What Do You Have Left When Only Family Remains?

It was nearly nighttime, dusk was creeping into the front room. Levon looked around -- everything was clean. It surprised him, actually. The end of his first day off in far too many days had left him with little to do; he'd set in on the housework early and without quite meaning to had now apparently done it all. He'd meant to leave something for tomorrow; otherwise, he'd start thinking again.

That was not a good thing, no matter which of the many things he was trying to avoid intruded on his efforts at distraction. He'd lucked out the last ten days -- he and LaFiamma had been stuck on a case which defied all their attempts to unravel it. They'd put in long hours which left them exhausted at the end of each day. Levon had been thankful for it, as it left him with barely the time and energy to crawl into bed. There was never any chance of lying awake, unable to stop the worried thoughts which could not seem to find resolution. Yesterday, however, they'd found the group they were after due to a sharp-eyed patrolman and a sloppy paint job. In a remarkably short time they had wrapped everything up; even the paperwork had only kept them at the station until six.

Fortunately, Levon had been able to spend most of yesterday evening at Chicken's, playing pool, sharing beer and shop talk with several of the other detectives. Housework had taken care of most of today -- now he was faced with the remainder of the evening and the entire next day. Tomorrow night he could go to Chicken's again but tonight Chicken was closed for a visit north, as a nephew in Dallas was graduating college. Levon stared around him at the darkening room, knowing it was much too early for going to bed and hoping to sleep.

LaFiamma would be out tonight, as he had been all day and would be tomorrow. Levon could have invited himself along, he would have been welcome at any time. But that wouldn't solve his problem -- rather it would add to it. Thinking about his partner was one of the things Levon was trying to avoid. With a sigh he headed into the kitchen, hoping that making dinner would distract him, even if only for a short while.


One hour later he was putting the last of the dishes away. Not only had dinner not taken much time, but it hadn't done a particularly good job of preventing him from thinking. There were too many memories of standing in the kitchen with someone he loved, making dinner or arguing over who had to clean the delicate wine glasses. With a final slam of a cabinet door, he stood in the middle of the kitchen trying to decide what he could do. Still too early for bed -- if he tried he'd only end up staring at the ceiling. That was no way to keep himself distracted. He'd never been one for television except for football, and there were no games on tonight. Maybe he could grab a book.... He'd tried that last week, though, and he'd been unable to concentrate long enough to even pick something off the shelf.

Maybe he should head out, find a bar and play a few games of pool. Just because Chicken was out of town didn't mean there was no place to play. Levon nodded to himself, and quickly headed into the front hall to grab his jacket. He wasted no time locking up and heading for the truck, afraid that if he slowed down again, unwanted thoughts would come back. Instead he considered his various options for a game of pool: someplace where he would not be tempted to pull his badge and arrest some idiot too drunk to behave; someplace he wouldn't have to wait an hour for a single game; someplace where they wouldn't tag him as a cop and take offense to his continued breathing.

As he drove he conceded that didn't leave a lot of options. There were in fact only three places he could think of where he would be unlikely to get himself or anyone else into trouble. Sasha's would have a decent crowd, but on Wednesday night there would be local bands performing live. The bar would be geared towards the mini house-concerts and the pool tables might not even be available. The Rack on the other hand would have plenty of tables but the beer was despicable, and Levon suspected he would want something decent to drink before the night was over.

That left the Eagle. It wasn't his usual sort of place but the people were friendly, the pool tables plentiful, and the beer was good. Wednesday tended to draw a calmer crowd than those on the weekends so he should be able to play a few games in relative peace. Although he didn't exactly fit the gay club's leatherman theme, nobody there cared who you were and what you did. Besides, Levon kept a low profile and most of those partying paid him no mind. He wasn't a regular by any stretch of the imagination as he stopped by less than once a month, but there were enough regulars who knew him. Chances were, compared to all his other choices, that he'd have a good time.

At least he'd waste enough of the evening that he could go home late and not wake up early tomorrow.

Levon drove down to Montrose trying not to let his thoughts wander too far afield. By the time he reached the bar he was desperate. The harder he tried not to think the harder it was to do. He parked the truck in the backlot and got out, telling himself that in ten more minutes he'd be inside, having a beer, setting up quarters for a game. Fifteen minutes at the most and he'd be set for the night.

Stepping inside was like stepping into another world. The decor was all unvarnished wood and black glass, broken only by a bulletin board at the front covered with flyers and notices brightly printed in every colour of the rainbow. Off to the right were a dozen tables, pushed back against the wall. The small dance floor was in the middle; more tables formed a boundary between it and the front door. To his left was a long bar, behind it and around a short corner were four pool tables. In the back were three clearly marked doors -- one leading to an office, one to the bathroom, and one to a series of private and semi-private rooms. The dark, smoky bar was loud with music and talk; a few groups were scattered throughout talking and drinking beer, four couples were out on the floor dancing. Relaxing for the first time all day, Levon realised this had been a good idea. Handing a pair of singles to the doorman, he headed directly to the bar. He smiled when he recognised the bartender. Rusty grinned back as Levon stepped up to the counter.

"Levon! 'Been awhile! How're you doing?" The young muscleman held out a hand; Levon shook it, honestly glad to see him. It was a cliché for bartenders to hear the woes of the world, and Rusty had a knack for turning clichés on their ears. Instead of quietly listening to customers bemoan their troubles, Rusty would set them up with other patrons, encouraging them to have a good time rather than drown their sorrows in beer. It didn't affect his tips, as most came back by just to fill the jar.

"I've been all right, Rusty. I'll have a longneck." He glanced around the room. "Looks like a quiet night so far -- anything interesting I should know about?"

"Not a thing, Levon." Rusty knew he was a cop, and he and Levon had an agreement. Sometimes Rusty would ask him to help diffuse a situation before it got bad --other times Levon would be asked to avoid the back rooms. Consenting adults or not, laws were laws and Levon appreciated not being forced to uphold certain ones. Rusty continued, "Got a quiet bunch tonight, don't expect that to change until late."

"You been doing all right?" Levon took a drink of his beer, glad to stand and talk to Rusty for a bit.

"I've been doing great," the other man answered with a grin. "You ever meet Luther Dunwoody?"

"Luther... tall guy, real short hair cut, rides a Harley?"

"That describes half the guys who come in here, Levon."

Levon grinned. "Well, I narrowed it down to half at least. Heard of him, but I don't recall that I ever met him. Why?" The way Rusty smiled answered his question. Seeing the other man's happiness stabbed at him and he had to take care not to show it. "Let me guess," he said gently. "True lust?"

"I hope so... I'd hate to be in love with someone who doesn't want my body!" Rusty laughed, Levon laughed with him.

"Congratulations, then. I hope things work out." He took another drink of the beer, hoping his wishes hadn't sounded as flat as he felt.

"Is this my cue to find you a dance partner?" Rusty rested a hand on the bartop, giving Levon a sympathetic look.

"No, but you can get me a pile of quarters for the pool table." Levon took a five out of his wallet and passed it over.

"Ten games? Must be pretty bad, then." Rusty took the money and began counting change. "You wanna talk before you start taking out your frustrations on our balls?"

With a slight grin, Levon said, "Ain't something talking about will help. Thanks anyway, Rusty."

"You know where to find me if you change your mind." He smiled again suddenly. "I still have Danny's phone number, he'd be thrilled for you to call."

Levon gave a short laugh. "No, thanks. My back still hurts from just listening to him describe what he wanted to do."

Rusty said nothing more as he handed over the stacks of quarters. Levon scooped them into his hand and carried them and his beer around to the farthest table. It sat in the corner, away from the doors leading to the back rooms and out of sight of the front of the bar. Two of the tables were still open, so his choice would state clearly that he didn't want to be disturbed. He set the quarters on the edge of the table, found a cue stick, and began to play.

The music started to fade from his awareness as he grew used to it, the pounding beat far different from the country tunes he preferred. The break went only a little wild as he started focusing on his game. He sank three balls before he thought again why he'd come; bending over the table he made another shot before the thought could take too strong of a hold. Pool had always been a way for him to either think problems through, playing automatically while he considered the matter, or it allowed him to avoid thinking at all as he concentrated on his game. The fifth ball sank into its pocket and he had almost achieved the desired state of pure concentration.

"Levon? Is that you?" A voice interrupted. Irritated, Levon looked over.

"Ray." He gave a short nod, hoping the man wouldn't stick around.

As feared, Ray walked right up to the table and set his drink down on the edge. "What a wonderful surprise! I haven't seen you in weeks. Let me look at you." He walked around Levon, stopping right behind him. "Oh my, yes. Just as I recall. Levon, why don't you put that thing away and come play with me?"

With a sigh, Levon stood up. He wasn't going to get rid of Ray easily -- subtlety was lost on the man. A prim leather queen, Ray would do and say anything he wished, and only afterwards wonder if someone had been trying to tell him to mind his manners. He gave Ray a direct look, and spoke clearly. "I ain't interested, Ray. I want to play pool -- by myself. That's the only reason I'm here."

Ray frowned. "Are you sure? We could go back to my place, Toby's gone all week."

"No, Ray."

"How about a dance, then?"

Levon had to keep from smiling at the other man's enthusiasm. A smile would be taken as encouragement -- or a 'yes' -- and Levon didn't feel like spending the entire evening fending Ray off. He shook his head firmly. "No."

"You don't look like you're enjoying yourself, Levon. How can you say you want to--"

"Ray, I'm only going to say this one more time." Levon didn't step forward, knowing the intended threat would be taken in entirely the wrong way. "I am not interested."

For a moment Ray simply stared at him, shocked. Then he waved one hand, dismissively. "Well, there's no need to shout. I'm going, I'm going," he added when Levon opened his mouth.

Levon didn't watch him go, turning back to the table. He set up for the next shot, trying to let the irritation go. He hadn't counted on being hit on; he wasn't the type that most of the guys here were looking for. But if he thought a one-off with no strings attached would help him forget about his partner he'd go grab Ray and take him up on his offer.

Instead he sunk the number 12 in the corner pocket. It wouldn't be so bad if things were different, Levon mused. Then he laughed at himself. If things were different he wouldn't be here trying desperately to avoid dwelling on his problems. As the eighth ball fell into a pocket, he realised that he wasn't going to be able to not think about Joe. Here, surrounded by men vying for attention, looking for partners for the night, the week, or a lifetime, he couldn't very well ignore how he felt. He should have known, he told himself. He should have known and never even come.

He sank another ball automatically, barely noticing as he moved to make the next shot. Hearing Rusty's news should have warned him off if anything, reminding him that some people manage to find the man they're looking for, no matter how unlikely the places they look. Luther was a art professor at one of the universities -- Levon didn't know which one -- and was not the bar-hopping type. Rusty was not the art-loving type, and had claimed more than once that he had never been inside a single museum. For he and Rusty to meet, it must have been... well, interesting to say the least. Either that or Rusty was a closet art-lover. If anyone had seen Luther at a bar, the rumour mill would have told everyone else by the following night.

None of this was helping Levon forget. Resigned, he took three quick shots. He didn't want to give up and go home, and if he was going to dwell on his relationship with his partner, he didn't want to do it here. He might make a decision he'd regret, buoyed by false confidence from the unfettered atmosphere of the Eagle. If he paid closer attention to how easily these men made and created affairs, how unbothered they were -- here, in relative safety -- by what anyone thought, he'd begin to feel the same and he'd head over to LaFiamma's apartment and do something stupid. He couldn't afford to do that. Joseph LaFiamma was the best friend and best partner he'd ever had, and Levon was not about to lose all of that for one moment of irrationality.

He sank the cue ball, and looked at the empty table. Joe would be home by now. Maybe he could call him, just talk for awhile. Scooping up the quarters, he put the cue stick away and headed for the bar to change the coins back into bills.


"Yeah?" He heard Joe call out just before his partner answered the door. "Hey, Lundy! Come on in."

Levon hesitated as he saw the huge smile on LaFiamma's face, but then he realised he couldn't very well explain it if he just turned around and walked away. He went in, taking his hat off as he stepped inside. "Hey, Joe. You find that jeweler you were looking for?"

"Yeah, I did. Took me three hours, and two phone calls -- apparently you have to get recommended for an appointment, they're that exclusive. But I finally talked to Mr. Holsten, and everything's set for next week."

"Good." Levon looked around, not sure what to say. He looked up at his partner to find the other man watching him closely.

"You all right, Levon? You smell like you've been out drinking."

"One beer, LaFiamma." When Joe looked at him doubtfully, he added, "You wanna give me a breathalyzer?"

He wasn't prepared for Joe's sudden grin. "Yeah, maybe I will." Levon only just had time to steady himself as his partner stepped forward and kissed him. When Joe moved away, Levon saw him frown. "What's wrong, Lundy?"

"Nothing. I just wasn't expecting...." Levon shook his head slowly.

"Not expecting?" LaFiamma repeated dubiously, when Levon didn't continue. "It's a little late for socialising, and if you were here about work you'd have said something as soon as I opened the door."

Levon didn't answer, hoping what he felt wasn't showing on his face.

"So why are you here?" LaFiamma challenged.

Finally he just shrugged. "I hadn't planned on coming by. I guess...." He looked away.

Joe moved closer, resting a hand on his arm. "Is everything all right, Lundy?"

"More or less... ain't nothing wrong that ain't been wrong for a long time." He didn't try to meet Joe's eyes.

"You wanna talk about it?" The tone was encouraging, and Levon found himself wanting to tell his partner everything. Instead he shook his head. "You just wanna go to bed?"

This time Levon looked up. He nodded slightly, and Joe leaned forward to kiss him again. He met his partner halfway this time. It didn't take long for them to begin removing each other's clothes -- stopping only once to head upstairs, then resuming quickly, discarding jeans, socks, and underwear. Neither said a word, embracing again briefly with one short kiss and then Joe was pulling him onto the bed, touching him everywhere. Levon wanted to close his eyes and lose himself but he needed to see his partner's face, needed to see the laughing smile and the eager looks that played in his eyes. It reminded him when the touches made him forget.


The next morning things were back to normal -- rather, Levon realised, things were still normal. It was as if nothing untoward had happened the night before. It was always like that, always completely straight-forward and matter- of-fact, and that was the problem. Levon drove himself home, skipping Joe's offer of spending the day at his place by claiming he had work to do around the ranch. It was true, there were repairs to be made and he wanted to check the barn's roof. He'd noticed some leaks last time it rained and needed to know how bad they were, whether they needed fixing now or could wait until after New Year's when he could afford the supplies. Fooler needed exercise as well, and although his property wasn't extensive he could use the excuse to ride the fence. The repairs might not keep him busy for long but it was better than staying with LaFiamma.

Joe's offer hadn't involved leaving the apartment before lunch. *That* was something Levon didn't need, spending the entire morning in Joe's bed. It wasn't that he didn't want to have sex with the man all day. It was just too difficult to ignore what wasn't there. The problem was he loved his partner, loved him as deeply as he'd ever loved his wife. Loved him and wanted to spend the remainder of his life with him.

He'd be lucky to keep him as a partner. Someday LaFiamma would find a way to get what he wanted, whether it was to go home to Chicago, or find a pretty woman and marry her. It was no secret that Joe was having fun with their relationship -- they both were -- but for LaFiamma it ended there. They'd begun sleeping together because neither saw reason not to. They cared about each other, enjoyed each other's off-duty company, and once they'd discovered each other's bisexual natures they had ended up in bed. The first time had been without warning, just two weeks after they'd admitted their secrets. Joe had been staring at him in a way Levon recognised too well. Levon had grinned and challenged the other man to either follow through or put his tongue back in his head.

Joe had followed through, and they'd spent the rest of the night in LaFiamma's bed. The next morning they'd been laughing about it, asking why they'd spent so long passing up such a great thing. Joe had suggested that they could have become friends a lot sooner if the Texan had only seduced him when he'd first arrived. Levon had shoved him out of the bed, and run for the shower.

That had led to more fun and games. Remembering all the times they'd nearly hurt themselves, slipping in the shower and running around indoors -- twice out of doors -- Levon smiled. Joe was nearly the perfect companion. There was no worry about a lover who didn't understand a cop's work. No jealousy between his partner and his lover. No long absences when they were on a case -- he could glance over sometimes when they were on the job and his lover would grin back at him. Best of all, he could give his heart to the man he trusted most.

If only the man he trusted most would give his own heart as well. Levon resigned himself to a long day of dwelling on unrequited love as he pulled up to the ranch. Fooler whinnied to him and he called back, telling the horse to be patient.


One week later Levon watched his partner unnoticed from across the room. He wasn't trying to be inconspicuous although in such a large crowd it would have been hard not to be. There were fifty off-duty cops and almost fifty spouses, dates, and friends filling the not-quite-large enough restaurant. Captain Markum had reserved his brother's entire restaurant for the yearly "Day Shift" holiday party. The other shifts held parties on their own time -- there was one rather famous Breakfast Party at Station 11. So far, this year's party had proved very successful. The buffet line was much more popular than the previous year's pot luck and the second dining area had been cleared for dancing and was, barely, large enough to handle everyone who was drunk enough to dance.

Everyone who worked the day shift on a regular basis was there, talking and laughing and generally having a good time. Levon was enjoying watching LaFiamma make the rounds with a beautiful woman on his arm, introducing her to his co-workers and friends. Levon hadn't brought a date as he hadn't had a girlfriend since Jamie moved away, hadn't wanted one since he and Joe began sleeping together. He wasn't upset by Joe's date tonight, though -- the beautiful woman was Joe's Aunt Teresa, finally visiting her nephew after two years of relative exile. LaFiamma had been ecstatic when they'd picked her up from the airport three days before, and Levon didn't reckon he had calmed down yet. Even now they were talking to Annie, and Levon could hear his partner's laughter all the way across the room. He smiled. It was a good change. LaFiamma would be able to enjoy his holiday, unlike the years before when he had merely suffered through them graciously.

Mostly graciously. Lundy'd had to kick him in the seat of the pants once or twice, but in the end he'd been all right.

"It's nice she made it down this time," Joanne said as she stepped up beside him.

Levon gave her a nod. "It is at that. Ain't seen Joe quite so happy in a long time. Maybe ever."

"I know what you mean." His ex-partner and now-lieutenant glanced over at LaFiamma before shaking her head. "I don't really understand why no one's come down before now. Just because he can't go home doesn't mean they can't visit him."

There wasn't much to say to that, so Levon didn't try. He'd tried, early on in their partnership, to raise that very question but his partner had ignored him and changed the subject. Levon had known even then that LaFiamma's stubbornness would prevent him from learning anything by asking again. "Maybe this'll start a trend," he suggested instead.

"Maybe."

Before Joanne could say anything in reply, Levon saw her catch sight of someone in the crowd. From the look on her face he knew who it had to be, and nodded in the opposite direction.

"I'll run interference for you. Take off."

"Thanks, Levon," she gave him a relieved grin and ducked into the crowd. A few moments later Charles Bristen stepped up. The man wrote a column for the Who's Houston monthly journal and had been after Beaumont for weeks for an interview. Joanne thought the whole thing was a waste of her time as Bristen had a reputation for focusing on style instead of substance. A column on one of the leading businesswomen in Houston had discussed only how she was dressed and whether she looked old enough to own a business. In short, the man was slime, but unfortunately he was dating one of the clerks at the station and she had apparently brought him tonight.

Bristen slid up beside Levon, looking around with a puzzled expression. "Wasn't Lieutenant Beaumont here? I thought I saw her."

Levon gave the man a shrug. "Haven't seen her, Chuck."

"Really? I could have sworn it was her." Bristen gave him a quick look; Levon gave him an expression of casual innocence. "You wouldn't be covering for her would you? She hasn't been returning my phone calls -- one might think she didn't want to talk to me." The huge smile that accompanied the words was intended to make Bristen's audience doubt the sincerity of his claim.

It made Levon wonder why anyone would consent to date him in the first place. Maybe young Kristy felt she couldn't do any better, Levon thought. //Reason enough for us to set her up with somebody's brother, nephew, or next door neighbor. Anybody'd be better than this.// He'd seen Kristy around and while she was what some would call 'plain', she had a sweet sense of humour and a lot of spark. She didn't seem to be Chuck Bristen's type; his type dated overly thin women in short leather skirts and too much makeup. But instead he'd been dating Kristy, and had been for nearly a month.

As long as he'd been trying to get an interview with Joanne, he realized. Levon kept his expression neutral and regarded the man before him. An idea occurred, and he glanced over towards the back of the restaurant. "Hey, Chuck, there she is!"

Bristen spun, searching the crowd. "Where?"

"Just headed towards the ladies' room. I bet if you went and stood just outside the door you could catch her before she can get away again."

"Now there's an idea!" Bristen gave him a grin. "Thanks a lot, Levon."

"No problem," Levon muttered at Bristen's retreating form. As soon as the man had disappeared into the crowd he allowed himself a smile. He gave Bristen a moment to get settled in for the fruitless wait and turned the other way. He found Joanne near the dance floor and warned her not to head for the restrooms. With any luck Bristen would spend a good long while standing in the back hall.

"Thanks, Levon. For him I'll gladly walk next door!" Joanne gave him a grateful smile, then grabbed her husband's hand and led him out to dance.

Good deed for the evening done, Levon wandered away. He stopped before entering the dining room, deciding he didn't feel like mingling any longer. Instead he went outside. The night was cold and dry -- the kind of night LaFiamma teased him for calling "winter". Levon smiled, thinking of the argument they'd had just the other day about the local weather. He couldn't recall what had set them off, only that they'd spent a good half hour cheerfully insulting each other's preferred climates. LaFiamma had smirked at him when his aunt arrived and remarked first thing on how warm it was to be December.

Levon headed over to his truck where he'd left his coat. Winter or not, he was cold. He'd parked at the end of the lot, arriving after most of the others. By the time he reached his truck he was most definitely chilled, and only then realized his coat would be cold from sitting in the cab. Shaking his head at himself, he retrieved it and put it on anyway. Before shutting the truck door he looked up at the restaurant. The sign on the front read "Closed for Private Party - Come Back Tomorrow!" Someone had drawn in a Christmas tree wearing a policeman's hat.

He didn't feel like going back in. His partner was having a grand time letting his aunt hear stories of his escapades -- work related and not -- and trying to prevent Teresa from spreading more embarrassing stories about his childhood. Levon had already heard several over the last three days and he knew that despite his objections, Joe was enjoying the hell out of it. It wasn't difficult for Levon to figure out why. Only family knew those things about how you ate crayons when you were four, or dressed the dog in your cousin's underwear. Once Aunt Teresa went home, LaFiamma might come to regret those stories being told, but for now he was still too happy to be with part of his family.

It *was* a good thing but this time Levon didn't smile. He had never been as surrounded by family as his partner had back in Chicago, and as such he never felt their absence as often as LaFiamma. Levon knew, though he never mentioned it, that not a day went by that Joe didn't think of his family up north. His partner was growing used to being apart from them but that didn't mean he ever enjoyed it. Levon knew that this visit was the best thing that had happened in a very long time. Joe had made a dozen plans for his aunt's visit, and so far it looked like she was going to enjoy every single one.

His partner's pleasure was why Levon hadn't said a word about his own plans for the holidays. Grandmother Minnie had died this past summer, leaving him without any relatives besides his father. There was no chance that Lundy, Senior, would show up for Christmas and Levon preferred it that way. But that left him with no one to celebrate with. He knew himself well enough to know if he stayed home he'd only brood about it, thinking of Caroline and Minnie and all the rest. That in mind, he'd agreed to work through the week of Christmas, giving someone who wanted it the time off.

Tonight, though, he was alone. He pulled himself quickly into the cab of the truck, cold now from the door's being left open while he stared at the restaurant lost in thought. He started the engine, letting it warm itself up while he dug into his coat pockets for gloves. He didn't need to go in and let anyone know he was leaving. With a restaurant full of cops, someone was bound to notice he'd left. This way he wouldn't have to lie about why he was leaving. A glance at the temperature gauge told him the engine was warm enough to run the heater, so he switched it on and pulled the Jimmy out of the lot and into heavy evening traffic.

Tomorrow Joe would be taking his aunt to visit Hascombe Jewelers where she would, according to LaFiamma, happily spend the entire day. He had made reservations at Antonio's for lunch and Le Pria for dinner. Levon was invited to join them for lunch but he doubted he would go. Fancy Italian food wasn't his idea of a good meal, Joe's cooking notwithstanding. He'd make up for it by going with them to dinner on Sunday. He knew Joe wouldn't really mind.

He turned the truck towards home. The heater was taking the chill out of the cab and out of him as well. When he got home he'd have to check on Fooler, make sure the weather wasn't bothering him. It wouldn't be, he knew, but doing so would give him something to do once he arrived home. It was still fairly early and for a change there was little to be done around the house. No cleaning left over from the frenzy he'd gone through last week, when he'd been faced with two days off and nothing constructive to do except brood. He'd even slapped some patches on the barn roof to hold the leaks until he could buy new shingles.

Briefly he sat at a stop sign, wondering if he should turn north and head somewhere besides home. There was nowhere to go besides Chicken's -- even the Eagle was closed tonight for a private party. If he stopped for a beer and a game of pool he'd have to fend off Chicken's questions. Normally he didn't mind that, knowing he could ignore his friend as long as he needed to when the questions were ones he didn't want to answer. But Chicken would eventually give Joe a call, telling him his partner was in need of a more tenacious interrogator. Levon didn't want to upset Joe's holiday. LaFiamma finally had family to be with, while here Levon was left, for the first time, without any at all.

He turned his truck towards home. Maybe he'd sit down with some of Fooler's old bridles and repair them for Justin to use at his riding school. As he approached the ranch he glanced up at the night sky and saw, as the skyline and streetlights thinned, a few twinkling stars. It was a pretty night. He was almost glad to be seeing it.

Pulling up to the house he realised it was going to be a rough night. Too late to do anything, too early to do nothing -- he'd be sitting up for awhile, and he might as well accept it. Couldn't even go over to Joe's, because Teresa was in his room and Joe was on the couch, and anything Levon had to say to his partner would not be best said in front of witnesses. Ever since she'd arrived, Joe had been distant. Not intentionally, Levon knew that. LaFiamma was just so close to his Aunt that anyone else was by contrast far away. There wasn't even the impression that LaFiamma was trying to hide the full nature of their relationship -- rather Levon had simply slipped into the background, while Joe's attention was on his family.

Levon headed to the barn to check on Fooler. One of Justin's students was stopping by in the evenings to make sure the horse was fed and indoors before nightfall, just in case Levon was unable to get home in time. Levon saw that she had been here, taken care of everything there was to do. He admired her sense of responsibility, seeing how the stalls were swept and the tack all cleaned. Fooler nickered to him as he walked over.

"Didn't leave me anything to do, did she?" The horse nudged his shoulder as he stepped closer. He rubbed her nose, wishing he'd thought to bring her a treat. Tomorrow, perhaps, he'd get up early and go riding. He wasn't due into the station until nine. Joe had the next four days off, so he'd be stuck at his desk doing paperwork unless someone needed backup. Wasn't likely, things had been so busy the week before they'd only just started slowing down. They usually had a few quiet days after a crazy week like that before things became stirred up again.

It didn't bode well for his state of mind. Levon gave Fooler one last pat, and walked through the back door of the barn. The girl had even cleaned up outside. He'd have to leave her a little extra when he paid her Monday. Resigned, he headed for the house. It was going to be a long evening. Maybe this time he could settle on a book to read.


Paperwork was a mind-numbing experience. Nine hours of sitting at his desk filling out reports and catching up on his filing had numbed every last free brain cell in his head. Or so Levon felt, as he headed out to the garage. Buttoning up his jacket, he hurried to his truck, trying to decide whether to head for Chicken's. Didn't feel up to cooking for himself, but he didn't know if the crowd of friends and co-workers was something he could handle, either. Tired as he was -- he hadn't fallen asleep until nearly 3 this morning -- he couldn't quite fathom hanging out and not doing or saying something he'd regret. Like as not he'd have a beer, then start answering questions truthfully. "How's it going?" would get him into a world of trouble.

Didn't want to risk the Eagle, for similar reasons. Tired and out of sorts usually got him agreeing to things he seriously regretted afterwards. If he went to the Eagle he'd eventually start drinking hard liquor, and before he'd know it he'd be going home with somebody or heading for the back rooms. Morning would arrive and he'd have to hope he'd been sober enough not to have done anything really stupid -- and dangerous. He'd done it too often in the years past, just after Caroline died and again, when he'd first met his partner and had to redirect his initial impression -- bend the man over a fence and take him. Difficult as the last several weeks had been, making them even worse was something he knew to avoid.

Driving out of the garage so no one would wonder why he was sitting there, staring at nothing, he had no idea where he was headed. He turned left out of habit, heading towards home in case nothing else came to mind. Joe would be taking his Aunt to Le Pria tonight. He wondered if they'd had fun, doing whatever it was Teresa had wanted with the jeweler's. His partner had never said what it was she was looking for -- she might have simply wanted to see everything they had available and buy nothing. Levon didn't know if a place like Hascombe's minded that sort of thing or not.

Tomorrow... what were they doing tomorrow? Was he expected to join them after work? He tried to recall which among the myriad of things LaFiamma had talked about he had planned for tomorrow. Stopped at a light, Levon rubbed his head. It was difficult to think. The realisation made him laugh. All this time, he'd only needed a day of paperwork to distract him. With that as dubious comfort he decided to worry about tomorrow when it happened. Tonight he'd head for home, and hope the calming brain-death that the day had given him would last through the night.

When he reached his driveway he caught sight of the mailbox. He hadn't checked it in a few days, as was usual for him. He stopped and opened it, blinked for a moment at the stack of mail stuffed inside. Maybe it had been more than a few days. Reaching in he began scooping envelopes out, tossing them on to the seat beside him. With a grin he realised he had more paperwork to keep his brain numb. //Finally something goes right,// Levon said to himself once he cleared the box of all the mail. He was actually smiling as he drove up to the house.

The grin faded fast when he saw the rental car Joe's Aunt Teresa had picked up. She'd refused to ride in the Cobra sports car, saying she was too old to have 'wind-blown' as a hairstyle. Levon parked beside the BMW, seeing by the lights on in the house that LaFiamma had let his Aunt and himself in. He glanced at his watch -- they couldn't have already gone to dinner yet. Probably dropped by to pick him up, take him with them. He sighed. This was *not* how he'd wanted to spend his evening.

But it was close.

Gathering the mail he jumped out and headed for the door. He tried to ignore the feeling growing in his stomach. The numbness vanished like a boojum victim, thrust suddenly into hyped-up nervousness. At least his hands didn't shake as he opened the front door. He gave Teresa a polite smile. "Evening, ma'am. Joe." His partner was walking from the kitchen with a mug of coffee, which he gave to his aunt.

"Hey, Lundy, we were about to send up flares. The Lieutenant make you stay late?"

"Nah, you know how it is." He set the mail on the desk as he went past to the coat rack where he kept his jackets and holster. "Didn't notice how late it was -- time flies when you're doing paperwork."

"Right," LaFiamma laughed. "Good thing you weren't much later. Our reservations are for seven thirty. Hit the shower so we can get going."

Levon didn't reply, not expecting to have to refuse the invitation again to his partner's face. Glancing over at Teresa, he asked, "You been enjoying your visit?"

"Oh, immensely." The older lady smiled, and Levon was struck again by how easy it was to like her. "Joe's been a regular tour guide, showing me all the sights."

"You wanna chat later? We don't have a lot of time," Joe interrupted.

With a slight glare for his partner, Levon continued, "You find what you were looking for at Hascombe's?"

She smiled, sending her nephew a brief, amused look as if she'd bought Joe's gift there. "Yes, I did. They have lovely pieces. I'll have to be sure and visit them again."

Levon opened his mouth to say he was glad to hear she was coming back when Joe grabbed his arm. "Lundy, I don't really care if you shower or not but at least change your clothes, all right?"

"Keep your hat on, boy." Levon half-grinned, hiding the edge of despair that he could not see any way out of this that wouldn't worry his partner, or be flat-out rude. "I'm going." He turned, heading for the bedroom, and asked, "Where we headed, again?"

"Michael's, on Townshed. Nice place, so don't wear jeans, huh?"

Levon stopped, confused. "I thought that was Sunday."

"Lundy, it *is* Sunday." Joe was grinning, but Levon saw the worried look in his eyes.

"It is?" Levon counted back, trying to kick his apparently-still-dead brain into gear. The party had been Friday, and that was yesterday... wasn't it? "Did I sleep through Saturday or did they move the party last night?"

With a tolerant smile, LaFiamma answered, "The party was Saturday night. Are you OK?"

"Didn't get much sleep last night," he admitted. "I'd better go wash up and change."

Neither Joe nor his Aunt said anything as he left the room, but halfway there he realised Joe was following him. He glanced over his shoulder, continuing towards the bathroom. "Are you sure you're OK?"

"I'm fine, LaFiamma. Just tired. Sat at a desk all day -- that's be enough to fry anybody's brain." He started undressing, trying to think of what he could wear that would meet his partner's approval.

Joe reached over and moved Levon's hands away from his shirt, giving them a careful squeeze. "You feel up to going out?"

Levon met the other man's gaze. There was no way he could say no. Regardless of how he felt -- tired, anxious, depressed and aroused -- there was no way he could risk turning that tone of expected disappointment into reality. "Let me get a quick shower, and don't expect much of me until I've had some coffee, and I'll be fine." He was glad to see Joe's smile. He returned it, saying, "You could always help by finding something for me to change into."

"I'll do that," and suddenly it was over. As LaFiamma stepped back Levon realised that there had even *been* something, a moment of contact that could have meant something important. His hands still burned where Joe had held them, so totally unlike either of them. He didn't recall now a single time he'd held his partner's hand, beyond reaching out to help him up off the ground or out of the occasional ditch. He hurried into the bathroom, wanting to wash the feeling away before he could misunderstand it.

He left his clothes on the floor, scattered in a vague line towards the shower. He turned the water on, looking around for a clean towel while the water heated up. Catching sight of Joe staring his way, he grinned and shook his head. "Don't even think it, partner."

"How do you know what I'm thinking?" LaFiamma came forward, dropping clean briefs and a shirt on the counter. Levon recognised the shirt, and realised Joe had meant it when he'd said 'no jeans'. The only pair of dress pants he owned would soon be laying next to the shirt, he predicted.

"I've seen that look in your eyes before, LaFiamma." With a shake of his head Levon turned, unable to maintain the grin. He tested the water and found it hot, so he stepped under the spray. That look was the one he loved, the one that said all Joe could ever want was standing in front of him. All he could ever want with one exception, Levon reminded himself. He put his face under the water and hoped he would be able to step out of here with some semblance of control.

He heard the swish of the curtain being pulled back then his chin was grabbed and his head pulled out of the shower. Surprised, Levon opened his eyes in time to see LaFiamma grinning, right before he kissed him.

Levon shoved him back. "What the hell was that for?" The anger shocked him, but the frustration did not.

The look on Joe's face hurt to see. Surprise, confusion, disappointment. "I was only--"

"You'd better go wait in the other room, LaFiamma." With an effort, Levon got himself under control, and moved back into the spray of hot water.

"Levon, I didn't mean...."

He shoved the anger aside, trying for a neutral expression, and a neutral explanation. "LaFiamma, you keep standing there and I'm gonna drag you in here with me, and we'll all miss dinner. And *you'll* have to explain why to your Aunt."

"Oh!" Joe looked startled. Then he grinned, all trace of confusion gone. "That's right, I forget. I grew up with everybody in one big house. The only privacy you got was when you closed the door to your room. I wasn't even thinking... Sorry, Lundy."

"Just keep your hands to yourself," Levon muttered, grateful Joe had accepted the hint that Teresa's presence made him self-conscious. He watched his partner walk out of the bathroom before tugging the shower curtain back into place and was hit by the sharp sensation of loss. How could he explain that he wasn't embarrassed, just tired of being touched with lust and never love? Perhaps it was time to end their affair, he realised. It wouldn't hurt their friendship, or their partnership, to have had an affair and cut it off so soon. It was hurting entirely too much to be tortured with what he wanted, dangling mere inches away from his fingertips and yet stretched miles gone from his soul.

He didn't glance over as LaFiamma stepped back in the room only long enough to lay the rest of his outfit on the counter. Left alone, he finished his shower quickly. Grabbing his watch he saw they still had plenty of time so he lathered up to shave. Joe had teased him about his using the straight razor, until Levon had tipped him back in a kitchen chair and given the other man a shave. Joe's eyes had quickly begun to glow; as soon as the blade was safely put away Joe had attacked, wrestling Levon to the ground, and had his way with the unprotesting man. Afterwards, tired and wishing the kitchen were carpeted, Levon had asked if Joe still preferred an electric razor.

"An electric razor is faster, Lundy. Even if it isn't as much fun."

Levon glanced over. LaFiamma was in the doorway, a hint of the same electric glow shining in his eyes. "You impatient for a reason, or are you just dogging me for sport?" He grinned as his partner repeated his last words silently.

"Sometimes I wish you'd speak English. Or Italian. Something other than Texan."

Levon went back to his shave. "I'd have thought you'd have picked up the local language by now."

"Never. I'd never get to go home if they found out I spoke Texan." The words were said lightly but Levon could hear the underlying regret. He almost asked if the chances had gotten better, if Teresa had said anything about the deal being changed. He didn't want to know. Besides, he realised, if there was the slightest possibility Joe could go back to Chicago even for a visit, he'd already have been talking about nothing else.

Bad enough he still thought of Chicago as 'home'. He forced a light tone of his own. "Not to worry, LaFiamma." He deliberately mispronounced his partner's name, as he'd done so often in the beginning to annoy his partner. "No one will ever mistake you for a Texan."

"Thank god for small favours." The half-grin told Levon that the joking had not pushed the feelings far enough away. He wiped his face clean and leaned over, smiling as he gave Joe a quick kiss. The resulting surprised smile was all Levon needed.

"If you'll move out of the way I could get dressed." He couldn't hide the affection from his tone as he found that, depressed as he was, it made him feel better to see Joe happy. //You have got it bad, son,// he told himself as he began to get dressed. He noticed Joe made no effort to not watch. If only they'd been alone, he would have asked if LaFiamma saw anything he liked and from there it would be three short steps to the bed. However, Teresa was just down the hall, and despite his earlier misdirection that did make him self-conscious. An older, Catholic-Italian lady would have a dozen possible reasons for disapproving their actions. He had no real idea how she might react as it was something they'd never discussed. No need, for a casual no-strings affair.

He finished dressing and picked up his hat, wondering why Joe suddenly smiled. "It may be a fancy restaurant but it's still in Houston."

"Come on, Lundy. I'm hungry." All trace of regret was gone, replaced by an affectionate sort of tone of his own.

Levon headed out of the room. "It ain't too late to take her to Chicken's."

"No way, Lundy. I'm not taking my Aunt there."

"You aren't taking me where?" Teresa was standing by one of the walls, looking over the photos Levon had hanging of his various relatives.

"Chicken's -- it's this barbecue joint," Joe explained. "Not the sort of place you'd like."

She smiled. "Well, now I'm intrigued! If it's not my sort of place I think it sounds *quite* interesting. Do you eat there, Joey?" Levon laughed, glancing back to see his partner's embarrassed face.

"Well, yeah it's where the cops all hang out. The food's good, if you like that sort of thing--"

"Sounds like a fine place for lunch tomorrow," she said firmly. For a moment Levon thought Joe would protest, but after a moment he just shook his head.

"If you want to, Aunt Teresa. It's your vacation."

"Then it's settled. Levon, will you be able to join us?"

"I wouldn't miss it, Teresa," Levon replied, grinning at his partner's grimace of defeat. "Chicken's got the best barbecue you've ever ate...."


It wasn't until they were ordering dessert that anything went wrong. Throughout the evening Teresa had carried the conversation, whether asking Levon questions about himself or their work, or sharing more embarrassing stories from Joe's childhood. Levon had kept his eye on his partner, in case his obvious enjoyment became less sincere. It hadn't done so, not until Joe asked when he wanted to join them on Christmas Day, two days hence. Levon looked at his partner in surprise. He didn't have to say a word before Joe read everything off his face.

"Don't give me that, Lundy. You *are* spending Christmas with us." LaFiamma frowned at him, should he try to protest.

He tried anyway. "I didn't think you'd want me there -- don't you two wanna spend Christmas alone? I mean, the two of you?"

"Don't be ridiculous. You're family, you have to be there."

"I... I can't make it, Joe. I'm sorry." Levon tried not to think about 'family'.

He saw as Joe's face closed. "You made plans already?" The question was casual, slightly disbelieving. Levon wondered if he imagined the hurt underneath.

"I told Jason I'd take his shift."

"You're *working*?" The tension went away, replaced by only disbelief. "What for?"

Quietly, he admitted, "I figured better me than someone who had folks to spend the day with." It sounded lame even as he said it. He wished they were someplace else, not in the middle of a crowded restaurant in front of Joe's aunt. The look that appeared on Joe's face made him realise he wasn't the only one.

LaFiamma leaned forward, keeping his voice down with what sounded like an effort. "I thought you knew you were invited to spend it with me."

"That was before Teresa planned to come down." Levon glanced at her; she was politely pretending not to hear every word as she picked at the cheesecake she'd ordered.

This time the hurt on his partner's face was plain to see. Levon wanted nothing but to apologise and change his plans. "Why would that matter?" Joe objected. "The fact that Aunt Teresa's here just means there's three of us to fight over the last meatball. Don't you remember what you tell me whenever I get homesick? You tell me I'm part of your family. That goes both ways. You're family."

Levon couldn't help a small grin. "You really serve meatballs for Christmas dinner?"

"It's tradition," Teresa finally spoke up, gently. "Levon, you should come. It wouldn't be right not to have you there."

"I..." He glanced over to Joe, then explained to her, "I can't take the day off, now. Jason's already made plans to leave town tomorrow night."

"Then what about Christmas Eve? You'll be free then?"

Slowly, Levon smiled. "I'll be free then."

"Then we'll fight over meatballs tomorrow night." She smiled, and Levon laughed. Joe was smiling now, as well, and Levon was glad. He realised that the loneliness he'd been feeling, heightened when Teresa came and redirected his partner's attention, was softening. He met LaFiamma's gaze and chided himself for believing he had lost the last of his family when Minnie died.


Epilogue

Christmas Eve was spent at LaFiamma's place. A large dinner with all the trimmings -- including meatballs -- followed by homemade cannoli and wine. Levon had brought his gifts for Joe and Teresa, the latter picked out three weeks ago with his partner's help. Now Joe handed him a small wrapped box. "Merry Christmas, Levon."

"Should I ask when you got it, LaFiamma?" He teased, referring to his partner's habit of buying presents at the last minute.

"Just open it."

Levon gave him a look. Teresa had stepped into the kitchen to open a second bottle of wine and, as if waiting for it, Joe had taken that moment to give him his gift. Curious, he simply tore the paper. The box inside opened on a hinge; as soon as he saw the coiled leather band he stopped. Reaching in, he carefully drew it out, jaw dropped open. He glanced up at Joe -- his partner was smiling hopefully.

"You like it?"

Levon handed him the box and carefully uncoiled the hat band. The diamond solitaire in the center sparkled, tiny but clear. The leather band was smooth, polished until it shone, each side of the band decorated with small squares of gold-flecked stones. He traced one with a finger. "It's beautiful."

"That's jasper," LaFiamma said nervously. "At least that's what the guy at Hascombe said."

Levon grinned. "You *did* get my gift last minute."

"I needed Aunt Teresa's advice." Joe shrugged. "She has a better eye for this stuff than I do."

He looked back at the hat band, turning it slowly. "Joe, this is--"

"Don't, Levon. It wasn't too expensive. My cousins all sent checks for Christmas this year. Said something snide about living on a cop's pay. I think Aunt Teresa told them to."

"But you didn't have to--"

Again Joe cut him off. "I wanted to."

Levon stared at his partner. Everything about this was telling him something -- something he'd been trying to ignore, telling himself he imagined it or misunderstood. The look in the other man's eyes however was no longer hard to understand. "Joe...." Maybe it was just the wine, or the candles flickering on the table behind him.

"I can't tell you when it happened, so don't bother asking. I didn't even realise it, until Aunt Teresa said she was coming down and wanted to meet you. I couldn't figure out why she was telling me, at first. But apparently I was talking about you a lot... and she figured something was up. When she asked me I found out I couldn't deny it."

Throughout the speech, LaFiamma had been glancing at him and then quickly away. Levon wasn't sure what to make of it. Joe hadn't yet said what he'd expected to hear. "You couldn't, huh?" Levon repeated in a neutral tone, needing to know what his partner was talking about but not willing to come right out and ask.

Joe shrugged. "I'll admit it wasn't the most romantic way of finding out." He looked up at Levon, hopeful and half-smiling. "I never was very good at that sort of thing. Not when it was for real."

Levon didn't say a word. It struck him that as clumsy and unexpected as this was, it might very well really be happening. If he'd dreamt this it would have been easy and smooth, no doubts and no second-guesses. He felt the hat band still in his hand, heard Teresa beginning to clean up in the kitchen, quite obviously giving them time alone. He stared at LaFiamma, trying to understand, wondering what would happen if he said it aloud first.

"Levon?"

His partner was nervous, he could see that. //Probably as nervous as I am, maybe more since he knows what the hell he's trying to say.// Still, Levon said nothing.

"Levon, are you upset with me?"

That he could answer. "No," he shook his head slowly. "I just... can't believe I'm hearing this," he finished honestly.

Joe suddenly grinned and stepped closer. He put his hands on Levon's face, and finally said it. "I love you."

Levon stared at him. "You do, don't you?" He was still barely able to think.

"Yeah, I do." LaFiamma was still smiling.

He tried to answer, but nothing came out. Why was it so hard to say? He'd been doing nothing else but think it for so long. He tried again, and whispered, "I love you, too."

The smile changed, dimmed as if by regret. "I know." Joe leaned forward and kissed him. Levon opened his mouth, letting his partner in while his brain still whirled... then the meaning sunk in and he broke off the embrace.

"What do you mean 'you know'?" He saw his partner's smile change to the old familiar grin, casual and flippant. Before Joe could answer, Levon shook his head. "Nevermind, I'll ask you tomorrow." And he leaned forward again and resumed the kiss.

Several moments later he heard Teresa ask, "Does this mean I get the last cannoli, too?"


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