Withers Thou Goeth

Angie was standing in the doorway to the kitchen, watching her uncle put lunch together. "You got everything packed?" Joe asked, glancing up from his cooking.

She nodded. After another moment she asked, "Uncle Joe?"

"Yeah, Ang?"

"Don't you wanna go out to the ranch?"

At the unexpected question, he stopped what he was doing, turning the heat down and crossing the room to where the girl was standing. "Why would you think that?"

She shrugged. "Well, you don't act like you did before." She came into the kitchen and got on her tip-toes to peer on the stove. She picked up a spoon and gave the pot a stir.

Joe watched her calmly, while inwardly he was reeling. Out of the mouths of babes, he thought. The truth was he wasn't behaving the way he had back when Levon had first moved out to the ranch. Back then he rushed around and harried the kids to get them on the road as quickly as possible. He never would've taken the time to actually cook lunch first.

Now...

Now it didn't seem to matter how early or late they got to the ranch. In some ways he'd wondered if it would make any difference if they went at all. It didn't matter because even when they were in the same room, Levon still seemed a thousand miles away.

She looked over at him briefly, then went back to tending the pot. She fidgeted a little, then said, "You know, I like playing with the babies and I like Hanna and Tory a lot. But it'd be OK if we stayed home this weekend. I wouldn't mind." She got thoughtful. "Tony might, but he's just a little kid. He doesn't understand."

"Levon's expecting us," Joe told her, the answer almost reflexive.

There was silence for a bit, then, "What if we stay home next weekend? Could Uncle Levon come stay with us? Or is it him you're mad at?"

"We can't stay home next weekend. The wedding's next weekend."

She nodded, and continued stirring. Finally she said, "Martha's having a sleep-over on Saturday. She invited me, but I told her we were going out of town."

Joe looked at her for a long moment. "You want to go to it?"

She shrugged without looking up at him, which Joe knew in ten-year-old-girl speak meant "yes".

"Let me make a couple of phone calls and see what I can arrange."

Her face lit up. "Really?"

"Really." He held open his arms to her. "I don't mean to cramp your social life."

She dropped the spoon and ran into his arms, hugging him tightly. "I didn't wanna make you have to miss seeing Uncle Levon, if you didn't want to. I can really stay?" she asked again, beginning to bounce happily.

He smiled down at her. "Yes, you can really stay."

She cheered again. "I'm gonna go unpack -- I need totally different things for Martha's party!" And she was out of the room in a blur.

Joe watched her go, acutely aware he hadn't seen her this happy in months. Then, stealing himself, he picked up the phone and dialed the ranch.

It was Carla who answered. "Hello?"

"Hi Carla, it's Joe. Is Levon around?"

"Sure, hang on." He heard her call something to someone, then she came back to the line. "How are you doing?"

"I'm okay, Carla. Though we won't be coming out this weekend."

"Oh? Is anything wrong?"

"Not really. Angie's got invited to a sleep over."

"Are-- oh, here's Levon."

There was the near-silent rustle as the phone exchanged hands, then, "Joe?"

"Hey cowboy," Joe said forcing a lightness into his voice. "'Fraid you're going to be on your own this weekend."

"What's up?" Levon sounded concerned, but not alarmed.

"Angie's asked to go to a sleep over here in town."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah. She really wanted to go and we have been monopolizing her weekends..."

"So she's gonna stay there?" Levon asked in a leading tone.

"Tomorrow night."

There was a pause, then Levon asked, "Y'all are gonna head back tomorrow, then?" He sounded more confused.

"Actually, I figured we wouldn't come out. If it's just to turn around and come back." Joe continued quickly, "It's getting pretty late today and we'd have to leave early tomorrow to get back in time for Angie's party so..."

"Oh." Then there was a short silence. "Well, I reckon... did she just mention it?"

"Yeah. She was afraid of interfering with us. But we've come out every weekend for months now. She needs to be able to spend time with her friends too."

"Yeah. I reckon she does. Tell her not to keep quiet for so long, next time, OK? Ain't no reason y'all need to be out here every weekend."

Joe couldn't tell if he could hear more than disappointment in his husband's voice. That bothered him; there was a time when he could practically read Levon's mind. "Yeah, that's what I told her."

"You're still planning on coming next weekend for Jim and Blair's wedding?"

"Of course! I don't want Naomi coming after me for missing it."

There was a brief chuckle. It sounded a little flat, though. "Just making sure."

The smell of something burning suddenly impinged on Joe's consciousness. "Shit, lunch is burning. I gotta go, Levon. See you next weekend." He hung up the phone and dove for the pot on the stove.

He was able to rescue everything, luckily, but had a more difficult time convincing Angie she should wait 'til after they ate to call Martha to let her know she was going.

%%%%%%%%%%%%

They were all out in the barn that evening taking care of the horses when they heard the sound of a vehicle driving up. Fooler nickered happily; Joe's first warning. Then he recognized the truck, as well.

Not sure if he believed it, Joe went to the door of the barn to look.

Levon parked the truck he'd borrowed from the herd -- if you could say that about the one who owned the herd -- and jumped out. Tony and Angie had also come to the door and yelled happily, "Uncle Levon!" Then they were both running towards him.

Joe stayed standing in the barn's doorway.

Levon grabbed each of the kids in a bear hug, then set them down, grinning. He looked up at Joe, and stopped, and the smile wavered. That broke his paralysis, and he stepped forward.

Levon came forward as well, but didn't say anything. From his expression, Joe suddenly realised, he wasn't entirely certain of his welcome. Joe's heart clenched at that realization; he opened his arms inviting his husband into an embrace. Levon didn't hesitate before moving forward. He wrapped his arms around Joe, tightly.

Joe hugged him back just as tightly. "Welcome home, cowboy," he muttered against the blond hair.

"Good to be home," he whispered.

They stood there like that for a long time, Joe relishing in feeling more together with Levon than he had for months.

Levon laughed. "If we're gonna spend the rest of the day standing like this, you might wanna tell Eurydice." The horse in question was standing nearby, having waited patiently for her turn to be brushed and put in her stall.

"I've got her," Angie said happily, dragging her little brother off with her, leaving them alone.

Levon chuckled. "Got them well-trained, anyhow." Then he looked at Joe, and there was something in his eyes which made Joe's breath catch. "I love you."

"I love you, too," Joe replied, finding his voice husky with emotion. This was his Levon looking at him, not the remote almost-stranger that had taken his place the last couple of months.

"Reckon anybody'll notice if I go into work with you on Monday? I ain't due back until Tuesday. Joy objected -- she's still getting everything ready for the wedding and seems to think I need to be there."

"She just wants the chance to order you around," he joked, even as he realized exactly how much of a hardship it must've been for Levon to leave the herd at this time. "As for work, come in with me and we'll see if anybody notices you."

Levon rolled his eyes. "She tried. Told her I was coming home for the weekend and I'd be back in time." There was a ghost of a grin. "There's some advantage to being in charge. Besides, she doesn't need me there. All I have to do is stand there and make sure Blair and Jim are paying a little attention to something other than each other."

"We didn't."

The blinding grin came back. "See? Makes my job easier."

Joe grinned back. Then, not being able to help himself, he leaned in and kissed his husband. The kiss lasted until he felt Levon chuckle again. "What?"

"If we're gonna be standing here doing that all evening...." The look in Levon's eyes was familiar. Not too glazed, not yet. But even as Joe watched, he saw his husband's gaze clear. "Have I missed dinner? I sorta jumped in the truck as soon as I could get away."

"Yeah, but I can throw something together for you." Joe found he couldn't stop grinning.

"Pasta?" Levon asked in a forced-enthusiastic tone which was very obviously put-on.

"You don't expect me to do barbecue, do you?" Joe responded in kind.

"Well, reckon I could eat Italian...." The words trailed off, the light-tone undercut by something darker. Memories, no doubt.

But Joe wasn't going to let him retreat again. "You have to eat dinner first," he said, as light as he could.

"Oh." The devilish tone was there. The grin hadn't quite returned to his eyes.

"You think we might go for a ride first though?" Joe couldn't quite keep the wistfulness out of his voice.

That brought the life back into his husband's eyes. With deceptive casualness Levon said, "I think that can be arranged."

"Now?"

In reply, Levon just stepped back, and started taking off his boots. Joe grinned and watched as his husband stripped to the skin. He stood still for a moment, grinning knowingly at Joe, before he changed. Then he called out, "You kids can stop hiding in the barn. We'll be back shortly."

Joe walked over to Levon, standing beside him and running a hand lightly over his coat, in a echo of the first time he'd touched Levon in his centaur form.

"Think you could get used to petting me?" Levon asked softly.

"Yeah," Joe responded just as softly to the words echoed from the past, looking up and meeting his partner's eyes. "I still think you're beautiful like this."

Levon held out his hand, but when Joe took it to pull himself onto Levon's back, his husband tugged him over and kissed him.

"I've missed you," Joe whispered when his mouth was finally released.

"Missed you, too. Come on, get on already before I decide to skip the riding." His eyes shone as he teased.

"At least this kind of riding?" Joe teased back with a leer as he pulled himself astride.

"Seeing as how we're outside, and Angie and Tony are trying to pretend they ain't watching us, yeah." As he turned towards the pasture, Fooler nickered again. Levon stopped, then looked over his shoulder. "She wants to come...."

Joe grinned. "I'm not the only one who's missed you. She's tolerated me exercising her, but I'm just a poor second."

Levon gave him a look which very clearly read 'not with me'. Then he teased, "You're a rich second." He headed over to let Fooler out so she could join them.

"View's better from back here anyway."

Levon just gave him a grin, then said something in Greek to Fooler. The next second he was calling, "Hang on!" and they were running.

In seconds they were full-out, racing each other across the pasture. It felt like the first time; Joe yelled in exhilaration.

%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

They stayed out for what seemed like all evening, running and playing racing games with Fooler. It was still light out, though, when they finally returned. "Why don't you put the kids to bed while I cook you that pasta I promised?" Joe asked as he dismounted.

"You promised me pasta?" Levon asked doubtfully.

"What happened to 'a centaur never forgets'?"

"What happened to 'since you don't want pasta, how about I make you a sandwich?'"

"Now you're imagining things." Joe grinned, and waited.

Finally Levon asked, "How about you put the kids to bed while I fire up the grill?"

"Now it comes out. You didn't come home to see me or the kids. You came home to visit your grill." He saw the muscles on Levon's back tense, and there was no reply. With a sigh, Joe moved closer, again stroking his husband's coat. "Can't I tease you anymore?" he asked softly.

Levon dropped his head slightly. "I didn't mean--"

He reached up and laid a finger to Levon's lips to silence him. "I know."

"I'll go get the kids ready for bed," he offered. Then he called to Fooler, who wasn't sure she was ready to head in, herself. But Levon spoke again to her and she docilely came over to follow him back to the barn.

"I'll get you something to eat." Joe fell into step beside him and after a moment's hesitation said, "Then maybe we can take a soak in the hot tub? And talk?"

Levon looked over his shoulder, smiling. "Yeah. Hot tub sounds good."

"I'll meet you in there with the food then."

Joe watched Levon walk off, then, taking his horse back to the barn. The kids were still in there, he could hear. He stood there for a moment, just listening; this was what he wanted, this was his family. And he was going to do everything he could to make sure he didn't lose it.

%%%%%%%%%%%%

Joe was in the little gazebo that housed the hot tub before Levon. He wasn't surprised, putting the kids to bed could sometimes take hours. And they'd be excited to have him home, for a change.

They weren't the only ones.

When Levon came out, he was still only wearing the jeans he'd put on to take the kids inside. He stopped at the door, and gave Joe a tentative smile. "Come on in, the water's fine," Joe said, from his place in the tub up to his chest in hot water.

"Reckon I might," he nodded, moving over to the bench. He spotted the tray, and paused. Then he grinned sheepishly. "Barbecue sandwich?"

Joe shrugged. "We had leftovers in the fridge."

Levon just grinned, as he shucked his jeans, grabbed the sandwich, and headed over to the tub. Holding out a hand, Joe steadied him as he slipped in and settled on the seat beside him.

They sat there in silence while Levon quickly ate; the hot water swirled around them, soothing and relaxing. When the sandwich was gone, Levon sat back and closed his eyes, leaning over slightly against Joe. Joe slipped an arm around Levon's shoulders and pulled him closer.

"Thanks for the sandwich," Levon said quietly.

"Anytime."

There was silence, again. Joe couldn't decide if it were as uncomfortable a silence as it seemed. Perhaps they could just both relax. Then he remembered standing in the yard listening to Levon and the kids and how much he wanted that.

"Levon?"

"Yeah?"

"We need to talk." He felt Levon began to shift away from him. He tightened his grip on his husband's shoulders. "Doesn't mean I want you to move. I like having you close."

There was a faint chuckle, and Levon settled back once more. But he didn't ask what Joe wanted to talk about.

Taking a deep breath, Joe plunged on. "And I don't want to lose this. That's why we need to talk."

"Lose what?" He sounded genuinely confused.

"Us."

Levon started, then turned to look at him. There was not, however, the disbelief or surprise he might have expected to see. That told him he wasn't the only one sensing them slipping apart. But how to go about fixing it? Levon wasn't helping; he sat there silently, watching Joe, uncertainty in his eyes once more.

"Talk to me, Levon. For the last couple of months you've just been getting more and more remote."

With a shrug, Levon looked away. But he seemed to be trying to speak, so Joe waited. Finally, "I can't think of anything to say except apologize, and you made it rather clear I should stop doing that."

"Maybe I should let you, if you feel the need to."

"Won't help matters," Levon said dismissively.

"Won't hurt them," Joe countered.

With a sigh, Levon said quietly, "I'm sorry I hurt you."

"I know," Joe replied just as softly. "I forgive you."

But Levon just stared out, through the frosted windows at nothing. "I've tried to figure out how--" He turned to Joe, and the anguish was so clear. "How to make sure I don't do it again. But I can't. What I did, I couldn't not do."

"I know," Joe repeated.

That surprised him. "How can you--?"

"Accept that?" Joe shrugged. "It's part of who you are."

"So you won't mind if I hurt you again," he said with a harsh sarcasm.

"If I understand, it won't hurt." Joe reached out and touched Levon's face gently. "We promised to give each other what they needed; if you need to take me that way sometimes I can give that to you."

Levon looked away. "I guess I should have told you," he said in a voice almost to quiet to hear.

"Yeah, you should have. And that is something you can help."

"I just... didn't think of it that way." Joe watched as Levon struggled to find the words he needed. "I just don't know where to put you, Joe. You're my husband, my love, my life. But you aren't in my herd, hell, you yell at me if I try to treat you that way. But you're not over me, either."

"How about beside you?"

"I'm trying. I just don't know how."

Joe thought about it for a moment. "There's got to be some way to work it out. We'll just have to keep trying to we find it."

There was no reply to that; maybe there was none to be made. They'd admitted what the problem was, or seemed to be. With no obvious solution... what, really, was there to be done?

Joe tugged Levon into further into his arms. "Just don't give up. That's all I ask."

"I can't," came Levon's answer.

"Good."

Levon leaned his head back onto Joe's shoulder. He didn't feel quite relaxed, and Joe couldn't blame him. But he was making no effort to move away, content to sit there in the heated, swirling water with his husband.

There were, of course, worse places to be.

Jim considered that his best course of action might well be to stand right where he was, and watch. Blair and Naomi were running around like they were preparing to leave for Tibet for a year, rather than Texas for two weeks. Either that, or both simply knew that if they didn't get everything done in the next hour, someone was going to back out.

Jim found it safer to stay out of their way.

"What are you just standing there for, man?" Blair asked as he came down the stairs from the bedroom with his knapsack.

"I'm directing traffic," he said, grinning at the faint flush of his lover's skin. There as the tiniest hint of aroma, as well -- sweat and musk and green tea from breakfast. If Naomi weren't in the living room, Jim would have considered taking Blair back upstairs.

Blair rolled his eyes. "Oh yeah, that's really helpful. Are you packed?"

"I guess so. I packed last night and included everything you reminded me six times to bring." For all the trips he and Blair had been on together, nothing came close to the preparations for this one. Blair ran the gamut between "grab your wallet and jacket and let's hit the road" to giving Jim a list of items to buy, find, and prepare two weeks in advance. This had started a month ago, and there had been four lists, total.

"Oh. Well, where's your bag?" Blair was practically vibrating, looking like he was about to go diving after it.

"In the car. Along with everything else that was packed and ready to go by 9 a.m." It was eleven, now, and their flight left at 2 p.m. If they wanted to make their flight, they'd have to leave in another... two hours.

"Okay, great. I'll just make sure we've got everything and we can go." Blair was off again.

Jim just grinned and watched him go. Naomi seemed almost as bad, moving only a little slower than Blair due to her occasional need to ask where something was. Both of them were keeping track of a thousand or more details which meant they didn't really need his help for anything more than.... Jim tried to think. Well, he had the airline tickets in his jacket.

"Tickets," Blair yelped. "Do you have--"

He patted his jacket pocket. Then he waited patiently for Blair to think of the next thing he hadn't himself had a hand in. Hopefully Blair would calm down on the plane else he'd drive the flight attendants nuts.

Apparently, Blair'd had covered everything because he headed for the door. "What are you waiting for?"

"Just to be told we were going." Jim stepped away from the wall he'd been leaning against. "Are we stopping someplace for lunch?"

"You want me to eat before flying?!" Blair shot him a 'are you nuts' look.

"Don't I get to eat?" he asked, plaintively. He hadn't thought Blair would be upset by flying, not after the way Naomi had gone on about how well the meditation worked. But he wasn't going to bring that up.

Blair rolled his eyes as they exited the apartment, muttering about sentinels and bottomless pits under his breath.

"Since when is breakfast supposed to hold me until midnight? I mean, when we're not working?" he added and Blair turned and opened his mouth. It wasn't so much that he was hungry, but if they left now they'd be at the airport for three hours. That was a pleasure he could do without.

"Fine, whatever man. Go make a pig of yourself." Blair waved at him. "Far be it for me to deprive you."

Jim grabbed Blair by the arm, and pulled him back. "You wanna tell me what's wrong?" He'd learned the hard way to ask these sorts of questions.

"You mean other than being totally freaked about going home for the first time in years?"

"Yeah, besides that. You aren't expecting any problems, are you? You said Levon was cool with it." He narrowed his eyes, wondering if he should call this off and keep Blair home, where he'd be safe. That would be annoying, since Blair'd spend the entire time yelling at Jim and then making them go, anyhow.

"He is. And I'm not expecting any problems, not really. Well, other than the fact that every time we try and take a vacation, we end up being shot at."

"So you should be used to that." Jim shrugged. "Anything else?" Joe had told him about tried and true methods of distracting a full-centaur on an airplane -- he hadn't thought he'd need to try it, but maybe he would. Hell, he might have to start now.

Blair looked at him. "Jim, why are we taking this trip?"

"To have a big party, celebrate being married." That one was easy.

"To have a wedding. Our wedding, Jim."

"Yeah. A wedding. 'Til death do us part'. We already agreed to that, a long time ago, Chief," he said gently.

"Yeah, but this makes it official. In front of everyone."

"Wasn't it official when we told each other? Did you think you could back out of it?" he brought his hand up to cup Blair's cheek, rubbing his thumb along the skin. Still flushed, but with worry as much as wound-up energy.

"Me? Hell, no. I'm in this for the duration."

"Then why are you so freaked out about this?" With a huge grin he asked, "What could possibly go wrong?"

"I don't want to be dodging bullets at my own wedding!"

"So, you can wear kevlar."

"That's not very helpful, Jim."

"So, what? I'm supposed to tell you that we won't get shot at? If I do, we'll probably just get blown to bits. Or knifed." He was joking, but he actually didn't find it amusing. But if they were going to be wary of going on vacations, they might as well just plan on staying home for the rest of their lives.

Staying at home, in bed. Now that was an idea.

Blair sighed. "I don't expect you to do anything. You asked why I was freaked. I told you."

Yeah, definitely going to have to start now. He bent down and kissed Blair.

"Mmpf?"

He stopped and checked Blair over.

"What, do I have something in my teeth?"

"No." Still a little hyper. Jim kissed him again, longer and a bit more thoroughly.

Blair cooperated thoroughly and then pulled back, laughing. "Are you trying to shut my brain off?"

"No, just redirect some of that hyperactivity," he said. "Figured if you were gonna be jumping around...."

"Uh huh." His lover continued to grin at him.

"Not working, is it?"

"Jim, have you ever known my brain to turn off?"

"No. But I couldn't think of anything else. You've been bouncing off the walls for days, and nothing I've tried has worked." He smiled. "Except for when you fell over, exhausted, two nights ago. But we can't do that out in the open."

"Yeah, if we did we'd have to arrest ourselves for public indecency."

"Not to mention your mom'd probably critique our performance."

Blair grinned. "And offer pointers."

"Are you saying we need pointers?" Jim gave his partner a very miffed look.

"I don't say it. But you know my mom. When has she ever been able to leave well enough alone?" The tone was mostly joking but there was an faint undertone of bitterness that only sentinel ears would be able to pick up. Jim was unsure if even Blair was aware of it being there.

Jim responded almost without thinking about it -- rubbing his hands up and down Blair's arms and pulling him slightly closer. "Hey, husband-to-be," he said.

"What?" Blair asked, his lips curling back up into a smile and his eyes lighting as he met Jim's gaze.

"I think I'm going to like the sound of that."

His lover's smile became even more dazzling. "Me, too."

Jim tried it out. "Husband." He thought it over, then shook his head. "Nah. 'Husband-to-be' has a better ring to it."

Blair's eyes narrowed. "Only if you plan on not going through with the wedding."

"Well, I'd have to, if I want to keep calling you husband-to-be." He laughed, then, "Ow."

"Just be glad I wasn't in centaur form," Blair said, withdrawing his foot from where he'd stamped on Jim's.

Jim just gave him a brief look. At least he seemed to be distracted from his heightened worry. There was no doubt Blair was still worrying, parts of his mind going over little details Jim would just as soon not know about. But only parts, now, instead of his whole attention. "That'll be nice," he said, thinking about Blair in centaur form. The herd's ranch would be good for that, at least. They didn't have much chance to go riding here at home.

"You want me to stamp on your foot with my hooves? Are you feeling okay, Jim?"

He laughed again. "No." He pulled Blair into an embrace and explained, "I look forward to spending two weeks being able to go riding whenever we like."

Blair snuggled closer with a contented sigh. "Yeah. We don't get to do that enough."

"I knew I shouldn't have left the two of you alone," came Naomi's amused voice from the hallway outside.

"We're getting married, Mom," Blair said, making no move to pull away from Jim's embrace. "We're supposed to be glued to each other."

She just grinned and stepped onto the elevator. "I suppose I should have expected it." She dropped a bag on the elevator floor -- next to the others Jim and Blair had been supposed to take to the truck, instead of simply riding the elevator down and back up.

"You think you'd be used to it by now."

She just gave her son a raised eyebrow. "How often have you gotten married, Blair?"

"I was talking about me and Jim being glued together."

"Oh." She waved a dismissive hand at him. "Usually you don't let it interfere with your ability to think." She cocked her head sideways at Blair. "At least, Jim doesn't."

Jim laughed.

Blair rolled his eyes. "Just hit the first floor button, Naomi."

She gave him a smile that made her look twelve years old, and did so. Jim quietly reflected that at least it would be a few minutes less that he'd have to spend at the airport.

He wondered if he could delay them any more, in the truck.

%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

The following Thursday, Levon was once again heading for Houston. He'd stayed at home through Tuesday morning, gone back to the ranch and reassured Joy that he knew what he had to do for the wedding, and then only managed to leave again this soon by virtue of just telling Joy he was going.

It was nearly 8 am by the time he hit the highway, too late to see the kids before they left for school, but early enough to catch Joe at the station in time to surprise him. They were going to pick up Jim, Blair, and Naomi at Houston International that evening; Joe wasn't expecting Levon until afternoon at the earliest.

At least, Levon thought Joe was expecting him, then. It was likely, given how long it had taken them to say 'goodbye' on Tuesday, that Joe had been expecting him yesterday.

When he got to Houston, he went directly to the station. When he drove into the parking lot, he was pleased to see the Jimmy in its usual place. As he parked and jumped out, he heard a familiar voice calling his name. He turned, smiling.

Joanne was walking towards him. "Twice in one week. One would almost think you worked here."

"One would," he replied. "But then you'd expect me to start turning in paperwork again." He walked with her towards the stairs.

"Why would I suddenly start now?"

Thoughtfully and with a straight face, he said, "As I recall, you expected paperwork handed in, on time, for nearly two months about five years ago."

Joanne rolled her eyes. "I see the memory is still working."

He gave her a glance. "'Course. In fact, I still remember everything you said that night you got so drunk you could hardly stand--"

"Then you also remember what I told you the next morning I'd do if you ever shared that information."

He just grinned. "I was merely demonstrating the clarity of my recall." They headed up the stairs, falling back into a habit they'd once established when they'd been partners.

"So how are you doing, Levon? Really?" Joanne's eyes watched him with warmth and concern.

"Well as I can, I reckon." It was an honest answer, at least.

"That could mean a lot of things."

It would take them a few minutes to reach their floor. Levon decided he might as well take advantage of the time. "I'd starting to get... used to be out there." It didn't really explain how he felt, how sometimes he didn't think about Joe or coming home, for days.

"Am I going to lose one of my best detectives?"

He looked over at her, and said calmly, "I don't know." Then he sighed, shaking his head. "I doubt it. Stuart won't stand down for long and I've no interest in killing the boy. But it may be a while. But what scares me is that I don't mind so much, anymore."

Joanne frowned. "Maybe...this is what you're meant to do," she ventured hesitantly.

"Maybe." He wasn't sure he believed it. He didn't want to believe it. He felt a surge of anger, then, at the thought of simply accepting this. "I don't want to. Damn it, I want to go home -- I want to keep wanting to go home."

"Then do it."

"I can't. Not yet. Not until I know Stuart can protect the herd." They reached the fourth floor, and Levon fell silent with some relief. Joanne shot him one more concerned look and then they were entering the bullpen.

Joe was sitting as his desk, head down over a stack of reports. Levon held his finger up to Esteban who'd glanced up and grinned. Then, very carefully, he snuck up behind his husband.

Looking up, Joe caught sight of Esteban grinning and turned to look behind him.

Levon grinned at him. "Ain't you finished those reports yet?"

Joe grinned and made a move which he visibly checked. An embrace, Levon realized, knowing this was not the place for such displays. "What do you expect with my partner playing hooky?" Joe tossed out in kind.

"Figured the place would fall apart without me around," he teased, though he felt the words echo hollowly, inside. He forced his smile to stay on his face. "Reckon I'd best sit down and help."

"Can always use your help, partner," Joe said, waving him to his desk, his words holding more than one meaning for ears that were listening for them.

Levon pulled a chair over, to sit beside Joe. He glanced down at the paperwork, then shook his head. "Don't know anything about the case. Can't help ya." He was still grinning, but he felt suddenly lonely -- missing being here, day after day, with his husband. Missed working with him, talking with him, even fighting with him.

Under the cover of the desk a hand squeezed his thigh and he looked up into Joe's knowing eyes. His forced smile turned genuine. Behind him, Esteban cleared his throat.

"You got a problem, Gutierrez?" Joe challenged belligerently.

"I hate to interrupt, but you have Johanssen's file?" He didn't look exactly apologetic, Levon noted, giving the other man an official 'herd stallion you're interfering with my fun' glare. Esteban just grinned at him. Joe found the file and handed it over.

"Thanks. You know, as long as you're here, you feel up to some real policework?" He aimed the question as Levon.

"Policework? You mean I can't just sit here all day?" Inwardly, he found himself jumping at the chance -- whatever chance Esteban was offering.

"Nah, have to make you earn your keep," Joe threw in.

Esteban nodded. "Come on, then."

"Where are we going?" Levon asked, even as he stood up.

"Warrant's come through for Johanssen?" Joe asked at the same time.

Esteban nodded. "Could use a few more friendly faces when we knock on his front door."

Feeling completely in the dark -- he didn't even know who Johanssen was, much less why they're be raiding his place -- Levon decided not to ask who and why.

"Don't blame you. Man's got a nasty rep. Count us in."

Esteban called out to his own partner that they were ready to go; Joe-Bill dropped whatever he'd been working on and grabbed his hat. He gave Levon a briefly inscrutable look, then nodded in welcome.

"We'll follow you in the Jimmy," Joe said as they stepped into the elevator.

Esteban nodded. "Don't let him drive," he pointed to Levon. "I think he's forgotten his way around."

Levon causally stepped on Esteban's toe. "Be glad that was just a boot."

"Not really enough room for a centaur in here anyway," Joe warned.

"Do you think I'm afraid of a little thing like that?" Esteban asked. He waved them off. "A good bridle and--"

Levon lunged for him, trying to get him into a headlock -- intending to tickle the hell out of him, since he knew just exactly where the man was ticklish.

Only to find himself held back by his partner. "Not enough room in here for that either, cowboy."

Levon sighed. "If you won't let me have any fun, might as well go back upstairs."

Esteban, for his part, merely laughed.

"I'll show you fun later," Joe promised, with a heated look.

"Do you two -- sorry, three -- mind?" Joe-Bill asked, trying to sound casual. It was obvious he wasn't entirely comfortable.

"Not very well," Joe replied.

"Hey, I mind. Occasionally," Esteban objected. Joe-Bill gave his partner a long-suffering look.

Levon just said, "I don't have to mind." He didn't see any reason to cut the man any slack.

"At least you have one," his husband muttered, shooting Joe-Bill a dark look.

As the elevator pinged, and the doors opened, Esteban asked, "So when do I get to come out and see these adorable babies I've heard so much about?"

Levon's grin was instant, and, he figured, foolish. "Anytime you like."

"Be prepared to have foals attached to your legs for the duration of your visit," Joe warned.

Levon found himself defending his kids. "They're kinda friendly."

"They stick like velcro," Joe corrected.

Levon gave his husband a dirty look. Joe just grinned back at him. Esteban and Joe-Bill broke away, heading for Joe-Bill's truck. Esteban nodded, "See you there."

As Levon followed Joe to the Jimmy, he said, "They don't stick like velcro."

"No, velcro's easier to unstick." He grinned again. "You know I love them as much as you do, Levon."

"Doesn't mean you have to--" He cut himself off before jumping down Joe's throat.

"What -- tease you over them? Sure I do."

"Guess my instincts' just over-reacting," he tried to wave it off. There was no reason to be upset at Joe, anyhow. That didn't explain the image of himself lunging for Esteban should he laugh at his kids. Levon rolled his eyes. Surely humans felt this way, too, and he wasn't making his husband think he was nuts -- or worse, alien. Again.

But Joe was grinning at him. "You're just acting like a father."

"One who's gonna have to wrestle his spouse to the ground if he doesn't get a move on," he nudged Joe towards the truck. A moment later he asked, "Human parents get this way too? Look at my kid cross-eyed and I'll poke your eyes out?"

"Anybody gives Angie or Tony or the foals a hard time and that would be the least I'd do." Joe's tone showed just how fervently he meant his words.

Levon relaxed, and smiled faintly. "Long as it isn't just me." He climbed into the Jimmy, and waited for Joe to get behind the wheel before asking, "Who's Johanssen?"

"Head of a drug ring that Esteban has been trying to crack for the last couple of months."

"Ah." He was definitely out of touch. It would take him weeks just to get back into the rhythm of things again, when he came back for good. That thought made him smile.

Joe glanced at him while starting the truck. "What?"

"Looking forward to coming back to work," he said quietly. Even if it was still a year away.

Or more, or less.

His husband grinned back at him. "Yeah, me too. Miss having you to watch my back."

"Miss scrubbing your back, too, for that matter." Then he added calmly, "Watch out for that van."

"Hell, I even missed your backseat driving. I must be in love."

"Or insanity."

"Probably both."

It didn't take long for Levon to feel like he'd never left; by the time he and Joe were following Esteban and Joe-Bill into Johanssen's office, they were moving together as smoothly as they ever had. The arrest went down without much trouble, barring one slight incident with a gun and a foot chase through the factory district.

Afterwards, Esteban asked Levon why he hadn't helped chase down the fleeing suspect, teasing him about getting lazy. Levon had merely replied that someone had had to keep an eye on everyone else, and it wasn't laziness, rather it was cleverness. He'd indicated the sawdust coating Esteban, Joe-Bill, and their suspect head-to-toe.

"Besides," Joe added with a grin. "We've got to pick some friends up at the airport and don't have time to stop for a shower first."

"Friends? Oh, the wedding." Esteban had been invited, along with Marguerite. Joe had joked that they were going to be "token humans" for good luck.

"Yeah. You ready to go, partner? Joanne gave me the afternoon off."

"Yeah, I'm ready." Levon gave Joe a smile; there was still plenty of time before they had to be at the airport. Maybe -- if they drove fast -- they could go home for an hour.

Joe tossed him the keys as they headed back out to the jimmy.

He glanced at his watch, thought seriously about mid-afternoon traffic in Houston, and sighed. "Wanna grab some lunch? Don't think we can make it to the house and back, unless their flight is delayed."

"Sounds good. Chicken's?"

"Sounds good to me."

Joe grinned at him. "Sounds like old times."

Levon glanced over at him. It almost felt like old times.

%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

Planes.

He hated planes.

Blair sat in the window seat, trying to ignore the pulled shade that covered the window. Tried to ignore the morbid curiosity that made him want to raise it and look out. His nervousness was coming out as hyperactivity; he was unable to sit still, squirming in his seat, his leg bouncing.

He tried to ignore Jim, who periodically would try to distract him. He tried to ignore Naomi who was calmly and quietly meditating in her seat, across the aisle.

"Do you want a drink?" Jim asked, apparently having exhausted all other venues of distraction.

"Huh?" Blair shook his head. "Oh no. Drink would be a bad idea." The very thought made him queasy.

Jim shrugged. "I'm beginning to think I should have one."

"Sorry." He made an effort to be still. It worked -- for about a minute.

"Anything I can do?"

Blair looked up into blue eyes that he thought would be irritated and only saw concern and love. "You could talk to me. Try and distract me," he said softly.

"I tried that earlier and you said the stewardess was watching," Jim replied, leaning closer and smiling.

He grinned back. "Talk, Jim."

With another laughing smile, Jim began to talk. At first it was work -- rehashing what had happened that week, and last, wondering aloud whether any of their arrests would result in justified jail time or if the courts would let them free. That segued into talk about station gossip and from there into reminiscing of them telling Simon about the wedding.

They'd decided to surprise him with the invitation, slipping it into conversation one day in Simon's office. Simon had surprised them however, by accepting it equally casually and waving them back to work. Jim, however, had overheard Simon's real reaction, and had shared it with Blair.

Blair grinned at the memory. Sometimes having a sentinel for a partner had its advantages.

"Maybe we should have bought him a new coffee mug," Jim mused.

"We'll get him one for his birthday next month. Something with horses on it maybe to commemorate the occasion."

"Or maybe you could buy him some Cuban cigars. Didn't your mother say she knows someone who can get me some?" Simon asked, from behind them.

"Anybody tell you that eavesdropping is rude, Simon?"

"Anybody tell you that making a man drop his favorite coffee mug when it's full of amaretto cream latte, is even ruder?"

Blair shrugged. "If you don't know enough not to drink when talking to us by now..."

Jim laughed. Simon just growled at them both. Then, somewhat carefully, he asked, "So tell me about your relatives, Blair. You said Sergeant Lundy's in charge, now?"

"Yeah. Has been since Taylor died last year."

"Does this mean I have to be nice to him?" The question was half-serious.

"Just be yourself, Simon. You're not one of the her...family so he won't expect you to act like you are."

Jim gave him a curious look. "Will I have to be nice to him?"

Blair gave him an innocent look. "We want him to recognize you, Jim."

"Are you saying I can't be nice?"

Simon stifled a laugh. Jim glared over the back of his chair.

"Face it, babe, you do have a certain...way with people." Blair reached out and squeezed Jim's leg as he spoke.

"I can be nice to Levon," Jim groused. "I wasn't that bad when they were in Cascade." The silence that greeted that statement was deafening. "I apologized!"

Letting his lover off the hook, Blair laughed. "Yeah, you did. And you even managed to be graceful about it."

The look Jim gave him let him know he didn't quite appreciate it. But then Jim smiled, easily.

Simon asked, "Is there anything I should know? Etiquette for meeting and schmoosing with centaurs?"

"Don't stare at the mare's assets," Blair advised. Not that the mares would mind, but that would take far too long to explain.

At Simon's confused and almost-offended look, Jim cut in, "It's going to be getting close to mating season. Still a month away or so, but you don't wanna piss off Levon."

"That would be a bad thing," Blair affirmed.

"He, um, has the final say on things, doesn't he? I mean, it's like a martial-law state?" Simon seemed to be very carefully trying to ask if Levon could do anything he liked on his land, and get away with it.

"I guess you could call it that," Blair said slowly. "But that sounds so...oppressive. And it's not."

But Simon was nodding. "Leader of the pack stuff, huh?"

"Yeah. That's it exactly."

"So what, other than don't ogle the women?"

"Don't ogle the men?"

Jim gave him a disappointed look. "Can't I--"

"I'd consider the rest of the sentence really carefully, Ellison, remembering what this trip is for."

"Ogle you?" he finished innocently.

"Nice save," Simon observed.

Jim gave him a surprised look. "Did you think I meant Levon? I've met his husband, remember?"

"I thought maybe you meant Simon," Blair said with a straight face.

"Him? I ogle him all the time. Why would I want to on vacation?"

"Very funny," Simon frowned. Jim just raised his eyebrows at him.

Things continued in that vein until the announcement came that they were beginning their final descent. Blair felt the pressure build in his ears as they did so and he grabbed onto Jim's hand in a white knuckled grip. Jim just held his hand tightly, not saying a word about it. Across the aisle, Naomi was still sitting calmly, eyes closed.

To Blair it seemed to take forever for them to land, but finally there was the familiar sharp jerk and thump and they were on the ground again. He didn't let go of Jim's hand until they'd come to a stop at the terminal however, having trouble shaking the thought of them blowing up or something now that they were safely out of the air.

He definitely had a overdeveloped sense of irony, he reflected.

Jim's arm slipped over his shoulders, pulling him sideways. There was a light kiss on his temple, then, "See? I told you I'd take care of you."

"It's in the sentinel job description," Blair teased, but he knew his expression was conveying his true feelings.

"Shall I tell you what else is in the job description?" Jim asked, lightly. Fortunately -- or not -- they were interrupted by the announcement that they were ready to deplane.

Blair grinned. "You can show me later," he promised as they were getting up and grabbing their carry-ons.

Once they deplaned, the crowd threatened to distract Jim as they made their way down the tunnel and towards the gate. That sent Blair into guide mode. "Turn it down, Jim," he murmured under his breath, reaching out and laying a hand against the small of Jim's back.

Jim nodded slightly, letting him know he'd heard, and he was, even though most of his attention was still caught by the crowd.

"You going to be okay?"

Jim nodded. Then his eyes seemed to focus on something in particular.

Blair tried to follow the direction of his gaze but not too surprisingly he didn't see anything. "Jim?"

"Joe and Levon," he said quietly. He began leading them through the crowd, and soon they could see familiar faces.

"Hi guys," Blair said cheerfully, casually when they got within hearing distance.

Both men gave them friendly smiles; Naomi moved past Jim and Blair and gave first Levon, then Joe, a hug. Taking each by the arm, she asked, "So, tell me everything! How're the babies? How's everyone?"

The rest of them were consigned to following behind as Naomi monopolized both men's conversation. In some ways Blair was relieved; he still wasn't exactly sure how he and Levon were going to relate to each other now.

There weren't too many head stallions out there that could or would accept another stallion -- and a half-breed at that -- who refused to submit. Taylor was special that way, not letting his instincts get in the way of family.

And, Blair admitted, there might have been just a little bit of guilt involved on Taylor's part as well, for what had happened to Blair when they'd visited the herd when he was a kid. For letting Alexander....

Blair broke off that train of thought before it could go any further. Whatever the reason, Taylor had always made him feel welcome and had never pulled any of the power games other head stallions would've. Blair didn't think Levon would be one of those, but still...

He saw Levon turn his attention to him, as Naomi continued talking with Joe. Blair could see his mother's attention was on them, though. Levon smiled, and held out his hand. Slowly, Blair reached out and took it, his eyes never leaving Levon's.

"Glad y'all could come down," he said. "Joy's been driving us all nuts ever since you called. If you wanna run for the hills now, we can swear we never saw you."

Blair felt some of his inner tension fade at the greeting. "Hey, we came this far, we might as well go all the way," he replied in kind.

Levon grinned, and nodded. His manner was easy, though controlled -- he felt and acted almost like Taylor had.

Blair heard Naomi's conversation with Joe spike again as she apparently decided things were going well. "Thanks for having us, Levon," Blair said with heartfelt sincerity.

"You're welcome." Levon gave him a wink. "Reckon I don't have to worry about you. Have a feeling Stuart ain't so sure -- I'd expect him to ask you to give him a couple years before visiting, again. But he won't give you any trouble."

"Thanks," Blair repeated, the rest of his worry vanishing. It looked like his and Levon's relationship was going to be much the same as it always had been.

The group somehow managed to start moving towards the baggage claim. Joe and Levon greeted Simon, and were introduced to Steven, who'd been and still was trailing along behind with a somewhat dazed air.

Joe looked at him and grinned. "He looks just like my cousin when he first found out," he confided to Jim and Blair.

Steven gave him a determined smile, friendly enough though still quite obviously dazed. Blair wondered how he'd cope with being surrounded by centaurs of all ages.

They continued to chat as they waited for the bags. When the first of them began to arrive, Naomi moved forward. Blair followed, and they were able to grab bags and pass them backwards, through the crowd, to pile beside the others.

Levon stared at the growing pile. "Gods, you travel nearly as loaded down as Joe!" Joe gave him a good hearted glare.

"Just trying to be prepared," Blair defended their mound of luggage. "You don't know what kind of luck we have with vacations."

Levon and Joe exchanged a look. "Reckon they can't be any worse than ours," Levon said.

"I wouldn't lay money on that if I were you," Simon said.

"Oh, yeah?" Levon looked at Jim and Blair. "Should I be worried about letting y'all visit?"

Blair exchanged looks with Jim. "Nah," they said together.

Levon just looked at them, dubiously. Then he frowned. "If anyone ends up dead, missing, or painted pink, I'm coming after you."

"That wasn't my fault, man," Blair protested. "Marilee told me it was washable."

"Uh-huh." Levon continued giving him a frown -- ignoring the suddenly interested looks from everyone else, except Naomi who was merely giggling.

"It wasn't!"

"Which is why I'm telling you now, not to do it again -- to any of my herd. Anyone else is fair game."

"He hasn't painted anyone in at least five years," Naomi reassured Levon.

Blair felt himself flushing. Jim was looking at him with an expression that told Blair that eventually he'd be spilling the whole story. For now Jim just raised an eyebrow. "Only five years?"

"Long story," he muttered back sentinel soft. That incident was not one he was going to share.

Jim just nodded. "I guess finger-paint soaps don't count."

At that there were several laughs. Simon muttered something about too much information.

"At least you didn't have a coffee mug to drop this time, Simon," Blair teased.

By this time all the luggage had been accounted for, including that one piece which always arrives dead-last. They grabbed a couple luggage carts, and headed for the car rental.

Naomi picked up the vehicle she reserved and they loaded most of the luggage into the trunk. "We've got to swing by the school and pick up the kids," Joe said. "We'll meet you out there."

As the group began to split up, Levon paused. "Hey, Blair? You mind riding with us?" A quick glance and he added, "Jim as well, if you want."

"Um, sure," Blair said glancing at his partner. There was an undercurrent to Levon's voice that made Blair worried.

Naomi gave her son a quick hug before leading Simon and Steven away, already telling them the first of a hundred stories about Houston.

The four of them headed out to the short term parking garage; Levon didn't say a word about why he'd asked them along. He did ask his husband to drive, though, as they drew near the truck. Blair saw Joe give him a look, but took the keys without comment.

As soon as they were in the truck, Jim asked, "What's all this about?" Joe hadn't even started the engine, yet.

Levon glanced over, and turned slightly in his seat so he could face them. "Wanted to let you know about Alexander."

At the name Blair tensed. "What about him?" he asked, his voice coming out more harsh than he intended.

But Levon sort of smiled, and shook his head. "Don't worry about him, Blair. He's dead."

All the breath left Blair's lungs in a whoosh. Dead. He wasn't sure if he dared to believe it. All his life, Alexander had been his own personal boogeyman; Blair was self aware enough to realize that it was due to a large part what Alexander had done to him when he was a kid that he couldn't, wouldn't, let anyone dominate him. One of his most secret fears was that Alexander would come after him again.

A fear it seemed he didn't need to have any longer.

"Dead?" Jim repeated, in a tone Blair recognized as a mix of professional interest, and personal.

Levon just nodded, watching Blair.

"Good," Blair finally managed, with vicious satisfaction.

Jim glanced his way, looking only slightly worried. Then he asked, "What happened?"

Levon didn't answer.

"A challenge?" Blair guessed.

Levon nodded. Jim, however, didn't look satisfied. "Who killed him?" It seemed as if he suspected the answer, already.

Joe spoke for the first time in the conversation. "Levon did."

Jim looked at Joe, then turned his attention back to Levon. He seemed to be trying to word his next question. Finally he said, "The instinct thing, huh?" It was clear to Blair that he didn't know whether to disapprove, or ignore it.

"I don't know about that," Joe said levelly, his eyes on the road. "If I had been in Levon's place I would've killed him too."

It was Levon who gave Joe an astonished look. But it was Jim who asked, "Why?"

"Alexander wanted the herd. He would've been worse than Rustin."

"Protect the tribe," Blair said softly.

Joe shrugged. "Yeah, guess you could put it that way."

"Will you get into any trouble for that?"

Levon shook his head. "No one will even know he's gone -- no one that cares."

"No more than we got in trouble for Jug," Blair put in. "This is a different culture with different rules. But they're -- we're -- good at keeping secrets."

Jim nodded at that, but his ensuing silence told Blair there was more. Levon, however, was still looking at Joe, uncertainly. "You would have?" he asked.

Joe glanced from the road at his husband. "Yeah. Told you, he was worse than a rabid dog. He needed to be put down."

"Thought you were just saying that," Levon replied quietly.

"No," Joe said.

Levon fell silent.

"What, you thought I would just stand aside and let him kill you? Let him kill the foals?" Joe sounded hurt.

"I didn't think you'd kill him. Not without trying other things, first," came Levon's reply. Jim and Blair sat quietly, not intruding on what was a private conversation.

Joe glanced at him again. "Not when anything less meant he still threatened the foals. He would've kept coming, Levon."

Levon nodded, giving his husband a look which seemed to say a lot.

Blair felt like he was missing half the conversation, but whatever it was it seemed serious. Jim seemed to be willing to drop the subject of Alexander's death, as well. After a few moments of silence he glanced at Blair, asking if they should keep quiet, or change the subject.

Change the subject. Good idea, Blair thought. He shifted in his seat as he searched for a safe topic and finally settled on, "So tell us about the foals. They talking yet?"

"Not yet," Levon answered easily. The tension didn't dissolve immediately, but as his uncle began talking about the foals, his smile became genuine and he and Joe both grew more relaxed. "Taylor should be starting any day now -- he's been making noises for all the world to hear, for about a week, now. The other little ones can't figure out how he's doing it."

"I think Laurie might give him a run for his money though," Joe threw in. She's been watching people talk with this really intense look, like she's studying them."

"Yeah," Levon grinned, then looked thoughtful. "Wonder if it won't take her a bit longer, though. She's not growing as fast as the others -- kinda reminds me of Blair, at that age."

Blair shifted in his seat again, feeling a bit of the self consciousness that had been pretty much his constant companion from the moment he'd realized he was different. Not that most of the others had tried to make him feel different, but the fact had remained that he was. Just like Laurie was different. He felt a sudden kinship for the little filly.

Still there were some things he hadn't been all that different in. "That doesn't mean anything, Levon," he said. "I talked before any of my yearmates."

"True enough," Levon nodded. "Ain't stopped, yet, either. Lord, I hope Laurie doesn't do the same." He was grinning as he said it, and let out a laugh as Joe reached over and thumped him.

Jim was giving him another of those looks -- the one that said "I'll bet you were cute at that age." At least he hoped so -- if Naomi had brought out those photo albums....

He was going to have to have a long talk with his mother. Not that it would do any good, but he was still going to.

They talked about the foals the rest of the drive. It actually didn't take much encouragement to get both Joe and Levon relaying stories and details about each of the babies. They seemed to relax with each other too, talking over each other and finishing each other's sentences. They were acting as partners, long-term lovers, again instead of...whatever that had been earlier.

When they stopped at the school, two young kids came running over, shouting happily when they saw Levon. They both gave Jim and Blair the dubious look of strangers, until Levon introduced them and explained who they were. Angie was immediately enchanted and latched onto Blair, asking question after question. She was talking so fast Blair almost didn't have a chance to answer her.

Jim just grinned, but made no attempts to interrupt. Angie dominated the conversation on the drive back to the house, and was only deterred temporarily when Joe told her she needed to go pack her bags for the next week.

"She's...uh...enthusiastic," Blair said as the kids ran off to their rooms.

"She's hyper-active." Levon corrected. "Joe tells me all ten year old human girls are." He gave Blair a wink. "That's why she's riding in the back with the two of you." He almost looked serious as he added, "Hope y'all don't mind. But I needed to tell you about Alexander."

Blair nodded. "I know." Then he added, "Thank you."

"Sorry about those questions," Jim offered. "Probably just reflex."

Levon nodded. "That's all right."

They heard Joe call for Levon, then, and he excused himself and headed down the hallway.

"There is definitely something going on there," Blair muttered, watching him go.

"Yeah. I don't think it's good, either." Jim answered, equally quietly.

"Oh yeah, definitely bad."

%%%%%%%%%%%%

The kids kept Jim and Blair entertained -- or so it appeared -- on the drive out to the ranch. Kept them distracted at least. It left Joe with time to think.

Not necessarily a good thing, lately. This time he found himself dwelling on the exchange he and Levon had had earlier, on the realization that his husband hadn't believed his comments about Alexander a couple of months ago.

Had, regardless of what Joe had said, still believed himself judged and found wanting. All this time at least part of their problems had been based on that misunderstanding. Joe felt like laughing -- or crying. Because what it boiled down to was Levon hadn't believed him. Hadn't trusted him.

When they arrived at the ranch, it seemed like the entire herd was there. Naomi, Simon, and Steven were each standing with a few mares, talking -- Naomi, excitedly; Simon looked bewildered; Steven looked stupefied. When Jim and Blair climbed out of the truck, both Simon and Steven headed over, relieved at the sight of familiar faces.

Angie and Tony ran off immediately with their cousins, and Levon just stayed back and watched it all. Joe could remember Taylor doing the same thing -- no matter what the activity, the level of excitement, often as not he would just stand back and watch with a smile on his face.

Levon looked...at home. Like he found his place. Like he belonged here. The sensation of him slipping away intensified for Joe.

He looked over at Joe, then, and something flickered across his face. One of the colts came up to him and asked a question, apparently inviting him to come along, but Levon only looked down briefly and shook his head. Then he walked over to Joe.

Joe didn't say anything, just looked at him. Levon appeared somewhat at a loss, as well. Finally, though, he asked quietly, "You wanna sneak off somewhere? It's gonna be pretty hectic around here; doubt anyone will notice we've gone."

Mutely, Joe nodded.

Levon gave his herd another glance, then nodded towards the barn. "Let's go for a run."

Again Joe nodded, and followed his husband to the barn. Wordlessly, Levon went over to the lockers and began to strip. Joe watched, but for once he was too preoccupied to take any special pleasure in the sight. Levon seemed to notice, or perhaps he simply felt the same way, for he took no time in undressing, and changing. He still held out his hand to Joe.

Reaching out, his eyes never leaving Levon's, Joe took it.

They headed out, apparently without direction. Levon wandered slowly, back and forth as they headed away from the house. Joe let the feeling of his husband's muscles moving beneath him as they walked soothe him, calming some of his more agitated emotions.

The pasture seemed to be calming him, too. It had come alive in the last few weeks. Spring flowers had bloomed, the grasses were tall and green, and everywhere were signs of birds and small animals making their home in the fields. They startled a hare, which dashed for a better hiding spot as they went past.

"I love it out here," Levon remarked calmly.

"I know," Joe replied, feeling another stab of something very close to despair.

"I wish you and the kids could stay out here all the time."

"Is that the only way we can still have you?"

He felt Levon's surprise, then his husband came to a quick halt and looked over his shoulder. The lost expression on his face tore at Joe. "I just meant I wished this was home," he whispered.

"I know." Joe sighed, trying to ignore the hurt that caused. He thought Houston was their home, thought what they'd built there together, what they had there was home. To hear Levon wish otherwise...

"Course, you'd go nuts in about a month, I reckon," Levon went on, with a faint tone of forced lightness. "Can't see you doing the ranch-foreman thing."

"You don't need a foreman here."

"You rather be a ranchhand?" Levon looked away before Joe could answer. "I wanted to tell you... thank you."

"For what?" Joe asked, surprised.

"For what you said, about Alexander. I know you already said you agreed with what I did. I didn't quite realize you'd have done it, yourself."

"I told you, there's no way I'd risk him getting to the foals."

Levon was silent for a moment, looking out across the field. "I know. I just... expected to be on my own. Even with everything that's between us, I reckon I just thought I'd be on my own."

"The only way you'd be on your own is if you push me away."

Levon hung his head slightly. "I don't mean to push you away. But I feel like I'm the only one...." He shook his head, frustrated. "I'm the only herd stallion in the world married to a human. I'm trying to balance two worlds in a way that no one else can understand. I don't want to lose you, Joe. But sometimes I look around and you're not there. And I don't know if it's because you walked away, or because I did."

Joe swallowed around the sudden lump in his throat. "I'm still here, Levon. Even when you do try to pull away."

Levon leaned back, towards him. Wrapping his arms around his husband tighter, Joe sighed. "Ever since I came down here, to take the herd, I've felt like... I'd been torn out of my life and thrown into another. I like it here, and I love them all. But they're my herd. Not my family." He glanced back. "Does that make sense?" he asked bleakly, as if expecting Joe to say "no".

"Yeah." It also made Joe feel slightly better, that Levon still thought of him and the kids as family.

"But the longer I'm out here, the harder it is to believe I can ever come home." Faintly, so that Joe could barely hear even pressed close as he was, Levon said, "I don't even know what's wrong anymore. It just feels so bad."

Joe closed his eyes, knowing all about feeling bad. "We'll work it out, Levon," he promised, determined. "If you can't come home, then maybe we'll bring home here." It would hurt to lose Houston, but it would hurt worse to lose Levon.

With a faint note of sudden hope, Levon asked, "Maybe... for the summer at least? I know you don't wanna be here during mating season, but it's only a couple of weeks--"

"If the kids and I move out it'll be for good, until you're ready to leave. I'm not going to yank them back and forth more than I have to." He sighed. "I've been doing too much of that as it is."

Levon raised his head slightly, giving Joe a look of uncertain hope. Then a smile appeared -- the first truly happy one Joe had seen in a long time.

It was like seeing the sun after a month of rainy days. "I told you, cowboy. We'll work it out. I'm not letting you go this easily."

"You'd think I'd learn, after the first two or three years." Levon replied. He reached for Joe's hand, and squeezed it tightly.

"You'd think."

He felt Levon shift his weight from the left to the right, then back. It was like a giant wriggle. Then he turned his head, again. "How about you?" he asked softly.

"How about me, what?"

"Are you OK? I haven't exactly been around much to keep an eye on you." He smiled again.

Joe was silent for a moment before replying. "I haven't been throwing any parties lately if that's what you mean. I've missed you. I know you've gotta be out here right now, but still... you're not the only one who's had moments wondering if you were ever coming home."

Quietly, his husband said, "I know." In the ensuing silence, it seemed there was nothing that could be said. It was as if they stood on either side of a narrow chasm -- easy enough to step over, once upon a time. But growing ever wider, unless they looked for some way to cross.

"You think we could get a hot tub?" Joe asked, trying to make the effort. "If the kids and I move out here?"

"We'll get whatever we want," Levon said seriously. Then he grinned, though it looked half-forced. "I happen to know the guy who owns this place."

"Yeah? And what would I have to do to get on his good side?"

"Seems to me, you're already on it." The smile became a less forced.

Joe smiled back, finding it easier than it had been for long time. "Lucky me."

Levon turned his head, leaning a bit and tugging on Joe a bit so he could reach, and kissed him.

Pulling back, Joe murmured, "Hold that thought." Then he slid off Levon's back and moved around in front of him, pulling his head down and resuming the kiss.

A second later Levon pulled back. With a grin which said it all, he changed forms and moved back into the kiss.

"I take it we're going for a different kind of ride, huh, cowboy?" Joe asked when Levon broke the kiss and started nuzzling at his throat instead.

A half-articulated groan was his only answer.

"Yeah, that's what I thought." He wrapped his arms around Levon, his hands moving caressingly over his skin.

Levon opened his eyes long enough to focus on him, and say softly, "Love you."

Joe echoed the words back. That was the most important thing. As long as they kept that in sight, they would muddle through somehow.

%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

Jim had convinced himself that he could deal with a herd full of centaurs. He'd seen Blair in centaur form often -- not often enough in his opinion, but several times -- and he'd met four of the mares now in Levon's herd, back in Cascade. He knew, from knowing Naomi, that a centaur could be as normal or flaky as humans.

So why he was standing in the middle of the yard trying not to stare like UFOs were landing, he couldn't say. Blair looked at him and chuckled. "I'd ask them all to change to human form, but somehow I don't think that would help much."

Jim gave his partner a smile, not embarrassed that Blair had read him so easily. "Surrounded by a bunch of naked women? No, thanks. I don't need you and Levon both mad at me for staring." He gave Blair a wink.

Oddly, his senses had taken almost no time at all to adjust. Perhaps because subconsciously he felt no threat from the centaurs. Or perhaps it was simply because they were Blair's family.

"Come on. Carrie wants to introduce us to her daughter."

Jim nodded and followed Blair, taking one last glance towards his brother. Naomi had returned to hold his hand, apparently, but Jim couldn't tell if it was working, yet. He grinned to himself.

Blair followed his gaze and grinned as well. "You think he's going to adapt before he has a stroke?"

"Hope so. Hate to have my best man miss my wedding." He stopped suddenly as something very short, and very quick, appeared at his feet. He looked down and found a young colt looking up at him.

"Hi, I'm Draper. I'm from last season's births which means Taylor was my sire. Are you gonna meet this year's foals? Everyone's all excited about them and I don't mind because last year everyone was excited about me and Jody and Cox and Doro -- her name's Dorothy but we call her Doro."

Jim blinked. "Um, yeah."

"You want to help me show Jim where the nursery field is?" Blair asked the colt with a grin.

Draper nodded, and reached up and took Jim's hand. Then he led them, with a determined air, towards the nursery field -- telling them as they went all about the births, and how they compared to last year's. "There were two boys last year, and only one this year. Momma thinks Taylor will be Levon's favorite at least till next season, but I think it's gonna be Laurie because she's Joe's, too. But she's Joe's favorite so maybe Levon will pick another favorite even though the herd stallion doesn't really have favorites, momma says, but he kinda does anyway at least for the first year until the next babies are born. Then everyone becomes his favorite."

Jim wondered at the fate which had introduced him to a miniature Blair.

"And were you the favorite last year?" Blair asked when Draper paused for breath.

Draper started to nod, then shook his head, then stopped, tilting his head to one side. He looked so exactly like Blair, that Jim found it eerie. Draper replied, "I think I was. Taylor died right after birthing season. Doro might have been his favorite, though, because she was born first. Or Cox, because he was the last. I don't think it was Jody, though, except Taylor used to take her running -- well, really she couldn't run all that well."

Jim realized that no doubt all the foals had been favorites. He glanced up at Blair, and found a almost-hidden, knowing smile. "And how do you run?"

Draper gave Blair a serious look. "Oh, I'm a good runner. So is Doro, now. Last week I beat Jody in a race. None of us can beat the two year olds, but Marta says by next year we might be able to if we practice real hard. Oh! Here's the nursery. Come on, I'll introduce you to Carrie." He tugged on Jim's hand.

Jim followed the colt willingly, past several centaurs of all ages, playing with the foals. He recognized Carrie up ahead, the young woman...err centaur...looking a lot more happier and content than the last time he'd seen her. Apparently being owned by Levon was good for her. She smiled as she caught sight of them, and came towards them -- a very young filly trailing at her feet.

Blair stepped forward and hugged her. "You look great!" he enthused.

"Thank you. It's so good to see both of you!" She gave Jim a hug, as well, not noticing his hesitation before embracing the bare-chested woman. Married, yes. Dead -- no.

"You have to meet my little girl," she exclaimed, looking back at the shy filly.

Kneeling so he was on eye level with her, Blair smiled and held out his hand to the child. The filly looked at him doubtfully, glancing up at her mother for reassurance.

Carrie nodded, and said, "This is Blair, your daddy's nephew. That makes him your cousin."

"Hi, Laurie," Blair said. "I've heard a lot about you."

Laurie made a sound which in baby-talk could have been anything, and surged forward, grabbing onto Blair's arm. She grinned triumphantly, then realized Jim was watching her and froze, once more.

"It's okay," Blair reassured her. "That's Jim. He's my -- well he's going to be -- my husband."

She gave Blair a curious look. Jim stifled a laugh, realizing that it was no surprise why Laurie was anyone's favourite.

"That means he and I are sorta our own herd. Just really, really small."

She considered this. She looked at Jim, then Blair. With a concerned expression she looked at her mother, then glanced around. Her face became determined, then, and she stepped forward, lifting her arms to the both.

Blair climbed back to his feet as Jim picked Laurie up off of hers. She wrapped an arm around his neck, and looked satisfied. Jim looked at Blair. "Has our herd just been enlarged by one?" he teased.

"Or she's invited us into her herd." Blair grinned and reached out a hand to the small filly.

Laurie looked pleased with her new herdmates, however it was she intended things. Jim was amazed, despite having been told, at the likeness of the filly to LaFiamma. Had he not known, he would have had little trouble determining her parentage -- had he not known Joe was human, of course. He glanced at Blair; then again being human didn't mean it was impossible.

It was then that his brain caught up with his surroundings. He was holding an infant centaur. He looked down at her and suffered the daze of unreality, unfazed by the long knowledge of his own partner's heritage. It was as if holding the infant reinforced the reality he had thought he'd long ago accepted. He didn't try to keep the amazed look off his face.

"Finally sinking in, is it?"

Jim grinned. "It'd be hard not to. Not when there's a hoof digging into my side."

"That would probably do it, yeah."

Jim looked up to find Blair grinning at him. "Glad I could amuse you," he said dryly.

"Oh, you're better than prime time TV." He nudged against Jim's side. "Feel like going for a ride?"

That brought an immediate smile. "Absolutely." He shifted his hold on the filly to hand her over to Carrie. Laurie grabbed onto his arm.

Blair grinned. "Looks like you've got another conquest there, Jim."

"Yeah." He wasn't sure if they would be allowed to take the filly with them -- nor was he sure if he wanted to. Suddenly she squirmed to be let down, however. As Jim did so he realized he could smell and hear Joe and Levon approaching. Laurie was apparently more interested in her dads than any two-bit cousins.

Jim grinned. "You mentioned a ride?"

"Yeah. Just let me get changed." Blair suited actions to words and began to strip right there.

He almost protested, but swallowed his words. If Blair was willing to change in front of the others... he wasn't about to stop him. He did keep an ear out for any remarks he would have to follow up on, later.

Watching Blair slowly change captivated Jim as always, but not so much so that he didn't notice Laurie watching as well with an intense expression on her small face. He saw Levon laugh and pick her up, saying something softly to her and making her laugh. What he didn't hear were any comments about Blair. None at all.

As he always did when he changed, Blair turned and gave himself a quick once-over, a nervous habit he didn't seem able to break. Jim moved forward and ran his hands down Blair's sides, onto his waist where the soft hair began.

Blair smiled down him. "Everything's where it's supposed to be."

"Not quite." Jim moved forward, and placed his mouth on Blair's. His partner's arms went around his waist as he was kissed back enthusiastically.

Then he overheard a comment, but it was nothing he needed to repeat to his partner. When he stepped back, he kept one hand on Blair as he walked around beside him. Then he leapt onto Blair's back, and settled himself easily.

Blair glanced over his shoulder at him. "You put on weight?" he teased.

"You still ticklish?" Jim asked casually, resting his hands on Blair's sides.

"You feel like being bucked off?"

"Not in front of the children."

"Oh I don't know," Blair said thoughtfully. "Never too early to learn what do to with an ornery rider."

"Let's just get out of here before Joy or your mother finds us." There was the most important rule for pre-wedding events: avoid the organizers for as long as possible.

"Hang on!" And with that warning, Blair exploded from a standstill into a full gallop.

They ran. Jim held back the urge to yell, knowing his voice would carry all the way across the fields. After several moments, under his breath, he began, "Dum dada dum dada dum dada dum dada dum dum!"

He must've been a bit louder than he thought, because it was obvious Blair had heard him and almost stumbled as he started laughing.

He grinned. "We need Hoss and Little Joe."

"Hate to break this to you, Jim, but this isn't the Ponderosa."

"No? You don't think Lundy'd appreciate being called "Pa Cartwright"?"

"I don't think I appreciate being cast as the livestock."

"You wanna be the villain? Or the deputy," Jim mused. "That'd work better -- although I should point out that, as an equine, you are best suited to play the livestock."

"I could still buck you off you know."

"Nah, you wouldn't," Jim said easily. He felt wonderful -- he wanted to stay here forever, just he and Blair and the wide, open, uninhabited space.

"Only because I'd have to come back and pick you up again." Blair too seemed to be more...relaxed than he'd seen him in a long time.

"And then I'd just start singing the theme to Bonanza, again."

Blair snorted and gave a short little crow hop.

"Hey! Easy there, boy." With a grin he couldn't repress, he leaned forward. "Whassa matter, you smell somethin'?"

"Isn't that my line?"

"Not according to the "Bonanza" scripts. Or is that from Lone Ranger?"

"It would be if there was a sentinel on the shows."

Jim sighed. "All right, I'll be the Intrepid livestock who smells the rattlesnake. But that means you have to wrestle the bad guys to the ground by yourself."

"There's not going to be any bad guys on this trip, remember?" There was a hint of an edge to Blair's voice, warning him not to tempt fate.

"Oh, right. Hmm...." Jim thought it over. "I don't think they had any episodes where there weren't bad guys. Even when Little Joe met a girl he fell in love with." He sighed, sadly. "Have to think of a different theme song, I suppose."

Blair continued to run, if not full out, at a definite ground eating pace for a long time. After a while, Jim began humming again.

His partner went from full run to standing still in a split second, hoofs skidding on the ground. The movement came close to giving Jim whiplash.

"That is not funny, man."

Jim was still trying to grapple with his seat to keep from falling off. When he was steady once more, he took a deep breath. "OK, no 'Mr. Ed.' Got that."

"Good."

Jim considered and rejected the option of looking cute at his partner -- Blair couldn't see him from here. "Maybe I should just ride quietly?" he suggested.

"Excellent deduction."

Jim nodded, and kept quiet.

Blair started moving again, and after a while of running in silence he started talking, relating memories from his childhood in these fields. It was just exactly the sort of day they needed, Jim realized. They were both relaxed, enjoying themselves, all the stresses of the previous weeks -- hell, months -- seemed to have gone.

He hadn't thought about work once, even with Simon along for the trip. And Blair hadn't once today mentioned Naomi in that tone. The tone which said he loved her but would just rather not see, hear from, or think about her for a while.

That had been happening more and more lately, not surprisingly seeming to grow in proportion to the amount of time spent in Naomi's presence. Blair hadn't come out and said anything but it was clear his tolerance for his mother's presumptions and interference was at an all time low.

Jim had no idea what to do about it. His impulse was to simply toss her out and refuse to allow her to contact Blair. But he knew what Blair would say about that, and didn't really want to be on the receiving end of that amount of anger.

He couldn't help but fear it was all going to come to a head though and soon. And he had no doubt that when it did it was going to be explosive.

%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

The room was lit by a single overhead fixture. The windows were covered, the door shut tightly. In the center of the room was a table, around it two men stood. "You sure this is accurate?" the older of the two asked.

"As accurate as Rand-McNally could ever hope to be. Better. I've seen most of these areas, myself," the second man waved a hand over various sections of the map. Hand-drawn lines and formations filled out details on the survey map.

The first man nodded absently, falling back into silence as he studied the map with serious intent.

"So I was thinking," the second man began, somewhat nervously, "That this way would be the best. Approach from here." He traced a route with his finger from a thin, minor-highway black line, into the heart of the map.

"Sentries?"

"They patrol here, here, and here. Otherwise they just seem to be standing in these spots I've marked." Again, the finger jabbed.

"Should be able to sneak right on by then."

The second man nodded. "So -- what then? We just gonna take more photos? Or is it time we did something?"

"Oh, we'll be shooting, but it won't be with film."

%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

The herd was gathered outside, when Jim and Blair returned from their ride.

The center of the gathering seemed to be the foals who were scampering about, playing with each other and trying to urge their elders to join them. Joe and Levon were both figuring prominently in their attempts and both men seemed to be more relaxed and happy than Blair had seen them since they'd arrived in Houston.

Their attention wasn't reserved for the foals, either. The older kids were there as well, alternating between playing with the foals as well, or trying to convince the elders and each other that other, older games would be more fun. All in all it seemed like a wonderful, relaxed, spring afternoon.

It didn't seem odd at first that it was Stuart standing to the side, watching, rather than Levon. The expression on his face, however, made Blair pause.

He looked depressed. More than that, he looked resigned.

It suddenly struck home to Blair exactly what kind of no man's land Stuart was in. As far as he knew there'd never been a herd stallion in waiting. Heir apparent, yes, but they never lived with the herd, and never expected to take over before the herd stallion's death.

From what Naomi had passed along, the herd seemed to be OK with it. At least there had been no serious reservations about it -- although Blair didn't know if that was due to Levon's simply having told them it would happen. But Naomi hadn't ever told him what Stuart thought about it all.

Knowing the centaur mentality, it probably hadn't occurred to anyone to ask.

Jim got off Blair's back, and stepped forward, looking up at him. "I'm gonna go check on Steven, see if he's holding up all right."

Blair nodded, his attention still on Stuart and the young stallion's obviously troubled mood. Stuart continued watching the others; finally his gaze met Blair's. He stopped, looking at Blair for a moment as his face changed swiftly into a mask of calm.

Never show any weakness to a potential challenger. Blair suppressed a sigh of irritation. Like his life wasn't complicated enough, he'd want a herd on top of it? Blair saw Jim glance Stuart's way before heading off to find his brother.

Stuart went back to watching the herd, though now with frequent glances Blair's way. Blair had to restrain a sudden impulse to stick his tongue out at him.

There was a brief rise in noise from the centaur kids; then a group of them, along with a few of the younger mares, headed off. It sounded as if they'd arranged a race, from the jostling and jockeying for position he overheard.

With the herd split, Stuart moved away from his position overlooking everything. After a moment's thought, Blair moved through the dispersing centaurs, heading for Stuart's position. Hopefully he'd be able to get the other stallion to talk without having to thump him first.

Stuart saw him coming, and changed the angle of his direction. Still moving away, but moving slightly more towards Blair. They'd meet, some distance away from the herd. Perfect for a private chat.

He tried to ignore the fact that it also was perfect for a private fight.

When they met up, Stuart continued walking slowly. He manner was open, non-defensive -- but they were still in sight of the others. When they were out of earshot for all but a Sentinel, but still within sight, Stuart stopped. Blair waited for the other stallion to make the first move.

Stuart looked at him, a slightly quizzical expression on his face. Then he grinned, looking for a moment every bit a sixteen year old kid. "You wanna drag half a dozen adults down here at top speed?" he said in an obviously teasing tone.

"We could, but that would defeat the purpose of coming out here to talk privately, don't you think?"

Stuart shrugged, but was still grinning. "They're all trying not to watch; I don't know why -- you're not a threat." The matter-of-fact statement took Blair somewhat by surprise.

"No, I'm not," he affirmed. "I have enough to handle, just managing the life I have now."

Stuart nodded easily, and the vestiges of his guarded position left. "So what'd you want?" the boy asked, shifting slightly so he could look back towards the herd -- grinning at something before turning back to Blair.

"I thought you might want someone to talk to that you don't have to worry about," Blair said, choosing his words carefully.

The young stallion looked surprised. "Talk about what?" he asked, though Blair was pretty sure he knew what Blair meant.

"It can't be easy waiting for Levon to hand over the herd."

Stuart didn't answer right away. He looked at Blair, then slowly the calm, teasing mask slid away a little. An adolescent's impatience warred with a herd stallion's maturity in his eyes. But Stuart just shrugged. "He will when the time is right." There was an odd note in his voice.

"You sound like you have doubts," Blair ventured.

Stuart gave him a sharp look. "Blair, would you promise not to talk to anyone about this?"

"Scout's honor, man." He conveniently ignored the fact he had never been a scout. It was the intention that counted.

"I'm not so sure Levon--" He stopped, struggling with how to say it the right way. "I don't think he's making the right choice," he finished, very quietly.

Blair knew what it took for Stuart to admit that, to actually vocalize his disagreement with his herd stallion, even if he was supposed to take over. "What choice do you think he should make?"

"I think he's hurting his family by staying," Stuart said more readily. As if talking about the human side of Levon's family was less difficult, or less dangerous. "I heard them talking about moving out here."

That startled Blair. Not that Joe would be willing to do so; Blair knew all about giving up your life to stay with the person you loved. But if Levon's family moved here... "You think Levon's thinking of staying on?"

"I think he's thinking he has to," Stuart replied carefully. "I'm not full-grown yet, and any passing stallion is likely to out-weigh me significantly even if they aren't better fighters."

"There's nothing wrong with your brain though."

Stuart nodded. "I know. I'm not really worried about it -- there's no one locally, anyhow, to challenge. And others -- well, how are they going to know some kid has a herd?" Stuart said the last with a touch of bitterness. Then he shook his head. "But it's Levon's decision. And he seems to have made it."

There wasn't much Blair could say to that. It was indeed Levon's decision. Even if he made the wrong one.

"I just hate to think what he's doing to his marriage," Stuart continued. "He and Joe were... not perfect, but as close to it as you could get, I think. Ever since Levon had to come out here, it's been sliding downhill. I don't want them to lose it because of me. Because Levon thinks I'm not old enough."

"Yeah, I could see there was something...off...between them," Blair agreed.

"Even if Joe moves out here, I'm worried they're gonna reach the point where they just...." Stuart spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. "I don't think it'll help. I think Joe will leave, again, and once he does, they won't start over."

"It's gotten that bad?"

"It has. I'm not sure they know it, or admit it. But if they really think Joe and their kids living here is going to help -- mating season's coming up soon. That in itself will be bad enough, but if Levon keeps putting down roots here he'll never go. And Joe can't raise his niece and nephew here. Give up his own life, for Levon? They'll be gone by next season." Stuart was watching the herd, now, face troubled.

It struck Blair then that Stuart was already acting as head stallion, worrying about his herd -- which seemed to include Levon and Joe and their family. That, more than anything proved to Blair that Stuart was ready to take over. Now all he had to do was convince Levon of that.

"I'm not sure how to tell Levon, though. Not as long as--"

"I'll talk to him," Blair heard himself saying.

Stuart blinked. "You'll what?"

"I'll talk to him. You're right and somebody needs to make him see it before he throws his marriage away."

Stuart looked a bit uncomfortable -- not so much that Blair could see that he would say "no". "Blair, if he knows I've said this...."

"Don't worry." Blair grinned. "By the time I get finished with him, who I've been talking to will be the last thing on his mind."

Stuart grinned. "I'd really appreciate it, Blair. You'll let me know what he says?" Again, the boy sounded more like the herd stallion tending to his herd.

"Hopefully you'll hear it yourself, if all according to plan."

He nodded. "Thanks, Blair."

"Any time. You looked like you needed to talk to someone."

Stuart held out his hand.

Blair took it, feeling much the same as he had when Taylor had offered him a handshake. "You're going to do all right, Stuart."

He grinned, looking once again like a sixteen year-old kid.

"Race you back to the barn," Blair offered.

Stuart laughed. "You don't stand a chance!" And they were off.

%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

Levon was relieved to see Stuart and Blair shake hands. Their manner had already suggested there was no trouble between them, whatever serious subjects they'd been discussing. When Stuart laughed, Levon turned his attention back towards the children scattered at his and Joe's feet.

He was a little surprised then when Blair made a beeline straight for him. He carefully extracted himself from the kids, directing their attention towards Joe and Sarah, suspecting that whatever Blair wanted would be best dealt with without their listening in.

"Can I talk to you for a moment?" Blair asked when he got within hearing distance.

"Sure." Levon sent the last bit of four-legged velcro over to Joe, ignoring the jutted-out lower lip that met his instruction. "I assume you wanna talk someplace private?"

"Yeah."

Levon nodded, and headed towards the western edge of the pasture.

"You and Joe have been having problems." It wasn't a question.

Levon blinked in pure astonishment. It wouldn't have thought it would be that obvious to Blair that he'd pick up on it so quickly. He was more shocked that Blair would mention it at all. "Is that any of your business?" he asked carefully.

"As a unattached stallion? No." Blair looked at him. "As your friend? Oh yeah."

Levon relaxed only slightly. "So what makes you think we don't know?"

"I never said you didn't."

"Then why mention it?" Levon frowned at him.

"Because I don't want to hear six months from now that you and Joe have broken up."

Levon nearly reared back, he was so startled. "Broken up? What the hell makes you think we're gonna break up?" Just hearing the words frightened him, and he had to tamp down on the urge to scold Blair for saying them.

"You want me to be blunt?" Blair asked.

He wanted to just tell him to mind his own business. But the intensity of his reaction made him wonder if maybe he didn't need to hear someone else's opinion. Gods knew he couldn't talk to Joe about it anymore than he already had.

Then again, maybe that was part of the problem.

Blair was standing patiently waiting for his answer. Levon crossed his arms, and glared. But he couldn't deny that he wanted to know what Blair had to say. "So, be blunt."

"You're getting way too comfortable as herd stallion."

He was beginning to think he should just settle in and stop being surprised by every thing the other stallion said. "Shouldn't I be?"

"If that's more important to you than your other family..." Blair shrugged.

"Right now they have to be," Levon said, feeling on more certain ground. It wasn't like he didn't know they'd all be happier back in Houston, together.

"Why?"

Yeah, he should just stop being surprised. He wondered if Blair did this sort of thing to Jim. "I'm herd stallion, remember?" he said sarcastically. "Doesn't do them any good for me to be acting like I wanted to be anywhere but here."

"Because it would make them feel insecure, wondering when you were going to leave."

"What?" He wondered if this was what Simon had meant when he'd referred to "The Sandburg Zone". Granted, the police captain had been referring to the wedding buffet.

Blair's stare bore into his own eyes. "How do you think it makes Joe feel seeing you settle in here more and more?"

Unwillingly, he glanced back to where Joe was still playing with the kids. "He said he'd move out here for as long as I needed to stay."

"And do what exactly?"

Yeah -- the question he hadn't asked himself, when Joe had offered. He was content to run the ranch, oversee his herd. But Joe -- he was barely even Texas-country material. He'd hate living out here where all there was to be was a cowboy, or a house-hand. If it were a member of his herd, one of the mares who was sick of life on a ranch....

Blair had been watching him closely and saw when he had figured it out. "He won't stay. He can't without giving up himself. Neither of you want that."

He couldn't really deny it. Not with the words staring him right in the face. He neither had the right, nor the desire to make Joe miserable, just because he couldn't leave. "I'll talk to him. Maybe by the end of summer...." He wasn't sure he believed Stuart would be ready. Not against stallions like Alexander.

"If you're still here by the end of summer, you're not going to leave at all."

"Why do you say that?"

He ignored the feeling that Blair was maybe right.

"I told you, you're getting way too comfortable as herd stallion."

Something funny was going on here, Levon realized. There was no way Blair could have picked up on all of this himself, so quickly. He'd been talking with Stuart right before this -- had the boy put him up to it?

The initial reaction to that thought was anger. That Stuart would dare manipulate him into letting go of the herd.... But somehow he managed to think past that emotion. Maybe because he was tired, and he wanted to go home. He tried to think this through.

The only thing keeping him here was the belief that Stuart would not be able to defend the herd. Blair knew as well as Levon the risks a herd stallion faced and his concerns for Levon and Joe's relationship notwithstanding, Levon couldn't believe he would knowingly put the herd at risk. And he had been talking to Stuart. So that meant that Blair thought...

It meant Stuart thought it, too. It didn't surprise him, off course. When he'd been 16, he'd... been more concerned with football and Caroline. Never once a thought of adult responsibility crossed his mind. So that made a bad comparison. But Stuart was just 16, and that was just too young.

Wasn't it?

Maybe... he'd have to think about it.

"You're a good head stallion, Levon," Blair told him. "The herd's lucky to have you. But you have to decide if you want that more than you want Joe."

And there had been a time when he wouldn't have had to even think about it. "And what do I do if Stuart loses a challenge?" he asked softly.

"There's no guarantees in life. If that's what you're waiting for, you're never going to think Stuart's ready."

Levon didn't flinch. Truth was a bitch, though, especially when it was something you should have known before it was pointed out. He knew that when Stuart was older, bigger, he'd have no qualms against letting him defend the herd. But by that time - two, three years from now -- would he still have Joe to go home to?

The way that felt told him why he'd been avoiding thinking about it.

Blair sighed. "Take a look at Stuart. Really look. I think he might surprise you."

Levon looked. Stuart was near the herd again, smiling at one of the colts. He was back away from the herd slightly, where he could see and hear everything. From this distance, he didn't look nearly as young as Levon knew him to be. He felt a sudden yearning to take his husband home. Home. Gods, he wanted to go home before anything got any worse.

He felt a hand on his arm and looked to see Blair looking at him with total understanding. "I had to make a decision not so long ago, between Jim and what I'd been working toward my entire life. It wasn't easy, but in the end I listened to my heart and I think I made the right decision."

Slowly, Levon nodded. He took a deep breath, then sighed. And smiled. "If we make Stuart officiate, Joy will have our tails. Reckon I'll do it after."

Blair grinned at him. "Do yourself a favor and tell Joe now. It'll make the rest of the week a lot easier on the both of you."

"I think I will." He grinned, unable to stifle the expression -- when what he really wanted to do was yell aloud. He took a step towards his husband, then stopped. "Blair--" How did you tell a person 'thanks' for giving you a swift kick in the butt?

"You're welcome," Blair replied, grinning, then winked. "I'll send you the therapy bill."

"Bill? Hell, I'll just write it off what y'all owe for the wedding."

Blair rolled his eyes. "Naomi's paying for that." There was just a hint of an edge to the words that Levon wasn't sure he had heard at all.

He wondered if he should ask. After all, he'd only be returning the favor. "You wanna trade therapy bills?" he asked, after a moment's hesitation.

Blair didn't try and pretend he didn't know what Levon was talking about. "Not much to be said. Naomi's Naomi."

"I hear that," he said with a slight grin. He'd known her before she'd left -- not well, but looking back on things he could understand her with an adult's perspective. "There anything I can do?"

"Stop Naomi trying to run my life?" Blair shook his head. "Don't worry about it, man. I'll deal."

"You're sure?" He knew Blair would say he was. That didn't stop him from intending to talk to her, anyhow.

"I've managed to keep from killing her this long, haven't I?"

"Yeah? How often do you see her?" he teased.

"Once or twice a year," the younger stallion admitted ruefully.

"How easy is it to kill someone you only see twice a year?" Levon offered again. "You want me to talk with her?"

"She won't listen, man." Blair sighed. "I love her, but..."

Levon nodded. "But she's Naomi."

"Yeah."

There wasn't much more to say. Blair had been dealing with his mother his whole life -- and as a grown man, he had the right to chose to deal with her now, however he chose. That didn't mean Levon wouldn't talk to her. It only meant he needn't bother Blair with the particulars.

%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

Joe tried to lose himself in playing with the foals and for the most part succeeded. But not totally. A part of his brain worrying at the problem of moving out here and what he was going to do when he did.

Other than be with Levon. That was the whole point of the move after all. But other than that...

He watched, trying not to worry more, as Levon went off to talk to Blair. That Blair had just talked with Stuart made him wonder if it weren't something concerning the herd, rather than the upcoming wedding.

When Levon and Blair finally headed back, Joe hurried to his husband's side.

"That anything I should be concerned about?"

Levon shook his head, smiling. "Well, maybe some of it. I don't know if you'd be willing to share an opinion...." Levon glanced over as Blair moved past, heading for Jim. Levon looked at Joe. "You wanna come with me for a bit? I'd like to talk to you."

"Sure," Joe answered, ignoring as best he could the almost constant sense of foreboding he'd been feeling the last few months every time Levon wanted to talk.

But Levon was still smiling, in an easy way he hadn't seen in a very long time. Levon changed, and held out his hand. "The house?"

"Okay," he replied, not bothering to hide his surprise. He had assumed Levon would want to stay where he could watch his herd.

The way Levon was leading him towards the house made him think he was being invited not for conversation, but other activities. For a brief moment, Joe flashed back on the last time Levon had dragged him to the house for other activities and his stomach tightened. Levon didn't seem agitated this time, but...

Levon looked back at him, and it seemed that he understood Joe's reluctance. "Joe, I promise you'll like this. I swear on my boots." He glanced down at his bare feet. "Make that my truck."

"That serious are you?" Reassured, he followed Levon into the house with at least one less worry.

"That serious," he nodded. "Serious as I'll ever be," he added softly.

That made Joe wonder even more but he remained silent until they got inside. Levon took them towards the stairs, nodding at Carla as they went past. She grinned knowingly, and went back to her chores.

"I thought you wanted to talk."

"I do. Reckon we'll be busy after we talk."

Joe lifted an eyebrow and followed Levon up the stairs. When they reached the bedroom, Levon took them inside, closed the door firmly, then stood there silently. Sitting down on the bed, Joe waited for him to start speaking.

Levon's grin widened, then died -- from his mouth, though not his eyes. He moved to kneel before Joe, putting his hands on Joe's thighs. "I have no idea how to say this, lead up to it or just spill it out. I reckon you're ready to throttle me for it by now, though." His voice dropped, as if he might be overheard. "I'm giving Stuart the herd on Saturday."

For a long moment the words didn't sink in. Then they did and Joe thought he had to have heard wrong. "What?" he asked faintly.

Levon looked up at him. "Turns out he's ready. He's the one told me, in fact, through Blair -- just in case I didn't take kindly to it, I reckon. But he is. He's ready. I'm coming home." Levon's eyes shone, their dark brown glinting with unshed tears. Joe could see the pain and apologies in them.

"You-You're serious?" He wasn't quite able to let himself believe it.

"I'm serious. Joe, I am so sorry for what I've put you through." He rubbed his hands gently on Joe's legs.

Joe reached out and touched his husband's face. "It's okay," he said, beginning to smile as it finally sunk in. "You're coming home."

Levon nodded. "I am." Then he grinned, unable to contain the solemnity any longer. "Can I jump you now? Or you wanna bask for a bit?"

"I can bask while you jump me."

If anything, Levon's grin grew wider. Then he began divesting Joe of his clothes.

%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

It was a relief, Jim thought, to finally get upstairs to the guest room they'd been given. The day had been great; the ride, then spending time relaxing and joking with his brother. Levon's herd were great hosts, and he felt like he'd been on vacation for days after only the few hours. But now, after dinner, he was ready to be alone with Blair.

Blair seemed just as eager to escape, having spent most of the meal talking to, or being talked at, by his mother about details of the wedding. Jim could tell that Blair's patience had reached its end much half an hour earlier. Now, as soon as he shut the door behind them, he went over and took his partner into his arms.

Resting his forehead against Jim's shoulder, Blair joked weakly, "You sure you don't want to just elope?"

He tightened the embrace, and for a moment said nothing. He could hear the centaurs downstairs moving around, cleaning up -- the younger ones playing. The noise spilled outside into the back, and off towards the nursery field. Other than that, everything was still and calm. "If we wait another hour, I think we can make it without being seen."

"Naomi's probably got guards posted."

"You forget who you're talking to." Jim gave him his best "I am Sentinel, watch me sense things" look.

Blair smiled a little then shook his head with a sigh. "She'd just hunt us down."

Jim sighed. "And she wouldn't bring me anymore of that Peruvian tea." It was probably not worth pissing her off -- but he didn't like how upset Blair was, though he was trying not to show it.

"I'll be fine. I just..." Blair waved his hand.

Jim looked at him, but didn't let go. He could feel Blair's heart rate slowing slightly, could feel the lessening of the tension in his muscles. Blair was still tense -- the knots that tended to form in the small of his back were there. Perhaps....

He kissed Blair's temple, then gave him a gentle nudge towards the bed. "She's driving you nuts?" he prompted.

That got a strangled laugh. "We're talking way beyond nuts here, man."

"She does seem a little over-enthusiastic about the details," he conceded as he continued maneuvering Blair towards the bed.

"Jim, I do over-enthusiastic. Naomi bypasses over-enthusiastic and goes straight to fanatical."

"Well, this is her first child's wedding," he pointed out, rather reasonably he thought. Not that he didn't wish Naomi would back off a bit, but he wanted to keep Blair talking until he got it all out of his system.

"You'd think she was the one getting married." Blair broke away and started pacing. "She says she wants the best for me but she never listens to what I want!"

Jim watched him pace. "Even when she asks," he said, half-leadingly.

"When was the last time she asked me anything before just going ahead and doing what she pleases?"

Jim shrugged. He wasn't sure the facetious reply that she'd asked before using Jim's old army duffel to pack yet more god-knew-what in, for this trip. Then again, he couldn't swear she hadn't already had it in her hand when she'd asked.

Blair stopped in front of the window, taking slow deliberate breaths. "Sorry, Jim. I'm making this sound like I don't want to get married and that's not what I mean at all."

"I know, Blair." He could feel the tension in Blair's body, even at this distance. For a moment his attention zeroed in on it -- he could see the tight lines in Blair's body, and feel something that wasn't quite physical. It screamed to him to go over and sweep Blair up, and take him away from whatever was bothering him. He stayed where he was until Blair was more likely to appreciate it.

Looking over his shoulder at him, Blair managed a smile. "Guess I still have some unresolved hostility over the whole 'ruin my academic life' thing."

Jim didn't know what to say. He had his own guilt about that whole situation, though his was centered more around his relief that Blair would be remaining at his side, as his partner, rather than going off to be a Professor of Anthropology. But he knew what losing that meant to Blair, so he had never really said anything about it. "Have you...." He didn't know if talking to Naomi about it would work, but he didn't know what else to suggest.

"Have I what? Meditated on it? 'Let it go?'" Blair shrugged. "Mostly. I know I could never have published that paper, that my life was already on a path other than academia. But it would've been nice to have been able to make that decision without an audience. And without having to shred my reputation in front of the TV cameras."

"I know," he said again, feeling almost completely at a loss. Blair hadn't really gone off on this before -- despite his meditations and letting it go, he hadn't just yelled and complained. Maybe that's what he needed.

"I told her not to read it. So she sends it to a publisher. I told her not to mention it to anyone so she sends it to some masseuse she used to date who knows people on the Nobel Prize committee!"

"She thought--" was as far as he got, and he wasn't really sure Blair even heard him.

"She thought she knew better than me. She didn't listen." He sighed. "She never has really."

"Never?" Jim couldn't believe Naomi would never have listened. Maybe rarely, and maybe she simply never acted like she'd listened. But... he thought back to all the times he'd told her, or wanted to tell her not to do something.

"I know she loves me, I've never doubted that. But she never 'heard' anything that conflicted with what she wanted to believe." Blair looked at him. "You've seen that yourself."

Jim nodded. For all that Naomi wanted the best for those she cared for, she had a very tightly focused view of what was 'the best'. He still couldn't recall a time when she had listened to, and heard, him say something she hadn't agreed with that she hadn't turned right around and promptly ignored.

True, his conflicts with here were less severe than those with Blair, which might be why they didn't bother him as much.

"I do that sometimes too, I know. Get so focused on what I want, what I believe--"

"But you slow down, sometimes." Jim said it, even as he doubted his own words. Blair stopped sometimes. But he rarely slowed down. But he did listen to Jim, when Jim really needed him to.

And often when he didn't.

"Do I?" Blair looked uncertain. "Would I even know if I didn't hear something someone was trying to tell me? My mom doesn't seem to."

"You do," Jim said easily. "Trust me. You do."

"I do?" Blue eyes met his, silently asking for validation and reassurance.

"Yes. You always listen. Even when it seems like you aren't, you hear what's being said. You've never missed anything important." Jim didn't know that for a fact -- but he couldn't think of anything worth mentioning that Blair had missed.

Finally Blair crossed the room and came back into his arms. "If I ever don't, you'll make me, won't you? You won't let me do to you what Mom--"

"I'll do my best," he promised. "I'll even sit on you, if you don't listen." He smiled.

"That'll probably get my attention, but I don't know if it would be to listen."

"So? As long as we're both happy...." He drew Blair closer to him.

"I get the feeling you're trying to tell me something now." Blair's voice had lightened and taken on a teasing tone.

"Me? Nah." He shook his head. But he dug his fingers into Blair's back, right above the knots of tension.

"Mmm, oh yeah, you are. And I am so listening."

Jim began kneading, working his hands back and forth across the band of muscle above where the tension was located. Loosen it, first, and the knots would be easier.

Blair's eyes closed in pleasure. "This is almost as good as a brushing."

"Oh yeah? You rather be brushed?" He was perfectly willing to go get some brushes, if that was what Blair wanted. But he kept rubbing Blair's back, until he got an answer.

"This is fine, this is good." But the yearning was clear in his voice to someone who knew him as well as Jim did.

He gave Blair a kiss and stopped rubbing. "In here OK? Or should we go outside?"

Blair gave him a blinding smile. "Brushes are in the barn."

"I'll be right back." Jim ran his hands down Blair's back, feeling the tiny vibrations there. He grinned.

"I'll come with you," Blair replied. "It'll save time."

Jim just nodded, and wrapped an arm around Blair's waist. As they headed for the door he could feel the muscles which had been relaxing, tightening again -- but he suspected it was for much better reasons.

The progress down the stairs and out to the barn was noticed by some of the others but the most anyone ever gave them was a knowing smile. The evening air was warm, and clean. Jim couldn't help taking a deep breath, despite the thick smell of horses and centaurs that hung over everything. He thought again about moving away from the city -- knowing it would last about a month before he went nuts and moved back to town. Still, there was something so relaxing about being away....

He half-consciously tracked the centaurs who were outside as they headed for the barn, most were gathered around the nursery field or the pasture where the ranch's horses were kept. Suddenly there was a scent that shouldn't have been there.

Gun oil.

Jim stopped. There were a dozen reasons why he should be smelling gun oil. There were five cops here, after all. And the herd no doubt kept shotguns around. It was probably one of those, which someone was merely cleaning.

Probably.

But probably wasn't a good enough reason to ignore it. He stopped, and concentrated.

Blair was immediately aware that something was up. "What is it?"

He shook his head, not quite sure he wanted to say "gun oil" to Blair -- not when he was so close to getting his partner to relax. He located the direction from which the scent was coming and focused, knowing Blair would anchor him.

With that uncanny sense that he had, Blair raised a hand and laid it against the small of Jim's back, providing even more of an anchor.

It was farther away than any of the centaurs were. Off to the north, the light, but fresh scent of recently applied gun oil... and the voices of two strange men. He concentrated, and heard snatches of words.

Words like "eliminate" and "subdue". Words that spoke of something much less prosaic than cleaning a gun.

"Get Levon," he said, maintaining his observation of the two men.

Not bothering to ask questions, Blair ran off. With his guide gone, Jim didn't risk concentrating more than he already was. Enough to track the men, he knew enough to know they were dangerous.

Blair was back quickly, Levon and Joe both in tow. He waited until Blair had touched his arm, helping him break enough of his concentration to speak. "There are two men, about a quarter-mile in that direction," he pointed. "They have weapons, rifles or something, and they're talking about eliminating what they find here."

Levon's face went utterly still. Then he spun, and was shouting orders to his herd. Joe was sprinting for their truck, muttering something under his breath about how he should've kept his guns on him. Jim returned his attention to the two men. They were working their way closer, slowly but steadily. On foot, he realized, which gave them the advantage.

Blair was already stripping in preparation to changing; Levon was already in his centaur form. Joe came running back with three guns just as Blair's flesh slowly dissolved into his own centaur form. He leapt onto Levon's back just as Stuart came running up as well. Levon gave him a sharp look, then said nothing. Jim leapt onto Blair's back as soon as he could, then they were off.

Pounding the ground, all three sets of hooves thundered -- Jim was seized by a sudden urge to hum, again. Blair glanced over his shoulder at him and mouthed the word 'no', showing how well he knew Jim.

Jim said nothing in response, other than directing Blair towards the two men. Soon enough they saw them -- startling the hell out of the intruders, it appeared, from the way they both just stood, ignoring the rifles in their hands.

Jim raised his pistol, though aiming it from Blair's back would be impossible. They came baring down on the two men so fast that the intruders didn't have a chance to get off a good shot. Stuart, by virtue of being riderless, had pulled out ahead and was going to reach them first.

He knocked the first one down, then whirled on the other. Levon came to a quick halt beside the felled one, and simply watched Stuart handle the second. Jim held his pistol, aiming for the sky, now as it became clear the younger stallion had it under control. At least, the first man wasn't moving, and the second was currently rolling on the ground.

With a sound that was a cross between a horse's challenge and a human war cry, Stuart reared up onto his hind legs and then brought his front down on the second man's head. The stallion stared down at the man for a brief second, then looked up at them -- and immediately looked abashed as he met Levon's gaze. Jim looked, but saw only a tiny smile on the herd stallion's face.

"I got a little carried away," Stuart said, moving back towards them.

"Did a good job," Levon corrected in a hard voice.

Jim kept his mouth shut -- he'd seen enough killings in his time that as such, it didn't bother him. But to see these centaurs acting more like animals, rather than the rational creatures they were most of the time.... He'd known that was what they were like. Seeing it... only made it more real. Fortunately, he knew there was no better -- no other option. He realized it was a good, and more compassionate thing that the deaths had been fast.

Stuart blinked once in surprise. "Thank you."

Blair danced a little beneath Jim, the equine equivalent of the bounce he may have given in human form. There was silence for a moment, then in a calm, nearly casual tone Levon asked, "You want us to get rid of 'em?"

There was nothing in his voice that indicated anything to warrant the shock that appeared slowly on Stuart's face. "I..." Stuart swallowed and seemed to gain confidence and stature in front of Jim's eyes. "Yes. They can be dumped in Outcasts' Field."

Levon nodded, giving the boy a grin. Jim glanced at Blair, and asked, "Who gets to tell Joy she's going to have to rearrange the ceremony tomorrow?"

"Forget Joy, who's going to tell Mom?" Blair shot back.

Levon gave them a wide smile. "I reckon that's Stuart's job." He gave the stunned boy a wink.

Stuart gaped at him, then groaned loudly. "Levon? You wanna wait a day?"

"Oh no," Joe broke in. "It took me this long to get him to give it up. The job's yours now, kid."

Levon looked at his husband, and Jim could tell by their expressions that whatever had been wrong between them was fixed or forgotten, now. Stuart, still looking a bit dazed, just nodded.

Blair moved off, leaving the others behind. "What is it with us and vacations?" he asked. "At least we stopped them before the shooting started this time."

"You're telling me. Next time we take a vacation, let's stay home, OK?"

%%%%%%%%%%%%

Levon and Joe returned to the house; Levon sent a few of the mares to tend to the bodies. He didn't clarify the change of herd ownership, knowing Stuart himself would do so. It was no longer his job to even do such things as inform the herd who was in charge.

"I'm going to go check on the kids," Joe said, heading towards the house.

Levon nodded. He spotted Naomi across the yard, talking to Joy. He headed over.

"--least it happened tonight and not tomorrow during the wedding," Naomi was saying when he walked up.

Levon frowned. "Careful you don't jinx them, Naomi," he teased, though the possibility of more was still a serious threat.

"I don't believe in jinxes," she responded. "It's just what happens when you put out a lot of negative energy."

"Yeah." Levon glanced at Joy. "Would you mind if I talked to you, privately?" he asked Naomi.

"Of course."

Joy nodded and moved away, even as Levon changed direction to walk away from the others. He didn't say anything until they were out of earshot, even should their voices rise. Naomi looked at him expectantly, for once waiting for someone else to start. "Naomi... why exactly did you want Jim and Blair to have this wedding?" It wasn't exactly the point, but it was a place to start.

She shook her head, confused. "It's obvious to everyone they're in love."

"Yeah, and they've been that way for how long? Without needing a ceremony?"

"You make it sound like I'm holding a shotgun on Jim."

Carefully, Levon said, "I ain't just talking about Ellison."

"What?" Naomi seemed truly bewildered. "Levon, if you haven't noticed, no one can make Blair do anything he doesn't want to."

"Like mother, like son?"

"I raised him to be independent. To think for himself."

He wondered if he were going to have to just say it -- either she didn't know what she was doing, or knew and was denying it. Levon sighed. "Naomi, did Blair ask you about having a wedding?"

"You were there. He told me Jim had proposed."

"Did he ask you about having a wedding now?" he repeated, knowing as well as she did exactly what Blair had said back when Jim had first proposed.

"Well, not in so many words, but I'm sure-"

"What did he say, Naomi?" he asked in a kinder tone.

"He didn't actually say anything, not until I brought it up. But he didn't object."

"Does he ever?" Levon rolled his eyes. He'd seen Naomi and Blair discussing things before. Naomi either won the argument, or she waited until you left and did it, anyhow.

"He does. He's stood up to me more than once about working with the pi- cops. About being a cop."

"Fine. Did you even give him a chance this time?" He wasn't going to argue with her about something that he suspected was a lot more important to Blair. After all, it wasn't so much that Blair had objected to having a wedding. It was the way in which it was happening.

"Of course I did," Naomi said indignantly.

Apparently subtly wasn't working. "Then why is he so pissed about you taking everything over?"

"What are you talking about?" She truly seemed to not understand what he was talking about.

"I'm talking about the fact that he shouldn't have to 'stand up' to you about being a cop. Or about anything -- it ain't your place to make decisions about his life, anymore. Whether it's his profession, his wedding celebration, or anything else." He restrained himself from letting his voice rise any further, calming himself before continuing.

"But... he's my son. I was just trying to help."

He sighed. "I know how hard it is to let go, Naomi. But you have to wait for him to ask for your help."

"What if he never asks?" Naomi looked stricken.

He just looked at her, folding his arms across his chest.

She looked at him for a moment then turned and ran off.

"Shit." He had no clue if he'd done the right thing -- and he know longer had the authority to be right, regardless. Even if he had ever had the authority with Naomi. He just hoped he hadn't made things worse for Blair.

"You okay, cowboy?" The question alerting him to his husband's approach.

He turned, grateful to see Joe. "Not sure," he said, torn between confessing everything, and setting it aside so they could celebrate his going home.

"Checked on the kids," Joe said, casually throwing his arm over Levon's back and leaning against him. "They hadn't even realized anything went down."

He nodded. "Good." Hopefully that meant much of the herd didn't know, either. Not that it was his concern any longer. Suddenly -- or perhaps not suddenly, perhaps he was just returning his attention to it -- he wanted to be home.

"I didn't tell them about you giving up the herd. Figured you'd want to do that yourself."

Nodding, he reached back and pulled Joe towards him. They ought to stay for the wedding -- if there was still going to be one after Naomi got around to talking to Blair. As Joe stepped over, Levon changed forms and buried his face against his husband's shoulder. It was as close to home as he could get.

Joe's arms closed around him tightly, securely. "Levon?" Concern and love evident in the one word.

The anxiety began to seep away -- at least a little. Whatever happened to the herd, to Blair and Jim, to Naomi... the most important parts of his life were back on track, or getting so.

But he still wanted to just go home and leave them all behind. Even.... He thought of his kids, and choked back the whisper he'd been ready to voice that he was ready to have his life back.

"Cowboy?"

"Now that we're going...." As his thoughts trailed off, he fell silent. He laughed, once. "If we bring the foals with us, I'll be fine." He felt like crying.

"Thought you didn't want to start your own herd," Joe teased gently, then sobered. "I know. You don't want to leave them. But-"

"But I am ready to be home," he said fervently. He sighed. "I'm tired." He stood a moment just enjoying the feel of his husband's embrace. It was soothing in a way he hadn't felt in a long while. Hopefully he wouldn't be able to say that after very much longer.

"It won't be the same, but we can still visit, you know."

"I know." But it wouldn't be the same. He wasn't sure how to explain how it felt already, how it would feel to return and see his kids growing up without him. He looked up at Joe, and found his husband watching him closely -- he could see the love, and the worry, in those deep blue eyes. "Take me home, Joe," he whispered as loud as he could bear.

Joe brushed the back of his hand against Levon's cheek. "Now?"

Biting his lower lip, he nodded.

"You wanna get the kids while I pack?"

Again, he just nodded. There was a measure of relief, still interwoven with what he knew was grief at going.

Joe kissed him. "I'll meet you at the truck in fifteen minutes okay?"

"OK." Before Joe could move away, he added, "Thank you."

"That's what partners are for," his husband said with a grin.

And it was good to finally get his partner back.

%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

Jim knelt down beside the first body. Behind him, Blair rested a hand on his sentinel's back, giving him something to anchor himself with. The fact that he loved touching Jim was just a nice fringe benefit.

Of course, he caught the brief glance Jim sent him at the first moment of contact -- it seemed his fringe benefit hadn't gone unnoticed. But Jim turned back to the body and began checking it carefully while Stuart waited nearby.

"Anything?" Blair asked softly after a moment.

"No. Maybe if I knew this part of Texas better... but there's nothing definite. Local dirt on their shoes and knees, gun oil from the rifles. Oh -- this guy's rifle is loaded with tranquilizer darts, not bullets." Jim looked up at Blair, then at Stuart.

Blair shuddered. The thought of being captured, of having his family captured, the foals... The expression on Stuart's face was thunderous. If the men hadn't have already been dead, they'd have had no chance at all.

And Zeus help him, he would've helped.

Jim shook his head and stood up, brushing his hands on his jeans before moving to the second body. His face was set in a frown which most might have mistaken for pure concentration. Blair wasn't most people. He reached out again, seeking contact more for comfort than anchoring purposes this time.

The second examination was equally quick, and equally uninformative. Jim collected the men's' wallets, and flipped each open, reading the names.

"Must've thought they wouldn't face a fight," Blair muttered, wondering at the kind of mind that tries something like this with i.d. in their back pockets.

"Most criminals don't think about getting caught," Jim said idly.

"Guess I wouldn't make a very good criminal, then."

"Actually, you'd make a very good criminal," Jim continued as he rifled through the wallets for more information than IDs. "You're the type who wouldn't get caught."

"You think?" He'd tried to imagine himself as some sort of criminal mastermind.

"I'm sure of it," Jim replied in that same, distracted tone. Then he looked up at Blair. "But warn me, first, OK?"

"Right. Tell a cop when I'm about to go on a crime spree." Blair gave his partner a grin.

"You're a cop too, Blair. I just meant, so I can come with you -- that way I won't have to come after you, myself."

Stuart was giving them both slightly doubtful looks.

Blair grinned at his partner. "I'm sure I can find something for a ex ranger, ex cop to do in my criminal empire."

"Good." Jim pocketed the wallets and looked at Stuart. "We'll take these in; LaFiamma and Lundy can run background checks with HPD, find out who these guys are. I assume the investigation will be kept in the family, so to speak?"

Stuart nodded, looking more relieved. "I appreciate your assistance."

"No problem, man. We couldn't very well just stand by and do nothing," Blair replied.

Stuart nodded, then looked down at the bodies. "I'd better get these taken care of -- unless you need them...?"

Jim looked at Blair, but shook his head. "Nothing more we can find out without bringing in the professionals."

"Which is out of the question unless we want centaurs to end up as the media's newest hot story." He thought back to when his dissertation had been released to the press and what that had done to Jim and shuddered. He saw Jim's quick glance, but his partner didn't say anything about it. Instead he turned to Stuart and asked, "Is there anything else you'd like is to do?"

The new head stallion shook his head. "We'll take it from here. Thanks."

Jim looked back to Blair with a subtle 'what now?' expression even as he said, "We'd better go find Joe and Levon."

Stuart nodded absently, already turning his attention to the job at hand. Jim looked at Blair, expectantly.

"Need a lift?" He held out a hand to Jim to help him mount up. With a smile, Jim took his hand, mounting easily and settling himself onto Blair's back as if it were already second nature.

Blair started off at a cantor, slowing again when they were away from the others. "Let's give Joe and Levon a little bit of time."

He felt Jim's hand on his shoulder, then, "Guess we should stick to staying home from now on."

"Maybe. Though I don't want to think what would've happened if we hadn't been here. If they had managed to take the herd totally by surprise..."

Jim didn't respond to that, instead he just said, "Come on, let's ride."

Blair nodded and broke into a gallop.

They rode away from both Stuart and the bodies, and the house -- not quite aiming for the fields far away, but heading far enough that they would find only privacy. Although his feelings about coming here were more mixed than he would've liked, his feelings about this were not ambiguous at all. Running in the dusk, with Jim's weight on his back and no one else around, Blair could do this happily forever.

From the way Jim was touching his back and shoulders -- lightly, almost absently -- it seemed as though Jim were relaxed, as well. Enjoying this as much -- and Blair knew his Sentinel appreciated getting away from everything. Then the hands stilled. "Jim?" Blair asked, slowing down a bit in response to his sentinel's sudden tenseness.

"Naomi."

Wonderful. Couldn't she leave him alone even out here? Briefly he considered turning and running from her but by now she probably had seen them.

"She's heading this way," Jim said another moment later. He didn't sound particularly displeased -- nor pleased.

Blair sighed, again contemplating just taking off. The thought of her chasing him down though was ridiculous enough to keep him in place. She was very definitely heading towards them, he saw now. She wasn't running very fast; if he wanted to, he could still avoid her. Or at least delay things. The fact that he was considering it told him just how much his relationship with his mother had deteriorated.

As she drew nearer, though, he saw a rather unusual expression on her face. She was upset, and not apparently trying to "let it go". 'What did I do now?' Blair thought plaintively as he turned to face her. He could feel Jim's legs tightening, as if ready for Blair to make a sudden escape. Or ready to leap down and defend him from her.

Naomi looked no less worried as she came up, and stopped in front of them.

"Something up, Mom?" Blair asked cautiously.

She looked away, then glanced from him to Jim, and back. But she didn't say anything.

"Mom?" His resentment faded in the face of his sudden concern. He reached out to her. "Are you okay?"

"Sweetie, I--" She stopped, but her tone told him plenty. She was upset, but not with him. That was her "I hate to tell you this" tone of voice, which had usually presaged their moving, yet again.

"What? What's wrong?"

She couldn't seem to stand still, and her tail kept twitching from side to side. "Blair... did I--" She frowned to herself, and seemed to be re-thinking her words. Then she looked at them both. "I didn't mean to push you into this," she said in a contrite voice.

Now he was confused. "Push me into what?"

She waved one hand, indicating he and Jim.

In a hard voice, his partner said, "Into getting married?"

Blair's eyes widened. "You think I'm marrying Jim because of you?"

Naomi hesitated, looking uncertain. "Sweetie, I know you love each other, otherwise you wouldn't be doing this. I just... didn't mean to push you into a wedding...." she ended, weakly.

"I-" Blair shut his mouth. "It's not so much pushing us into a wedding as taking it over."

"I wasn't taking over," she began.

Blair just looked at her.

"I was just helping."

"Helping would imply that Jim and I still had some say in the matter."

That took her aback. She gaped at them, apparently still unconvinced that she was even doing what she was trying to apologize for. Blair felt a slight movement from Jim, which felt like a stifled laugh.

"Mom, did you ask us when we wanted the wedding? Or where? Or even who we wanted to invite?"

She didn't reply. That seemed to say enough.

"I know you mean well, Mom," Blair said with a sigh, "but sometimes I wish you'd listen a bit better."

"I do listen," she replied, sounding as sincere as she ever did. Which was to say, completely.

"No, Naomi, you don't."

There was silence, as she -- apparently -- listened. Jim remained silent, as well, and Blair thought he was showing remarkable restraint. But then, he probably considered this Blair's 'territory'.

"But you didn't say no," she finally countered.

"You've never heard me when I have. I get tired banging my head against a wall."

"You make it sound like I've completely run your life," she snapped, uncertainty and worry suddenly gone in a flurry of anger.

"You certainly tried with my thesis!" The words came out more forcefully than he had intended.

She stepped back, startled. Then, in a firm tone she said, "I already apologized for that! I was only trying to get you some good feedback, not trying to ruin your lives!"

"After I asked you not to. But you didn't listen and it almost ruined Jim. It did ruin me academically."

"I didn't mean for that to happen, Blair," she said. The anger was gone again.

"I know. But it wouldn't have if you'd just listened."

For a minute she seemed to be trying for something else to say. In the end, however, she just turned and headed away, back towards the house.

"Well," Jim said after a moment. "That went well, I thought."

Blair looked over his shoulder at him. "You think?"

Jim ran a hand down his back. "You wanna go after her?" The unspoken part was, "alone?"

He shook his head. "All we'd do is have this same conversation again."

His partner leaned forward, wrapping his arms around Blair's waist. Blair sighed and let his head fall back to rest on Jim's shoulder. Jim didn't say a word -- Blair didn't expect him to. Just being held was enough.

For now, at least.

Joe exited the house with the bags, not minding trying to juggle the extra couple that were Levon's. If it meant having his husband home he'd gladly carry twice this much.

He headed for the truck, slowing when he saw the crowd gathered there. Apparently word had gotten out. Several of the herd were, one by one, stepping up to Levon and embracing him. As he watched, some spoke to him, others said nothing. Angie and Tony were standing nearby, looking excited, happy, and crest-fallen. They both began speaking at once when they saw Joe.

"Uncle Joe, do we have to--"

"Unca Joe! I wanna stay!"

"Last weekend you didn't want to come out at all," Joe reminded them as he set the bags down beside the truck, hiding a smile.

Both kids grabbed his hands, one each, pulling on him. "But we wanna stay for the wedding!" Angie pleaded. "Uncle Levon's coming home, can't we stay one more day?"

Joe thought it over, trying to avoid the pleading gazes turned his way. "I suppose we could always come back out and pick you up on Sunday," he ventured finally.

There was an instant of silence, then Angie's sorrowful expression vanished. "Really?! We can stay?"

"Yeah. It is a special occasion after all." And it would give him and Levon some time to celebrate in private Levon's being home. Both kids cheered; when Joe glanced up he caught Joy watching them, a smile on her face. He nodded to her and then headed over to join his husband.

Angie bounced in place twice, before running over to where Hanna and Tory were watching with sad expressions. Their expressions lightened moments after Angie reached them. Tony ran over to Shensen and Draper, eliciting the same excited expressions from his own favourite cousins.

Joe watched them for a second then continued over to join his husband. He had to wend his way through centaurs, as the herd continued giving their goodbyes and thankyous. From the sound of it, everyone was sad to lose him, but delighted that he was getting to go home. He reached Levon's side, touched his arm to let him know he was there, but didn't say anything. He didn't want to interrupt the leave taking.

Levon glanced his way briefly, then he was stepping forward to receive Julia's embrace. The older mare whispered something in his husband's ear which made Levon grin. Joe was glad he couldn't hear it; somehow he had the feeling if he had he would've been blushing.

There was something just inherently not fair about a centaur's inability to get embarrassed. Or - he suddenly thought - maybe it was learned. Which meant there might yet be some way for him to make Levon blush. It was an appealing thought. It might take a while to find it but he could be persistent with the best. He grinned suddenly, reminded that he once again had a lifetime.

"That's nice to see again," Clara said, as she moved up beside him.

"Huh?"

"You look happy; it's been a long time since I've seen that smile."

"I haven't been that difficult, have I? Don't answer that," he added as he realized what he'd just asked. He had been miserable after all, he just hadn't known he had been so transparent about it.

But her smile reassured him, even as she took his arm in hers. "You both looked so unhappy, and tried so hard to hide it. None of us had the heart to tell either of you how sad you looked." There was a twinkle in her eye as she spoke.

"Guess we weren't so good at hiding as we thought."

"Not from people who love you."

And there he went, blushing again. He had known he wouldn't have been able to get out of here without that happening. "Thanks," he said, smiling again.

She squeezed his arm, then turned back to watch the others saying goodbye to their former Herd Stallion. Then Carrie and the other new mothers came forward with the foals. Joe froze and held his breath.

He didn't seriously worry that Levon was going to back out, but if anything could make him...

Levon didn't notice them, immediately. When he did, he turned slowly until he was facing the infants. He looked down at them , and Joe could see, deep within his husband's eyes, his heart threatening to break all over again.

Taylor and Rosa came forward, each wrapping their arms around one of Levon's legs, and two sets of wide brown eyes looked up at Levon. It was obvious that even if they didn't understand what was going on, they understood that their father was upset.

Levon crouched down, and gathered them in his arms, pulling them close. He said nothing, but lowered his head until all three were pressed together. Joe swallowed around the sudden lump in his throat, a lump that got even larger when Laurie and Cordelia came forward as well.

Levon somehow managed to gather them into his arms, as well, until he had all four clutching at him. The rest of the herd was watching; Joe couldn't hear anyone saying a word.

Therefore, nobody missed it when Taylor pulled back enough to study Levon's face and declared firmly, " 'von!"

Levon's head came up fast, and he stared at his son.

Taylor laughed. " 'von!" he repeated, reaching up and patting Levon's cheek.

Shock gave way quickly to delight, and Levon laughed, as well, giving his son a hard hug, lifting him off the ground. Laurie had watched all this with an intense expression of concentration. Then she tugged on Levon's sleeve and babbled at him. It wasn't words, quite. But it was clear it wouldn't be long until she figured out the trick.

His grin for her was just as wide, and he leaned forward and gave her a kiss on the cheek, eliciting a happy giggle. The mares were all smiling proudly at the foals and talking excitedly, as if each were the proud mother. Joe grinned too, a grin which only got bigger when Laurie turned to him and continued to babble happily.

Rosa and Cordelia were watching both of their siblings closely, but neither made an attempt to babble, herself. Rosa continued clinging to Levon with an uncertain expression on her face, and Cordelia just looked quiet. Levon gave them each another hug, spoke to each one in a voice too soft for Joe to overhear what was said. Then he stood, and the foals went back to their mothers, subdued.

Joe immediately reached out to him, slipping an arm around his waist. Levon looked at him with an odd sort of settled warmth in his eyes. He leaned into Joe's embrace.

"Ready to go?" Joe asked softly, already knowing the answer. He still wanted to hear Levon say it.

"I'm ready to go." Then he looked around with a confused expression. "Where are Angie and Tony?"

"I told them they could stay for the party. We can pick them up when the weekend's over."

Levon nodded. Then his smile grew wide. "Home alone?"

"Yeah, Macauley," Joe teased, but he couldn't keep from smiling back just as wide.

He squeezed hard with the arm around Joe's waist. "So, what are we waiting for?" The lightness in his tone said everything.

Joe kissed him. "Nothing." He headed for the truck, pulling Levon with him.

Their bags had been loaded into the truck already. Levon gave him one more kiss, then went around to the passenger's side.

They were really doing it, going home. He was really getting Levon back. The thought hit home once again as he climbed in behind the wheel. The small doubt that Levon wasn't really going to go through with it actually, finally began to fade.

Levon resettled himself in the seat right away -- turning slightly to face Joe. Joe kept glancing over at him as they drove, savoring his presence and grinning idiotically every time he did. He didn't even protest Levon changing the radio station.

At least not until Levon tuned in to WKMY -- bluegrass, and twangy western ballads. The tiny grin on his husband's face told Joe why he'd selected that station.

"I'm not listening to that all the way back to Houston," he groused, as Levon seemed to want him to. He couldn't quite manage the scowl though. Not when he was feeling so good.

"I haven't gotten to listen to WKMY in months, though," Levon protested.

"Then you should be used to being deprived," Joe shot back.

Levon gave him a pitiful, woebegone expression.

Joe began to weaken at the expression until a particularly whiney country song came on. "If I have to listen to that all the way home, I'm gonna have a headache when we get there," he warned, wincing at the so-called music.

For a moment he thought Levon was going to capitulate and turn the radio back to something bearable. Then Levon looked thoughtful. "If you had a headache, I'd be obliged to help you relax, wouldn't I?"

"Thought you'd be obliged to do that regardless."

"Mm. Reckon I would." Levon leaned forward, and changed the station. He gave Joe a cheeky grin, however, as he did so.

"Thanks," Joe said after a moment, aware that he wasn't just referring to the radio.

Levon reached over and took his hand, entwining his finger's with Joe's. Joe squeezed his husband's hand and then turned his attention back to getting them home as fast as possible.

Most of the drive was done in silence; Levon continued to simply sit there and watch him driving. Joe was acutely aware of the observation, even when he wasn't glancing over at Levon every five minutes. Maybe he should break the silence, he thought, but he couldn't think of anything to say that didn't sound banal or like a bad romance novel. That made him laugh.

Levon didn't ask, only grinned at him when he glanced over again.

They were silent until they hit the outskirts of Houston. "Almost home," Joe said, with a contented sigh.

"Yeah. It'll be good to get home," Levon said quietly.

"No regrets?" he asked just as quietly.

"No." He shook his head. "No regrets. Not anymore."

"Good."

The rest of the drive was in silence, again.

%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

Jim was keeping a close eye on Blair. He honestly had no idea which way he was going to jump, after the events of the day. He wouldn't be surprised if Blair suggested they simply pack up and go home, and forget about the whole "vacation" thing.

"You promised me a brushing before everything went nuts."

Relieved, Jim gave him a smile. "I did, didn't I? Come on." He gave Blair a nudge towards the barn.

Not that Blair needed much urging, not quite making it up to a full gallop but going fast enough that when he came to dead stop in the barn his hooves skidded forward on the floor. Jim tightened his grip reflexively, scrabbling for a grip that was not something Blair would growl at him for grabbing.

"Anxious, Chief?"

"Don't want to give you a chance to change your mind." He looked over his shoulder at Jim and grinned, eyes sparking with mischief.

"Never."

Blair's smile widened. "Good."

Jim dismounted, and went over to find a good brush. There were several on a shelf; he picked one up at a time, rubbing his thumb lightly over the bristles.

Behind him he heard Blair's hooves shuffle on the floor. "What's taking you so long?"

"Keep your shirt -- hm, no, don't keep your shirt on." He found a brush was he deemed acceptable, and took it over to his mate.

"I could say the same to you," Blair teased, eyeing the shirt that clung to his sentinel's form.

"I thought you wanted me to brush you," he teased, even as he walked up and laid the brush on Blair's back. "If you'd rather I stripped, instead...?"

"You mean I have to choose?"

"Well... I suppose since you're going to be insensible about three minutes after I start brushing...." He set the brush bristle side up on Blair's back, and took his shirt off.

Blair reached out and ran one hand down the exposed skin. "Much better."

Jim smiled, and picked up the brush. One stroke, then two, both nice and firm. He heard Blair's soft intake of breath at the first touch, and felt the minute tremors that went through his form. With a faint smirk, Jim continued brushing. Within mere seconds, Blair was breathing rather deeply.

"Oh man, that feels good," he murmured, seemingly unable to remain silent even now.

Jim knew that wouldn't last much longer. He continued brushing.

"Could you...ohhh...yeah, right....oh man..."

Jim laughed, and kept brushing.

Blair continued muttering but in a lower and lower voice, until even Jim's hearing couldn't make out the words. As Blair's brain shut down, his body relaxed under Jim's ministrations. His head lowered as he gave himself wholly over to what Jim was doing, relaxing more with every stroke.

As he continued to brush, Jim watched his lover -- no longer carefully for signs of relaxation or renewed tension. Just watching, because watching Blair was one of the most enjoyable parts of his life. After, it went without saying, doing anything with him.

Blair chuckled suddenly. "I can feel your eyes."

Jim laughed. "I thought I was the Sentinel."

"You know what it's like to be stared at by a sentinel?"

"No. Never been stared at by one before." He nearly swallowed his words, thinking that it wasn't entirely true. But he didn't want to think about her. Not today. Not all weekend, if ever.

"Well, take my word for it. You haven't been stared at until a sentinel's stared at you."

"Is that a fact." He stared at a new spot on Blair's back, near the base of his spine. Upper spine, at least. He wondered suddenly how the centaur's spine worked -- were there two? Was there a hinge of some sort in a single, long spine? He stifled the urge to reach out and feel it.

"Oh yeah. It's real intense. Like a physical touch."

He let his gaze drift, very slightly, farther down Blair's spine.

Blair shivered. "Like now."

He let it drift further down, then, slowly tracing every dip and rise of Blair's spine, even as the soft hair began to cover everything.

The sound of hoofs clattering was loud as Blair began fidgeting. Jim reached out to stroke him, soothing him again with barely the decision to do so. He did look up, in order to ensure the reason for the fidgeting was what he'd intended.

Blair chuckled breathlessly. "Yeah, you know what you're doing."

"I'm brushing you," he said innocently, and went back to doing so.

Muscles once again relaxed underneath his ministrations, but there was an undercurrent of tension that did not dissipate. This kind of tension Jim didn't mind. Grinning to himself, he went back to focusing on his brushing. For a while. As he worked down one side, he conceded it was going to bug the hell out of him, and he reached up and placed his hand on the juncture of Blair's two backs.

Blair looked at him over his shoulder. "What are you doing?"

"Nothing." He could almost feel... he concentrated a little. Aha. He moved his hand away and resumed brushing.

His lover stared at him suspiciously for a moment more before the brushing once again lulled him. This time, the relaxation seemed to take over completely. Perhaps it was because Jim was no longer staring at him. "I'm going to fall asleep if you keep that up much longer."

"Yeah? You got something better to do?" He kept brushing. Of course, he was only a few inches away from a rather ticklish spot....

"Mm...you tell me."

As his fingers drew closer to the spot, he considered the chance of an ill-placed reflexive kick. He sighed, disappointed.

"Well?" Blue eyes full of simmering heat searched out his own. "Do I?"

He let the hand holding the brush fall, and leaned forward against Blair. Still within kicking distance. "I suppose it depends on how fast you can change forms."

"Maybe not as fast as some, but fast enough for you I think."

"Show me."

Blair cocked his head to the side and watched him for a moment. Then he nodded and slowly began to change.

%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

It felt wonderful to be home. As he stepped out of the truck and looked around at the place he had lived for years: the house and barn and land he'd bought so long ago, lived on ever since, made into his home and field.... He couldn't believe he had ever thought that the ranch and its wide open pastures was what he wanted.

It might be in a centaur's nature to want land on which to range, but it was his nature to want to be home. Here, were his family was. He turned at looked at the most important member of his family, and smiled.

Joe had climbed out of the truck and was leaning against it, smiling as he watched him. His eyes sparkled with a delight and deep contentment that had been missing for far too long.

Without a word, Levon held out his hand. His husband moved around the vehicle to take it, then tugged gently, pulling Levon into his arms.

Resting comfortably and easily into what was one of his favourite positions, Levon gave Joe a long look. All of the shadows were gone from Joe's eyes, all of the tension had left his body. He knew that things would be far from perfect, and knew Joe knew it too. But at least he was home, and home to stay.

"You wanna head indoors, or go for a ride?" he asked, not sure, himself, which he wanted more. Anything that meant touching Joe was fine with him, he realized.

"A ride," Joe replied immediately, "if it's not too dark...?"

"It's not too dark." With a grin, he let go and stepped back, and began removing his clothes. He laughed once at the expression on Joe's face. When he was old and grey, Joe would still be watching him like this, he'd bet. Even if he had sense enough not to say anything about old age, aloud.

"Guess it's not." Joe grinned back, his eyes deliberately roving over Levon's form.

Leaving his clothes in a pile by the truck, Levon quickly finished stripping and changed.

Joe ran a hand lightly over his coat, then pulled himself astride. "Fooler's going to be glad to see you."

Reaching back to pull his husband's hands forward, around his waist, Levon leaned back towards him. "I missed you," he said quietly.

The grip at his waist tightened. "Welcome home, cowboy," Joe whispered back.

He stood there for a moment, then gave the arms a squeeze. Without further warning, he shot off into a run, across his pasture. It wasn't the first run they'd had today, but this was different. This time it was on their own lands, and they weren't doing it to avoid talking or to go somewhere to talk. This was just for the sheer joy of it, reestablishing an old routine that in some ways symbolized their relationship. In many ways it best compared to their very first run, when Joe had finally found his seat and they'd headed off into the wind simply because they finally could.

Levon found himself leaving behind all the fears and apologies, all the pains and plans of the weeks past. Stretching his arms out, he shouted, and flew.

They stayed out until they absolutely had to return because of the deepening darkness. Even then Levon slowed down to a walk to make this ride last as long as possible. He eventually turned towards the house -- reluctantly, though he knew they would be out here again in the morning. He didn't want to let go of this evening, despite the fact that his perfect memory could re-create it whenever he wanted. Remembering wasn't the same as living.

"It's not over yet," Joe told him, seemingly reading his mind. Or maybe he was just feeling the same things.

"I know." He struggled to keep the glee out of his voice and speak in the same quiet, reverential tone, "You still have to brush me."

Joe chuckled, the sound low, teasing and sexy. "I haven't forgotten."

It was too bad it had grown too dark to risk running for the barn. He did walk faster though, which only made Joe laugh harder.

Once inside, Joe slid off his back and headed over to get the brushes. Levon had started to relax in anticipation, when he heard the patter of eight small feet. He looked just in time to see one cat -- Boots -- launch herself off the ground.

He held still, wincing slightly as she dug her claws in as she scrambled onto his back. Joe turned back around, brushes in hand and started laughing again. "Guess I'm not the only one who missed you around here."

Boots was purring, digging her claws rhythmically into his back. Levon glared at her, then saw Trouble sitting nearby, very clearly ignoring him. With a covert glance in his direction, Trouble headed over to Joe and began weaving around his legs, purring loudly, still ostentatiously ignoring Levon.

"Reckon he's annoyed?" Levon had to admit, being left alone by Trouble wasn't such an awful thing. Though he had missed the two cats, he hadn't missed having them vie for space on his back when he was trying to sleep.

"Just a bit. He holds a grudge longer than Boots." Joe was obviously trying not to laugh - out loud.

Levon appreciated it. "That's all right. He'll have time to forgive me. I ain't going anywhere." He watched the cat, still purring at Joe and glancing ever so carefully at Levon to make sure he had noticed.

Joe stood there, grinning at him but his eyes darkly serious. "No, you aren't."

Levon returned the smile -- relaxing again as Boots curled up on his back. He could feel her purring reverberate along his spine. It was difficult not to be lulled by the contentment of the situation.

Except, of course, for one small thing.

He had to convince Trouble he wasn't a scratching post. Then he had to convince Joe to stop laughing, and start brushing.

"What's that glare for?" Joe asked between chuckles as he stepped closer and raised a brush.

He had opened his mouth to answer, when the brush hit his back. He stopped, then closed his mouth. A minute later, he closed his eyes as well.

He heard a soft chuckle, and Joe kept on brushing.

%%%%%%%%%%%%%%%

His life was weird. He had to just accept that.

Lying in bed in the guestroom he'd been given, Simon Banks was trying to come to terms with just how weird his life was. The people he knew....

Granted, his life was nowhere as weird as the lives of the people he knew who made his life weird. He was human. He was a normal human. And, far as he knew, his ex-wife and son were human, too.

If they weren't, he wasn't sure he wanted to know.

Below he could hear the sounds of people stirring, and the clink of dishes as they started preparing breakfast. It sounded normal. It would even look normal if he went downstairs.

But it wasn't normal. It wasn't even close.

He had gotten used to -- OK, sorta used to -- the idea of Jim Ellison being a sort of 'super human', heightened senses and all that crap. The idea of Sandburg as a Guide was easy. Sandburg as a Shaman was trickier.

Sandburg as half-human....

He'd had problems with it when they'd first told him about Blair's heritage. But he had come to some kind of terms with it. At least he thought he had until he'd seen Blair change for the first time.

Even then he'd been able to fake it, at least when he was around either of the two. Alone, he freely gibbered and shook his head and wondered what on earth he had gotten himself into. Apparently he'd faked it too well, to warrant this invitation home.

He was honoured, really. Had everyone involved been human he wouldn't have even blinked. But being surrounded by centaurs... even the cute foals were difficult to grasp.

Simon blinked, and looked at the door. Speaking of which -- someone had knocked. Someone short, with a very small fist. "Captain Banks, sir?" a young voice called out.

He got up, grabbed his robe -- though he'd noticed that few centaurs bothered with such things -- and went to the door. He opened it to find a very young face looking up at him, somewhat nervously. It was Tammy, one of the two year olds he'd been introduced to the day before.

He smiled. "Yes?"

"Carla said to tell you breakfast will be ready in ten minutes."

"Thank you." He waited, and when she just stood there, looking up at him, he asked, "Was there something else?" It was easy enough to deal with a little girl who looked human.

She shook her head, but didn't move.

"You looking forward to the ceremony?"

She nodded enthusiastically.

"Been hearing a lot about it, I suppose?"

She nodded again, her hair bouncing with the force of the movement.

"Do you have a part in the ceremony?"

She nodded again, shyly.

He crouched down, wondering if she were ever going to actually speak. He hadn't thought any centaurs were shy -- but maybe that was because the youngest ones had mostly been avoiding he and Stephen. "What do you get to do?"

"I'm s'posed to be your lia...lia..." She frowned.

"Liaison?"

She brightened. "That's it. Your lie'son."

"So does this mean you'll be escorting me today?"

She nodded again.

"That's wonderful. I'm sure you'll be perfect for the job."

She beamed at him.

And still no speech. Simon wanted to sigh, but didn't dare make the child think she'd done something wrong. "How about I get dressed, then, and you can take me downstairs to breakfast?" he offered.

She nodded and smiled. He waited for her to go, so he could close the door and get dressed. Instead she looked ready to simply stand there and wait.

Right. Centaurs didn't have a problem with nudity. Unfortunately, he did. "Why don't you wait in the hall?" he suggested awkwardly. All he needed now was to make the little girl frown at him....

She stared at him for a moment, then her eyes widened and she grinned. Simon could practically see the thoughts about humans going through her mind. But she stepped back out of the doorway, pulling the door closed as she went. With a sigh of relief, Simon went to get ready for breakfast.

The child stuck to his side all through breakfast, taking her responsibility very seriously and Simon noticed the other guests also had small guides assigned to them. It was, no doubt, a useful way of keeping the children occupied and out of the way of the adults, who seemed to be in the midst of full-blown chaos.

Or maybe it was just breakfast at the ranch. He had no way of knowing.

Jim seemed a little distracted; Simon wasn't sure if it was the noise and activity making him keep his senses dialed down, or being in shock that he was actually getting married. Sandburg was certainly staying right at Jim's side, as if glued there.

Then again, when wasn't Sandburg glued to the sentinel's side?

Naomi seemed oddly subdued. She was letting Joy take most of the first moves in getting everything and everyone focused on the rest of the day. Simon wasn't sure what had happened, but she was smiling, if looking a bit... something. He didn't know. He didn't want to know. Knowing would mean he was doing more than just sitting back and enjoying himself. With his luck, knowing would also mean more weird centaur stuff that he did not want to deal with.

He glanced down at his young guide. "What's first, after breakfast?" he asked, cheerfully forcing his thoughts away from the events he'd missed last night, when three cops, a herd Stallion, and one young man left -- and four cops and a Herd Stallion returned. He'd put his head in the sand, then, and hoped whatever had happened wouldn't come back to haunt him today.

Tomorrow, fine. Not today. His friends deserved some peace at least on their wedding day. Though Simon still couldn't shake the feeling they should have a SWAT team standing by just in case.

He was able to avoid having any chores given him, though he spotted Stephen talking cheerfully to Carla as he helped her clear the tables. Tammy took his hand to lead him outside. He obediently followed his tiny liaison out into the yard.

He didn't have a chance to ask her what next, when he realized something was happening. He didn't know what, exactly, but the centaurs outside seemed suddenly very interested in something he couldn't see. Then he overheard someone say "They're coming! They scouts spotted them!"

He didn't know who "they" were, but from everyone's attitude, it was nothing to be worried about.

"Told you they'd come!" one of the children, Angie -- one of the two who weren't centaurs -- was telling the others.

Simon moved forward, with several of the others -- including Tammy, who was now tugging on his hand, dragging him forward to a place where she could see. He lifted her up to hold her, and she craned her head to see around the adults.

"Higher," she whispered.

He put her on his shoulders, where she would be able to see over everyone. She laughed and grabbed onto his ears to balance herself. He stifled his expression of pain, remembering when Darryl did the same thing. Before he could ask what it was, a familiar truck came into view.

Lundy's and Lafiamma's. It looked like they'd come back for the wedding after all. The other centaurs seemed surprised, but pleased -- and as soon as Levon and Joe got out of the truck, they bombarded the two with questions. Joe started laughing and held up his hands in a calming gesture that had absolutely no effect.

The herd only quieted down when Stuart approached. The mares moved out of his way as he approached the two. Simon had only know these people for a couple of days, but he could easily read the underlying tension.

The young stallion was expressionless as he made his way through the crowd, stopping only when he was directly in front of Joe and Levon.

"Mind if we watch the festivities?" Levon asked cheerfully.

As if a balloon had been broken, the tension vanished. Stuart grinned. "The more the merrier."

The mood instantly reverted to its previous celebration. Joe and Levon were pulled into the crowd; Simon saw the alpha mare, Joy, giving her former herd stallion a fierce glare. Simon wasn't sure he wanted to know what that was about.

With the two new arrivals, the herd began once again moving towards the eastern field nearest the house, where the ceremony would be held. Simon wondered if Jim and Blair had snuck out the back way yet. Tammy was pulling at his ears again, this time as if trying to steer him.

He obligingly took a step in what might have been the right direction. She giggled and kept steering.

He followed, and found himself being lead to the center of the preparations. It wouldn't be long, now, before the ceremony was ready to get underway. He spotted Joe and Levon again, in the midst of a crowd of youngsters which included the foals as well as some of the older children.

Levon was holding one of his foals in his arms, Joe had another -- Laurie, he thought. She seemed to be jabbering at top speed to her father, who was smiling and nodding as if her noises made perfect sense.

Slowly the chaos began to take shape. People found their places, putting the last touches on whatever they'd been assigned to make sure was perfect. Simon, following the direction of his guide, went to take his own place beside Stephen.

Stephen glanced at him. "Nice headdress."

"Thanks. I'm sure it'll be all the rage next year." He heard Tammy giggle.

He glanced upwards and grinned at her. He decided to leave her where she was -- if Joy's arrangements hadn't made allowances for a child on his shoulders, he was sure they could adapt.

The noise level suddenly died down as the crowd all turned toward the weird of the field expectantly. Simon caught a glance of Naomi's face as he turned to look as well. She was beaming.

Then, at the far end of the crowd, stood Jim and Blair. Jim was about what he expected, decked out to the nines in a tux. Blair...

Blair was in centaur form, his coat glossy and shining, black velvet ribbons holding both his tail and his hair back.

Together, they looked stunning.

Or stunned, Simon corrected. From the way each was staring at the other, he was pretty sure they felt stunned.

Everyone else was all smiles. A glance showed Simon that even Stuart was grinning ear to ear, in complete disregard of instructions he'd overheard that he should conduct himself with all due decorum. Jim and Blair didn't seem to notice. They were still staring at each other, to the exclusion of everything else -- including walking.

No one nudged them. Instead everyone watched; the breeze picked up slightly and Simon could smell the wildflowers and sage, and the dry dust which he knew he would never get completely out of his sinuses. It was a perfect day, though. He wouldn't have traded a thing for it.

Finally Joy cleared her throat loudly, and Jim and Blair seemed to become aware of the rest of the world. Hands clasped they continued forward until they stood in front of Stuart.

Stuart was still grinning, though for a moment it looked as though he was simply letting the gravity of the situation demand a dramatic silence. Then his grin split wider.

"Cool!" The boy said loudly, and clearly.

Simon saw Joy hang her head.

The End