Single White Fillies, Part Two

Co-written with Wolfling. [website]

After a few more hours' sleep, Levon looked much more relaxed. He rolled over against Joe and smiled.

Joe smiled back. "See?" he teased. "It is still possible for us to be near a bed and just sleep. I was starting to wonder."

"Were you? If I'd known I'd have let you sleep earlier... coulda stayed in another room." Levon belied his words by snuggling closer.

"No you couldn't," Joe replied with certainty.

"Coulda offered?"

"Nope."

Levon looked up at him. "Maybe we should stay up half the night more often on a stakeout?"

"I'm sure we will, but I can think of better reasons to be up half the night."

"Thought you said you wanted to sleep."

The conversation was interrupted by a very light tap on the door. Joe exchanged glances with his husband, then got up, throwing on his robe and going to answer the door. Carrie, one of the fillies, was standing there. She was dressed in a T-shirt and sweat pants, obviously purchased from the hotel's gift shop. She looked nervous.

Levon got out of bed and walked over, waving her inside.

"I didn't know... if you wanted to be left alone," she said hesitantly.

"It's all right, Carrie. What do you need?" Levon asked calmly. He almost sounded like Taylor.

Casually, Joe picked up and handed Levon his robe. Levon took it, apparently absently since he held it for a moment before realizing what it was, only then putting it on with a mischievous glance to Joe.

Carrie had waited, and spoke only when Levon looked at her again expectantly. "We were talking about Roffman, and didn't know if you only wanted to know about his dealings with Harper or anything else that he's done."

That activated the cop instincts right fast. But Joe resisted saying anything, knowing Carrie would be more comfortable if Levon was the one to draw the information out.

He had learned some about centaurs after all this time.

"Like what, Carrie?" Levon asked gently.

The filly seemed to be growing more at ease, and finally she began talking, almost mile a minute. "We heard some things and saw a few things that we always knew were odd, but you know we didn't ever say anything to Roffman or anyone else about them. But between the four of us we've seen ten people disappear and they've all been either clients or employees. They disappear completely, at least so far they've never turned up. At least there's never been any mention in the newspapers about them showing up again and no one ever said anything at the club or on the streets."

Levon looked at her, surprised. "You have any names?"

Joe got out his notepad and pen and wrote the names down as Carrie recited them. You had to love centaur memories. She had eight full names and two partial names, along with physical descriptions of each and addresses of two who had been fellow employees. She even gave them dates each person was last seen, who they had been with last -- as far as any of them knew -- and how long they had been associated with Roffman.

"Thanks, Carrie. We'll get Ellison and Sandburg working on these names, see if they can turn any of 'em up." Levon said when she finally came to a stop.

"Yeah," Joe said, speaking for the first time. "You've been a big help."

The teenager practically glowed under the praise then blushed.

"Thanks," she said to Joe, giving Levon a questioning glance. Levon ignored it, though, and the curiosity vanished into acceptance. "Should we stay at the hotel today?" she asked.

"You need anything you can't get here?" Levon inquired.

She shook her head, but said, "There's not much to do but watch TV."

"It shouldn't be for much longer," Joe reassured her.

"Okay," she nodded. "But don't blame us if we get hooked on Guiding Light," she grinned. It made her look very different from the young prostitute she had been just the night before.

Levon laughed. "We can stop by a bookstore if it's gonna be much longer. Don't want to risk y'all out on the street while Roffman and Harper are still loose."

That sobered the girl up quickly. She nodded mutely.

"We're going back out, now," Levon explained. "You need anything before we leave?"

She shook her head, then took a step forward. Levon smiled and gave her a hug before sending her back to her room. When she was gone, he sighed, and sat on the bed. "Remind me why it is I wanted kids of my own?" he said in a distracted tone.

Joe froze. "You wanted kids?" he asked softly.

Levon looked up at him, blinking in a confusion which cleared rapidly. "When I was about twelve I did. Wanted to go back and take the herd over..." He stood up and walked over to Joe. "Stopped really wanting them a long time ago."

"How long?" Again Joe kept his voice soft and gentle. This could become a touchy subject. Levon didn't reply right away. "It's okay," Joe said, even if he wasn't sure, entirely, that it was.

"It hasn't been since I met you, Joe. And I never really wanted to have to kill Taylor," he added.

"Did you think of having kids with Caroline?" Joe wondered out loud. Then almost immediately tensed, regretting the question.

"I couldn't... couldn't when she didn't know what I was. After... she never touched me, much less slept with me."

"And then you fell for me."

Levon grinned happily and corrected him, "Found you. Fell for you when I was four, if you remember."

Joe felt any doubts or guilt he had fall away at Levon's smile. If Levon was still wishing for kids, it wasn't something that he was brooding on. "I remember," he replied smiling back.

They sat in silence for a while. Then Levon sat up suddenly. "We need to call Ellison, give him those names."

Names? It took Joe a few seconds to get his brain back on the case. "Right," he finally said, picking up the phone.

Ellison answered on the second ring. He sounded muzzy, as if he'd been asleep.

Or something.

"Ellison."

"It's Joe LaFiamma. Listen, the fillies just gave us some more information about Roffman's op. Apparently people disappear."

"What?" Ellison sounded suddenly awake. "Disappear how?"

"Just gone. They gave us some names to check."

There was a pause, then, "All right."

Joe rattled off the list of names then asked, "Do we still meet at the Fantasia at noon?"

"I think Blair and I better head to the station to check this out. If you and Lundy can stake out the club, watch for Roffman...?"

"Will do. Let us know if you find out anything."

"Hang on...Blair wants me to tell you -- if you see Roffman, Blair wants his left leg broken in two places. Any two places." Ellison sounded amused, and very slightly disturbed as he relayed the message.

"Only two?" Joe asked, equally amused and slightly disturbed. He knew that if Levon got his hands on Roffman a broken leg would be the least of the man's worries.

"I think he figures Levon can have the other leg."

Joe grinned. "At least."

"We'll come by Fantasia and relieve you at four unless one of us finds something before then."

"Sounds good. Talk to you later."

Levon was watching him when he turned back around. "We meeting at the club?" his husband asked.

"Nah, we're staking it out while they run down the list of names."

Levon nodded and got up to find his clothes. They headed back to the club and resumed their stakeout. The street wasn't much changed from the night before. There were fewer cars and the bright neon lights didn't glare so harshly, but the people were still the same, if a bit more desperate. Tired bums shuffled through the crowds during the day, exchanging nods with unenthusiastic hookers. Here and there a drunk stumbled or lay sleeping it off in a corner.

"Levon?" Joe asked after about half an hour thinking about the last part of the conversation he'd had with Ellison.

"Yeah?" Levon didn't take his attention off the club.

"What's gonna happen when we find Roffman?"

There was a pause. Then, "I don't know. Depends on what he does."

"You gonna kill him?" He was amazed at how level his voice sounded on that question.

There was another pause. "I want to," his mate finally said.

"Not what I asked," Joe pointed out, keeping any accusation out of his voice.

Levon glanced at him. "I know we need information from him. After...I reckon it depends on if you tell me not to."

Joe looked back at him. "Would it make a difference if I did?" he asked bluntly. "It didn't with Alexander."

Levon flushed, and stammered, "Was already fighting him...I meant if you told me before. It might stop me."

"Might?"

Levon shrugged apologetically. "I can't say for sure. I'd do everything possible to do what you tell me to. But those fillies...what Roffman did to them. He deserves to die." Levon's voice changed slightly, as if he'd just realized something. "Have to keep him from trying to take 'em back."

Joe blinked then spoke slowly and calmly to his partner. "Levon, he's going to prison. He won't have a chance to take them back."

He watched as Levon digested this. "Yeah...."

Joe couldn't tell if Levon was convinced he didn't have reason to attack Roffman.

"I'd rather you didn't kill him," he finally said, reluctantly giving Levon the order. He wasn't sure if that would work or even be a good idea, considering how it had backfired last time he tried in this kind of situation.

Levon rather unexpectedly laughed.

"What?" That hadn't been the reaction he'd been expecting, not by a long shot.

"You ever think you'd be having this kinda conversation? Given how you humans are about killing a fella that needed it and all?"

Joe shook his head. "I'm not sure what you mean..."

Levon grinned, but it died fast. "Just meant you telling me that...and meaning it. Or is this anything like what you expected life to be like, back before we met?" The mischievous sparkle was still in his eyes, but there was a hesitant note in his voice, as if he was no longer sure the joke was all that funny.

Joe grinned at him. "I can safely say that life with you is something I never could have predicted before we met."

"Just keeping you agile." Levon grinned again and focused on the club once more.

Nodding his head in agreement Joe added, "And flexible."

There was a pause, and Joe had to check to see if Levon's eyes were glazing over. They weren't. In fact they were clear and practically blazing. And staring out the window toward the club. Joe followed the direction of the stare and saw...

Roffman. Heading into his club.

Levon grabbed the door handle and was climbing out of the car. Shit. No time to call for backup, Joe bailed out of the car to chase after his partner.

He caught up with Levon as Levon caught Roffman behind the club in the almost empty parking lot. Levon grabbed the man and tossed him towards the garishly painted brick wall.

"Levon!" Joe yelled. "We need information out of him, remember?"

His enraged husband stopped just long enough for Joe to get a better grip on his arm and tug it away from Roffman's face. Behind them he suddenly heard Ellison yelling, "Sandburg!"

That was all the warning Joe got as suddenly a curly-haired whirlwind dove at Roffman, picking up where Levon had left off. Levon didn't even bother getting out of Blair's way. He did, however, pull Roffman away from the wall and aim him towards Blair.

Ellison was only half a step behind, trying to get a hold of his partner. Emphasis on the trying. Blair was squirming and dodging even as he was attacking Roffman. He seemed intent on carrying out his threat of trampling the guy's face.

Not that Joe had much time to worry about Blair. He had his own hands full holding back Levon, who at least he'd gotten a good grip on, something Ellison was still trying to get on Blair. Roffman was being no help at all, of course. He was screaming and trying his best to cower, but Levon and Blair kept landing near-solid punches, kicks, and once, another slam against the wall.

Ellison finally managed to trip Blair backwards, and half-sat on him, yelling his name. Joe meanwhile had bodily hauled Levon back and managed to get himself between his lover and Roffman, who had curled up on the ground in a protective ball by this point.

Slowly Levon and Blair calmed down.

Ellison got to his feet, pulling Blair up as well. Levon was still snarling at Roffman, but Joe was able to hold him back. This time, at least, Joe didn't try to simply order him to stop. Not until he was able to listen to reason again.

Blair seemed to be regaining his senses quicker. Ellison was standing between him and Roffman, holding onto both of Blair's arms and talking to him in an intense low tone. Finally Blair took a deep breath and nodded. Jim let him go. Joe tensed for a moment, but all the younger man did was glare at the pitiful heap on the ground.

"You need any help?" Jim asked, walking over to stand between Levon and Roffman. Levon was still focused on Roffman, but no longer fighting so hard to get to him.

"I can handle it," Joe replied, but added, "Thanks."

Ellison turned to Roffman, and pulled the guy to his feet. "Anything broken?"

Roffman merely stammered incomprehensibly, then yelled, "Keep those maniacs away from me!"

Levon tried to take a step forward, but didn't try to get around Joe.

Blair had tensed at Roffman's words but didn't move, though the man was lucky looks couldn't kill.

Joe felt Levon's hand suddenly close around his arm, and turned to find Levon looking at him. "I'm gonna kill him, Joe." It wasn't a threat, it sounded more like a plea.

"Can't let you do that partner," Joe replied, meeting Levon's eyes and willing him to listen.

Levon nodded ever so slightly. He didn't let go of Joe, but he did relax as the command sank in.

"Come on, Chief, let's get this guy into protective custody," Ellison said. "I think we can find something to arrest him for."

"Uhm..." Blair fidgeted. "I think maybe you and Joe better handle that. At the moment Levon and I are part of what you're protecting him from."

"Can you hold Lundy?" Ellison asked, doubtfully.

Blair grinned for a second. "I can handle him, don't worry."

"You going to be okay with that?" Joe asked Levon.

Levon nodded. He didn't let go of Joe until Blair had walked over and stepped into Joe's place. Levon was standing calmly -- more or less -- but the way he kept looking over at Roffman made Joe realize he was still quite willing to resume the attack.

Ellison had Roffman against the wall, and was cuffing him. The man was yelling and protesting, demanding a lawyer, demanding that Blair and Levon be arrested instead of him, demanding to know what right they had to take him in.

"You have the right to remain silent," Joe told him. "I suggest you use it. Or we'll take a coffee break and leave you to our partners."

Roffman shut up quickly after that.

Ellison dug out the Miranda card and read it as Joe helped drag Roffman to Jim's truck. Levon watched Roffman every step of the way, but remained where he was. When Roffman looked back at them, Levon growled.

"Go on," Blair encouraged. "We'll follow in my car."

Joe nodded, and climbed into the passenger side of Jim's truck after Roffman. Levon stared after them, whether he was focusing on Joe or Roffman wasn't entirely clear.

"Blair'll take care of him," Jim said quietly.

Joe repeated that to himself as they drove off, but he knew he wouldn't totally relax until Blair and Levon had caught up with them at the station. Roffman, for his part, was still whimpering about siccing his lawyer on them all just as soon as he got his phone call.

Ellison barely glanced at him. "You gonna tell him about those underage prostitutes?"

"I don't know what you're talking about!" the man insisted, but even Joe could tell he was lying.

"Uh-huh." Ellison sounded completely disinterested.

"Tell it to your lawyer," Joe chimed in. "And while you're at it, tell him we have the girls themselves willing to testify."

"That's impossible!" Roffman blustered. "They'd never-" Abruptly he clamped his mouth shut.

"Should've taken my advice about that right to remain silent," Joe observed.

They were able to get Roffman into the slow grind of being booked, and left him to the tender mercies of the clerks. Ellison casually mentioned the man's 16-year-old employees, and the woman behind the desk flashed a glare at Roffman. He was going to have a very unpleasant encounter with the police department, Joe was certain.

As soon as Roffman was taken away for booking, Ellison turned to Joe. "You wanna grab a cup of coffee or head back downstairs to wait for Lundy and Sandburg?"

Joe regarded the other detective thoughtfully. Ellison looked like a man wanting to ask a few questions. Remembering how he had felt in the first days after he had found out about Levon, Joe decided to give him a chance to ask. "Coffee sounds good," he said, then added, "Somewhere where we can talk while we drink it?"

Ellison nodded, looking relieved -- or maybe encouraged. "The break- room on the fourth floor has decent coffee." He led Joe down the hallway to the elevators.

The ride on the elevator was silent as was the walk through the halls to the fourth floor break room. It was only when they had each gotten a cup of coffee and were ensconced at the room's table with the door closed that Ellison finally started talking.

"I hope Roffman gives us what we need on Harper... so we won't have wasted our time prying our partners off him."

"He will," Joe asserted. "Or we threaten not to pull them off next time." He grinned slightly. "Sort of the ultimate good cop, bad cop play."

"Yeah, except they're serious." Ellison looked a little disturbed. It was no wonder, really.

"First time Sandburg's gone off like that?"

Ellison nodded, then stopped. "Not really... but he's never been ballistic. He's usually real easy-going but once he's pushed he pushes back -- hard -- but he's never lost control like that." He swirled the coffee in his cup, apparently content to play with it instead of drink it.

Joe nodded knowingly. "It can really throw you for a loop, can't it?"

There was no response for a moment, then Ellison looked at him. "Is Lundy like that? A lot? I mean, now that I know about Blair is he going to go off half-cocked all the time, because he can?"

"Levon does have some triggers that he might not have had if he'd been born human. But they don't come up much on the job. He's one of the best damned cops I've ever worked with, regardless of species."

Ellison looked relieved to hear that. He still looked troubled, but Joe figured he'd either spill, ask Blair, or just worry about it.

Finally, "How long have you known about your partner?"

"Met him when I was 7." Joe grinned at the surprised expression. "It was when I was on vacation, we ran into each other at an amusement park. We snuck away from our chaperones and spent the day together. Didn't see him again until I got transferred to Houston 6 years ago."

Jim just stared, then managed, "And I thought Blair's and my meeting was improbable."

"Oh?"

He grinned. "It's a long story."

Joe got the feeling that it wasn't just long. He didn't pry -- he knew, if anyone did, about secrets.

"So you've known he was a centaur since you were seven?"

"Nah. Only found that out about a year and a half ago. And I only found out then because Levon had to change to get us out of a sealed storage room." He smiled. "Long story."

They exchanged understanding grins, and Ellison shook his head. "Ever get a owner's manual?"

Joe snorted. "I wish. It would make life a hell of a lot more easier."

There was a very brief pause. "How do you manage?"

He gave the question serious thought. "I'm not sure sometimes," he admitted. "Sometimes it can be like we're talking two different languages. But we always seem to muddle through somehow. We have to." He shrugged. "The alternative is unthinkable."

"I hear that," Jim said, then laughed once. "I can't believe I said that."

Joe looked at him, puzzled.

"Naomi says that constantly. I didn't realize I'd picked it up from her."

"I know what you mean. I couldn't believe it the first time I heard the word 'reckon' come out of my mouth."

"I reckon it happens to all of us," Jim said with a straight face.

"I hear that," Joe replied.

There was silence again, and Joe wondered if Jim was going to ever get around to the rest of his questions.

Ellison was staring off into the distance when he said, "Blair told me I could ask him anything, and he'd tell me. But I don't have a clue what I want to know."

Joe nodded, that was the same problem he had with Levon: constantly stumbling over centaur instinct/cultural landmines because he hadn't even known enough to ask if they were there.

"It can be tough," he said slowly. "Some things that look like there's a big difference in the end aren't very big at all. Other differences that appear small or non-existent can suddenly come out of left field and hit you upside the head."

"Like what?" Jim asked hesitantly.

"Like...foot rubs."

"Excuse me?" Jim blinked. He knew Blair could go completely to jello after a good foot rub, but then, so did he.

"It has to do with being in human form too long or something -- I'm not sure of the medical particulars -- but a centaur in human form has more sensitive feet than a human. And if they stay in human form for too long they start to get sore. Which, if nothing is done, can lead to more serious problems when they do change back."

Like a lot of centaur facts, Joe had learned this the hard way. Levon had come up limping after a run one morning. He could still remember the riot act that Maggie had read both of them when she had come out to treat Levon.

Levon had protested that he hadn't known it was serious. When he'd admitted that he was just used to his feet hurting, Maggie had literally cuffed him on the ear. She'd made him promise -- had Joe make him promise -- to spend enough time in centaur form that it didn't become a problem, and to darn well ask for a footrub when they hurt.

Ellison was staring at him again, dumbfounded. "Are you sure there isn't a manual I can pick up somewhere?"

Joe shook his head. "Sorry. If there is, nobody's told me."

"Maybe I should...." Jim trailed off, thinking. "Maybe I should just have him tell me everything. Sort it out later." He shook his head. "And I thought life was complicated before."

"Ah, you do know about the centaur memory, right? 'Everything' would be a lot."

Jim smirked. "It always was, with Blair. Ask a simple question and get a lecture on every culture in the history of mankind's relevant similarities. As long as I have a tape recorder going I'm okay." He grinned.

"Maybe you'll be able to write that manual then."

"Nah, I'll let Blair do it." Again a smile and distracted look appeared, as if Ellison were saying more than he were saying.

"Well, it would've been nice to have. Take the dominance thing for example." Joe watched Ellison stiffen at the reference. "I used to get myself wrapped up in knots over it all the time. I just kept thinking about how I'd react if somebody tried to give me an order. But for Levon, me ordering him around isn't a big deal. At least it's not as long as I do it. It's what he expects, it's what he needs me to do. Took me a long time to figure that one out."

"He doesn't have a problem with it? I think I can see why those girls would need that. But Levon? Can't he take care of himself?" Ellison sounded completely baffled. Joe could empathize.

"Of course he can. I wouldn't have him for my partner otherwise. But this instinct about dominance, it's hardwired into his brain. He can't change how he reacts."

This appeared to puzzle Ellison further. "If he can take care of himself...then how can it be hardwired? Wouldn't that be a contradiction?"

Again Joe took his time about answering, wanting to find just the right words. "Centaurs have a lot of skills and advantages that a human doesn't have. But they also have instincts and abilities that can be drawbacks in certain situations. They could get into a lot of trouble if they didn't have someone looking out for them, counteracting their instinctive response when it's required."

"Huh." Ellison stared at him. Slowly he added, "I guess that makes sense." Joe had the feeling Ellison understood exactly what he was saying.

"I hope so. Took me long enough to get it through my thick skull."

"So I wonder if..." he stopped, and looked rather uncomfortable. He suddenly put his mug down, and asked, "They should be here by now -- shall we go find them before Blair gets them kidnapped?"

"Is this a common problem with him?" Joe asked as he got to his feet and started for the door.

Jim sighed. "You have no idea."

"Guess he wouldn't hold still for you to attach a tracking device huh?"

Jim just smiled mysteriously.


Blair watched Jim's truck until it was out of sight, only then feeling his muscles start to relax.

The intensity of his reaction to Roffman had taken him totally by surprise. He'd never felt the need to challenge that strongly. If Jim hadn't pulled him off....

"If I see him again, he's dead," Levon said almost calmly. He was still tensed, and Blair knew if he let go, the stallion would likely take off after Roffman.

So he didn't let go.

He tried to calm down Levon with words. "I know how you feel," Boy, did he! "But we need him alive." The words didn't carry as much conviction as they usually would've, but it was the best he could manage considering his own feelings on the matter.

"I know. But if he even looks like he's going after my girls--" Levon cut himself off.

"I know, man. I know." What else could Blair say? If Roffman did go after the fillies again he knew there was no force that would stop Levon from going after him. 'And I'm not sure there's a force that'll be able to stop me either, if it comes to that.'

Levon finally looked at him. "You can let go now," he suggested. "I couldn't catch him now anyhow." He grinned slightly. "Not dressed."

Blair grinned back, relaxing even more as he let go of the other man.

Levon sighed, stepped back, and then paced a bit to work off the extra energy. He stopped once, shook his head, and then paced some more.

"Too much excess nervous energy, huh?" Blair was well aware of the phenomenon, suffering from it himself quite often.

"Yeah...had a hell of a time, lately." He glanced over. "Don't suppose Rustin's got a place nearby we could borrow?"

"No, but Jim says he's got a friend with some land we can use. We were planning on going out there when this case is over."

"Don't suppose...?" Levon was still fidgeting, but no longer pacing.

Blair grinned. "You can come along. I'll square it with Jim."

"Thanks. I'd appreciate it and I know Joe would too." Levon finally came to a stop and looked almost collected once more.

"I like Joe," Blair said. "He seems like a great guy."

Levon's smile said it all. Brilliant, warm, and delighted. "He is," was all he said. He continued grinning, almost foolishly, then ducked his head as if he realized how he looked.

Blair laughed. "Oh man, have you got it bad!"

Levon nodded. "Yeah. Reckon I do." He looked thoughtful for a moment, then just continued smiling. "It's nice, though. Being in love...."

Blair thought of Jim and felt his own mouth turning upwards into a fatuous grin. "Yeah," he agreed. "It is."

Levon smirked. "Thought so."

"Okay, so I've got it bad too!" He grinned good-naturedly. "There's worse things to be."

"Yeah...glad to see it's serious this time," Levon teased.

He shrugged. "We all got to grow up sometime," he said, making it sound like something to avoid at all costs.

"Uh-huh...that mean I should let Marilee know you're no longer interested?"

Blair felt himself blush, even as a tiny part of him began to worry over the implications of the statement. Surely the filly still wasn't... "She's not still waiting is she?" he asked, a certain panic hiding in his tone.

Levon laughed, sharply and delightedly. It was a moment before he shook his head. "Blair, she had a foal by Taylor two years ago. She's been busy chasing her own boy since."

"Oh." He paused. "Good."

"She named him Blair."

Again a short pause as the panic momentarily reasserted itself. "Oh," he said again. Marilee had really been a determined young filly when last he'd seen her.

"Doesn't look a thing like you, if it makes you feel better."

Levon had begun to slowly pace again. This time he didn't appear to be working off excess energy, he seemed merely to be wandering...the way full-bloods seemed to do, sometimes. Blair had never figured out why. Too much like horses, he'd once told his mother. Privately. She'd just laughed and looked pointedly at where he had been pacing as they'd talked.

Maybe he had more centaur blood in him than he liked to admit at times. Like now. Attacking Roffman like that. It was so off the curve of his normal reactions. But he hadn't been able to help himself. The second he'd laid eyes on the man he'd just seen red.

Then he'd stopped thinking altogether.

"Blair?" Levon interrupted his thoughts.

"Hmm?"

Levon looked slightly nervous as he asked, "You just told Jim a couple days ago?"

Shaking himself out of his mental meanderings Blair turned his attention to the conversation at hand. "Yeah. I had to, it was the only way he'd believe me about the fillies. Probably a good thing. I'm not sure how long I would've continued putting off telling him otherwise." He looked questioningly at Levon, wondering at the source of his nervousness. Not knowing what was making Levon nervous was making him nervous.

"You weren't gonna tell him, then?" Levon looked surprised, but not entirely so.

"Not exactly. I planned on telling him, even got as far a couple of times as 'Jim, there's something I have to tell you,' but I always chickened out in the end." He half smiled. "I was afraid he'd freak on me or something. And even though I knew he had a right to know, I just couldn't bring myself to say the words."

Levon nodded. He paced a bit more, surveying the parking lot around them, then asked, "Did he? Freak, I mean?"

Blair laughed. "A little. But not really. Actually I think he's still in shock. I keep expecting him to freak any day now."

"When I told Joe I expected him to pack up and leave. The relationship, and the partnership."

Ah. "But he didn't, did he?"

"No...wasn't until I found out his grandma had told him stories about centaurs when he was a kid that I realized why. He already sorta believed."

Blair nodded. "Jim didn't have any relatives telling him centaur stories but he's had some experience with stuff that's outside most people's knowledge. Or beliefs. I think that's one of the reasons he's as okay with it as he is."

"You think he's okay with it? Going to be once the shock wears off?"

"Yeah," he said after some serious thought. "I think so. As I said, Jim's used to weird." 'And he couldn't get much weirder than me!' he added to himself.

Levon just nodded. He still looked nervous, but when he spoke up again it was only to say, "Probably a good thing."

Blair nodded then ventured cautiously, "Is there something you wanted to ask me about this? Or talk about?"

"Humans are just...so hard to figure sometimes." Levon finally looked at him squarely. "Why is it folks like Joe, and Jim, accept it without so much as a by your leave, when others go completely to pieces?"

Eyes widening in sudden understanding Blair said, "Caroline."

Levon nodded and turned away. Pacing. "The second time Joe ever saw me change...he wanted to make love. Caroline couldn't stand the sight of me even in human form after she knew."

"That's rough man. No wonder you thought Joe would leave."

"I think I pushed him more that first week than I ever did the entire time we were just partners. He never left. Never threatened to leave, never stopped showing up...strange thing is I thought I loved Caroline as much as I did Joe, at first."

"Hard to love someone who's pushing you away," Blair observed. Then almost as an afterthought, thinking about the early days of his own relationship with Jim, when the sentinel had been doing all he could to keep him at arm's length, he added, "Real love can survive it though."

"Guess it's obvious she didn't really love me." Levon said it absently.

"Probably not," Blair said softly. "But are you sure you really loved her?"

"Thought I did. Until I fell in love with Joe." He shook his head in amazement. "It just don't compare."

Blair grinned. "That's your answer then."

"Yeah...now all I gotta do is hang onto him." Levon returned the grin suddenly. "Which doesn't look to be too hard. Though if we don't get going we're liable to be in some trouble." Levon paused, and teased, "One of us will, anyhow." He knew Blair didn't have to answer to Jim the way Levon did to Joe.

But Blair shook his head. "Both of us. If I don't let Jim yell at me when he's upset, he sulks."

That made Levon burst into laughter again. "You have to let him yell? Lord...." He suddenly stopped laughing, but continued grinning widely. "Hell, Joe near said the same thing to me. Told me to yell when I got angry...told me I could get angry when it was warranted."

"Expressing his anger has never been a problem of Jim's. Now, getting him to tell me when something is bothering him...that's what takes the work."

"Too bad you can't just tell him."

Blair laughed rather nervously. "Man, you want to talk about something that will freak him..."

Levon raised an eyebrow, confused. The confusion gave way to surprise. "He doesn't know?"

A nervous smile pasted on his face, Blair shook his head mutely.

"Oh gods, Blair...what are you gonna do when he finds out? Or do you think you can hide this from him, too?"

Oddly, Levon didn't sound upset. Just confused. As if he understood the benefit of keeping that particular piece of information quiet.

"It's worked so far," Blair replied weakly. He knew he should tell Jim, that there was no justification for keeping silent, other than his own fear of the outcome.

"When I told Joe, he freaked. Nearly lost him a couple times, I think. Didn't want to be dominant."

Blair nodded. "Humans have problems understanding about it sometimes. Though if that was the case with Jim I think we'd be okay. He has this whole protector-take-care-of-Blair thing happening."

Levon grinned. "I noticed. You don't seem to mind."

"I don't. It's such a part of him, he couldn't stop if he tried. And..." Blair smiled, looking a bit embarrassed, "it's nice to have someone worry about you sometimes without having to let them dominate you." A shrug. "Must be my human blood."

"Huh." Levon regarded him. "Must be," he finally agreed. He glanced at the car, and repeated, "Think we could head on to the station before Joe's after my tail?"

"I thought you liked him after your tail," Blair teased but started for the car nonetheless.

"Depends what he wants it for," Levon replied. "Don't like having him looking for me 'cause he's worried."

Blair sobered at that, thinking of Jim. "Yeah, I know the feeling," he muttered then slipped behind the wheel of his car. "Come on. Let's go before they decide to put an APB out on us."


Jim was about ready to start pacing -- like Joe had begun doing two minutes before. Blair and Levon hadn't shown up yet. They'd gone down to the parking garage in case Levon had been unable to come upstairs, but the Volvo was nowhere to be found.

Jim had checked the area as thoroughly as he could without risking a zone-out, and Blair was nowhere to be found. Jim told himself that he'd been kidding when he'd said Blair might get kidnapped.

Finally, just when he was on the verge of climbing in his truck and going looking, he heard the distinctive sound of the Volvo's engines coming this way. He noticed LaFiamma look at him strangely as he relaxed and turned expectantly to the garage's entrance.

A few minutes later Blair pulled into the garage. Jim heard his partner whisper, "Oh hell...we're too late." Then his voice rose slightly as he spoke to Lundy, "Prepare to get yelled at, Levon."

But when Blair and Levon climbed rather shamed-facedly out of the car all Joe did was look his partner over thoroughly then ask in a quiet intent voice, "You okay?"

"Yeah, we're fine. Didn't mean to take so long." He grinned at Joe. "Got to talking."

Jim, meanwhile, was eyeing Blair. He didn't appear to have been kidnapped, threatened, or even had the wind blow on him too hard. He narrowed his eyes. "Stop for coffee on the way?"

Blair gave that nervous half laugh of his. "Sorry Jim. We kinda needed the time to talk ourselves down. Didn't mean to worry you."

He hadn't realized they would need the downtime, but as Blair said it, Jim realized he understood. All that adrenaline had to go somewhere, and it didn't go all at once. He reached out, tapped Blair on the cheek and found the reassurance he needed. Blair was fine.

"We've got Roffman upstairs. Should be ready for questioning." Jim looked over at Lundy.

Lundy just shrugged. "Hell, we work on the third floor most of the time. Should be fine."

"If you're sure, cowboy." LaFiamma still looked worried.

Levon shrugged again, and it looked to Jim like he was tired of being the one keeping them from their work. "If it ain't, I'll say so," Levon told his partner mildly.

It was strange to see how Levon deferred to Joe, even when it sounded on the surface as if he were not. Jim wondered if it was intentional, to let it appear as if Joe weren't totally in charge.

"Come on, Jim," Blair said, bouncing on the balls of his feet beside him. "Let's get this show on the road, already."

"All right," Jim conceded. He led the group back towards the elevators, then glanced over.

Levon grinned. "Mind if we take the stairs just in case?"

"Stairs it is," Joe said, heading for the stairwell. Glancing at Jim and Blair he added, "You two can take the elevator if you want, we'll meet you up there -- seventh floor right?"

Jim shrugged. "That's okay." He didn't want to explain how he'd know if they had to turn around if he and Blair were in the elevator. He ignored the look Blair gave him, and patted him on the shoulder. "You can use the exercise, Chief."

"Remind me to challenge you to a race sometime," Blair told him, a wicked glint in his eyes. "Then we'll see who needs the exercise."

"I thought I was going to get to ride," Jim said as he followed Blair up the stairs, two steps behind, so he could pinch anything that needed it.

Blair grinned. "Yeah, you will, when I have to carry your exhausted carcass back to the truck," he said, then with a burst of speed began running up the stairs, well out of Jim's reach.

Luckily for Jim he could keep his other senses as fully trained on his lover as he could with his sense of touch when Blair was nearby. He grinned, saw Joe grinning at him, and continued up at a slower rate.

Levon didn't appear to be having any trouble, though Jim noticed Joe was staying right next to him.

"Kid's fast," Joe noted idly, as the sounds of Blair's footsteps echoed down the stairwell.

"What'd you expect?" Levon asked. Jim noted that he sounded calm, as well. Maybe he'd gotten over his trip on the plane, as he'd said.

"He's faster than you," Joe pointed out.

Levon grinned. "You ain't never seen me run."

"What were we doing last month when we were chasing that murder suspect? Waltzing?"

"I meant without my boots on."

"You mean a born and bred Texan like yourself would actually voluntarily go without his boots? Not counting when you have hooves."

"'Course not," Levon gave him a friendly frown. "That's my point."

Jim noticed that Blair had stopped two flights up, and hid his smile as his lover whispered down to him.

"You want a real workout Jim, I'll give you one when we get home." Blair then proceeded to elaborate on exactly what said workout would entail. Jim stumbled and had to grab the railing to save himself when Blair started talking about where he was going to put the honey that was in the fridge.

When Joe glanced over he just gave the man a blank look. Jim promised himself to hold Blair to the promises he was making.

They all made it up to the seventh floor without incident. Jim casually monitored Lundy's vital signs and found no hint of the panic the other man had displayed the day before.

He wasn't the only one checking Lundy out, he noticed; LaFiamma was practically glued to the man's side, eyes scanning his partner's face for any hint of a problem. As they stepped out of the stairwell, Lundy looked around. After a moment he looked back at Joe. "It's all right, Joe," he said very quietly.

Jim glared at his own partner for trying to distract him (and mostly succeeding), but it just bounced right off.

"So, we need to check in with Simon first or do we just go shakedown Roffman now?" Blair asked.

"I say you check in with Simon first," said Captain Banks. Jim just grinned as his partner reacted to Simon's voice behind him.

Blair jumped and spun, shooting Jim a dirty look before smiling at the Captain. "Hi Simon," he said brightly. "Guess you heard we caught Roffman, huh?"

"I heard," Simon had dryly. "You four going to question him?"

"We were on our way now," Jim spoke up. "Did you want to sit in on it, sir?"

Blair tensed and shook his head 'no' minutely, his gaze flicking to Levon, a mute reminder why that might not be the best suggestion.

Jim rested his hand on Blair's back briefly. He knew Simon shouldn't be there, but the only way to keep him from showing up unexpectedly halfway through was to either have him there from the beginning or not at all. And if he said yes, they could send Blair and Levon to check the computer for information on...something.

Fortunately Simon shook his head. "I'm headed up to see the Chief. Let me know what you find out."

"Will do, Simon."

They watched the Captain get on the elevator. Blair let out a sigh of relief when the doors closed. "That was close," he muttered.

"Nah. If he'd said yes, I would have just let you talk him out of it," Jim smiled at Blair.

He wondered if a foot rub would get him out of the trouble the look Blair gave him seemed to indicate he was getting himself into.

"Let's go get this interrogation started," Joe said quickly, just as Blair opened his mouth to say something else.

The police observer glanced at Joe and Levon, then nodded. "Sounds good," he agreed.

It didn't take long for them to get set up in interrogation room #4. Roffman was brought up, and Jim took Blair aside. "Are you and Levon going to watch from the other room?" He nodded towards the observation room.

Blair started to shake his head "No" but one glance at Levon seemed to change his mind. "Yeah, guess we better," he sighed.

Joe was also looking intently at his partner. "You going to be okay with that?"

"Sure," Levon said easily. "Don't figure on killing him here, anyhow. Too many witnesses." He winked, making anyone who overheard believe he was only joking.

"As long as you save some for me," Blair chimed in, in the same joking tone. Jim could see his eyes were serious though.

"Come on," Jim said to Joe. He hoped they could get some answers out of Roffman without any trouble. He knew the two centaurs wouldn't sit still very long, and if Roffman didn't cooperate....

It could get ugly.

Joe nodded, and followed him into the interrogation room. They found Roffman sitting in the chair, the guard behind him. Roffman glared as they came in -- Jim noticed the way his heart rate sped up then slowed as he realised who hadn't entered.

Jim casually went over and leaned against the wall next to the large one-way mirror. Blair was right on the other side. Jim felt the heat of his hand touch the mirror briefly.

Joe also glanced at the mirror for a moment before telling the guard they could take it from there. The guard nodded and left.

"So, Roffman. When'd you start employing kids?" Jim asked easily.

Roffman didn't answer. He just kept staring stoically straight ahead, making a large show out of ignoring the two detectives.

"Don't be this way, Roffman." Jim walked over and leaned on the table. "I don't want to clean up the mess."

"You can't do nothing to me," Roffman answered. "I have the right to remain silent, remember? He-" he nodded in Joe's direction, "-pointed that out rather forcefully."

"Yeah, like you've ever listened to anything a cop's asked you to do before," Joe snorted.

"You can remain silent," Jim agreed. "But I can't guarantee you'll enjoy it." He was keeping an ear on the two centaurs. They both seemed basically calm so far. "I think you'll be much happier if you tell us what you know."

Roffman spread his hands. "I don't know anything."

"That's too bad." Jim shook his head. He leaned closer, and lowered his voice. "I would hate to see you not make it to your trial."

"Yeah," Joe chimed in. "You never know what kind of accident might happen to you, if you're not careful."

"So why don't you save us the trouble of trying to keep you alive?" Jim asked, and was pleased to notice Roffman's reaction. It was slight, but there. "Harper," Jim repeated.

"I told you. I don't know him."

Joe made a show of sitting on the edge of the table with a weary sigh. "You're really not letting us make this easy on you."

"You think we should just let Lundy and Sandburg question him?" Jim asked LaFiamma. He hoped Roffman believed he was perfectly willing to do so, since he was but figured he ought not.

"Yeah, might as well," Joe replied, looking at the floor. "Looks like the blood stains should be easy to clean up in here afterwards."

Roffman's eyes got bigger and bigger as he listened. "You can't do that!" he protested.

Jim looked at him in surprise. "It's not like we have a choice, Roffman. You're no good to us unless you know something about Harper. Might as well let our partners have some fun." He grinned, as if the idea pleased him.

"Yeah," Joe agreed. "Lundy's gonna be hell to live with if he doesn't get this out of his system."

Roffman by now was making funny little strangling noises. Jim glanced over at him, but spoke to Joe. "Blair's the same. Paces all night and keeps the neighbors awake, ranting...." He heard Blair stifling a laugh.

"Might as well let them have this scumbag then. If we're not going to get information out of him, at least we can let our partners work out their frustrations." Joe got up and headed for the door.

"No, wait!"

"What?" Jim glared at him.

"You can't let them in here! They'll kill me!"

"Yeah, probably," Joe agreed. "Though if you scream loud enough maybe they'll stop at maiming." He turned towards the door again...

"All right! I'll talk!" Roffman yelled, then slumped in his chair and repeated in quieter, defeated tones, "I'll talk."

Jim folded his arms across his chest. "Then talk."

He heard a very muffled "Damn," from Blair. He glanced through the mirror at his lover, wondering if Blair were joking.

Joe moved back over and again perched on the edge of the table. "Harper," he said.

"Yeah, I know him."

"Where is he?" Jim asked.

"I don't know."

"What do you know?"

Roffman took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. "He owns a shipping company -- Exotic Trade."

"So?" Jim pretended not to care. They could check out the company, but if Roffman knew anything more they had to get it now before he decided he wasn't in any actual danger.

"He uses it for smuggling. Importing drugs and exporting..." he trailed off.

"Exporting what?" Joe demanded.

"People, okay? He exports people."

Joe's eyes narrowed. "You talking slavery?"

"I don't know -- I guess so. Look, all I know is that he gives me a list of certain characteristics he's looking for and he pays me if I can deliver people that meet them." The man didn't sound like he particularly cared about any of it except the "pays me" part.

Jim had Roffman by the shirt, staring him in the face. In the other room the centaurs had reacted equally violently; what was preventing them from coming into the room was beyond him. Jim didn't care. He was going to tear Roffman apart, himself. "Those names the girls gave us. People who've disappeared over the last three months... you sold them?" Roffman just stared back at him, eyes wide and terrified. Jim heard Blair talking to him, softly, calmly.

"Rip his fingers off first," his Guide was advising him. "You might want to squeeze his throat a bit harder too, so he can't scream."

It wasn't how he expected Blair to calm him down, but it worked. He tossed Roffman back into the chair, not caring when the man fell over it to the floor.

Joe bent down and just as casually picked Roffman back up. "Where do you deliver the people to?" he asked in a quiet threatening voice, all the more the menacing for its lack of volume.

"W-warehouse," Roffman stuttered, so terrified he was shaking. "On 9th str-street. 8798 9th Street!"

Jim glanced at LaFiamma. "We'll check it out." He looked back at Roffman. "Anything else you'd like to add?"

But Roffman seemed beyond coherent speech. Joe let go of him and he slid back down to the floor, curling into a small ball and keeping a wary eye on the two detectives.

"Guess not," Joe said with a shrug.

Jim went and knocked on the door; the guard came in, eyeing Roffman quizzically. He didn't say anything, and Jim simply pushed past him to rejoin Blair.

Blair was waiting in the hallway with Levon, practically vibrating with anger, but he was still in control of himself, more or less. Levon on the other hand...

He had slammed into Joe, eyes on Roffman as the man was taken away. Jim realized immediately that LaFiamma was going to have trouble holding him back and grabbed onto Lundy's arm.

"Calm down!" Joe was telling his partner but the words didn't seem to have much effect as Lundy lunged forward again, managing to drag both Joe and Jim several steps.

This seemed to bring Blair out of his own rage as he, too, grabbed onto Lundy to help hold him back. "Get him out of line of sight," he advised, then nodded at the door to the observation room still standing open. "There."

Between the three of them they managed to drag Levon into the room and shut the door. Removing Roffman from Levon's line of sight didn't have an immediate effect. He continued to struggle to get past the three, unable to do so and not hearing a word any of them said. Jim managed to get a better grip, as did Blair, and between them they were able to prevent Lundy from breaking for the door.

Joe meanwhile was holding Levon's face between his hands, making his partner look directly at him, while he continued a long soliloquy of meaningless words. Jim realized with a start that it was the same tone a person would use trying to soothe a spooked horse.

It seemed to work just as well on centaurs because as Joe spoke, slowly, gradually, Levon began to calm down.

It was, Jim told himself, a little weird. No weirder than a Guide talking his Sentinel out of freaking, he admitted a second later. But still something to get used to. He had a moment to wonder when his life had dropped into the Twilight Zone and when it was going to drop him back out.

Finally Jim detected the relaxation in Levon's tensed muscles and heard the changed tone in Joe's voice. "You back with us?" Joe asked, searching his partner's face carefully.

There was a moment of silence, then Levon said, "Yeah."

Neither Jim nor Blair let go. Joe stared at him for another long searching moment, then relaxed. "You can let him go," he said to the two men still holding Levon. Jim stepped back; after a brief hesitation Blair did likewise.

For a moment they simply stood there, waiting. Then Jim said, "We have to check out the address Roffman gave us." He wondered if it was a good idea to take the two centaurs -- he and LaFiamma couldn't handle them going insane and look for Harper.

"Yeah," Joe replied, his eyes still on Levon.

"We going to wait for the search warrant to come through?" Blair asked. "Or...?"

Jim gave Blair a brief look. "We'd better get the warrant just in case we find something." Something we want to admit to finding, that was. "Why don't you," he included the three of them as he spoke, "see what you can find out about Exotic Trade while I talk to Simon."

Blair nodded. "Sounds like a plan." He glanced at the other two then turned back to Jim adding in a serious tone, "Don't even think about ditching us and going over there on your own."

"Chief!" Jim protested. Granted the thought hadn't occurred to him...'til now. Lundy suddenly grinned and said to Blair, "Why don't I go with Jim? You know he won't take off with me, by his lonesome."

Blair was grinning at the expression on Jim's face. "Yeah," he agreed. "You I can trust."

Jim gave his partner a wounded look. Forget about the foot rub, he told himself. "Come on, then," he told Lundy, giving the man -- er, centaur -- a half-smile to let him know it wasn't personal.

Levon looked briefly at Joe, then followed Jim out of the room.

Jim kept tabs on his partner as they headed for the elevators; Blair was taking Joe back towards their desk, already jabbering a-mile-a- minute about the last time Jim had done something similar. He rolled his eyes; it wasn't fair, he wasn't even there to defend himself.

Levon followed his gaze and then smiled ruefully. "Reckon they're trading stories."

"Yeah," Jim agreed. "As long as they don't trade too many." He grinned, and from Levon's expression he knew Levon agreed.

When the elevator doors opened and they stepped on, Jim said nothing. He did check everything there was to check about a person's state of mind. If a centaur was anything like a human, Lundy was a little excited.

That could be easily explained by Roffman, though.

The doors closed and the elevator started moving. Beside him Levon fidgeted, shifting his weight from foot to foot. "You know the worst thing about elevators," he began conversationally, "is there's no room to pace."

"Sorry; guess we should have taken the stairs." He'd assumed Lundy would have said something before they'd stepped on if it was going to be a problem. He could hear Blair's reply to that assumption, however. He winced.

Fortunately it was only two flights up; it wasn't long before the doors opened and they stepped out again. Jim headed down the hallway, having caught Simon's voice coming from one of the conference rooms.

Levon followed; Jim could hear his sigh of relief as they left the elevator behind them. He gave himself a little Blairesque kick and reminded himself to take the stairs back down. It appeared that centaurs could be as high-maintenance as spirit guides.

They found the conference door shut, and from the sound of it Simon was just winding up his pitch. If they interrupted now, chances were they'd lose the extra funding Simon was asking for -- and Jim didn't want to be the one responsible for that.

He held up a hand, indicating they would have to wait a minute. Fortunately Simon could be heard through the door at normal levels so he didn't have to worry about Lundy asking what they were waiting for.

Levon nodded, leaning back casually against the wall. They waited in mutual silence for a few minutes before Levon shifted uncomfortably. "About what happened downstairs..." he began.

Jim shook his head. "Forget it." It wasn't like he didn't understand about being out of control.

It was apparent Levon wasn't willing to just let it drop. "That's not a usual thing with me when I'm working. Usually I can keep my job and what I am separate." He shrugged. "This case though..."

"The girls make that much of a difference?"

Levon nodded. "I'm responsible for them. Anybody threatens them and..." He grinned humorlessly. "Well, you've seen what happens."

"Like they were your own." He looked at Lundy, curiously. "What about when you...give them to Taylor?"

"I'll be extremely relieved."

The comment surprised him. As fiercely as Lundy had taken to being the fillies' protector, or whatever they called it, he would have thought it would have been difficult to just hand them over to someone else. Unless it wasn't like a human being responsible for a child, becoming a parent suddenly and unexpectedly -- the analogy he'd finally settled on to explain the situation to himself.

Levon had been watching him shrewdly. "That surprises you."

"I thought...I guess I misunderstood what it was all about. Your being responsible for them."

Simon was still talking to the Chief, trying to convince him to add just one more thing to the budget requests. One of those one more things was a desk for Blair, equipped with a computer, printer, and modem. Jim stayed out in the hall.

Levon nodded. "Joe had a hard time understanding the way it worked at first too."

"So how does it work? If I can ask?"

"It's because we're basically herd animals, I think. Everything is looked at with a herd mentality."

"So...that means you can hand off the girls to someone else? And it doesn't matter to you or them?" Jim didn't have a clue what Lundy meant.

"It matters but not in the way you're thinking. The best place for those fillies is in a herd. Taylor's is one of the best." Levon grinned suddenly. "And I'm not just saying that because he's my father."

Jim wondered if a chart would help. Maybe he could get Blair to sit down and explain centaur kin groups and family structure to him. "So you're saying they have to be in a family and it doesn't matter if it's you, or Taylor, who's in charge of it?"

"As long as it's someone who can look after them. They'd be better off with Taylor though. I'd make a lousy head stallion." Lundy sounded matter-of-fact.

Jim was about to ask why when he realized Simon was about to come out. He looked towards the door; Simon stepped out and caught sight of them.

"Find something?" he asked.

"An address. We need a warrant," Jim explained. He gave Simon the relevant information -- heavily edited, the way Simon liked it.

"All right," Simon finally said. "I'll make some phone calls and get you the warrant ASAP. Just don't get carried away, Jim, okay?"

"Why does everyone say that?" It wasn't like he was the one trying to kill anybody. This time.

"Past experience?" Simon guessed.

Jim just glowered. "We'll be downstairs," he said, and gave Lundy a nudge towards the stairs at the opposite end of the hallway.

Simon frowned. "What's wrong with the elevators?"

"Too loud," Jim said and hurried past.

Levon gave him a quizzical look as they started down the stairs but refrained from saying anything.

Jim hoped they caught Harper, soon. It was hard to hide when you were working a case with someone. Despite what Blair said, he was not going to tell anyone about being a Sentinel. Even if they were a centaur, and a centaur's partner.

Could life get any stranger?


The search warrant was quickly obtained, and a task force to execute it just as quickly assembled. Part of Joe wished that the latter hadn't been necessary, that they could've taken the place down themselves but his common sense overrode that thought. A warehouse that big with a criminal this ruthless, there was no telling how many men might be inside. Or how well armed.

He just hoped that there wouldn't be any more centaur freakouts to have to explain away. The thought made him glance over at his partner; Levon seemed perfectly fine so far, all cool and business. He only hoped he stayed that way.

Levon walked over and nodded at him, running his hand through his hair before replacing his hat. Joe realized it made his partner stand out - - in a sea of blue baseball caps, the black cowboy hat was a visual oddity. Visual oddities made good targets.

'You can take the centaur out of Texas,' he thought with amusement, 'but you can't take the Texas out of the centaur.' Levon gave him a brief look of outrage as Joe reached over and removed the hat. "Not sure this is the time you want to be standing out," Joe explained.

"Thought you were gonna tell me it was rude," Levon said, grinning.

"Well, busting into a place with guns drawn isn't exactly the height of manners either."

Ellison and Sandburg walked over, Ellison dressed in the same flak jacket as the other cops. Sandburg had only a kevlar vest. "You two will be riding with Johnson and Myers," Ellison explained, nodding towards two men. "When we arrive we four will be taking the main offices while the rest of the team sweeps the warehouse."

Joe nodded. "Sounds good. We're going now?"

"If you two are ready?"

"As we'll ever be." He tossed Levon's hat in through the open window of the car. "Let's do it." He was pleased to notice his aim was nearly perfect -- the hat landed upside-down. Too much practice, he supposed. Though taking off his husband's hat usually meant better things than heading into a shoot-out.

The drive to the warehouse was short and tense. They arrived silently, no sirens or lights to alert their suspects. They parked just out of sight of the front doors; uniformed men and women gathered, then scattered like well-trained soldiers.

Joe took up his appointed position, Levon right beside him. He glanced over and saw Jim taking up the position opposite, Blair a step behind him, lightly resting his hand on Jim's back. For reassurance? Joe wasn't sure, but it felt like there was something more to it than that.

As he watched, Ellison seemed to concentrate on something. He said something to Blair, then spoke into the radio. "Go."

The first wave of officers headed for the doors, the others covering them from protected positions. Joe and Levon were in the second group. When the man at the door ducked inside, followed quickly by a second and third, the rest began to move forward.

There were shouts of surprise from inside, followed by police orders being yelled. But no shots rang out.

In a surprisingly short time they had the main part of the warehouse secured and were fanning out to check the other areas. As designated, Joe and Levon headed for the offices along with Jim and Blair.

The offices were quickly emptied of their staff. Officers rounded a few men up and took them away, leaving the three detectives and Blair to search the office. Levon put his pistol away and joined Blair digging through the papers while Ellison remained on guard near the outer door and Joe kept an eye on the rear door.

"Jackpot!" Blair cried, holding up a thick wad of files. "Man, you gotta love a criminal who keeps such neat records!"

"What have you got, Chief?" Ellison asked, not deterring from his patrol through the front offices.

Blair smiled in triumph. "A listing of an unspecified shipping of merchandise, dates and quantities matching what Roffman told us. This is a record of where he shipped those people off to."

"Where'd he send them?" Levon asked, still shuffling through a stack of files on another desk.

"There's a variety of destinations but mostly to the far and Middle East."

Levon suddenly asked, as he held up a file, "Shipped any to an outfit called "East-West Trade Service Incorporated"?"

"Let me check..." Blair flipped through the papers. "Yeah, about three quarters in several different countries."

"Got 'em." Levon brought over the folder. "East-West has been shipping back certain inventory in payment for those people. The DEA says that inventory is usually heroin."

"That just about puts the last nail in the coffin," Joe agreed. He was dividing his attention between standing guard and what Levon and Blair were doing.

"Just one problem," Levon said.

"No Harper," Blair finished.

"There's no sign of him in the warehouse," Ellison said to Blair, then glanced very quickly towards Joe and Levon.

"How can you be so sure?" Joe asked. "They might turn up something yet."

Ellison tapped the radio's earpiece. "They'd have said something if they'd found him."

Joe saw Levon shoot him a look of disbelief, but his partner didn't say anything.

"He could still be hiding somewhere," Joe protested.

Just then they all heard the report from the Myers, the second-in- command. "Warehouse is clear, Detective Ellison. Everyone's been rounded up. No sign of your Harper, though."

Joe looked at Ellison, eyes narrowed in speculation. There was something going on with the man, he was sure. The bland look Jim had assumed did nothing to dampen his suspicions.

"So now what? Issue a warrant for Harper's arrest and hope he turns up?" Levon asked.

"We'll track him down," Blair said, sounding confident.

"Hope so. Otherwise our Lieutenant may not let us come home," Levon grinned.

Joe nodded. "Looks like we might be around to meet your mother after all," he said with a sigh.


They had returned to the station and appeased Simon with both arrests of Harper's goons and the shipping manifests, inventories, and purchase orders. The paperwork had made the captain a pleased man until Jim admitted they hadn't caught Harper.

After being told unnecessarily to catch him already, the four were back in the parking garage, trying to decide what else they could do.

"He's got to be somewhere," Blair was saying. "Maybe we should go over the warehouse again for clues." The look he shot Jim made it clear he meant using sentinel abilities. Jim ignored him.

Joe shook his head. "We've been over that warehouse with a fine- toothed comb. There's nothing there."

"Well do you have a better idea?" Blair asked bluntly.

"Not right now," he said. "Except for food."

"Sounds like a good idea to me," Levon agreed.

"I could eat," Blair admitted.

"That surprises me," Jim grinned. "Ow," he added a moment later.

"Any 'eat like a horse' comments and you'll be sleeping on the couch tonight," Blair warned, grinning slightly as Jim rubbed his side where Blair had just jabbed him with an elbow.

"So where do you want to go?" Jim asked. He got an unexpected image in his mind of roping Blair, and missed the first answer Blair gave.

"Sounds good to me," Joe replied, looking interested, while Levon merely looked resigned.

"That okay with you, Jim?" Blair asked in his most innocent voice, making Jim wonder suspiciously just where his partner had suggested.

"Yeah, that's fine," he said absently. He was rewarded with such a bright smile that he knew it had to be a place he hated.

Blair was heading towards his Volvo, and for once Jim was glad he wasn't allowed behind its wheel. Asking where they were going would only lead to his eventually confessing to his thoughts. He didn't want to know what Blair thought about being tied up...in front of witnesses.

He might ask once they were home alone.

Jim blinked, and found he'd mini-zoned again. The soft chuckle from his partner beside him told him that it hadn't gone unnoticed this time. He glanced over and gave a tiny shrug. At least he wasn't zoning on something stupid, like the bouncing end of a pencil, which Rafe had been flipping against the desk as he worked. It seemed to Jim that sometimes these so-called gifts of heightened senses picked the dumbest things to find interesting.

Blair turned down a side street and Jim had to suppress a groan when he finally figured out where they were heading. No wonder Blair had smiled so brightly at his agreement! No matter -- it would be good for Blair to think he'd agreed intentionally, and he could eat again later, at home.

"What does this place serve, anyhow?" Levon asked as Blair headed into a parking lot.

"Vietnamese vegetarian. Best place on the West Coast for it!"

Jim noted that Levon looked less than enthusiastic at this pronouncement. Jim tried to catch Blair's eye and suggest that maybe their guests would prefer something else, but his partner was already heading for the door. He was bouncing excitedly, introducing them to the hostess as she greeted them and extolling the virtues of various dishes.

As Jim watched, he decided that seeing Blair like this was worth starving for another hour. Levon had, on the other hand, sent his own partner a pitiful look.

Joe looked remarkably unmoved by that. "You know that doesn't work for Boots either," he told his partner.

Levon shrugged. "Had to try. This way when they feed me sprouts and celery I can say I told you so."

The hostess showed them to a table near a wall, away from the main part of the dining crowd. Jim sat down and picked up the menu. It hadn't changed. He sighed and closed it again, deciding, as usual, to let Blair order for them both. Jim had no idea what he would end up with -- but at least with Blair ordering it wouldn't be too spicy, or too salty, or too...anything.

"You recommend anything?" Levon asked Blair.

"Twenty-seven and thirty-two are my favorites," Blair replied pointing out the numbered items. "Number five is pretty good too."

"What about nineteen?" Joe asked perusing the menu with interest.

Blair shrugged. "Never tried it but everything I have tried is good so..."

Levon was reading the descriptions of the dishes. Finally he gave up and put the menu on the table. "Don't know what half of these things are anyhow," he said.

"That's the whole point, cowboy, to try something new. Come on, Levon," Joe cajoled. "Live dangerously. Eat something that's not barbecued for a change."

Levon suddenly grinned. "That mean I can't have the barbecued tempeh?"

Joe looked startled for a few seconds then shook his head, laughing. "Trust you to find the barbecue on any menu..."

"You know what tempeh is, Lundy?" Jim felt compelled to ask.

Levon nodded. "Yeah...it ain't meat, but it's close enough."

"Least it's barbecued," Joe teased.

"Damn straight," Lundy agreed.

Somehow during all this Blair had managed to place two orders. The waitress went to take Joe's and Levon's orders, and Jim nodded his thanks to Blair. Blair just grinned at him knowingly.

"So this friend of yours...will he lets us come out and use his place?" Levon asked once the waitress had moved on.

Jim nodded. "I have a standing invitation."

"You mind if we head out there tonight?" Levon continued at the surprised looks he got -- and the concerned one from Joe -- "I wanna get the fillies outta the hotel," he explained.

Jim shrugged. "It's fine, far as I know. Adam's out of town until next month anyhow. Won't be any witnesses."

Blair grinned. "Even better."

It took him a moment, but then Jim realized why Blair was grinning. He smiled slowly. The prospect of going riding with Blair... made him nervous.

Across the table he watched as the other two grinned and exchanged conspiratorial looks. "So," Joe began casually, "anybody feel like an after-dinner ride?"

Levon laughed. Jim wondered if, as well as controlling his senses, he could learn to control the blood flow to his face.


"Man, this place is great!"

Jim watched as Blair looked around the ranch property, seemingly trying to see everything at once, even resorting to spinning in place.

It was huge, wide-open spaces in-between long expanses of forest. It was relaxing. Out here he didn't have to keep such a tight control over his senses. Letting them open, he could hear the animals throughout the area, see the clouds and birds high up in the sky in fine detail, smell the rich earth and.... He reined in his sense of smell.

No point in invading their guests' privacy.

"You sure we're alone out here?" Blair asked, practically dancing on the spot, he was fidgeting so much.

"I'm certain, Chief. No one but us--" he stopped, and added quietly, "For miles."

A huge smile split Blair's face. "Great!" He began undressing.

Jim just watched. He was aware that Lundy and LaFiamma were off a short distance, and he could hear the four girls laughing and talking.

Clothes went flying in all directions and then Blair was standing there naked. He grinned at Jim, winked and then changed.

It was slightly less weird, this time. At least his senses didn't insist that Blair had been replaced with a horse. When Blair was standing before him, fully changed, Jim walked forward and brushed his hand down his partner's back.

"Forgot your tail," Levon called out.

"What?!" Blair jumped and twisted around frantically to look, only relaxing when he had spotted said appendage, right where it was supposed to be. "Ha ha," he said, scowling at Levon. "Very funny."

Levon chuckled again, and said quickly, "Keep telling you, you can't forget anything, boy." Levon -- in centaur form, Jim suddenly realized -- walked over. "You do fine."

Jim, however, was still glaring at Levon.

Joe, who had followed his partner over, raised an eyebrow challengingly at Jim. "Got a problem?" he asked, an edge of threat to his voice.

It felt silly to voice -- like being on the playground again in first grade. He said it anyway, to Levon. "Was that necessary?"

Levon shrugged. "Boy's gonna learn to lighten up about it sooner or later. He's too skittish about the whole thing." The look he sent Blair wasn't apologetic, but it wasn't threatening either.

"It's okay, Jim," Blair told him, laying a hand on his arm. "Levon's right. I really am a bit too jumpy about the whole thing. I know it's silly."

Jim scowled again for good measure. "And making you jumpier helps?"

"You're more upset about this than I am," Blair observed, sounding surprised.

Jim shrugged, surprised a little himself that Blair should comment on it. Maybe he still didn't like that Levon knew a lot more about his partner that he did.

Levon was about to comment again, when he turned his head as one of the fillies called. "Excuse me," he told them, and trotted over.

Joe eyed them for a moment, then followed.

"It was just a joke, Jim," Blair said after a moment of watching his partner. "Not an attack. Levon didn't mean anything by it."

Jim sighed. "Yeah. I guess you're right." He looked up. "I guess I'm just a bit jumpy myself."

"Still trying to get used to all this, huh?" Blair gave him an understanding smile.

Jim nodded.

"Hey, Ellison?" Levon called over. "How far does your friend's land go?"

"About seven miles in all directions but that one," he pointed. "Goes nearly ten that way."

Levon nodded, and spoke to the fillies. Jim heard him tell them they could run wherever they liked, as long as they stayed a good mile from each border, and to meet them back here in an hour.

"So," he said to Blair. "I ride bareback?"

Blair looked startled for a second then grinned brightly. "Yeah. That's not a problem is it?"

"No...as long as you stand still while I mount up."

Behind them, Joe had already gotten astride Levon's back and they were discussing whether to wait for them, or head off on their own. Joe looked totally at ease astride his partner, as if it was just a normal everyday thing.

Actually, maybe for them it was, Jim thought as he turned his attention to his own partner who held out a hand to help boost Jim onto his back. With a bit of trepidation, Jim took it and swung astride as smoothly as he could manage. He blinked as he found himself settled on Blair's back. Then he realized he was in a perfect position; he reached out and began playing with the curls that were running wild across Blair's shoulders.

Blair sighed contentedly and leaned into the touch.

Jim heard a low chuckle and turned to find both Joe and Levon grinning at them. "Remind me to tell you about the power of brushes," Joe told him.

Jim could feel the tensing and trembling in Blair's muscles as he shivered at the words. "Oh man," he breathed. "Do you know how long it's been?"

"Too long?" Jim asked, wondering what brushes had to do with anything...unless LaFiamma meant curry combs. He considered the long, horsehair-covered body beneath him. Yeah, that might feel good, at that.

"Waaay too long," Blair replied with enthusiasm.

"We'll have to come out here again," Jim promised. Blair wasn't the only one who was enjoying this. The outdoors, so far away from the city noises, was like a balm. He was relaxing from tension he hadn't realized he'd had.

"That reminds me," Levon spoke up. "Would it be all right if the fillies stayed out here until we're ready to take 'em back to Texas?"

Jim wasn't sure if the question was being directed to him, or to Joe. It was Blair, however, who answered. "This place would do them good. Your friend won't mind would he, Jim?"

"Nah, he wouldn't. We'll need to stock up on groceries - I doubt he has anything but canned stuff ten years old."

Blair was walking around, and Jim found himself already adjusting. It had been a few years since he'd ridden regularly, but apparently he hadn't forgotten everything. He wasn't quite ready yet to suggest they run, however, as he'd never done this before without a saddle.

Levon had fallen into step beside Blair as they started out in the opposite direction that the fillies had taken.

"How you doing?" Joe asked as the centaurs picked up their pace just a little.

"Pretty good, considering there're no stirrups," Jim admitted.

Levon stifled a laugh.

"I am not wearing stirrups," Blair said clearly.

"Didn't expect you to," Jim replied. "But if you try to throw me, I'm grabbing on." He gave Blair's hair a gentle tug.

Demonstrating amazing flexibility Blair reached around and disentangled his hair from Jim's grip. "The hair is not a convenient hand hold," he said primly. Guiding Jim's hands to his waist he added, "I'd prefer it if you held on here."

With a grin, Jim wrapped his fingers around Blair's sides. He squeezed once, wondering if Blair remembered he was ticklish.

Maybe he didn't want to risk it -- there were no stirrups, after all.

As if reading his mind, Blair added, "You tickle, I buck."

"Did I do anything?" Jim asked innocently. Again Levon was stifling laughter. He glanced over, faking annoyance.

"Looks like you got him well in hand," Levon said, not indicating who had whom. "We'll see you in an hour." With that he leapt into a gallop.

Blair watched them go and stifled a wistful sigh. "You think maybe you might be up to something faster?" he asked Jim hopefully.

"I think I can manage to stay on," Jim replied. "Just don't try anything fancy for awhile, all right?"

"Define fancy," Blair said as he picked up his pace, breaking into a canter.

"If you have fewer than two feet on the ground, you'd better not be making any sharp turns."

"Oh, you mean like how you drive."

Jim grinned, keeping his seat easily as Blair ran. "Don't make me tickle you, Chief. Lundy and LaFiamma would laugh if I got bucked off."

"Speeding up again," Blair warned, just before shifting into a full gallop.

It felt like flying.

Neither spoke for several minutes. The wind rushed past as Blair ran; Jim could feel every muscle working, stretching and pushing them farther along. For a moment everything was normal.

Then it slipped, coalesced, and it was as if they were one. Flying headlong into the wilderness, Jim could see, feel, hear, touch everything as if he were both himself, and Blair as well.

Blair must've been feeling something similar because he let out a cry of pure exhilaration and somehow managed to go even faster.

The ground was hard beneath Blair's hooves; Jim could feel every impact as a tiny thing as they ran, each hoof barely touching down before letting go again. The feeling passed then, and Jim found himself inside his own skull, riding astride Blair's back.

He inhaled deeply, and told himself they would be back here again, often.

Finally, Blair began slowing, dropping back down to a walk. He was covered in sweat and breathing slightly hard, but the look he shot over his shoulder at Jim was full of exuberant happiness. "Man, that was great! Beyond great!" he enthused. "It's been way too long since I let loose like that."

Jim gave him a hard hug. "You won't be able to say that anymore, Chief." His lover was stunning -- beautiful to the point that Jim didn't even try to find words to say so. "As often as we can get up here...we will."

"Really?"

"Of course." Jim gave him another hug. "I love you. I love this."

Blair was silent for a long moment after that. "I'm glad," he finally whispered fiercely.

"You want to run back or would you rather enjoy the scenery?" Jim ran his hand down Blair's chest. He could feel Blair's pulse racing.

"Enjoy the scenery, at least for a little bit. Need to catch my breath." He glanced over his shoulder at Jim. "As I said, it's been a while."

"Then let's take our time. It's nice out here. Quiet."

Blair started slowly walking back in the direction they had come. "I didn't even think about that. It must be different not having all that background stuff you gotta deal with in the city."

"That's okay, Chief. Most of the time I don't even notice, anymore. Not until I get out someplace like this, and I...I don't know. Relax."

The background noises now, weren't anything he had to block out. His 'dials' were wide open, without any fear of being overloaded. It was like by letting go, he'd regained control.

"We definitely have to do this more often then. I think we both could use the breaks," Blair reiterated.

"Tomorrow?"

"Why don't we stay the night?" Blair asked after a moment's thought. "I'd love to go for a dawn run with you," he added almost shyly.

"That would be perfect." A thought occurred, and he asked, "You think LaFiamma and Lundy would mind?"

Blair laughed. "Are you kidding? And pass up a chance at going for a dawn run themselves?"

"I thought so." Jim could hear someone -- someone four-footed -- running not too far away.

"Levon owns his own place, with lots of land to run on. I bet they go running every day almost. They've got to have been missing it."

"Maybe they should stay out here? Keep an eye on our 'witnesses'?"

Blair shook his head. "They wouldn't go for it. Whatever else they may be, they're cops and this is their case too. Would you voluntarily stay out here while someone else worked your case?"

"Just figured...until we can track down Harper, there isn't much we can do."

"Yeah but that's not going to change how they feel. It wouldn't for you," Blair said knowingly.

"All right. It was just a thought." Jim looked up into the sky again. They had about fifteen minutes before they had to meet up with the others.

"I've got my breath back."

"Then what are we waiting for?" Jim grinned. As Blair broke into a run, he gave a loud yell.

Oh yes, he could definitely get used to this.


The next three days turned up nothing. Nothing incredibly useful, at any rate.

Without any other leads, they started collecting information on the persons who had 'disappeared' from Roffman's clubs. Most turned out to be simply customers, or former employees. Friends and relatives of those missing were surprised, for the most part, that anyone was investigating. The detectives had to promise more than once to return with anything they turned up.

Interpol was handling the locating and any retrieval of the victims. Finally they located one name which looked useful. Deanne Collins, a former girlfriend of Harper, had been one of those shipped out. They realised that for Harper to send his own woman out, she must have seriously pissed him off. Deanne's sister was still in Cascade and they hoped she could tell them something.

They phoned and made arrangements to stop by on their way home from the station. Home, the last few days, having been Adam's ranch just outside of town.

Jim was already wondering what they were going to do once this case was over and they stopped having an excuse to stay at the ranch every night. The commute was a bit long, but everything else was so much better...he even slept better, with a lover, exhausted from the evening's run, nestled in his arms.

Whether it was the fact that he wasn't hiding anymore from Jim, or the daily chances to run, Blair seemed a lot happier and at peace as well. There had always been a subtle tension around his lover, so subtle that Jim hadn't been consciously aware of it until it was gone. It was as if no matter how much Blair gave, there had always been something he'd been holding back. And now he wasn't.

It was, Jim wanted to tell the world, wonderful. He suspected the world might already know, if Simon's amused looks at his own smiling face were anything to go by.

And Joe and Levon were turning out to be decent people -- all the wrong moves from that first day were long gone and Levon was even sharing stories about Blair's childhood. There were still slight problems working together, of course. Jim couldn't quite get over the feeling that Joe was thinking something he wouldn't say.

He also got the uncomfortable feeling that both LaFiamma and Lundy suspected there was something Jim wasn't saying -- and trying to keep it a secret was beginning to wear on him.

Blair had brought up the subject of letting Joe and Levon in on the sentinel thing several times, but backed off as soon as Jim showed any reluctance. Until the next time he brought it up. He suspected Blair was attempting to wear him down by degrees. Each time, Jim simply said 'No' and each time he frowned a little more as he said it.

Fortunately, when they went to talk to Susie Collins, Joe and Levon were on their own, tracking down one of the missing people who had no friends or relatives on file. They were going to talk to neighbors, in an attempt to find anything.

Unfortunately, Blair saw the drive over as the perfect opportunity to bring up the subject once again.

"You know you really should consider telling them," he said without preamble, trusting that Jim would know what he was talking about.

"Sandburg, is there a reason you won't take 'no' for an answer?" Jim shot his normally adorable partner a glare.

"Yeah. You're wrong."

Jim said nothing.

Blair sighed and ran a hand over his face wearily. "What are you so afraid of Jim?" he asked quietly.

"I'm not afraid," he returned. "I just don't want to tell them. Should it matter if I'm right or wrong? I don't want to do it." Jim didn't look over as he spoke.

"Why?"

He sighed. He wasn't sure he could explain it so that Blair would accept his reasons. He tried anyway. "I don't need them to know. I don't need anyone to know except you and Simon and sometimes I wonder about Simon."

"You're afraid." Blair paused. "Or ashamed?"

"I'm not ashamed. I just don't need anyone treating me like I'm--" He cut himself off.

"What?" Blair asked, his voice infinitely gentle.

"Different." Ironic, that he should be explaining this to a half- centaur.

"You are different Jim," Blair said reaching out and laying a hand on his arm. His mouth quirked upwards into a half-smile. "But that's not necessarily a bad thing you know."

"Yeah, but I don't need anyone looking at me like I'm a mutant. Asking me how I got this way, what is it like...."

"Making you feel like a freak?" The eyes Blair turned on him were knowing.

"Yeah," he half-grinned. "I guess you understand, huh?"

"I know the feeling, yeah."

They were almost to Collins' place. "So do you really think I should tell them?"

Instead of answering Blair asked, "Do you really think Joe and Levon would treat you like that?"

Jim shrugged. Who knew what centaurs would think was weird?

Blair sighed again. "I told you I won't push you, Jim, but yes, I do think you should tell them."

"Won't push? What have the last three days been, then? Gentle nudges?" Jim didn't know whether to laugh or glare again.

"Okay, so maybe I am pushing," his partner admitted with a half-smile. "But the decision is still yours. I won't say anything without your permission."

"Thanks."

"Just...think about it, okay? Really think about it, don't just think of all the reasons that you think I'm wrong."

Unfortunately, when Blair got that tone in his voice -- calm, rational, and almost not pleading -- Jim couldn't help but do whatever Blair asked. They headed up to talk to the Collins woman, with Jim starting to think just a little bit about it.

He had grabbed Blair and spun, pulling his partner behind him before he even realized he'd detected the threat. There was a stranger -- who smelled distinctly un-human -- standing near Susie Collins' front door. He hadn't known until now he knew what a centaur smelled like, but this one was.

"Jim, wha-" Blair began, then stopped as he too spotted the stranger. Despite Jim's wordless protest he took a step to the left, until he was standing beside Jim instead of behind him.

Eyes narrowed, he examined the stranger, who was doing the exact same thing. Finally Blair nodded. "Jug, I presume."

The centaur smiled, and it made him look ugly and threatening. Jim tensed. "You must be Blair. My, my. You look almost...human."

Blair shrugged. "Yeah, well, all the better to blend in, y'know."

"You're Jug?" Jim asked. The centaur turned his sneer very briefly, on him.

"Yeah. And I have a message for you both." He looked back at Blair. "You want it delivered now or shall I bring it to you personally?"

"Better say it now," Blair advised. "Wouldn't want to strain your somewhat underdeveloped mental abilities trying to remember it."

Jug just grinned. "Fine, if that's the way you want it." He moved forward, and in an instant was almost on them. Blair had moved just as fast though, positioning himself in front of Jim and slipping into a defensive pose.

As soon as Jug grabbed his partner, Jim was closing his hand on Jug's arm, ready to throw the man into the nearest wall.

Jug looked at him, startled.

Blair managed to get out, "Jim-" before the Sentinel completed the move, and Jug went flying into the wall hard enough to knock him off his feet.

Then Jim was on him again, hauling him back to his feet by his collar. Holding the struggling centaur firmly, he looked at Blair and was surprised at the anger on his partner's face.

It froze him for a few vital seconds that his captive took advantage of. Jug kicked out at him, missing his knee but landing a solid enough blow that Jim staggered and let go of his grip.

As soon as his hand slipped, Jug was gone. Centaur speed at work again, as Jim started after him only to find him vanished around the far corner of the building before Jim'd gone more than a few steps.

He stopped, then whirled on Blair. "What was--" He stopped again. Blair was still glaring at him. "Blair?"

"He. Was. Mine," Blair enunciated slowly and clearly, eyes blazing with anger.

Jim stepped back, involuntarily. "Blair?" Who cared whose he was?

"He challenged me! It was my fight. You had no right to interfere!"

He had never seen Blair like this. No, wait. That was wrong. He had seen Blair like this once before, very recently in fact. Outraged, seemingly totally out of proportionately, at Roffman.

"What are you talking about? Challenged you?"

Blair stared at him hard for a long moment and then seemed to calm down. Slightly. "I guess I couldn't have expected you to recognize what was happening," he muttered to himself.

"What are you talking about?" Once again, it seemed, his partner had gone off into the Sandburg Zone. At least he knew what that zone was, now. "It's some centaur thing?" he hazarded a guess.

"Yeah. And a territorial thing. That you should be able to understand." Blair was still speaking in short clipped sentences, his words still carrying a bite. But at least he was explaining.

Jim frowned. "Like what you and Levon talked about? That you and he wouldn't challenge each other...?" If this was a challenge, then he was glad those two hadn't.

"Yeah. And I'd thank you to stay out of them in the future."

Jim blinked. "Excuse me?"

Blair looked back steadily. "What word didn't you understand?"

Oh yeah. He was still pissed. "I'm supposed to just stand back and let someone attack you?" Jim was getting angry, himself.

"You're supposed to have enough respect for me to let me fight my own battles!"

"And that means letting you get hurt? When it isn't necessary?" Jim yelled back.

"I can take care of myself!"

"I know that! Does that means I have to stand back and watch?"

"Yes!"

The word echoed and reverberated in the silence that followed. Jim turned and headed towards Ms. Harper's front door.

He heard a sigh and then footsteps following him. "Jim-"

He kept going. They were supposed to be talking to Ms. Collins, dammit. Finding this Harper guy and getting this blasted case closed.

A hand closed on his arm. "Wait a minute will you?"

He pulled his arm free, but stopped long enough to glare at his lover. "Excuse me for being concerned. I didn't mean to act like your partner back there."

Blair grabbed his arm again. "That wasn't what I meant!"

"Then what did you mean?" Jim asked sharply. He wanted to push Blair away and leave -- but he had nowhere to go, except right back to Blair's side.

"That there are some things I have to do for myself, because of who and what I am. I'm sorry if that hurts you Jim..." He did sound sorry -- and looked it too: eyes downcast, an unhappy frown on his face.

"You're sorry?" Jim snapped. "Did it occur to you I might have to defend you because of who and what I am? I'm your partner, your lover, and...and everything. I can't and won't let you be hurt. Not if I can stop it. But you're telling me that's just too bad?" He felt his anger draining a little, as he watched Blair's face. If he wasn't going to let Blair be hurt...he shouldn't be the one hurting him. He reached out for Blair. "Chief, I'm sorry."

Blair sighed. "So am I, Jim. I know you jumped in because of who you are. But I can't..." He trailed off, sighing again.

Jim pulled Blair closer, and embraced him. "I didn't realize that's what it was." It was the only concession he could make, right then. He couldn't promise not to interfere, but he could at least admit he understood what had happened.

"I know. I should've said something to warn you." Blair chuckled weakly. "Not that it would've made any difference I bet."

Jim smiled faintly. "You're probably right."

"So now what?" he asked.

"We have a potential witness to interview remember?"

"Yeah...if we haven't scared her off." Jim let go of Blair reluctantly.

"Oh man..." Blair leaned his head against Jim's shoulder blushing furiously. "I can so not believe we had a screaming match right on her front doorstep. Not to mention the kicking Jug's ass thing."

"Relax, Chief. I don't think she's home." He had checked the house, and couldn't hear a thing except the ticking of a grandfather clock in the front room.

Blair frowned. "She said she'd be here when we phoned."

"I don't hear anything," Jim repeated. But-- "I smell blood."

"Shit," Blair said expressively.

They looked at each other and then as one moved towards the front door again. Jim had his pistol out as he approached the door. He checked again; no heartbeats, and only the scent of blood. He could detect no other suspicious smells, like cordite or C4. Still, he touched the doorknob cautiously. Blair's hand on his back was, as ever, a steadying presence.

He felt the door; there were no telltale vibrations. He carefully turned the knob and gave the door a push. It swung open easily. Glancing in, he saw no movement. He entered, heading for the left, scanning the room. Blair followed behind him, closer than his shadow.

There was no one in the house. No one living.

The body was in the dining room. She had been killed with a knife, stabbed in the back. Her mouth was stuffed with a rag, and her wrists bruised as she'd been held.

"Call it in, Chief," Jim instructed.

Blair did so, speaking succinctly to the dispatch operator and hanging up. It was only then that Jim realized his partner was shaking. He holstered his pistol and reached for Blair's arm.

"Jug did this," Blair said bluntly, still staring at the woman's body. And still shaking under Jim's touch.

"We don't know that, yet." Jim suspected he was right, but so far he had only instinct to tell him that.

"I know that."

"But you're probably right," Jim told him. He began checking the room. There was little sign of struggle, as if Jug -- or whoever -- had easily overpowered the woman.

He tried to recall if he'd noticed anything when they'd met Jug outside, and realized he'd smelled blood, faintly, then. Might have been what warned him, in the first place. He said as much to Blair.

"And he got away. Shit." Blair pulled free of Jim's hand and began pacing restlessly. "We handled that all wrong. No, not we, I handled that all wrong. I should've just let you arrest him. Could've challenged him later. Or used that to distract him while you got the handcuffs on him or.... Shit."

"Blair...Blair!" Jim finally grabbed his pacing partner. "Will you calm down? We didn't know she was in here, and we don't know she wasn't dead before we got here." He moved over to touch the body, and check the skin temperature. It was nearly ambient.

"Sometimes having centaur blood really sucks, Jim."

"She's been dead at least half an hour, probably more. We couldn't have saved her even if we had known." Jim stood back up, ignoring for now Blair's comment.

Besides, it wasn't like he didn't think the same thing sometimes about his senses.

"But we still let her killer get away."

"We'll find him. I have a feeling he'll want to find us again."

Blair nodded. "Yeah. We will. I will."

"We will," Jim said.


The murder and organizing the search for the probable killer took up the rest of the day. It was late when they finally made it back to the ranch. The fact that Collins had been killed meant they were probably on to something, but at the same time they had obviously lost any leads that she could've given them.

Joe kept a close eye on Levon the whole afternoon, not certain how he was going to react to the news that it was a rogue stallion that was the prime suspect. Would he hare off in a rage looking for Jug?

But so far, his worries had proven unfounded. Aside from a snarl and a stiffening when Jug's name had been mentioned, Levon had been as diligent as he usually was in following police procedure.

When they got back to the ranch, Blair excused himself for a quick -- solo -- run. Jim headed indoors, ostensibly to make dinner. Levon and Joe were left outside. The fillies were given a sketchy update of the case and then sent off to give them all privacy.

Joe stared speculatively back and forth in the two opposite directions Jim and Blair had gone. "Why do I get the feeling that something else happened at the crime scene that they're not telling us?"

"You too? Joe, something's going on. At the warehouse, when we got out here...heck, even when we're driving through town it's like there's something going on they ain't talking about."

"Those two have been hiding something since the second we came to town," Joe agreed.

"Wonder what it is." Levon paced a bit, then glanced over. "You notice how Ellison seems to notice things none of the rest of us do?"

"Yeah. The guy acts like he's psychic or something."

"Or something...wonder if Blair'd tell me if I asked him."

Joe shook his head after a moment's thought. "I don't think so. Not if Jim doesn't want us to know. Blair's damned protective of him."

Levon grinned. "Like someone we know?"

Joe just grinned back.

They were interrupted by Ellison coming out of the house. He looked at them both, appearing a bit upset.

Levon and Joe exchanged glances. Before either could ask what was the matter Jim asked, "Joe, would you mind if you and I talked?" He glanced at Levon, obviously asking for privacy.

Levon gave Joe a nod. "I'll go see what the girls are doing." He headed off in the direction they'd gone, shedding clothing quickly.

Joe watched his retreating form, an appreciative smile on his lips, before turning his attention to the Cascade detective. "What's up?"

Jim didn't answer at first, but it was obvious he was worried. Finally he asked, "Have you ever...has Levon ever been challenged by another centaur?"

Suddenly the pieces started to fall into place, at least with regard to what had happened at the murder scene today. "Yeah," he replied. "That what happened today? Jug challenge Blair?"

Jim nodded. "I stepped in and Blair nearly tore my head off. Didn't help that I let Jug get away," he added.

"Ouch."

"Blair tried to explain what was going on...but to be honest, it doesn't make sense. Why should I let him face someone like that, alone?"

Joe hesitated over his answer. His own experiences didn't really apply because of the differences in his and Levon's relationship. But he wasn't sure he wanted to be the one to tell Ellison just actually what was going on there. "It's an instinctive thing," he finally, lamely, said.

"Yeah, so he said." Jim felt silent for several moments, until he turned and asked, "Does Levon ask you to do that? Stay out of his fights?" Joe could see how torn Jim was, between wanting to do what his lover needed and needing to keep his lover safe.

"No," he answered reluctantly. "But it's not really the same situation."

"Why not?"

No, he decided. He wasn't going to be the one to break it to Jim. "It's not me you should be having this conversation with," Joe told him earnestly. "Talk to Blair."

Jim's expression turned instantly suspicious. "I tried."

'And Blair's been putting him off. Somehow I knew that,' Joe thought. Aloud he said, "There's some things you need to know but it really is Blair's place to tell you." He paused, then added, thinking that Blair may need an extra push, "Tell him he better tell you. Because if he doesn't, Levon and I will."

Jim just looked at him, obviously not comprehending. "You're trying to tell me I'm going to have to just accept this?"

Joe could tell Jim was not about to just accept anything. "Talk to Blair," Joe repeated.

Jim scowled, but said nothing. Eventually he walked back towards the house.

Joe watched him go, a scowl on his own face. As if dealing with his own centaur wasn't hard enough.... He heard someone running up; turning he saw Blair. He turned his scowl on him.

Blair looked surprised. "What?" He glanced back at himself. "I didn't step in anything did I?" The humor sounded only a bit forced.

"Only metaphorically," Joe told him.

"Huh?"

"Jim was just out here asking me if Levon had ever been challenged."

"Oh." Blair sidestepped, nervously. "Has he?"

"Yeah. You need to talk to him, Blair."

"I will. He's a little upset about Jug." Blair gave him a sharp look. "Uh, what did you tell him?"

"To talk to you. You've got to tell him how things stand."

Blair sighed. "I tried, man. It isn't easy."

"It's not going to get any easier," Joe pointed out. "If anything, the longer you wait the harder it'll get."

"I know. But I don't know what to tell him. He's going to be this way no matter what I tell him."

"Have you ever thought of trying the truth?" Joe quipped. He was starting to lose his patience with the whole situation.

Blair looked at him like he was insane. But then he sighed. "I know. I should." He looked towards the house, and his expression changed, as if he were realizing something. "I guess I have to now."

Joe wasn't sure what he was talking about but if it made him bring the whole thing out into the open so much the better. "You do that," he said. He looked off in the direction his partner had gone. "I'm going to go find Levon. Maybe we'll go for a ride or something. Give you two some time."

"Okay. Joe?"

He turned back. "Yeah?"

"Thanks."

Joe's lips twitched upwards slightly. "Centaur-human relationship counselor, that's me."

Blair grinned. "Something for your resume."

"Do I put that before or after 'dominant stallion'?"

Blair's grin faltered slightly. "After, I think." He looked at the house again. "I better do this before I chicken out."

Joe nodded. "Go on. And Blair?"

"Yeah?"

"Good luck."

Blair nodded.


Inside the house, Jim was fairly pacing. He had heard the conversation between Blair and Joe, and didn't understand a word of it -- except that Blair had been withholding something. After assuring him that he would tell Jim anything and everything....

He hadn't.

He heard the sound of material rustling and correctly interpreted it to mean Blair had changed back to human form and was dressing in the clothes he'd left on the porch. He waited in the kitchen, pretending that the spaghetti needed tending. He tracked Blair's progress into and through the house, though.

"I suppose you heard all that," Blair said when he made it to the kitchen.

Jim nodded. He stirred the sauce and decided any more tinkering would make it inedible.

"We need to talk."

"So I gathered."

"Umm," Blair said intelligently. "Are you going to look at me?"

Jim looked over. Blair was nervous. Jim figured he should be. "Well?"

"Umm," Blair repeated, then blurted out, "It's about dominance."

Jim just looked at him, waiting.

"Well in our relationship I sorta, kinda, at least this is the way it feels like to me-"

"Just say it, Blair." Otherwise they'd be here for hours.

"I've been acting in the dominant role."

Jim just looked at him. "This is news?" he asked dryly. He knew Blair wasn't but a blind man could tell Blair had been trying to push him around ever since...ever since they met.

Blair just gaped at him.

"I know you're trying to be dominant, Blair," Jim elaborated, hoping it would help Blair get on to whatever it was he wasn't saying.

"Trying to be?" Blair echoed.

"Yeah," Jim nodded. "I don't mind, most of the time."

"You don't?"

Jim wondered idly when Blair had turned into a parrot. "If I did, I wouldn't let you do it," Jim explained. The sauce was ready to simmer.

"I don't think I could stop, Jim. This isn't just some game I've been playing."

Jim looked over. "What are you talking about?"

"I can't just turn it off if you don't like it." Blair shrugged helplessly. "Not without changing who I am."

Jim stopped messing with dinner preparations and looked at his lover. "That's what all this is about?"

"Pretty much, yeah."

"Then I think I'm missing something. I don't see what the problem is." There was something Blair wasn't telling him -- he'd said as much outside, to Joe. But it wasn't this dominance thing, because Jim knew about that already. About Blair needing to be in control sometimes.

"I can't stop being dominant. Even when you don't want me to. Like this afternoon."

"Oh." Jim thought about that. "Does this mean you want me to...."

"To...?" Blair asked, eyebrows raised.

Jim shrugged. "Like Levon does to Joe. Submit." The thought of it made him uncomfortable. If Blair said yes....

To his relief Blair laughed. "Jim, you couldn't act like Levon does with Joe to save your life!"

He couldn't help his smile. "So what, then? How am I supposed to treat you, if you're always going to be the dominant one?"

"Just the way you always have?" Blair suggested hopefully.

"And when someone like Jug tries to challenge you?"

Blair sobered again. "Now that's where we might have some problems. I can't let you fight my battles for me Jim. Not those battles."

"And I can't just stand back and watch you get hurt. Not if I can help you fight."

"If I let you take a challenge for me, it's like I'm submitting to you. That isn't me, Jim. I can't do that. Not even to you."

Jim shifted from one foot to the other, frowning. "That means I can't even help? Not take the fight, but keep him from killing you?"

Blair considered for a long moment, biting his lip as he thought. "If he was about to kill me, no uncertainty of that at all, and you stepped in...." he finally ventured.

"I wouldn't need your permission to save your life, Sandburg." He paused. "I don't care how pissed off at me you get."

"I know." Blair flashed a brief smile. "I can live with that. So to speak."

Jim laughed. "So are we cool, now?"

"You tell me."

He shrugged. "You're telling me nothing has changed from the way it's been since you mispronounced 'McCoy'. I can live with that."

"And you'll let me fight my own battles?" Blair held up his hand to forestall Jim from speaking. "Unless I'm in imminent and dire danger of instant death."

Jim rolled his eyes. "Why do I feel like I'm taking a vow, here? Chief, you want to just marry me and get it all done?"

"That a proposal?"

Jim looked at his partner, serious for a moment. Then he grinned. "Yeah. I'll even promise not to interfere with your fights."

Blair grinned back. "I accept."

Jim pulled Blair closer. Sighing in contentment, Blair snuggled against his chest.

A few minutes later he said, "Jim?"

"Yeah?" Jim was enjoying the end of the argument that had started outside Collin's house.

"Your sauce is burning."

"Yeah, I know. Has been for about three minutes."

"You're buying the pizza."


The sun woke Joe the next morning, shining in through the curtains and right onto his face. Trying desperately to hang onto his state of sleep, he groaned and rolled away from the light, his arm automatically reaching out to find his husband.

It met empty bed.

Suddenly wide-awake, Joe sat up and looked around. The room was as empty as Levon's side of the bed. Just as he was considering panicking, though, a whoop from outside told him exactly where his lover was.

He went over to the window and looked out at the pasture just behind the house. He looked again, not quite sure he was seeing what he was seeing. Another happy shout, and Joe shook his head.

The six centaurs were apparently playing tag. Blair was "it" and was currently chasing Melody who seemed to be rather more agile, and faster than he.

Tag.

Shaking his head again in disbelief, Joe smiled and went to get dressed. He just had to see this close up.

By the time he stepped out onto the back porch, Elaine had been tagged -- the filly was chasing Levon and one of her sisters as the two centaurs wove back and forth ahead of her.

"Kids," came Jim's amused voice from a corner of the porch.

"Centaurs," Joe countered, walking over and joining the other detective. "None of them seem to outgrow this kind of thing totally."

"Oh?" Jim gave him an interested look. "You've met...older ones?"

"Older ones, younger ones, the whole gamut."

"And they're like this?" he waved a coffee mug towards the group, still laughing and calling out encouragement to each other.

Joe nodded. "Pretty much. I've even seen Taylor -- he's the herd stallion back home -- join in stuff like this."

"Huh," Jim turned his attention back to the centaurs. "I guess if you live out in a field you have to entertain each other."

"A field?" Joe asked perplexed. "Well they do spend a lot of time in the fields but the herd lives on a ranch that's even bigger than this one." He grinned. "Even has satellite TV."

Jim shrugged, and his gaze flicked back towards the centaurs. Joe turned and found Levon trotting over.

"Morning calisthenics?" Joe asked him when he came up to them.

"Well, you were asleep," Levon responded. He stepped up onto the porch, halfway at least, and leaned down for a kiss.

Which Joe returned eagerly. "You looked like you were having fun."

"Was. But we weren't playing," Levon said with a grin. "Have to teach the fillies our version of tag."

"What's to teach?" Jim asked. "It's just tag."

"Yeah, but the way we play...got about a hundred rules."

"One hundred and sixteen," Blair corrected as he joined them. The fillies had run off by themselves, still laughing and playing.

Joe blinked. "One hundred and sixteen rules for tag?"

Levon shrugged. "Gotta make it interesting somehow."

"But 116?"

"What?" Levon gave him a look of pure innocence. "Ain't that enough?"

"How do you remem-" Jim began to ask, then suddenly remembered himself. "Oh. Eidetic memories. Right."

Levon nodded and looked back at Joe. "Speaking of which, I recall that it ain't my turn to make breakfast this morning." He looked at Joe hopefully.

One of these days, Joe reflected, he was really going to have to build some defenses to that look. "I suppose I could throw something together."

Levon looked surprised, then shook his head, grabbing Joe's arm. "Was hoping they'd cook and you'd come for a ride," he explained, nodding towards Blair and Jim.

"Sure, go ahead," Blair said, waving them off. "Jim and I ruined supper last night, the least we can do is make breakfast instead."

"We -- I -- bought pizza," Jim protested, but he didn't seem to really be arguing. At least he was handing Blair his clothes so they could go back inside.

Levon still had Joe's arm, and was giving him another cute, hopeful look.

"Man does not live by pizza alone, Jim," Blair replied before starting his slow transformation back to human form. Joe couldn't help but watch, fascinated. Levon's changes were always too quick to follow but Blair's... It was like watching the change in slow motion, like stretching the form out in silly putty...

After Blair had changed, Joe looked away and found Levon grinning at him.

"This mean I don't have to find a video camera?" Levon asked.

"Well not for that," Joe said, giving Levon a promising look. He glanced back over at Blair who had gotten into his clothes as fast as possible. And who was still fidgeting. Belatedly, Joe wondered if perhaps he'd crossed the line with his staring.

The way Jim was watching Blair, though, said volumes. It looked just like Joe himself had felt the second time he'd ever seen Levon change.

Breakfast might be delayed. That was fine -- he and Levon could amuse themselves for an hour or so.

"Come on, cowboy," he said, laying an arm companionably on his partner's back. "Let's go explore the far fields this morning." He turned and winked at Jim and Blair before mounting up. Jim returned it with a grin and Blair just looked...hungry.

Levon asked if he was hanging on before lifting his front feet off the porch and spinning. Joe gave a startled yelp at the unexpected movement and grabbed on even tighter. He tried to ignore the muffled chuckles from the porch at that, chuckles that were quickly left behind as Levon galloped off at full speed.

Most of the chuckles were left behind. His husband seemed to be enjoying himself, as well.

"You trying to dump me on my ass?" he asked, raising his voice over the wind of their passage.

"Boy, if you can't hang onto me by now...." Levon wove through a small clump of trees; none of the branches came close as they whipped by.

Joe grinned and tightened his grip just a little bit more. "I've been hanging onto you for years, partner."

"Wondered what those marks on my sides were," Levon responded.

"Better than a brand, wouldn't you say?"

Levon glanced over his shoulder at him. "No brands, no tattoos, no piercings. Anything else you can do."

"Not even an earring?" Joe teased.

"Nope." Levon put on a burst of speed and said casually, "Hang on."

Joe barely had time to do so before Levon jumped.

His yelp was even louder this time.

They landed hard on the other side of the creek and Levon ran a few steps before slowing to a stop. It was a long moment before Joe could force himself to loosen his grip, and even longer before his heart started to slow.

"Joe?" Levon asked tentatively.

"Still here," he answered, voice a bit breathy with the extra adrenaline in his system.

Levon looked over his shoulder again. "You want me to walk for a bit?" His expression was bordering on 'didn't mean it I swear' along with 'I'm too cute to be yelled at'. The kittens had been teaching Levon a lot of new tricks, apparently.

"Yeah, thanks." Levon nodded and started off at a sedate walk. "What's gotten into you this morning?" Joe asked when he'd finally got his breath back.

Levon shrugged. "Feel good."

"I noticed," Joe said dryly. He couldn't totally suppress the amusement he was feeling.

Levon gave him a grin, then danced a few steps sideways, almost hopping. His expression suddenly turned devilish before he turned back around.

"What?" Without thinking, Joe tightened his grip again.

"Nothing," came back a very innocent sounding reply. Levon walked very calmly through the field.

"Uh huh. Why do I have trouble believing that?"

Levon turned, and walked back over a small area, looking at the ground.

Joe found himself shifting a bit on his lover's back as his suspicion made him fidgety. "What are you doing?"

"Me?" Levon turned again and walked a few steps along the same area, still looking. He tested the ground in a few places with his hoof. He nodded, then looked over his shoulder. "Joe?"

"Yeah?" Suspicion dripping from the word.

"You don't have to hang on this time."

Before Joe could ask what he was doing, Levon went down. It felt like they were falling, but as soon as Joe felt himself about to be pinned between the ground and Levon, Levon changed and continued rolling.

He found himself lying on his back with a naked and grinning husband on top of him.

For a long moment all Joe could do was stare mutely up at Levon, his mind still working out the logistics on how he had gone from sitting astride a centaur to laying flat on his back on the ground. Not that this position didn't have its advantages, he thought as Levon wriggled against him, still grinning.

Finally he reached up and brushed some hair off of Levon's forehead. "That's a new move," he said casually.

"Nah, been doing that one since I was six years old." Levon's innocent expression suddenly became thoughtful. "Granted, I ain't ever done it with a rider before...."

"You could've warned me."

"That would've taken all the fun out of it."

"I see." He supposed maybe he should be a little angry, or at least annoyed, but he couldn't manage either emotion with Levon smiling at him like that.

Levon's grin faded only slightly, and he wriggled again. "Actually I have done it with a rider before," he admitted. "And I checked the ground for rocks first -- wouldna hurt you."

Joe caressed his husband's cheek. "I know." He smiled a little as Levon leaned against his hand. "So who was it?"

"Who was what?" Levon blinked.

"The rider you've done this with before."

"Joshua and Cory. We took turns practicing on each other."

"This a common centaur thing?"

"Don't know. Got yelled at when Taylor found out we were doing it. Told us to practice someplace softer." Levon grinned again. "We tried practicing on one of the king-sized beds in the house...."

Joe grinned back. "I bet Adele loved that."

Levon didn't answer; he just wriggled guiltily.

Certain parts of Joe's anatomy liked that wriggle an awful lot. He wriggled back, running his hands lightly down Levon's back.

Levon gave him a brief smile. It died too fast, though.

Joe looked at him suspiciously. "What?"

"We broke a few of the mattress springs," he began. "Adele came running upstairs -- had a broom in her hand, she'd been cleaning. Tried to give us each a swipe with it." Levon took a deep breath and finished, "That was how they found out what Alexander had been doing and got him kicked out of the herd almost a year early."

Joe's hands stopped moving on his husband's back. "What had he been doing?" he asked, feeling a cold dread in the pit of his stomach.

"He'd find one of us alone, and lasso us. Get our hands and feet tied and take a switch or something to us. Soon as Adele held up the broom, we all like to froze. She said we looked too scared for there not to be anything really wrong."

It was as bad as he had feared. Joe thought of what his lover would have looked like at that age, thought of someone -- Alexander -- tying him up and beating him. He shivered in empathy for the hurt and frightened child Levon must have been. "I'm sorry," he whispered, wrapping his arms tighter around Levon, as if by imparting comfort now, he could somehow comfort the boy in the past.

Levon lay still in his embrace. "He got Blair once, too. Blair told me about it after Alexander had gone. He was only two -- reckon it's part of why he won't let anyone dominate him, now."

"I should've shot him when I had the chance," Joe growled.

"Maybe he'll jump bail and you can," Levon suggested in an almost cheerful tone of voice.

"One can always hope." They both fell silent for a bit. Finally Joe decided to ask the one thing he'd been wondering about. "Levon?"

"Yeah?" Levon sounded relaxed, again.

"Why didn't you tell Taylor about what Alexander was doing the first time it happened?"

Levon shifted, then sighed. "Told us not to. Said he'd start in on the little ones if we did. We were afraid he'd kill 'em. Nate was only three months old and Alexander was always threatening him to us."

"You didn't think Taylor could handle him?" Joe understood how such intimidation would work with human children, but he was surprised it would work so well on centaurs. He'd seen it time and again -- the certainty they had that their herd stallion would take care of them, regardless of what needed to be done.

Levon looked away before he answered. "Joe, we were only six years old when they found out... Alex had been telling us all along that Taylor was only taking care of us until he could kick us out. We didn't always believe him but it made it harder. Besides... Joshua and I thought it was something we had to just deal with. Being males and all. We knew we'd have to fight him -- didn't know it shouldn't have started that soon. Alexander never attacked any of the fillies."

Joe nodded, slowly, thoughtfully. He could see that scenario all too clearly. "No wonder you hate him so much."

"Yeah...even Momma used to say she didn't care for him. Never when he was around. But she said it."

"Your mother sounds like a sharp lady."

Levon half-smiled. "She was. She felt bad about it. About him."

Now Joe was getting confused. "Bad? Why would she feel bad? I can understand her not liking or trusting him but...."

Levon suddenly looked guilty again. "Never told you did I? Alex was her first foal," he said hesitantly.

Joe froze. "He's your brother?!" he asked, disbelief making his voice crack.

"Well, you knew he was Taylor's get...." Levon began. "Didn't you?"

"Yeah but so's practically everyone else your age in the herd."

Levon nodded. "Don't normally pay much attention to whose each one's mother is. I mean, we all know...but it ain't as important as whose each one's father is. And that ain't all that important. You're either in the herd or not...Joe, I didn't realize it would matter to you."

Joe sighed and once again told himself not to judge Levon's reactions by human standards. "If it doesn't matter to you, I guess it doesn't to me."

"Joe? Does it matter?"

Giving the question the thought it deserved, Joe finally admitted, "Yeah, a little. But give me a while and I'm sure I'll be able to put it in the proper perspective."

"If it matters you don't have to put it in proper perspective." Levon was frowning slightly. He suddenly grinned. "I mean, if it means you wanna shoot him even more, now...."

"I don't know what it means," Joe said honestly.

Levon looked confused. It was only fair, Joe felt confused, himself. "You'll let me know when you figure it out?"

Joe grinned at the earnest expression. "You'll be the first one I tell."

"You reckon it's been long enough for us to head back? If we stay out here much longer there's no telling what else I'll end up saying. Might accidentally tell you about the time we stole a train car."

"You stole a train car?" Joe felt his eyebrows climbing for his hairline.

"No. But if we keep laying here I might say we did and then you'd think we had and then we'd be having another serious discussion."

"See what you get when you dump me on my ass and fall on me?" Joe teased.

Levon's eyebrows rose. "Yeah...got you wriggling underneath me while I ain't got a stitch of clothing on."

"Then why are we talking?"

Levon looked at him, wide-eyed. "You started it."

"Then I'm an idiot," Joe avowed. "C'mere." He gently pulled on Levon's shoulders, drawing him down for a kiss.

After several minutes of such a pleasurable distraction, Levon tried to push himself up, away from Joe.

Reluctantly Joe let him go. "Wha-?"

"Can't get you undressed if I'm lying on the buttons," Levon explained.

"Oh." He thought about that, then nodded. "That makes sense."

Levon levered himself up until he was sitting, straddling Joe. He began undoing buttons while Joe watched. Grinning, he said, "Aren't you gonna help?"

Joe shook his head. "You seem to be managing fine on your own."

The smile he got for that distracted him -- he didn't notice where Levon's fingers were until it was too late.

His yelp this time was the loudest of them all.


Cleaning up afterwards was difficult until Levon reminded Joe of the creek they'd passed. The water was cold, mountain-fed, but it got rid of everything sticky. As soon as he was washed clean, Levon changed back, claiming that the gods never intended centaurs to freeze their balls off.

"That would be a waste," Joe agreed mildly.

"You gettin' on?" Levon asked him, holding out his hand.

"Yeah." As he took his husband's hand and swung up onto his back, some impish impulse made him add, "After all I already got off." Levon just gave him a satisfied smirk.

"Joe?" Levon asked as he started walking away from the creek.

"Yeah?"

"Hang on."

Levon ran a few steps, then leapt.

This time Joe was almost prepared, and only tightened his grip as Levon's feet left the ground. He swallowed his startled shout, only letting out a soft "oof" as they touched down again.

As soon as they touched down, however, Levon was off again. Full-speed ahead -- Joe wished for the millionth time that centaurs could fall asleep after sex, like normal human men.

Levon hollered once, and they were air-borne again for a moment.

Joe waited until they had touched down again -- not wanting to risk speaking when they were in the air, visions of biting off his own tongue when landing vivid in his mind. "I thought centaurs hated being airborne," he yelled, leaning forward so the wind wouldn't carry his words away before Levon heard them.

"Trying to get used to it," Levon called back. "Workin' my way up to 20,000 feet."

Trying to shake the sudden vision of Levon jumping off a 20,000-foot- high cliff -- with himself ensconced firmly on his back -- Joe refrained from comment. He had the feeling anything he said would just egg his partner on.

"Think I can make it?" Levon asked. Joe noticed he was pointing up ahead.

They had doubled back on the creek again and were fast approaching the point of no return. But the water at this spot was at least twice as wide as where Levon had jumped it before, and running much swifter to boot.

"Uhm...." Joe said intelligently.

"Thought so." Levon put on a burst of speed. Joe felt Levon gather himself, then they were off. Up, flying, then coming down... Joe felt Levon stumble as they landed.

"Levon?!" His heart rate shot up even higher at the fear that his partner had hurt himself.

They continued forward a few steps, and Levon looked back. "I'm all right. Got my foot in the water, 's all."

"You sure?" Joe tried to turn around so he could see Levon's hind legs.

He saw one leg splattered with mud. Levon appeared to be standing on it without any difficulty. After a moment Levon asked, with very mild exasperation, "You believe me now?" He'd taken another step and Joe had seen no sign of injury.

Heart rate finally slowing Joe nodded, though he continued to glance back at Levon's feet every few steps.

"You wanna get down and check?"

Joe hesitated. He didn't want Levon to think he was doubting his word but still...

Levon had stopped as he waited for a reply. As Joe glanced back one more time he saw Levon's tail swishing. Either impatience or resignation. Joe blinked as a fly landed on Levon's hindquarters and the tail swished again. Or practical.

Giving in to his worry, Joe slid off Levon's back. "Just a quick check," he said.

Levon waited patiently, not saying anything as Joe carefully lifted his back foot. His tail swished again at the fly trying to alight, but otherwise he stood still. Joe ran his hands over Levon's leg, carefully searching for any signs of trauma and finding nothing but mud. With a relieved sigh, he let Levon's foot go.

Levon was looking at him without any censure in his expression. He still felt like he owed an explanation though. "It's not that I don't trust you," he began, reaching out and resting his hand on Levon's withers. "It's just-"

"You worry about me?"

He smiled. "Yeah."

"Can we get back to the house now? Still haven't had any breakfast."

"Can we stay on the ground the rest of the way?" Joe asked plaintively as he remounted.

Levon sighed as if greatly put-upon. "Reckon so."

Joe just grinned and held on as Levon moved quickly into a gallop.

They were almost back when they saw Elaine running towards them at top- speed. Levon headed for her, speeding up until they both came to a halt.

Out of breath, Elaine told them, "Jug's here."

Joe felt Levon stiffen even as alarm ran through his own system. "Jim and Blair?" he asked, remembering the conversation he'd had with Jim the night before, about Jug challenging Blair.

She nodded.

Before he could even think of any more questions, Levon was off again, running full out. Joe hung on and worried about what they would find when they got back to the house.

It was only a few minutes later when they came up behind the house. As Levon headed around, they could hear Blair and Jug yelling at one another. From the sound of it, the fight was already begun.

Coming around the side of the house they found Jim, standing stiffly, muscle in his jaw twitching as he watched his partner square off against the rogue stallion -- in human form -- in the front yard. It looked like it was taking all of the detective's self control to stay in this spot and not jump into the fight.

They watched as Jug moved forward, hand reaching down, then up and suddenly Jim was shouting, pointing a gun Joe had not seen him draw, and firing.

Jug stumbled backwards, and they all stared.

The centaur stood still for a few seconds then fell forward onto his face.

Blair turned to face them then, and the look on his face telegraphed his emotions clearly. Anger, bewilderment, disappointment, but most of all hurt.

Before anyone could say a word, Jim said, "He had a knife."

Blair spun back to where Jug laid on the ground, eyes searching. Then, with a gasp, he bent over and picked up a long-bladed knife with a trembling hand. He looked at it for a moment before dropping it again, then turning and walking over to where the others stood, stopping directly in front of his lover. Catching Jim's gaze with his own he said softly, "Thanks."

Jim just nodded and holstered his pistol. Levon was looking from Jim to the body and back. "How the hell did you know he had a knife?" he finally asked.

Both Blair and Jim froze, exchanging wordless looks that seemed to carry volumes.

Before they could come up with what Joe was sure would be a bogus explanation, he asked, "Don't you think it's time you two told us the truth?"

Jim looked again at Blair, obviously asking for something.

"It's up to you, man," Blair told him, reaching out and laying a hand on his arm. "I told you I'd abide by your decision."

"Not like I have a choice is it," Jim said bitterly. He looked back to Joe and Levon. He hesitated, then said very firmly, "I know you two understand about keeping secrets."

Joe exchanged a glance with Levon before nodding. "Yeah, you can say that."

Jim nodded, and again paused. Finally he said, "I know this is going to sound...." He glanced at Blair again. The silent support he got made him take a deep breath and explain. "I'm what is called a sentinel. My senses are heightened. More sensitive than a normal human's." He stopped and waited.

"How much more sensitive?" Joe asked slowly. He wasn't surprised, not really. It fit all the weird things he'd noticed about these two and besides, after finding out his partner and lover was a centaur he'd found his surprise threshold had greatly increased.

"A lot more. We're still finding out what my limits are. But I could see the knife clearly." He gestured towards Jug, lying some 75 yards away.

"All your senses? Sight, hearing, everything?" Levon asked.

Jim nodded.

Levon looked again at the stallion, lying in a pool of blood. "Reckon that explains it, then." Joe nodded in agreement, deliberately keeping his manner nonchalant. He'd long since learned to roll with the mental punches, taking outrageous claims at face value. Too often they turned out to be true. What Ellison was telling them made little sense, even if it fit the facts. But he wasn't going to bother doubting the Ellison's claim.

"Explains it?" Jim asked, looking worried.

"How you knew things you couldn't possibly know," Joe explained. "We were half beginning to believe you were psychic or something."

"Oh." Jim looked uncomfortable again. Blair, on the other hand, was grinning in an 'I told you so' kind of way. Jim just shook his head at him. "Don't say it."

"I didn't say anything," Blair asserted, though he didn't stop grinning.

Jim just sighed again, rolling his eyes. "I'd better call Simon," he began. Blair and Levon both interrupted him.

"No, don't," from Blair and "That won't be necessary," from Levon.

Jim blinked. "Excuse me? We have a dead body over there, whom I shot in defense of my partner--"

"A dead centaur who died breaking the rules of a challenge," Blair clarified.

"So?" Jim asked, clearly bewildered.

"So," Levon explained, "We call Rustin and let him deal with it." He frowned towards the fillies. "After we get them out of here."

Joe's conscience twinged a little at the thought of concealing a killing, even one in self-defense; he'd been a cop too long for it to do otherwise. But he'd also been around centaurs long enough to know when arguing was worthwhile and when it would be more productive to bang his head against the wall. Seeing the look in both Levon's and Blair's faces he knew this was definitely one of the latter times.

Jim, on the other hand, was shaking his head. "You're saying we don't even file a report?" His tone was disbelieving and scornful.

Blair looked at him seriously. "Jim, you know we've had to fudge reports sometimes to keep your senses a secret. This is no different. 'Cept it's my secret we're keeping."

For almost a second Jim looked like he was going to argue. Then he sighed. "But won't someone notice he's missing?"

Levon snorted. "Nobody worth mentioning. Least nobody who'd be upset about it."

Jim shrugged. "Fine." He didn't sound as if he liked it, but he didn't argue as Blair headed inside to call Rustin. Levon got the fillies rounded up and asked Joe if they should head back to the hotel.

"Sounds as good a plan as any," Joe replied.

Ten minutes later, Levon, Joe, and the fillies were ready to head out. Blair and Jim were waiting for Rustin, and then they would meet Joe and Levon back at the loft. With Jug gone, they had no leads at all to find Harper.

Joe sighed as they drove away.

Looked like it was back to the drawing board.

Jim was not looking forward to telling Simon any of this. Even disregarding everything he couldn't tell Simon, along with everything he could but which Simon wouldn't want to hear, there was a lot he didn't want to tell his captain. He looked at Blair. "Is this really a good idea?"

"Trust me, Jim." His partner was sitting on the porch, watching him pace.

He sighed. Hadn't he been saying just a few days ago that his partner didn't fight fair? He walked over and sat on the step with Blair. He could still see the marks he'd left on Blair's neck that morning.

Even then Blair hadn't fought fair. Jim had nearly zoned twice on the taste of his skin alone.

"What are you thinking?" Blair asked after a moment.

"You don't fight fair," he said without thinking.

Blair looked startled at that. Then he looked thoughtful. "No," he finally said, "I don't suppose I do. Does that bother you?"

Jim smiled. "When it means you use that unscented soap so I can taste you, no it doesn't."

"I thought that was just being considerate." Blair looked slightly miffed. "After you complained so much about the chemical taste with the stuff I used to use..."

"Complained? Blair, cut me some slack. I could barely stand to lick you after you washed with that stuff." Jim looked at him, adding silently, but clearly, 'and you're the one who decided he would rather be licked.'

"My point exactly, man. Just being considerate of my sentinel's needs."

"And then you invited me to test the effect," Jim reminded him.

Jim had been trying to read the paper after breakfast. Blair had practically draped himself across Jim, asking him how he smelled.

He never had gotten to read the paper that day.

Blair grinned and spread his hands. "Well I had to test it to see if it worked, didn't I?"

Jim just glared, pretending to be annoyed. He glanced down the road when he heard an unfamiliar engine. Sounded like a large vehicle; a van or truck.

"Someone coming?" Blair asked, seeing the direction Jim was looking in.

"Yeah." A few minutes later, he could see a van turn onto the end of the long drive.

Blair squinted and tried to make out the vehicle that was just on the edges of his visual range. "Looks like it's Rustin," he said, a little uncertainly.

"Looks like he's mad, whoever he is," Jim said and let his focus relax again.

"That's Rustin all right."

They waited silently as the van rolled up. It stopped near Jug's body. Two women jumped out and headed to it, carrying tarps. The man walked over towards Jim and Blair. Jim felt Blair tensing, and nearly stepped in front of him. He stopped himself in time to avoid seriously pissing Blair off.

Blair stood up to meet the other man. "Rustin," he said with a nod, his tone totally neutral.

Jim stood ready. He would not interfere, he reminded himself. But if Rustin attacked...and Blair lost, or was about to lose, or was almost about to lose, he would wring Rustin's neck.

"Blair," the other centaur said. His glare spoke volumes.

"You made good time," Blair observed, still not giving an inch.

"It seemed important." Rustin looked around. "Who else was here?"

"Does it look like anyone else was here?"

Rustin glared. "I can smell them. You have my girls don't you?" He took a step forward. Jim did as well, remaining behind Blair but letting the asshole know Blair wasn't alone.

"I don't know what you're talking about, Rustin," Blair shot back, in mild exasperation.

"You know exactly what I'm talking about." Rustin took another step forward until he could almost reach out and grab Blair. Behind him, the two women had Jug wrapped in a blanket and were carrying him back to the van. They seemed nervous, but Jim figured they probably weren't used to carrying a dead body around. "Where are they?" Rustin demanded, drawing Jim's attention back.

Blair did not move. "Look, Rustin, if you can't keep track of all your herd, that's not my problem. Just don't get delusional on me okay? You know I'm in a committed relationship. What would I want with your girls?"

Rustin didn't answer for a moment. He glanced up at Jim, and found Jim glaring back with his best ever 'I'm perfectly willing and able to rip your nuts off so don't piss me off' expression.

"That's what I want to know," he finally said. "I know they were here. Since you don't need them, I'll take them back."

"Hey man, if you can find them be my guest." Blair gestured at the ranch house and the fields behind him.

Rustin scowled. "You and I both know they aren't here."

"Then why are you hassling me?"

"Because they belong to me. You know where they are. Granted you did me a favor," he waved behind him vaguely towards Jug. "But that will only get you so far."

Jim found himself relaxing suddenly, minutely. It surprised him until he realized -- Rustin was only threatening. If he were serious about causing real trouble, he wouldn't be standing here yelling at Blair.

Blair's eyes narrowed. "This isn't your territory Rustin. I'm not part of your herd."

Rustin continued to glare at him for a moment. Then he stepped back, once. "When I find my girls, Blair, I'm going to come get them. And if I find you standing in my way...."

"Yeah, yeah. Promises, promises."

"Count on it," Rustin said, then turned and went back to the van. Moments later he was spinning tires, and heading back down the driveway.

Jim watched then listened until he was sure they were gone. Then he looked at Blair. Blair was still bristling. Jim smiled. "Was I good?"

That seemed to startle Blair out of his anger. He blinked, then grinned. "Yeah," he said. "You were perfect."

"I try," Jim said smugly.

Blair rolled his eyes and whapped him on the arm. "C'mon, Mr. Perfect. Let's head home."

"You said it, I didn't."


True to Joe's predictions, they had to go back to the drawing board in the search for Harper. They spent the rest of the day going over all the information they'd gathered and gone over twenty times already, hoping they'd missed something. It wasn't exactly a scintillating way to spend the day, and the fact that Rustin's visit had made the ranch less than a safe house, and so no evening run, did not improve Joe's temper.

Levon was trying his best to keep Joe calm, but it didn't help that he felt threatened as well. If Rustin came looking for the fillies, he'd find Levon and that was a fight Levon wanted to avoid. Joe knew, because Levon had said so at least four times since Blair had told them what had happened.

All in all it was a pretty crappy day and the night following wasn't much better. Again Levon had tried to distract him, but Joe was too annoyed to enjoy himself. Finally they just drifted into an uneasy sleep, and greeted the next day without much enthusiasm.

They started out early, having promised to meet Jim and Blair at their loft. Levon drove, asking as they went if Joe wanted anything. Stop for coffee, stop for breakfast which he'd turned down at the hotel, stop and beat the crap out of someone's trash can....

At the last suggestion Joe's lips twitched involuntarily. "Am I being that much of a pain?" he asked ruefully.

"You? Not at all," Levon replied. Then he added, "Am I allowed to say otherwise?" His tone made it clear that he knew he was.

Joe sighed nonetheless. "You know you are."

Levon grinned cheekily. "You're being a real pain, Joe."

"Thanks." He found himself grinning back. Shaking his head he added, "You know, there was a time I could sustain a bad mood for days."

"Sorry. Didn't mean to be a bad influence." Levon was still grinning.

Joe wondered why he was suddenly being so cheerful, when yesterday he'd been just as on-edge as Joe.

Well there was one way to find out. "And who turned you into miss merry sunshine?"

Levon glanced over. "Can't both of us be a pain," he said simply.

"Since when?" Joe asked, thinking back over their partnership.

"Since we've two extra partners who will gladly strangle us both if we start fighting over the breakfast table. Not to mention four impressionable fillies looking to me to be... levelheaded, at least."

Joe grinned again. "You always are, cowboy. Well, mostly."

"Mostly? Mostly!?" Levon glared at him, fighting back a smile. "I'll give you 'mostly', boy!" He slammed the car into park, and reached over for Joe. Joe barely had time to realize they were in the parking lot at Jim and Blair's loft before Levon's hands were digging into his shirt.

And then he was laughing too hard to notice his surroundings.

A knock on the windshield interrupted them.

"Boys?" a voice called.

They both froze.

Still trying to catch his breath, Joe looked up to see an attractive redhead looking at them curiously.

"Naomi!" Levon said in a delighted tone. He got out of the car and headed around to her. They hugged, then Levon turned to Joe. "This is Blair's mom. Naomi, this is my husband Joe."

"Hi," Joe said, offering her his hand even as he looked her over. "I've heard a lot about you."

"Oh really? Do you believe any of it?" She smiled.

"I wasn't given much reason to doubt it."

"Oh good!" She gave them both a smile. "Let's go see if Jim and Blair are awake, shall we? Or should I leave you two down here to finish what you were doing?"

Oh yes, she was definitely a centaur, Joe thought as he felt his face heat. Only centaurs seemed to be able to embarrass him that easily. "No, that's okay," he told her. "We're...err...done."

Levon laughed. "Come on, lover. Let's go see if we can interrupt Blair, too."

Trailing Naomi and his husband into the building, Joe shook his head and muttered, "Centaurs."

Levon glanced over his shoulder at him, grinning. He had his arm slung over Naomi's shoulders and they were talking animatedly about something. Joe only caught one word in three but even that was enough to make him blush. What was it about centaurs that they felt obliged to share those kind of details?

He wasn't sure he wanted to ask -- for knowing that Levon would explain it to him. Vividly.

Which would probably make him blush again.

They made it up to the third floor without Joe feeling compelled to ask his husband to find something else to talk about. Besides which, Levon was progressing to telling Naomi about Joe's other virtues and that made him start to smile.

Until, "And he says the worst things about barbecue sauce."

"Can I help it if I was born with taste?" Joe interjected, not willing to let that pass without commenting.

Levon gave him a look. "Like the way you taste," he agreed. So much for his reprieve, Joe thought.

Before he had a chance to say anything back, the door to 307 opened and Blair stuck his head out. "Mom!" he greeted Naomi happily, pulling her into a hug. "You're early!"

'How did he-' Joe wondered then remembered. 'Jim's senses. Right.'

Naomi greeted her son warmly, then stepped farther into the loft and gave Jim a hug as well. Levon and Joe followed her in, waiting as the Sandburg, Sr. whirlwind settled herself in the space.

Blair was bouncing on the balls of his feet, waiting until he had his mother's attention again. It was clear to anyone looking at him that he had something to tell her.

Finally she looked at him, grabbed his arms and asked, "What is it, Blair?" She was grinning excitedly.

"I finally told Jim," he said simply, his smile lighting up his whole face.

She stopped for nearly ten seconds. Then her face lit up though she gave Jim an uncertain glance. Jim just shrugged. He was smiling at Blair, though.

"He's fine with it Mom," Blair reassured her. "So fine in fact that he, uhm, proposed."

That reaction was astounding to watch. She whirled on Jim. "You did?"

"I did," he nodded, then she was on him again -- hugging him, then hugging Blair, grabbing both their hands, and talking a-mile-a-minute about wedding arrangements. Jim was trying to interrupt her, but she was ignoring his every half-spoken word.

Levon was the one who finally stopped her when he asked, "You gonna have it back home?"

That stopped everyone in fact. Jim looked at Blair, Blair looked at Jim and Naomi looked at both of them.

"We haven't discussed it yet," Blair said.

Levon's grin grew slightly. "You gonna tell Joy about it afterwards, then?"

Blair blanched slightly. "Maybe by letter. From Peru."

Levon laughed, and Naomi shook her head. "If we decide to have the wedding someplace other than the herd's ranch Joy will just have to deal with it."

Jim was giving Blair a look Joe recognized. It was the 'Can we just elope now?' expression.

"More than you bargained for, Jim?" Blair asked teasingly.

"I was hoping for a couple days to get used to the idea before I had to get my tux cleaned."

Naomi laughed. "A couple of days? It'll take a lot longer than that to plan this right. At least a couple of months."

Joe was suddenly very glad Naomi wasn't his mother-in-law.

Levon stepped closer to him, and whispered, "Lucked out, didn't we?"

"She's worse than the whole herd," Joe replied, watching as Naomi rambled on about all the preparations she'd have to do. Even Blair was starting to look a little wild around the eyes now.

Finally Jim took her arm and tugged, getting her attention. "Naomi, right now we have to get back to work. But I wonder if you could help us with something?" Jim glanced to Blair very quickly, as if for confirmation. Blair gave him a very subtle nod; the only reason Joe saw it was he was looking for it. Then, however, Jim gave Levon the same small questioning glance. But he spoke before Levon could say anything. "We have four girls who might need some looking after while we're trying to find a drug dealer."

Joe glanced at Levon too, but his partner seemed fine with the suggestion.

"Four fillies," Blair qualified.

"What? Where are they? Whose are they?" Suddenly the wedding seemed totally forgotten.

"They're mine, for now," Levon replied. "Took 'em from a human pimp here in town. Got 'em at the hotel, but the way this case has been going I'd feel a lot better knowing someone was keeping an eye on 'em."

"Rustin's looking for them too," Blair put in seriously.

Naomi frowned. "Someone needs to put that stallion out of his poor herd's misery!" She looked at Blair suddenly. "And I don't mean you, Blair. But someone had better do it soon."

Blair held up his hands defensively. "Don't worry Naomi, I wasn't planning on taking him on. The last thing I need or want is a herd. Even if they would accept a half-blood. And taking Rustin out without there being a replacement..." He let his voice trail off into silence at that possibility.

"Then you'll keep 'em safe?" Levon asked, and it was obvious the question was unnecessary.

Joe felt some of the weight on his and his partner's shoulders lighten at Naomi's acquiescence. One less thing to worry about.

Even if they still had no clue what to do about finding Harper.


It ended up that they had to resort to simply pounding the pavement. Canvassing the areas Harper was likely to have been, asking neighbors of the raided warehouse, even stopping by Fantasia to question its employees again. It was tedious, it was frustrating, and it was the only thing they could do.

By the end of the day even Blair's good spirits and energy were flagging. They stopped by the hotel to collect Naomi and the fillies for dinner. Instead they found a note.

"Blair, the girls are so upset about this whole business I thought it best if we went out for a run. We've gone to Hollow Creek. Come on up and meet us after you're through doing whatever it is you boys have been doing all day. Love, Naomi."

"Hollow Creek?" Joe asked, after Blair finished reading the note out loud.

"It's a place near here, where Naomi and I sometimes used to go running. A lot of the stallions from Rustin's herd go up there, too."

"Is it safe?" Levon asked.

Blair hesitated. "Normally I'd say yes, absolutely. But it's herd land -- Rustin will know about it. If he's looking for the fillies, to get them away from me or whomever he thinks might have them -- he might look there."

Joe had to practically hang onto Levon; his husband was frantic at the thought of Rustin finding the fillies. "We better get up there and check it out," Joe said.

"Chill man," Blair told Levon. "Mom won't let anything happen to them."

Levon didn't calm down, however. They headed out to Blair's car and before Blair had even started the engine Levon was nearly vibrating with anxious energy.

"Easy," Joe said in an undertone, reaching over and laying a hand on Levon's thigh. "We'll get them." Levon didn't answer, but he kept himself as still as he could.

None of them were calm by the time they reached Hollow Creek. As soon as they got out of the car, Blair was on Jim. "Can you tell where they are?"

"Give me a second, Chief," Jim admonished, and began searching the area.

Blair was practically vibrating with suppressed energy, and all of Joe's attention was on keeping his partner from running off before they got a direction to run to. Levon was already changing; Joe kept a hand on him so he couldn't run off, alone, at least.

Finally Jim nodded. "They're off that way, about a mile."

"Wait!" Joe yelled before Levon could take off. The order registered but Joe could tell it wouldn't hold him back for long. He quickly swung astride Levon's back.

Blair meanwhile was also preparing to change. "Are they alone?" he asked Jim, even as he closed his eyes and began to transform.

Jim's expression changed from one of concentration to alarm. "No."

The word had barely registered with Joe, before Levon was off. He was running full out, going as fast as Joe had ever seen him. All of Joe's concentration was suddenly focused on staying mounted and on moving with Levon instead of against him. They dodged trees, low lying branches, and once they leapt something -- Joe didn't see what. He didn't say a word, however.

Behind him, he could distantly hear the sound of other hooves; Blair and Jim were following. But they didn't seem to gain any on Levon and himself.

Finally, ahead of them, shouting could be dimly heard. He heard Levon say something, but couldn't make it out. He knew his husband was frightened for the fillies. If Rustin had them, there was going to be a hell of a fight.

The weight of his guns in their holsters was a sudden reassurance.

They suddenly broke through to a clearing and Levon headed directly towards the five centaurs. The fillies were clustered together behind Naomi, who was shouting at a man in front of her. Behind him was another centaur.

Levon yelled and changed direction. Before they closed the distance more than by half, Naomi suddenly charged.

The man had time to raise his hands, but that was it before she was on him. He screamed once as he went down. Levon barely slowed, continuing towards the stallion who was staring openmouthed at Naomi. The stallion suddenly saw Levon heading for him, then he looked at something behind them, then over again at Naomi and the fillies behind her.

He turned and ran.

Joe heard Blair call out from behind him, "Yeah, you better run, Rustin!"

The stallion headed down towards a creek, jumping over it and running up a slight rise. Levon was still after him and gaining fairly quickly. They lost sight of him for a moment, then as they came over the crest of the hill, they saw a naked man scrambling into a van.

It was only as the van sped off that Joe was able to get Levon to stop.

"Thought you didn't want a fight," he said softly, running a hand over the trembling muscles in Levon's back soothingly.

It took a while before Levon was able to answer him. When he looked over, he was still pale with rage. "He was after my fillies," he said simply.

"He didn't get them."

"Yeah." Levon looked after the van once more, then turned and began walking back. Joe could feel him still shaking.

"You going to be okay?" he asked, worried that Levon might still go after Rustin.

"Yeah," Levon said again, sounding a little calmer. He turned around and headed back at a slower gallop.

As they approached, they found Jim standing beside the body, while Blair and his mother tried to calm the fillies. As soon as the fillies saw Joe and Levon, they raced over.

Levon was able to calm them down quickly, using the same words Joe had used on him. The transformation from enraged stallion to calm and collected care giver was amazing. Joe slid from Levon's back, gave him a gentle pat on the withers, then went over to join Jim, looking down at the corpse.

Naomi hadn't left much of the man.

"Any idea who this was?" he asked Jim.

Jim gave him a grin. It was a frightening, predatory grin. "Harper."

"Huh." Somehow that didn't even surprise Joe at this point. "What was he doing here with Rustin? I thought Jug was working with him." It didn't make sense that Jug and Rustin would be working together, even peripherally. But it wasn't likely they'd get the chance to find out, with Jug and Harper dead and Rustin unlikely to give them the time of day.

Jim shrugged; Joe didn't expect him to know any better than he did. Jim glanced over at Blair and Naomi. "I suppose we'll have to let them 'dispose' of this as well."

"Unless you want to explain how he got trampled to death by a horse."

Jim grinned. "Not really. What about you? Any trouble telling your lieutenant that Harper disappeared?"

"Her, we can tell the truth," Joe replied with a smile. "She knows about centaurs. Used to be Levon's partner."

"Oh?" Jim looked startled, then nodded. "I guess that makes sense." He looked over as Blair and Naomi walked up.

"Jim, I'm really sorry," Naomi began. "I don't suppose you can report this to your Captain Banks, can you?"

"Don't worry about it, Naomi."

Blair was looking at what remained of Harper. "You really did a number on him, Mom."

She smiled, still apologetic. "He was threatening those poor girls, Blair. He was going to take them and put them back to work and pay Rustin for them!" She looked angry again, then shook her head. "I didn't realize you boys were here."

"Don't worry about it, Mom. You just saved us from having to do it."

She grinned. "I have to admit his personality seems to have improved," she admitted.

"So does this mean the case is wrapped up?" Joe asked.

Jim looked surprised, then he smiled. "I think it does."

"Finally," Blair agreed with a grin.

They all stood there for a moment, enjoying the fact. Then Naomi took Blair's arm and began, "I was thinking, about your wedding...."


The next day they were gathered at the train station. Joe had not said a word, merely returned their plane tickets and purchased the six train fares. Naomi was still telling Levon how he could meditate while he flew, and Levon was trying to be polite in return. Joe could tell Levon wasn't buying it.

"You should try it," Blair said when his mother paused for breath. "It really does work. It'll make flying easier on both you and Joe."

Levon still looked doubtful, but he said, "I suppose it couldn't hurt. Can't imagine flying being any worse."

"We won't be flying anywhere if I have anything to say about it," Joe put in. He was still haunted by the memory of the state Levon had been in when they'd landed in Cascade.

"Joe, trust me. I fly all the time. It works wonders." Naomi patted Levon on the arm. "I'll stop by Houston sometime next month and teach you."

"If you say so," Levon replied.

"I do. I'll be in the area speaking to Joy about the wedding plans, so it's no problem," Naomi assured him.

Joe watched as both Jim and Blair winced at the mention of "wedding plans".

"You're having it at the ranch then?" Levon asked, sounding amused.

Jim shook his head slightly, as did Blair. Both were standing behind Naomi, so she didn't see it. She said brightly, "That's one of the things Joy and I have to discuss, but it does seem like the perfect spot."

Blair shifted uncomfortably. "Mom-"

"Yes, dear?" she looked back at him.

Levon was trying to stifle laughter, and excused himself to check on the fillies.

"Jim and I haven't made up our minds yet," Blair reminded her.

"Well, you try telling that to Joy," Naomi told them. Joe realized she knew exactly how they felt about it.

Blair sighed and looked up at his partner. "You sure you don't want to run away to Peru?" he asked plaintively.

"The Chopec would marry us, I'm sure," Jim said seriously.

Naomi narrowed her eyes, then said, "If you two run away you are not going without me."

"Great!" Blair muttered, half-laughing. "My mother wants to come along when I elope!"

Naomi laughed. "I just want to be out of reach when Joy finds out!"

The announcement over the station's P.A. that the train was now boarding stopped the conversation. "Guess that's us," Joe said, a little awkwardly.

Levon was back, fillies clustered behind him. "It was good seeing you again, Blair, Naomi." He gave his relatives hugs, then he held out his hand to Jim. "Nice meeting you, too."

"Likewise," Jim replied.

Naomi gave each of the fillies a hug, then Levon sent them to get aboard. Once they were out of earshot he rolled his eyes. "I will be so glad when Taylor gets them off my hands."

Blair grinned. "Not enjoying having four teenage daughters?" he teased.

"Not without a herd full of mares to help me keep 'em in line, I don't!"

"We better go, or we'll miss the train," Joe interjected, shaking hands with Jim and Blair, and accepting a hug from Naomi. "If you're ever in Houston...."

"We will," Jim said.

With that, Joe and Levon headed for the train. Levon climbed aboard with a grateful smile and a look for Joe that said he wanted to kiss him. Joe grinned back and nudged him on.

"Good people," Joe said, nodding towards the window as they took their seats.

"Yeah. I hope they manage to have a nice, calm wedding, though."

Joe snorted. "With Naomi and Joy in charge? I wouldn't bet on it."


"Ellison! Sandburg!"

The bellow greeted them the moment they stepped into Major Crimes.

Blair winced. "It's nice to be wanted, I guess," he muttered for sentinel ears only.

"I want you," Jim replied, almost as softly. The grin that got him bolstered his courage to enter Banks' office.

Simon glowered at them as they entered. "I'm still waiting for the explanation you've been promising me for two days."

"Well, sir," Jim began, then glanced at Blair. They had been completely unable to think of a convincing cover story.

"Might as well just tell him the truth," Blair finally said with a sigh. "He's going to have to know eventually, if you want to invite him to the wedding."

"Tell me the truth?" Simon began, then stopped. "Wedding?"

"Uhm, yeah, Simon. Jim and I are getting married." Blair smiled and bounced on the balls of his feet.

Simon looked at them suspiciously. "I should say 'congratulations,' but why do I have the feeling I'm not going to like this?"

Jim smiled innocently.

"Well, there's some things you got to know about my family, Simon," Blair began.

Simon waited expectantly.

The rest of Major Crimes wondered, a few minutes later, why their captain was shouting.

"CENTAURS?!"


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