Centaur Lines

A Houston Knights Centaur Story

By James Walkswithwind and Wolfling

"You think she'll be all right sharing a room with her brother?" Levon asked as he came down the hallway, his arms full of linens. They were trying to get the house cleaned and ready for Joe's cousin's family, arriving today. They'd known about the visit for weeks, but work had interfered with getting ready until now. They'd spent all morning frantically trying to get everything in order.

"They've shared every other time they've visited," Joe pointed out, taking some of the sheets from his husband to put on the bed.

"Yeah, but for a whole week? Thought human siblings tended to beat up on each other if left alone together." Levon grinned. "Angie won't mind being stuck with her little brother?"

Joe grinned back. "Oh, I'm sure she'd rather have a room to herself, but for a week of being able to go horseback riding and maybe even a visit out to the herd's ranch, she'll make do."

"Hope you're right." Levon leant forward and gave Joe a quick kiss before heading back towards the bathroom across the hall. "We never found something for Tony to stand on...."

"We'll manage. And if it's too much of a problem, we can go buy a stool." Bed made, Joe stood back and gave the room a quick lookover to see if they were missing anything.

Levon came up behind him and wrapped his arms around Joe's waist.

Smiling, Joe leaned back against him with a sigh. "You realize these are our last moments of peace for a week."

"Don't mind. It'll be nice having your cousins here." There was a pause, then, "There's a crate in the attic. We can use it for Tony to stand on, at the bathroom sink."

Joe chuckled. "Knew that centaur memory would think of something." He turned to face Levon, his own arm's going around the other man's waist. Levon was grinning at him; then he gave Joe another kiss. Joe returned it with interest, but pulled back before either of them could get carried away. "Don't have time for anything more," he said regretfully.

"Reckon their plane'll be late?" Levon asked, hopefully.

"Do you really want to take that chance?" Joe asked. "We don't want to give Tony and Maria any reasons to think we're not responsible enough to look after the kids for a week on our own. I know Maria's already antsy about going off without them."

"I wouldn't do anything to make them think they can't trust us with their kids, Joe," Levon said s eriously. "Might not know what the hell to *do* with 'em, but I got an idea of what not to do."

"I know you wouldn't," Joe answered just as seriously, not wanting to even seem to imply otherwise. He grinned. "You've managed pretty well for not k nowing what to do. You're their favourite relative."

Levon laughed. "That's because I'm a centaur. Ain't nothing to do with my parenting skills."

"The two aren't mutually exclusive you know."

"You saying I could not be a parent * and* not be a centaur?" he teased.

Joe blinked, trying to unravel the exact meaning of the sentence. Giving up, he just addressed the part he did understand. "You can't not be a centaur. As you've told me yourself over the years."

"I'd lov e to stay here and debate metaphysics with you, but if we want to meet their plane on time we'd best be going." Levon wrapped himself tighter around Joe, despite his words.

"You're not moving," Joe pointed out.

"Yeah, but I'm not the domi nant one." Levon grinned happily.

"You remember that at most convenient times."

Levon winked at him, then let go. "Come on, I'll drive."

Joe grinned. "Lead the way, cowboy."

"You just say that so you can watch me walk."

"One of the fringe benefits of being the dominant one."

"So how do you explain me lookin' at you?" came the question over Levon's shoulder, as he preceded Joe out the front door.

"Never said you didn't," Joe replied as he followed, his eyes unabashedly on Levon's most salient feature. Tight jeans were his second favourite piece of clothing. Nothing at all was his most favourite. "But being dominant means I get the better view."

Levon stopped, and looked over at him, rakin g him from head to toe. "Wouldn't count on that. I've seen you smile."

Much to his surprise Joe found himself blushing at that. And smiling.

The way Levon was looking at him made him blush harder.

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They stood at gate B4, waiting patiently.

As patiently as they ever waited in airports.

The plane had indeed been late and Levon had shot Joe a 'told you so' look when they'd found out. But now, finall y, the announcement came that the flight from Chicago was landing.

Joe heard Levon sigh, and mutter something about being glad he wasn't expected to get on one of those things.

"Told you cowboy," he replied, briefly swinging an arm around Levon's shoulders, "we take the train from now on."

"I remember," Levon replied.

"With your memory I'd be surprised if you didn't," Joe teased.

Further conversation was interrupted by the first passengers disembarking the flight.

"You see them yet?"

"Relax, Joe. You'll see them as soon as I do." Levon sounded amused. And anxious.

Joe laughed. "Sheesh, would you look at us? We've got to be as excited about this as the kids."

Levon gave him a half -grin, rolling his eyes as well in a mixed look of excitement and denying it.

"Uncle Joe! Uncle Levon!" a young voice squealed.

Turning to look, Joe spotted Angie and Tony Jr. running full tilt towards them. Tony Jr. leapt for Joe while his sister leapt into Levon's arms. Behind them, at a more sedate pace, their parents followed.

"You'd think they were glad to see us or something," Joe observed with a grin as he hugged the boy and set him back on his feet, only to have his sist er take his place.

Levon picked up Tony Jr., and by that time Tony and Maria were there, exchanging hugs as well.

"It's good to see you two again," Maria exclaimed.

"You too," Joe replied, leaning over and kissing her cheek.

< p> "I can't believe you're willing to take these two monsters for a whole week." Tony ruffled his son's hair.

"Daaad-dy!" Angie protested, stamping her foot a little. "We are *not* monsters!"

"You better not be, or Joe and Levon won't let you visit again." Tony was only half-serious in his threat.

Tony Jr. was ignoring his father, tugging on Levon's shirt. He kicked his heels when Levon didn't look at him, and said, "Cen-ar!"

Levon grinned at him. "Well, not *here*, Jr."

"That's supposed to be a secret," Angie informed her brother haughtily. "You're not supposed to tell."

Tony Jr. looked abashed. "Fo'got. Sowwy."

"It's all right," Levon told him, and the boy smiled again.

"Let's go get y our bags and grab a bite to eat before your parents' plane leaves," Joe suggested, trying to get everyone moving towards baggage claim.

"They're going to Acapulco," Angie said. "On a second honeymoon."

The four adults exchanged amused look s at the girl's serious mien. Levon asked, "Have y'all been to Mexico before?" As he began walking, Tony Jr. kicked his heels again, happily.

"No," Maria said. "We went to Italy on our first honeymoon -- it was a wedding gift from Mike and Teres a. It's the only time we've been out of the country until now. They tried to talk us into going back to Italy but I wanted to see someplace new."

"Mexico can be nice," Levon told her. "Long as you stay away from the tequila," he added with a grin .

"What's 'quila'?" Tony Jr. asked.

Tony half-stifled a smirk, and Joe grinned and looked at his lover. "You brought it up."

Levon gave him a perplexed look, but told the child, "It's a form of alcohol."

The child frowned. "'Cohol?"

"Alcohol," Angie corrected him. "Like beer or wine. Right?" She looked up at Levon.

"That's right," Levon nodded. He noticed the looks Maria and Tony were giving him, and shot a doubtful look to Joe.

Joe gave him a reass uring grin then asked the kids, "Do you know what the worst thing about tequila is?"

Both children shook their heads.

"They put a worm in every bottle. And if you're not careful you can eat it."

"Ewwwww," Angie said and Tony Jr. ma de a face.

Tony Sr. rolled his eyes. "I can see they're going to be in good hands."

"We'll do our best," Joe responded with a grin. "Hey, we handle all kinds of criminals every day, how much harder can it be looking after two kids?"

< p> Maria laughed. "I'll remind you you said that when we pick them up."

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Three hours later they'd had lunch, and were standing at the international terminal. Tony and Maria ga ve the children last-minute hugs, kisses, and reminders to be good.

"Thank you both so much for doing this," Maria said, as she hugged both Levon and Joe goodbye.

"We're glad to do it. We like having the kids around."

"Just the sam e, cuz, thanks," Tony said. "We owe you big."

"Just enjoy yourselves," Levon said. "Don't worry about your kids."

"And don't eat any worms!" Joe added.

Joe and Levon took the kids to the window to watch as their parents' plane tax ied away. Tony Jr. waved until it rolled out of sight behind another plane.

"So what do you want to do first when we get to the house?" Joe asked as they headed back to the truck.

"Can we go riding?" Angie asked eagerly.

"Ri'ing!" Tony agreed. "Cen- uh..." He looked around, worriedly.

Joe laughed and ruffled the boy's hair. "I think that can be arranged, don't you Levon?"

"I reckon so." They both laughed again when Tony Jr. cheered.

The trip back home p assed quickly with both kids chattering a mile-a-minute the whole way. Joe doubted that he or Levon could have gotten a word in edgewise even if they had wanted to.

As soon as they pulled to a stop in the driveway, the two were out and heading for the corral to greet Fooler. Angie was telling her brother how she would get to ride the horse all by herself. Tony Jr. told her quite clearly in response that he would rather ride a "cen'aur" anyway. She looked unhappy about that reminder, but Levon r eassured them both that they'd each have plenty of chances to go riding.

They spent the better part of the rest of the afternoon doing so, until finally Joe had to tell all *three* kids that it was time to come inside and wash for dinner.

Dinner was chaotic with both kids still trying to continue their nonstop talking, more than half the time, now, with their mouths full. This time, though, they occasionally let one of the adults say something, as together they planned the itinerary for the rest of the week.

After dinner Tony Jr. helped Joe clean the kitchen while Angie headed out to help with Fooler. Both chores took twice as long as usual with the kids' help.

It was when they were getting ready to send Tony to bed, tha t the call came.

"I got it," Joe called, leaving Levon to supervise the bedtime rituals. He grabbed the receiver and said, "LaFiamma."

"Joseph LaFiamma?" an unfamiliar voice asked.

"Yes. Who is this?"

"My name is Jack Harpe r. I'm a Lieutenant down here with Brownsville PD. Do you have a cousin Anthony LaFiamma?" Harper's voice was controlled, slightly sympathetic. It was a tone Joe recognised. A tone he'd used himself, when having to inform someone that...

He swallowed hard. "Yes," he said, the word clipped off, as he tried to keep control of himself through emotions suddenly gone chaotic.

"I'm sorry, Sergeant LaFiamma, to have to inform you that Anthony and Maria LaFiamma--"

The rest of the wo rds faded out into incomprehensibility.

He wasn't sure how but he must've made all the right sounds, asked all the right questions. Maybe Harper was just used to dealing with people numb with shock and grief. Either way, he managed to finish the conversation and hang up the phone before he started trembling.

When he turned around Levon was standing there, taking hold of him and asking him questions.

Somehow he found his voice. Or a voice, what came out of his mouth sounded nothing like his usual speaking. "There was a plane crash. T-Tony and Maria-" he stopped unable to get the words out.

Apparently he didn't need to. Levon's face changed, first into disbelief then shock. He grabbed Joe into a tight embrace.

For a long time, they simply stood there.

"Uncle Joe? Uncle Levon? What's wrong?" Angie asked from the hall.

The kids. Oh God.

Levon stepped back, giving Joe a look he didn't at first catch. Then he realised -- if this were a centaur family, the kids would simply be told and that would be that. Levon had no idea how to handle telling human children.

He wasn't sure if he had much more of an idea. He remembered his own bewilderment when his mother had sat him down and told h im that his father was in heaven and was never coming home again. And he remembered the pain and the anger he'd felt when he'd been told his mother had been in their house when it had caught fire and hadn't gotten out. But just because he'd been through it didn't mean he knew how to break it to someone else. And at least he hadn't lost both of his parents at once.

How did you tell a child that she's suddenly an orphan?

Angie took a step forward, uncertainty on her face. Levon held his ar m out for her and she came forward into his embrace. Levon picked her up and held her, glanced once at Joe, but said nothing.

Angie began to look more scared.

"Angie," Joe began, then stopped and cleared his throat when his voice threat ened to crack. "I just got some really, really bad news. There was a plane crash." He held her gaze steadily, trying to lend her strength, comfort and reassurance through his eyes. "Your parents... " He swallowed and then continued in a rush before the wo rds could stick in his throat. "They didn't make it; they were killed."

Angie's eyes went huge. She wrapped one arm around Levon's neck, but stared at Joe.

She didn't say a word.

After a moment she turned, wrapping her other arm around Levon, and buried her face against his neck. Joe just stood there and watched. He didn't know what else to do. Levon was rubbing her back, watching Joe. He looked like he wanted to ask a question, but was refraining from doing so in front of A ngie.

Suddenly Angie turned to him. "They'll be found, won't they? Like we did you?" She was obviously struggling to hold back her tears.

He wished he could give her that hope but he couldn't. "They've already been found. I'm sorry, Ang ie. They won't be coming back."

"Yes, they will." She glared at him. "If they've been found, they'll be back. Like you were. They will be!" she shouted.

Levon tried to pull her closer, to hold her, but she turned and drove her fist aga inst his shoulder. Joe moved closer then, wrapping his arms around both of them, sandwiching Angie in both his and Levon's embraces. He didn't try to say anything else, just held on as tight as he could.

As they held her, she began crying, sobbin g loudly and calling out for her mama and daddy.

Joe held on even tighter, and cried along with her.

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They got Angie to bed, finally. She cried herself into exhaustion, th en when they took her to the guest room, she crawled into bed with her little brother.

That was another discussion Joe wasn't looking forward to: explaining it to Tony Jr. Joe stood and watched as Angie drifted off, and continued to watch even af ter it was clear both children were deeply asleep.

Finally Levon came back and whispered, "You coming to bed?"

With one last look at the children, he nodded and followed Levon out of the room.

Levon didn't say anything until Joe had closed the bedroom door. Then, when Joe remained silent, he asked, "Did they say anything else other than the plane crashed?"

"They gave some details," Joe replied, staring at a random spot on the hall wall. "I didn't really hear it, though. Didn't hear much of anything after..." He trailed off with a half shrug, still staring at the wall.

Levon put his hands on Joe's shoulders, turning Joe towards him. "I'm sorry, Joe."

Again he gave a half shrug, eyes downcast, avoiding loo king at Levon's face. He felt... numb. Empty, hollow. He knew he was in shock, but he embraced it, because he knew when it wore off...

Levon held him, then, and didn't say a word.

Joe didn't know how long they'd stood there when Levon aske d, "Reckon we better call Mike and Teresa?"

God. Joe shuddered. The thought of phoning Uncle Mikey with this news... "I-can't," he said brokenly.

"You want me to call?"

Joe knew he should say no, knew he should do it himself, but i t was just too much. "Please," he whispered, feeling both guilt and relief at passing on the responsibility.

Levon just nodded, though, and headed back out of the bedroom towards the living room.

Part of him wanted to follow, to at least be there when the call was made, but he didn't move. Just stood where he was, waiting for Levon to come back.

When he did, Levon stood just inside the door which he'd closed behind him.

Joe looked at him. "Well?"

"They're headed d own." Levon had almost no expression on his face.

Joe just nodded. He stood there for a moment more. "Levon...?" he finally whispered desperately, feeling his armor of numbness slowly fading away.

Then suddenly his mate was holding him a gain. Joe found himself shuddering as he held onto Levon with all his strength. The numbness was well and truly gone now, replaced by a savage turmoil of grief and pain and sadness and anger that threatened to overwhelm Joe and carry him off. It would h ave, if not for Levon anchoring him. He heard somebody sobbing harshly and realized that it was him.

Through it all, he felt Levon holding him, though he heard nothing from his husband at all. Levon just held him silently, and tightly.

J oe wasn't sure how much time had passed before he got himself back under control. He pulled back out of Levon's embrace just far enough to meet his eyes. "Thanks," he said, his voice rough from crying.

"It's what I'm here for."

Levon was l ooking at him with gentle love and patience; Joe suddenly gripped him tighter. "I can't believe-" He stopped, and swallowed. "Always thought that I would go first. Or Vinnie. Tony was always the sensible one. The one who never took chances."

"Was n't taking a chance," Levon half-shrugged. "Ain't no way you could expect something like this."

Joe shook his head and pulled away to pace the room, to agitated to stand still. "You shouldn't have to expect something like this. It shouldn't have happened. Not to them, to Tony and Maria." He stopped on the opposite side of the room, and looked back at his lover. "Hell Levon, *I* was the one who suggested Mexico to them in the first place!"

"You gonna tell me you were somehow responsible?" The disbelief in Levon's voice was clear. He looked a little surprised, but otherwise calm. A little *too* calm.

"If I hadn't mentioned Mexico, they probably would've gone to Italy again after all. They wouldn't have been on that plane. I know it doesn't make sense but that's how I'm feeling okay?" Joe started to pace again. "I'm not a centaur; losing family hurts."

Levon didn't respond to that. Joe continued to pace, and Levon just stood there, watching.

"You just gonna stand there eyeing me?" Joe asked after several minutes. "This doesn't phase you at all does it?"

Levon frowned, slightly. He started to say something, then stopped. Then he sighed. "Joe, all I can say is I'm sorry."

"Yeah, so am I. Must be n ice not to feel anything when someone close to you dies."

Levon's jaw clamped shut; then he turned on his heel and stormed out of the room.

Instantly, Joe felt remorse for what he'd said. What the hell had he been doing? He knew all about centaur nature; Levon couldn't help reacting the way he did. He would mourn in his own way and time, Joe knew, and just because it was different didn't make it wrong.

Knowing he owed an apology, he went looking for his husband. He heard the front door closing gently. Quickening his steps, he headed in that direction.

As he stepped onto the front porch he found Levon standing near the corral, leaning on the fence. Joe walked over and leaned on the fence next to him.

"Sorry," he s aid in a low voice, as he stared out into the night.

Levon didn't turn around, didn't even let Joe know he'd heard.

'Great,' Joe thought. 'He's sulking.' There was no way he could deal with this properly. He felt like banging his head agai nst the fence; it would probably hurt less than he did right now.

"Look, what I said was wrong and I apologize. But that's all I can manage right now. My cousin -- who was as close to me as a brother -- and his wife are dead, and there are two ki ds in the house who are never going to see their parents again. The last thing I have the patience to deal with is your hurt feelings because I don't understand some centaur thing."

When Levon looked up, his face showed nothing but regret. "Joe.. . is there *anything* I can do? I know I can't make it stop hurting...."

Joe fumbled for something to say for a moment. "Don't sulk," he finally said.

Levon looked surprised. "I wasn't sulking, Joe. Didn't want to make things worse by y elling at you right now."

He stared at Levon for a minute, then turned and leaned his forehead against his hands on top of the fence. "I'm too tired to deal with this."

Levon reached over and pulled him close into an embrace. He tucked Jo e's head onto his shoulder, leaning himself back against the fence to take both their weights. Wordlessly, Joe accepted the offered comfort, wishing there was some way to turn off his brain for a while.

If he couldn't think, he couldn't remember. And if he couldn't remember, he wouldn't have to feel what he was feeling.

Levon was gently rubbing his hands up and down Joe's back; as he rubbed harder, once, Joe groaned. Levon gave him a kiss on the cheek and looked him in the eye. Then he nodded to himself and took Joe's hand. "Come on."

"Where--?" Joe asked, though he was following willingly.

Levon didn't answer, but it became obvious as Levon headed for the house. Joe let his lover guide him inside and into their bedroo m, stood passive as Levon undressed him, then meekly obeyed when he was told to lie down on the bed.

Levon climbed onto the bed beside him, then sat there and began to rub Joe's back. There was nothing remotely sexual about it, just a comforting touch worked at relaxing too-tense muscles and reminded Joe that he wasn't alone. He sighed and closed his eyes.

Levon worked for what felt like forever, rubbing firmly, along his spine and out towards his sides, kneading his shoulders and even do wn his arms. He used the flat of his hands, as well as his fists, then fingers, eliciting first groans of pleasure, then soft sighs.

And somewhere during all this, it accomplished its goal. First Joe's mind quieted, then he slowly drifted off to sleep.

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Levon waited until Joe was sound asleep, sitting still until he knew he could move without waking his mate. Then he stood, carefully and slowly, still making sure. Joe d idn't even twitch.

He reached down and covered Joe with a sheet, before quietly leaving the room. He stopped to look in on the kids as he went past; they were still sleeping soundly. Angie had her arm around her brother', a soft, worried frown o n her face.

With a sigh, he continued on out into the darkened living room where two balls of fur were curled up on the couch. One raised his head and regarded him sleepily.

"Mew?"

He gave it a head rub; it purred and leaned its he ad into his hand. He stood there for a moment, petting the cat. Then he continued outside.

The night was cool and clear, and the almost-full moon, while not as bright as day, provided enough illumination to be able to move around comfortably and safely. He wanted to change and go for a walk, if not a run. But he wasn't sure Joe wouldn't wake up and panic to find him gone. He sighed, and considered sitting on the porch step.

Hell, if Joe saw his clothes piled here, Joe'd know where he was.

Wouldn't stop him from worrying though. No, his best bet was probably the porch steps, after all.

Levon sat down with another sigh. Sometimes he wished for the days he'd lived alone. He'd spent nights out in the pasture, comfortably on his feet with the cool night air calming his mind. There'd been no one to ask him what he was doing, no one to stay beside him, pretending not to shiver.

No one to argue over meals with or to fight for radio stations with. No one to go for ri des with or to offer to brush him. No one to love.

He sighed.

There were always compromises. It didn't stop him from wishing things could be perfect.... But he knew his notion of perfect wasn't the same as Joe's. If he wanted to be wit h the man he loved more than anything, he had to give up some of the things he wanted. It wasn't like Joe didn't do the same.

He looked back towards the pasture. It might be nice to head out there, anyway. If he didn't go far, Joe would be ab le to spot him, if he came out looking. He glanced back at the house behind him, weighing his possible responsibilities.

His family was in there. Asleep, and grieving a loss as terrible as anyone could imagine. Any human. Levon had hidden his , after that first horrid mistake. But though he could feel the pain of loss from friends having died, he didn't grieve. It wasn't just that Tony and Maria were people he'd barely known for a year. But he couldn't explain that to Joe, and trying would only add to his husband's pain.

He knew that intellectually Joe understood, or at least did his best to try to. But he also knew that in his gut and his heart, Joe didn't and couldn't understand -- or completely accept.

The thought made hi m feel more alienated. He wanted to change, and get out there -- to hell with fitting in to a human's world. To hell with trying to appease them and be like them.

He put his head in his hands and closed his eyes. Joe didn't need this. He'd ha ve a tough enough time getting himself through this; he didn't need a contrary centaur making things difficult. He didn't need to deal with a partner doing anything other than being right there when needed, calm and collected and loving.

Levon wou ld just have to be that -- no matter what he was really feeling. He stood up. Later. When everyone was awake again. Quickly he stripped and changed, then headed out into the surrounding fields, leaving his problems behind him.

He didn't worry. He knew they would still be there waiting for him when he came back.

He walked until he was well away from the house, then broke into a gentle lope. Going nowhere, just stretching his legs.

Going nowhere. Gods, sometimes.... Sometimes he got so tired of trying to fit into the humans' world, having human goals and faking human reactions. It had been his decision to do so, and most of the time he didn't regret it. Much. But still...

But still sometimes he wished he had done other wise. When he was trapped in the confines of a huge city, surrounded by concrete and humans, steel and asphalt, all he wanted to do was tear everything apart and escape.

Run into the distance so far and so fast that nothing but the wind could c atch him.

He unconsciously sped up.

Luckily the moon was bright enough that he could run without fear of stumbling. He could not, however, run forever the way his heart was screaming for him to do. The tree line, cast in shadows and in visible in the distance, would cut him off eventually. He was hemmed in not just by the trees, but by other less tangible things. Responsibility. Duty. Love.

Things he'd accepted, things he'd wanted, yearned for. Things he'd offered to trade thi s freedom for, when it had been freedom he'd had instead of Joe.

And he didn't want to give Joe up, not really. But sometimes he just wished he could have both love and freedom.

He knew he wasn't going to find any answers out here, though. There was nothing but night air, and cold ground under his hooves. He came to a stop. None of it meant as much as he wished it meant. He closed his eyes, though, and for a moment pretended. Pretended that he didn't stand on two legs 17 hours a day, being shoved through the city like a cotton seed on a spring wind.

He thought about standing on land he could call his own, not lent him on the sufferance of his father. Surrounded by land, with--

He stopped that thought before he could f inish it. No use wishing for something that will never be, he told himself. Especially not when it meant giving up Joe.

Suddenly he turned and began running back towards the house. Centaur he might be, and the outdoors might be more his home, bu t what he *really* needed was his mate. Curled up beside him in bed, barn, or field, he didn't care. He needed his lover's presence, grounding him in a way his dreams could never do.

Except when he was dreaming of Joe.

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The next morning began early. Joe woke as Levon got out of bed, blearily wondering why he was moving before the alarm had gone off. A moment later memory caught up with him. The plane crash. Tony and Mar ia dead. The kids...

Levon was suddenly holding him. "Joe? Come on, Joe, I've got you," he was whispering.

For a moment he allowed himself the luxury of just accepting his husband's comfort, but only for a moment. He didn't have time for any longer. With a shaky breath he pulled back. "Thanks," he told Levon. "For last night, too."

Levon nodded and let him go.

Joe ran a hand through his hair and slowly climbed out of the bed. "Man, I was hoping it was all a bad dream... ."

Quietly, Levon said, "Mike and Teresa should be here in another hour or so, unless they get delayed. You want me to get breakfast ready?"

"I doubt anybody's going to have much of an appetite, but yeah, we should probably go through the motions at least."

"Kids ain't up yet... don't reckon they will be for awhile," Levon added.

"Let them sleep," Joe said sincerely. "They don't have much to wake up for right now."

Levon nodded. "Do you wanna go for a ride?" he as ked quietly. "Or would you rather stay here with them?" He nodded towards the wall, the other side of which lay the guest room.

"I..." He hesitated, unsure. He didn't want to take the chance that the kids, especially Angie, who knew, would wake up to an empty house. On the other hand, he could *really* use the ride this morning, to remind him he had something to hold on to through the rest of what he was sure was going to be a horrible day.

"Maybe just a short one," he finally said, comp romising.

Levon tugged at his arm and brought him in for a kiss. "We can stay near the house," he said, then he headed out. Joe followed as soon as he had thrown on some clothes. Conversely, Levon was shedding his clothes, few though he'd had o n to begin with.

For some reason that struck Joe as funny and he found himself swallowing laughter that was more than slightly hysterical.

Levon turned back and saw him; he reached out and took Joe's hand. "Come on," he said, still soundi ng calm and soothing. As if he knew how close Joe was to breaking apart.

Joe nodded and followed meekly as the laughter retreated, insanely grateful for Levon. He had a feeling that if he made it through this without shattering completely it woul d only be due to his husband.

Levon took them outside, and changed. He gave Joe his hand. Solemnly, Joe took it and let Levon help boost him astride.

Levon was true to his word, and stayed near the house. They stayed close enough to se e it which meant presumably they could hear if either of the kids should call out.

They rode in silence for a while but eventually Joe felt the need to talk. He had to apologize again for his words the night before. "Levon?"

"Yeah?"

"I was a jerk last night. The stuff I said was way out of line, and I'm sorry."

There was a pause before Levon answered. "Joe, you don't have to apologise. I know you didn't mean to say any of it."

"I didn't mean to hurt you. I don't *e ver* mean to hurt you."

"I know." Levon sounded like he'd already forgiven him, already forgotten it.

Joe just wished he could forgive himself as easily. He recognized that the guilt he was feeling was way out of proportion to what he ha d done, but that did nothing to ease the feeling. Levon didn't seem to be helping, keeping quiet as he was.

Almost too quiet. He probably was just trying to respect Joe's grief but still...

Turning his focus outward for the first time s ince last night, Joe nudged his lover's shoulder. "I know I'm a wreck, but how are you doing, cowboy?"

"I'm all right," came the subdued reply. It almost sounded like Levon hadn't quite wanted to say it.

Well, considering how Joe had lit into him the night before that wasn't surprising. "You'd tell me if you weren't, right?"

Levon glanced over his shoulder at him, looking startled. "I ain't--" He turned back around. "I'm all right, Joe."

"Sure?"

"I wouldn't say I was, if I wasn't."

Joe nodded, slowly, even though he still wasn't completely convinced. "Okay. I just-" He broke off with a frustrated sigh. "I don't want you to get lost in all that's happening. If something *was* bothering you..."

Lev on reached back and felt for Joe's hand. Drawing it forward, Levon held onto him. "Don't worry about me, Joe."

"Don't think I could stop worrying about you," Joe said shyly, squeezing Levon's hand. "Kinda goes along with loving you."

Lev on just squeezed back.

"So you will tell me if there is something bothering you, right?" he pressed just a little, adding a hint of a command to his words.

"It ain't important," Levon said quietly.

'Thought so.' Joe felt a tiny bit of exasperation. "What 'ain't'?" he asked aloud.

Levon walked a few steps without answering. Then he said, "It doesn't matter, Joe. I'd rather not talk about it."

"If something's bothering you, it *does* matter," Joe countered. "Tell me ."

"Joe, it won't help. I don't want to get you upset again about... how I feel. And how I don't feel."

Joe could hear the strain in Levon's voice, that told him how much pain his husband was really in. "What if I promise not to get up set?" Joe started rubbing his free hand in soothing circles over Levon's back.

Levon remained silent, causing Joe to wonder if he would tell him what was wrong. Finally he said, "Joe, I'm not... I can't react to this the way you are. I'm sorry if that bothers you. But I can't be human. And I don't--" It sounded like he choked the rest of his words back.

"You don't what?" Joe asked gently, still rubbing Levon's back soothingly.

"I don't wanna be." The words were almost too so ft to hear. "I'm sorry I can't grieve with you."

After a moment's silence Joe asked, "Did I ever make you think that I wanted you to be more human?"

There was an even longer moment of silence before Levon answered. "I don't think you mea nt to. It ain't just you, though. Whole damn world seems to rather I was, sometimes. My world doesn't have any room for me in it."

Joe didn't know what to say to that. He didn't know if there *was* anything to say to that, other than "I don't w ant you to change." So that's what he said.

"Sometimes I wish I could, though. Either so I could understand what you, what other folk around me, are going through. Or so I wouldn't have to care that I didn't."

Again silence fell for a fe w minutes, then Joe offered, "There are times I wish I could be a centaur."

He heard a smile in Levon's voice as he said, "But you are. A thirty-secondth."

He smiled back, but retorted, "That wasn't what I meant."

Levon gave him a grin over his shoulder. "Bet you just need to get in touch with your centaur side. Spend some time naked in a field...."

"Done that."

"More time, then."

"You just like seeing me run around naked."

Levon gave him a startl ed, innocent look. "You knew *that* already."

Joe chuckled and hugged him tightly. "Yeah, I did."

They rode in silence, then, for awhile. Eventually Levon turned back towards the house. He walked slowly, however, as if to give Joe the c hance to ask not to go back yet.

Even if he had wanted to, Joe couldn't, not right then. The kids would be waking up soon. But he appreciated the gesture nonetheless. "We'll go for a real ride tonight," he promised, hugging Levon briefly.

L evon nodded. They returned to the house and Joe dismounted, giving Levon one last caress before his husband changed forms once more.

Joe watched with his usual leer, only a bit forced, as Levon got dressed once again. "I like that you're a centau r," he said quietly, suddenly.

There was a blink of surprise; Levon slowly smiled. It lit up his eyes and made Joe forget for that moment the pain he'd been feeling.

He smiled back and moved in to claim a kiss.

When Joe released him, Levon was still smiling. "Better get started on breakfast," he suggested, obviously more than willing to remain there, instead.

"Yeah," Joe replied, regretfully. He would've liked to have remained where he was, doing what he was doing, too. Any day but today, he would've.

They went inside. Levon grabbed his shirt on the way and headed for the bedroom to get dressed. Joe headed for the kitchen and began breakfast preparations, even as his mind turned to trying to figure out how to t ell Tony Jr. about what had happened.

Levon stopped by the kitchen for another kiss, before he headed out to give Fooler her breakfast, leaving Joe alone with his thoughts. He wasn't sure it was somewhere he wanted to be right then.

Still , both the shock and the first edge of pain had eased, leaving him at least capable of thinking about the situation. He certainly hadn't been the night before. Not that he didn't still hurt at the thought of never seeing Tony or Maria again, but he was b etter able to control it, to not let it overwhelm him so much.

He heard a soft step behind him, and turned. Angie stood there, staring up at him, brown eyes huge with silent pleading.

Wordlessly he opened his arms and hugged her tightly when she came to him. He didn't say anything. What was there he could say that would make her feel better? She held onto him, and he felt her begin to cry, soundlessly.

Joe kneeled down in front of her, and she immediately changed her grip, wra pping her arms around his neck and burying her face in his shoulder, still sobbing silently. He murmured to her comfortingly in Italian as he soothingly stroked her hair.

He was still holding onto her when Tony Jr. came in, rubbing his eyes sleepi ly and dragging a stuffed animal. He looked at his sister, confused, and turned a scared frown onto Joe. Before he could try to explain, Joe heard Levon come back in the front door.

Good, he thought. He definitely could use some reinforcements r ight then. Levon came into the kitchen, took one look at them, and crouched down beside Tony Jr. The boy, still looking confused, put his arm around Levon's neck. Joe shot his lover a grateful look, before turning his full attention back to calming Ang ie.

"Uncle Levon? What happened?"

Levon pulled the boy close and said, "Your momma and daddy were killed last night, Tony."

Angie whimpered and sobbed harder at the words. Tony Jr. just looked at Levon, confused. "In Me'ico?" he a sked.

"On their way to Mexico."

"Why?"

Levon shot Joe a look, showing his consternation at explaining what was obviously incomprehensible to the child.

"Here, take her, and I'll try." Joe gently disengaged Angie's arms from a round his neck and guided her towards Levon. Then he beckoned Tony Jr. over to him.

"Mama and papa are in Me'ico?" he asked, again.

"No, Tony," Joe told him solemnly. Taking a deep breath he continued. "Your mama and papa are in heaven."

Tony frowned. "With gramma?" Joe recalled that Maria's mother had died a year ago.

"Yes, Tony. With gramma." He searched the boy's face. "Do you understand what I'm telling you?"

He nodded, uncertainly. "When are they gonna be ba ck?

Joe closed his eyes briefly. This was the hard part. "They're not coming back."

"Why not?" Tony's lower lip began to quiver.

"Because they're *dead*!" Angie said suddenly.

Levon whispered something to her, but she just shook her head.

"Mama and papa not coming back?" Tony asked, eyes bewildered.

"No, Tony. They're not coming back." Joe's heart was breaking all over again at the little boy's expression.

"Why not? Don't they want me anymore?" Ton y looked to be on the verge of tears.

Feeling tears well up in his own eyes, Joe pulled him into a tight hug. "Oh no, Tony, no. They loved you very, very much."

"They why don't they wanna come back?"

"What did they tell you about w hy gramma couldn't come back?"

Tony was silent while he tried to remember. "Said she was still watching... like Santa Claus. She can see me but I can't see her." Tony looked up at Joe, tears starting to fall. "But I wanna see mama!"

" I know you do," Joe murmured, pulling the boy closer. "I know you do."

The four of them remained like that, huddled together on the kitchen floor, until they heard a car pulling up outside. Getting to his feet with Tony Jr. still in his arms, Joe went to find out who it was. Mike and Teresa were climbing out of a large sedan a Joe came to the front door.

"Gramma! Grandpa!" Tony cried out. As Joe opened the door, Angie pushed past him and ran to her grandmother.

Joe let Tony down to run to her as well, then followed at a more sedate pace, hoping the mess his emotions were in didn't show on his face. He heard Levon step out onto the porch behind him. Uncle Mike watched the children hug Teresa before he turned to Joe.

"Un cle Mikey," he said, settling for nodding at the man, when the part of him that was hurting wanted nothing more than to hug him like he would've before. Before Levon.

Mike gave him a nod, then sighed and held out one arm for a brief hug. "Joey," was all he said.

They all stood there for a long moment afterwards, looking at each other. Teresa came forward, carrying Tony and holding onto Angie's hand. "Have you had breakfast?" she asked. The kids shook their heads.

"Come on, then . I'll make us something."

As Joe turned, watching them head inside, he saw Levon start to say something, looking like he was protesting the implication that they hadn't been about to feed them. But he didn't say a word, and Teresa went inside u nimpeded.

That left the three men outside. "We hadn't had time yet to make breakfast," Joe told his uncle. "We were too busy dealing with the kids."

"Don't worry, Joey. You know how your Aunt is. If she's cooking, she doesn't have to be thinking about it." Mike waved a hand towards the house, but made no move towards it.

"How is she taking this? How are you?" Joe may have lost someone who was all but a brother to him, but his aunt and uncle had just lost their youngest child.

Mike shrugged. "How am I supposed to take it? I've lost my last son. With Vinnie never coming home again...."

"Because of me."

But Mike shook his head. "No. Vinnie made his own mistakes. His leaving... that was his own fault."< p>

"Maybe he'll be able to come home some day," Joe offered. "Maybe being exiled will change him."

"Maybe." Mike didn't sound like he was holding out any hope. Then he looked at Joe. "I suppose I'll have to go down there and identify their bodies. You think you could stay with your Aunt and the kids?"

Levon spoke for the first time. "We could do that, Mike. Let you stay with your wife."

When Mike hesitated, Joe added, "Please, Uncle Mikey. This isn't something anyone sho uld ever have to do: ID their child's body. Let us do it for you."

Mike looked from Levon to Joe. Then he nodded, suddenly looking old and tired. "All right. I'll take Teresa and the kids back to Chicago and you can come up after you... take ca re of things."

Joe nodded. "We'll go now then. Feel free to use anything you need in the house."

Mike nodded. He took a step towards the house, then stopped and reached out and took Joe's arm. "Thanks, Joey."

Joe just nodded agai n, mutely, not trusting his voice to speak.

Mike went past him, on into the house. Levon watched him go, then turned back to Joe. He came down the step and reached out for an embrace.

Joe went into his arms willingly, resting his head on Levon's shoulder with a weary sigh. It was only nine in the morning and he was already exhausted.

Levon just held him. "You want me to find out where we need to go?" he asked.

"Yeah. They probably told me last night but..."

Levon gave him a kiss. "It's all right, Joe."

He managed a tired smile at that. "I'm lucky to have you. This would've been so much worse if you weren't here for me."

He got another kiss, for that. Then Levon took him by the hand and led him b ack inside. He left Joe to head for the phone. Joe could hear Teresa in the kitchen, asking the kids how many pancakes they could eat, and cajoling them into taking more than they thought they wanted.

It brought back vivid memories of his own ch ildhood, when the kids she would've been cajoling were him and Vinnie and Tony. Things had been so different back then...

Except, of course, those mornings after his father had died, and then, his mother. Joe had been seated at his Aunt's table, surrounded by family, being told to eat when all he could feel inside was emptiness. It was one of the loneliest feelings anyone could ever experience: being surrounded by family who loved you and still feeling lost and alone.

And now that was w hat Angie and Tony were feeling. He wished with all his heart there was some way to make it better for them. Somehow.

But he knew there wasn't. Simply being around, letting them feel as if they weren't entirely alone, that they were still loved a nd cared for, was all he, and any of them, could do.

When he had raised his head out of his own grief, as a child, he had been grateful to realise he was still inside his family. Joe suddenly realised that this must be how it was for Levon. Know ing you were still loved and surrounded by family, easing the shock of having lost someone. Obviously centaurs felt it more intensely, from the way Levon described it, but it was really the same sort of thing.

Maybe centaurs and humans weren't so different after all.

Teresa saw him standing there, and handed him a plate, stacked high with pancakes. "Sit down, Joey. You need a good breakfast before you go."

Joe looked at her startled, for a moment, before taking the plate from he r with a ghost of a smile. "Yes, ma'am," he said, then on impulse leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. She gave him a sad smile, and went back to her cooking.

Levon came in, and stood in the doorway. Joe watched him hover and wondered if Teres ea was going to feed him too.

Teresa didn't appear to notice he was there. After a moment Levon said to Joe, quietly, "We can go down to Brownsville anytime. Lieutenant Baker'll be waiting on us."

Joe nodded, suddenly unable to stomach a nymore of the pancakes he had automatically begun eating. Shoving the plate away, he stood. "Let's go then."

Levon nodded, and headed for the door, grabbing his jacket and holster on his way. Joe hesitated long enough to give both children hugs g ood-bye and to thank his aunt for the breakfast, then followed his husband outside.

Joe caught up with him at the truck; Levon was climbing in behind the wheel.

"Joe? If you want I can do this, myself."

He shook his head. "No. I h ave to do this."

Levon nodded. Joe walked around the vehicle and got into the passenger seat, trying not to think about where they were going, and what they'd have to do when they got there.

He was able to not think about it for nearly ten minutes before the silence in the cab became too much. Frantically, he fumbled after the radio's controls; even country music would be better than the silence.

Levon said nothing as he checked each station on the radio's memory, looking for one p laying music instead of commercials. When he came across one that was playing a commercial for a funeral parlor, Joe yanked the radio off viciously. Leaning back in his seat, he took several calming breaths.

Okay. The radio was a bad idea.

< p> He sat there in silence, while Levon concentrated on driving. This time the silence became too cloying even faster. There was no way Joe was going to survive three hours of it. He had to break it somehow. The radio was out -- even if he found music th ey'r be out of range before long. That left... conversation. If he only knew what to say.

He sat for several minutes, trying to think. But the weather was hot, like always and football season hadn't started. That left 'how was work?' and Joe ha d been there, for that.

Maybe his husband would be able to come up with a topic if asked. "Levon?"

"Yeah?" Levon sounded entirely to calm -- as if the silence weren't driving *him* crazy. Maybe it wasn't.

"Can we, y'know, talk?"

Levon glanced over at him, a sympathetic expression showing. "Sorry, shoulda thought...." There was a pause, then Levon asked, "You reckon they'll really nail Timerlain this time?"

Work. He could talk about work. "They better. We did ever ything but present him to the D.A. giftwrapped."

"You remember what happened last time he was 'gift-wrapped'," his partner replied, doubtfully.

"Yeah, but that time it wasn't our case."

They were able to keep work as the topic of c onversation for nearly an hour. Whenever Joe began to flag, Levon would bring up yet another case of theirs, or someone else's. Joe was beginning to appreciate centaur memory -- Levon distracted him with cases and details he'd long forgotten, but was no w happy to focus on.

But eventually even with a centaur's memory, the topic ran dry and silence once again descended.

Joe cast around for something else to talk about. What he came up with perhaps wasn't the best of distractions, but it wa s something he felt he needed to say to his partner. "About this morning, with Aunt Teresa, I'm sorry Levon."

"Sorry for what?" Levon sounded surprised. Joe couldn't tell if it was completely genuine.

"For her snubbing you. You shouldn't have to put up with that in your own house."

"Oh." There was a pause. "That ain't nothing you have to worry about, Joe," he said softly.

Joe looked at him. "You saying it don't bother you?"

"No, I'm saying it ain't anything you c ould help." He stopped, and sighed. Joe thought he was trying to figure out how to say what he wanted to say.

He stayed quiet, waiting for Levon to find the words he needed.

"I don't wanna tell you it isn't something you can help. Your aunt is gonna... be that way no matter what either of us do. I'm more sorry for how it affects you, than how she treats me."

"But it does bother you."

"Wish she'd treat me like someone who loves you," Levon replied, matter-of-factly.

"Yeah." Joe sighed in frustration as he leaned his head against the backrest. "If it's any consolation, I don't think she's seeing you at all. She's just seeing that I'm doing something that's against her beliefs, that she believes is going to end w ith my being damned." He snorted humorlessly. "Uncle Mikey's 'work' she can accept, no problem."

Levon spoke carefully, almost casually. "Then why worry about it? If you know that's what it is... and since you don't believe the same way, what do es it matter what she does?"

"I don't know." He shrugged helplessly. "It just does." He couldn't understand it himself. How was he supposed to explain it to Levon?

Levon said gently, "I know you'd rather she accepted you the way you are. "

Joe found a small smile for his lover at that. "You would know about that wouldn't you?" he asked, thinking of Levon's first marriage and his wife's rejection.

"Yeah," he replied, sadly. "You can take just about anything from someone ex cept rejection...."

Reaching out, Joe took hold of one of Levon's hands and squeezed it. "Some things are worth risking it though."

Levon glanced his way and gave him a slight smile.

They passed the rest of the drive in silence, bu t somehow it didn't seem nearly as oppressive now. Maybe because he still had hold of Levon's hand.

When they arrived in Brownsville it was quickly apparent that something had happened. News crews in vans, trucks, and helicopters were everywhere. Levon navigated the busy streets with barely more than a glare at those gawking at the spectacle.

Joe felt his stomach tighten as he stared out the window at the activity going on. This brought it home in a way the phone call hadn't. It was real . The plane had crashed. Tony and Maria were...

He swallowed convulsively, wishing suddenly he hadn't eaten those pancakes his Aunt had given him.

"You wanna stop someplace before we go in?" Levon asked.

Joe shook his head. "Let's just get this over with."

Levon nodded, and they continued to fight their way through the traffic. As they neared the City Morgue, the glut of vehicles tightened and policemen in uniform stood everywhere, directing traffic and trying to herd off those who had no reason to stay.

They were finally stopped themselves by a uniformed officer. Levon rolled down his window, showed his i.d., and explained who they were and why they were there.

The young cop gave Levon long, detailed direc tions about where to park and whom to see. Levon gave him a nod and drove on.

"It's weird, you know?" Joe said suddenly, staring straight ahead.

"What is?"

"Being on this side of the situation. Usually, something like this happens , we'd be the ones out there."

"Know what you mean."

"I wonder if I look like a victim," Joe murmured more to himself than to Levon. "Does it show?"

As soon as Levon parked, he turned to look at Joe. He sat there silently for a mo ment, searching his partner's face.

"What?"

Levon shrugged. "I can't tell. Your face is closed off -- can't see anything past your eyes."

Joe blinked, then nodded. "Thanks."

"Let's go find Lieutenant Harper."

Levo n headed towards a set of double doors. Taking a deep breath, Joe followed.

The building, when they walked in, looked and sounded and smelled like every other City Morgue. The only exception was the sheer number of people in the hallways and eve n *that* rivaled Houston's. Joe could almost believe they were here on business as cops instead of next-of-kin.

If it wasn't for the way his stomach was still churning that is. He felt Levon's hand on his back as a harried-looking detective with a clipboard came up.

"Names?" he asked in the tone of one who had done this much too often.

"We're here about Tony and Maria LaFiamma," Levon answered. "I'm Sergeant Lundy, HPD, and this is my partner, Joe LaFiamma."

The detectiv e looked up. "Brother?" he asked, sounding sympathetic, but exhausted.

'Just about,' Joe thought, but shook his head. "Cousin."

He nodded, checked his clipboard, then said, "Room 12, down the hall. Dr. Madison will be there with all the f orms."

Somehow, the formal and distant words didn't seem offensive. Reducing the tragedy to a pile of paperwork, the distance helped Joe move forward as Levon nudged.

It helped him keep his composure as he filled out the forms and was led into the viewing room. He felt it crumbling though when he was faced with the curtained window.

Levon took a hold of his arm, and asked again, "You want me to--?"

Joe just nodded.

Levon went over to the doctor, identifiable by his long lab coat. Levon spoke to him quietly, then the man led him towards another door.

"Wait."

The word came out barely more than a whisper, but Levon halted and looked at him questioningly.

Joe swallowed hard. "I have to do this. "

"All right." Levon waited for him to walk over; as Joe stepped ahead of him Levon followed closely.

Dr. Madison took them towards a bank of cold-storage doors, and pulled one. He pulled the sheet back and Joe found himself looking dow n at Tony's pale bruised face. A second later Levon's arms were around him, and his partner was telling him to take it easy. Joe found himself being lowered to a chair.

"I'm okay," he finally managed in a strangled whisper, reaching up and locki ng a white-knuckled grip around Levon's arm.

"All right," Levon said in a tone that sounded awfully placating and soothing. Joe tried to glare at him but Levon just continued, "How about you just sit there a minute?"

He opened his mouth to protest but a wave of dizziness came over him and he shut it again, giving in with a nod. Levon stood close, letting Joe lean against him. Dr. Madison moved away.

"Kinda blew my tough cop image, huh?"

"You and I know better. And Mad ison's probably seen it all." Levon put his hand on Joe's head briefly, pulling Joe towards him, then his hand dropped to Joe's shoulder.

The hell with it. Joe glanced around to make sure nobody was in the room then pulled Levon in for a kiss.

Levon kissed him willingly enough, giving him a sad, understanding smile when he leaned away. "Why don't you let me finish this up and we can go make arrangements?"

he whispered.

"Okay." He watched as his partner moved away. "Levon? Tha nks."

Levon looked back, then reached over and brushed Joe's cheek with the back of his hand. Then he went out; Joe heard him speaking to Dr. Madison a moment later.

He leaned back in the chair, resting his head against the wall behind it with his eyes closed. He felt... He wasn't sure how he felt. Other than tired.

He wasn't sure how long he sat there, either, before someone touched his shoulder and he looked up to see his husband standing there. "Everything's taken care of, he re."

Joe nodded and stood. Levon guided him back out of the room, into the hallway, and down it, opposite the way they'd come in.

"We need to make arrangements to fly the... bodies... back to Chicago," Joe said. "If we're lucky we can get tickets on the same fli-" He broke off as he suddenly remembered Levon's fear of flying.

But Levon was just looking at him, calmly. "Arrangements have been made, Joe. I talked to Madison, gave him the name and number of the funeral home in Chi cago I figured Mike and Teresa would wanna use." Levon's eyes grew a little cloudy, then, but he didn't elaborate.

"Thanks." Joe paused and said, "That still leaves getting us up there. Levon I hate to ask this but there's no way we could make it in time by train. And... I need you with me."

"I know, love. I'll be all right. Haven't exactly practised, but Naomi *did* teach me a bit about her 'meditation' techniques. I reckon I'll be all right."

"I'm breaking a promise to you."

Levon stopped walking and turned to him, giving him a very direct stare. "Joe, this is *not* something you need to apologise for. I will be there with you, come hell or high water -- or high altitude -- as long as you need me."

Joe fel t something relax inside him at those words. "That's a long time."

"It's what I promised you, when I married you," he said in a low voice. "It ain't gonna change because I have to get on a plane."

That brought a ghost of a smile to Joe's lips. "Thanks."

Levon gave him a satisfied nod, then continued leading him down the hallway.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

It was mid-afternoon by the time they made it back home. With the worst be hind him, the ride back had almost been pleasant for Joe, giving him a chance to relax just a little.

When they headed for the front door, it banged open and Angie came running out. She went straight for Joe. Joe caught her when she threw hersel f into his arms. She was trembling and crying almost hysterically. She was saying something, which Joe could not make out.

He did his best to calm her, picking her up and cradling her tightly as he looked at his husband in bewilderment. This wa s more than just grief.

Levon came up behind her and crouched, holding her as well. They both turned as Mike stepped out onto the front porch, frowning in concern.

"Please, please, please, uncle Joe don't want to" they finally heard from Angie.

"Don't want to what, honey?" Joe asked gently, looking at his uncle in bewilderment.

She didn't answer. Mike, however, came over and said, "She doesn't want to fly home."

In his arms Angie shook and cried harder at the word s and Joe turned his full attention momentarily back to comforting her.

"There a reason we can't drive to Chicago?" Levon asked after no one said anything.

Joe blinked. It would be a rough drive and they'd have to do it pretty much nonsto p but it could be done. And if it made the hysterical child in his arms feel better they would do it. "Can't think of any," he replied.

Levon looked over at Mike. "You have any objections?"

Mike opened his mouth, took one look at his gran ddaughter and closed it again. He shook his head. "No. No objections."

Levon looked back at Joe. "I can go pack a bag and we can be outta here in fifteen minutes."

Joe nodded. "Sounds good. I'll help Angie get her stuff together." He look ed down at the little girl who was no longer crying but staring up at him with wide eyes. "Sound good to you, Angie?"

She nodded quickly. She hung onto him as he stood up and looked over at Mike. "Can we all fit in your truck?" she asked.

Mike and Joe exchanged looks as it became obvious that Angie thought they were *all* driving up. It made sense, she would hardly want any of her family getting onto a plane.

"We can use the rental as well," Mike finally said.

"I wanna r ide with you," Angie told Joe, still clinging to him.

"Okay," Joe replied. "Come on now, and let's go make sure you're packed." He headed into the house, still carrying her. Mike followed with an unreadable expression on his face, which Joe decid ed he wasn't going to worry about.

He heard his uncle go find Teresa and tell her of the arrangements; she came into the guest room a minute later and began packing Tony Jr.'s things.

Boots tried to pack himself in Angie's suitcase, which made the girl smile.

"Seems you've got a friend there," Joe said, smiling back at her as he picked the cat up out of the suitcase for the fourth time. He made a mental note to call Jesse and make sure he knew to come take care of the animals when they were gone. And Joanne would need to be told as well... Shit he had a whole list of phone calls to make.

He left Angie with Boots, reminding the girl they could *not* take the cat with them, and went to find Levon. His husband was in their room, zipping up a bag. He looked up as Joe came in. "Just about ready," he said.

"'Cept for the phone calls," Joe replied.

"Which ones?" Levon looked confused.

"The ranch to let them know where we'll be, Joanne for the same reas on, Jesse to let him know to come take care of the animals..." Joe ticked them off on his fingers.

Levon stepped forward and put his hands on Joe's. "I've already called them. Jesse will tend to the animals, Joanne gave us bereavement leave, and Carla's called up to Hensen, to let him know I'll be in town."

Joe blinked at him, then sighed and slid his arms around his lover's waist. "I should've known you wouldn't forget that stuff."

Levon kissed him, and then hugged him tightly.

The mention of Hensen made Joe think of something else. "You going to be okay driving up north? Are we going to have trouble with other centaurs because you're in their territory?"

"Won't be in any of 'em for long; doubt we'll even see a ny. If we do -- we'll explain things." Levon appeared unworried.

"You're the centaur," Joe said, uncertainly.

Levon suddenly smiled warmly. "And I'm all yours." He leant in and gave Joe another kiss. That was when Mike cleared his thr oat.

Joe pulled back slowly, refusing to be embarrassed for kissing his husband in their own bedroom. "Yeah, Uncle Mikey?"

"We're ready to go." He was frowning slightly, but said, "I wanted to verify the arrangements before we get on the road as the caskets will arrive in Chicago well before we do."

"Uhm, Levon made the arrangements," Joe said, shuffling his feet slightly as his uncle looked at him in surprise. "I- It was faster if he did it."

Mike turned his frown on Levo n. "Where did you have them sent?"

"Santelli's," Levon replied without hesitation. "Called St. Michaels as well."

Mike looked surprised. "How did you know?"

Joe turned to look at his husband, equally surprised. He had just assum ed that Levon had got the information from his uncle before they left. But it was obvious he hadn't, so how...?

Levon looked away and said, "Was who they called when you were--" He stopped and looked up at Joe, jaw slightly clenched and his eyes slightly angry.

When they had thought that he had been killed, Joe finished the thought, even as he reached out and twined his fingers with Levon's in an effort to comfort and reassure. "Forgot about your memory for a second there, cowboy," he sai d softly.

But Levon only shrugged. "Comes in handy at times." He glanced over at Mike. "If the arrangements are fine, we should get going."

Mike nodded and headed back down the hallway. Joe stopped Levon before he could follow. "You ok ay?" he asked, searching his partner's face.

"I'll be fine," came the quiet reply.

Running a hand up and down Levon's arm comfortingly, Joe asked, "What can I do to help?"

With a sigh, Levon said, "Just hold me for a minute."

"I can do that." Joe pulled his lover into his arms and held on tight. "Better?"

"Much."

They held each other for a long moment, neither wanting to let go and return to the world waiting for them outside the door. But soon Levon loo sened his hold and stepped back, grabbing the bag from the bed. "Will you take take this?" he handed it over.

Joe did so. "Anything else?"

"Nah, just have to grab a jacket."

"Levon?"

"Yeah?"

"It's summer. It'll pro bably be ninety degrees in Chicago."

Levon looked at him doubtfully. "Last time you told me it wasn't cold. Nearly froze my tail off."

"It was November."

"Yeah? Only May, now. It was still snowing in Chicago 6 weeks ago."

Joe shrugged. "Suit yourself. But don't say I didn't warn you."

"You promise to keep me warm if it ain't 90?" Levon asked in a much more intense tone.

Joe moved close enough to run a hand down Levon's back. "Always, cowboy." He felt t he shiver and smiled. It would be much nicer to stay home, make love with his mate all evening. But family was waiting, and there were things to do. He stepped even closer for a brief moment to give Levon a quick kiss. "Love you," he whispered, then mo ved away heading for the bedroom door.

He was groped, once, on his way out.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

They'd been driving for three hours, heading north. Mike and Teresa, with Tony Jr., were f ollowing the Jimmy; Levon drove while Joe and Angie both stared morosely out the window. They'd tried to talk, at first, but none had been interested in keeping the conversation going. Finally they'll all fallen silent, lost in their own thoughts.

Joe had eventually dozed off, all that he'd been through finally catching up to him. Angie, however, was still wide awake and she watched Levon through wide solemn eyes.

Levon glanced back at her every so often, through the rear-view mirror, but the sight never changed. He wondered if he ought to say something, but he hadn't a clue what. He understood Joe's frustration, though, when Shensen's mother had been missing -- Joe had wanted to treat the boy the way Angie and Tony Jr. were now bein g treated.

Levon felt as out of step as Joe must have, then.

He glanced up again and asked softly, "You doing all right back there?"

Angie nodded. "I'm fine." There was a pause and then her young voice asked softly, "Uncle Levon?"< p>

"Yes, Angie?"

"How old were you when your Mama died?"

Levon tried not to react to the question. He probably should have anticipated it, but he hadn't. "I was about Tony Jr.'s age."

"Tony doesn't understand, not really. Di d you?"

"Well, Angie, it's different for centaurs. We've got better memories than y'all do so by the time I was four, I knew about as much as you do now." His voice dropped. "I understood."

"Did you cry?"

"Yeah, I cried," Levon w hispered. He remembered when Adele had taken his hand and walked him away from the barn -- he'd been outside, huddled in a jacket too big for him, waiting. He'd been hearing strange noises from the infirmary, then silence which had lasted a very long ti me.

He'd started crying, then, before he'd even known.

There was a short silence and then Angie very hesitantly asked, "Does it ever stop hurting?"

There was the question. He knew the answer was supposed to be, knew what he ought to tell the girl. There was no way he was going to tell her *his* truth. "No, Angie. You just learn to live with it. Someday the pain won't seem so bad... but it won't go away." He knew that, from watching his partner all these years. Joe had never gotten over losing his parents, and so Levon figured Angie wouldn't, either.

The silence descended again as Angie thought about that. Then she nodded. "I don't think I want it to go away, not entirely. Because that would mean I was forgetting them ."

"You won't forget them, Angie." Levon glanced over at Joe, and saw that he was still asleep. Levon half-smiled and checked the mirrors. Mike was still right behind them.

"Uncle Levon?"

"Yes?"

"What's going to happen t o me and Tony now?"

"I don't know, Angie. Joe, and your grandparents, are your closest relatives aren't they? Or does your momma have family?"

Angie shook her head. "Not since Gran'ma died."

"Then you'll probably stay with Mike a nd Teresa."

He knew Joe would offer to take the kids; he knew despite Joe's protests that he wanted kids and would do anything in the world for his cousin's children. Raising them would be little enough to ask. But Levon doubted the courts would assign the kids to live them -- two men living together, far away from the children's home and only other relatives.

"Will I still be able to see Uncle Joe and you?" Angie asked, in a very small voice.

"Always, Angie." Levon glanced back , over his shoulder. ""Maybe we can arrange for you to spend your summers with us."

The girl managed a tiny smile at that. "I'd like that."

"So would we, Angie. You and Tony light the place up."

"We do?" The smile was a little bigger.

"Yeah, you do." Levon smiled, wider. "Would love to have you with us all the time." Levon saw a highway sign coming up. "We're coming up on Dallas, soon. You getting hungry at all?"

"Maybe a little."

"We'll stop, then, get some dinner." He gave her a grin. "You reckon we can find a barbecue place, before Joe wakes up?"

She giggled and nodded. It was a wonderful sound to hear.

They ended up stopping just outside Dallas, in Ferris. They were getting l ow on fuel and Levon didn't know if Mike was up to driving through Dallas at 4.30 in the afternoon. Rush hour would last until well past 6, but at least with food and some rest, they'd both be better able to drive.

Joe woke when they stopped and offered to take over for a while.

Levon grinned. "Ain't going nowhere, Joe. Restaurant's right across the parking lot." He nodded towards the place Angie had agreed would be good -- Len's Barbeque Ribs.

Joe gave a long suffering sigh. " I should've known."

Angie giggled. "He *said* you'd like it."

"So you were in on this too?" he asked with raised eyebrow.

Angie looked innocent. Levon laughed as Joe turned his way. "Don't look at *me*. I just suggested it." He gave Angie a wink, and she grinned back.

Just then Teresa called the girl over to her. "Better see what your grandmother wants," Joe advised. "We'll fill up on gas and then go inside and try to find something edible, okay?"

"OK." Angi e went over; they saw Teresa take her hand and speak to her.

Levon turned and found Joe already beginning to fill the tank. He looked up at Levon and smiled. "Thanks for that." He nodded in Angie's direction.

Levon was surprised. "Didn 't do anything," he said. He hadn't done anything in particular, except try to make Angie feel better.

"You got her to smile, hell, you got her to giggle."

Levon shrugged. "Wasn't like I wanted to her keep feeling badly." He was inter rupted by a yawn, which he tried to hide behind a fist. He wondered if Len's would have decent coffee -- and if he really cared how it tasted.

"Thanks all the same." Joe finished filling the tank and moved the nozzle back to the gas pump. On the way by Levon, he plucked the keys from his husband's hand. "I'll drive the next stretch okay?"

Levon just nodded. He'd driven nine hours already, today, after having been woken early that morning. He hadn't felt tired until now, but as soon as t he keys left his hand he felt like collapsing.

A hand caressed his cheek. "You okay, cowboy?"

"Yeah. Use some food and a nap. But I'm fine."

"I say you are," Joe teased.

Levon grinned back at him. "We better not keep the m waiting," he said, with a nod towards the others.

"Yeah." They started walking across the parking lot. Joe chuckled suddenly. Levon looked over at him. "Stopping here might almost be worth it to see Uncle Mikey eating barbecue."

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

They all ate barbecue, even Joe and Mike. No one complained about it either, though Levon gave his partner a dirty look once, when Joe tried to find something else on the menu besides ribs , shredded pork, and beans.

When they went back to their vehicles, Joe and Teresa conferred on routes through the city. She'd taken the keys away from Mike, explaining to Mike when he protested that she was a better driver and had done *more* dri ving than he in the last few years, anyhow. Levon left them too it, heading back to the Jimmy. He climbed in the passenger's side, belted himself in, and closed his eyes.

When he opened them again it was several hours later and dark out. They ha d cleared Dallas and were heading north. Levon couldn't tell right away where they were, if they had made it into Oklahoma yet. Behind him Angie was curled up asleep on the backseat and beside him Joe was concentrating on the road ahead.

He yawned , stretched, and sat up. "Where are we?"

"Almost to Oklahoma City." Joe glanced over at him before turning his eyes back to the road. "You're looking better."

"Thanks. Feel a bit more centaur now," he said with a grin. "OKC, huh? Makin g pretty good time."

"Yeah."

Levon yawned again. "Oh, that reminds me... turnpike up ahead. We'll need some change."

"Must be nice to have a map in your head."

"Never had to check maps outside of south Texas, before," L evon said. The words stung a little, though he wasn't about to tell Joe. No point in arguing over the little things, right now. "I only know about the turnpike because Carla checked the route. We're heading through Chester's territory, now."

" Chester Centaur?" Joe laughed. "Sorry," he said after a moment. "I must be getting punchy."

"Want me to drive?" Levon asked, deciding as well not to mention just what sort of person Chester was.

"Nah, I'm all right for a while yet. Just do n't hold anything I say against me, okay?"

"Joe, if you aren't up to it I can drive. Or we can stop for an hour at a rest stop or something." Levon frowned. "We ain't in *that* much of a hurry."

"I'm fine."

"You sure?"

" I just said so, didn't I?" Joe snapped.

Levon subsided. He'd just keep an eye on the white lines. If Joe started to veer, he'd ask him again to pull over.

"Sorry," Joe said after a few minutes.

"It's ok." Levon continued watch ing out the window.

"I shouldn't have snapped."

Levon wrestled with asking again, not sure if Joe were really tired or if he were pre-occupied. Then he realised that if Joe were that pre-occupied, he shouldn't be driving. "You sure you don't want me to drive? I've had plenty of sleep."

Joe glanced over at him again, this time with the ghost of a smile. "This is really bothering you isn't it?"

"I just don't want us to crash into the ditch." Levon smiled back.

"I'm not going to cr-" Joe began but then sighed and signaled to pull into the next rest stop.

Levon didn't feel any victory -- if Joe were that tired he was glad he'd woken up. He whispered a silent thanks to Hermes, who watched over travelers, among others..

Joe stopped the truck and got out, walking around the front to the passenger side. Levon met him halfway, trying to tell himself to relax. Even *if* someone from Chester's herd were nearby, the chances of being spotted and stoppe d were low. He was fairly sure they were still a few miles south of the herd's land, anyhow.

As they met in front of the headlights, Joe stopped him for a kiss. "Hi."

Levon grinned. "Hi."

Joe leaned in for another kiss, this one longer. "I'm definitely awake now," he said with a grin as he pulled back.

"Good. You can keep an eye out for strangers while I get the hell back in the truck."

Immediately Joe's smile faded and he looked alarmed. "Problems?"

"Nah . Just nervous." Levon wanted to get past Joe, and get back in the truck. He also wanted to take some time for a longer embrace. Mike was heading over, so he figured a long snuggle was out of the question. But Joe kept an arm around him as he turned to face his uncle.

"Any problems?" Mike asked, as he stopped, just outside of a comfortable distance.

"No," Joe answered, his voice cool and professional. "No problems. Just changing drivers."

Mike nodded, then turned and went ba ck to his car.

Joe turned back to Levon, worry in his eyes. "We'll get back on the road and then you'll tell me why you're nervous."

Levon nodded and headed for the driver's side. He saw Angie curled up on the backseat, asleep. Joe leane d over the seat when he got back in the vehicle and pulled the blanket she had up around her more securely.

Levon pulled out of the parking spot and headed for the highway. As they left the rest stop he found himself relaxing, once more.

" So..." Joe said leadingly.

"Just nervous about being in Chester's territory, is all. I'm fine now we're moving again."

"Uh huh. What's the rest of it?"

"Rest of it?"

"The rest of what's bugging you."

Levon shrugged . "Chester ain't anyone I wanna run into, is all. Him or his herd."

"What's he like?"

"Annoying."

Joe's eyebrow shot up. "Annoying?" he repeated.

"Annoying. He's..." Levon sighed. "He's what you'd call conservative. A traditionalist."

"Uhm, what does that mean exactly?"

"Anything you've ever seen us do, back at Taylor's place... imagine it taking three times as long and totally without any... imagination." Levon tried to figure out a good way to explai n Chester. "Think of it as the difference between a Catholic service, and a Lutheran, in terms of rituals and rules."

"So, Chester is really strict about rituals, is that what you're saying?"

"Yeah. Absolutely no deviations, modification s, or evolution allowed. He'd never accept someone like Blair, for example. Got no use for humans, at all, as far as he can get away with it."

"Sounds like a *real* winner."

"Like I said, he's annoying. If I run into him... it'd take us four hours just to get to the fighting."

"Or I could just shoot him."

Levon couldn't tell if Joe was serious or not. "There's a ritual for that, too."

Joe grinned. "Nobody said I was ever any good at following rituals. Ask my cat echism teacher."

Levon returned the grin. He saw another highway sign, and saw they still had nearly 12 hours' driving to go. It was going to be a long night.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

It was early afternoon the next day, before they were ready to face the business at hand.

They'd left Mike, Teresa, and the kids at Mike and Teresa's, while he and Levon had gone to check into a hotel. Angie had asked why they couldn't stay at the house ; none of the adults had been willing to tell the girl the truth, at first.

Their hesitation in answering her was answer enough in itself though. Her face had grown unutterably sad as she whispered, "We're going to lose that too, aren't we?" She h adn't cried, just sighed sadly, accepting the destruction of the last of her world, and that had made the moment even worse.

Teresa had just walked away, her face closed. Levon had then pulled Angie aside and told her she was losing nothing -- it was simply easier this way and would only last a short while. He and Joe didn't want to make her grandparents uncomfortable in their own home and her grandparents had the right to not want them together under their roof.

Angie had just looked at Levon and said, "They won't want us to come visit you in the summers either will they?"

"They might not, but I don't think they'll stop it. Not entirely."

They had left the kids then, giving Angie one more hug each, and promising to be back in a few hours.

Joe had been silent the entire ride to the hotel, trying to deal with conflicting emotions. He didn't like his Aunt's snubbing of his and Levon's relationship, but he understood it and respected her wishes as much as he could . It was, after all her house. But part of him was just plain mad. The kids needed all the family around them at the moment that they could get. You'd think in the circumstances Aunt Teresa could've made an exception, for the kids' sake.

Of course , she probably thought she was doing this for the kids, to keep them from being "corrupted". Joe felt sick to his stomach at even the thought.

When he stepped into the hotel room he stopped, and tried to think what had to be done next.

He couldn't.

His mate came up behind him and wrapped his arms around Joe's waist. "It'll be all right, Joe. We won't lose 'em. Even if we have to come up here and see 'em on their terms."

For a brief moment Joe allowed himself to lean a gainst his lover's strength, closing his eyes and letting his head fall back against Levon's shoulder. "They don't need any more of their family ripped away."

"We won't be. We might have to fight a little... but we aren't gonna give 'em up. You know that." Levon kissed his neck, then simply held him.

Joe sighed, then turned so he could wrap his arms around Levon as well. "I'm glad you're here with me."

They stood like that for a few moments, then Levon nudged Joe towards the bed . He moved willingly, allowing Levon to guide him until he was seated on the edge, looking up at his husband.

Levon held his head between his hands and simply looked at him for awhile. When Joe started to feel a little self-conscious, Levon grin ned. "Come on. I wanna hold you for a bit." He gave Joe another nudge, backwards.

Joe obediently scooted back. "I'd like that."

Levon smiled at him, and discarded his hat, boots, and a few other items, tossing them all onto the dresser behind him. Then he crawled onto the bed and very carefully, as if Joe had been spun from glass, took his lover in his arms.

Amused, Joe said, "I won't break, you know."

"I might," came the whispered reply.

With a start, Joe looke d down at his partner. He slid a finger under Levon's chin and raised his face so he could meet his eyes. "Levon?"

But Levon was still smiling at him, looking nothing more than deeply, utterly in love.

"What did you mean by-"

Levon kissed him softly, then said, "Sometimes I feel like my heart will break in two, if I don't hold you close." As if proving his words, he pulled himself deeper into their cuddle.

Joe grinned. "Sap," he teased, holding him tighter.

In a di stinctly sleepy voice, Levon replied, "Didn't I tell you centaurs get sappy when we're in love."

"No, actually I don't think you have." He nuzzled Levon's throat.

He felt Levon sigh, as he relaxed even more in Joe's arms. "We do. Start q uoting all sorts of things.. mostly in Greek but trust me, it's sappy."

"This mean I need to learn Greek?"

Levon snuggled a little closer. "Nah. I'll translate 'em into Italian."

Joe laughed. "I told you -- you have the worse Ita lian accent..."

At that, his mate looked up at him with a woeful expression. "I don't."

"Trust me cowboy. Italian was not meant to be spoken with a texan drawl."

"*Everything* was meant to be spoken with a drawl."

"They br ainwash you but good down there don't they?"

Levon chuckled, but said nothing.

"Whatever they use is in the barbecue sauce," Joe decided.

Levon just laughed, again.

It felt wonderful, lying there in a cuddle, listening to his husband laugh. Joe suddnely hugged him, tightly. "I love you," he blurted, heartfelt.

Levon looked up at him, slightly startled. But he quickly smiled, and returned the hug. "I love you, too."

"Thank you for coming." Joe knew he h ad said it before but he felt the need to say it again.

"Where else would I be?" Levon asked, surprised.

"It can't be easy for you. I know the whole human grief thing seems strange to you..."

"It doesn't, really. I mean I don't fe el it the same way... but I've seen enough of it I guess I can understand why it happens." Levon frowned, slightly. "At least I think I do. I'm trying to do and say the right things...."

"You are, Levon," Joe hastened to assure him. "You are."< p>

Levon pulled him down, and kissed him. For a moment everything vanished, except the taste and feel of Levon, lying beside him.

When Levon let him go, it took Joe a few minutes to get his thoughts back in gear. "Whoa," he chuckled. "I thin k you turned my brain off that time..."

Leon's grin was self-satisfied; it faded, though, and he said quietly, "I don't think Teresa appreciated the way I handled Angie's questions."

"She comes from the school that says you shield the chil dren, don't tell them anything but the absolute bare minimum that they have to know." He shook his head, remembering how bewildering and scary not knowing had been, when his father had died. "She's wrong though. Not knowing is the worst."

Levon no dded, and seemed to want to add something, but he said nothing.

"What?"

"Just didn't occur to me until after, that I might not oughtta be telling her everything. I tried not to tell her how *I* felt--" He stopped suddenly, flinching.

"That's something I've been meaning to mention to you," Joe said, grateful for the opening. "I've been remembering back to how I felt when my pop died and later when my mom died, and how, after the first shock, having my family around me helped. That' s what it's like for centaurs isn't it? Being part of the herd makes it easier to go on."

Levon looked at him curiously, but nodded. "Reckon it's the same thing, or nearly. Never had a chance to feel alone, so missing my momma wasn't... well, it wasn't anything to panic over. Never thought that I'd lose 'em *all* and be left alone."

Joe nodded. "Yeah, that's it. It hurt like hell when my parents died but I always knew the family was still there. Would always be there."

"And we'r e gonna let Angie and Tony know it, too." Levon kissed him again, lightly.

"Yeah." He was quiet for a moment just looking at Levon. "You did miss your mother, didn't you? Just not in the way a human child would."

Levon nodded. "I did. I missed seeing her every day, hearing her tell me stories, missed running beside her... but I didn't much cry for her, after that day." Levon looked up at him, frowning again. "It doesn't hurt anymore, that she's gone. Not like it hurts you."

" I've got other issues tied up with my mom's death." Joe grimaced. "That's why it still hurts as much as it does. And even at that it isn't as bad as it used to be."

"Good." Levon squeezed him, hard. "Hate to think about you hurting."

"Wo rks both ways partner."

They lay there, silent, then, until Levon said, "We oughtta get going to Santelli's. Told 'em we'd be there about 3."

Joe sighed, feeling reality settle on his shoulders once again. "Yeah."

But neither of t hem made any attempt to get up. After a moment, Levon snickered.

Joe couldn't help but join him. "We're not moving," he pointed out.

"Wanna try again?"

"We better."

"Count of three?"

Joe grinned. "Sounds like a pl an."

Levon laughed again, then pushed himself up a little. He kissed Joe. "One." He sat up, leaning on one arm, and leant down to kiss Joe again. "Two."

Wrapping his arms around Levon's neck, Joe pulled himself up and initiated a third kiss, this one longer and more intense than the previous two. Levon ended up lying on top of him, looking down at him with a slightly dazed expression.

"Two and a half...."

"The hell with it," Joe growled, pulling Levon even closer. "If we're late we'll blame it on travel lag." He captured his lover's lips in an even more passionate kiss. Levon didn't argue. He didn't even put up a struggle -- except one small struggle to get his hands on Joe.

They were a bit late to the funera l home, but got away with blaming it on traffic.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Two days later was the funeral. Levon sat beside Joe through the Funeral Mass, doing his best to be supportive. He didn't hav e much idea what to do or say -- no one had briefed him on Catholic funerals and it was only when they'd finally arrived that he'd realised it would be involved. If he had known earlier, he'd have asked someone for pointers. But now he was simply trying to avoid offending anyone.

As it was, he just followed what Joe did, stood when he stood, knelt when he knelt and sat when he sat, and tried not to get out of synch with the rest of the crowd.

And there was quite a crowd. LaFiamma was a well-known name in this part of Chicago and Tony and Maria had had a lot of friends. The church was packed. Levon tried not to think about the fact that a good deal of the older men especially were probably "connected" to Mike's "business".

He'd b een pleased to see Carl in the crowd, and hoped he'd have a chance to talk to the other stallion later, if only to compare notes and commiserations about human rituals. That reminded him they'd have to drive back through Chester's territory, going home, and he stifled a wince.

The kids seemed to be holding up fairly well, though Angie looked pale. She sat between Joe and Rosa, staring up at the priest as he spoke. Teresa had tried to get her to sit next to her, but Angie had run to Joe when they had shown up and refused to let go of his hand.

It would've caused a scene if Teresa had tried to pull her away, which was the last thing anyone had wanted so Angie had sat where she wanted. But Teresa kept shooting Joe and Levon looks that made i t clear she was not happy with the situation.

Levon found himself wanting to read the woman the riot act -- tell her exactly what she ought to be doing instead of letting her narrow-minded ways inflict pain on his husband and Angie. But he held h is peace, knowing that Teresa *believed* she was right.

If he and Joe *were* the sort that would be bad for Angie -- say, criminals, Levon told himself bitterly -- then he'd be glad Teresa tried so hard to protect her. As it was, Levon found hi mself daydreaming of Joe's taking him, Angie, and Tony back to Texas, never to return.

He was so caught up in it that he didn't even notice the service was over until Joe stepped away from him to join the other pallbearers around Tony's casket. H e watched his lover go, worrying. Joe's face was stone as he walked forward and Levon wished he could do something for him. The pain he couldn't see made his own heart ache.

A small hand slipped into his and Levon looked down to see Angie starin g at the caskets, face pale but dry eyed. But she held onto Levon's hand with a white-knuckled grip. He held her hand for a moment, then knelt down and took her in his arms. She grabbed onto him immediately.

As he stood up, watching the caskets being carried out, he had the urge again -- hang onto Angie and run, someplace safe. He stifled it, knowing it was neither his decision to make nor the appropriate time to make it. Instead he held Angie, carrying her out when Rosa took his arm and indic ated it was time to go.

Joe rejoined him after the caskets had been put in the hearses, reaching out and stroking Angie's hair as Levon still held her. "How you holding up?"

She turned and looked at him, and shrugged. Levon kept his grip on her, wondering at the now-fierce determination he felt that he should not let her down. He recalled, suddenly, Taylor picking him up one day after a thunderstorm had scattered the herd. Levon had been about five, and had gotten separated from the oth ers. Taylor had found him, huddled against a hillside. His father had picked him up and carried him home -- and not let him down for three hours.

Joe leaned closer and kissed her forehead. "I know it's hard, Angie, but just remember you're not a lone. We're here for you and so are your grandparents and great-grandma Rosa."

Angie looked at him for a long moment then nodded. Then she buried her face back into Levon's shoulder.

"Looks like I'm going to be doing the driving," Joe sa id with the trace of a smile, snagging the truck keys from Levon's pocket.

Levon smiled back, feeling not a bit apologetic. He hung onto Angie for the duration of the drive, and the burial, as well.

Afterwards they went back to Mike's and Teresa's. A number of people were already there, talking in hushed tones throughout the house.

Levon finally let Angie down, letting Rosa take her and Tony Jr. Levon found himself rather at odds, in a house full of relatives and friends re-creat ing the scene which had, two years before, been the end of his world. Levon stayed beside Joe as best as he could.

Joe seemed to sense what he was feeling and went out of his way to not only stay close but to touch Levon as much as possible. Oh, nothing improper, just casual touches, a brush of the arm here, a touch to the back there. Small things.

It didn't prevent Mike or Teresa from giving them subtle, disapproving looks. Levon ignored them, but soon -- much sooner than he would ha ve figured -- Joe was asking if he was ready to leave.

Joe went and made his good-byes to his family, double-checked the time of the reading of the will at the attorney's office the next day, then they were on their way back to the hotel.

A s they got out of the Jimmy, Levon got a good look at Joe. He walked around and took his mate by the arm to lead him inside. "Come on, love. How 'bout I put you in a hot shower, then tuck you into bed?"

That got him a tired smile. "As long as y ou're tucked in with me."

"Hell, I reckon on showering with you, too." Levon gave him an eager smile, and nudged Joe towards the hotel.

As soon as the door to their room closed behind them, Joe turned and pulled Levon into his arms. "Bett er," he sighed. "I've been wanting to do this all day."

"Hmmm...." Levon sighed and settled into Joe's embrace. He stayed there a moment before asking, "How you doing?"

Joe didn't answer right away, seeming to be taking inner stock. "I'm okay," he finally said, sounding almost surprised at the realization.

Levon looked up at his tone, and searched Joe's eyes. He looked calm. He even, to an extent, felt calm. "Then how about I get you stripped down and under some hot water?" h e gave Joe a not-quite subtle leer.

"Sounds good, cowboy," Joe replied with a low chuckle.

Levon gave him a grin, and began stripping them both.

Little over half an hour later they were stumbling out of the bathroom, mostly dry, wa rm, and giddy. They managed to get into bed despite -- or because of -- the groping and laughing. When they finally settled into bed, Levon found himself at a loss for words.

Joe sighed contentedly and snuggled even closer. "Nice," he murmured.< p>

"Yeah." Levon closed his eyes, and simply let himself be relaxed. "Have to do that more often."

"We need a bigger shower back home."

"Put the hose over the rafter in the barn?" Levon grinned up at him, knowing what Joe's response to *that* was likely to be.

Blue eyes that had been half closed opened and glared at him. "Maybe you haven't noticed this but there's a difference between getting hosed down and a hot shower..."

Levon tried to give him an innocent look, w ithout spoiling it by laughing. "Is there?"

Joe rolled his eyes and muttered in a long suffering tone, "Centaurs."

"Got hosed down more often then anything else, when I was a kid. Always sorta enjoyed it." He added, frowning, "Except wh en I had mud in my hair...."

"I'm not gonna ask."

"You saying you never got mud washed off ya with a hose? You get the water squirted in your ears?"

"I can safely say that I was never hosed off as a child. Pulled into the bathroom by my ear to clean up, yes, but no hoses were ever involved."

Levon considered this revelation with a somewhat sad expression. "Boy, you missed out...."

"Did run under the sprinkler on hot summer days though."

"Not the same." Le von shook his head. "If you don't end up with a stream of water blasting the side of your skull -- it's just not the same."

"I'll take your word for it," Joe said around a yawn.

Levon gave him a kiss on the chin. "This mean we can't rig a hose in the barn?"

"Hey, if you want to be hosed down, I'll hose you down." He snuggled closer. "Still think hot showers are more fun."

"You could be right." Levon pressed himself closer to Joe, still feeling the warmth of the hot water that their bodies had soaked in.

Joe sighed again and dropped a kiss on Levon's forehead. "Love you," he said drowsily.

"Love you, too," Levon whispered. Then he laid still and silent, and felt his husband fall asleep.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Nine a.m. the next morning found them at the Tony and Maria's attorney's office for the will reading. Once again Levon was trying to remain at Joe's side at all times, offering silent moral support.

Joe didn't think his husband knew exactly how much that helped. To know he had somewhere to turn when the reality of this got to be too much, someone who wouldn't judge him or how he was handling the situation, that alone had provided Joe with the anchor he needed to get through this and be strong for others.

He was sure he would've managed to do so anyway but the emotional cost to himself would've been much higher. As it was, it enabled him to brush aside the looks he got -- and the things he did *not* get -- from his Aunt and Uncle. Granted, they'd just lost their son and daughter-in-law and could be forgiven a great deal.

But Joe didn't forget they'd behaved much this way, before. Levon simply stood behind him, hands on Joe's shoulders, when the lawyer finally began.

"I expect most of what I'm about to tell you comes as little surprise," the man said, his eyes glancing over everyone in the room. "Anthony and Maria left the bulk of their estate, including thei r house and all their investments, to their children, to be held in trust by their guardian until they turned 21."

Mike and Teresa just looked at each other, taking each others' hands.

"As for who that guardian should be, they were both ve ry clear on their choice." The lawyer's eyes settled onto Joe. "They have requested that you, Joseph, take the children into your care."

No one said a word.

They all stared at the lawyer in disbelief, until Mike finally demanded, "What do you mean? What about--"

"If you're referring to Joseph's partner, Anthony and Maria also addressed that." Now the lawyer was looking at Levon. "They were hoping you would consent to be guardian along with Joseph, Mr. Lundy."

Joe felt Levo n's hand leave his shoulder and he glanced back at him. His partner was stunned, to put it mildly. "Wha--? Of course! Yes, of course I agree," he said quickly.

The lawyer nodded, then turned his attention back to Joe. "Anthony and Maria said t hat they had discussed this with you themselves and that you agreed...?"

Still feeling stunned, Joe answered. "Yeah, when Angie was born, and they asked me to be her godfather. But I thought that they'd changed their minds when I..." he trailed of f glancing at Levon.

The lawyer smiled, sympathetically, but shook his head. "They changed their will almost a year ago, to include your partner, Levon. We discussed it at some length, and they insisted that the two of you were the best to raise their children." He glanced suddenly at Mike and Teresa, almost guiltily. But he didn't say anything else.

"This has got to be some sort of mistake," Teresa finally said. "Nobody in their right mind would give their children to-"

"To wh at?" Joe interrupted, feeling his tolerance of her attitude reaching the end of its tether. "To cops? To people who love them? To people that don't break the law for a living? To people who won't teach them to be bigots?"

Levon grabbed a hold of h is shoulder again, not quite holding him back. Teresa's face went white; Mike just glared at him. "We were good enough for you," he snapped, and suddenly Levon had let go of Joe and was headed for Mike.

Now it was Joe holding Levon back. "But I wasn't good enough for you, was I? When I dropped out of law school because I didn't want to become your pet attorney you didn't speak to me for a year. And when I told you about me and Levon you all but disowned me!"

Mike continued glaring, as if he wished Joe would let Levon go. But he turned to the lawyer and asked, "Is there any way we can stop this?"

The lawyer shrugged. "You can contest the will. But it's all legal, as it stands."

"You rest assured we will," Teresa said.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Back at the hotel, Joe angrily paced the length of the room. Levon had finally resorted to sitting on the bed, watching -- staying the hell out of Joe's way. Joe had been mut tering under his breath in a mixture of Italian and English the entire time. The few words that Levon caught seemed to be a harangue about hypocrites and blind fools and how love was supposed to be unconditional.

He'd tried, at first, to calm Joe down, reason with him. Now he was simply waiting for Joe to wear himself out enough that he'd listen. There was no way they'd hand the kids over with a fight, and Levon *knew* Taylor would bolster their own financial resources, if necessary, to conduct as long a court battle as it took.

And if the judge tried to hand the kids over to Mike and Teresa in the meantime, Levon would simply resort to his *own* set of rules.

Finally Joe seemed to wind down, coming and flopping down on the bed b eside Levon. "This wasn't how I was expecting this to go."

He reached out and rubbed Joe's arm. "Don't worry, Joe. We'll make it."

"Those kids are *ours* and there's not a damn thing they can do to make it otherwise." Joe sighed. "They 're going to try though."

"And we'll just have to be ready for them." Levon sighed. "I hate to think what this is gonna to do Angie and Tony. After this... they're gonna lose even more of their family."

Whoever ended up with custody, it was a sure bet they'd prevent the kids from seeing the other pair.

"Not if I can help it." Joe looked up at Levon from his prone position on the bed. "I don't want to stop them seeing their grandparents, even if they try to take the kids from us. Uncl e Mikey was right about one thing -- they were good enough for me when I was growing up."

Levon nodded. It reassured him that Joe was thinking clearly enough to realise the kids' best interests were in having their grandparents around. In short, supervised spurts, he admitted to himself. Let 'em come out to the herd's land to see them, where any attempts at kidnapping them back would be fouled by forty enraged centaurs.

He couldn't keep a tiny grin off his face.

"What?" Joe aske d, seeing the grin.

"Was thinking about turning the herd onto Mike and Teresa -- let them argue it over with Joy and Carla."

Joe laughed. "Man, I'd pay money to see that!"

"Maybe we can arrange something."

He was interrupte d by the phone; Joe practically leapt into the air, diving for it. "LaFiamma," he answered, and Levon grinned; cop habits were hard to break.

A moment later Joe grinned, widely. "We were just talking about you! Yeah, hang on, he's right here."

Levon took the phone with a perplexed look at his mate. "Hello?"

"Levon, you have to come home right away." It was Joy and her voice held an urgency he had never heard before.

"What's wrong?"

"Taylor's dead."

Le von took the phone with a perplexed look at his mate.

"Hello?"

"Levon, you have to come home right away." It was Joy and her voice held an urgency he had never heard before.

"What's wrong?"

"Taylor's dead."

Levon di dn't even blink. He was too surprised.

"How?" he finally asked, barely seeing Joe's concerned face, looking at him.

"Heart attack. It was from out of the blue. One minute he was playing tag with some of the colts, the next he was on the g round."

"How long ago?"

"This morning. I tried phoning earlier but you weren't in." Again there was an unaccustomed urgency in Joy's voice. "Levon, you have to come home. The herd needs you."

"What?" Levon tried to get his surpri se under control to find out what she was talking about.

"You're the only one who can take Taylor's place. There's no other stallions who are old enough. If you don't come..." Joy trailed off with something that Levon had never heard from her be fore: fear.

But that didn't quite overcome his shock. "Me? Joy, you know I--" he stopped before he said he couldn't. She *knew* about his relationship with Joe. She knew what it meant to him.

If she was asking him to come, anyway....

"Joy, do you know what you're asking?"

Maybe she was just afraid and not thinking things through. He didn't believe it of her, but nor could he believe she would ask him to give up his life with Joe.

There was silence on the other e nd of the phone, then he heard her sigh. "I know. But there's no one else." Then, as if dropping a final bomb she added quietly, "Taylor's last words were to send to for you."

Levon closed his eyes. He knew she was right about one thing - there w as no one else. With Duke gone to Washington, he was the only stallion in the area. Normally in the area, at any rate. Stuart was around, but he was only fourteen. Almost old enough to take a herd under such conditions as these.

But not quite.

"Joy, I'll have to--" He looked up at Joe, knowing he had to talk it over with him, let him make the decision. Except he couldn't leave Joy not knowing whether he was coming.

"Explain things to Joe. I know. We can manage for a day or so, if we know you're coming."

That wasn't what he'd meant. But he couldn't say no. Even if Joe disagreed, even if *he* said no....

Levon couldn't tell her no.

"I'll be there, Joy. No sooner than tomorrow. OK?" He felt someho w defeated, as he said it.

"That's fine." Already he could hear in her voice that subtle submissiveness that Joy only used with the head stallion. Which as far as she was concerned he now was. "I'm sorry, Levon. If there had been any other way.. ."

Meanwhile Joe had been getting more and more alarmed. At Levon's last statement he sat straight up and reached for his husband. He didn't say anything though, waiting for Levon to finish with the phone call.

"OK, Joy. I'll be there as soon as I can. If you need anything, call the hotel and leave a message at the front desk. I'll check in with 'em as often as I can."

Joy agreed and he hung up the phone. Then he turned to his husband; from the way Joe's face paled, Levon wonder ed what his expression must look like. "Joe...." He had no idea what to say.

"What? What's happened? What's wrong?" Joe reached out and touched Levon's face gently.

"My father died this morning. Heart attack." He felt like he was chea ting, telling Joe this news before telling him what he would hate to hear.

Joe's eyes widened and he reached out to pull Levon into his arms. "God, Levon... I'm sorry. I liked Taylor a lot. He was a good man. Centaur, I mean."

Levon allowe d the embrace for a moment, then he tensed. Joe felt it, for he loosened his hold and looked at him. "Joe...."

"You have to go back home. I understand. You should be there for the funeral."

"I am going home, Joe. But not--" He looked a way, then squared his shoulders and told him directly. "I have to go take the herd. There's no one else--"

That was as far as he got.

Joe pushed away from him, but still kept an almost bruising grip on Levon's shoulders. "You can't do that and still be with me. That's what you told me." The words came out steadily enough but the look in Joe's eyes...

Levon felt like he'd been kicked solidly in the chest. "There's no one else, Joe. If Angie and Tony didn't need someone here I' d just take you with me."

"But..." and Joe's voice dropped to a whisper. "I'll have to let you go."

"They're my family, too, Joe. I can't turn my back on them." Levon wanted to reach out for Joe, but despite the hold Joe still had on him , Levon felt oddly as if his own touch would be rejected.

"I know that! But-" Abruptly Joe let go of Levon and jumped up pacing over to the other side of the room. He didn't turn back around.

Levon watched him, wishing there was anything h e could do. Offer to take Angie and Tony *now*, and all four of them return home? It was what he'd like to do, but the law would follow them, what with Mike and Teresa's contesting the will. "I know I told you I'd be here for you, for them... but I nev er expected this to happen. You know I'd stay if I could."

"You gotta do what you have to." Joe still hadn't turned around and there was something about his voice... he sounded like he was holding back tears.

"Joe?" Levon took a step for ward, hesitantly. "I could probably stay for another day or so... herd can manage that long if they know I'm coming." It wasn't much, but it was all the offer he could make.

Joe finally turned around and Levon could see the tears shining in his eyes that he had heard in his voice. "One last day, huh?"

Levon shrugged. "It might be a few months before I can come home. I don't wanna leave...." He trailed off as he saw his mate's eyes go wide.

"Come-" Joe's voice cracked and he cl eared his throat and tried again. "Come home? You're coming back?"

For a second Levon just stared at him, confused. "Well of course I--" Then he realized what had happened.

What he hadn't said. He was across the room and holding his husb and's face with both hands, in a flash. "Joe, love, it's not permanent. Only 'til Stuart can take 'em off my hands."

Joe stared at him for a long moment and then it was like someone had cut a puppet's strings. He collapsed into Levon's arms, mut tering something under his breath that Levon couldn't quite make out at first but then realized was "Thank God" over and over.

Levon held him tightly, stunned at what Joe had thought. He tucked his head down, so he could whisper into Joe's ear. "I'm not leaving you, Joe. I'm not leaving you. I'm *never* leaving you. I'll be back as soon as I can but I am *not* leaving you for good. I'd die before I could."

He kissed Joe's cheek, then kissed him again, over and over, everyplace he cou ld reach without letting him go.

With a shuddering sigh Joe wrapped his arms around him and pulled him closer, then turned his head just enough to meet Levon's lips with his own. The kiss was desperate, searching each other's mouths for something , anything which would tell them the pain had been simple misunderstanding. Levon knew Joe understood, now. But the look in Joe's eyes would never fade from Levon's memory, and he sorely wished to replace it with something else.

The desperation, the wanting, didn't fade as they continued to kiss. If anything, it grew increasingly stronger. Joe's hands were moving restlessly over Levon's body, seemingly unable to remember how to get him out of his clothes. Levon took the problem out of Joe's ha nds by fairly tearing his own shirt off, followed with Joe's.

Joe growled and pushed Levon backwards until he was lying on the carpet, then lowered himself on top of him, hands still moving restlessly, but now over bare skin, while he attacked L evon's throat with his mouth.

Levon put his hands on Joe's back, both to hold him down and to touch him, to feel the play of his muscles as he moved himself up and down. Levon groaned as Joe found a particular spot, his own fingers clutching aiml essly at the skin beneath his hands.

While repeating the movement that had initiated the groan, Joe also pushed his hips against Levon's at the same moment, brushing their cloth-covered erections together. Levon moved one hand between them, fumbl ing for zippers and buttons. He tried to get them opened while Joe continued licking him, which made it damned difficult to think clearly enough to maneuver.

One more kiss, and he grabbed at Joe's waistband, unable to do anything more.

J oe by this time had begun moving against him, his breath coming in harsh pants between kisses. The hot moist air that wafted over Levon's skin was just as much of a caress as an actual touch. Levon shouted, then, and tried to grab onto his lover and hol d him down, keep him close.

If anything, Joe increased the intensity of his attack at that. It was like trying to hold a wild animal, or ride a bucking bronco, except this time the bucking bronco was riding *him*. He saw Joe caught in the moment before orgasm -- face tight, eyes staring right through Levon. Levon grabbed on for dear life, and shouted as his body exploded into a thousand pieces.

When he could think again, he found Joe slumped bonelessly on top of him, face buried in the s ide of Levon's neck. He didn't try to move, at least not until his body and brain were speaking to him again. With a smile, Levon closed his eyes and snuggled a little deeper underneath his love.

He felt a shudder run down the entire length of J oe's body, just as he felt the wetness against his skin where Joe had hidden his face.

"Joe?" he whispered, bringing one hand towards his lover's face.

"'M okay," Joe muttered, still not looking up.

Levon lifted his head as high as he could at the awkward angle, and nudged him.

Joe finally lifted his head to meet Levon's eyes, his face still bearing the marks of the tears he'd been shedding. "Sorry," he said with a weak smile.

"Don't be." He gave Joe a kiss, then brushed his fingers along Joe's cheek. "Love you, you know."

The smile widened. "I know." Joe raised a hand to Levon's cheek in a mirror of his gesture. "I love you too."

Another kiss, long and slow, then Levon asked, "Are you sure you'r e all right?"

"Yeah. As long as I have you."

"Always, Joe. Even when I'm not in your arms, you've got my heart."

Joe gave a choked laugh at that. "You're right about centaurs and sap."

Levon grinned. "Maybe I should just grunt and tell you to get me a beer."

"I thought I was the one who got to tell you what to do," Joe teased, then the smile faded. "But that's going to have to change isn't it. Even if this is only temporary you can't have me dominant over you and still be head stallion."

It sounded silly to say, but he did, anyway. "I'm sorry."

Somehow that brought the smile back to Joe's face. "You know, considering how much I didn't want to be dominant in the first place I shouldn't be this both ered about not having to anymore."

"But you do now. We finally got our relationship all settled and more or less working. Now everything's going to change."

"Everything was going to change even before the phone call," Joe pointed out. "B ecause of the kids."

"Not between *us*," Levon countered.

"Wouldn't it? Maybe not as much as this will but-"

Levon gave him a kiss. "Guess we'll just have to wait and find out." Then he wriggled. "Mind if we put this conversatio n on hold while we clean up?"

Joe grinned. "This isn't the most comfortable places to talk, is it?" He rolled smoothly to his feet and held out his hand to haul Levon up as well. "Shower?"

"That ain't the best place for talking, either." Levon returned the grin.

"So we'll shower then talk." He headed for the bathroom, grimacing as he glanced down. "Another pair of dress pants bite the dust."

"Sorry."

Joe stopped, turned around and hauled Levon into his arms. "Don't be," he said fiercely, his eye intense. "We needed that."

Levon was still grinning, and teased, "Maybe you should start wearing old jeans or something."

"Rather be wearing nothing at this point."

Instead of replying, Levon finishe d unzipping Joe's pants -- much easier to do with both hands and a little more room.

Joe chuckled and returned the favor.

"Come on, cowboy. Shower, then bed and talk, okay?"

The shower was long, warm, and soapy. When they settled themselves in bed, Levon sighed. "We need to do this more often."

"Preferably without the proceeding floorshow," Joe replied, wrapping his arms around Levon and pulling him closer.

"That mean I can't seduce you beforehand?" Levon smiled a s he cuddled in.

Joe returned the smile, but it faded quickly. "That wasn't the floorshow I was talking about."

"I know." Levon gave him a gentle kiss. "I'm sorry, Joe. I didn't realize you thought I meant I was leaving. I would never- -"

Fingers touched his lips, halting his words. "I know," Joe said softly. "Now. I should've known then, too."

Levon started to protest that, then realized they'd get nowhere. "You'll call me if you need anything, for Angie and Tony? Eve n if I can't get back up here I can ask Hensen to send someone." He wasn't convinced the local herd stallion would *want* to help him, but hopefully the stallion would still feel obligated towards Joe.

"I'll call regardless. Just to talk to you."

"You'll *have* to call, to tell me how things go. And so I can talk to Angie and Tony." Levon smiled up at him, feeling almost content, despite it all. "And so I won't have to spend a day without you."

Joe's arms tightened in response.

They lay there in silence for a moment, then Joe asked, "You're not going to have any problems dealing with Hensen are you?" He was obviously remembering Levon's reaction when the stallion had come to speak to them the last time they were in Chi cago.

"Huh? No, not at all," he replied easily. Then he laughed. "Won't even have to worry about driving by Chester's land, either. Now I can just say 'no', and keep heading home."

"As easy as that, huh?"

Levon paused, then shru gged as well as he could, lying there. "Well, I...." He wondered how to explain something that he was only now realising he felt. "They ain't a threat to me, and as long as I'm not interfering with them -- I ain't a threat to them. We can afford to ju st be pleasant to each other, now. As long as we stay outta each other's way."

"You weren't a threat to them before," Joe pointed out. "The last thing you wanted was to be a-" Abruptly he cut himself off.

"I know. I still don't, Joe. Bu t there ain't nobody else to take care of 'em."

"I understand. But-" He sighed. "You just seem to be taking to the idea almost too easily." Joe shook his head. "Never mind."

Levon didn't like the sound of that. "You think I oughtta have s aid no? Made them wait while I thought about it?" He caught the stubborn look on his lover's face and kept talking, trying to explain. "They're my *family*, Joe. How can I turn them down, when I'm the only one who can help?"

"I never said you should," Joe shot back irritably. "But you don't need to sound so damn happy about it!"

Shocked, Levon only gaped at him.

Sighing with frustration, Joe ran a hand over his face and pulled away. "Forget it. I shouldn't have said that."

"Joe, don't start shutting me out, now. What makes you think I'm happy about it? My father's dead and I have to leave you alone to fight your relatives for our kids...." He hated saying it, but there *was* nothing to be happy about.

"'Cau se it's like a switch had been thrown. One moment you're afraid of Hensen, the next you're not! Nobody can switch their reactions that fast if they hadn't at least thought about it before."

Levon held himself back from his first response -- scream ing back at Joe. He tried to calm himself back down before he said, "Soon as I said yes, I had no more reason to be afraid of him."

"Simple as that, huh?" The disbelief in Joe's voice was sharp enough to draw blood.

Furious now, Levon mer ely said, "Simple as that. Maybe a human *would* have to get used to the idea but I ain't human. I *never* thought seriously about taking Taylor's herd, and certainly not once I fell in love with you. But when Joy asked and I said yes -- that was it. Things have *changed* for me now. I *feel* the differences, I don't think about them. I'm sorry if you don't like it."

Throughout the argument -- so far -- neither had tried to move away from the other. Levon hoped that boded well for the shall owness of their anger.

"It's not a matter of liking. It's a matter of understanding. And I don't." Joe sighed again, less anger and more resignation in it this time. "But what else is new?"

"If I could explain it to you, I would. But it's how I *feel*." A thought occurred and he half-grinned. "It's just instinct, the way my brain shuts off when you kiss me. Or look at me. Or mention you're *gonna* look at me...."

That drew a reluctant smile. "Just as long as we don't go back t o butting heads like we used to. Back when we were serious about it."

"Joe, I don't know *what* we're gonna do," Levon admitted. "All I know is that I love you, and I want you with me forever. However I can get you."

He felt Joe's body r elax a bit. "That I can agree on," he said softly.

"Good." Levon kissed him on the nose. "Reckon I can get you scooted up a bit? Need to move my arm." Actually, it had gone numb several minutes ago, but it had hardly seemed important at the ti me.

They rearranged themselves into a more comfortable position. Joe sighed and nuzzled Levon's cheek. "We should start thinking about dinner soon."

"We gonna pick up the kids?"

"If we can do it without starting a war with Aunt Ter esa and Uncle Mikey in front of them."

"Think they'll let us take 'em home, tonight? Stay with them? Legally, they're ours until the court says otherwise."

"I want to." He hugged Levon hard. "Want to let you spend some time with them bef ore you have to go."

Ready now to change the subject to something more pleasant, Levon asked, "You wanna go for a ride before dinner?"

Joe smiled. "Yeah. I'd like that."

Giving his lover a sly smile, Levon asked, "You wanna go for a ride after dinner, too? In the morning before I leave? Half an hour after midnight when the kids are tucked in?"

That earned him a full-fledged laugh. "If you think you'll still be able to sit still for the drive after all that 'riding'," he t eased.

"I'll sit on a pillow." Levon pulled Joe down, then, for a kiss. After a moment he forgot about going for a ride.

Five minutes later he'd forgotten about dinner as well.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&& &&&&&&&

Levon made a perfunctory call, to Carl, letting him know he and Joe were going to be using the acreage in town. Joe noticed that Levon didn't ask, he simply told. Neither did he mention telling Hensen.

This was going to tak e some getting used to, he told himself. That was all. Just some time to get accustomed to the changes in Levon. After all, it wasn't like the changes were all that big or important.

Were they?

Everything seemed normal enough when they dro ve out, then got ready for their run. Levon grinned at him while Joe watched him strip. That was certainly normal.

"Too bad we don't have time for a brushing," Joe commented absently while he mounted. Levon missed a step in response. That was no rmal, too.

When Joe was up on Levon's back and they headed out at a slow canter, it *still* felt normal.

So why, Joe asked himself, did he feel so sad?

He tried to convince himself that it was just because he and Levon were going to have be separated for a while. That was reason enough to feel sad, wasn't it? Even though it was a temporary separation. He ignored the little voice at the back of his mind that insisted there was more to it than that.

He had almost managed t o do so for the entire evening's run. Levon certainly seemed relaxed, Joe noticed. Of course, he hadn't exactly been upset, either... Joe cut off that thought, once more.

Levon was leaving in the morning and he wasn't going to spend what time th ey had left brooding. There'd be plenty of time for that after.

When they'd returned to the barn, Levon stopped short of going in and looked over his shoulder. "You wanna go get Angie and Tony?"

The question seemed to be asking more -- li ke, was he ready to face Mike and Teresa, or did he want one more turn around the pasture? The problem was Joe didn't know if he would ever be ready for the upcoming confrontation. Putting it off was alluring, but it wouldn't solve anything. "No time lik e the present," he responded.

Levon waited until he'd dismounted, then he took Joe by the shoulders, and kissed him soundly. "Joe, I'm sorry I can't stay--"

"I know. I understand, really." 'In my head at least,' he added mentally. His hea rt was having a harder time coming to terms with it.

"Maybe, if things drag on, I can fly up every couple of weeks, for a day or two?" Levon sounded reluctant as he said it; Joe didn't exactly blame him.

"Your new status may have changed a lot of things but I doubt that fear of flying is one of them." He wrapped his arms around Levon.

"Joe, if you need me, I'll do it. You might have to pick me up at the airport and bring me here first... or the shower," he gave Joe a wink.

Joe chuckled, then sobered quickly. "Thank you," he said softly, locking gazes with his husband, letting him know how much the offer meant to him.

Levon changed, and embraced him. "I mean it, Joe. If you need me -- I'll come up. As often, a nd for as long as I can. It might not be much, but please -- don't think you shouldn't ask."

"You're going to make a good head stallion," Joe said, swallowing around the sudden lump in his throat.

Levon looked at him, and finally Joe coul d see the sorrow in his eyes.

"Wish I didn't have to go."

Joe pulled him closer and hugged him tightly. "So do I, cowboy, so do I."

It took them a minute to let go so Levon could get dressed again. When they did, though, Joe found he felt a little better about the whole situation. This might change some things but not the really important ones.

He found he finally believed that.

The drive to his aunt and uncle's was much less tense than their earlier drive. He fou nd himself even once or twice joking with his husband about topics totally unrelated to anything that was happening. They even fought over the radio, with Levon complaining there wasn't a decent county music station to be found.

"That should tel l you something, then," Joe had responded with a smug grin.

"Tells me I'm in a foreign country," Levon had said, rolling his eyes and adjusting his hat. He was probably one of five people in all of Chicago wearing a cowboy hat. He still looked p erfectly natural, rather than out of place. Or maybe Joe was just used to seeing it.

"It's called 'civilization,' cowboy," he shot back, even as he was smiling fondly at his husband's hat.

"Yeah? That why y'all have them cops on horseback ?" Levon gestured out the window at a cop near the intersection.

Joe was about to respond when he noticed the horse turn their way, watching as they drove past. "Friend of yours?" he asked blandly.

Levon glanced over, then gave Joe a grin . "Nah. They can just recognize us."

"Somehow that doesn't surprise me. It probably should but it doesn't."

"Can't you recognize *your* own kind?" Levon asked, sounding entirely too guileless to be trusted.

"Last I checked you we ren't a horse, though. Astonishing resemblance aside."

"As I recall, there was that time we had to go to Dr. Norton's animal studies lab to interview a graduate student...."

"It was a cute chimpanzee, okay?" Joe shot back somewhat defensiv ely, well remembering how the animal in question had latched onto him, refusing to let go even when coaxed by her regular trainer.

Laughing, his mate only said, "Only proves you're human."

"Not entirely. One/thirty-second centaur remember? "

"Then how do you explain the chimp's attraction?"

"It had good taste?"

"You tasted it?" Levon asked, blandly.

Joe threw him an exasperated look that quickly faded into an affectionate grin. "Love you."

"You better . Otherwise we'd end up with a primate in the herd." Levon paused, then said, "Another primate, that is."

"Yeah, can't have that. All the other Head Stallions would tease you."

"Call me names. Wouldn't invite me to the Herd Stallion Ann ual Convention in Hawaii." Levon looked suitably troubled.

Joe snorted. "Considering centaurs' fear of flying I doubt that convention would be well attended anyway."

"They have boats!"

"Centaur Cruises?"

Levon started to n od, then stopped. "Nah, on second thought that wouldn't work, either."

"I know I'm going to regret asking, but why not?"

He smiled, apologetically. "We get seasick."

"Not very fun on vacation, are you?" Joe shot back, deadpan.

"I'm not the one who gets blown up, am I?"

Joe's grin turned lecherous. "Naw, you just get blown."

"Thought that was you last time."

"So it'll be you next time." He shrugged.

"Actually, if we're keeping score...."

"Are we?"

Levon gave him a look. "You wanna know?"

Joe actually thought about it for a few seconds. "Nah," he finally answered. "It doesn't make a difference." He looked at Levon. "Does it?"

"Nah." Levon leaned back in the se at. There was silence for a bit, then, "Unless the 3:5 ratio bothers you."

Them turning onto the street that his aunt and uncle lived on forestalled Joe from answering. It was probably for the best.

He felt Levon tensing up as they drew nearer the house. Reaching over, Joe laid his hand on his husband's arm. "It'll be okay," he said softly, surprised that at that moment he believed it would be.

But Levon nodded. "I know."

Joe left his hand where it was until Levon pull ed up in front of the house and killed the engine. As soon as they stepped out of the truck, the front door slammed open, and Angie came running out.

Joe leaned down and caught her as she ran straight into his arms. "How you doing, Angie?" he ask ed softly, giving her a big hug as he did so.

"M'ok," she said quietly. She leaned back and looked at him with a worried frown. "Can we go home, yet?"

"Do you want to?"

She nodded. "I like staying with Grandma and Grandpa and Gr andma Rosa but I want my own bed." She moved forward, again, hugging him. "Even if mama and daddy aren't there."

That eased one thing Joe had really been worrying about: that Angie and her brother wouldn't want to leave. "We can go right now," h e told her. "Let's go get your brother and your stuff, okay?"

She nodded and put her face back on Joe's shoulder. She looked over, though, and said, "Hi, Uncle Levon."

"Hey, Angie."

Still holding onto the child, Joe walked up to t he house, feeling Levon at his side. Teresa met them in the foyer. She started to hold her arms out to Angie, but stopped and gave Joe a quiet look.

"Angie wants to go home," he said calmly. "Are her and Tony's things together or do we need to d o some packing?"

She looked startled. "Angie, don't you wanna stay with us?" She put her hand on the girl's back, asking in a surprised, enticing tone.

Angie just shook her head, but looked uncertain.

"It's not an either/or cho ice, Angie. You'll still come for visits." Joe stared directly at his aunt when he spoke. 'I'm not going there, Aunt Teresa. I won't make them choose between us.'

"We can?" She asked, this time looking confused. "But...." She looked at her gran dmother, again.

Teresa looked back at Joe with a harder expression.

"But what, honey?" Joe asked, looking down at the child.

"Grandma says we're living here. I thought... mommy said you were our godfather and that meant we'd live with you. But grandma says--"

'Pre-emptive strike Aunt Teresa?' Joe thought. "We're still discussing it actually," he said, once again careful not to make Angie think badly of anybody. "But for the moment, it looks like you're going to be living with me. In your house, until we get everything figured out. Okay?"

She smiled at that, and nodded. When Joe started down the hall, Teresa stepped in his way -- and Levon moved between them, creating room for Joe to walk past. Joe caught sight o f Levon's face; there was no doubt in his mind Levon was going to make a good herd stallion. He already had Taylor's glare down pat.

Joe was glad he was on his side.

They went upstairs with Angie and Joe helped her pack up her and her bro ther's things. Levon was standing in the doorway, watching. "Where is Tony Jr.?" Joe asked, still having not spotted the boy.

"He's in Grandma Rosa's room," Angie responded, not looking up from her packing. "She was telling us centaur stories."< p>

"I'll go get him, if you can get his stuff together?" Levon offered. "I wanna talk to Rosa, anyhow."

"Sure."

Levon headed back down the hall. Angie continued transferring clothes into a small suitcase. She was frowning, again.

"What's wrong, hon?"

"Do you want me an' Tony?" she asked in a tiny voice.

Joe immediately went to her side, kneeling down in front of her so they were on the same eye level. "Of course I do, Angie. Levon and I both do. We want yo u very much." 'Enough to fight for you,' he thought, but didn't add.

She bit her lip, then said, "Grandma said... that we'd be happier, here. But I wanna be with you and Uncle Levon. Because mama and daddy wanted us to be."

"If that's wh at you want, we'll do everything in our power to keep you, Levon and I both. I promise. Okay?"

She answered by throwing her arms around him, again. Joe hugged her back, tightly.

They finished packing hers and Tony's things, then Angie tol d him the only things left were their toothbrushes in the bathroom. As they turned to the door they found Tony, Jr., standing there.

"Hey kiddo. Didn't Uncle Levon find you?" Joe asked.

He nodded. "Tol' me to come up an' find you."

< p> "Well, you did. He tell you we're taking you two home?"

Tony nodded.

"That okay with you?" Joe asked, not really being able to get a bead on the boy's emotions.

Again, he nodded, but this time he came over and held up his arm s. With a smile, Joe picked him up. Tony Jr. wrapped his arms tightly around Joe's neck. Joe just stood there and held him until Angie came back into the room with the toothbrushes.

She put them in the suitcase, closed it, then looked up at Joe . It was rather clear that she would have liked to be carried down as well, but she picked up the smaller suitcase, instead. He gave her an approving smile and a quick one-handed hug before picking up the other, larger suitcase, shifting Tony Jr. to one side as he did so.

They headed downstairs, and found Levon coming out of Mike's den.

"Y'all ready to go?" Levon asked, calmly.

"Looks that way," Joe replied, giving his partner the eye. He set Tony Jr. on his feet beside his sis ter. "You go say good-bye to your grandparents, okay?"

"OK!" He ran into Mike's den, followed by Angie.

Joe watched them go, then turned back to Levon. "Have a nice chat while you were waiting?" he asked in a low voice.

Levon nodde d. "Told him what he'd be up against. So he could decide if he really wanted to take us to court."

"That must've been interesting." He could just imagine his uncle's reaction to that.

"Not sure how much it helped," Levon added with a shr ug. "But at least now he knows." He stopped when the kids came back out, and headed past to find Teresa.

When they were out of sight again, Joe said, "You didn't tell him about... y'know."

"No." Levon shook his head quickly. "Just that ... I've my father's estate, now. All his resources -- explained they were as much as Hensen's. Figured he'd understand the comparison. Practically had to spell it out, though, that I've a damn sight more money than he does now, and I'll spend it *all * to keep our kids if I have to."

Joe felt a warmth spread through him at Levon's last words. "Our kids. I like the sound of that."

"Well, that's what they are." Levon returned the smile.

Angie and Tony returned at that moment. A ngie headed to Joe and looked up hopefully as Tony Jr. was hoisted up into Levon's arms.

Chuckling, Joe lifted her into his arms. "All ready?"

Levon took the second suitcase, and nodded. "Looks like we're ready."

"Let's go then."

As they headed out for the truck, Joe felt someone watching him. He turned and looked back at the house to see Aunt Teresa standing in the doorway staring after them. She stood there until Angie turned, and waved. Then Teresa waved back with a smile. Joe nodded to her respectfully, then turned and finished walking to the truck.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

That night, after dinner and more stories told to distract the two children, Levon found himself in Angie's room, tucking her into bed.

"Do you really have to go tomorrow?" the little girl asked wistfully.

"Yeah, Angie. I do. Wish I could stay, though." He sat down on her bed; she sat up and pulled her knees up.

"I 'm sorry about your daddy," she said, resting her head on her knees and watching him.

"Thanks." He swallowed the words 'you don't have to be'. He didn't know if she could understand. Probably not; Joe barely did, himself.

"Is it differe nt for you? Because you're grown up? Do you miss him? I know I miss my daddy."

"I miss him, Angie. That doesn't change just because I'm grown up."

She nodded solemnly. "I remember meeting your daddy when we came down to go to your wedding . I liked him, he was nice to me. Did you cry when you found out?" She paused and then said, "I'm not asking too many questions am I? Mama always says... said... I ask too many questions."

"You're not asking too many questions, Angie. I'll answer any that you have, as best I can. But... you probably should know that we don't always react to things the way humans do. I didn't cry when I heard about my daddy. But that doesn't mean I don't miss him, or that I didn't love him."

Again Angie nodded. "Everybody reacts differently. That's what Grandma Rosa told me. So it's okay if you didn't cry."

"And it's ok if you *do* cry. As often as you need to." Levon put his hand on her cheek, rubbing his thumb gently up and down. He could f eel the dampness there.

She moved then, crawling into his lap and leaning her face against his chest. "I don't want you to go," she whispered.

Holding her tightly, he said, "I know. But Joe'll be here. I'm gonna call you every day -- and if you need me, I can come back for a little while." He kissed the top of her head. "Don't worry, Angie. It'll be all right."

"Promise?"

"I promise." Even if I have to turn the world upside-down, it'll be all right, he added silently. The feeling was a little overwhelming -- to feel so responsible for her, and her brother as well as the entire herd, back home, and know beyond a doubt that he would do *anything* in his power to see they were safe and happy.

"Good," Angie murmu red, snuggling closer with a yawn.

He continued to hold her, rocking her gently. It wasn't long before he felt her body go totally boneless and heard her breathing even out into the rhythms of sleep. He continued holding her, though, for quite s ome time.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Morning, as far as Joe was concerned, came all too soon.

After they had put the kids to bed, he and Levon had sought their own. They had made love well into the night, the impending separation adding a sense of desperation to their every move. Finally, exhausted, they had just held each other until the light of dawn filtered into the windows.

Joe hadn't slept at all, and he was pretty sure neither ha d Levon. He was almost tempted to ask him to stay one more day, just so he wouldn't be travelling exhausted. Only the knowledge that his husband's leaving would only get harder to face the longer it was put off had held his tongue. Once he'd left, Levon could stop somewhere along the way and get some sleep.

Finally Levon stirred, and made as if to leave the bed. Joe tightened his grip reflexively, then let him go.

"I'm gonna go make some coffee," Levon said quietly.

Joe nodded. "I'll be down in a minute," he replied, equally quietly. 'As soon as I convince myself I can face this morning without breaking into a thousand pieces.'

Levon got out of bed, still looking at Joe. Then he leaned over and kissed him. He rested h is head against Joe's. "I don't wanna leave you."

One hand came up to cup the back of Levon's neck. "I don't wanna be left," he whispered.

They stayed like that for a few more minutes, then Levon moved back again. "I have to...."

"I know." He tried to summon up an understanding smile as his hand slid reluctantly away.

Levon looked at him, obvious longing on his face. Then he turned and walked out of the room.

Joe stared at the door for a moment, then rolled over so he couldn't see it. He'd get up and go downstairs in a few minutes.

Just as soon as he stopped shaking.

"Uncle Joe?" Angie's timid voice came from behind him.

Forcing his emotions ruthlessly back under control he rolled over to see Angie standing uncertainly in the doorway. "Yeah, hon?" he asked, pleased that his voice didn't tremble.

She ran to the side of the bed and looked down. She'd been crying, but she'd wiped her face dry. "Can't you make him not go?" she whispe red.

He sat up and pulled her into a hug. "He has to, Angie. We can't make it any harder for him than it already is."

"But I don't want him to go. I want him to stay."

"Sometimes we have to accept things we don't want to." Joe str oked her hair. "You're having to do that a lot lately I know. It's not easy."

She sniffed, and held onto him, harder. "Will he come back?" she asked in a tiny voice. "Maybe for the Fourth of July?"

"If he can't maybe we can go to him," J oe said, giving them both hope.

"Can we?" she looked up, hopefully. "Can we spend the summer there? School's over and we don't have to stay in Chicago...." She trailed off, obviously remembering the two weeks vacation that had had ended so dis astrously before it had barely begun. Her face crumpled up and she dove into his arms once more.

Joe just held her tight for a few minutes, wishing there was some way he could make her hurt less.

"Why does he have to go, anyway?" She aske d after a bit. This time she sounded more petulant than scared.

"We told you last night. Taylor died and Levon has to go back to take care of the herd. Like I'm staying here to take care of you and your brother. You wouldn't want someone trying t o convince me not to do that, would you?" he asked, trying not to think of his Aunt and Uncle.

"No!" She tightened her grip even harder. "I don't," she said a little more thoughtfully. "Why can't we go with him?" She was repeating most of her q uestions from last night, but Joe figured she hadn't understood all of their conversation the first time. *He'd* been in shock just after Levon had told him, after all. It followed that maybe Angie had been, as well.

"We have to stay here until I can settle some legal stuff. Make sure you two can stay with Levon and me permanently." He kissed the top of her head. "Then we can go."

"How long?"

Possible months of separation and court battles loomed up in front of Joe in his mind's eye. "I don't know, Angie. I wish I did."

Levon appeared in the doorway, carrying two mugs. He stopped, upon seeing Angie.

"It'll happen though," Joe told her, looking up at Levon. "I promise." And he wasn't sure who exactly he was making the promise to: Angie, Levon, or himself, but he knew it was one he was going to do his all to see kept.

Levon came over, and handed Joe one of the mugs. "Angie? You all right?" he asked, crouching down beside the bed.

She shrugged, not looking up.

"Angie? You know I'm gonna call as often as I can?"

Joe heard the anguish Levon could not completely hide. He reached out and touched his husband's cheek in an instinctive attempt at comfort.

"Promise?" came Angie's small voice, drifting up from the vicinity of Joe's chest where she'd hidden her head.

"I promise, Angie. And you know you can call me, once I get to the ranch." He put his hand on hear hair, right next to Joe's. It looked as though they were finally getting her calmed down. Accepting, if not happy about it.

"Unca Joe! Unca Levon!" Tony cried out, as he barreled into the room. All three of them looked up as a four-year-old bundle of energy dove onto the bed, grinning. He leapt onto the bed, and bounced. "Can we have cereal for breakfast? We have Count Chocula!"

Joe felt himself smiling back at the boy. "Do we?"

Tony Jr. nodded earnestly. "Mama always makes sure we have some."

He felt Angie tense, but Tony w as still smiling. 'He still doesn't understand,' Joe thought with a pang, even as he squeezed Angie harder.

"Come on," Levon stood up and took the boy's hand. "I'll get us some breakfast."

"Sounds like a good idea, cowboy." Joe released Angie and reached for his robe, he'd left at the bottom of the bed so he wouldn't give the kids a show. That's when it occurred to him that while reaching for a robe was second nature for him, it wasn't for his partner.

'And I'm so used to him running around like that that I didn't even really notice it,' Joe thought ruefully. But they didn't need someone stopping by and seeing him -- and giving Mike and Teresa more ammunition to convince the courts he and Levon would be poor parents. Out lou d he said in a casual tone, "You might want to put something on."

Levon looked at him with a startled expression. However, he went and picked up a pair of jeans and put them on. Then he took Tony Jr's hand again and led him out.

Joe shoo k his head with a fond smile, then pulled on his robe and slid out of bed. "What do you want for breakfast?" he asked the girl who was still sitting on the edge of the bed.

"Can I have cereal, too?"

"Count Chocula?"

She nodded, giv ing him a half-smile. "I like how it makes the milk chocolate."

He chuckled a little at that, remembering eating the stuff for the same reason when he was a kid. "Come on," he said, holding out a hand to her. "Before Levon and Tony eat it all."< p>

She nodded, taking his hand.

They made it almost to the kitchen before they heard Tony crying, "I'm Supaman!"

Curious, Joe quickened his pace, only to stop dead in the kitchen doorway when he got there and stare.

Levon h ad hoisted Tony into the air and was swinging him around the room on his stomach... and it did look like Superman flying, Joe thought rather numbly. Levon caught sight of him, and changed directions. Tony giggled and yelled "ZOOM!" as he headed for Joe.< p>

"This mean I gotta get you a cape and tights?" Joe asked the boy, as he plucked him from Levon's grasp.

"Yeah! I wanna cape!" Tony bounced against Joe.

Levon gave him an apologetic grin. "And I haven't even fed him the sugar cer eal, yet."

"Great, Levon. Get him all riled up and then leave me with him." The words came out a bit more sharply than Joe had planned. To counteract that he added, "I should send a few boxes of the high sugar stuff with you for the kids in the h erd as payback."

"You wouldn't." Levon looked startled. And slightly worried.

"Those kids deserve a treat every now and then, too," Joe said thoughtfully. "Maybe not cereal, though. Maybe candy of some kind."

"Pixie sticks!" An gie chipped in.

Levon gave Angie a softer version of the 'you're not helping' glare and turned back to Joe. "You wouldn't dare." When Joe didn't immediately admit otherwise, Levon said, "Joe, you are *not* getting all my kids on a sugar high. D o you have *any* idea what it's like to have eighteen four-legged youngsters on sugar?"

Joe grinned. "I can imagine."

"You'll do more than imagine, if you try sending that stuff down. I'll hang onto it until you come out -- then leave you in charge of everyone under the age of four."

He couldn't quite suppress a shudder at that. "Have to send it to them directly then," he said making it sound like absent-minded thinking out loud. Beside him Angie was giggling.

"Wouldn't w ork," Levon countered. "Have to go into Prairie View to pick up the mail, and if I tell the mares not to let through any packages from you to the kids...."

"There are ways around that," Joe assured him blithely.

"FedEx doesn't deliver t o the ranch." Levon told him, his stern frown quivering slightly as Angie continued to giggle at them.

"Did I say anything about using FedEx?"

Levon glared at him a moment more, then turned a smile onto Tony Jr. and Angie. "Come on, you t wo. Let's get you your breakfasts before I have to hit the road and leave you with your Uncle Joe all day."

"Count Chocula!" Tony demanded, squirming in Joe's arms to be let down. Joe did so, quietly thankful that there weren't any pixie sticks on the premises.

They got the kids settled at the table with cereal and juice. Levon glanced over at him and asked, "You want some, too?"

"Why not?" Joe asked. "Sounds like I'm going to need all the energy I can get."

Angie giggle d again as Joe accepted a bowl. Levon went back to digging through the icebox, and proceeded to make himself some toast and fried eggs.

"Not joining us?"

"Hell, no." Levon managed to look above that sort of thing.

Tony bounced in his chair. "Unca Levon had some fruit loops."

Joe grinned at the boy then turned his attention back to his lover. "Busted."

Levon just returned the grin. "Why do you think I need the protein now?"

The rest of the meal passed in kind, with them bantering back and forth, deliberately keeping things as light as possible. But all too soon breakfast was over and the time for Levon to leave loomed ever closer.

Angie tried to latch onto him, at one point. Though she didn't ask aloud for him not to go, they both knew that was what she wanted to say. Levon picked her up and held her, and promised to call that night.

Tony Jr., on the other hand, made no secret of his feelings. "Wanna go too!" he yelled, glaring at both L evon and Joe.

"Tony, we told you last night why you can't," Levon said patiently.

"Don't care! Wanna go!" The boy stamped his foot and pouted.

Joe watched as Levon frowned, slightly, then his mate simply knelt down in front of him, and held the boy close. He hadn't let go of Angie, and the three of them made a tight embrace. Joe stayed back, letting the kids have their own goodbye. He tried to ignore the urge to throw his own tantrum over his husband's leaving.

When Levo n let the kids go and came over for one last hug, Joe had to fight the urge even more. He buried his face in Levon's neck and held on for all he was worth. Then, knowing he had to, he let go and stepped back, swallowing against the pain of separation tha t was already settling on him.

"Remember to phone," he said roughly, holding onto control with his fingertips.

Levon half-smiled. "I'll remember."

The half-smile almost did him in. "Levon," he whispered, then stopped. There was to o much he wanted to say that he didn't have the words or the time for.

"I know." Levon reached over and rubbed his thumb along Joe's lower lip. "It won't be for long."

The words would have encouraged him if his husband's voice hadn't bro ken partway through. Unable to stop himself, he reached out and pulled Levon to him again in a crushing embrace.

This time it was Levon who pulled away. "I have to go," he said quietly, and he turned to walk away. He stopped long enough to give each child a last, quick hug.

Joe took one involuntary step after Levon before he could force himself to stop. 'Pull it together!' he told himself sternly. 'It's not forever. It's only a few months. You can do this. You and Levon both. You have t o.'

He managed to stay put as Levon let the kids go, and left the room. Angie started to follow him, and stopped herself; then, as they heard the front door open, she ran after him. Joe reached out and caught her as she went past, hugging her ti ghtly.

"Don' wan' Unca Levon to go!" Tony Jr. declared, lip trembling, eyes wide and tear filled.

They stayed there, listening, until the truck's engine started. None of them moved until they heard the truck pull out and leave. Or for a long while after that.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

The drive was more boring than he would have thought. He had plenty of things to think about to occupy himself, but somehow, once he got south of Chica go, he couldn't bring himself to focus on any of it. Nothing that he could do about any of it until he stopped somewhere; nothing he could do about most of it until he got home.

The quiet didn't help. Even with the radio on it was too quiet, with out his lover's inevitable complaints that had accompanied every long trip he'd taken for years. He found himself glancing continuously at the empty passenger seat, missing the sight of Joe as much as the sound of his voice. He finally stopped at a truc k stop and picked up some books transcribed onto tape. He wasn't sure exactly what he'd bought, but listening to them helped keep his mind focused enough to drive.

He stopped for the evening at a motel on the outskirts of Joplin, Missouri. The fi rst thing he did after he had brought his stuff into his room was sit down on the bed and reach for the phone. His heart was pounding as he waited, but it had only time to ring once before a breathless young girl said, "Hello?"

Levon smiled. "He llo, Angie."

"Uncle Levon!"

He held the phone away from his ear as she screamed, again. A moment later, Joe was on the phone. "Hey, cowboy," his husband greeted him in a cheerful enough sounding voice.

"Hey. How was your day?" He was torn between wanting to know the truth, and wanting to hear that everything had been OK.

"Quiet. Angie spent most of it in her room and Tony Jr's seemed to have decided he's had enough of people vanishing on him and latched onto me like Vel cro." There was a hint of laughter in Joe's voice but Levon could hear the sadness underlying it.

Levon sighed. "I miss you. Hell, it ain't been more'n 12 hours, and already I miss you."

"I miss you too. Hell, I missed you the second you walked out the door." He heard Joe sigh. "I don't know how I'm going to manage feeling like this for months."

"Hopefully it won't *be* months." Levon had no clue how they would manage it, but there had to be a way. If Joe were stuck in Chicago with the kids, he'd just have to fly.

"I don't know Levon. I hope so too, but realistically..."

"I know." Levon laid back on the bed. The mattress was practically stiff; he considered sleeping on his feet tonight. He found himself with very little to say -- all he could think of was 'I miss you'.

Joe cleared his throat. "How's the drive been?"

"Long. Boring. I've been listening to some English guy read 'Silmarillion'."

"How far did you get today?"

"Jopl in. About halfway home. Should be there tomorrow evening."

"Home," Joe repeated wistfully. "Wonder when I stopped thinking of Chicago as home and started thinking of Houston that way...."

"Four years ago, August." Levon picked a number and month out of thin air, just to hear Joe's reaction.

There was silence for a moment. "What?" Joe asked laughter in his voice.

Levon grinned, but answered in as serious a tone as he could. "That was the first time you said 'home' and me ant Houston. Can't tell you when you started *thinking* of it that way...."

Joe laughed. "Centaurs and their memories," he muttered good-naturedly. Then in a more serious tone, "Actually I think I do remember when I started thinking of Houston as home."

"Yeah?" Levon found himself interested in hearing the answer. "Wasn't August?"

The reply, when it came, was said softly, almost shyly. "Was when I realized I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you, and you were in Houston."

Levon didn't try to stop himself from smiling. "I love you, too." He thought back on that, then said, "That would have been six years ago. July 12?" That was almost out of thin air, but he was pretty sure he had it down to the right season.

Joe laughed again. "You'll have to tell me. I didn't look at the calendar, though maybe I should've. Was too busy falling in love."

"That'd have been it, then," Levon said, wondering if Joe would *ever* twig that Levon was pulling his tail, or if Joe really didn't remember when it had been. "Second time you ever ate barbecue -- willingly," he continued.

"You're talking about a time that hasn't happened yet, cowboy."

"Excuse me, who's got the perfect memory, here?"

" Just goes to prove I've gotten good at faking it."

"You sayin' you'd fake that sorta thing?" Levon put as much shock and disappointment into his voice as he dared.

"That would be telling, wouldn't it?"

"Does that mean I can admit I don't like Alfredo sauce?"

"How do you explain the three helpings you had last time I made it?" Joe asked, and Levon could hear the smile in his voice.

"'Cause you're too damn cute when you're serving something you're hoping I'll like." Levon swallowed. For a moment he had lost track of the fact that when he hung up, he would be heading even further away. The good cheer vanished like dandelion seeds.

"There's something other than Alfredo sauce I'd rather be offering you -- if I was there." Joe's voice had quieted as if he, too, suddenly remembered the distance separating them.

"Joe...." Maybe they should just hang up -- surely this was only making it worse?

"Yeah?"

"I wish...."

This wasn't helpi ng.

There was silence for a moment and then, in a voice barely above a whisper, "So do I, cowboy, so do I."

"I've half a mind to keep you on the phone all night, just so I don't have to let you go."

"I've half a mind to let you. I don't want to let you go either."

Softly, Levon forced himself to say, "If I don't let you go now, I may not be able to hang up at all."

"Levon..." He heard Joe swallow. "Me neither. Damn, I miss you." He took a deep breath. "We better han g up now, then."

"Yeah." Levon made no move to hang up, though. He clenched his jaw. He *had* to do it. Just say goodbye and hang up.

A soft chuckle came through the phone. "Neither of us are moving."

"Should we count to three? " Levon smiled.

"Yeah, and then we'd still be sitting here at the end of it. That never works."

"Joe?"

"Yeah, Levon?"

"I love you. I'll talk to you tomorrow." He took a deep breath. "Good-bye."

And he hung up.

Then he swore, as he realized he'd forgotten to give Joe the number of the motel he was at. He considered phoning back to give it to him, but hesitated, not sure he'd be able to hang up twice.

Instead he lay back on the bed and stared at the ceil ing, and wondered if he would grow tired enough to fall asleep.

Three hours later he was still staring at the ceiling. With a sigh, he stood up and paced the room. It didn't help. With a low growl, he grabbed his bag and repacked it, left the k ey on the dresser, and left. If he got tired later, he'll pull over again. Otherwise, he might as well keep heading for home.

At least by continuing the drive home he was doing something. It didn't make the emptiness go away, but it did make it a little bit easier to deal with. He slipped " Silmarillion " back into the tape player, and drove.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Back in Chicago, Joe was finding the night no easier to get through.

< p> He had had plenty of distractions earlier, when he'd try to put Tony Jr. to bed. The boy had clung to him, crying, begging to be able to sleep in Joe's room. It looked like Levon's leaving had made his parents' absences more real. He hadn't had the he art to tell the boy 'no', so now Tony was curled up with his stuffed dragon, sound asleep at Joe's side.

Which was a state that Joe seemed to be unable to reach himself. He thought that with the little amount of rest he'd gotten in the past few da ys he'd be able to sleep tonight, if for no other reason than exhaustion. That wasn't proving to be the case.

He knew why he couldn't sleep -- but knowing didn't help either. He could rationalize all night how Levon's absence was temporary, remi nd himself that Levon hadn't wanted to leave him, even think about how soon it might be before they could see each other again. But every time he tried reasoning through it, he started thinking about how good it felt to have Levon beside him.

An d how wrong it felt when he wasn't.

He couldn't even toss and turn for fear of waking Tony. Joe sighed and settled his head deeper into his pillow.

Life wasn't fair.

He caught sight of the boy beside him. No, life wasn't fair. B ut at least he would see Levon again. Reaching down, he brushed a lock of hair off Tony's forehead gently; the child sighed and snuggled closer. Joe smiled slightly, then sighed and resolutely closed his eyes. Maybe if he faked sleep, he'd eventually ma nage the real thing.

It must have worked, because the next thing he knew Tony was bouncing on the bed, asking him if he were awake yet.

"I am now, kid," he muttered, opening his eyes on way-too-bright morning sunlight streaming through the blinds.

Tony scooted down beside him until he was just a few inches away. "Can we have cereal again?"

"Is that what you want to have?" Joe asked, feeling a smile come to his lips as he looked at the boy.

Tony nodded. He didn't l ook quite as happy as he had yesterday -- there was a slight droop to his smile and a dullness in his eyes. "Want cereal every day."

"Count Chocula?" He wanted somehow to bring the light back to Tony's eyes, but knew only time could do that. ]

Tony crawled forward. "Can I have Fruit Loops?"

Like Levon'd had the morning before. Joe felt a small pang at the thought. "Sure, kid," he said softly.

Tony moved into Joe's arms, bringing his dragon with him. Joe hugged him tightl y. A soft sound alerted him and he looked up to see Angie hovering uncertainly in the doorway. It only took holding out his arm to get her across the room and onto the bed.

After a brief hug, he looked down at her and said as cheerfully as he could manage. "We were just discussing breakfast. Tony's decided to be daring and wild, and have fruit loops. What's your poison?"

She wrinkled her nose. "I want poached eggs. Can I?"

Ignoring Tony's "yuck," Joe smiled and nodded. "Eggs sound good."

Angie took his hand and tugged. Joe grinned and got out of bed. "Hungry, I take it?"

She just nodded, and continued to tug. "I didn't wanna wake you up but I knew Tony would."

Tony just grinned, looking not the leas t bit repentant.

"Yeah, he's better than an alarm clock," Joe agreed, ruffling the boy's hair. He stood up and grabbed his robe. "Breakfast it is."

He was able to get them downstairs with some semblance of order -- but only by accepting ' running' as orderly. He had started to get breakfast together when the phone rang. Angie grabbed it before he could even reach for it. He heard her say, "Hello?" and then, "Uncle Levon!"

It was all he could do not to snatch the phone out of he r hand. 'Patience, LaFiamma,' he told himself. 'They miss him too.'

"Yes," he listened to her say. He found himself trying to figure out what Levon was saying, as she continued, "Almost. Yes... yes."

The conversation continued in the sa me way for a few minutes more and then Angie held the phone out -- to Tony Jr. "He wants to talk to you," she told her brother.

Joe had to counsel himself to patience once again. The one-sided conversation was more of the same. Unexplained 'yes's ' and 'we did' and one 'not yet' with a quick glance towards Joe. Finally Tony held out the phone to Joe.

Joe took it, even managing to do so calmly, and gestured to the kids to continue with their breakfasts. "Levon?"

"Hey. How're you d oing?"

"I'm managing. Miss you, though." Joe found himself smiling at just the sound of his husband's voice. "How about you?"

"I'm all right." He could hear Levon smiling.

"What time do you think you'll make the ranch?"

Th ere was a pause, then, "About two more hours. I couldn't sleep last night...."

"What? Levon, was that safe? You barely got any sleep the night before..."

"I'm all right, Joe. There were half a dozen places along the interstate to stop if I got tired, not to mention all the little towns with motels. I was fine."

"'Cept you didn't get any sleep." Joe found himself almost feeling guilty now that he had.

"I'll sleep all afternoon, Joe. I promise. Once I get ho-- home, I ca n sleep."

He sighed, letting it go. "You could've phoned me, you know," he said instead, softly.

"I know. But I'd never have been able to let you go, if I had."

"I don't want you to feel like you have to. I wouldn't have minded if we'd been on the phone all night." Joe paused and then added almost diffidently, "I would've liked it."

"Maybe I'll call you tonight, then," Levon said seriously.

"Good."

There was silence, then. It wasn't uncomfortable, but neit her did either of them appear to know what to say.

Joe searched for a subject. "So, umm... you'll be reaching the ranch in two hours... What happens then?"

"Depends on what needs doing. Mostly, they just need me to be there. In case of e mergencies." There was a hint of amusement in his voice, now.

"So you just hang around? Waiting for something to go wrong?" Joe chuckled. "Sounds sorta like our jobs."

"Don't it? No wonder they thought I was qualified."

"I though t you were the only stallion available..." Joe teased.

"Yeah. I am." The amusement had died.

Silence fell again, and again it was Joe who broke it. "I love you," he said softly.

"I love you, too." Levon laughed. "But I can't stick around not hanging up, this time. I'm at a payphone and I'm gonna run out of quarters before too awful long."

"See? Told you we needed a phone in the Jimmy."

"After this, I may agree with you."

"Or we could break down and ge t cells."

"Or we could stay home, in the bedroom, and not need phones at all."

Joe sighed, wishing they were there right now. But they weren't and it didn't look like they'd even be in the same state, much less the same room, for some time yet.

"I gotta go," Levon interrupted his depressing thought with something equally depressing.

"I know. Call later?"

"I will. Soon as I get home."

"Love you," Joe said and then hung up before they could start talking ag ain. He stood there for a moment, wondering if it was going to feel like this every time they hung up: like Levon was leaving all over again.

The kids' chatter partially distracted him. They were arguing over something -- he wasn't sure what -- but they weren't arguing very heatedly.

Yet.

Sighing, he pushed his longing for Levon back once again and turned his attention back to the kids. He went over and asked what the problem was.

Angie looked up. "Nothing." She looked innocent. Tony was scowling at her.

"Define nothing." Joe gave her a slight modification of his best interrogation look.

She squirmed slightly, but shook her head. "I didn't say anything. Tony's just a baby."

"Am not!" Tony sh ot back hotly. "I'm not, Unca Joe, right?"

Joe reached out and laid a restraining hand on Tony's shoulder. "You know he hates it when you call him that," he said levelly to Angie.

"I didn't *call* him that," Angie protested.

"Did!" Tony interjected.

"I just heard you call him that, Angie," Joe pointed out.

"I didn't say it to *him*," she explained.

"She said I shou'n't bring Benny to the table," Tony interjected.

Benny being the stuffed dragon, of co urse. Joe sighed and tried to figure out how best to resolve this. "Angie," he asked, "is the dragon bothering you in some way? It's not growling at you or anything is it?"

She stifled a giggle, then shook her head. "No." She gave her brother a glare, then added, "But he's too old to be dragging it around with him."

"I see. I think I must have missed the law that nobody who is four years old may carry a stuffed animal."

"But--" she stopped, gave Tony a glare, and stared down at her plate.

Reaching out, Joe caught Angie's hand and pulled her out of her chair. He sat down in his own and pulled her into his lap. "What's really bothering you, hon?" he asked, knowing it was more than a stuffed dragon and hoping she'd be abl e to speak about whatever it was.

"He can't be a baby anymore," she said fiercely, but quietly as if to keep Tony from hearing.

"Why?" Joe pressed, though he was fairly sure he knew the answer.

She glanced at Tony again, then up a t Joe. "He just can't."

"Because of your parents?"

She just shifted a bit, not looking up.

"You know you can talk to me about this right?" Joe asked, pushing ever so slightly. This was where he had to be extremely careful not to p ush her too hard.

She looked up at him then, and he could see her chin shaking ever so slightly. "He has to grow up, Uncle Joe. He can't be a baby anymore."

Joe pushed her hair back from her face gently. "He will grow up, hon. When he's ready. So will you. Your parents wouldn't want either of you to rush it."

"But...."

"That's why they asked Levon and me to take care of you. So you wouldn't have to grow up before you were ready."

"But what if you can't? Tony has to be able to take care of himself. In case--"

'In case they lose us too.' Joe's heart ached for her; no child should be afraid of such a thing. "That's not going to happen," he told her fiercely. "And even if it did, you'd still have your grandp arents. And if not them...Levon's herd would take care of you. You're both honorary members now y'know, through Levon. You're not going to be left on your own Angie, I promise."

"We *are*?" She brightened a little, with surprise. "Would we get t o live on the ranch?"

Joe chuckled a little, caught off guard by how fast the child's mood changed. "I take it you'd like that."

She nodded, thoughtfully. "I would. But I'd rather live at home with you and Uncle Levon."

"We're wor king on it, kiddo," Joe assured her. Then, seeing this as an opportunity to bring up something he had been worrying about in the back of his mind -- the front being too involved worrying about other things -- he asked, "How do you feel about leaving Chica go and moving to Houston?"

Angie broke into a huge smile -- which faded a little a moment later. "To live, you mean? For always?"

Joe nodded. "When we get everything straightened out here."

She chewed on her lip, and asked, "Away from Callie? And Christine? Do we have to?" She was obviously trying to control herself, but it was clear the news was upsetting her.

"I know what it's like to be forced to move away from Chicago, Angie. I wish there was another way, but... Lev on's and my jobs and lives are in Houston. I don't know if we could start over up here. I don't even know if Levon would be allowed to move up here for good."

In his mind, though, a small traitorous voice was whispering that it was only Levon who couldn't start over up here. That he, Joe, could do so easily. 'There's no way I could do it without Levon,' he told the voice viciously, silencing it.

For now.

Angie pouted as she looked down. "I don't wanna move." She sat there a mo ment longer, then suddenly pushed away from the table, and ran out of the room.

Joe sighed and leaned his forehead against the table's surface. 'Blew that big time.' He looked down to see Tony frowning up at him. When Tony saw him looking, he st ood up in his chair and held out his arms for Joe.

Swallowing the sudden lump in his throat, Joe leaned over and carefully enfolded the boy in a hug.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Levon could hardl y believe it when he drove up the long dirt road towards the herd's ranch.

His herd's ranch. His ranch. His stomach knotted, and he wondered if Taylor had ever asked himself what the hell he'd gotten himself into. Out of the corner of his eye h e caught sight of something moving and grinned slightly at the kids who turned to race alongside his truck.

His kids now.

As soon as he came to a stop in the driveway -- after having lost the 'race' -- he was surrounded by eager kids. No ne of them came forward until he held out his arms. Then, one by one, they launched themselves into his arms for a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

None of them said anything; they merely collected their greeting then stepped aside for the next sibli ng to get his or hers. It was different from all the other times he'd visited -- but he wasn't visiting this time, was he? Before, they'd treated him like an older brother or favorite uncle. The affection was still there, but now there was something els e as well. Respect.

Unconditional trust.

As each one came to greet him and receive his greetings in return, he realized what they were doing. Each was making sure of his or her place in the herd. Levon could simply and easily send one a way at this point, merely by refusing to say hello. The power and the responsibility that went with it became real in that moment and settled heavily onto his shoulders.

He made his way inside the house, intent on calling Joe as he'd promised. M arta was standing on the porch, grinning at him. He ran up the steps and hugged her.

"Now aren't you sorry you teased me all those years?" He grinned back at her.

"What makes you think I'm going to stop now?" she asked, eyes twinkling. "S omebody's gotta keep you from getting too big for your britches."

He wrapped an arm around her waist, pulling her close. "If Joe couldn't do it, what makes you think you can?"

"I'm your sister. It's my job." She hugged him tightly again. "I'm glad you're here, Levon."

"Thanks."

He let her go, and headed on into the house. He found Carla just heading out of the dining room; she broke into a huge smile as soon as she saw him. He went over and hugged her, lifting her off th e ground as he did. She laughed and sort of halfheartedly swatted at him to be put back down.

He gave her an innocent look and a smile. He set her down, though, and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "You been behaving yourself?" he asked ste rnly.

"Unlike some colts in my memory," she teased, but he saw the same thing in her eyes that had been in all the others.

He was the herd stallion.

Luckily, it meant he could tease back without getting whapped. Whapped seriously, anyhow. "You know I could tell you to forget all about those incidents."

"You could, but you won't," Carla replied confidently.

"Oh? And why not?"

"Because you're not one to abuse power."

Levon pouted at her. "You're tak ing all the fun out of it." Then he sighed, and got down to business. "Where's Joy?"

Carla nodded towards the door to Taylor's study. What had been Taylor's study. Levon supposed it was his now.

"Thanks." He let Carla go, and headed ove r. He found Joy sitting at Taylor's desk.

She looked up from the books she was going over and gave him a smile. "Levon."

"Joy." He suddenly felt a lot better about this whole thing. He wasn't going to be thrown in to sink or swim -- mos t of the things he was responsible for were being handled ably by Joy. "How're things going?"

"The world or even the ranch isn't about to come to an end, at least not for the next week or so."

Levon raised an eyebrow. "And after next wee k?"

"Mating season starts. Things always get just a little crazy around here then, you know that."

He probably should have laughed, or smiled. Instead Levon plopped down in a chair and groaned. "I know. Gods, I never thought...." He tra iled off, not sure Joy would want to hear his reservations.

He heard the scrape of a chair being pushed back and a second later Joy was kneeling in front of him, meeting his eyes. "I know, Levon, and I'm sorry. If there had been any other way, I w ouldn't have called."

"I know." He leaned forward and took her hands. "I *know*, Joy. Believe me, if I'd have thought of a way, I'd have told you... but with Stuart not able to sire foals yet, the mares going into heat would have--" He cut him self off. Joy knew as well as he how bad it would have been.

"A disaster."

Levon nodded. After a moment, he said quietly, "I didn't tell Joe."

Joy regarded him for a moment. "Do you think that wise?"

Levon shrugged. "Se emed a lot wiser than telling him. He's got so much to handle right now -- he didn't need worrying about... what this would mean, afterwards."

"You know him best, I suppose." She sounded like she wanted to say something else but held her tongue.< p>

Levon grinned. "Which means you think I should tell him. Hell, I probably should. But--"

She raised an eyebrow. "But?"

"But I'm scared. Joy -- when I told him I'd be coming down, the first thing he thought was that it was for g ood! That I was leaving him. If he... if he assumes that I'm willing to give him up for the herd... how is he gonna react to knowing I'm going to have kids of my own? And what with the legal battle over Angie and Tony... he might realize it'd be a hell of a lot easier for all the kids if he stayed in Chicago and I stayed here." He leaned back in the chair, trying to fight off the doubts, and the tears.

Joy reached out and took his hands in hers, squeezing them comfortingly. "He loves you. Trus t him, Levon. He could no more leave you than you could him."

"I trust him, Joy. I just... he's been thinking about it. Leaving. I just didn't want to give him another reason to think I was leaving *him*." He sighed again. "I'm not making muc h sense. Haven't had any sleep; sorry."

"Time to remedy that, then." Joy stood and tugged on the hands she still held, pulling Levon to his feet. "Go on upstairs and get some rest. Everything else can wait until later."

"I need to call Jo e," he protested faintly. The thought of sleeping sounded much better than anything else, though. As he got to his feet he realized he'd be able to sleep outside again, every single night if he wanted.

"With the state you're in now, you're just end up angsting at each other. Get some rest, then phone. If he complains, blame it on me." She winked at him.

Levon laughed. "He won't fall for it -- he's been in charge of me long enough to know I coulda put my hoof down." A thought occurred t o him, and he said, "On the other hand, he knows how well I manipulate *him* into doing whatever I want."

"He's also met *me*," Joy said with no false modesty.

"Good point." He gave her a smile. "I'll be upstairs if anyone needs me." H e gave her a kiss on the cheek before heading out.

"I don't want to see you back down here until supper," she called out after him.

He turned and gave her a look -- but nodded and headed for the stairs. He met, and gave out hugs and kisse s to half a dozen more of his charges on his way. He knew he ought to take time to reassure everyone he hadn't met yet, let them all know they were welcomed, before heading upstairs.

He considered it for a few seconds, then decided he didn't want to run afoul of Joy. It would keep until supper, when everyone would be gathered here anyhow. In the meantime, he really was exhausted and there was a bed with his name on it upstairs. He managed to get through the small crowd of centaurs, and went up to find it.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

When Levon finally woke, the late afternoon sun was shining through his window, casting long shadows on the floor. He felt half-awake, his brain still foggy from the out-of-sync sleep. He saw the phone nearby, and realized he couldn't put this off.

Much as he wanted to. He scooted over, and picked up the phone. The phone was picked up at the other end before the first ring had completed. "Levon?"

"Joe. Oh, hell, you were worried about me, weren't you?" Since he'd told Joe he'd have been home hours ago, and would call....

"I was about five minutes away from phoning Joanne and getting her to put an APB out on you. You said you'd phone when you got there and that you were two hours away. By my reckoning that makes this call about four hours overdue." Joe was silent for a moment then continued in a softer tone. "I thought maybe you'd fallen asleep at the wheel and crashed or something."< p>

"I'm sorry. If I had thought, I would have called as soon as I got here. Joe, I..." Levon closed his eyes. And he wanted to follow this up by telling Joe about what he'd have to do here?

"I got here and went right to bed. Didn't even think of you worrying."

There was a brief silence. "You must've really been wasted," Joe finally said, sounding almost conciliatory.

"I shoulda called. I let Joy talk me into getting some sleep before tending to anything else." He wasn't about to play on being too tired to think of calling -- Joe would just worry more, for his having driven in such a condition.

"Joy, huh?" There was definitely an undercurrent of humor in Joe's voice.

"I think someone forgot to tell her I' m in charge now," he said softly, hoping it would only amuse Joe more, and not remind him of the reasons he had to be upset.

"Don't think it would've made a difference, cowboy. She used to order Taylor around too."

"I always thought it was because he let her. Now I'm not so sure."

Joe chuckled. "How are things going?"

"Not sure yet. Walked in, said hello to fourteen folks, and crashed upstairs. Everyone seems fine; Joy said there wasn't any pressing business--" He clamp ed his jaw shut. 'For a couple weeks', he'd been ready to add. "How's things going up there?" he asked instead. Joe wasn't likely to take the news any way but badly right now, he suspected.

He heard his husband sigh wearily. "I really blew it w ith Angie this morning."

"What happened?" For the moment, all thought of *his* problems vanished.

"I broached the subject of moving back home. To Houston. The idea did not go over well."

"She doesn't wanna leave home." Levon wasn 't surprised.

"No, she doesn't. I know how she feels, Levon, I do. To be told you have to leave the city where you've lived all your life..."

To leave your family behind, leave the only home you've ever known to live with strangers whose ways were not your own and who could barely understand you. Levon could understand, as well.

"Do you think she'll come around eventually?" He hated to ask, for what the question might lead to.

"I did," Joe pointed out. "Yeah, I think so. Ju st, with everything else she's been through in the last week..."

"Yeah. Probably better, then, that y'all are gonna be there for awhile. Let things calm down." Before they uprooted the children and created chaos again. "I wish y'all were here, though."

"So do I. Or that you were still here. I miss you."

"Is there anything I can do?"

"You're doing it. Just hearing your voice..." Joe trailed off as if embarrassed.

"Yeah, I know. I'm trying to ignore that I can sme ll dinner."

"When was the last time you ate?"

"Umm...."

"Don't tell me, fruit loops here before you left."

"I had some coffee and something that passed for soup in Tulsa."

"Uh huh. Bet your stomach's growling righ t now."

"I'd rather stay here with you."

"I would, too, but I don't want you passing out from hunger. And you probably have... herd stallion things to do."

Levon's jaw tightened. If he was going to tell him, now would be the time. "Joe...."

"Go eat, Levon. I'll call back 'round 11 okay? We can talk each other to sleep."

"OK." Perhaps it was just a reflex of obeying. Perhaps it was cowardice. Either way, he let Joe cut the conversation short.

"I love you ," Joe said softly.

"I love you, too." Levon felt his throat closing. "Joe--" He tried one more time. He heard the phone click as Joe hung up.

Damn.

He hung up slowly, and lay in bed for a long time. He didn't move until Carla knocked lightly on the door.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

It was almost time for dinner, and Angie had yet to make an appearance. After shutting herself in her bedroom, Joe had left her pretty much alone . He'd knocked, once, at lunchtime and she'd called out that she wasn't hungry.

Joe had seen no reason to force her to eat -- one missed meal wouldn't hurt, and she certainly had reason enough to need time alone. But by now, he figured, she'd be hungry, and if not, it was probably time she had some company anyway. He knocked on her door and called out, "Angie? You mind if I come in?"

There was silence, then a very quiet, "I guess not."

He opened the door and walked in. Angie was lying on her bed, staring out the window. She didn't look up or otherwise acknowledge Joe's presence. Joe pulled out the chair from her desk and sat down. "You're still mad at me, huh?"

She shrugged, and still didn't look over.

"Yeah, I thought so." He sat and watched her quietly for a moment, wondering what he could say to make this better.

Finally she glanced over her shoulder at him. "I don't want to move." Her tone brooked no nonsense.

"I know," Joe acknowledged.

She continued to frown at him. Then, when Joe said nothing to either convince her it would be ok, or suggest a compromise, she wilted. "We have to, though, don't we? Can we stay at least a little while? So I can spend the summer with my friends? "

"We won't be leaving for a while. There's stuff that's got to be figured out first. I can't promise you all summer though, hon."

This time she gave him a woeful expression. "Will there be anyone to play with? You and Uncle Levon don't have many neighbors...."

"There's kids around," Joe assured her, thinking of Judy, from whom they'd gotten the cats. She had several children. He just wasn't sure about the ages. "And you'll meet other kids in school too."

She seemed part ially mollified by the news. "And we'll still come back, right? To visit grandma and grandpa and I can see my friends then?"

"Of course." Joe got up and moved closer, sitting on the edge of her bed. "I'm not trying to make this harder on you, An gie. If there was a choice about staying in Chicago..."

"I don't want to move," she repeated, but her voice was soft, and almost defeated.

For a moment, Joe wondered if he should give Angie the option of changing her mind and staying with Teresa and Mike in Chicago. The thought of losing the kids now, though....

She scooted over, then, and crawled into his lap. "But I guess, if that's where you and Uncle Levon are, it's ok."

"You sure?" His arms went around her in a loose hug.

She nodded, snuggling deeper into his embrace.

He hugged her tighter. "I'm glad." He held her tightly for a few minutes -- then he heard a loud gurgling. Angie giggled. "Somebody is hungry," Joe observed, grinning down at her.

"Maybe a little," she admitted.

"Feel like coming downstairs for some supper?"

"Yeah. Can we have linguini?"

Joe's smile widened. "I think I can manage that. Can I get you to help me make it?"

"Yeah. I make a great sauce." Her grin faltered a little. "Mama taught me...."

Joe hugged her a little tighter. "You'll have to teach me all the family secret recipes, then."

She whispered back, "OK."

They sat as they were in silence for a moment and then Joe gently set Angie on her feet and stood up himself. "Come on," he said, holding out a hand to her. "I hear that linguini calling us."

She took his hand, nodding.

As they headed downstairs, she tugged at his hand and said in a sta ge whisper, "If Tony wants to help, don't let him hold any of the pots. He'll drop them."

"Just empty pots for Tony then," Joe whispered back with a wink. She smiled back.

They managed to all help prepare dinner -- Tony Jr. was given the task of tearing up lettuce for the salad, and buttering and garlicing the bread for toast.

Even with the extra garlic, the dinner turned out well.

After dinner, the three of them settled down in front of the TV and watched a movie. The m ovie wasn't something Joe would've normally watched, not being particularly fond of children's films, but somehow having Angie and Tony cuddled up to him while they watched made all the difference. All in all, it was a very relaxing evening.

There was only one thing missing.

Levon.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Dinner at the ranch was noisy, chaotic, and involved having a lot more food put on his plate than Levon wanted. He *didn't* want t o argue with Carla, however, so he ignored her as best as he could. Afterwards, he went outside, officially greeting those who hadn't yet a chance to talk to him and reassert their places in the herd.

It turned into a rather pleasant evening; Lev on found himself relaxing and enjoying being caught up with all the herd's news. The kids played in the pasture near the house, chasing one another and laughing. After a while, though, most of the herd moved on, leaving him alone.

He appreciated the solitude, but wasn't sure which of the two things he needed to do he wanted to do first.

Call Joe. Visit Taylor's gravesite.

He checked the time; it was still early enough that Joe would be busy with the kids. This would be a conver sation best held away from small ears. He sighed. Looked like he was going for a run.

He went to the barn and changed quickly; no one who saw him asked where he was going. He felt a thrill of freedom as he stepped out and headed towards the Nort h Fields. As he broke into a run, the missing weight on his back disturbed him. It always did when he ran without Joe. He'd gotten so used to having his lover with him that on the rare occasions when he wasn't it just didn't feel normal. It didn't feel right.

And for him it wasn't. Not anymore.

He knew there was nothing to be done about it, not today, and not for several days to come. As he ran through the pasture, living exactly what he'd found himself wanting once again the night Tony and Maria had died, he found it was everything he didn't really want. He wanted to be home, with Joe. With Angie and Tony, too, now -- but home.

'Be careful what you wish for,' he thought. 'You might get it.'

Taylor had been buried in one of the far fields; it had been a favorite spot, a place he'd gone when he needed some peace. Not that he had ever been able to get away from the responsibilities of being herd stallion, Levon realized, but when he went out to this particular field, a t least he had been allowed the illusion. Everyone knew to leave him alone unless it was a true crisis situation.

Or unless invited along, which happened a few rare times. It had to Levon just before he'd left the ranch. Taylor hadn't said much, j ust ran with him, side by side. It had been that day as much as anything else, which had cemented Levon's original decision to never challenge Taylor for the herd. He had a great deal of respect for Taylor, and had never felt his father was unable to ca re for his family.

Levon realized he would have to make equally sure of Stuart before allowing the boy to take over for him. If Stuart were not ready for the responsibility... Levon realized he might have to stay longer than he'd first thought ne cessary.

If, for some reason, Stuart was never able to take over....

He pushed the thought from his mind. It wasn't something he wanted to contemplate for too long. Instead he thought about the other reason he might have trouble simply go ing home once this was all over. That he *did* have to think about, as much as he might not want to.

Mating season. How in the hell was he going to tell Joe about this and not lose him?

It wasn't so much that he thought Joe would object t o Levon's having kids. It was, rather, the way in which he was going about it. As Levon came upon Taylor's grave, identifiable only by the freshly packed dirt, he realized that not telling Joe at the first was only compounding the problem. The longer h e waited, the harder and worse it would be -- but the harder it got and worse it threatened to be, the more Levon wanted to avoid telling him.

He stopped beside Taylor's grave, and looked down. While he didn't feel the same incredible grief a hum an did when they lost a parent, Levon did feel some sadness and regret. He would miss having Taylor to talk to, to come to for advice. He certainly could use some right now.

"Don't suppose you have any, anyhow?" he asked aloud. "I surely don't w ant to come to choosing between Joe and the herd... but if he has a problem with why I'm here, I'm afraid I might have to." And that was the crux of his hesitation. *If* Joe couldn't accept it, Levon would have to choose.

And either way he would lose. His only hope was that somehow Joe would understand and not force the choice.

He tried to imagine what Taylor would say, if he were here.

'Probably tell me to trust Joe enough to come out and tell him. Which is about all I can do an yhow.'

He glanced down at the grave, then looked up, at the surrounding field. It was nice and peaceful. The sort of place he'd come to, when he needed to be alone -- if he were here long enough to have the chance. In two weeks things would go a little... crazy... and he wouldn't be able to get away at all.

After that, well, hopefully after that he won't have to stay much longer, and he'd be able to go stand in his own field for peace. He sighed. Standing *here* wasn't solving any of his problems.

"I'll come back another time, Taylor. I--" He stopped, and realized there was one thing he had to say. "I hope I'm able to do you right, and take care of them properly. Whether it's two weeks or two months... or more. But I kno w you'll understand if I light outta here just as soon as I can."

There was no answer, of course, but Levon felt the better for just saying it. He could only hope that that would hold true when he talked to Joe.

He ran back towards the ho use, not sure if he wanted to go slowly and put it off, or at top speed and get it over with. The indecision kept him at a moderate pace, and the debate kept him distracted. Again no one bothered him as he approached the house.

He knew that woul d change once he let them know he had settled in -- and gotten this last detail taken care of. He was going to have to get used to all over again how little privacy there actually was in the herd, beyond the polite respect of ignoring what everyone knew.

He changed back, dressed and went inside. Then he headed upstairs to make the call. He had to tighten his hand into a fist as he picked up the phone, to keep it from shaking. He told himself sternly he was overreacting, and dialed.

It r ang a few times before it was answered. "LaFiamma," Joe's voice rang in his ear.

"Joe." Levon found it hard to speak.

It must've been audible in his voice because Joe's next words were, "What's wrong?"

"I'm sorry. Joe, I know I shoulda told you everything before I got here." He cut himself off, knowing it was useless and that he ought to just say it all, now that he was committed. He slid down, and sat on the floor, leaning up against the wall.

"Levon?" His husband's t one was worried, but also soothing. Loving. "Should've told me what, cowboy?"

"Joe... I didn't explain exactly *why* the herd needed me here so badly. I was afraid of how you'd react. But I can't lie to you about it, either. And not telling you 's the same as lying."

There was the sound of rustling on the other end and he could imagine Joe shifting in his seat to a more comfortable position. "I'm not going to like this am I?"

"I don't know," Levon replied honestly. "If you have a problem with it...."

"If I have a problem with whatever it is, we'll deal with it okay? We'll talk it out." He paused, then added, "There's nothing you can tell me that will change how I feel about you. You know that, right?"

"I know. I t's just...." Levon took a deep breath, and said all at once, "It's just that it's gonna be mating season in a couple weeks and Stuart ain't old enough."

Silence. A silence that stretched on and on, with Levon feeling worse with every second it c ontinued. Finally in a strangely calm tone, Joe asked, "Does that mean what I think it means?"

"Yeah." Levon was glad he was already sitting down.

"Oh." Just that, nothing more.

It took him a few tries, to ask, and then his voice was barely loud enough. "Joe?"

The voice that answered him wasn't much louder. "You're still coming back though, right?"

"If you still want me to."

"Of course, I still want you to!" Now Joe sounded angry, but only at the presumpti on that he wouldn't want Levon.

Levon found himself relaxing, and with the ease of tension he realized, "That was probably a stupid thing to ask. But--"

But he'd been scared. The thought of losing Joe made him a little crazy.

" You needed to hear it," Joe finished for him, calmer again. "I love you, Levon. I don't care what you have to do, I still want you back. Okay?"

"I'm sorry for not explaining it sooner."

"Explain it to me now. I need to know what's going to happen. What you're going to... do."

A bit of hysterical laughter grabbed at him, which he fought down. Explaining birds, bees, and centaurs to his husband wasn't anything he'd *ever* imagined doing.

He quickly sobered up, though, as he realized why he'd never imagined it. He took a deep breath. "In a couple weeks, some of the mares'll be going into heat. Usually about six or seven go in a season. Typically about half get pregnant."

"And you have to..." Joe's voice trailed of f.

"If I don't, the women'll get sick. Really sick." Never in Levon's lifetime had any mare in a herd gone through heat without the services of a stallion. He'd heard stories, though, and *everyone* knew how bad it could get.

Again ther e was silence on Joe's end. Then, "It-It's just something you have to do, right? Instinct. No feelings involved."

"Joe, I love my family as much as I ever did. It never has and never will affect how much I love you, how much I need to be with you ."

He heard a long sigh. "I needed to hear that," Joe said, his voice slightly husky. "Thanks."

"Joe, I love you. I wish you could be down here, with me." That reminded him, and he asked, "Any idea how long your aunt and uncle are gonna f ight this?"

"I don't know. They could drag this out for months."

Levon sighed. "Well, maybe I can turn the herd over to Stuart sooner than later, and come up to join you."

"After mating season." It was said quietly with no inflect ion. Almost too quietly.

"I'm sorry," he found himself saying again. "It'll be at least a month before I can come up. Joe, if there were any way I could--"

"I know. I just..." Joe sighed deeply. "I think maybe it's better that I'm not th ere after all."

Levon wrapped an arm around himself, wishing that Joe were here. If he could hold Joe, then maybe he'd feel better about doing this to him.

"I just don't know if I could handle being there when you were... And not get res entful." Joe's voice got softer. "And I don't want to do that to you."

"It's ok, Joe. I'm not sure I wouldn't feel badly, myself, if you were here. Too self-conscious; hell," he laughed, "I'm not sure I could mate with any of the mares if you we re here. I'd get turned on and go right for you each time."

Joe laughed as well, but it sounded slightly forced. "Can't have that, can we?"

"I think the herd would probably not appreciate it." Levon too, felt the lightness straining. Th e conversation was not going well, for all that they both seemed to accept what would have to happen.

"So...uh... this means you're going to have kids of your own, huh?"

"If... yeah, most likely." Levon wasn't sure how he felt about that -- every time he'd thought about mating season, he'd been too worried about Joe's reaction to think about his own.

"You'll make a good father."

Levon closed his eyes. "I won't be here to be a father. Stuart'll be raising 'em."

"A re you okay with that?" There was concern and worry in the question and a hint of something else underneath it. Fear.

"I don't know," Levon told him honestly. "I mean, I don't wanna stay here without you, and I don't see bringing them home to rai se. I guess I'll just have to get used to seeing them only every once in a while."

"That sucks, Levon."

"I don't know what else I can do, though. I--"

The impact of what he'd just said hit him, then. He'd have kids, and never be their father. What he knew of Stuart made him think the boy would be an excellent father, at least in years to come. But suddenly the thought of fathering children and leaving them behind -- possibly leaving before they were even born -- sounded unacce ptable. He had to fight from saying so out loud.

He didn't have to say it. Joe said it for him.

"You could stay." It was clear Joe'd tried to keep his voice neutral but there was a bleakness that seeped through nonetheless.

"Gods, Joe, I couldn't. I can't stand being here a *week* without you. I could never stay...."

But how in the world, could he leave?

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

The next few days seemed to pass in a h aze for Joe.

Ever since Levon had told him about mating season, Joe had not been able to shake the conviction that he was losing his partner. Oh, he had no doubt that Levon would keep his promise and come back. At least he'd be back physically. Bu t Joe wasn't so sure about emotionally.

Would Levon be able to leave his children -- his kids -- to be raised by others and not have it destroy him?

He'd worried about it nearly every spare moment he had. Those times when he *wasn't* wor rying about Levon, he was worrying about Angie and Tony Jr. He'd gotten to the point that he was looking forward to this afternoon, when Mike and Teresa came over to visit. Joe needed some time away from everyone.

The doorbell rang and Angie ran to answer it. Joe glanced at the clock and saw they were early. That was fine; they were welcome to as much time as they wanted with their grandkids -- as long as that time was visits only. He heard Teresa greeting Angie, and asking where Tony was.

Joe looked down at the boy who was still sitting beside him, making no move to get up and go greet his grandparents. "You gonna go say hi?" he prodded gently.

Tony looked up at Joe, then over towards the doorway, then went back to his playin g.

Great. Just what he needed -- they'd probably accuse him of turning Tony Jr. against them. Joe leaned his head against the back of the couch and closed his eyes.

However, Teresa didn't seem to mind -- at least she didn't say anything o ut loud when she came into the room and found Tony Jr. unimpressed by their arrival. Mike walked over, gave the boy a glance, then said "Joey? I need to talk to you."

Warily, Joe agreed. "We can go upstairs," he offered.

Mike nodded, an d led the way.

They settled in the bedroom that Joe had been using. "So what do you need to talk to me about?" He wasn't totally able to keep hostility out of his voice.

Mike faced him squarely, and said, "I've been thinking about Angie an d Tony. And of your having been given custody of them."

'Is this where you tell me I'm not good enough again?' Joe thought, but managed to keep from saying it aloud. Instead, all he said was a neutral, "Oh?"

"They've become very attached to you, in a short period of time." Mike's voice still gave little away.

"It's not like Levon and I were strangers. Tony'd been bringing his family to visit us three or four times a year."

Mike's face clouded slightly at Levon's name. "Y es. Well. I was thinking...Teresa and I are getting too old to raise two young children."

Joe's eyes narrowed as he looked at his uncle in suspicion, although he couldn't stop the flicker of hope. "You telling me you're not going to fight us for custody?"

"I'm offering you a deal."

Hearing those words from his uncle gave Joe a very bad feeling. "Your last deal got me exiled from Chicago for five years."

Mike narrowed his eyes at Joe, but said, "And this deal will bring yo u home. I'm offering not to fight you over custody of the children."

The flicker of hope grew stronger. But the suspicion remained. "And what do you want in return?"

"I think it would be best if you honoured the original terms of the will. For the children's sake."

Joe shook his head. "I'm not sure what you're getting at. That's what Levon and I have been trying to do."

"The *original* terms of the will," Mike repeated.

Original terms? The only thing, as far as Joe could see, that Tony and Maria had changed was adding Levon's name. He frowned. "You don't want Levon to officially be co-guardian?"

"I don't think it creates a proper environment for the children to be raised in," Mike said in what seemed like a neutral tone of voice. Joe knew better. Mike continued, "If you -- just you -- move back to Chicago, raise Angie and Tony Jr. here, Teresa and I will not contest the will."

For a moment all Joe could do was stare in disbelief. "You want me to l eave Levon?" He couldn't believe his uncle would ask him to do that, not when he knew how Joe felt about his partner.

"That's the deal." Mike shrugged. "Take it or leave it. And them."

Disbelief was rapidly giving way to anger. He wante d to scream at his uncle, curse him, tell him exactly what he could do with his offer and where he could stick it. But he couldn't. Not where Angie and Tony Jr. could possibly overhear. Instead Joe took a deep breath and said very quietly, very calmly, "I 'll see you in court."

Mike looked startled, then his face closed and Joe found himself facing the man most people knew as "Mr. LaFiamma, sir." "If that's the way you want it, Joey."

"It's not the way I want it, but it looks like it's the way it's gonna be." He clutched his hands into fists, to keep them from trembling in rage.

Mike just nodded, and walked past him, out of the room. As Joe turned to watch him leave, he caught sight of Angie ducking behind the door of the room acro ss the hallway. He closed his eyes and groaned inwardly; the last thing she needed to see was her relatives fighting over her.

He really didn't feel up to dealing with it, but he knew he couldn't leave it. So he went into the hallway and waited un til his uncle had disappeared back down the staircase. Then he said, "Angie."

She cracked the door open, and peered out. She glanced down the hall, then opened the door the rest of the way. "I didn't mean to listen," she began.

"How much did you hear?"

"A...a lot." Angie looked up at him. "That wasn't nice of grandpa, was it?" Her voice shook slightly.

Joe started to make excuses for Mike, not wanting to disillusion Angie about her grandfather, but the words stuck in hi s throat. "No," he finally answered with a sigh. "It wasn't."

She held out her arms, to him. "I don't wanna live here without Uncle Levon."

Joe knelt down, and pulled her close. "Even if it means moving to Houston?"

She nodded. " You and Uncle Levon *can't* break up. You love each other. I'd move to *California*, if it meant we could stay together."

Joe chuckled a little at the distaste with which she'd said that. "Even California, huh?"

She nodded earnestly. " Yeah. But Houston'd be OK."

Joe just hugged her in response.

After a moment, Angie said, "I'm sorry he said that."

"So am I." It was all he could think to say.

Later, the kids were more or less safely playing with the ir grandparents outside -- Angie was rather pointedly ignoring her grandfather, but Tony Jr. kept him distracted while Angie stayed with Teresa. Joe called Levon to tell him about Mike's "offer". "Hey cowboy," he said when Levon's voice came over the l ine. He found himself smiling at just the sound of it.

"Joe!" Levon sounded happy to hear from him. Much happier than he'd sounded last time they'd talked.

"You sound like things are going good down there."

"Been stuck babysitting the little ones." Levon sounded like being 'stuck' was the best thing to happen to him in a week.

"Thought you were in charge, so how do you get stuck doing anything?" Joe waited a beat and then answered his own question. "Don't tell me -- Joy, right?"

"Well, actually Danny asked. Boy looks *just* like Taylor -- didn't have the heart to say no."

"Softie."

"Like you've been any better than me?"

"Nah, I guess not." Joe smiled. "It's good to hear your voice."

"Good to hear yours, too. Joe...I'm glad you called."

Joe realized with a start it was the first time he'd been the one to phone, instead of vice versa. And there was a note in Levon's voice that told him his husband had been reading more into it than there really was. "Yeah, for once I beat you to the phone," he joked deliberately. "I keep telling you I'm going to phone but then you turn around and call me first."

There was a slight pause, then a chuckle. Joe was glad to hear it, even if it sounded a little bit forced. "How are the kids?" Levon asked.

"They're holding up." He took the opening to bring up the real reason he had called. "Uncle Mikey and Aunt Teresa visited them today."

"Oh?" Levon apparently had picked u p on his less-than-pleased tone of voice.

"Uncle Mike wanted to talk."

"What about?"

"Making a deal." He knew he most be driving Levon crazy by not just telling him everything all at once but Joe couldn't seem to bring himself to start talking about it. It was far easier to just answer Levon's questions.

"A deal? What for?" Levon sounded patient enough to ask them.

"For the kids."

"What'd they want?" Levon asked in a tone that said he would give them nothi ng.

"Uncle Mike said they'd drop their custody bid, if I moved back to Chicago." He paused. "Alone."

There was silence.

"Levon?"

"He's got a lot of damn gall," Levon finally said. Joe heard the outrage in his voice, carefu lly controlled.

"He's got a lot of something all right," Joe agreed, feeling his own anger rekindle.

"What did he say, when you told him 'no'?" Levon stumbled over the word, as if realising Joe might not have *said* no.

"Not much. Just walked out." He sighed. "I think my refusal to go along with his great plan burned some bridges though." And even after everything, that hurt. He'd had a lot of time to get used to his uncle's opinion of his life, but there had always been, he reali sed now, the hope that he'd come around someday.

"I'm sorry, Joe. I wish...is there anything I can do?"

"You're doing it. Just having somewhere I can get this off my chest is a big help."

"Well, rant away, love," Levon said quietl y.

He opened his mouth to do just that and found himself instead saying, "I love you."

That elicited a laugh.

"What?" Joe smiled.

"You don't normally rant about that."

"And I'm not now. I just needed to say it."

"Glad to hear it," Levon replied, sounding cheerful. "You wanna rant for real, or lemme tell you how much I miss sleeping with you?" His cheer faded into wistfullness.

"I miss you too," Joe replied softly, closing his eyes. "It's hard to get to sleep without you beside me."

"Yeah. Even sleeping outside ain't worth sleeping without you."

"Has the...thing...started yet?"

"No." Levon's voice lost all of its longing, as well as cheer. "At least another week," he cla rified.

'Damn,' Joe thought. He hadn't meant to bring back the awkwardness between them. "I'm okay with it," he told Levon, trying to put things back the way they were. Even if he wasn't sure if he *was* okay with it, he was sure that he would be . Eventually. What other choice did he have after all?

"You don't have to keep telling me, Joe." The resigned tone told him that Levon knew he wasn't OK with it, but, as they had for the last few days, neither knew anything to do to make it more acceptable.

"Don't I?"

"Not unless you're still trying to convince yourself."

There wasn't much Joe could say to that. "I'm *trying*." Even he was surprised at the raw pleading that was in his voice.

There was another silen ce, then Levon said in a pained voice, "I *know*. Joe, don't you think if I could make this better for you, I would? If I could tell them 'no' and head back to Chicago I'd be on the next flight out. But I can't *change* any of this. Not unless you wan t me to go let Alexander out." He heard Levon take a long breath, then he asked in a quieter voice, "Does the idea of me having kids hurt you so much?"

He thought about it. Was that the thing the was really bothering him? Surprisingly, it wasn't t he act inherent in getting the kids, that he was sure of. He thought about a bunch of little centaurs that looked like Levon and when he had to fight the urge to smile realized that wasn't it either. "No," he replied honestly. "I kinda like the idea of a lot of little Levons running around."

"Then what *is* it? Do you know?" Levon asked, with more patience.

It took long painful moments for Joe to finally bring himself to tell Levon of his fears. "I'm afraid they'll make you change your mi nd about giving up the herd. Or, if you do give it up, that you'll end up resenting me for making you leave them behind."

There was a brief silence, as Levon absorbed what Joe had said. Then, "Joe...all I can tell you is I love you more than *any thing*. I know you're afraid that'll change. But I can't prove it won't, except by loving you. I don't know what else I can do."

"It's enough," Joe replied softly. It had to be.

The rest of the conversation was casual, and short. Final ly they were saying their goodbyes, interspersed with a half a dozen more 'I love you's.

Joe laughed suddenly. "I feel like I'm back in high school, trying to hang up on my first girl friend."

"See you tomorrow in class?" Levon offered.

"I'll even share my notes with you." Joe grinned.

His husband laughed, then, "Goodbye, Joe. I'll talk to you tomorrow." Then he hung up.

The next morning Joe went to the front door to answer the bell. A delivery boy was standing there with a dozen long-stemmed, red roses. The note said, "Wanna wear my letterman's jacket?"

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Levon hung up the phone after verifying with the florist that his order would b e delivered promptly. Then he dialed another Chicago-area number.

He was sitting in Taylor's -- his -- office, after trying to help five one-year-olds eat their cereal without making a total mess. His decision to sit at the kids' end of the tabl e had amused the rest of the herd, although only half of them had remarked upon it. The elder half -- everyone over the age of 10. He'd actually enjoyed it, although he was glad he didn't share his partner's taste for clothes that were dry clean only.

The kids had had a blast, and that had been the most important thing. Attention from the herd stallion was special -- Levon remembered, from being a kid himself. The herd might be large, with any number of grownups willing to spend time with you - - but there was only *one* herd stallion.

That hadn't prevented him from getting cereal on his shirt.

Somebody finally picked up the phone on the other end and a female voice said, "Hello?"

"I'd like to talk to Hensen. It's Le von." The simple act of leaving off his last name let the mare know everything she needed to know. He no longer carried his father's name in herd business.

"Just a moment," she said politely.

A moment later Hensen's voice came on the line. "Levon?"

"Hensen. I was wondering if you could do something for Joe?"

"As long as it doesn't compromise the herd in any way. I still owe the two of you for what happened last time you were in Chicago."

"It shouldn't. Though I don't know if there is anything you *can* do. But I'm not exactly free to come up and help him, myself." Levon quickly explained the situation, including his newly-won herd, and therefore his inability to leave Texas, ending with Joe's newest threat f rom his Uncle. "The man's trying to take our kids away from us and I can't get a hand on him," Levon concluded. "I don't know that you'd want to get involved...."

"I'll be honest with you, Levon. Normally I wouldn't. But, as I said, I owe you two ." Hensen was quiet for a moment, obviously thinking. "What you need, then, is some way to get LaFiamma to back off. That I might be able to help with."

"That'd be all we'd need," Levon told him, relieved. He hadn't expected Hensen to really *car e* that Levon was unable to take care of his family. But he'd been unable to think of anything else to do to get Mike under control. He'd considered calling Carl -- he would have helped, willingly enough. But there was little Carl would have been able to do.

"I keep records on all the...organizations...we've had to do business with. I'm sure I can put together quite an incriminating little package of information."

"What do you reckon on doing with it?" He wasn't sure Joe would apprecia te getting his uncle arrested, just to counter his challenge.

"Figured on sending it to you -- or perhaps Joe, you said he's up here right now? -- and letting you use it as you seem fit. Used right, it should be all the leverage you need."

He thought over the options, quickly. "Send it to me, if you would. I ain't so sure Joe'd use it against his own uncle. Man raised him, after his dad died. This way, I can simply call Mike and explain to him the risk he'll be taking, challenging us f or the kids."

He could almost hear Hensen's grin in response. "Will do. And if that doesn't get him to back down, let me know. Maybe I can come up with something else."

"I will. Thanks, Hensen. I appreciate this."

"No problem. O h, and Levon? Good luck with the herd. You're a good choice."

"Thanks." Levon wasn't sure the other stallion's approval meant anything to him. Now that they were on even footing -- and Hensen was committed to helping, at least this much -- Levon was free to admit to himself that the stallion was an arrogant bastard. He did take good care of his herd, though, Levon had to admit, and was conscientious about paying his debts. That was a good thing, since it meant he was going to help with this situ ation.

When he hung up with Hensen, Levon felt the weight on his back finally lifting. Not completely, but for the first time he felt in control of the situation. Mike would be dealt with, and Joe and the kids would come home.

Everything else would take care of itself, in time.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Levon was out near the nursery, when Joy found him.

"Morning, Joy," he smiled at her. He'd always been fond of the elder mar e, but found her to be especially a treasure, now. He wasn't sure he'd have been able to do this if she hadn't been here to help ease the way.

"Good morning," she replied with a smile of her own. She moved to stand beside him, her own gaze follow ing his, to watching the youngest members of the herd at play. "You've been spending a lot of your time out here," she noted.

"Yeah. Not sure I could tell you why. Ain't just... thinking about my own, though that's part of it. I just...." Levo n shrugged, and looked over at her. "I find it makes more sense, when I'm out here. These little ones, they make me feel like I'm really in charge. They remind me of what I'm responsible for." He grinned. "Don't reckon that makes much sense?"

J oy looked back at him with approval. "It makes a lot of sense. Taylor used to come out here for the same reason."

He laughed. "So that's why he was always here, watching us. I figured it was to keep us from getting into more trouble than our mam as could keep us out of."

"Well, there is that fringe benefit," Joy agreed with a smile.

Levon turned back to the kids, watching as two older foals tried to help a younger get his legs moving into a near-run. They were holding him up so h e wouldn't fall when he tripped, and encouraging him with "Frontleft, backright! No, at the same time!"

As he watched, a thought occurred to him, one which had begun slinking around the back of his brain for the last few days. Three days ago, his husband had finally admitted what bothered him about Levon's participation in the mating, and since then they'd managed to honestly come to some acceptance of it. But it had gotten Levon to thinking about other aspects of his duties. Like handing the he rd over to Stuart.

"Joy? I wanna talk to you, privately?" he asked.

Catching his serious demeanor, she nodded. "Of course."

Levon gave Deanne, the mare in charge of the nursery this afternoon, a farewell nod before moving off. Jo y followed at his side, and they headed away from the populated areas of the herd's land.

"Been thinking about Stuart," he began.

"What about him?"

He thought about how best to voice his concerns, how to explain to Joy how he *felt * about giving up his responsibilities, his herd. "Trying to decide how I'm gonna know when he's ready," he finally said. "Ain't like I can go spend a few days with him, see how he's turning out."

"I've never heard of a stallion that could put up with another looking over his shoulder," Joy agreed.

"I thought about asking Maggie, or maybe when Joe gets home he could...."

"I'm not sure if Joe would know what to look for. He's adapted incredibly well to the herd and centaur etiquett e, but he is, after all, human."

"Yeah, but I trust his judgement. I could tell a lot, from what he'd be able to say." But Joy had a point. Joe *wouldn't* know what, or how, to look for everything Levon would need to know. He sighed. "I just c an't figure out how to be sure."

Joy stopped and looked at him seriously. "Levon, no one is ever sure how a new head stallion is going to react, whether they will be able to handle the job. You can make your best guess but you can't be *sure*."

"Yeah, but normally you don't have a choice. In this case, *I* do. I can hand over the herd, or hold off until-- well, in theory until he challenges me." Levon gave her a grin. "Joe'd kill me if I did, though."

She grinned back. "That wo uld be all we need -- a human as head stallion by right of combat."

That made Levon chuckle. "He did all right by me...eventually. Most of the time." Levon considered what he was saying. "OK, he'd probably make a poor herd stallion." He knew it a fair assessment, if only because Joe would go nuts after the first day, from trying to keep everything straight. An advantage of relying on instinct, Levon realised.

And that answered his question. If he knew Stuart was ready, he'd know. I f he didn't know it...then, he wasn't.

"I see you've figured it out."

He nodded. "Yeah. Thanks, Joy."

She reached out and laid a hand on his shoulder. "That's what I'm here for."

"That and to make sure they," he nodded at the four older kids coming at top speed over a low rise, "don't overtake me when I take off for the spring? It's getting embarrassing how often I lose a race nowadays."

"Sorry. You're on your own there."

"Thanks for nothing," he replied, then he sidestepped away from her, so the kids wouldn't have to dodge her, then turned and began to run as they drew near. They shouted happily, and the race was on.

Levon spent the next few hours racing and just horsing around (no pun intended) with the kids. That's what he was doing when Marta caught up with him to say that a priority mail package from Chicago had just arrived for him.

He didn't ask whom it was from; he told the kids he'd catch them later, and headed back to the house a t top speed.

He found the package in his office, sitting on the desk. It was a large envelope from a PO Box with the name H. Barton above it. He sat down and tore open the envelope. Inside was a veritable treasure trove of information that any o rganized crime police unit would kill to get a hold of. There were files with names, times, dates, photos, some audio tapes, and even a couple of video tapes.

He spent the rest of the afternoon reading through everything. Committed to memory, t he information would come in very handy, not only now, but to keep Mike in line for a very long time to come. He considered the power he held in his hands to destroy Michael LaFiamma's life.

All he needed was *one* piece of cooperation. And tha t was all he would go for. He picked up the phone, and dialed.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Joe was on the phone with his lawyer, discussing what the custody case was going to entail, when the doorbell r ang.

"I'll get it," Angie, who had been watching television with her brother, called out and ran to the door. Joe heard Uncle Mike greet her, and was dismayed to hear Angie's rather rude reply. "Oh. Grandpa," was all she said, before coming back into the living room.

He gave her a *look*, then turned his attention to his uncle. Telling his lawyer he'd have to phone him back later, Joe hung up then stood. "Uncle Mike," he said warily.

"Joe." Mike seemed angry. In fact, Joe reali sed, he looked positively infuriated. "We need to talk."

Joe nodded. Glancing at the kids, both of who were staring at them in open curiosity, he gestured towards the staircase. "Upstairs." To Tony and Angie he said, "You two stay put down here, understand?"

Tony nodded, turning back to the television. Angie sighed, and nodded. Satisfied they were going to obey, Joe led his uncle upstairs to his bedroom again, sure that this discussion wasn't going to be any more pleasant than the last one.

And he wasn't wrong.

"Joey...how could you?" Mike demanded.

"How could I what?"

Mike glared at him. "How could you do *this*? I thought we were family!"

Joe stifled the urge to roll his eyes, but thought, 'You're planning on taking me to court for the kids, but we're family. Right.' He still didn't know what his uncle was talking about and said as much.

"You're telling me you don't know what that 'partner' of yours said to me?" Mike obviously fou nd the claim unbelievable.

Levon? Joe blinked, wondering what Levon could have said to get Uncle Mike so riled. "Yeah, I guess that's what I'm telling you. Since it's the truth."

Mike glowered for a minute. "Perhaps...perhaps I should hav e known." His anger seemed to fade, then.

In its wake all he looked was defeated. *What* had Levon told him?

Suddenly, Mike looked uncomfortable. "I suppose, then, if you don't know.... Joey, I'm going to drop our contest of the will. You may keep Tony's kids."

For a long moment all he could do was stare at his uncle open mouthed. Hardly daring to believe it. "That's it? It's over just like that?"

The glare he got in return told him there was much more to it. "Just like that, Joey. I'd appreciate it if you told your partner. I don't care to speak with him again."

'Wonder if he feels that way about me, too,' Joe thought idly as he watched the other man walk back down the hall toward the stairs. Surprisingly , the thought didn't hurt as much as he might have expected.

Mike stopped, and turned, looking back over his shoulder. "I imagine I've ruined any chance of you allowing us to see our grandchildren...?"

Joe shook his head. "You can see the m whenever you want. Or we can set up some kind of visitation schedule." He paused before continuing, with heartfelt honesty, "I never intended to keep them from you. You were very important to me when I was growing up and I won't deprive them of having t hat, just because you don't..." Another pause, this time to swallow a lump that had suddenly formed in his throat. "...don't consider me one of the family any more."

Maybe it did hurt as much as he expected, after all.

"Joey...." Mike cam e back, a couple steps, then stopped. "A lot is between us, Joey. I don't approve of this partner of yours. I certainly don't approve of the things he does," he added with a murderous scowl. "But you're still my nephew. You'll always be part of the fa mily."

He was surprised at how much it meant to hear those words from this man. "Thank you for that."

Mike nodded. "I'll go, now. If...Teresa would like the kids over for dinner, tonight. If that's ok with you."

The diffidence m ade Joe uneasy. What *had* Levon said to him? "That's fine. You want to take them with you now? I can pick them up, say, around 8:30 tonight?"

Mike seemed to relax, finally. "Sounds fine to me, Joey." He turned, then, and headed down the stair s.

Joe followed, to let the kids know about the evening's plans, and to see them all out of the door. That accomplished, he headed back into the living room.

There was a phone call he had to make.

Carla answered the phone and so unded completely unsurprised to hear Joe's voice. "I need to talk to Levon," he told her.

"So he said," Carla replied. "Hang on."

A moment later, Levon's somewhat sheepish voice came on the line. "Joe?"

"What did you say to Uncl e Mike?"

"Figured he'd have talked to you by now."

"Oh yeah. He came over here in a rage, wanting to know how I could do whatever it was you did. Then he said he wasn't going to contest me having custody. What the hell did you say to him? "

"He did? Good. He hung up on me before I could get an answer out of him. I told him to lay off, or I'd send certain pieces of information to the Chicago police," he finished quickly, as if hearing Joe's temper running short.

Joe froze . "What pieces of information?"

"Stuff I got from Hensen. Names, dates, numbers. You know." Levon's voice was subdued, now, as if he understood the gravity of what he was describing.

Joe groaned, understanding now the hurt look of betra yal he'd seen in Mike's eyes. "No wonder he was so pissed at me...."

Levon didn't respond.

It took a few seconds for the silence to register with Joe. "Levon?" he asked softly.

"I'm sorry. I knew he'd be mad, but I never told him you knew anything about it."

"Don't apologize. You only did what you had to do. I mean it's not like he wasn't planning on playing dirty to get the kids."

"It was the best way I could think of, to protect our kids," Levon replied, sounded reassured, but continued explaining.

"You're probably right," Joe admitted, with a sigh. "I can't think of anything else that would've gotten him to back off so completely so fast."

"You don't mind?" Levon asked, half-teasing, half still s erious.

"The truth? I probably would've told you not to do it if you had asked me beforehand, but I can't argue with the results."

"Figured. That was why I didn't tell you about it, before." There was a short pause, then, "Other than bei ng pissed at me, how's he taking it? Did he make any threats?"

Joe shook his head, even though he knew Levon couldn't see him. "Nothing other than stating he doesn't want to see you again, and I don't think that can be considered a threat. He's m ore worried about us not letting him see the kids, I think. And he didn't disown me, which might mean some hope for future relations." He paused. "Though I think he's always going to hate you now, cowboy. You certainly have a way with people."

"He shouldn't have pushed me," came the angry response.

"Yeah. He didn't know what he was getting into, challenging a head stallion," Joe half-teased.

"Knew that'd come in handy," Levon joked back.

Suddenly serious, Joe said, "Thanks ."

His mate sounded surprised when he said, "You're welcome. Hey, this means y'all should be coming back down to Houston now. That is, soon?" The hope in Levon's voice was clear.

"Yeah." He couldn't stop the grin or keep the happiness at that thought out of his voice. "Maybe within the week if we're lucky. Don't want to rush the kids too much, especially Angie. I want to give her time to say good-bye to her friends and all that."

"Yeah. Don't need to push them. But...I miss you . Want to see you, again. Before--"

Before mating season started. Joe swallowed. "When...?"

"Soon as you can?"

"That close, huh?"

"Probably less'n a week. I know you can't get moved down here that fast...but maybe you co uld come down for a couple days, before moving?" Joe could hear the need, in Levon's voice. Hell, he could *feel* it, himself.

He couldn't bring himself to deny it. "I...I'll try and work something out."

"Don't...if it don't work out, i t's all right," Levon offered.

"I said I'll work something out and I will, okay?" He moderated the sharpness that had suddenly come into his voice. "I miss you, too."

"OK. Lemme know before you come down? I wanna make sure the kids know they can't eat anything you bring 'em."

Joe grinned again. "You spoil all my fun."

"Not *all* your fun, I hope."

The words seemed to go straight to Joe's groin and he shivered. "Give me two days and I'll be on a plane."

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

It had been nearly three hours since Levon had sent Marta to Houston International airport to pick up Joe. He was trying not to pace, or worry, or be anxious at all.

From the lo oks Carla kept sending, he figured he wasn't succeeding.

"Haven't seen you this skittish since you were a colt," she said conversationally.

"Blame me?" he asked her. He didn't particularly want to talk about being nervous, but at least ta lking about *anything* was better than simply obsessing, and being nervous.

Carla shook her head, smiling. "It's sweet, actually."

"Sweet? Great."

Her trilling laughter ran in his ears then, just before she stepped closer and laid a hand on his shoulder. "That isn't an insult, you know."

He gave her a grin. "I know. Just ain't used to anybody calling us 'sweet'. Being given disapproving or confused looks would feel more normal."

"This isn't the human world," she reminded him gently.

"Believe me, I know." Levon found, in his short time back, that there were so many things he'd never realised he'd missed. Simply staying in his four-legged form so often that his feet hadn't hurt in days was enough to make him consider moving Joe and family out here.

Not that it was something he could consider seriously, not if he wanted them to keep their jobs. The commute was too long. Still, the thought had crossed his mind....

His thoughts were broken off by a shout in the distance, signaling Marta's return with Joe. He ran for the crest of the first hill in front of the house. He'd told himself over and over he was *not* going to meet Joe at the highway. But he couldn't simply stand here and wait, either.

He saw as he came up, the kids gathered, waiting to race the truck in. He couldn't join them. He was head stallion after all, and had to maintain at least some dignity. But even as the words ran through Levon's head, his hooves were carr ying him over to join the kids.

They were ready to race the truck when it appeared. They giggled, and Shensen reached up to take his hand. Levon gave the boy a smile, then the truck came into view. The kids braced themselves...and the truck sto pped. Levon saw Joe getting out.

He let go Shensen's hand and moved carefully through the disappointed group of kids. Then he was flying, at top speed, across the short distance to his lover. He came to an abrupt stop, then Joe was in his arms, hugging him back just as tightly. Half a minute later Joe pulled back, but only far enough to be able to drag Levon's head down for a kiss.

He dimly heard Marta's laughter before the truck moved past them. The kids cheered and Levon guessed they 'd begun their race. He paid them little attention, though, as Joe held him.

Joe let go of Levon's mouth and grinned at him. "Hey, cowboy."

"Hey. Wanna ride?" He could hardly believe how the words stuck in his throat. Apparently he'd r esigned himself to spending *weeks* without seeing Joe. The unexpected boon of having him here, now, was overwhelming. He leaned down and kissed Joe again, before his mate could answer. "You wanna head to the house and make my brain stop working?"

"Too many people at the house. How 'bout somewhere more private? Like where we spent our honeymoon?" Joe leered at him.

"Actually ain't too difficult to get the house cleared..." Levon hesitated, and realised the source of his hesitation to s imply say 'yes'. "I don't wanna be that far away, in case they need me," he said, wondering how Joe would take that.

His husband looked at him for a moment, then nodded. "So how fast can you clear the house?"

"Gimme three seconds."

"I'll time you." He stole one more kiss before moving out of Levon's arms and swinging up astride.

As it turned out, he didn't have to clear the house. When they arrived, Carla was shooing the last of the fillies outside, telling her not to com e back until dinnertime. Levon gave Carla a smile, determined not to say a word to Joe about the fact that the entire herd had been waiting eagerly for Joe to arrive, if only to calm their herd stallion down -- or at least exhaust him so he'd stop fidget ing.

Carla smiled back, and with a cheery "Hi Joe, bye Joe," followed the others outside.

Leaving them alone.

Levon stopped, one hoof on the front step. "You want me to carry you inside? Not sure I can make it up to the bedroom b ut I can get us close." He couldn't resist teasing Joe; he could barely resist shouting for sheer joy.

"I think I can walk from here, thanks." Even so, it was several more moments before he slid off Levon's back.

Levon reached back and to ok his hand, and held onto it when Joe finally did get down. He held on tightly as he changed, then as he walked backwards, across the porch pulling Joe along behind him.

He found he didn't want to take his eyes off Joe for a moment.

Jo e followed willingly, his own eyes raking over Levon's form from head to toe and back again, his heated gaze enough to cause Levon to move quickly. By the time they hit the stairs Levon could feel his rational thought vanishing happily. He moved faster.

Joe chuckled, but showed no signs of wanting to slow down, matching Levon's pace until they had reached the bedroom. Levon managed to get the door open, but then stopped and grabbed Joe for another kiss before making it inside.

Somehow t hey managed to make it to the bed without breaking off the kiss. Then Joe was squirming in his arms and it took a moment for Levon to figure out that he was trying to get out of his clothes, while still kissing. Levon tried to help, reaching for the edge s of Joe's shirt and tugging. He only managed to get it untucked, but it let him touch skin and he decided that was good enough. He rubbed his hands across Joe's stomach and listened to him groan.

Joe's hands faltered, then left his clothing to w rap around Levon's shoulders instead, as the kiss grew even deeper. Levon held him close, feeling the urgency to not let him go, to never let him go. He grabbed Joe tighter, trying to drag him farther in than physics would allow. His lover seemed to be in complete agreement, his hands drifting down Levon's back to cup his buttocks and pull him even closer.

He wondered briefly where his hands were, what they were doing. All he felt was Joe: skin, heat, power, hunger, threatening to wrap around him and choke him if he didn't move, didn't keep pushing them both closer and closer together. He heard a whimper, felt a moan.

Suddenly the world tilted and he found himself flat on his back on the bed with Joe on top of him, his weight pushing him down further into the mattress. He welcomed it; clutching at Joe, Levon tried to hold him still, conversely at odds with his need for motion, for the touches his body was screaming for. He bent one knee, placed his foot on the bed and pushed, raisin g himself up and against his lover.

Joe's weight slammed into his in response. He did it again.

And again.

They quickly established a rhythm, moving against each other fast and fierce. Somebody was moaning continuously and Levon couldn't catch his breath. There was no way this was going to last much longer.

He heard Joe shout, and his grip tightened as muscles tensed. Levon tried even more to hang on, wanting to come right with him, connecting with him in their release. Something touched him, and he opened his mouth to cry out. No sound came, breath still caught in his lungs. But it didn't matter, any more; the need for breath dimmed as he came.

Through it all, as his climax poured over and through him, he w as aware of only one thing: Joe was there with him.

For several long moments his awareness was focused on one thing -- trying to breathe once more. He thought vaguely that it would be easier without the weight on his chest, but he would not let g o of it.

"Levon?"

"Mmm?" He tried to nuzzle Joe, turning his head to find flesh to kiss.

Joe chuckled even as he shifted slightly, allowing Levon access to his throat. "Brain still turned off, I see."

Levon ignored the nois e, and kissed Joe. He returned it, then started to pull away. "Mmm?" Levon hung on tighter.

Another chuckle. "Easy, cowboy. I'm not going anywhere. I just want to finish getting undressed. Didn't get very far before we..."

But Levon didn 't let him go. Joe was trying to get off of him, and he wanted him right where he was. He did notice it was easier to breathe, suddenly, but still didn't let go.

"Levon..." The name was said in tones of fond exasperation.

"Yeah?"

"You need to let go for a minute."

"Why?" If he let go, he wouldn't be able to reach Joe's chin. He leant towards it to kiss him there.

Joe laughed again and reached for Levon's hands, pulling them away enough so that he could stand up.

As Joe moved away, Levon frowned, sitting up to follow. "Where're you going?" He tried to pull Joe back down onto the bed. A frightening thought occurred. "You don't have to leave?"

His husband leaned back over at that and gave him a brief kiss. "No, I'm not leaving. Not until tomorrow night. What I am doing is undressing. Okay?"

"Oh." Levon blinked. Now that his brain was slowly firing back up, he recalled Joe saying just that. He gave his lover a sheepish smile. "Sorry."

In response, Joe just kissed him again and stood back up, quickly getting out of the rest of his clothes. Levon watched, then held out his hand when Joe stepped towards him. He pulled his now-naked husband back onto the bed and back on top of h imself. A sigh of contentment reached his ears. "Much better," Joe murmured, snuggling closer.

Levon could only agree.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

They spent the hours until dinner like that, no t really talking or doing anything serious, just concentrating on being close and enjoying each other's presence. Neither was anxious to leave the bed, much less the room. Soon, however, the smell of dinner preparations from below began to remind them t here were other things that needed to be done.

"Suppose you gotta go put in an appearance at least huh? Being head stallion and all..." Joe made no move to let Levon up, however.

"I should," Levon conceded. But it felt so good, lying here in his husband's arms. It made all the problems and worries of the last several days fade away until they meant nothing.

Dinner could wait. Joe was leaving tomorrow -- holding him now, therefore, could not.

There was a knock at the door .

Joe raised an eyebrow. "Room service?"

"Who's there?" Levon called out, hoping it wasn't anything that would require his presence outside of these four walls. These two arms.

The door opened and Marta stuck her head in. "Not int errupting anything, am I?" she asked cheerfully.

Levon considered throwing a pillow at her, and settled for glaring. "You need something?" he asked.

"Just brought you two up some dinner." She moved further into the room and Levon caught sight of the covered tray she was carrying. "Joy and Carla figured you'd probably need the energy."

"Thanks." He wasn't sure he didn't suspect there was more to it -- given the way the herd *usually* kept a watchful eye on each of its members. Then again -- being brought dinner meant they wouldn't have to leave the room. He grinned, and took the tray from her.

"You're welcome. You can go back to whatever you were doing now." She winked then turned and left, pulling the door shut behind her.

Beside him, Levon heard Joe let out his breath. "I'm surprised she didn't ask if she could stay and watch."

"She probably knew I'd throw her tail outta here if she tried." He settled the tray on the bed, and half-rolled over to give Joe a kiss. "Least now maybe they'll all relax."

"I think they're more worried about you relaxing." Joe reached up and laid a hand against Levon's cheek as he spoke.

"I think I'm as relaxed as I can get, and still talk."

"So I do n't need to give you a brushing after we go for our evening ride?"

Levon felt his eyes glaze over. "Yes," he managed, as he tried to pull Joe closer to him for another kiss. He heard a clink of metal and ceramic, then Joe was pushing him back.

"I think maybe we better eat this before we end up wearing it," Joe teased, reaching out a steadying hand to the tray which had been teetering on the bed's edge.

"Sorry." Levon grinned. "You should know by now to be careful when you say t hings like that."

"Yeah, probably, but...I like watching what it does to you."

"I'm damn glad centaurs don't blush. I have a feeling I'd be red from head to hoof right now." He took a plate from Joe, and held it carefully -- wishing that balancing it wasn't keeping him from another kiss.

"Eat first, kiss later," Joe said, seemingly reading Levon's thoughts in that uncanny way he had sometimes.

"You're no fun... sometimes," he amended quickly. If he got himself kicked out of the room, the herd would *never* let him live it down.

That earned him a grin that faded when Joe looked down at his plate. "It had to be barbecue didn't it?"

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

After dinner, and an after-dinner snuggle, they headed down for a ride. They managed to avoid being stopped by anyone, though Carla had given them a cheerful wave and called out that the western field was clear tonight.

"I missed this," Joe said, sigh ing in contentment as Levon headed away from the house.

"I missed you," Levon returned. "Ever since I got here, I've been wanting you here. Almost had to tell the littlest kids I had an invisible friend, to explain why I kept turning to the side to say something when no one was there." He broke into a slow lope, running easily now that Joe was here.

"I know the feeling. I've gotten used to having you back me up; throws me off-balance when you're not there."

"Guess now we'll just know we can't spend more'n a few hours away from each other," Levon half-teased. Then he reached back with one hand, and felt for Joe's. Finding it, he gave it a hard squeeze. "How soon do you think y'all be able to move?"

"We've already got t he packing started. Probably the middle of next week. It might have been sooner but I promised Angie she could have her friends over for a going-away slumber party." Joe sobered. "It's tough to leave everything you know."

"Yeah. I don't wanna to rush her, or Tony. They can go back and visit, while it's still summer." The sun was sinking towards the horizon; they rode towards it, Levon not really looking at anything. He had the vista memorised, anyhow.

Joe chuckled. "Uncle Mike might' ve unintentionally done us a favor on that front." Levon listened as Joe told him of what Angie overheard and how she had reacted.

"Remind me to thank him," Levon said drily. Then it occurred to him that he probably ought to act like he didn't ha te the man, for Joe's sake. "Sorry."

"You're entitled to your feelings, Levon." He sighed. "It would be a lot easier if I could hate him too. But I can't."

"I don't want to...I dunno, rub your nose in it. I don't wanna make it any harder for you."

Joe's arms tightened around his waist and he felt a kiss dropped on his shoulder. "You're the reason why this is as easy as it is."

"How long has it been since I told you I loved you?" Levon came to a stop, and twisted back as far as he could.

"A couple of hours, I think."

"I love you," he said softly. The light was fading more quickly, now, and soon they'd have to head back. But right now, the sun's rays were highlighting Joe's face and all Levon could do was stare.

Joe reached up and traced Levon's lips lightly with a finger. "I love you too," he said just as softly. "More than anything. More than..." He shrugged and dropped his eyes. "I don't have the words."

"Then how about you tell me with a brush?" Levon said, trying very hard not to smile. As Joe grinned, and was about to laugh, he gave his husband a pleading look and added, "It's been ten *days*, Joe."

"What, you couldn't get one of your herd to do it?" Joe teased.

Levo n forced himself to smile, but the words to his reply stuck. In less than a week.... He cut those thoughts off, but not before they must have shown on his face.

Joe's smile quickly faded. "Sorry."

Levon turned back around from necessity -- his back was straining -- but what he really wanted was to hold his mate. He reached back and tugged at Joe's arm.

Joe quickly complied, sliding off Levon's back and moving around in front of him as Levon changed forms. "That was a stupid thin g to say," Joe muttered, as moved into Levon's embrace.

"It ain't that," Levon said, pressing his face against Joe's shoulder. "Joe, I'm scared," he whispered.

His husband's arms tightened around him. "About...?" Though from the tone Levo n guessed that Joe probably had a pretty good idea.

"What if I mess this up? I've got forty women and kids looking to me to take care of them. I...what if I make a mistake? What if-- Joe, what if I hand the herd over to Stuart and he ain't rea dy?" Levon looked up at his husband. "What if I think I have to stay longer, to be sure he's ready?"

"First of all, you're not going to mess this up." Joe's eyes burned into his. "If you make a mistake -- which you might, nobody's perfect -- you 'll fix it. You can't tell me Taylor never made a mistake. I don't believe for a second that you'd hand the herd over to Stuart if you weren't 110% sure he was ready. And if he isn't, and you have to stay here longer...." Joe took a deep breath and sighed . "We'll deal, okay? It'll be a lot easier once I'm back in Houston."

Levon wanted to believe what Joe was saying, wanted to hope that it would be so easy, to simply correct whatever he did wrong. But he was afraid he wouldn't know he'd made a mi stake until damage had been done. That realisation suddenly explained why his husband had fought so fiercely against the power Levon had had to give him. He looked away and asked, "What if it's a year?"

"Then it's a year. And the kids and I will just have to get in the habit of weekend trips."

Levon grabbed onto Joe tightly. He hated the thought of seeing his family so rarely...but if it meant sparing the *rest* of his family the protection and rule of someone who could not handle it, h e would have to. He suddenly hated the fate that had brought him here, forcing him to accept the responsibility that cut his heart in two.

Joe continued, "Hey, I know you're scared. I'd be more worried if you weren't. But from what I can see, you 're doing a great job. I understand what it's like to be caught between family responsibility and the life you want. We'll work it out somehow though, okay? It might not be perfect, but we'll manage." He gave Levon a shake. "I'm not letting you go."

< p> "I ain't gonna *let* you let me go," Levon countered, feeling a little better. But it didn't change how he felt inside, and didn't change how much he desperately did not want to let go.

Stuart was only fifteen. Stallions rarely took a herd be fore they turned nineteen. How could their marriage possibly survive three years apart? But what if they had to?

And what if they couldn't?

Levon grabbed Joe harder, then, and buried his face on Joe's shoulder. Doubts and tears he hadn' t felt since he arrived, suddenly broke free. Joe held him as he cried, murmuring soothing words in both English and Italian as well as gently stroking Levon's hair.

It was half-dark before Levon pulled his head up, and tried to wipe his face dr y. "Damn...I needed that." His voice was shaking, slightly.

"Did it help?" Joe reached up and helped to brush away the last of the tears.

He nodded. "Didn't solve a thing. But it helped."

"Things *will* work out, Levon," his hu sband told him again. Then he smiled suggestively. "And I bet I know what else will help."

"What?" Levon frowned slightly.

Joe gave him a rather lecherous grin. "I believed somebody mentioned a brushing...?"

The look on his lover 's face made him smile, more so than did the thought of a brushing. He nodded. "It might be a short one -- its dark enough that we'll have to walk back and the herd'll be down for the night soon."

"I can work fast."

Levon placed his hand s on either side of Joe's face, and kissed him tenderly. "How about you work real slow...once we get back to the house?"

"I can do that, too." Suddenly serious, he reached up and covered Levon's hands with his own. "Anything you want Levon. Anyth ing you need."

"Thank you."

"I love you."

"Love you, too." Levon kissed him, again, and held him until the dusk's breeze reminded him they still had somewhere to go.

"Come on," he said, stepping back and changing. He hel d Joe's hand while he leapt onto Levon's back. "Let's get going."

"You're driving," Joe pointed out.

"Wanted to make sure you were hanging on," he replied, not quite feeling up to the teasing.

He felt hands tighten around his wais t. "Told you, cowboy. I'm not letting go."

He didn't answer. Instead he simply began walking, cautiously in the growing darkness, back towards the house.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

They spent t he rest of the night, and the entire next day, together. Most of the time was spent alone, together, though they spent part of the morning playing with the kids. Levon had a smile on his face again by that time, but Joe could still see the worry in his eyes.

He did what he could ease it, or at the very least to distract Levon from it, but it never totally disappeared from Levon's gaze. He knew that it wouldn't; this was something that ultimately Levon would have to deal with himself. It wasn't s omething Joe could fix.

But all too soon evening drew near. Joe hated leaving, and from the way Levon stayed at his side and reached out for him every few minutes, he knew his husband was feeling the same. Somehow, leaving this time was even har der than it had been to part ways the first time.

He tried to console himself with the fact that it wouldn't be for long, that by the end of next week he'd be back in Houston with the kids. It wasn't helping, though. Maybe it was because he knew that even though he'd be back at home, Levon would still be here.

And they'd both be alone.

They managed to say goodbye, simply and quickly -- a hug and a kiss and an 'I love you'. Then Joe had climbed into the truck and Marta had started off. The kids had raced them out, shouting and waving in much subdued manner. He even thought he heard one girl call out, 'Don't go'.

Resolutely he didn't look back.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

< p> Trying to get everything ready to move was a hassle. Calling for a truck, arranging for most of Tony and Maria's furniture to be stored, packing the rest without feeling like he was invading their privacy.... It was a hassle.

On the other han d, Teresa came over each day to help. She helped the kids pack their toys and clothes, made huge lunches, and continually reassured them all they would see each other often, Christmas and birthdays and summer. He was grateful for the help and told her s o. In some ways it felt good to have her there, still in his life, even if there remained an awkwardness between them that he wasn't sure would ever fade.

She also offered to stay the night for Angie's slumber party, to provide extra parental supe rvision. Though he had some misgivings, he accepted. The idea of trying to cope with a housefull of ten year old girls, alone, was not one he wanted to entertain if he didn't have to. Besides, it gave Teresa one more day with grandchildren she was used to seeing every week, if not more.

She came over early that day and helped them clean. Joe wondered why she was bothering, with everything in boxes, but when he tried to mention it she'd merely shushed him. He'd grinned and replied, "Yes m'am, " and for a moment it was like he was a kid himself again.

Angie was bouncing all over the house, unable to sit still or even light for more than a few seconds at a time. Tony was wandering the boxes, playing fort, or some such thing. Joe couldn 't make sense out of the snatched bits he overheard from the boy. Soon, though, Tony went to hide in his room -- girls had started to arrive.

He squelched the urge to join the boy.

Luckily he had to do little, at first, other than maintai n an adult presence. The girls were gathered in the living room, talking all at once. Joe stayed in the kitchen with Teresa, helping her make pizzas. He'd suggested ordering them, since all Maria's kitchen stuff was packed. Teresa had brought over he r own pans.

"Guess I should've known better, huh?" he said as he was put to work grating cheese.

"I wouldn't feed those girls 'pizza' from some restaurant. Who knows what they'll make? I can do it myself just fine." She spoken in Engli sh and Italian as they worked, reminding him of meals she'd made and restaurants which had failed utterly to meet her standards.

On impulse, he leaned over and kissed her cheek. "You should've opened your own restaurant, Aunt Teresa."

"Oh, no. I would have been working all the time and never home with my children--" She fell silent.

Both of whom were beyond her reach now. Tony was dead and Vinnie banished. And himself, the child she'd all but adopted? Well, according to her faith and beliefs he was lost, too. Joe wished there was a way to convince her he wasn't.

She resolutely went back to preparing the food. "Did you get sodas for the girls? Normally I wouldn't approve, but they'll be up all night anyway, and it's a sp ecial night." She sounded a little sad as she spoke. Joe couldn't blame her, but allowed her to avoid speaking of it.

"Yeah I got them. And some ice cream sandwiches as well." He answered the question, ignoring the undercurrent as best he could.

"Good. Angie loves those -- sometimes in summer it's hard to get her to eat *food* she'd so much rather have them." It sounded like last minute advice, passed on before the child was out of her raising, out of her reach.

"You'll have to surprise her with some when you come visit," Joe responded, trying for casual. Trying to let her know once again that she wasn't going to be cut out of the kids' lives.

She smiled warmly, though she looked surprised at the offer. "Perhaps I will ," she allowed. "Now, you better go make sure none of the girls has any allergies before we put these pizzas in to cook." She gave him a nudge towards the living room, from which could be heard loud laughter.

"Yes, m'am." He headed for the kitch en door, trying to ignore the twinge of apprehension in his stomach. It was just a roomful of preadolescent girls after all. Not a serial killer. He should be able to handle this.

There were nine girls in the room -- or so he assumed, since that w as how many Angie had invited. The room was overflowing with giggling, bouncing, and questions once he stepped into the room. Angie pushed her way to his side and grabbed his arm.

"This is my Uncle Joey! Uncle Joey, this is Callie, Christine, D ori, Helen, Alice, Maria, Stephie, and Trudi." She pointed out each girl as she introduced them.

"Hi," he said, wondering if he really was expected to remember all the names. And wishing he had Levon's memory so he could do so.

"Are we go nna eat soon?" Angie asked.

"Pizza's about to go in the oven. Your Grandmother wanted to check and make sure no one had any allergies...?"

All the girls shook their heads. One of them said, "I'm allergic to science homework!" and that sta rted them giggling again.

Joe heard one girl whisper to Angie, "I thought you had two uncles?"

Angie nodded her head. "I do. Uncle Levon had to go back to Houston early, though."

"You're really moving to *Houston*? *Texas*?" anoth er girl asked. Joe was fairly sure it was Alice, but didn't want to risk calling her by the name.

"That's what I told you wasn't it?" Angie looked up at her uncle. "Tell her Uncle Joe. They don't believe me." Obviously irked.

"It's true," Joe confirmed.

"Texas?" One girl repeated, incredulously. "That's like...way down by Mexico!"

"Aren't they all cowboys and oilmen down there?"

"Don't they talk funny?"

"Isn't everything really big, and it's all flat lan d with just dirt?"

The questions would have made Joe laugh, had he not had much the same stereotypical illusions about the place when he'd first moved there.

"I guess they do talk a little funny," Angie admitted. "But you get used to it. A nd it's not *that* different. And I guess it is pretty flat and there's lots of open fields around where I'll be living, but that's a good thing. 'Cause Uncle Levon has a horse and he lets me ride her!"

That got the attention of all the girls, who 'ooed' and 'ahed' jealously. The distraction allowed Joe to make his escape, to tell Aunt Teresa she could go ahead with the pizzas. She gave him a questioning look when he reentered the kitchen. "No allergies," he said, still faintly bemused at the gi rls' reactions to what Angie was telling them.

Teresa nodded, and put the final touches on the pizza, along with a heavy hand of cheese on each. While Joe put them in the oven, she went and got a bottle of wine, then poured two glasses. She went to the kitchen table and sat down out of sight of the girls, but where they could overhear any loud disturbances. She gestured him over, and Joe went willingly enough.

Once seated, however, she didn't immediately say anything. She toyed with he r glass, and sipped from it. Finally she looked at him. "Joey...what do you know about raising kids?" The question wasn't asked offensively.

Because of that he answered honestly, without being defensive. "Probably about as much as any new parent ."

She nodded. "Normally you have a couple years to get used to it, before they start...." She smiled. "You know. Children can be more difficult than babies. Babies take more time, but children take more attention."

"We're going to do our best to give them all the attention they need, I promise you, Aunt Teresa. I love those kids." He paused then added, "We both do."

She looked down at her wineglass. "Yes, I suppose you would have to, to agree to take them. We love them too, Joey. As much as you do and we've seen them almost every day of their lives. I'm so used to having them over the weekend, having everyone over for dinner." Her voice faltered as she said, "And now there won't be any family in Chicago, anymore. Just Mi ke and I, all alone."

Joe reached across the table and touched her hand, unable to be unaffected by her pain, even after all that had happened between them. "I'm sorry. If there had been some way Levon and I could have relocated to Chicago...but t hat isn't possible."

"They don't need cops in Chicago?" she asked, the bitterness finally leaking into her tone.

"There's...complications...especially since Levon's father's died. He's sort of become the patriarch by default." Joe was pic king his words carefully, trying to get the main points across without giving away any secrets.

"And they need him down there?"

"Yeah. Badly. That's the only reason he left before things were settled up here. Because he had no choice."

"Oh. Then they need him more than my grandchildren need their family?" She nodded to herself, saying the words as if accepting Joe's claim, though it was obvious what her statement was designed to do.

"Levon and I are their family," Joe repli ed, tone short. "Just as much as you and Uncle Mikey are."

But she shook her head. "Joey, I don't want to argue. I just want what's best for those two children. They've lost everything, their parents, and you're making them lose their home, now , as well. Their friends, their school. You think you and your partner can replace those things?"

"Yes, I do. And at least we won't cut them off from what family they have left." Joe's own pain was clear in the words.

"You wouldn't have to, if you stayed here. You could live here, or move closer to Mike and I and we would help you raise them. You know we would, I'd love to have them. I could watch them when you had to work late; I know as a cop you have such a bad schedule sometimes."

This time her malice was covered over with her pain. She desperately wanted to keep what was left of her family near her, Joe realised. And if Levon was not what he was, they might even had been able to reach a compromise and move up here. But the way things were, even if there weren't the animosity between his aunt and uncle and his husband, it was impossible. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

"Does he mean so much, that you can't move here and let me keep my family together?" she asked, for lornly.

"Would you be able to leave Uncle Mike and move to Houston to keep the family together?" He shook his head. "That's what you're asking me to do. I'm every bit as committed to Levon as you are to Uncle Mike. And if Levon were a woman you wo uldn't even dare ask that of me."

She frowned. "I don't see how, Joey. If you were married, really married, of course I wouldn't ask you. Marriage is sacred before the eyes of God. What you're doing...it isn't marriage, Joey. No matter how mu ch you think you love him."

Joe felt his temper fraying but held onto it by sheer willpower. "'Think' I love him? I don't think I love Levon, I know I do. Maybe we can't get married legally, but we're married every other way, all the important way s. We even had a wedding at Levon's ranch, almost two years ago now. Tony and Maria and the kids were there."

At that she stared at him, jaw dropped open. "You...you never said.... They never told us. Not even the kids, they would have mentione d something like *that*"

"Ask them. Or ask Rosa -- she was there too."

"Mama Rosa was...?" Suddenly she looked defeated.

"You're going to take them, then, aren't you? Take them to Texas, your and your 'partner'."

"Me an d my husband," Joe corrected, emphasizing the relationship. "Yes. It was what Tony and Maria wanted."

She waved her hand, towards the other room. "I'd like to be alone, for a bit. Please."

Sighing, Joe got up and left, feeling rather def eated himself. He had hoped, that maybe.... But it didn't look like there was ever going to be any middle ground with his aunt, that they were going to be at loggerheads for the rest of their lives.

On the other hand, maybe once the shock of losi ng her son and daughter-in-law eased, she would be able to open her eyes and see that she still had family, if only she would allow it. Joe by-passed the living room, still full of happy voices. He hoped their conversation hadn't been overheard, but fro m the volume level of the girls' conversation, he rather doubted it had.

That was good, Angie didn't need to hear her Grandmother and Uncle arguing; it had been bad enough when she'd overheard Joe arguing with Mike. Suddenly weary, he headed upst airs to check on Tony Jr.

He found Tony in his room, playing with Benny, and a stuffed bear. As he watched, Benny stomped his way over to the bear, and roared. Grinning, Joe moved forward, taking up the bear and moving it back towards Benny. "Gr r," he said.

Startled, Tony grinned. Then Benny attacked back, roaring once more, and waving its front paws at the bear. Joe had the bear growl again, leaning into Benny's face intimidatingly as it did so.

Tony giggled, then made Benny l eap into the air and land on the bear's head, knocking him over. Before Joe could retaliate, Tony dropped the stuffed animal and scuttled into Joe's lap.

"I think Benny won," Joe said conversationally.

Tony just nodded. "Benny was madder at Bear."

Sensing there might be more to this than just play Joe asked, "What was Benny mad about?"

Tony frowned, and turned in Joe's lap until he was facing the discarded animals. He didn't answer, at first. Then, without warning, he k icked the dragon.

Startled, Joe's arms tightened around the boy. "Tony...?"

"Stupid dragon," Tony said, kicking at it again.

"Why is he stupid?" Joe asked, all the time wondering if logic might be the wrong approach to take here.

"'Cause he's stupid," Tony answered. He kicked again, this time landing a foot squarely on the dragon's head. Benny flew backwards from the force of it, and out of reach.

Joe had a sudden flashback to his own childhood, and the temper t antrums he had been prone to after his father had died. Suddenly Tony Jr's behavior was making much more sense. "You need to hit something?" he asked the boy, as he reached behind him and grabbed a pillow. "Here, you can hit this."

Balling a fist, Tony did just that. Over and over again, he struck the pillow until Joe saw his face was getting flushed. That was when he moved in and wrapped his arms around the boy again. "It's okay," he murmured, even as Tony Jr. stopped struggling and went limp a gainst him. "It's okay to be mad."

Tony didn't say anything for a while. Joe heard him sniffling a couple times, but he never really began to cry. Then Tony jutted out his lip. "Stupid Benny doesn't *have* a mama and daddy."

"You do, th ough. Just because they're not here anymore, they're still your mother and father. And they still love you."

"They do?" Tony looked at him, surprised.

Joe's heart nearly broke at the look in the boy's eyes. "Of course they do. Did you thin k they'd stopped?"

"Well, Mama always tells me when she tucks me in at night. She hasn't since she went away." Tony looked worried.

"I bet she has," Joe told him. "You just can't see or hear her anymore. But I bet if you closed your eyes and remembered her voice and her face, you'd be able to feel her. That's what my mama told me to do when my daddy died."

Tony's eyes grew wide as he absorbed what Joe was telling him. Then he closed his eyes with his face screwed up tight. "I d on't hear her," he said after a moment.

"Think back to the night before you all left for Houston. You get in bed and your mama comes in...."

Tony sat silently a few moments more. Suddenly his face changed, losing all its anger. It was re placed with wonder. "I can see her!" He bounced in Joe's lap. "I can!"

"Told ya, kiddo." Inwardly he breathed a sigh of relief. If this hadn't worked....

"And she can tell me good night, every night?"

"All you have to do is clo se your eyes and remember."

The boy nodded, and closed his eyes once more.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Two days later they were packing the last of the stuff they were taking with them in the t ruck Joe had rented. Joe found himself caught between conflicting emotions; he wanted to leave as soon as possible, the prospect of seeing Levon at the end of the trip inspiring him to even greater speed. On the other hand, he wanted to take this as slow as possible, to give Angie and Tony as much time to say good-bye to their old home as they needed.

The kids seemed torn as well, alternating between asking excited questions about Houston, and running up to their grandparents for one more hug. Mi ke and Teresa had come to see them off. Carl Barton had shown up also, to help Joe load the van. Joe saw Levon's hand in that by way of Hensen. Not that he was complaining. He definitely could use the help.

"Thanks," he said as Barton handed him another box.

"It's no problem," Carl grinned. "Not when I've got two herd stallions telling me it'd be a Good Thing if I showed up... but honestly, I was glad to have the excuse to come down and see you."

"Yeah? You didn't need the excus e, you know. I owe you for looking after Levon last time."

Carl ducked his head. "He's a good person. It was awful to see him...well, like that. But I would have done it for any visiting stallion with a male human mate," Carl said with a compl etely straight face.

Joe's lips twitched. "Get many of those?"

"Of course! Why, you and Levon were our second in...132 years."

"I trust no one got blown up in the first case?"

"If they were, that part of it wasn't passed a long in the history." Carl paused in lifting another box, to look down at Tony, who had come to stand at his feet. "You must be Tony Jr."

The boy nodded, eyes wide.

"Tony, this is Carl Barton. He's a friend of your Uncle Levon and me."

"You're a--" he glanced over at his grandparents, then whispered, "A cen-aur?"

Carl grinned and nodded. "You know about us, huh?"

Tony nodded vigourously. "An I've ridden on Levon's back, and I met his whole herd." He leaned close r, and whispered more earnestly, "And I haven't tol' *anybody*! Not even Benny, my dragon."

"Glad to hear that. Wouldn't want too many dragons finding out about us after all." He winked at the boy.

Tony shook his head, seriously. "Sometim es Benny talks when he's not supposed to, so I didn't tell him."

"You think you'll be able to train him out of that?" Joe asked, dropping a hand onto the boy's shoulder.

"I'm gonna try," Tony replied. "If we're living with Unca Levon, I'm probably gonna have a *lot* I can't tell anyone else, and I'd like to be able to tell Benny."

Joe looked down into his eyes, serious for a moment. "You know you can always talk to me about anything, right?"

Tony nodded. Carl gave Joe a s mile, then crouched down beside Tony. "You know, dragons are pretty easy to train. You just gotta give 'em a chance. They're like horses that way -- not as smart as the rest of us, but real eager to please."

"'kay," Tony said. Then he looked up at Joe. "We're getting some horses?"

"Uhm..." Joe blinked. "We'll have to discuss it with Levon when we all get home. Okay? Why don't you go check and make sure we haven't left anything upstairs, OK?" Joe asked, seeing the boy start to fidget.

"OK." He ran off towards the house.

Joe watched him go then smiled self-consciously at Barton. "He's a good kid."

"Yeah, I can see that." Carl was looking after him, with an expression Joe suddenly recognised. He'd seen it on Lev on's face.

"So has Hensen designated a successor? Or however it is you do that?"

Carl shook his head. "He doesn't 'designate'. Someday, someone's just gonna have to--" He stopped, with a glance towards Angie who was helping her grandmoth er nearby move smaller items to the truck.

"Challenge?" Joe asked, as he watched Barton watch Angie.

Carl nodded. "Probably soon, now, too. Hensen's nearly 58, and I'm--" He stopped again, and shrugged. "If I decide I'm interested, I'm not getting any younger, either."

"You're not any older than Levon."

"Yeah, but that sort of fight is easier if you're younger. Levon's lucky. If I don't wait long enough, Hensen might still be strong enough to kill me. If I wait too l ong, I might not be strong enough to kill him."

Joe felt his insides tighten. "Does it have to be to the death?"

Carl nodded.

"I guess I have problems understanding that. I mean you're blood, family." Joe shook his head. "Forget it, I know it's a centaur thing and I'm human so I can't be expected to understand."

But Carl just smiled. "That's OK, Joe. I don't expect you to understand. I was raised to think it was normal; you weren't."

That pretty much summed up the whole centaur experience. Though, all in all, he didn't think he was doing too bad. He'd come to redefine his notion of normal until now it almost matched up with the centaur definition. "Well, if it does come to that and you do Challenge, I'll be r ooting for you. From what I've seen, you'd probably make a great head stallion."

"Thanks, Joe," Carl said with a surprised smile. "That means a lot to me."

'Maybe they should've asked Carl to come down and take over the herd,' Joe though t suddenly, selfishly. 'Then I'd still have Levon.'

He figured the herd had rather had someone they knew, than an unknown. Joy had talked to him about it once in a slightly different context, but Joe had gathered that each herd was territorial in ways more than simply their land. It explained why Rustin's herd had only tried to seek a new herd stallion from among those who had once been part of their herd, instead of looking to any of the dozens Joe supposed must be out there in the whole of the United States.

He didn't understand it, of course. Biologically speaking it made more sense to *him* that they'd want the outside genes. That, however, reminded him why Levon was down there in the first place and he shoved the thought aside. H umorlessly, he smiled at himself. He'd managed his whole life to stay away from politics, both on the job and in the Family. Figures he'd end up caught up in the centaur equivalent.

"Uncle Joe?" Angie interrupted.

Shaking himself free from his musings he turned his attention to the girl. "Yeah, Angie?"

Her eyes were glowing. When she said, "Tony said we were getting more horses," Joe felt a groan of dread.

"I said we'd discuss it," he clarified but he already knew he'd los t the battle.

Her hopeful expression faltered a bit, then she said, "But I already know how to take care of Fooler. And we really *need* another horse. Tony and I can't both ride Fooler, and you're always on Uncle Levon."

Joe tried to s top himself from blushing, telling himself firmly that she did not mean it like *that*. "We'll talk about it when we get there okay? Maybe...just maybe," he held up a hand to forestall any comment, "the herd will have a horse or two that we can get. No pr omises though, okay?"

The way her face lit up, he knew he was in trouble. The herd had *better* have a horse they could take.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

When the truck was loaded, Carl took o ff with a final request that Joe let Levon know how helpful he'd been. He'd been grinning as he'd said it, but Joe suspected it was still said in seriousness. It was weird to think about Levon being in that sort of position of power. Weirder still to e nvision him wielding it. It was something he tried not to think about too much.

Leaving the kids with their grandparents, Joe went back inside the house to phone his husband and let him know they were about to leave.

"How far you gonna be driving today?" was the first question. Joe foresaw half a dozen more like it: worried, 'drive safely' questions.

"Don't know for sure. Until the kids get tired probably. We don't need to push quite as hard as we did on the way up."

"Good . Don't want you driving all the way down, like some folks," Levon said lightly.

Joe grinned. "Just goes to prove who has the horsesense in this marriage."

Levon laughed.

The comment reminded Joe of the little 'horse problem' the y had, with the kids and he asked, "There any horses at the ranch looking for a good home?" he asked, making his voice sound light.

"Excuse me?" Apparently he'd taken his partner completely by surprise.

"Angie and Tony have been asking abo ut getting some horses."

"They have? What for? Huh -- I guess Fooler ain't gonna be enough for both of 'em, though, will she? I'm surprised they're asking, already, though."

Joe squirmed, if only mentally. "Well, Carl and I were talking with Tony and the conversation sort of led the kid to the subject."

"And he got the idea that he and Angie needed more horses?" Levon asked, sounding highly amused.

"Guess so. Angie sees it as one of the advantages to moving to Texas."

"Well, lucky for us both, we've several horses ready to be sold. I can pick out one for Angie...though we might let her have Fooler, and pick out a older mount for Tony. It'll be a couple years before he could handle much horse on his own. You wa nt her when y'all arrive, or you need a few days to settle in?"

Joe blinked. "Uhm... depends. I'll let you know when we get there." He grinned again suddenly. "Gives us an excuse to come out and visit, though doesn't it?"

"You don't need a n excuse," Levon said softly.

He felt a warmth spread through him at that. "I know. The fact that you're there is all the excuse I need."

"Yeah...you might wanna call before you come out," Levon added in a voice so quiet Joe could barely h ear.

"It's starting?" he asked, even as his stomach clenched. He didn't want to think about this.

"Not yet. Soon, though. By the time you get home.... I won't really know until the day of. That's why you should call first."

"Ok ay." He hesitated, then asked, "How long will it last? When it does start?"

There was a muffled laugh before Levon answered, "Don't know. Won't, until it starts, and ends. Usually no more'n a few days."

A few days. Maybe, if he was lucky , he wouldn't even know until it was over. Joe didn't know if he could handle thinking about it, imagining what Levon would be doing for those few days.

"Joe?"

"Yeah?"

"I gotta go."

There was an urgency in Levon's voice th at alarmed Joe. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing. I-- it's started. I'll talk to you later. I love you." The last words were spoken in a rush. And then Joe was left listening to a dial tone. Mechanically, he hung the phone up and headed for the door. He wasn't going to think about it, he wasn't....

But the images were already forming in his mind.

It was going to be a long drive.

He found Angie and Tony with their grandparents. Mike was crouching in front of them, talking to th em earnestly. He cut off suddenly when Joe walked up, then said, "This is it. Come here, gimme a hug." He pulled the kids towards him for an embrace. Teresa leant down and did likewise.

Joe hung back and watched them. There was no doubt that th ey loved the kids or that the kids loved them -- though Angie had continued to be a little cool to Mike. He couldn't blame her, though he intended on trying to reconcile them. It might take a while, but he didn't want Angie growing up harbouring those s orts of feelings about her grandfather.

Even if he deserved them.

Joe stepped forward to say his own good-byes, feeling the now familiar combination of love, sadness and awkwardness facing his aunt and uncle. Mike and Teresa each simply s aid goodbye, and drive safely, as they each gave him a hug.

Then Joe was herding the kids towards the truck. Angie paused at the truck door, glancing back over her shoulder at the house she'd lived in all her life. Joe didn't push, just stood and waited while she looked her fill. Finally she turned back with a small sigh and looked up, meeting his eyes. "I'm ready," she said with determination.

Joe smiled at her and reached out and squeezed her shoulder supportively. "Let's go, then."

They scrambled up, Tony getting a lift from Joe. He made sure they were both belted in, as well as Benny, who had been nearly and disastrously packed. As Joe backed down the drive, Angie and Tony began waving at their grandparents. Tony didn't stop until they reached the end of the street.

They were all quiet then, as Joe negotiated the city traffic and headed for the interstate. It wasn't until they were on it and Chicago had been left behind that Angie turned to him and in a somewhat forc ed-bright voice began, "Now, about those horses..."

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Three days later, Joe pulled the truck up into his own driveway. He hadn't realised how much he'd missed being home, or ho w thoroughly he'd been convinced it was going to be a long time before he'd be able to be here again. But now, most of the tension that he'd been unconsciously aware of, was gone.

Not all of it -- that would only happen when Levon was home as wel l -- but a lot of it. Enough that its absence left him feeling like he could collapse and sleep for a week, in his own bed. The thought brought a smile to his lips and a lightness to his heart that had been missing since he'd gotten the phone call about the plane crash.

Angie and Tony were out of the truck as soon as he put it in 'park', calling out and heading towards the corral. A minute later Angie came back, frowning. "Where's Fooler?"

"This time of day, probably out to pasture," Jo e replied, closing the truck door behind him. "Jesse's been taking care of her and the cats for us."

They both perked up at mention of the cats, and Joe was hard-pressed to get to the front door to unlock it ahead of them. The house, oddly, didn' t smell musty they way he'd expected it to. Maybe Jesse had taken time to let it air out when he'd come to feed Boots and Trouble. Whyever he'd done it, Joe appreciated it. For a moment he simply stood where he was, just relishing in the feeling of be ing back.

Then he became aware of being stared at.

He looked back at Boots and Trouble. As soon as they saw him looking, they each stood up, turned around, and sat back down. Angie giggled. "I think they're mad at you, Uncle Joe."

< p> "You think?"

"Why are they sitting wi' their backs to us? Don' they like you, Unca Joey?" Tony asked, coming in behind them.

"Yeah they like me. Otherwise they wouldn't be putting so much energy into ignoring me." He grinned. "They're just annoyed that we went away and left them."

"Oh." Tony nodded, then went up to the cats. He reached down to try to pet Trouble, but she moved away. Not too far -- she sat down again where Joe could see, clearly, that he was being ignored.

Joe chuckled. "They'll come around," he promised the boy. "They did this for a few days after we got them fixed, too."

"Uncle Joey?" Angie asked hesitantly, looking around the living room.

"Yeah, hon?"

"Which room am I gonna have?" She looked confused, which was understandable.

He blinked. There was only the one bedroom aside from his and Levon's. One bedroom and two children. What was fine for a two week vacation probably wasn't going to fly on a permanent basis. Whi ch meant... "Looks like we're going to have to add on a room for you. But in the meantime, would it be okay if you shared the guestroom with your brother?" She nodded, but didn't look too happy until Joe added, "You'll have to pick out paint or wallpape r for it."

She grinned. "Can I get roses? Like Grandma Rosa has?"

"Sure. We'll see what we can find okay?" And maybe while they were building, they could finally add on enough room for that hot tub that Joe had been wanting.

"OK. Can I get my bag off the truck?" she asked, eager now. Tony was ignoring them, still trying to pet Trouble. The annoyed cat kept moving out of reach, but never moving out of Joe's line of sight.

"Yeah. The sooner we unload, the sooner we can ge t settled in."

Just then he heard an engine pulling into the driveway. Surprised, Joe headed back out onto the porch to see who it was. He recognised Chicken's pickup pulling in beside the moving van. There were two other people in the truck wi th him.

It wasn't until the vehicle stopped and the doors opened that Joe realised they were Maggie and Esteban. He went outside to greet them. Chicken stopped beside the truck, looked at it, then shook his head. As Joe walked over Chicken said , "That's a big truck, LaFiamma. I hope it isn't completely full?"

"Nah, not quite. About half full. We left the furniture in storage back in Chicago." He heard the door open and close behind him and turned to gesture the kids over. They came ov er hesitantly, Tony staying behind his sister as they drew near. Angie smiled, though, at Maggie and Chicken before taking Joe's hand.

"You remember Chicken and Maggie?" he asked. Angie nodded shyly; Tony did the same after a moment's hesitation. "And this is Esteban. He works with Levon and me."

"You're a po'iceman?" Tony asked hesitantly.

Esteban smiled, and knelt down. "I am."

Tony regarded him for a moment, then held out his dragon. "This is Benny."

"Nice to meet you, Benny," Esteban said, reaching out to shake the dragon's paw.

Angie giggled.

"So, are you ready to get unloaded? Or do you need to make room in the house first?" Maggie asked.

"Let's unload," Joe said after a moment's th ought. "We can shove things around inside later if we have to."

"And there's always the barn, if we run out of room," Chicken added. "It's closer, too."

Joe saw Angie frown and quickly said, "Make sure you get all the kids' personal stuff in the house, though."

"How about you and Tony direct, then," Maggie suggested to Angie. "You can tell us where each box needs to be taken."

Angie immediately brightened. "Okay!" Without missing a beat she headed to the back of the truck and waited for someone to open the doors. As soon as the doors were opened, Tony climbed up as well, and they began giving out directions.

It didn't take long to get everything unloaded with so much help. Joe fell back onto the couch, in a room now full of stacked boxes. Esteban, Chicken, and Maggie were similarly flopped onto other pieces of furniture. The cats were sitting nearby, still pointedly ignoring Joe and seeming even more bent out of shape because of all the unauthorised boxes in t heir domain.

"So. Don't ever move again, Joe, OK?" Esteban finally said.

"Wasn't planning on it," he answered, eyes closed. "Like it here too much."

"Good. I don't want to carry any more boxes."

Chicken laughed. "Rememb er that when you're ready to leave that apartment of yours."

Maggie asked innocently, "Does this mean you won't help when the clinic moves into a bigger office later this year?"

Esteban just groaned and threw a pillow at her.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Levon sat down at his desk. It still felt like Taylor's desk, somehow, though everything else here had begun to feel like his. The land, the house, the herd. Everything felt right excep t the desk. Maybe he just needed to clean it out and rearrange things, or something. He didn't know, and right now he barely cared. He swung his legs up onto the desktop and picked up the phone. He dialed, then closed his eyes as it began to ring.

After the third ring, it was picked up and a weary voice said, "LaFiamma."

"Joe." He found himself scared, relieved, and encouraged, all at once, to hear his husband's voice.

"Levon!" Joe's tone immediately went from weary to warm and welcoming.

"You get home all right? Everything unloaded?" He focused on the easy things first, hoping they would be enough.

"Yep. Thanks for calling Chicken and the others and having them come help. I'd probably still be at it otherwise. "

"Welcome. I figured as much; I remember when we moved *you* into the house. Damn near took all weekend." It felt wonderful, hearing Joe's voice. He wondered if he could get away with keeping Joe on the line all night. Probably not, he reali sed. Joe would be exhausted from the drive and the unloading.

"That might have had something to do with the number of 'breaks' we took, cowboy." Levon could hear the smile in Joe's voice.

"Oh yeah." He grinned. "Reckon we coulda finishe d sooner. How're Angie and Tony? They settling in OK?"

"More or less. Angie's not thrilled with having to share a room, though. We're going to have to build an addition."

"Yeah, reckoned she wouldn't be. There's a contractor you can cal l, name of Conley. He's done work for me before; was gonna call him earlier but--" But he wasn't going to talk about why he'd been too busy.

Something in his voice must've given something away however because Joe was quiet for a few seconds then asked seriously, "Are you all right, Levon?"

He wanted to say 'yes' and get back to talking about the house. Or the move. Or anything. "I'm--" He didn't know how to explain it. "I'm tired," he finally said. He knew as soon as he said it Joe would probably take that the wrong way -- though he was tired for *that* reason, too. He rubbed a hand over his eyes.

There was another pause. "Do you need me to come out there?"

"No," he said sharply. Maybe too quickly, but the mating wasn't over and neither he nor Joe wanted Joe to be around to face it. "I am gonna come back for a day, after it's all over," he said more calmly.

"When is that going to be?" Joe asked worriedly. His concern for his husband was obvious.

" Couple more days or so." The funny part was, that part he didn't mind. Physically, at least, *he* needed two more days. It was probably all part of the season -- if he cared, he could probably ask Maggie for a medical explanation. All he knew was ever since he'd first caught scent of the mare in heat, half of his brain had been shut off and his entire body had been turned on. The half of his brain that hadn't shut down was aware of just how uncomfortable it was to be reacting on instinct, instead of acting, or even reasoning. He told himself that in a few weeks he was going to give Duke a call and see if his brother felt the same way about it all.

Joe's question interrupted his thoughts. "You going to be able to handle it?"

"Oh, I c an handle it." He grinned at himself, not entirely amused. He dropped his voice, in case there were any of his herd close enough to overhear. "I just don't want to be." He'd managed to keep them from knowing just how he felt about all of this. Being herd stallion was, in all other respects, something he wasn't convinced he wanted to give up.

He wouldn't, if it weren't for Joe. But this... it was *because* he was in love with Joe, that made this so difficult.

"What can I do to help? " Joe asked immediately. If he was still having his own misgivings about what Levon was having to do, he was disguising them well.

"I just needed to hear you." The conversation was already helping. He'd felt unable to talk to anyone, even Joy, a bout how he felt.

"Good, because I have a three day trip to tell you about. And we have to discuss what we're going to want in the addition. And we need to start making arrangements for the kids' horses. I have the feeling we could be on the ph one all night."

Levon grinned slowly. "You need to grab some coffee?" He settled back in his chair a little, happy at the prospect of staying on the phone. He had no intention of keeping Joe awake *all* night, but an hour or two would do them bo th a world of good.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Standing beside his truck, Levon made no move to go. "Are you sure?" he asked for the third time. Joy rolled her eyes.

"Do I have to knock you ou t and drive you there myself?" she asked exasperated. "Go. We will be *fine*."

Finally Levon nodded. "All right. And you'll call--"

"If something comes up we can't handle, I'll call. But it's not. Now *go*." She smiled at him. "Joe's wai ting."

Levon smiled, and jumped in his truck. He'd been anxious to leave for 24 hours, but had been obliged to wait, to make sure no more of the mares were going to go into heat. He hadn't tried to hide his impatience to be gone to visit Joe -- no one blamed him for missing his husband.

No wonder his last second hesitation had exasperated Joy. Truth to tell, it exasperated him as well. He badly wanted -- needed -- to spend some time with Joe, but he couldn't shake the feeling that he was abandoning his responsibilities by doing so. As long as he returned as soon as he could, he figured he'd be OK. They'd be OK. With this one trip home, and mating season over, he'd be better able to settle in to his position.

Besides which, Joe would now be able to come out and visit *him*.

As he drove out, he turned his thoughts away from the herd and towards other matters. He still had to call Conley, for one thing, and make sure the plans for the hot tub didn't show up on the papers he gave to Joe. And he had to pick out a couple of horses and had them taken to the house. He suspected that neither Joe nor he would get any peace until that was done.

The long drive felt longer, somehow, and he found himself speeding up severa l times. He wanted to get home. As much as he distracted himself with other thoughts, underneath it was that thought. He needed to be home.

It seemed to take forever, but finally he was stopping the truck in his driveway behind Joe's Cobra. Th ere standing on the porch were Joe and the kids. He was out of the truck and heading for them before the engine even died. The kids reached him first, and he scooped them up into his arms.

They hugged him back tightly, both of them babbling away about the trip down here and the addition that was going to be built and we missed you lots and by the way did Uncle Joe mention to you about the horses?

He laughed. "Yes, he mentioned the horses. I've got Sarah picking a couple out. We'll get 'em out here as soon as we can," he promised.

"YEA!" Angie and Tony both jumped up and down. As they let go of him, he stood and took a step towards Joe. His husband closed the remaining distance in a split second and pulled Levon into a fierce embrace. Levon didn't ever want to be let go of. Everything else could vanish, as long as he could remain right here.

But then someone was tugging at his arm and Joe pulled back, though he didn't fully let go.

"You've got to come inside , Uncle Levon," Angie was saying still tugging on his arm.

"I do?" Levon asked, vaguely amused. She was right, of course. There was something he needed to do, inside. Two things, actually, he corrected himself with a glance at Joe. The warm gl ow in Joe's eyes told him his husband shared that thought.

"Yeah, you do," Joe told him, sliding his fingers down Levon's arm and catching the hand that Angie hadn't commandeered. Tony moved in front of them, and lead them to the door. He opene d it with a flourish, as Angie tugged him into the house.

The living room was just the same as the last time he'd seen it, except that it had boxes piled along one far wall and a giant banner that read "Welcome Home Uncle Levon" hung over the far doorway.

"Do you like it?" Angie asked, fidgeting in her eagerness for his reaction.

"It's beautiful." He turned to her, and gave her, then Tony, a hug. "Thank you." It was wonderful, and he was grateful to be home. Inside, he began sh aking.

Joe seemed to sense something wasn't right. "Angie, Tony, why don't you go out and take care of Fooler? You're going to need the practice for your own horses."

Angie looked between her two uncles and nodded shrewdly. "Okay, Uncle Jo e. And we'll take our time too, make sure we do it right." She gave Levon one more hug, then took Tony and went outside.

Finally alone, Levon gave Joe a grin. "Don't suppose we fooled her, did we?" He wasn't sure he wasn't too tired to *do* anyt hing, however.

"She's a smart kid. And she saw your face." Joe reached out and cupped his cheek. "What's wrong?"

"Mind if I take a shower?"

Joe looked puzzled. "Of course not."

Levon headed for their bedroom, then, movin g quickly. He shed his hat and stopped to remove his boots. He needed a long, hot shower, though he couldn't explain just why. He'd showered that morning at the ranch. But he knew that before he could continue to hold Joe, he needed to get clean. So intent was he on doing so, that he didn't even notice that Joe had followed him until he touched his shoulder.

He jumped, startled. He continued shedding clothes, even as he turned to Joe. Joe asked again, "What's wrong?"

"I need a show er," he repeated, and headed for the bathroom. When he got there, he stepped right into the shower and turned on the water, ignoring the initial blast of cold water before it began to warm.

He looked up and saw Joe standing in the doorway, lookin g at him hesitantly. "Mind if I join you?"

He faltered, then. He managed to nod, but he found himself shaking. Joe quickly stripped and slipped in beside him, arms automatically going around Levon.

Levon tried to hold onto him, but it wa s too soon. He needed to get clean, first. He needed to do something he'd been unable to do his entire life: he needed to forget. Forget how it had felt these past few days, mindlessly servicing the women who'd needed him, being used for nothing more than the services of a stud, and then sent back to a husband who loved him -- and who hadn't wanted it to happen.

"What is it?" Joe asked, pulling back as he sensed Levon's agitation, but not letting go. Before Levon had a chance to even think of an answer, he asked, "What can I do to help?"

"I just need to get clean," he whispered. "Please...." He wasn't sure what he was asking for: to be left alone until he was through, or for support. He reached for the soap blindly through the spray of hot water on his face.

Joe took it from his fumbling hand. "Let me," he said softly, meeting Levon's eyes with all his love apparent in his own.

"I..." Levon put a hand on the shower wall, and let him.

He stood still as Joe w ashed him, his husband's movements soothing, almost reverent. After a moment he leaned back against Joe. Arms wrapped around him, his chest and stomach still soapy. He felt a kiss on his neck, and he sighed. "How can--"

"What?" The word was b reathed into his ear, as hands continued to caress him.

In a voice he could barely force out, he said, "How can you stand to touch me?"

The hands froze for a moment and the body behind him pulled back, but only far enough to turn him aroun d. Levon found himself looking into his lover's blue eyes as Joe answered. "I love you."

Levon felt himself shaking, again -- or was it still? -- and he shook his head. In a barely audible whisper he said, "Gods, Joe...I've never felt so used in my life." Then he moved forward, hoping...and Joe engulfed him in a hug.

"You did what you had to do," Joe said softly, arms tightening around him.

Levon didn't reply; he let his head fall onto Joe's shoulder and he stood there, letting the hot water run over his back. It felt good, it almost made him feel clean again.

For a long moment Joe just held him, then he gently pushed away again. "Need to finish your shower," he said with a soft grin, and he went back to running his han ds over Levon's body gently. He hadn't retrieved the soap, however. Levon shivered. It was taking more and more of his concentration to remain standing.

Then Joe's hands wandered below his waist. Suddenly, all of his concentration stopped carin g if Levon remained standing. He leaned forward and grabbed onto Joe, instead. Smiling, Joe leaned forward and kissed him tenderly, then pulled back and dropped to his knees in front of Levon.

Levon shoved his hands against the shower walls to e ither side of him, bracing himself as firmly and as quickly as he could before he fell. Falling was *definitely* one of the top ten available choices for what he could do next, along with screaming at the top of his lungs and hitting his skull on the sho wer nozzle.

He managed to groan, loudly.

Joe teased him for a long time, bringing him right to the edge before pulling back, again and again. All Levon could do was tremble, moan, and whimper, totally overwhelmed by what Joe was doing to h im. He felt the wall touching his back; the cold tile made him shiver even more. But he leant against it, trying to grab onto something, anything....

And then suddenly Joe wasn't teasing anymore and Levon felt himself being forced higher and hig her, knowing that this time Joe wasn't going to pull back. He felt himself crying out, though he could hear little over the rush in his ears. His throat began to throb, scraped raw all over again by the long shout. He hand slipped, hit something hard a nd cold and he pushed; then he heard himself call Joe's name, and it hit him.

When he came to, he was sitting on cold, wet tile at the bottom of the shower stall and Joe was crouching before him. "Levon?" he asked, reaching out to gently touch his face, worry in his eyes.

Levon smiled slowly. He reached up and hooked his hand behind Joe's neck, then drew him in and kissed him.

Joe responded wholeheartedly. He was grinning smugly when he pulled back. "Feel clean now?"

Le von ran his fingers under Joe's chin, touching him and realising suddenly that he felt free to do so, once again. He nodded. Joe leaned in for another kiss. When they finally broke it, Levon looked upward and got a faceful of water. "You reckon we sh ould get out while there's hot water left?"

"Might be a good idea." Joe held his hand out and hauled Levon to his feet and into his arms.

It took him a moment to gain his balance, then he leaned against Joe. Giving him a hug, he said, "T hank you."

"What I'm here for, cowboy."

After a moment he reached back and shut the water off. His throat was sore; that last scream had apparently been one too many. The reminder didn't hurt so much, though, now. He kept his hold on Jo e as they stepped out of the shower and searched for clean towels.

"How long can you stay?" Joe asked, as he handed Levon a towel, taking another for himself.

"Until tomorrow," Levon admitted reluctantly. It wasn't so much that the herd n eeded him home, but that *he*, herd stallion, needed to be home with his herd. Feelings about the mating season aside, everything else called to every instinct he had, saying he had to be *there*, tending to his herd.

Joe sighed. "I wish..."

"I know. I wish it, too. I just -- I can't, Joe." He wondered if he could explain this without Joe assuming it meant Levon didn't want to come home, for good. The moments of relaxation he'd felt were vanishing, quickly.

Another sigh. "I kn ow."

He took Joe's hand and tugged it gently as he headed out of the bathroom and towards the bed. Joe followed obediently, not resisting but not initiating anything else. Levon tugged and he followed. That was it.

Levon reached the bed - - one look at it reminded him how much he wanted to be asleep, curled around Joe. He sat down, pulling Joe towards him. Then he held his husband, his face pressed against Joe's stomach. Joe remained perfectly still for a moment, then one hand came up and entwined itself in his hair. "I love you, Joe," Levon whispered. "I don't wanna leave."

"But you have to." It was said with an air of defeat.

Levon heard the tone, and was afraid he understood it. He looked up at Joe. "If I thought for a moment that Stuart could handle the herd I'd call him right now and send him over." He wanted nothing more than to do so -- but he couldn't. Not until he *knew*.

"But you don't. And you don't know when you will." Joe pulled away, moving to the other side of the bed. "I don't know, Levon. I guess I'm just afraid that the longer you stay out there the greater the chance becomes that you'll never come back."

"I have to come back," he said, unthinking. But he looked over at Joe. "T his is my home. This is where my family is. Just because my responsibility is out there," he nodded in the direction of the herd's land. "Doesn't change how much I would rather be here."

Some of tension seemed to leave Joe's body at that, and h e reached out a hand towards Levon. "I miss you, too," he said with the bare hint of a smile.

"I just need to figure out a way to know when I can trust Stuart with the herd." Levon turned a bit, sitting sideways on the bed, still wishing he could lie down and ignore his problems.

Joe moved closer to him. "Too bad you can't just give him a probation period or something."

Levon stared at him. "A probation period?" It was, he realised as the details of such a notion exploded in his mind, one of those 'why didn't I think of that obvious answer myself' ideas. He grinned. "Joe, have I told you today that you're brilliant?"

"Huh?"

"You're brilliant," he reiterated. "If I retain ownership of the herd, I can simply lea ve him in charge. Answerable to me, they *all* would be, but he'd get to, well, practise being in control." Levon considered it, and realised -- "Hell, I could send him out next week."

Joe blinked. "Does this mean you'd be able to come home to s tay?"

Levon found himself grinning, unable and unwilling to stop. "Unless there were an emergency, or some problem arose Stuart couldn't handle by just calling me on the phone."

"But otherwise we could just go about living our lives like normal?"

"Normal as they ever are," Levon replied.

"Next week?"

"Well, I can't make any guarantees. I gotta call Stuart, make a few arrangements. Warn Joy...." He trailed off, mentally making a list of everything that would have to be done.

"But you could be home by next week?" Joe persisted.

Levon nodded. The next thing he knew he was flat on his back with a very happy, very amorous lover on top of him. "Would that be OK?" Levon asked mildly.

"Okay?" J oe rolled his eyes. "Okay, he says. Levon, that would be so beyond okay that there aren't words to describe it."

"Then you don't mind if I fall asleep, instead of letting you ravish me? Although I suppose we could do both," he added thoughtfully. Then he couldn't hold it back any longer, and he laughed.

Joe watched him, a fond smile firmly planted on his face. "You can't go to sleep, not yet. The kids have a whole supper planned out for you."

Levon groaned. "Not even a nap?" he pleaded. It was suddenly, bizarrely, good to know that he could beg and plead and demand, and Joe still might say no. It was nice not being obeyed all the time. That was another realisation for what it had been like for his husband. When this was all over....

"They've been working on this all day. You're not going to disappoint them."

He sighed. "I won't. But I can't promise to stay awake for long, after." He gave his husband a pleading look.

Joe chuckled, shaking his head . "I've missed you."

"That mean you've missed giving me a rubdown?" He hadn't been *about* to ask for that back at the ranch, though the herd members all took care of each other with brushings and cleaning and anything else that was needed. Levo n shivered against the ghost-return of memories of things that were needed, and focused harder on Joe.

"Yeah," Joe said simply.

"Missed giving me a foot rub?" he asked, guilelessly.

"Yeah."

"Missed making me barbecued ribs? "

There was a pause, then Joe said darkly, "Don't push it."

Levon grinned. "So how long before dinner, then?"

Joe craned his head to look at the bedside clock. "Got about an hour."

"You sure I can't take a nap?" His cute look was spoiled by the yawn that cracked his jaw.

Joe's expression instantly softened. "You haven't been sleeping lately, have you?"

Levon shook his head. He'd been getting some sleep, but he'd been... well, mating season took a lot out of a stallion. He didn't want to try to explain that to Joe, however.

He found himself pulled into Joe's arms. "Go ahead. Dinner will keep if you oversleep."

He closed his eyes, then, and tried to tell Joe to wake him when the kids were r eady to serve them dinner.

He only realised he hadn't, when he awoke.

It was the giggling that woke him. He cracked one eyelid to see Angie and Tony creeping towards the bed. He quickly shut his eye again, and lay still. It was a stru ggle to keep his face expressionless, but he managed -- until the moment he heard Angie suck in her breath right before they leapt.

He rolled over and caught them as they jumped onto him. They squealed and laughed, then snuggled close. Holding t hem, he looked up and found Joe watching from the doorway. "You trying to tell me it's time for supper?"

Angie nodded. "Tony and I helped make it," she announced.

"You did? What'd you make?" He knew it was a sure bet it wouldn't be barb ecued. Luckily Joe had already taught him how to eat pasta without making rude faces.

"It's a su'prise!" Tony told him.

"Oh!" Levon nodded. "I reckon I'd better get out of bed, then, so we can eat."

"That would be a good idea," Joe said from the doorway.

With the kids still in his arms, Levon brought his legs under him, and levered himself out of bed. Tony settled onto one hip, and Angie onto the other.

Joe went to the bureau and pulled out a pair of jeans whic h he held out to Levon. "New household rule," he announced. "No pants, no dinner."

Levon stopped, and glared. As soon as he realised how fiercely he was glaring he tried to soften it. But instead of arguing about it here and now, he set the kids down, and accepted the jeans his husband was holding.

When he finished donning them he turned back, only to see both kids, but especially Angie, looking at him much subdued. He gave himself a mental kick in the flank, and gave them a smile. "So rry, guess I ain't completely awake yet. Forget sometimes my family's mostly human." He gave them an apologetic smile.

"S'okay," Angie said and visibly tried to work her enthusiasm back up again and for the most part succeeding. "You ready now?"

"I'm so hungry I could eat a horse," he told her with a straight face.

"Wouldn't that be a bit too close to cannibalism?" Joe asked innocently.

"Always did wonder where the expression came from," Levon admitted. He'd been hoping for more of a giggle from Angie; of all the things he didn't need to do, making things uncomfortable for the kids in their new home was top of the list.

Hell, maybe he *was* still half-asleep.

Joe shrugged. "Sounds better than 'I'm so hung ry I could eat a monkey.'"

That got the giggle Levon had been looking for, along with a heartfelt, "Ewwwwww!"

"I dunno. Monkey brains are supposed to be a delicacy," he offered. That was rewarded with an enthusiastic 'eew!' from both An gie and Tony. He glanced down at them. "That ain't what we're having, is it?"

Angie wrinkled her nose. "No!"

He reached out for her hand. "Glad to hear it."

Tony grabbed his other hand and started tugging. "Come *on*!"

L evon went, willingly. The kids dragged him down the hallway, with Joe following along behind. The table had been set quite elegantly, more elegantly than he would've expected actually, and he was pushed into his seat. "You wait here and we'll go get th e food," Angie told him.

"Wow." Levon smiled, taken aback by the lengths they'd gone to. "This is wonderful."

Angie's smile lit up the room. "You really like it?"

"I love it, Angie. It's been a long time since I had a table set this nicely for me."

Not that he didn't enjoy the 'table' Joe set for him, using his own body as a plate.... But that was something he was awake enough to know not to mention aloud. The look Joe sent him made him think he wasn't the only one reme mbering that.

Angie gave a little bounce of excited happiness at the compliment. "Wait until you see the food!" She headed into the kitchen, corralling her brother with her gaze on the way past. Joe made to follow, but was stopped by one tiny imp erious hand. "We've got it, Uncle Joe."

"You sure?"

Angie's nod was emphatic.

"Looks like you'd better just sit down, and be served, too." Levon grinned.

"Looks like," Joe agreed and made his way to his own seat. "Yell i f you need any help."

The girl rolled her eyes, gave a huge put-upon sigh, then turned and walked into the kitchen.

After a moment, to make sure the kids were out of earshot, Levon leaned towards Joe. "You know what they've made?"

"Of course. Who do you think helped them?"

"Then I don't have to worry about being nice and eating it anyway?" he whispered.

Joe just smiled mysteriously.

He gave Joe a mild glare, which he squashed almost immediately. Angie was heading back to the table, Tony trailing behind. The boy was carrying a basket of buns and Angie...

Angie was carrying a serving platter heaped high with barbecued ribs. Levon felt his jaw drop. Then he was grinning, unable to stop long enough to say a word. "Surprised?" Angie asked, grinning back as she carefully placed the platter on the table.

"Dumb-founded," he agreed. "I never thought I'd see the day a LaFiamma willingly served barbecue for supper."

"Don't get used to it ," Joe warned.

Levon gave the kids a wink. "I reckon, they're still young enough... I can teach 'em to like barbecue."

"I'd have to arrest you for corrupting a minor."

Levon just laughed.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&& &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

After dinner, Joe and Levon cleared the table. At one point, when both were in the kitchen and the kids were elsewhere, Levon gave Joe his best 'too cute to strangle' expression. He hoped it would soften Joe up enou gh to let him apologise.

Joe's eyes narrowed. "I know that expression. What is it?"

"I'm sorry. If I'd realised why you were telling me to put on a pair of pants, I'd never have blinked. You just took me by surprise."

"No perman ent harm done," Joe replied, waving it away. "Guess I won't be able to just tell you what to do from now on, huh?"

Levon smiled. "Depends on the situation. You tell me something when you've got brushes in your hand, I'll do anything you say." H e moved forward and gave his husband a kiss.

"Nice to know some things haven't changed."

Levon remained where he was, happily pressed against Joe. There was a giggle from the doorway. He looked over and saw Angie standing there, her hand s on her hips. "Are you gonna do that all *evening*?" she demanded.

Joe looked from her to Levon and back again. "Was considering it," he admitted. "Not going to fly, huh?"

She shook her head, seriously.

"Think we could bribe he r?" Levon asked. "Pay her to look the other way?"

"I don't know...what would it cost us?"

She folded her arms, and gave them a Look. Then she asked hopefully, "A horse?"

Levon grinned. "Already taken care of. What--" He was dr owned out, then, by happy squeals.

"So does that mean we're off the hook?" Joe asked teasingly.

Angie glared at him. "No. You still have to let go of him." She moved forward, grabbing Levon's hand and pulling at it to get him away from Joe. "You had him this afternoon. We want him this evening."

Levon didn't look over at Joe, to see if his husband was blushing.

"Does that mean you want me to leave?" Again Joe's tone was teasing.

"No!" She grabbed his hand too. "You just have to share."

He looked at Levon and then back at her. "Share, huh?"

She nodded emphatically.

Levon gave him a smile. "Which third do you want?" he asked, as innocently as he could as Angie tugged again, and they foll owed her into the living room.

Joe leered at him. "I'll tell you later."

Levon laughed. When they got to the living room Angie dropped their hands and turned to face them. Levon asked, "So, what did you want me for?"

She shrugged .

"Any ideas what you want to do?" Joe asked.

She shrugged again.

Casually, Levon asked, "You wanna get some of these boxes unloaded?" He waited a moment as Angie and Tony looked decidedly unenthused, and added, "Or would y'all rather go for a ride?"

"Ride!" both kids shouted.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

They stayed out for nearly an hour, with Angie and Tony taking turns on Levon's back and Fooler's. Joe rode with Ton y, muttering under his breath that they needed another horse for *him* as well. Levon had laughed long and hard, before calming down enough to tell Joe he was now, officially, a Texan.

Joe had shot back his denial, saying he was still missing the hat, boots and truck.

"So far," Levon had replied. He'd looked over his shoulder at Tony and asked the boy if *he* wanted a hat.

Tony had shouted a cheerful, "Yes!"

Levon had just winked at Joe. His husband had just quoted him b ack the regulation number on corrupting a minor.

They let Angie handle Fooler, once back at the barn. Levon kept an eye on her as she stripped the saddle, and rubbed Fooler down. She was doing rather well, and he suspected that by summer's end s he would be an old hand at horses. When she got the curry combs out, Levon gave Joe a hopeful look.

Joe turned to the kids. "Why don't you two go back in and get ready for bed? We'll be in a bit."

"I have to get Fooler into her stall," An gie explained.

Tony was throwing fistfuls of hay -- at what, no one could tell. But he scooted out of the barn, at the reminder of bed.

"We'll do that," Joe assured her. "Just this once. Go on okay?"

Angie looked from Joe to Levo n and back. Then she sighed. "Sharing time's over, isn't it?"

"I'll see you in the morning, Angie," Levon said patiently.

That elicited another sigh, but the girl obediently turned to leave. She paused at the door. "Tuck me in when you com e in?" she asked.

"I will, Angie. And remember, it's only gonna be about another week. Before you know it, you'll see so much of me you won't know what to do." Levon gave her a smile, which she finally returned.

She ran back over and ga ve both him and Joe a hug before finally leaving the barn. Levon waited until they heard the front door banging shut, then he returned his hopeful look to Joe.

Joe lifted an eyebrow. "You want something?"

Levon grabbed Joe's shirt, wound his fingers into the fabric, and pulled Joe a step closer. He kept the pleading expression on his face, watching as Joe struggled to keep his own face straight. When he judged Joe was about to give in and admit he knew what Levon wanted, he said in a pi tiful tone, "I've a stone in my hoof."

"Which one?" Joe asked, reaching out and running a hand down Levon's chest.

Levon tried to remember, as he shivered at Joe's touch. Joe moved to the side, his hand sliding along Levon's skin and then down his left foreleg. "This one?"

"Mmmmm." Levon shifted his weight slightly, to allow Joe to pick up the foot. "No," he managed.

He felt his partner move to the other side and pick up the other foreleg. "This one, then?"

"Mmmm m," was all Levon could manage that time. It was strange how a simple touch could make him feel so good, so relaxed. But it did, and it was shutting down his brain rather quickly. He jerked himself back to his senses, setting his hoof back down as he t ensed, alert.

"Levon?" Joe had straightened and laid one hand along his withers.

"Sorry. Forgot where I was for a minute, there." Levon tried to shake the memory.

"You okay?" The hand was now rubbing absently.

"Yeah. J ust took me by surprise, is all." He sighed, and tried to retrieve his previous mood. "Stone ain't in that one, either."

"One of the back hooves, then?" The concern was still there and the words had lost their teasing quality.

Unfortunat ely, the mood seemed stubbornly to resist returning. Levon sighed again and admitted, "I'm fine, Joe. Just wanted...."

"A brushing?"

"Wanted you waiting on me, hand 'n hoof," Levon answered with a grin. "Love feeling your hands on me." And with that, the mood returned. He relaxed, muscles quivering as Joe patted him.

"I think we can manage that for tonight." Again Levon felt hands trail lightly over his coat, this time sliding down his left rear leg. "Since I've checked the ot her three, the stone must be in this one, huh?"

"Yeah," Levon said, not sure what it was he was agreeing with.

His leg was lifted and he heard the rustle of clothes as Joe leaned over to get a good look at the hoof. He could feel Joe's fingers on him, brushing lightly. He shivered, feeling goose bumps all over his skin.

"Hm. Doesn't seem to be a stone in this one either." He let the hoof down and stood. "Must've worked its way loose huh?"

"Must've," Levon agreed. He tu rned slightly, towards Joe, and reached for him. Joe moved willingly into his arms, and Levon bent his head and kissed him. He pulled Joe as close to him as he could manage, in their disparate forms.

Joe wrapped his arms around him and held on t ightly. "You want that brushing now or do you just want to go back to the house and to bed?" he whispered.

Levon kissed him again, not bothering with trying to decide. It hardly mattered which they did -- as long as Joe was here, with him, it did n't make a difference.

His husband cooperated for several moments then pulled back and gave him a questioning look. "Well?"

"Huh?"

Joe laughed, shaking his head. Then he leaned in for another brief kiss. "I love you, cowboy."

< p> "I love you, too."

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Breakfast the next morning was a rather chaotic affair with two cats underfoot and two kids vying for Levon's undivided attention. Joe just sat at the ta ble and watched in amusement at the by-play happening between his family. He was impressed at how well Levon handled the chaos -- before, he'd always seemed unsettled by it, and had tried to stay out of it. Apparently being herd stallion had changed him in this way, too.

It was definitely another unexpected change, but one that Joe thought he wouldn't have much problem getting used to. He liked this new Levon and was looking forward to them relearning how to relate to each other.

And it was a relief not to have to guard his words quite so closely anymore.

Levon seemed to be handling parenthood well, also. Not that he'd ever been bad at it, but he *had* been uncertain about his ability to raise two human children. Now he easily cajoled Tony into eating his cereal without spreading it all over the tabletop in between explaining to Angie what her responsibilities would be towards her horse. Between all of that, he stopped and sent smiles and kisses to Joe -- and managed to eat hi s own breakfast.

Joe himself was content this morning with just watching. He knew most mornings he would be in the middle of the chaos as much as his husband, so just this once he wanted to sit back and observe, taking the time to cherish what he did have.

As the kids were sent to clear the table, Levon came over and raised Joe's chin. He leant down and kissed him. When the kids were out of earshot, he whispered, "I need a break!"

Joe almost laughed but he could see the beginning of desperation in Levon's eyes. Instead he just squeezed Levon's arm and told the kids to go make their bed and tidy their room. "We'll be in to inspect it in half an hour so do a good job."

Angie rolled her eyes, but took Tony by the collar and nudged him ahead of her. Levon sighed, and sat down on Joe's lap.

"Overwhelmed?"

"A little. Ain't so bad, at the ranch -- enough mares to distract the kids when they start ganging up on me. And there's so *many* of them...well, I don 't get too much of any one kid. If that makes sense?" He grinned. "Besides which, I don't have to worry about talking them *into* anything."

Joe smiled back. "You're doing great with them."

"Thanks." Levon leaned against him, and Joe c ould feel him relaxing. "Do most human parents run away from their kids every so often? Hide in the barn for an hour?"

"Most don't have a barn, but yeah. Most parents need a break every now and then. They'll go out for a night and leave the kids with a sitter or a relative or even go away for a weekend or so, without the kids." He sobered suddenly. "Like Tony and Maria were doing..."

Levon nodded. He put his hand on Joe's cheek, and smiled, softly. "I love you. Realise it's been ninete en minutes since I told you, last."

"You were busy," Joe teased.

"I was," Levon replied, and kissed him again.

They were on the third, or possibly fourth depending on how you counted them, kiss when they heard Tony asking, "Are they always gonna be doing that?"

"I think it's romantic," Angie said.

Joe looked at her. "Know a lot about romance, do you?"

She nodded. "And I think it's nice that you two are. My friend Christine, her mom and dad don't even li ke to hold hands or hug when anyone's around. Christine says they don't fight, but they don't get all romantic, either."

Levon gave Joe a smirk. "Sounds to me like we've permission to keep on." And he gave Joe a fifth -- or whatever -- kiss. A ngie giggled and out of the corner of his eye Joe noticed her hustling her little brother out of the room. When Levon broke the kiss, he asked, "Reckon we oughtta go inspect their room?" He wriggled slightly, indicating what he'd rather be doing.

"Yeah." Joe didn't move though except to tighten his arms on Levon's waist. "In a minute. Or two."

"We still have time before our half hour is up."

"Want to be romantic some more?" He gave Levon his best leer.

Levon just kisse d him, again.

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

The drive back to the ranch seemed to take no time at all. Levon was distracted by plans for the additions to the house which they'd discussed briefly that morn ing. They'd agreed to let Joe contact Conley and make all the arrangements, so they could get the room finished as soon as possible.

He was also thinking of everything he'd need to explain to Joy, when he ran his plan by her. It wasn't that he had to convince her it would work -- he simply had to *tell* her, and the rest of them, to do it and they would. But he didn't like to resort to mere commands. If Joy went for it straight away, things would go a lot more smoothly. And Stuart would sta nd a chance of surviving.

Levon knew he'd have to clear everything with her before arranging to meet with Stuart. The boy would have to come out to the ranch, as the only safe place the two stallions could talk.

It took him a few hours once he was back before he was able to pull Joy aside and broach the subject to her. To his relief, she endorsed the plan wholeheartedly. The next step was talking to Stuart himself. Levon phoned and made arrangements for the young stallion to come out t o the ranch in a couple of days to discuss the situation.

The next two days were spent in nervous anticipation. He hoped he had everything worked out -- and that any problems which arose could be dealt with enough to allow the arrangement to work . The whole point of it was, after all, to allow Levon to go home.

He talked briefly to Joe on the phone in the evenings, but aside from informing him of the timetable, Levon had avoided the subject. Instead they'd talked about the kids, the cons truction which was scheduled to start next week, anything but Stuart and the plan. There was just too much at stake. Neither of them wanted to jinx it somehow.

Finally Levon was pacing the yard beside the house. Most of the rest of the herd was out in the fields, giving him space to work off his anxiety, as well as giving him privacy for when Stuart actually showed. Carla had shooed him out of the house after he'd tried pacing in there. Some things not even a herd stallion could get away with.

It seemed an eternity but the call finally came that a truck was heading in from the road.

Stuart.

Suddenly the nervousness left him -- no matter what Stuart said about the offer, right now Levon was in charge. The position gave him the authority to relax. He waited, watching the road until the truck came into view.

Stuart pulled up in front of the house, got out, and walked over to where Levon was standing. He'd grown a lot since Levon had last seen him, the time he'd first brought Joe here to meet the herd. Gone was the angry, confused kid. In his place stood a confident and self assured man. A young man to be sure, but a man nonetheless.

Levon felt himself relaxing just a bit more. He held out his hand, an d was glad to see Stuart accept it, willingly. Levon led him inside, to his office, and told him to sit down.

The younger stallion did, then gave Levon a frank look. "You wanted to see me."

"I did. Stuart... you and I both know you're go nna be taking the herd over, when you're ready."

No one had made a big secret of that, although Stuart himself had not been told until *after* mating season. Had he felt obligated, he might have come to take the herd before Levon could do so, and been unable to hold the herd at all.

Stuart smiled slightly. "Bet you never thought I'd be taking it from you when you had that talk with me four years ago."

Levon laughed. "Sure as hell didn't. But -- I reckon I'm glad it turned out t his way." He could tell Stuart was not entirely at ease with him. He couldn't blame the boy -- they didn't have the sort of truce Levon had had with Taylor. Stuart didn't know, yet, what his relationship with Levon was going to be.

It could alw ays, if Levon decided to hang on, still come to a challenge.

He was hiding his unease well though, another good sign. "You told me to learn all I could and be patient, that my time would come. It was good advice then and it is now. I don't want to fight you, Levon. As long as the herd is in good hands I can wait. My time *will* come."

Levon nodded, calmly. "I know. Wondered how you felt about getting ready a little early, though?"

"What do you mean?" Stuart asked, looking puzzled .

"I mean, everyone knows I'd rather be home. But I can't -- I have a responsibility to be here. Rather, I have a responsibility to make sure the herd is being taken care of. If I had someone here keeping an eye on the daily stuff, I could come out just when I was needed." He watched Stuart's face, as he spoke. The boy understood what he was saying, but was obviously hesitant to jump to conclusions.

"Like a stand-in? Or something like a...a.. vice president? Or a runner up in a contes t?"

"Like my lieutenant. You'd be responsible for taking care of things as if you were in charge -- but I won't hand the herd over until I *know* you're ready." He had to make sure that point was very clear. "This ain't just for show, but it ai n't you being herd stallion, either. If you aren't willing or able, we'll wait until you are, and you can go home right now, no harm and no foul. But if you *are* interested, it'll be a way for you to learn your job without either of us making any moves we can't undo."

"Herd stallion-in-training? It's never been done before." Stuart smiled. "Maybe it should've, though. There'd be fewer cases of stallions taking over who have no business running anything."

Levon nodded. "If it works, we can start a trend." Then he laughed. "If you think we can convince ones like Chester...."

"If you came up with a lot of long, boring rituals around it and translated them into Greek, you might have a chance."

"We might," Levon replied, s eriously. At Stuart's look of horror, he grinned and explained, "For Chester, not you. So, what do you think?"

"When would I move out here?"

"Soon as you like. I've everything already taken care of; it's just waiting for you to agree."

Stuart nodded. "I'll need probably a week to get all my loose ends tied up. Give notice at my job, that kind of thing."

And with that, it was done. There were details to be solidified, of course, but Levon found himself looking at a guar antee that he could go home, and *stay* home, in a week's time, rather than the half-year or even year he'd counted on. He couldn't wait to phone Joe and tell him.

Stuart stood to go. "I should probably start getting everything ready. I'll keep i n touch, let you know exactly when I can come out." He started for the door, then stopped and came back. Holding out his hand to Levon, he said softly, "Thank you."

Levon took it, grateful he felt confident about his decision. "You're welcome, St uart. I know you'll do me right."

"I'll try. But more than that, I'll do right by the herd."

At that, Levon smiled, wide. Stuart was going to make a fine herd stallion -- soon as he grew a little. He already had the attitude for it. "F eel free to pester Joy for anything you need," he told Stuart, as he saw the boy out of his office.

Stuart grinned wryly. "That'll be a change."

"Don't I know it."

&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

Five days later, Levon pulled up in front of his house. For good this time, he told himself, and he leapt out of the cab with a huge smile. He grabbed his duffel bag off the seat and slung it over his shoulder, shut the door with a satisfying slam, then turned towards the house. As he walked towards the house, the front door banged open; seconds later he had his arms full.

"Uncle Levon! Uncle Levon!" That was about all he could make out of the steady stream of chatter from both kids hugging him. He laughed and hugged them back tighter. He heard the front door open again and looked up to see Joe leaning against the doorway smiling at him.

"Hey, partner," Levon greeted him. He wanted to grab Joe and not let him go for a year; howeve r, there was something to take care of first. A lot of somethings, he added, ruefully. But as soon as two wriggling apes were safely preoccupied, he was gonna latch onto Joe and not let go 'til morning. He looked down at aforementioned kids and asked, "Did somebody here order a couple horses?"

The resulting squeals of delight almost deafened him. He led them around to the trailer, trying to get them calmed down before he opened the gate. He'd had Sarah pick out two of the gentlest mounts who were used to, and liked small children. But that didn't mean they needed to be startled by hyperactivity their first minute here.

It took some doing but both children managed to calm themselves somewhat, though Tony still bounced in place and Ang ie was practically vibrating with the effort of staying still. "We cleaned out and got ready two stalls," Joe said, as he walked over to join them.

"Good. Fooler'll be glad to have more company. Been after me for years--" he cut himself off a s he headed into the trailer to back out the first horse.

"Sometimes I worry about the relationship you have with that horse," Joe commented.

Levon didn't dignify the jib with a response -- if he explained just how much Fooler *did* nag at him...no pun intended...Joe would never let him hear the end of it. He instead concentrated on getting the first mare out, and handed the reins to Angie. "Her name's Wildflower. One of the toddlers named her," he added with a smile. Sarah had tried t o talk the girl into naming the horse at least with the name of a specific flower, but the foal had been determined.

Angie took the reins, staring up at the mare reverently. "She's really mine?"

"She's really yours. As long as you take pr oper care of her."

Joe pulled a couple of carrots out of his pocket and handed one to Angie. "Here, you can give her this," he said.

"OK." Angie took the carrots, and, with a serious expression, held one out. Wildflower accepted this as the treasure it was and happily began munching.

"Is that one mine?" Tony asked, tugging on Levon's pantsleg, and pointing.

"When you're older, she'll be all yours. For now, your Uncle Joe is gonna help you take care of her." Levon quickl y busied himself on guiding the horse out of the trailer, ignoring the look he knew Joe would be sending him. He handed the lead rope to Tony, keeping a hand on the mare's halter. "This one's name is Eurydice."

Tony's face scrunched up in concen tration as he tried to repeat the name. What came out sounded more like "Furry Dice."

Levon just nodded, and told Tony to take her to the barn. As Tony began to lead her away, Levon stepped back, then looked at Joe. "Well, you gonna just stand h ere?"

Joe reached back into his pocket and pulled out another carrot, holding it out to him like he was a horse. Levon stared at it for a moment, then grabbed it and took a bite. Laughing, Joe moved in closer, slipping his arms around Levon's wa ist. "Welcome home."

Happy now that he was right where he wanted to be, Levon returned the embrace. "Nice to *be* home. Much as I'd love to stand here and get molested, I think we'd better go make sure Tony hasn't got his hands too full."

"Yeah." He leaned in for a quick kiss before letting go of his husband. "And what was all that about me helping him with the horse? Don't you mean 'we'?"

Levon looked back at him, surprised. "I've already *got* a horse. Well, 36, actually."

Without missing a beat, Joe shot back, "Then helping out with one more won't make that much of a difference."

But Levon shook his head. "Don't have to. That's what *my* herd is for. To tend to the horses." He kept his face as straight as he could, while his comment sank into Joe's brain.

"Is this where I point out we're your family, not your herd?"

"Depends. You reckon on doing whatever you're told?"

Joe just snorted. "Yeah, right."

"You think the kids'll do whatever they're told?" he persisted.

"They're LaFiammas. What do you think?"

Levon rubbed the side of his nose. Then he shook his head. "Ain't herd, then. Though y'all are herd-headed enough." He ducked out of Joe's reach, and hea ded into the barn.

Joe caught up quickly. "You're still helping with the horses."

"Only 'cause they'll *listen* to *me*," Levon replied.

"Considering your relationship with Fooler, you sure that's not the other way around?"

"Why do you think I picked these two?" He nodded at the two newcomers who were eyeing Fooler, the barn, and the kids. Angie was showing Tony how to brush his horse.

Joe laughed softly as he watched Tony stand on tiptoe and still not reach the t op of Eurydice's back. "We're going to have to get him a stool of some sort."

"Nah, just start feeding him grits. He'll grow soon enough."

His husband made a face. "Grits are almost as bad as barbecue."

They took a few minutes to m ake sure the kids knew what they could, and could not, do with their new horses. They weren't allowed to go riding without adult supervision until Levon and Joe were confident they wouldn't get into trouble, but the list of what they were allowed was lon g enough to keep them occupied. Once the kids were firmly focused on the horses -- and would be for hours, Levon knew -- he turned to his husband. "You think they'll be all right, by themselves?" He grinned, knowing perfectly well they would be. At l east, they'd *better* be.

Joe grinned. "You kidding? We're probably going to have to bodily drag them in when it's time for bed."

"Think they'll mind -- or notice -- if we head to the house?"

"What did you have in mind?" Voice low and husky, Joe's eyes glinted with anticipation.

Levon glanced sideways; Angie was trying to help Tony reach 'Fuzzy Dice's' back. He looked back at Joe. "Something I shouldn't describe in front of the kids? Or the horses, for that matter."

< p> "Was hoping you'd say that. Though I thought we'd end up having to wait until the kids went to sleep."

"Why do you think I brought the horses with me?"

"I thought because the kids would've sent you back to the ranch to get them if you'd shown up empty handed."

Levon shrugged, though he knew Joe was right. "Does it matter? You wanna stand here and debate it, or go inside?"

"When you put it that way...."

Joe hesitated just long enough to tell the kids where they were going and to ask not to be disturbed for anything short of an emergency. Angie nodded, a tiny smile on her face. She spoke quietly to Tony, when he frowned their way and he went back to brushing Eurydice's foreleg.

Levon took Joe's hand, th en, and led him out of the barn. They walked to the house quickly, neither saying anything and neither touching the other save for where their hands were clasped. As soon as the front door closed behind them, Levon let go of Joe's hand and touched Joe's back. He ran his hand down, onto the swell of Joe's buttock, and then back up -- all the while gently pushing his lover farther along, towards the bedroom.

Joe chuckled at his eagerness, but cooperated easily enough. Looking back over his should er he asked, "Shouldn't your brain have shut down by now?"

"Not yet. Give me a couple seconds." Levon let Joe move ahead of him, and he put his other hand on Joe's butt, briefly, giving it a squeeze then placing both hands flat on Joe's back and pushing. "If you'll stop loitering, I can get you horizontal while I can still make plans."

"Plans?" his husband asked, even as he complied with the request and started for the bedroom again.

"Something other than 'strip him down and gra b him'. Although that'll do, too." Though his husband was moving, Levon couldn't keep his hands off him; he followed as closely as he could without tripping them up. "I wanna know what we're doing, for once...not just feel it and react to it."

J oe paused then, turning to pull Levon into his arms. "You need to be the one in control this time, don't you?" he asked seriously. "Because of...."

Levon shook his head. "Will be, anyhow. I just wanna see you--" He stopped as Joe's jaw dropped . They were just inside the bedroom, Levon standing in the doorway. He smiled at Joe and asked, "Do you mind if I take you this time?"

For a long moment all Joe did was stare at him. Then, seeming to shake off his shock he gave his answer in act ions, not words, as he leaned forward and kissed Levon passionately.

Levon started unbuttoning Joe's shirt, shoving it down and out of the way before Joe broke the kiss. When he did, Levon put his hands on Joe's chest and asked, "That a 'yes'?"

"Hell, yeah!"

"Then how about you get undressed while I watch?" Levon leaned against the wall, casually. Faking it, rather.

Joe blinked at the request, not moving as he seemingly took a few seconds to process. Then with slow, deli berate moves and the leer that Levon loved so much, Joe stripped in front of his lover.

Levon simply watched. It was a gorgeous, wonderfully arousing thing to see -- bit by bit more of Joe's body was revealed. A body he had memorised that first time he'd seen it, albeit briefly, that morning so long ago, but the impact never faded. By the time Joe was standing naked before him, Levon was more than ready to throw him onto the bed.

But Joe held up a hand in a stopping motion, before movin g closer. "You're a bit overdressed for this party, cowboy," he said, before he deftly started undoing Levon's shirt.

Levon held himself still, as Joe undressed him. It was difficult, fighting the urge to grab Joe anyhow. But he remained standin g, offering no hindrance, until he was as naked as his lover. He was trembling, though, and as soon as Joe stepped back, he moved.

First he grabbed Joe by the waist and kissed him, as thoroughly and deeply as he could. It wasn't like Joe was try ing to get away, if anything he was trying to press himself closer, returning the kiss just as thoroughly.

Levon kept his grip on him, but tried to move him towards the bed at the same time. When he reached the point of let go or fall, he stopped.

When the cessation of movement penetrated Joe's brain, he pulled back, looking at Levon with passion-dazed eyes. "What?"

"Trying to decide...." It was growing much more difficult to think, even though he was struggling to keep his focus and not lose himself. But the longer he stood there, with Joe's body pressed against him, with Joe looking at him with such clear, open blue eyes....

Joe seemed to sense what he was feeling, because after he leaned in and gave him a soft lingering kiss, he pulled away and laid down on the bed and closed his eyes, waiting for whatever Levon chose to do. Levon decided it was simplest to start with what was closest. He knelt beside the bed and kissed the instep of Joe's left foot. Then he kissed t he side, then the ankle. He worked his way slowly up Joe's leg, stopping at the knee. Then he went down to the right foot and began again. He heard Joe catch his breath and felt him shift his weight involuntarily, but other than that he remained still. Passive.

Submissive.

Levon growled, low in his throat, and continued working his way up. His hands clenched a little harder as he grabbed Joe's legs, moving his way slowly up. He nuzzled at Joe's erection but then moved past, continuin g to place kisses up Joe's stomach. There was a soft whimper from above him and out of the corner of his eye he could see Joe grabbing the bedspread in a white-knuckled grip.

He chuckled, once. "You don't have to lie still, you know," he whispere d, and placed another kiss on Joe's chest, moving his own body up -- and on top of Joe.

Immediately Joe let go of the bed spread and wrapped his arms around Levon, hands roaming restlessly over his back. Levon groaned happily and continued tracin g a long, circuitous route up Joe's body. By the time he reached Joe's lips, his husband was squirming under him, hands gripping Levon's hips to get leverage to thrust up against him. Levon held him down by lying his weight as fully on him as he dared, and kissing him again, opened mouthed and with as much tongue as he could. He let Joe thrust against him until he felt his husband begin to shake uncontrollably.

Joe cried out in wordless protest when he moved away then, and tried to pull him bac k down. But Levon slid to one side, pulling Joe over. He reached down and began playing his hand up and down Joe's buttocks, squeezing gently once, then running a finger down the cleft.

Joe shivered even more at that, burying his face against Le von's shoulder as he panted for breath and held on like his life depended on it. Levon wrapped one arm around him, holding him tightly as he continued to move his hand closer. He felt Joe trembling against him, felt his own urgent need to climb on Joe's back and take him, take him now and to hell with waiting until he was ready.

That was the other reason he needed to keep his wits about him. The mares he'd been unable to hurt, ready and able to handle the ferocity of his mating. Joe, on the ot her hand, had been years without this particular act of loving and Levon would never forgive himself if he injured his husband simply because he couldn't keep his head.

Joe wasn't going to be much help, seemingly totally caught up in the sensation s, too far gone to worry about things like being injured, just wanting it and wanting it now. Levon held onto his control as tightly as he could, drawing himself back away from his lover as he slipped one finger inside. Moaning, Joe thrust back, beggin g for more.

Levon gave it to him -- getting one finger inside, feeling the muscles clenching hard and tight. A single thought of what was next hit him then, and all thought vanished. He rolled Joe over and positioned himself behind him, ready to thrust. But Joe pulled away when he realized what was happening, rolling over to fumble in the drawer of the nightstand. Rolling back, he kissed Levon, then pressed a small tube into his hand. Lube.

Levon barely managed to flip the cap off and s queeze some into his hand before his body screamed at him to move. He quickly spread the lube over himself, and thought to do the same to Joe -- stretching him again as well. Then he grabbed onto Joe by the shoulders, and shoved.

Joe yelled and pushed back, taking all of Levon in one long thrust. Then he froze, his breath coming in short gasps, bracing himself against the headboard he was gripping for support. Levon didn't stop moving. He thrust forward, again, and again. He held onto Joe tig htly, fingers digging into Joe's shoulders. He heard himself begin to scream and clamped his jaw shut in the last vestige of rational thought left to him.

Below him, Joe bucked and moaned, moving with him, shifting slightly as much as he could to change the angle of penetration until he suddenly stiffened and yelled again. Levon shifted his own knees up, giving himself more leverage. He pounded into Joe, pushing them both up, threatening to slam them into the headboard if Joe's hold slipped. Levon didn't care, he barely noticed. He held Joe down and took him with everything he had.

Joe was crying out with everything thrust, trembling and panting for air. The tiny part of Levon's brain that was still noticing things knew it wouldn't take much more to push his lover over the edge. He wasn't far, himself. He reached around and grabbed his lover's erection, tugging on it only twice before Joe stiffened underneath him. Levon held himself still for the brief moment it took for Joe to c ome.

Then, when Joe began to collapse bonelessly to the bed, Levon braced both of them and started moving again. He rested his head against Joe's back for a moment, soaking up the heat and the scent of his lover. He moved more slowly now that Jo e was loose and relaxed. Joe stirred and moaned slightly after a moment, but the sound was more sated than aroused. He seemed content to lie there and let Levon take whatever he needed.

Levon continued thrusting, holding onto Joe with one arm wra pped around his waist and one hand braced against his back. He moved one leg, trying to wrap it around Joe's. Another moan, this one a bit louder, as Joe shifted, cooperating and moving in tangent with Levon.

Now able to hold on better, Levon wa s able to put more power into his thrusting. Each one was hard, and as deep as he could go. He started panting, and bit back another outcry. Joe was making noises with each thrust again, little grunts that were more than half air, but they were enough to egg Levon on even more. He continued thrusting, mindless, but with the feeling of love and passion that had been missing when he'd mated. He held onto Joe tighter.

Levon had no idea how long it was before he was throwing his head back, grip t ightening. His body began shaking out of control and he screamed, long and hard as he shoved himself inside Joe, one more time. As he came, he continued moving with tiny, ineffectual thrusts.

Still tangled, they slumped down onto the bed and jus t lay there for a moment catching their breaths.

Levon made no attempt to move away, and thus out of, Joe. He let his head fall onto Joe's shoulder and left it there, trying to catch his breath. After a moment, Joe fumbled until he was able to f ind Levon's hand with his own and entwined their fingers together with a contented sigh. Levon snuggled in a bit more, and closed his eyes.

"Levon?"

"Mmm." Levon sighed, and felt himself turning into thin mud.

"Move."

"Er m?" Levon leant back slightly, even as he tried to figure out what his husband was saying.

"Move, will ya? I'm lying in the wet spot."

He leant back farther, certain that Joe was saying something important -- in that tone of voice he had to be. But his brain was completely shut down, and his body was demanding why he was still trying to move away from his husband. As Joe shifted in his arms he automatically tightened his grip; then the words registered, and he scooted backwards. "Sorry ," he offered, sheepishly.

Joe winced slightly as Levon left his body, then turned over onto his back, shifting to the other side of the bed. He squirmed around a bit, getting comfortable, then held out his arm for Levon. Levon scooted back into his embrace, ready to shut back down again. But his brain was working again -- if slightly -- and he asked, "You all right?"

The arm wrapped around him tightened at the question. "I'm great. May have trouble sitting down tonight but it was worth it."

Levon smiled at him, slowly, feeling so completely and thoroughly content that he couldn't bring himself to worry much about tonight. Then he blinked. "We doin' something tonight?" If they stayed in bed, who cared if Joe could sit down?

Joe quirked an eyebrow at him. "Nothing out of the ordinary. Just that we're doing it with the kids. Our kids. Remember?"

Levon blinked. "Angie, Tony? Dark hair, dark eyes? Tendency to giggle?" He still had no idea what they were *doing* . Unless, of course, Joe meant supper.

"That's them. They're not going to stay out in the barn forever, new horses or no new horses."

"Bet they will, if we give 'em sleeping bags." Levon closed his eyes again and cuddled his husband.

"We're not making them sleep in the barn," Joe stated firmly. "Well, not the first night we're all home, at least."

Levon laughed. "Gonna wait until they misbehave?" He raised his head, though it felt like it weighed a freaking ton, and g ave Joe a light kiss.

"Wait until they ask, which they probably will, first time there's anything wrong with any of the horses."

"Hell, *I* usually sleep in the barn when there's something wrong with the horses."

"*We.*"

"S o, we need a bigger hayloft." Levon stretched as well as he could without letting go of his husband. Then he tried to see if his brain was more awake yet.

Didn't seem to be.

"What are we doing, then, tonight? Besides letting the kids bac k in the house?"

Joe shrugged the shoulder Levon wasn't lying on. "Didn't have anything particular planned. Just...act like a family?"

"Ah. I can do that." He grinned, though he knew Joe couldn't see it. "Just making sure I hadn't forgo tten any plans. Feels like I mighta lost some brain cells, there."

"Yeah. That was...intense."

"Have to do it again, so we can get used to it." Levon smirked.

"Look forward to it." Joe grinned but there was something in his tone t hat told Levon there was something he wasn't saying.

Levon raised his head again, and looked at him, fully awake. "What?"

Joe shook his head. "It's nothing really."

"What?" he asked again, softly.

"It's just...you don't see me as dominant over you any more, right?"

Levon shook his head. "You ain't, anymore. See you as my equal." He started to reach for Joe's face to caress him, and stopped as he saw the relief. "You worried about--?"

Joe gave him a ru eful grin. "Didn't think I'd be any good at being dominant, but I managed that. But I think I would've been a hell of a lot worse at being subordinate."

With a grin, Levon hugged him, then continued his move to caress Joe's cheek. "I think you'd be *hell* as a submissive. Last about ten seconds, then you'd pout and decide you didn't want to, anymore." He kissed the closest spot on Joe's chest, then added, "But you were, you know."

A faint blush tinged Joe's cheeks. "That was different."

"I mean -- you were good at being dominant." Levon grinned at Joe's embarrassment, but scooted up a bit, and forward until his forehead rested against Joe's. "I love you."

The arms around him tightened. "I love you too." Joe kissed him gently, then whispered, "Welcome home Levon."

The End