, even if you'd thought we might take someone else's kids..." He looked slightly reassured at Joe's words, but kept pushing, just in case.

"I haven't."

Levon looked at him intently, then slowly nodded. He still looked worried, but said, "I just needed to tell you... in case you did want 'em."

Joe got up and walked over until he was standing in front of Levon. "I want you more."

He could see the echoes of sadness in Levon's eyes and wondered if Levon was telling the complete truth when he said he didn't want children of his own. There was, unfortunately, no way to have them so Joe didn't say anything. Levon stood, and let Joe take him in an embrace.

"So," Joe asked when he finally released his partner from his arms, "what's the plan for tomorrow?"

"Call around, see if we can find out anything about the guys Shensen saw. We might have to head back to Highwater... I don't know if there'd be anything to track, up there, but I don't know what else we could do down here." Levon sounded tired, again, as if they were already on the third day of the case.

"We'll find her," Joe said with conviction. He knew they would. They wouldn't stop trying until they did.


The next morning they dropped Shensen off at Jesse's place. The old man promised to let the colt run for awhile, as the boy wasn't used to remaining in human form for as long as he had been already. Shensen had been ecstatic at the prospect of staying the entire day with Jesse; Levon and Joe were just glad they had someplace safe to leave the boy while they searched for his mother.

Like usual when they needed information, their first stop was Chicken's.

The early morning crowd was almost identical to the crowd they found every other time they stopped by. As they headed for the counter, Levon nodded greetings to Chicken and Ramos, both busily serving up breakfast.

"How's it going Chicken?" Joe asked, as he and Levon took their usual seats.

"Not bad, Joe, Levon," Chicken greeted them. "What can I do for you gents?"

"Coffee, for me, Chicken," Levon ordered. They'd had breakfast at home, bananas and toast, both Shensen's requests.

"Same here." They waited until Chicken had poured them each a cup then Joe ventured, "We're looking for some information Chicken."

"Like that's a surprise when it comes to you two." Chicken set the coffeepot down. "What about?"

"Got a description of four men, who attacked and kidnapped a lady up in Highwater. Need to know if anyone's been bragging about it down this way." Levon explained.

"This one's personal, Chicken," Joe added. "Lady's a relative of Lundy's."

"A relative?" Chicken looked interested, and puzzled. "In Highwater? I thought Minnie was the only family you had left. That and that father of yours."

Levon sent a glance Joe's way, and answered, "She's a cousin of my dad's. Her three-year-old son, Shaun, is staying with me while the authorities in Highwater try to find her. I was just hoping... if there was anything we could find out..."

"Man, that's rough," Chicken said, eyes wide with sympathy. "Wish I could help you out guys out but I haven't heard anything. I'll put some feelers out though, see what I can find out."

"Thanks, Chicken. Appreciate it."

Chicken went back to tend to his other customers, and Levon looked at his partner. "We'd better head for the station, then. Maybe the sheriff in Highwater'll have something." They both knew, of course, that if he had he would have called the house. But there was nothing more to be done here.

Joe nodded. "Sorry about the relative thing in there," he ventured, once they were back in the truck. "I guess I wasn't thinking."

"Not your fault," Levon smiled. "Can see why you'd assume Chicken knew, after running into so many strangers who do know."

"It has seemed to be common knowledge." Joe grinned suddenly. "Nice to know I wasn't the absolute last to find out."

"Told you, only five in Houston know... and one of them's another stallion, and a friend of his."

"Duke?" Joe asked, remembering the name Shensen had used last night.

"Yeah," Levon nodded. Traffic proved to still be light on the side streets, so they quickly made their way towards the station. "Duke's about five years younger'n me, lives clear on the other side of Houston. His friend, Marguerite, is a real sweet gal. They ain't a couple or anything, but they're best friends."

As expected traffic began backing up as they approached the business district where the station was located. Levon put both hands on the wheel.

"I'd like to meet them some time."

"Yeah?" Levon sounded surprised. "I reckon we could do something... If you don't mind me and Duke butting heads," he grinned.

Joe looked over at Levon alarmed. "I thought you said you could control that. You didn't butt heads with Taylor when we visited."

"Yeah, 'cause he's dominant. Duke and me... we never could agree." Levon was smiling, still. "Neither of us has a herd to protect, so it ain't the same kinda fight. Just jostling for position. Marguerite says as long as we stay out of fancy restaurants we're okay in public."

"You mean you'll be worse than you were with me when we first met?" Joe teased, remembering the knockdown drag-out fight they'd had soon after meeting.

"Well... maybe not *worse*," Levon admitted. "I reckon that wasn't all just frustration that was pushing me to fight with you."

"Kinda figured." Curiosity prodded Joe to add, "So sleeping together stops the head butting?"

"No."

"Should I start worrying you're going to jump me again then?" he teased. There was just something about needling Levon that he could never resist.

"No... It ain't sleeping together that stops it." Levon almost sounded hesitant.

"What then?" He was getting genuinely interested in the discussion now.

Levon shifted uneasily in his eat, and half-mumbled, "Gets stopped when dominance gets established."

"What?" Joe stared at Levon.

Levon didn't repeat what he'd said, simply drove the truck without comment.

"When did this happen?" Joe asked, thinking back over their relationship furiously.

Again Levon shifted uneasily, before answering in the same mumbled tone, "'Bout two years ago."

"Two years ago..." He couldn't think of anything specific that happened. Though it might help if he knew just whom Levon saw as dominant. But he wasn't going to actually ask that.

"So who's on top?"

Okay so maybe he was.

Again with the shifting, and the long hesitation before answering. Levon's manner suddenly began to make sense; if he were right... Levon verified it when he finally said, "You are."

"Oh."

It was all he could think to say, that wouldn't come out sounding either patronizing or egotistical.

Levon said no more, pulling the truck into the underground-parking garage. They got out and headed towards the building; Levon said calmly, "Can't let Joanne catch us… she'll think we're nosing in on a case outside our jurisdiction."

"Right." The answer was absent-mindedly given; Joe's mind was still trying to wrap itself around what Levon had just told him. "Why didn't you ever say anything?" he finally asked.

With a guilty duck of the head, Levon answered, "Didn't figure I ought. First 'cause you didn't know why, then... it stopped being so important by the time you found out." He left the 'centaur' detail unspoken, but understood.

"So this mean I can order you around?" Joe teased.

Without looking over, Levon gave a short, serious nod.

"You'll do anything I tell you?"

Again Levon nodded slowly.

"Let me change the radio station whenever I want?"

A nod.

"Eat pistachios in the truck and throw the shells in your hat?"

Levon finally turned to him, nodding again, but this time Joe could see the resignation in his eyes.

Suddenly the teasing wasn't fun anymore. He reached out and touched Levon's arm briefly. "Not let me get away with stuff like that?" he asked softly, meeting Levon's eyes.

Levon shrugged. "I can't... Joe, I can't make you do anything...."

Joe smiled at that. "That's where you're wrong, cowboy."

"Huh?" Levon looked confused. Fortunately they'd taken the stairs up, to better avoid being seen by anyone who would mention it to Beaumont and as such still had time to talk this out before they reached the floor they needed.

"You said it yourself yesterday -- I love you, I'll do anything you ask me to." Somehow admitting that right now wasn't as difficult as he had feared. Maybe because right now Levon really needed to hear it.

For a moment Levon didn't respond. Then he asked, "Is this what Taylor meant when he said humans consider themselves equal?" It sounded as if he weren't really confused by the notion, just wanting to hear it confirmed.

Joe hadn't really given it much thought before but he realized that's exactly how he felt about it. "Yeah, I guess it is."

Alone in the stairwell, Levon stopped for a moment. Reaching over, he took Joe's hand and gave it a squeeze. "You know I can't change how I react to you... anymore than you can me. We'd better get upstairs and get to looking for Jolene," he added. Now that he could listen for it, Joe could hear the note of what he could only call subservience. It was slight, just as his lover's words were offered as a suggestion, never a command.

Joe made a mental note never to abuse the control that Levon had handed him. It would be easy to do, he was becoming aware. And it was the last thing he ever wanted. "Whatever you say, partner."

One more flight up and they were at Dustin's floor. Checking surreptitiously for sight of anyone who would bust them, they nonchalantly hurried down the hall into his office.

The man was surprised when they walked in, but quickly gave them a triumphant smile. "I think I have something for you two."

"What?" Joe asked, praying for a good break.

"17 brought in a guy who matches exactly one of the descriptions you gave. I don't know who gave you the descriptions, but he or she has a great eye for detail." He handed over a report, listing an arrest for causing a disturbance at a local bar.

Joe read it then passed it to his partner. "He's still in holding?"

"Still in holding. Wanted for questioning on another case, the usual."

Joe turned to his partner with a grin. "Why don't we go and pay --" he glanced at the arrest report, " -- Mr. Rodriguez a visit?"

"Sounds like a good idea," Levon nodded. "Thanks, Dustin. We owe you one."

"I'll remember that," the other cop said with a grin.

They left Dustin's office and headed down to holding. "How you want to handle this?" Joe asked on the way.

"I like the direct method. Go in there and ask the man what he knows." From the glint in his eye, it was clear Levon didn't intend on asking too politely.

"Just remember he's got to be capable of answering for it to do any good," Joe warned. "If he's unconscious he's not going to be much help. So go easy okay?"

"Easy?" Levon looked completely innocent. "I'm always easy. I just figured to hold him down... while you asked him nicely." Then he grinned.

"Good cop, bad cop?" Joe grinned back. "The classics always work."

Levon appeared to think it over for a minute. "If I'm holding him down, and you're asking questions... who's gonna be the good cop?"

Joe grinned even wider. "Bad cop, bad cop then?"

Levon returned the smile. "Whatever you say, LaFiamma."

They made it down to the holding cells without being seen by anyone from major crimes. Levon hung back as his partner checked in at the desk, asking for Rodriguez. They left their guns with the guard and were escorted to Rodriguez's cell.

The man was sitting on the cot, glaring at the world as if it were at fault for his predicament. Levon leaned up against the bars, and glanced at Joe. "Looks pretty comfy, don't he?"

"Yeah, that he does. Looks right at home."

"Maybe we oughta just leave him here, then?"

"Maybe. As cells go, it's pretty nice." Joe glanced at Rodriguez. "Bet it's a lot nicer than where he was holding that woman."

Till now Rodriguez had been sneering at them; at Joe's words he suddenly became ignorant. "What are you talking about, cop?"

"The woman you and your buddies kidnapped up in Highwater. You screwed up pal; you left a witness behind who can identify you. Which means you are going down for kidnapping. And if the lady doesn't turn up breathing it'll be the death penalty."

The man turned pale, but didn't back down. "I don't know anything about a woman in Highwater."

"That's funny 'cause as I said we've got a witness who saw you there. Saw you grab that woman. Now how can that be if you weren't there?"

Levon was standing silently, watching them both. Rodriguez jumped to his feet and came forward, glaring at them. "I said I don't know nothin'! There weren't no witnesses-"

"How could you know that if you weren't there?" Joe shot back.

For that, he had no answer. Sullenly he stepped back. Levon joined the interrogation with a hard question of his own. "Where is she, Rodriguez?"

Rodriguez remained silent, looking everywhere but at the two detectives.

"Where'd y'all leave her?" Levon grabbed one of the bars, glowering at the guilty man. "Boy, you willin' to do life for murder? If we don't find her we can assume she's dead."

Joe didn't want to know how hard it was for Levon to say those words as if only intending them as a threat. "And we may not have your buddies but we have you," he added, pouring on the heat. "You can go down for it all by yourself. They worth dying for Rodriguez?"

"I didn't do nothing! You can't get me on it... and we didn't kill her. She got hit by a car before we ever..." He trailed off, then began pleading, "We only roughed her up. She ran, out into the street and got hit. We took off -- I don't know where she is. But all we did was play around a bit."

Joe could feel his partner beside him tensing, saw the white knuckled grip he had on the bars in an effort to keep his anger from erupting. Casually he reached out and laid a hand on the small of Levon's back, and rubbed gently, an innocent gesture that almost always worked at soothing the man.

He could feel the tension easing slightly, but his lover's voice was hard as he asked, "You boys raped her?"

"NO!" Rodriguez' eyes went wide. "We didn't... I swear."

"Just planning on it, I reckon." Levon's grip on the bars tightened again.

"Where was the last place you saw her?" Joe asked. If they had that information, it would make it easier to search the hospital and the morgue records.

"Edge of town, Highwater. Near the old taverns." Rodriguez looked completely defeated. He hadn't even asked if he'd get a deal for giving them the information.

Levon let go of the bars and looked over at Joe. "We gotta call… deputy said they checked but--"

"But with a specific location as well as description we may pick up on something he missed," Joe finished, nodding. "Let's go."

Without even a glance back at Rodriguez, Levon followed his partner out of the holding area. Neither spoke as they collected their guns.

"Where to now?" Joe asked as they headed back to the staircase.

"We gotta call the sheriff in Highwater. Tell him to check the hospitals again. And the morgues."

"I know. But do we phone from here? Or go home?"

"We'd... hell, it'd be faster to phone from here." Levon suddenly looked up at him with an uncertain expression.

"There's nothing wrong with checking in and seeing if there's any news," Joe said slowly. "And if while we're checking in, if we just happen to phone the sheriff to see if he's heard anything new..."

Levon nodded slowly. He glanced sideways as they passed an office, and grinned. "Or we can call from down here, and the Lieutenant will never know we were here."

Joe returned the grin. "Even better."

It didn't take long to make the call. The sheriff had no news to give them, but agreed to check the hospital nearest that part of town more thoroughly. He offered to call them back -- at home -- as soon as he had done so.

"Guess we'd better get back, then, and wait." Levon said.

"Yeah." They were silent as they started heading back to the truck. "I hate waiting," Joe grumbled when they reached it.

Levon didn't reply.

Joe didn't speak again until they were in the truck and pulling out of the station. "You know, we could go out to the location Rodriguez gave us, check it out for ourselves. Canvas the area."

With barely a pause, Levon replied, "We'd better let Jesse know. Might not get back until late."

Nodding in agreement Joe added, "We can take the cobra too, have calls to the house forwarded to the car. That way if the sheriff finds anything and let's us know..."

"Sounds good to me, partner." Levon sounded glad to finally be doing something, rather than waiting around for information. Joe didn't comment when he saw the speedometer move above the posted speed limits on the way back towards the house.

After all, he felt exactly the same way about waiting.

It didn't take long for them to get ready to head back up to Highwater. While Levon called Jesse (speaking to Shensen for a few minutes, Joe heard his lover's laughter at one point) Joe packed a quick day bag, in case they ended up in the little country town overnight.

As Joe turned the cobra onto the road towards Highwater, he glanced over at his partner briefly. Levon was staring out the window and fidgeting in impatience. "We'll find her, Levon," he said softly.

He heard the soft, long sigh and waited patiently. Finally Levon spoke. "Jolene always loved going in to town. Liked going to the crafts stores in all the little towns surrounding the herd's land. She was one of the best of the mares at dealing with humans -- lot of 'em never go into town at all."

"Were you close when you were kids?" Joe asked, curious again at exactly what kind of relationship dynamics Levon grew up with.

"Not really. Jolene's a year older than Marta, they were pretty good friends which meant I didn't have much to do with her." He shot a grin Joe's way. "Sorta like humans kids that way, I reckon."

Joe grinned back. "Yeah, that sounds familiar. So she was Marta's friend. What about you? Did you have a best friend or anything?" He didn't even attempt to hide his curiosity.

"When I was younger I did -- there were three of us, hung around together. Like Hanna and her group? Cory, Joshua and I were best friends."

Joe loved seeing the smile that appeared on his lover's face. Warm, obviously remembering very good times and very good friends.

"Bet you were a terror," he teased, wanting the smile to remain.

"Were not!" Levon looked at him, affronted. Joe saw the shine in his eyes, though.

"Uh huh," Joe said, letting his disbelief show. He couldn't stop a grin of his own.

"OK, we mighta got ourselves into trouble now and again. The Kool-Aid in the north spring was probably a bad idea, all things considered."

Joe laughed. "Kool-Aid in the north spring? Well I guess it's a step up from eating poison ivy."

"Never gonna let me forget that, are you?" Levon glared at him.

"Well not until you tell me the whole story I won't."

"And you expect me to believe that once you hear it, you'll drop it?" Levon shook his head. "Uh-huh. I may love you, but I'm *not* gullible."

"That embarrassing is it?" Joe's smile widened at Levon's words.

This time Levon didn't even bother to answer. After a few moments, Joe decided it was time to kick-start the conversation again.

"What else did you and your friends get up to? Other than the Kool-Aid thing?"

"Well... we used to braid the fillies' tails together while they slept," he offered. There was a pause, apparently trying to either remember other things they'd done or sorting through what he did remember for something harmless enough to mention. "Tracked mud into the house just about every day... wearing all four feet," he finally offered.

"That's it?"

"Pretty much." Levon sounded slightly surprised.

"You make me sound like a hoodlum in comparison! Are all centaurs so well behaved or was it just you?"

"Well-behaved?" The tone of his lover's voice changed slightly, and Joe wondered if it was because Levon felt what he was feeling now -- culture shock. "I reckon compared to human kids we were well-behaved. I reckon -- you remember how Shensen was? Tell him flat out to do what he's told?"

Joe nodded. "No argument or anything. Well he did try to pull a fast one on me about using soap but he caved pretty fast."

With a short nod, Levon explained, "It's just how we react to authority. Once a centaur acknowledges someone's position over him or her, there's rarely any more argument. If you fight back you can get kicked out of the herd. Instinct says that's a sure way to die."

He added, in a tone that seemed to apologize for the serious note the conversation had taken, "Didn't stop us from painting Taylor blue when we were about five...."

Joe laughed. "I knew you had to have done something!"

Reluctantly, Levon admitted, "Didn't wash off, either. He was blue for nearly a week before he just shaved the hair off and let it grow back."

"Man, that had to be a sight!" Joe shook his head, laughing even harder.

"Wasn't too bad once he shaved it. Just a small patch on his hindquarters. Joshua had to clean the nursery for a month by himself for coming up with the idea."

"So Joshua was the ringleader?"

"Most of the time -- he had a knack for thinking up things no one else had done yet. Cory took over the spot when Joshua died."

"How'd he die?" Joe asked after a moment's silence.

"Hit by a car. Someone driving up to the house didn't see him -- they were going too fast, and he wanted to race. He slipped and fell. Fella driving couldn't stop."

"God." Joe could see how that could happen, the colt getting too near the side of the vehicle, tripping and... He shook his head, trying to dismiss the images. "Were you there?" Joe asked, appalled at the idea but remembering that centaur kids rarely raced alone.

"No. No one was -- probably one of the few times Cory and I weren't with Joshua, but we were helping Adele with one of the newborns who'd caught a cold. Guess he didn't hear the scouts call in that someone was coming... idiot was driving too fast anyhow."

"What happened to him? The guy driving I mean."

Levon didn't answer at first, which made Joe suspect it was because his partner felt he wouldn't want to hear the answer. He remained silent, waiting Levon out, knowing if he didn't say anything that eventually his lover would answer.

"Joe, I know we've sorta talked about this... but I honestly don't know how you're gonna feel about this."

Joe was quiet as he gave that real thought. "I can't promise anything, since I don't know what you're going to say," he finally said slowly. "But I can and do promise to try and keep an open mind and not judge. Is that good enough?"

"I reckon. See, was a stallion from someplace in Nova Scotia that killed him. Never found out why he was there -- Taylor killed him as soon as he showed up and saw what had happened. His right, his herd." Levon's voice trailed off.

Joe thought about that, thought about a child who could easily have been Levon being killed in a horrible way. "

"Good."

Levon looked over, surprised. "You… I thought you'd...."

"What? Want to run out to the ranch and arrest Taylor for murder?" Joe shook his head. "He gave your friend the only justice he could. There was no way you could have called the law in on this, not without blowing the lid off the whole centaur thing. It's not like Texas doesn't have the death penalty for murder anyway."

Levon remained quiet for several moments. "I suppose you're right. I never thought… it just wasn't something any of us questioned, but humans are so afraid of death. Expected you to be against it."

"It could've been you." Joe stared straight ahead at the road, his hands gripping the steering wheel hard.

Reaching over, Levon took one of Joe's hands. He had to pry it loose from the wheel, but then he held it tightly.

Joe didn't say anything else, didn't take his eyes off the road but he held Levon's hand in an iron grip.

The rest of the trip remained silent; not far from Highwater, there didn't seem much else to say. As they drew near Joe asked for help reading the road signs, looking for the area Rodriguez had described.

Finally Joe pulled the car into the parking lot of a rundown tavern. "This looks like the place."

"Yeah. You wanna talk to the fellas inside, see if they saw anything? Or just find the nearest hospital?"

"Let's check the hospital first. We can always come back if we don't have any luck."

"Look there." Levon suddenly pointed. Joe turned and saw a familiar blue 'H' sign at a far intersection.

Joe put the car back into gear and followed the signs' directions until they were turning into the hospital parking lot. It wasn't a big place, not like the hospitals in Houston but it did look busy. Not surprising considering what Joe had been told about casualties and the storm the day before.

Levon followed him in through the front doors, right up to the reception desk. Leaning up against the counter, he gave the woman a smile and drawled, "We're looking for a woman who might have been brought in two days ago. Hit by a car. Thirty two years old, five four, real dark brown hair."

The woman tapped a few keys on her computer as she checked the records. "There's a Jane Doe who fits that description who was brought in about 36 hours ago," she finally said.

Suddenly more attentive, Levon asked carefully, "May we see her? To identify her?" Joe noticed that nothing had been said about whether the Jane Doe was still alive.

The woman nodded. "I'll call the Dr. Silas. He was the one that admitted her."

"So she's... she's alive?"

"Yes sir. She's in ICU. You better talk to the doctor."

"Thank you, ma'am." Levon nodded, and turned towards his partner, giving him a glance that said nothing except that he was glad for his lover's presence.

"Told you we'd find her," Joe said quietly, reaching out and casually touching Levon's back.

"Wonder what's wrong with her? Sure bet she's been unconscious this whole time..."

"I'm Doctor Silas." A voice came from behind them. "You were inquiring about our Jane Doe?"

They both turned and saw an older man, mid-fifties at least, wearing a hopeful expression. "We've been trying to identify her but her fingerprints don't appear to be on file with any state agencies."

"Yessir," Levon stepped forward. "Levon Lundy, this here's Joe LaFiamma. We think the woman might be my cousin, Jolene."

"Does your cousin have any identifying features?" the doctor asked. "Birthmarks? Scars?"

"Yeah… thin scar around her left ankle, goes all the way around. Got caught up in some barbed wire when she was young."

Doctor Silas smiled. "I think this is your cousin then. Jolene, did you say?"

"Yeah… can we see her?" Levon had tensed, edging forward as soon as the doctor had smiled.

"How badly is she hurt?" Joe threw in. "The nurse said she was in ICU."

"She's been unconscious since they brought her in. Other than the concussion, and a broken leg, she's relatively unharmed. Bruises, a few cuts -- nothing major."

They stopped outside a set of double doors, clearly marked "Intensive Care Unit".

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to wait here," the doctor said to Joe. "Only family is allowed into the ICU and only for short periods."

Joe nodded. "You go see her," he said to Levon. I'll phone the sheriff and tell him we've found her. With a nod, Levon followed the doctor down the hallway.

Joe found a payphone and made his call then came back and sat in the small waiting area near the ICU entrance.

It wasn't long before Levon returned, a relieved smile on his face. "It's her."

Joe grinned back. "She still hasn't woken up yet?"

"No. Should wake up anytime, according to Silas. Did you try to call the ranch?"

"Yeah. Phone lines are still down."

"Damn. I wish we could let them know Jolene and Shensen are all right." With a distant, worried look he added, "Wonder who else was hurt?"

"Hopefully no one." Joe once again touched Levon's back in a casual comforting gesture, wishing he dared to do more in this public setting. "Don't borrow trouble cowboy."

"Oh, ain't borrowing trouble... Silas was talking about the storms they had, the one which probably drove Jolene and Shensen away from the herd. Centaurs spook as bad as horses at thunderstorms. Bad ones almost always end up hurting someone." He said it distractedly, though Joe wasn't sure if it meant he was worried despite his words, or that he wasn't.

"Is that why you always pounce me when there's a storm?" he wondered. "'Cause you're trying to distract yourself? I just thought storms made you horny."

Levon spun towards him, blushing even as his eyes grew wide. "I do *not*--!"

Joe just smiled at him and nodded. "Yeah, you do. Not that you hear me complaining do you? Actually it's the main reason I've become so fond of storms lately."

Turning away slightly, his lover mumbled, "Just trying to get you to hang onto me...." He glanced over. "Otherwise I'd run."

Taking a quick look around to double-check they were alone Joe moved up behind his lover and wrapped his arms around Levon's waist, pulling him close, Levon's back to his chest. "All you ever have to do is ask, cowboy," he said in a low voice.

The mischievous tone told him his lover might not be completely unable to wrap him around his finger. "Didn't mind making love to you..."

"Well you seemed to be enjoying yourself." Joe squeezed him a little tighter before releasing him. "Come on. Let's go home and give Shensen the good news."

"All right." Levon nodded, making no move to step away from his lover. "Gotta fill out some paperwork, though. Now that that know who she is, they need her history and the like."

"Or as much as you can tell. Okay. Let's go get this done then."


They stopped at Jesse's place on the way home, where they found Jesse and Shensen practicing their roping on a fence post. Shensen ran over as they pulled up the drive -- for an instant Joe had a vision of Joshua, and slammed on the brakes a bit earlier and harder than he'd intended.

He glanced over and caught his partner looking at him. "Better safe than sorry," he said defensively.

"Don't apologize, Joe." Levon climbed out of the Cobra, and scooped up the colt who had, in fact, stopped well clear of the driveway. "We found your momma, Shensen. Up in a hospital in Highwater."

"Is she okay?"

Joe noticed the boy's question was *not* anxious. Nothing like a human child would be, frantic with worrying.

"She's a little banged up Shensen but she's going to be just fine," Joe told him. He still wasn't sure he would ever be able to understand, really understand that kind of detached attitude but he was beginning to realize he had to accept it.

Shensen nodded. "I got banged up once. I fell down a hill and got a big bruise."

Levon grinned. "She's a might more banged up than that, but the doctors say she'll be all right. Probably be a few weeks before she's home."

"Do I get to stay here with you and Joe and Jesse?" Shensen looked excited by the idea.

"No, we'll get you back to the herd before long," Levon told him.

When the boy's face dropped, he added, "It'll be a few days, so you'll be here for a while yet."

Immediately he perked back up.

Joe reached over and ruffled the boy's hair. "And there's no reason you can't come for a visit sometime after we take you back," he added.

"Can I stay all week?" Shensen looked up at each of the adults.

"Well that all depends, kid," Joe said. "We have to go to work and Jesse may have other things to do."

Jesse shifted his feet under Shensen's pleading gaze. "Ordinarily, keeping an eye on him wouldn't be a problem. But my sister's boy is coming for a visit Friday."

"Lucy?" Levon asked, a knowing tone in his voice.

Jesse nodded wearily.

"Lord..." Levon breathed. With a glance to Joe he explained, "She doesn't know."

"This mean no morning runs for a while?" Joe asked.

"Not for a while," Levon nodded, looking at Jesse questioningly.

"Only a couple weeks. Sorry, but I couldn't exactly say no. Seems he's been in some trouble lately and she wants him away from the fellas he's been hanging around with. Hopes he'll lose interest."

"Great," Joe said with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.

Levon smiled. "Never mind, Joe. We can get plenty of exercise indoors."

Joe felt his face heat. "Shouldn't you be trying the ranch again?" he asked, changing the subject before Levon could say something that would really be embarrassing.

"Come on." Levon nodded. He held his hand down for Shensen, who took it and climbed into the car, settling himself in Levon's lap. The short drive next door was filled with happy "and then we"'s and "I got to"'s.

Joe listened to the boy's chatter and admitted he was going to miss it when he was gone. He glanced at Levon out of the corner of his eye. Not that he could ever admit that though, not without opening up the whole thorny kids issue again and that would only serve to hurt both he and his partner.

Levon handed the boy over to Joe as he headed for the phone. Shensen was starting to describe every throw he'd made, and missed, with the rope when Levon's voice interrupted them. "Joy! Damn, it's good to finally get through!"

Shensen quieted when he heard the familiar name. Joe just stood there and shamelessly eavesdropped.

"Joy, listen to me -- yes, we have. Jolene's up in Highwater General Hospital. Shensen's with us. The sheriff called, mine was the only number he knew once y'all didn't answer."

There was a bit more silence, then Levon nodded. "Good, glad it wasn't worse. Look, when do you want us to bring him up? If the roads are dry we can bring him tomorrow."

Shensen frowned and shook his head 'no', but didn't say anything.

"All right. Tell Taylor we'll bring him then. Okay, I will. Bye."

Levon hung up and turned to face them. "Joy says we can bring him up day after tomorrow--" His next words were drowned out by Shensen's shout.

Joe laughed and squeezed the boy. "I take it you're happy with the arrangements?" he asked the child dryly.

"Can we go running tomorrow?"

"Don't see why not. As long as you stay close to me and change as *soon* as you're told."

Shensen nodded solemnly. "Okay, then. Reckon the only thing we have left to do is figure out what's for dinner." Levon smiled, giving Joe a wink.

"Peanut butter and apples!"


Two days later things were getting back to normal. Shensen had been taken back to the ranch that afternoon and Jolene was awake and well on her way to recovery. The only loose ends were the guys who had grabbed her but Joe was becoming reconciled to that. Keeping the centaur secret was more important.

It was late in the day, and they'd gone out for one last run before Jesse's nephew arrived the next morning. The run had been long, and hard, neither wanting it to end. Finally, though, they were back at the barn; Joe giving Levon promises of a thorough brushing.

Joe dismounted and they walked inside. "Shensen was sure happy to see everybody at the ranch," Joe commented as he went over to pick up the brushes.

"Yeah," Levon agreed, an absentminded note in his voice. "He'll be telling them all about his adventures for days. Taylor said he'd be willing to let Jesse foster him, too."

"That's great." Joe walked back over to Levon. "It'll be nice to have the kid around regularly. I know it's still over a decade away but..."

Levon glanced his way, shifting his weight from one side to the other. "If Taylor's still around then."

"Oh. Right." He reached up and started brushing Levon's coat. "Levon?" he asked after a moment's silence.

"Hmm?"

"If I ask you something you promise you won't get upset or defensive?"

Levon glanced back at him, a small smile playing on his face. "No. Ask me anyway." Then he sighed deeply, as Joe went over a sensitive area.

"Do you have any close relationships with other centaurs? I mean someone you'd really miss if they..." Joe broke off shaking his head, and putting more pressure behind the brush. "Never mind."

Levon stepped away, turning around to face Joe. Changing into human form, he took Joe's hand. "This still bothering you? Joe… I used to have friends closer than anyone could be. Best friends, like Joshua and Cory. But I grew up, and left the herd... I ain't been a part of them in years. All my closest friends are right here, in Houston, in Lombard," he leaned forward and gave Joe a soft kiss. "In this very barn."

Joe smiled a little, reaching up and caressing Levon's cheek. "What if Joshua hadn't been killed? What would've happened when you two reached puberty?" It was a question that had been nagging at him for no other reason than curiosity and a desire to understand his lover better.

Levon looked him in the eye. "We'd have started fighting with each other. Been sent to foster homes in different towns, so we wouldn't hurt each other. We might have been able to keep from it, for a while... if we'd been separated, we'd have been able to stay friends."

"And that wouldn't have bothered you? Losing your best friend like that? Either by being separated or by..."

"Yeah, it would have bothered me."

"There's no way you could've gotten around that? Nobody's ever managed to stay together and remain friends?"

"Not that I ever heard of. They've been able to get back together, once they have a chance to grow up and get settled somewhere... but from what I hear it isn't ever the same." Levon sounded upset. "It's easier to just make new friends."

"I'm sorry." Joe responded to the pain he heard in his lover's voice by hugging him tightly.

"I'm glad we didn't know each other as kids then. I wouldn't have wanted to lose you. I know I don't now."

Levon returned the embrace. "You won't ever lose me, Joe. Not ever."

Joe squeezed him tightly then pulled back a little. "You want to change back and I'll finish the brushing?"

Levon smiled. "Sounds like the best offer I've heard all week."

Joe grinned. "You haven't heard what I'm offering after the brushing."


Outside in the darkness, unseen eyes watched as the light in the barn went off and two silhouettes one human and one not headed for the house. Watched and plotted.


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