A Simple Life

A Houston Knights Centaur Story

By James Walkswithwind and Wolfling

"Don't look at me. If you hadn't been there I wouldn't have stepped on you."

Joe heard his partner talking, and from the sound of the angry hiss, he was talking to Trouble. He walked down the hallway to the kitchen to see Levon glaring down at the small bundle of feline outrage glaring right back at him.

Trouble was flicking his tail angrily. Levon looked up and grinned at Joe. "They ever learn not to walk underfoot?"

Joe shrugged. "Near as I can figure it, they see it as us stepping on *their* ground."

Levon sighed. "I think I'm glad you decided they shouldn't be barn cats." He grinned. "Hard enough watching for 'em in two feet." Levon skirted around Trouble, and continued on his way, stopping to give Joe a kiss.

"I thought we both decided," Joe replied, his tone teasing, even as he felt the brief surge of annoyance that had been happening more and more often lately.

Levon grinned. After he'd gone a few steps he looked over his shoulder. "That reminds me. Maggie said if we want to get 'em fixed, we can bring 'em in anytime now."

Joe headed to the fridge to grab himself a drink. "What did you tell her?"

"Told her we'd let her know," Levon called back. "Didn't know how you felt about it."

Of course. "How do you feel about it?" Joe countered.

"Don't matter to me. Used to breeding horses; house full of kittens you can at least get rid of." A moment later Levon came back into the kitchen. "But Boots is a little young to be a mother; doubt we could keep 'em from skipping the first time." He sounded like he truly didn't care, one way or the other.

So it looked like the decision was up to Joe. He sighed. Like that was any surprise. The irritation he had felt earlier was back.

"I'll phone Maggie and set up an appointment," he said, the annoyance and weariness leaching into his voice.

"Okay." Levon looked at him. "You all right?"

"Yeah," he muttered. "I'm just great."

Levon grabbed his arm. "Anything you wanna talk -- or argue -- about?" He was smiling, just a little.

Briefly Joe considered doing just that, but quickly discarded the notion. He'd learned very quickly there were just some things they couldn't fight about without major misunderstandings rising between them. Dominance was one of them. To even broach the subject was to risk hurting Levon. And, despite his annoyance, hurting Levon was the last thing he wanted to do.

"Nah," he answered, with a smile that was only slightly forced. "Nothing that can't wait."

Levon nodded, but as he moved off, Joe noticed that he still looked concerned, but he was apparently going to give Joe the space he was asking for. Briefly, Joe wondered if he'd rather Levon would push him once in a while.

Not that that was going to happen. Not without him asking Levon to push. And that sorta defeated the issue.

Levon called out again. "Never got the chance to tell you -- Marguerite called and wants to move dinner to tonight, rather than Friday. Seems some guy finally asked her out and she, and I quote, 'isn't about to let any four-legged paying-for-my-dinner friend interfere.'"

That brought a genuine smile to Joe's face. He hadn't been able to help but like Marguerite from the moment Levon had introduced him to her and Duke. "You tell her that's fine?"

Levon's amused voice came back to him. "Wasn't like I had a choice. Marguerite said tonight or not at all. 'Suppose she coulda been exaggerating... unless this guy is one she intends on keeping. Then we might not see her for a *long* time."

Joe laughed. "There is that. But even Marguerite has to come up for air sometimes."

"We didn't." Levon leaned around the corner and winked at him. "Not for close to a year."

"Guess we better make it tonight then."

Levon nodded, and disappeared again.

Something rubbed against Joe's leg, and he looked down at Trouble. Reminded, Joe went off to phone Maggie.

******

Dinner was at Luciano's. It was a place Joe had discovered nearly four months previous and had declared to be the best Italian food in Houston.

Levon had asked if that meant it was any good, given Joe's opinion of Houston's Italian restaurants. Joe had responded by taking Levon to dinner there almost once a week. It was a mix of gourmet dining and casual atmosphere, and the owners now knew Joe and Levon well enough that any friendly stallion scuffling would be ignored.

Within reason of course. It was Joe's and Marguerite's job to make sure it stayed within reason.

They met Duke and Marguerite at the restaurant entrance.

Marguerite gave them both hugs, grinning from ear to ear. "Joe! Levon, so good to see you both. Now, ask me about John as soon as you like. I won't mind."

Levon laughed, then reached out and took Duke's hand. "Duke."

"Levon," Duke replied evenly, shaking Levon's hand shortly and then releasing it. "Joe," he said, nodding at him.

"Duke." Joe nodded back. He grinned at Marguerite as they were led to their table. "John is it? Should we be running a check on him?"

"Don't you dare!" she said with a scandalized expression... but a laugh in her voice. "Don't worry, Duke's already met him, and says he approves." She gave Duke a smirk.

"You trust his judgement?" Levon asked.

"Whose is she suppose to trust instead, horsehead?" Duke asked. "You?"

Levon leaned forward and stopped when Marguerite eyed him. "You, sit here. Duke, over here." She sat them down on opposite sides of the table, then gave Joe a grin.

"I shall never wonder what it's like to have kids."

Joe snorted. "I know what you mean," he said, with far more feeling than he had intended.

Levon gave him a hurt look, spoiled by the grin. "I wasn't going to hurt him none," he protested.

"This is the only decent Italian restaurant in Houston. You are not getting us barred from it," Joe shot back.

Levon sat back, mollified.

Joe suppressed an irritated sigh.

"Wasn't there something you wanted to ask me about?" Marguerite asked, accepting a menu from the waitress.

Shaking off his mood, Joe grinned at her. "You obviously want to tell us."

"Well I don't want to dominate the conversation," she replied, obviously lying. She winked. "Let's give this poor woman our drink orders and let her get back to work."

They all did so, opting for wine to help Marguerite celebrate her potential good fortune.

Dinner was, as usual, excellent. Conversation wasn't bad either, with Marguerite holding forth about the new man in her life and her three dinner companions taking it in turn to play protective older brother with her. All in fun of course.

But Joe had noticed that Marguerite kept shooting him concerned looks all through the meal. He tried to ignore them but...

"Try that again, boy, and you're paying for the meal," Levon said, half in jest. He was glaring at Duke.

Marguerite sighed, and told Joe, "This was so much worse when it was just me. Have I ever told you I'm grateful that you're around to help keep them in line?"

"I could always lend you my spare handcuffs, if it'll help," Joe shot back in kind.

"I don't think we'll need them. Yet." She glared at Duke.

Duke looked back at her totally unrepentant... and stuck his tongue out at her.

She bopped him on the arm. "If you get us thrown out of here because I have to throw my bread roll at you... *you* are going to find Joe a new Italian restaurant."

Levon laughed.

"It's not like you've been egging him on any, cowboy, is it?" Joe said.

Levon looked startled, then subsided. When Duke snickered, Levon glared at him fiercely.

Marguerite sighed. "Joe? You ever think about leaving them at home and just the two of us going to dinner?"

"Now there's an idea. But what would John say?"

She grinned. "I'm *so* looking forward to going to dinner with John, and leaving Duke and Levon behind." Her expression turned suddenly innocent. "You wouldn't mind babysitting, would you? I've an extra rope."

"Centaur hog-tying?" Joe asked blandly.

"It works," she said, ignoring both Duke's and Levon's offended glares.

She continued to ignore them as she asked, "Joe, do you mind my asking if everything is all right?"

Levon glanced once at Joe when she asked, but didn't say a word.

"Why wouldn't it be?" he replied, not quite able to meet her eyes.

"You just seem distracted, is all."

He could feel Levon's eyes on him as he answered with a shrug. "I'm fine."

Marguerite looked at him, looked at Levon, then back to him. It was obvious she didn't believe him.

Levon was toying with his wineglass, not saying a word.

"You're lying," Marguerite said, finally. "Should I make you talk now, or corner you later? Remember, I have a new boyfriend starting Friday. I can't be wasting precious time unscrewing your head."

"My head doesn't need unscrewing," Joe argued. Even if it did there was no way he could talk about this. Not in front of Levon. It would hurt the other man too much.

She rolled her eyes, but said, "Fine. But you can't say I didn't try." She glanced up at the waitress, and pointed to Duke. "He's paying."

Levon still didn't look over at Joe, and only half-heartedly smirked when Duke sighed and accepted the bill.

Feeling a twinge of guilt, Joe reached over and laid his hand over his lover's, hoping Levon would take the physical contact for the wordless apology that it was.

Levon returned it, glancing at him. He still didn't ask.

"So. Does anyone want to meet for a late lunch Saturday and get details?" Marguerite interrupted.

"Sorry, Levon and I are on-duty Saturday," Joe apologized. "Maybe Sunday?"

"Okay. Sunday, it is. I just hope we're celebrating, and not talking about what a jerk he turns out to be."

"You sure you don't want us to check him out, first?" Levon offered, his smile returning somewhat.

"She'll just ask you to get him arrested if he does turn out to be a jerk," Duke responded.

"Oo, now there's an idea!" Marguerite sounded pleased. "Actually, I have an ex...."

Joe laughed. "If we ever get a break in our caseload, Marguerite, we'll see what we can do."

She laughed, then they gave the restaurant back their table and headed out. Once outside they stopped, and Marguerite gave them hugs again. Levon and Duke didn't bother trying to shake hands; friendly stares seemed to suffice. Joe and Duke nodded at each other and then Joe headed for the Jimmy with Levon.

The silence that had fallen between the two of them weighed heavily on Joe.

Levon climbed behind the wheel and asked quietly, "You wanna head on home?"

"What do you want to do?" Joe responded softly, wearily.

Levon shrugged. "Don't matter. It ain't even eight yet."

Suddenly Joe couldn't take it anymore. "What do *you* want to *do*?" he asked again, in short clipped tones.

Levon stared at him, wide-eyed. "Told you, it don't matter. Go home, go to Chicken's... hell we can go to Galveston and take a moonlit walk on the beach." He said the last with an almost equally angry tone.

"Fine! Choose one!"

Levon blinked, then started the truck's engine. He pulled out of the lot fairly sedately -- and thus safely -- but Joe saw how hard he was gripping the wheel. He turned off the side road and headed for the highway. This didn't tell Joe where they were headed.

It was on the tip of his tongue to ask where they were going but he remained silent.

Beside him, Levon focused on the road and said nothing. He hadn't turned on the radio, either, which was unusual for him.

Finally the silence was too overwhelming and Joe broke it. "Levon..."

"What?"

"I..." He trailed off with a sigh, not knowing what to say.

Levon didn't ask. He just drove, not even looking over.

Joe sighed, leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He felt like crying. He didn't know how to fix this, how to reconcile Levon's need for him to be dominant and his own need not to have to be the responsible one all the time. To sometimes be able to sit back and let Levon make the decisions.

Levon took an exit which would lead them to Chicken's, or home.

The tension in the truck rose, exponentially.

Joe still couldn't figure out what he could say to ease it.

"Joe?" The anguish in Levon's voice cut through Joe.

Joe opened his eyes and looked at him.

"Joe, I can't ask you to tell me what you don't want me to know... but please. Please, isn't there anything I can do?"

The question made Joe's throat close up for a second. Levon was doing his best not to let his instincts keep them from communicating. Maybe it was time Joe did the same. He reached out and laid a hand on Levon's arm. "I don't know," he said honestly. "Take us home and we'll talk."

Levon nodded. He turned them towards the house, and drove the rest of the way in silence.

Joe kept his hand on Levon's arm for the entire trip.

When they got home, Levon looked at him uncertainly. "Joe?"

"Yeah?" Joe asked, his voice hoarse.

But Levon didn't say anything more. He got out of the truck instead, and walked around to stand by the hood. He glanced towards the house, then towards the pasture.

"Where do you wanna talk?"

It was on the tip of Joe's tongue to again throw the question back in his lover's face but he stopped himself. That wouldn't solve the problem.

So he gave it some thought before finally deciding, "Let's go for a run." They both needed to feel close to each other at the moment and this always seemed to work to help them connect.

Levon nodded and headed towards the barn. He tossed his boots down, followed them with his belt and jeans, leaving them piled on the ground. He didn't look over to see if Joe was watching. Another atypical move.

Joe trailed after him, wondering how things could go so wrong between them so fast.

Levon changed, and waited for Joe to join him.

Which Joe did, but did not immediately mount. Instead he walked around to in front of Levon and hugged him as tightly as he could, face pressed against Levon's chest, needing the reassurance of physical closeness as he once again fought off tears.

"Joe? Can you even tell me what's wrong?" Levon sounded frightened, as well as worried.

Hesitating he finally answered without looking up. "I don't want you to take it the wrong way," he said softly.

"Could it be any worse than me not knowing at all?" There was a serious tone in Levon's voice that told Joe he could say yes. He could refuse to say anything, and Levon would accept it.

That was the problem.

"I don't know," he sighed. "But we do need to talk about it."

Levon nodded, and then held out a hand.

Joe took it, squeezing tightly, but still made no move to mount. He needed to see Levon's eyes when they talked, he decided.

Taking a deep breath, he started speaking before he could change his mind. "It's about the dominance thing."

"What about it?" Levon asked carefully. He looked slightly confused now, along with everything else.

Having wrestled with how to say this in a way that wouldn't hurt Levon, and having come up with nothing, Joe just out and out said it. "I wish that I didn't have to make *every* little decision in our lives. That you could, sometimes, make the decisions instead."

Levon tilted his head sideways. "Like what?"

"Like tonight, for instance. Where to go."

"I was just *asking*, Joe. I didn't mean anything by it."

"Do you realize how often you do that? Every time there's any kind of decision to be made, big or small, you ask me. And even if I ask you what you want, most of the time you just put the decision back on me."

"Because I don't *care* one way or the other, Joe. If I did I'd say something." Levon was still looking at him in that mix of emotions, with none of the anger in him that Joe was feeling.

"Yeah but a lot of those times *I* don't care either. But when you can shrug and just go along, I *always* end up having to make the decision, whether I really care about it or not." He shook his head in frustration. "This isn't coming out right."

"You saying you don't want to decide these things?"

"Not all of them, *all* the fucking time, no!"

Levon backed up a step. "I'm sorry," he began.

Joe sighed in frustration as he saw the look on Levon's face. "I knew you would take this the wrong way. Levon, I'm not saying I don't want the responsibility, or that I don't want you. That's not what I'm saying at all."

Levon frowned. "What... what do you want?"

"That when I ask you what choice you prefer about decisions that you make a choice sometimes, even if it doesn't matter to you."

"How do I know when to do that? When you don't want to choose?" Levon crossed his arms in front of him, holding his arms in a sort of hug. But he looked more confused, now, than upset. "Joe, I can't risk making you mad...." He stopped. Joe saw him realize what he'd just said. "Did I?" he asked in an impossibly small voice.

Joe hesitated. "Not on purpose," he finally said softly.

Levon looked away, otherwise not moving. His face slowly blanked of all emotion.

"Ah, Levon..." Joe breathed. "Don't do this..." He hated when Levon got like this, hated it when he thought he had to withdraw into himself. Mostly because it usually meant that Joe had hurt him.

Levon moved. Away from Joe.

He began walking slowly out into the pasture.

"No," Joe said softly, knowing instinctively that if they left it like this, this thing would only get worse. Raising his voice, he begged his lover, "Please, stay."

Levon froze, tail swishing, but didn't look back. In a soft, choked voice he said, "I can't ask you, Joe. And I can't not ask you."

He looked skyward, and continued, "Everything inside me is screaming, right now. To do exactly what you tell me. And you're telling me not to do it." He turned, anger showing clearly now. Anger, frustration, and fear. "How the *hell* am I supposed to do that, Joe? Dammit, I can't even ask you that, can I? Can't ask you a damn thing in case that's the one that'll make you mad again. Can't not ask you, either. So what do I do?"

He swore, then, and turned back around. "I know you don't like it, Joe. And I'll do whatever you want me to," he said in a bitter tone. "But you can't ask me to stop being what I am just because you get annoyed!"

"Don't you think I know that? Dammit, Levon, I'm not asking you to change! And I'm not trying to make things difficult!" Joe sighed in frustration, running a hand through his hair. "But sometimes I can't help how I feel. I know that you have to do things a certain way because of what you are. I was just hoping we could come up with a compromise within those parameters."

"You want me to decide, sometimes, when I don't care which choice we make," Levon said.

"Yes. If I ask you to," Joe clarified, knowing that would probably make it easier. And, truth be told, he didn't mind having to ask. He just occasionally wanted to get an answer.

Levon looked at him closely. "Only when you ask me to?"

He nodded. "As I said, I'm not trying to change you. I know that you wouldn't feel comfortable otherwise."

"Is that all?" Levon sounded uncertain. But not upset, and not so afraid.

Again Joe nodded. "Compromise," he repeated, this time venturing a small smile.

Levon blinked. Stared at him. "That's all?" he asked again.

"That's all."

"This is what you were upset about? This is what you've been brooding over for four weeks?" He sounded angry again.

Joe blinked. "Well, yeah." He hastened to explain. "I couldn't figure out how to bring up the subject without you going ballistic on me. Which you almost did just now."

Levon glared at him. "So you just went on, letting me piss you off more? Didn't think I'd rather help fix things than be treated like a mindless parasite? Dammit, Joe, you may be dominant but you are *not* the only one in this relationship. I may not be able to refuse you anything but I will *not* abide being treated like I can't *do* anything for you, either. I have a responsibility here, too, you know. I'd thank you to remember it goes both ways."

Looking at the stall wall, Joe felt a sudden urge to go bang his head against it.

Unfortunately, Levon chose that moment to take matters into his own hands. He turned and ran.

Top speed, into the darkness.

"Well," Joe said to the empty barn. "That went better than I thought it would."

*************

An hour later Levon returned to the barn. He didn't look over at Joe after a brief, initial glance. His hands were in his jacket pockets and he looked fairly relaxed.

He came to a stop and stood there, shifting his weight back and forth nervously.

Joe gave him a rueful look. "You still talking to me?"

Levon nodded.

"Good." He took a deep breath wondering exactly how to say the next bit without pissing his partner off all over again.

Levon just looked at him, expectantly.

Start with an apology and go from there, he thought. "I know I didn't handle this whole thing very well. I'm sorry for that. But Levon, I didn't know *how* to handle it, not without hurting you." He sighed and ran his hand over his face. "This is why it took me so long to accept being dominant in the first place, because I was afraid I'd do exactly what it seems I did. Stop treating you as a partner."

"So you'd rather hurt yourself than hurt me?"

Joe thought about that. "Yeah," he finally said. "That about sums it up."

Levon looked away. "I hate knowing I've hurt you, Joe. Even if we both know I don't mean it, and even if you think it's better than me being hurt. But how am I supposed to stop you from hurting yourself?"

He didn't have an answer to that, not really. So he said the only thing that came into his mind. "Love me?"

Levon glanced his way. "I do. That hasn't seemed to help, so far."

"It's helped more than you could possibly know, Levon," Joe argued, thinking, even with all their problems, how much better and fuller his life was now than before he had met Levon.

"But you'd rather let me hurt you, than let me help," Levon said, sounding thoughtful.

Joe shook his head in disagreement. "No. But I would rather almost anything than hurt you."

"Joe, how do you think I feel?" he asked in a near-whisper.

That caused Joe to raise his head and stare at Levon in realization. If he would rather endure anything than risk hurting Levon because he loved him, then of course it stood to reason that the worst way to hurt Levon, who loved him just as much, would be to let Levon hurt him...

"God," he whispered stricken, still staring at his lover. "God," he repeated again. "Levon, I-"

Levon smirked. "Logic is a terrible thing, ain't it?"

"I'm sorry," Joe said softly, heartfelt.

Levon nodded. "You reckon we can avoid doing this, next time?"

"As stubborn as we both are? I don't know." He took a step closer to Levon. "I hope so."

Levon reached out, and took him into an embrace. Once they were settled, he sighed. "I'm sorry, Joe. I know I don't have to keep saying it. But I am."

"So we're both sorry." Joe grinned up at him. "Think we can call it even and just go on from here?"

Levon nodded, smiling gratefully. He glanced back towards the pasture, then asked hesitantly, "I know it's dark... but you feel up for a short ride?"

"You haven't worn yourself out already?"

"Nah. 'Sides, I don't wanna go far. Just...." He shrugged.

Joe smiled. "Sure," he said, as he moved out of Levon's embrace and mounted up with the ease of long practice.

Levon walked easily back towards the pasture; with only the waning moon for light they were swallowed up in darkness quickly.

"Hope you can see where we're going, cowboy," Joe muttered, half to himself.

"Not really," came the serious reply. "But I need this."

That shut Joe up. If Levon needed this to reestablish his equilibrium after tonight, Joe would make sure he got it. If he was honest with himself, he needed it too. Wrapping his arms tighter around Levon's waist, he leaned his head against Levon's back with a contented sigh. "Just don't step in any gopher holes and break a leg or something," he warned.

His partner laughed. "I'll do my best."

They walked, fairly slowly all things considered, more or less aimlessly. For a while they were both quiet, merely enjoying the solitude and the company.

This was what made all the crap worth it, Joe thought. He could feel his own muscles unwinding as he basked in his lover's presence, and the affection, the love, that existed between them.

He sighed again in contentment which made Levon chuckle.

"Figured you needed it, too," he said softly. Reaching back, he brushed Joe's thigh with his hand, then turned slowly. He kept glancing towards the ground, though Joe wasn't sure that centaurs could see any better than humans, at night.

"Yeah, I did."

"You ready to head in yet?" Levon asked, looking over his shoulder. There was nothing in his gaze but contentment and love.

Joe opened his mouth to answer, then decided to test the waters. "Are you?"

"Yeah, I am. Can't see well enough to relax."

"Let's head back then." Joe paused and then offered diffidently, "I could brush you before bed if you want."

Levon laughed, loudly and delightedly. "Joe, thought I told you - you ain't *never* gotta ask about that. Answer's always 'yes'."

He headed for the barn, and picked up the pace a tad.

Picked up a little too much for Joe's comfort. "You break something and there won't be any brushing," he warned.

"Believe me, I know."

"It's not like either of us have any sick days left..."

Levon chuckled, again. Then he slowed down. "Better?" he asked in a half-teasing tone.

"Yeah." Okay, so maybe he was being a bit paranoid about this, but he'd read about what it took to repair a horse's leg and he didn't want to see Levon go through that.

"Joe?"

"Yeah?"

"How did those two get outside?"

Joe followed his partner's gaze and saw Boots and Trouble chasing each other around the corral.

"I don't know." His hand reached instinctively for one of his guns even as he slid off of Levon's back. He knew he was probably overreacting, but experience had taught him to be wary of anything out of the ordinary.

Levon nodded towards the barn, indicating that he would get out of sight and change.

Joe nodded in understanding, standing where he was until Levon got under cover, then slowly heading towards the house.

The front door was closed and there were no lights on inside. No immediate movement, either. He waited, and less than a minute later, it seemed, Levon was joining him.

Joe counted and they dove through the door, Joe high, Levon low, guns held at the ready.

There was nothing in the front room.

Cautiously, they made their search. Splitting up at the hallway, Levon headed for the kitchen, Joe, for the bedrooms.

He searched the rooms thoroughly but found no one and nothing out of place. He returned, just as cautiously, to meet his partner in the living room again.

"Back door's still locked. Don't think anyone's here."

"Then how-" Joe stopped when he caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye. Moving closer for a better look, he confirmed it. "I'm phoning Maggie and rescheduling getting those two fixed for tomorrow," he growled.

"What is it?" Levon asked, coming up behind him.

Joe showed him the torn window screen.

Levon grinned. "You think getting 'em fixed will keep them from escaping again?"

"Don't know, but it's all I can think of as punishment."

He watched as his mate started laughing, falling over to lean against the wall to hold himself upright.

********

Next morning started out routine enough, although they overslept and had to forego their morning ride. They still managed to get into work more or less on time.

Levon preceded him into the building, heading for the evidence lock-up to re-do a report someone had decided had been filled out incorrectly. Levon had gotten the note yesterday, but hadn't had time to deal with it.

On the way in he'd said more than one thing about somebody not having enough work to do to keep from bothering folks who *did* fill out their reports correctly. Levon *knew*, so he asserted, that he'd filled the thing out right.

Joe couldn't doubt him -- centaur memory being what it was. If he'd asked, Joe had no doubt Levon could repeat everything that he'd written on every report for the last week. Or month. And a great deal of what Joe had written as well. Including the typos. Which could get annoying after a while.

"See you as soon as Deborah lets me loose," Levon told him, as they parted ways at the third floor.

"Right." Joe continued on up to the Major Crimes bullpen.

Most of the detectives were absent. Beaumont was in her office, and Joe-Bill was by the coffee machine.

He came over as Joe sat down and raised an eyebrow in question at the other detective.

"LaFiamma, can I ask you something?" Joe-Bill kept his voice down, and looked nervous.

Wondering what was spooking the other man, though having a very strong hunch it had something to do with his partner, Joe nodded. "Shoot."

"Was Lundy always like that? Born that way?" It was the first time since Joe-Bill and Esteban had discovered Levon's secret that Joe-Bill had asked any questions.

Esteban had shown up that night, asked a few, then settled in to share a beer and conversation that resembled their usual ones.

Joe-Bill, on the other hand, had kept his distance, but Joe had caught him more than once staring at Levon from across the room. 'Looks like he finally got over being shell shocked,' Joe thought.

"You mean as opposed to acquiring the condition when he was bitten by a rabid centaur when he was a teenager?" he asked sarcastically. "Yeah, Joe-Bill, Levon was born a centaur. His parents were centaurs so it didn't really come as that much of a surprise."

Joe-Bill looked abashed. "Well how am I supposed to know? Never knew much about mythical creatures, even when I still thought they were mythical." He frowned. "That don't make his horse a relative, does it? Or does it?"

"No," Joe answered shortly. "Fooler is not a relative."

"Huh. Which came first? Horses or centaurs?"

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"Well...." Joe-Bill looked surprised at the question, then frowned. "Don't know, I just wondered." He shrugged. "If it meant, you know... if horses came from centaurs that'd be one thing."

"As opposed to the other thing? Which would be...?" Joe asked, getting increasingly annoyed.

"Well, how'd they get here, then? If it wasn't...." Joe-Bill looked away, obviously embarrassed. But still he asked, "He looked half-human, half-horse, to *me*."

"Centaurs aren't either. They're an entirely different species. What, you afraid if you go back far enough, you'll find you have a common ancestor?"

He looked startled at that. "No. I was just wondering, LaFiamma. You can't blame a man for wondering."

'Yes I can when what he's wondering about sounds like he's fishing for a tabloid headline.' Joe quashed that thought. "If you're so interested in centaur origins, why don't you ask Levon? I know the centaurs have some stories about how their race came to be."

"Uh... nah, I don't wanna... you know. Sound rude." Joe-Bill shrugged again, and made to leave. "Didn't want to sound stupid, you know?"

'Too late,' Joe thought.

But Joe-Bill left, then, as Esteban stopped by the bullpen. The two detectives headed out, leaving Joe alone.

He contemplated what to tell Levon, if anything. Ever since the other two detectives had found out, Levon had been worried about what they thought, and how they would deal with him. Esteban had been no problem, but Joe-Bill... Joe knew that Levon had been hurt by Joe-Bill's avoidance of him since then.

Caroline's reaction to finding out Levon's true heritage had left Levon more than a little gun-shy and insecure about others' reactions. And Joe-Bill's, while not out and out hostile, definitely held enough preconceived notions and discomfort that it would definitely hurt Levon.

Which meant not letting Levon know. Sighing, Joe ran his hands over his face in frustration. Sometimes he just wished life could be simple.

When the phone rang, he was grateful for the interruption.

"Major Crimes, Sergeant LaFiamma speaking," he said into the receiver.

"Joey!"

Joe blinked, unable to believe his ears. "Linda?"

"Hi! I was hoping I had the number right. Aunt Teresa gave it to me in the middle of giving me her recipe for tiramisu. I couldn't be sure I had all the numbers straight."

"Nope, this is it. God, it's great to hear from you! What has it been -- 8 years? Nine?"

"Nine, yes. God, Joey, it's so good to hear your voice. Oh! Guess why I'm calling. Guess where I am." Linda's delighted voice made Joe smile, even though he had no idea why she was happy.

"I take it you're not in Chicago?"

"Nope." She sounded smug.

"You wouldn't be visiting the 'you must drive a truck and barbecue everything' state of Texas would you?"

"Right on the nose! I'm in Houston. Wanna meet for lunch? I'm free today, tomorrow, Monday...."

Joe opened his mouth to accept, but hesitated, wondering how his old girl friend would take the fact that he was now in a relationship with a guy. And wondering how Levon would take the idea of him going out to lunch with an old frame. Not that Levon would ever say anything... Maybe he would be better off making excuses and not going.

He blinked in surprise at the strength of the resentment he felt at that thought. 'The hell with it,' he said to himself. "Sure Linda, today sounds great, if I don't get a case dumped in my lap before then."

"Great! I'm at the Sheraton on I-10 and 59. I haven't a clue how to get to wherever you are."

Joe laughed. "I can imagine. Took me two years before I was able to find my way around without having to look at a map every other block. I'll pick you up, kay?"

"Wonderful. The number here is 555-2461. I'm in room 742. Call me when you get free, ok?"

"Will do," he replied, writing the info down on his message pad.

"Oh, Joey, this is so nice. I've really missed you."

"I'm glad you looked me up." He saw Levon come into the room and hastily wrapped up the call. "Listen, I've got some paperwork I've got to do or I won't be able to get away. I'll pick you up 'round one?"

"Sounds fine! I'll be waiting. Later, Joey."

He hung up the phone just as Levon got to their desks.

"I swear, next time Deborah wants to impress her boss by changing some damn forms...."

Levon strode past him and sat down at his desk, frowning furiously.

"All taken care of?" Joe asked.

"I have *no* idea. Seems the report I filed was signed a half an hour after her new form went into affect. Nearly a dozen cops downstairs, re-doing paperwork that shouldn't need to be done." Levon picked up his coffee mug, and scowled. He got up and headed for the coffeepot.

"Need any more?" he asked, as he went by Joe's desk.

"Huh? No, thanks. I'm fine." He watched his partner head for the coffeepot, wondering why he felt guilty all of sudden. He hadn't done anything wrong after all. Just made arrangements to see an old friend.

"We got any plans for today?" Levon asked as he came back over.

"What plans?" Joe asked defensively.

"Other than paperwork?" Levon nodded towards their desks.

'Work,' Joe told himself. 'He's talking about work.' "Nah. The paperwork will keep us busy I'm sure."

Levon sighed. "Too bad. Was hoping we could go run after some more criminals, maybe tackle a few in a dirty alleyway." He looked over the stack of folders on his desk. "It'd have to be better'n this."

"I'm with you there, partner."

They settled down quickly enough, despite their words, and soon were immersed in paperwork.

As noon drew near, Joe began to get nervous.

He couldn't just get up and walk out on Levon without some explanation. He just wasn't sure what to say.

Finally deciding on the truth, or at least part of it, he shifted in his seat and cleared his throat to get his partner's attention.

Levon looked up at him, one eyebrow raised.

"Would you mind being on your own for lunch?" Joe ventured.

Levon looked surprised. "What's up?"

"Got a phone call from an old friend from Chicago who's in town."

"Oh. Sure." Levon didn't sound upset or more than mildly curious as to who the old friend was.

"We're going to catch up on old times over lunch. As long as you don't mind..."

"Why would I mind?"

Joe felt another little surge of guilt. "About being left on your own for lunch without any notice," he said, even as a mental voice was calling him a liar.

Levon grinned. "I think I can handle it, Joe. I'm a grown stallion," he added softly.

"Well grown," Joe replied, with a smile. It wasn't forced, not really, but the guilt he was still feeling leached some of its sincerity away.

But Levon didn't seem to notice. He went back to his reports, soon frowning again at having to repeat himself for the third time.

Joe heard him say to himself, "You know, we don't write things *down*. Much less four times."

"Not everyone has memories like yours, cowboy," Joe put in.

"Well, they should. Save me from doing paperwork."

"Keeps you out of trouble."

Levon looked up at him, head still down, and smiled. Joe recognized that look.

"Oh yeah?"

Another stab of guilt. Joe stood up quickly. "I gotta go. See you after lunch?"

Levon nodded absently.

Unable to face him any longer Joe fled.

***********

Just before one he was standing in the lobby of the Sheraton. He'd called Linda from his car phone to let her know he was on his way.

He wasn't sure why he had lied to Levon or why he felt so guilty about this. And it hadn't really been a lie, he told himself, it was just lunch to catch up on old times. Nothing else was going to happen. He was committed fully to Levon, after all.

"Joey!"

He looked up to see Linda coming towards him. She looked fabulous, smiling as she came up and gave him a hug.

"You look great!" he told her with a big grin, pushing his concerns about Levon to the back of his mind for the moment.

"Thank you! You don't look so bad, yourself. Texas must agree with you."

"Took some getting used to, but yeah, it does. Kinda grows on you. Like fungus."

She laughed. It was a wonderful, familiar sound. He remembered being in love with the sound of it and spending his time trying to find ways to make her laugh, back when they had been together.

Back in Chicago, back in college.

"You can tell me all about it over lunch. I'm going to be in Houston until Wednesday -- I'd love to see more of you than lunch today, of course."

"I'd like that," Joe heard himself saying. His conscience gave another twinge and he ruthlessly suppressed it. He wasn't doing anything wrong.

She smiled again and took his arm. "So where are you taking me to lunch?"

Joe almost said Chicken's but something changed his mind at the last moment. Instead he named a place that he and Levon rarely went to, knowing there was little chance of running into anyone he knew there.

They headed out and she laughed when she saw the Cobra. "Joey, Joey, always with the fancy cars! I knew I loved you for good reason!"

Joe's heart surprisingly did a little flip at her words. "Yeah, well, Texas hasn't gotten a total hold on me yet. I may occasionally eat barbecue, but Houston will freeze over before I buy a truck."

"Someone trying to get you to buy a *truck*?" She looked at him critically, then shook her head. "It'll never happen."

"Wish you'd tell that to my partner-" Joe said, then broke off when he realized what he was saying.

But she just smiled. "Don't worry, Joey. He'll either figure it out soon enough, or you'll just have to explain it to him. Over and over and over...."

He grinned. "Yeah, that's about the size of it." He opened the car door for her before hopping behind the wheel and driving off.

The ride to the restaurant was filled with banter back and forth and Joe marveled at how easy it was to talk to Linda. That had always been one of their strengths, their communication, and it still seemed to exist even after all these years.

He felt another twinge of guilt when he realized he was finding it easier to talk to her than he did Levon sometimes.

Linda seemed sincerely glad to see him, which didn't surprise Joe much. They'd parted on good terms, breaking up to pursue careers with the intention that someday they might try again.

Linda had gone to California, and they'd gradually fallen out of touch. But he had never felt like they'd stopped being friends. Neither, from the sound of it, had she.

The wayward thought crossed his mind that they could be more than friends again if they wanted to. He pushed it away almost violently.

But as lunch progressed, he caught little hints that Linda was thinking the same, or similar, thoughts.

"So, Joey. Do you have someone special?" she asked, when lunch was halfway over.

For a second, a very brief second, Joe considered lying. But even before he'd made a conscious decision he found himself nodding. "Yeah. Very special. Been together a few years now."

She smiled. "Married?" She sounded pleased. But was that a faint tone of disappointment? Or confusion?

"Sort of. As much as we can be." He looked at her, took a deep breath, and decided to come clean. "It's my partner."

Her eye went wide. "Your *partner*? Joey are you crazy?"

He bristled. "No."

"But... what if your supervisor finds out? Couldn't you lose your job? Aren't there... fraternization rules or something?"

He relaxed a bit when it was clear her objections weren't about Levon's gender. "Our Lieutenant knows. Actually, so do most of the people in our department. That's not a problem."

She stared at him for a moment, then shook her head.

"Linda? Say something."

"I'm sorry, I just... she didn't tell me that part." She flushed, and added before he could ask, "Your Aunt Teresa told me you were with someone that--"

"That what?" he asked curtly.

"That might not be good for you," she finally said. "I thought she meant because it was a man."

"You knew about that?!"

"Actually, I wasn't sure *what* she meant. She was sort of babbling, in English and Italian. You know I could never understand her completely, when she does that. I thought... well, I didn't know you'd be interested in another man that way, so I thought I'd gotten it wrong."

"No, you got that part right," Joe said, still rather stunned that Linda had *known*.

She frowned. "Are you... well, you said years. You're happy, then? It's serious?"

"Linda, it couldn't be any more serious. I plan to spend the rest of my life with Levon. I love him."

She looked at him, then slowly, she smiled again. This time he could see the disappointment. "I'm glad, then, Joey. I always knew you needed someone in your life to balance you. Give you some direction."

Joe smiled, a bit ruefully. "Levon does that. Though the balancing sometimes takes a lot of work. The first year we knew each other, pretty much all we did was fight."

"And this is good?" she asked, responding to his tone, and his smile.

"Made life interesting at least," he replied. "And life hasn't gotten any less interesting since we stopping fighting... all the time."

"You still fight?" She frowned, a little. "I suppose all couples do."

"Yeah, I guess." Joe shrugged. "Actually I get more worried when we don't fight once in a while. 'Cause that usually means one of us is holding something back."

She laughed at that. "As long as you communicate *somehow*. Like blowing bubbles." She grinned, referring to the game they'd played, pretending to send Morse code messages with bubbles.

Joe smiled in remembrance. "I'd forgotten all about that... those were really good times, weren't they?"

"They were. I don't remember laughing so much before, or since."

"Me, neither." He reached across the table and took her hand. "What about you, Linda? Anyone special in your life?"

She shook her head. "No. I thought there might have been, but I was wrong."

"I'm sorry," Joe said softly, finding himself suddenly feeling very grateful for what he had with Levon. It was complicated, yeah, but every time Levon grinned at him he knew it was worth it.

Even if he had lost sight of that for a few hours today.

"Don't be sorry, Joey. It leaves me free to find someone who's right for me." She smiled, a little sadly.

Then she turned the conversation to other things, and soon they were talking easily again, like old friends.

When Joe dropped her back at her hotel, it was with a tentative invitation for her to come out to the ranch for supper that night. He drove back to the police station in a lot more lighthearted mood than he had left in.

He found Levon sitting at the desk, still bent over paperwork. There was a half-eaten wrapped sandwich of the sort purchased downstairs, near his arm.

He glanced up as Joe came in. "Dustin brought those in for you," he pointed to a new stack of files on Joe's desk.

"Great. One day that pile is going to fall on me and I'll be killed in a paperwork avalanche."

Levon smirked, but said nothing. He did, however, curse softly when he broke his pencil lead.

Joe watched him pull out a sharpener and sharpen the pencil, glaring at it like it had broken on purpose. He frowned. His partner seemed definitely on edge about something.

"Levon?"

"Yeah?"

"What's wrong?"

"I've just about had enough of paperwork." Levon threw the sharpener down and glared at the report again. "Bad enough I have to pull every file I refer to, so there's records of me doing it to 'check my facts' when it's just a waste of my time. I have to fight Gertrude for the damn files!"

Joe frowned. Somehow he got the feeling this was about more than paperwork. "Let's get out of here, then," he said standing and waiting for Levon to join him. "Take a break before you break more than your pencil."

Levon started to stand up, then looked down at his work. "Actually, I'm almost done with this one."

"Then you'll be able to finish it in no time when we get back," Joe countered. "Come on."

There was a pause before Levon responded; then he sighed and stood. "Fine. Could do with getting back on the ground for a bit, anyhow."

They were silent as they got on the elevator and headed for the parking garage. Joe watched Levon closely though and became more sure than ever that something was bothering him. Something bigger than paperwork.

But Levon simply headed for Joe's car, and got in. He didn't ask where they were going, just leaned back and tilted his hat forward.

"Talk to me, cowboy," Joe said softly, making no move to start the car.

"What about?"

"About whatever's bothering you."

There was a tense silence for a few moments.

"Teresa called."

Joe felt his stomach clench. "What did she say?"

"Said your old girlfriend would be calling sometime while she was in town this weekend."

"That's who I went to lunch with," Joe confessed, calmly, offhandedly, hoping that would help diffuse whatever damage this might have done.

Levon waited. Then he asked softly, "There a reason you didn't want me to know?"

"No!" Joe answered, almost too vehemently. "Yes, Linda and I went out when we were in college. But it's been over for years, Levon. And I was going to tell you about her. You're mostly what we talked about."

Levon narrowed his eyes, and asked, "Then why won't you look me in the eye? Why not just say so, instead of act like--" He waved one hand, as if indicating Joe's behavior.

Because he had thought about what Levon was worried about, even if it was only briefly. Joe sighed, and caught the hand that Levon was waving. "I don't know. Because I'm an idiot?"

"I figured that," Levon said, sarcastically. Then he fell silent again.

"Well, glad we've got my relative intelligence, or lack thereof figured out at least," Joe said, trying for a bit of humor to break the tension.

It didn't seem to break, however. Levon looked over then. "We going anywhere? Or just gonna sit here?"

Joe opened his mouth, closed it and started the car without another word. There wasn't much he could say.

Levon sighed. "I wanna get those reports done so I'm not stuck here the rest of the day." He climbed out of the car.

"Levon-" Joe called, only to be interrupted by his carphone ringing. He picked up the receiver and snarled, "LaFiamma!"

"LaFiamma? This is Stu."

Joe sighed. Stu was one of his and Levon's snitches. He was usually pretty reliable, but Joe still hated the interruption. "What do you want Stu? I'm in the middle of something here."

'Yeah, perhaps the destruction of the best thing that's ever happened to me...'

Levon had stopped, and was listening in.

"I heard something weird, thought you might be interested."

"I'm listening."

"You been trying to get something on David Sonders, right? Well, he's got something going down. I dunno what, but he's invited all the big rollers in the area -- and I mean the whole state -- to his place on 3rd and Duncan."

"You've got my attention," Joe said, feeling his heart beat a little faster as it always did when they got a lead on a big case. "When?"

"Folks coming in all weekend. Bringing in lots of dough, as well. I think he's got some merchandise to sell. Highest bidder, type stuff. That's all I know," he finished.

It was enough, if it was true. "Thanks Stu," Joe said. "We'll check it out." He hung up the phone and looked up at his partner who was watching him expectantly. "David Sonders."

Levon frowned. "We get something good on him?"

He sounded more than ready to jump back in the car and go after Sonders, maybe even take out some of his frustration on the man.

"Maybe. Stu says he's got a lot of big people with big cash heading for his place."

Levon got back in the car. "Sounds like something we'd better check on."

"My thought exactly." Joe started up the car and headed out of the garage. Part of his mind was concentrating on what they might be walking into, the rest of it was too busy being relieved that whatever else he'd screwed up, at least Levon's and his working relationship was still intact.

Levon didn't say anything about it though for several minutes. He made a few comments about Sonders, and how nice it would be to finally throw him away someplace where he would stop causing trouble.

Joe agreed, making the same type of comments back, carefully avoiding the other issue. Pushing Levon when the other man didn't want to talk about something was usually not very productive. Besides, he wasn't sure what he could say.

"Joe? Why didn't you want me to know you were meeting Linda?" Levon finally asked, in a tone that didn't sound anything more than confused.

Joe took his time answering, wanting to be honest but not wanting to hurt his partner any more than he already had. "Because I felt guilty doing it. Like it was something wrong," he finally settled on.

"Doing something wrong? Did you think I'd care if you meet a friend for lunch?"

"Not if lunch was all that it was."

Levon's eyes narrowed briefly. Joe waited for the inevitable question. When it came, it wasn't what he was expecting.

"Did you think I'd care?"

Joe just stared at him. "Don't you?"

"I'd care if you lied to me about it," he said evenly.

"What about the rest?"

There was a pause, then Levon said carefully, "You told me you considered this a monogamous relationship. On the other hand, you know how big a herd Taylor has." He looked away, and continued, distantly, "My instincts are telling me it don't matter. One or a dozen, to make a herd. But my head is telling me you said otherwise."

"If you mean that nothing happened, you're right." Joe paused then forced himself to be completely honest. "But I did think about it."

Levon turned his head slowly, and just looked at him. Joe couldn't read anything in his expression; not while driving through Houston traffic, at any rate.

"Levon?"

"You thought about it?" Again, he could read nothing into the tone of his partner's voice.

"Yeah." He swallowed. "Briefly. Very briefly. For a few seconds."

"Oh." After a brief pause, he sounded much more relaxed as he asked, "A few seconds ain't nothing to worry about. If I counted up the seconds I've thought about dumping you in the nearest lake...."

When Joe looked over, he found Levon looking at him, nothing but love on his face.

He felt his muscles relaxing and even managed a grin at that, albeit a shaky one. "That bad, huh?" he asked, doggedly trying for a joking tone.

"You wanna tell me about it?" He looked around, and added, "In the ten minutes it'll take us to get to Sonders' place?"

Joe shrugged. "Not much to tell. I was remembering what it had been like with Linda, how... simple everything had been, and for a moment I wanted that back. Then I came to my senses."

"Simple? You mean, being with a human woman?"

He shrugged again. "Yeah. I guess."

"Reckon it would be simpler."

"Maybe. But I've never took the simple way in my entire life."

Levon glanced over again, something in his face reading of bemusement along with something else. But he shook his head, then nodded towards the warehouse ahead.

"How you wanna do this?"

Joe wrenched his mind back to the task at hand. "Guess the frontal assault is a bad idea, huh?"

Levon shrugged. "Don't look to be too many folks here. We could just sneak in for a change."

"We could."

"Why don't we try it; see if it works?"

In reply, Joe just grinned and got out of the car.

Levon returned the grin, and they headed towards a side door.

When they reached it, Levon turned the knob carefully, opening the door slowly. Joe exchanged glances with him as they both drew their weapons and slipped inside.

The room was empty, a small area off from the main warehouse. They went forward, slowing as they neared the doorway and heard voices. They took up opposite sides of the doorway and Joe leaned cautiously around just enough to get a glimpse of the area beyond.

What he saw made him jump back and swallow a curse. Stu's tip had been right on the money -- Sonders had got a lot of people long on money and short on ethics together for an auction of some kind. It was *what* he was trying to sell that had Joe suddenly so angry he was shaking with it.

There, on the makeshift platform/stage, was a cage. In the cage was a young centaur.

Levon froze beside him, then he was moving forward. Walking, which surprised Joe, but headed directly for the cage with no attempt to stay out of sight.

'So much for avoiding a frontal assault,' Joe thought, even as he hurried to move into a position where he could guard his partner's back.

Levon held his gun down at his side, ignoring the startled looks as those in the rear of the group caught sight of them. He pushed his way to the cage and looked down at the colt. The colt looked up, obviously terrified.

Sonders grabbed Levon's arm.

"I wouldn't do that if I were you!" Joe yelled, still hidden in the shadows, gun aimed directly at Sonders. "Houston PD! You're under arrest!"

Sonders jerked back, startled, and half-raised his arms. Then he stopped. "What is the meaning of this?" he began.

Levon looked up at him. "What is the meaning of *this*?" He pointed to the colt. His voice was low and dangerous. Joe was reminded of Levon's facing down Alexander.

'Just don't lose it, cowboy,' Joe thought at him. But so far, though angry, Levon wasn't doing anything too crazy.

Well, crazier than usual.

Sonders shrugged, and gave a half-smile. "What does it look like? You boys wanna make a bid?"

Levon raised his pistol.

Sonders and Joe tensed -- and Levon placed the barrel against the lock. The colt scrambled backwards and Levon fired.

The shot reverberated loudly through the old warehouse and Joe braced himself in case it spooked someone into doing something stupid.

But everyone, for the moment at least, was stunned. A few bodyguards who might have drawn weapons were still staring dazedly at the young centaur.

Levon pulled the cage door open and reached a hand in. The colt took it, and let Levon haul him out.

"What do you think you're doing?!?" Sonders came back to life, suddenly and angrily.

Joe held his breath, waiting to see what Levon would do. He didn't want to start a gun battle if he could help it, not with his partner and the kid out there in no man's land.

Levon just looked at him, blandly. "Saving you from a kidnapping charge, unless you want to explain to us how you happened to come by this boy?"

The colt stood beside Levon, looking from one man to the other, trying to hide from them all.

"Boy?" Sonders laughed, an ugly sound. "Take another look. That ain't no kid like I've ever seen. That's some kind of freak of nature!"

Levon stepped forward, making as if to grab Sonders. He stopped, and looked down at the colt. "Change back, boy," he said gently.

The colt looked scared, but after a moment he did. He stepped closer to Levon, hanging onto Levon's coattail.

"Looks like a normal kid to me, Sonders," Joe yelled, still hiding in the shadows.

Sonders was staring.

Levon placed his hand on the boy's head to give reassurance and said, "What do you think, Sonders? Looks like anyone else in the room, doesn't he?"

That startled him.

"Could be surrounded by 'freaks of nature' Sonders, and not even know it," Joe said, picking up on his partner's lead.

Sonders spun around, then, looking at all the people in the room. He took a step back, and Levon took a step forward.

"Could be someone standing here right now, pissed as hell you took one of their kids."

"That's not true! He was sold--" Sonders began, then swallowed his words as he looked towards Levon again.

"This might be a good time to inform you that you've got a right to remain silent."

But that seemed to galvanize him. "I'm telling you, I own the boy! He was sold to me, fair and square!" Sonders shouted, then blinked. "I mean... I'm his guardian...."

Levon glanced over his shoulder, then down at the boy. He picked the colt up, settled him on his hip, then turned and walked away from Sonders.

Joe held his breath, one gun on Sonders, the other held on the crowd. He could feel his adrenaline level shoot through the roof as he tried to keep track of everybody at the same time.

But nobody moved. Most stared at Levon, some stared at Sonders.

But no one who got a good look at Levon's face tried to get in his way.

When Levon reached his position, Joe began backing up, keeping pace with his partner, still covering the crowd behind them.

Levon picked up his pace as he went past. When they got outside he went directly to the car and set the colt down on his feet.

Levon removed his jacket and handed it over.

It was long enough to hang past the boy's waist, and prevent any humans from being startled and embarrassed if they saw him.

"I'll call for backup," Joe said, reaching into the car to do just that.

"Joe." Levon put a hand on Joe's arm.

Joe stopped mid-motion and looked up.

"You gonna bring backup in to interview a dozen witnesses who'll swear they saw a centaur? Arrest Sonders for buying one?"

"You saying we should just let him get away?" Joe asked in disbelief.

"I'm saying, we're gonna bust open a very important secret if we call in the cops." He half-grinned. "The rest of 'em, I mean. Sonders can be dealt with -- depending on how he got a hold of this here colt."

Joe's duty to his job warred momentarily with his duty to keep Levon's secret, but it was truly no contest. "Okay, we do this your way," he said finally. "Which means we better get the hell out of here before someone in there comes to their senses."

Levon nodded and climbed in the car, helping the boy climb onto his lap. Even shifting the seat back as far as it would go, it was cramped, but neither centaur said a word.

Joe started the car and, as he had said, got them the hell out of there. Without being asked he headed back to their place.

As they drove, Levon questioned the boy.

"What's your name?"

"David." The colt answered promptly, though Joe could still detect the fear in his voice.

"David. Who owns you, David?" Levon's question sounded so normal; so odd. Joe didn't interrupt.

"Sonders, I guess. My brother sold me to him."

Joe's knuckles turned white as he tightened his grip on the steering wheel.

"Who's your brother, David?" Levon's voice was tight as well.

"Rustin. He's herd stallion now."

"Rustin?!" Joe couldn't stop himself.

"Rustin," Levon repeated. "Something's gotta be *done* about that stallion."

David leaned against Levon's chest. "He's awful mean to the mares and fillies, too. Corwin never tried to mate with them when they weren't in heat. Rustin does. He says he has the right to, anytime he wants. They try to stay out of they way but sometimes.... He says he can, so I guess he's allowed." David looked up at Levon, worried. "But the mares don't like it. They hide from him."

"Maybe we should send Naomi to visit," Joe suggested, only half-joking. The free spirited mare that he'd met when they were in Cascade was more than a match for any male, centaur or human.

"I was thinking... maybe we should send Duke."

Joe turned the idea over in his mind. "You think he'd go for it?"

"A chance for his own herd? Get rid of someone like Rustin? Hell, I know he would." Levon looked thoughtful, and added in a somewhat amused tone, "Maybe send Naomi with him."

Joe grinned. Nastily. "That would do it."

"How about I give Duke a call?"

"Go for it."

Levon gave him a grin, and reached for the carphone. After a moment Joe heard Levon greet his half-brother and outline the situation. Levon laughed once, and gave Duke his support; when he hung up he gave Joe a nod.

By this time they were turning down their driveway.

Levon lifted David out; the colt stood uncertainly until Levon got out of the car as well and took his hand.

"You think we should have Maggie take a look at him?" Joe asked quietly, as they went into the house.

"David? You hurt anywhere?" Levon asked.

David shook his head. "I'm hungry... and I never really got any sleep. But they didn't hurt me."

"How about we get you some food then and put you to bed?" Joe asked, smiling encouragingly at the boy.

David nodded eagerly.

"Come on, then," Levon said, and led the colt to the house.

Joe followed, reflecting that while his life may not be simple, it certainly was never boring.

******

Duke came over almost immediately. They'd called Joanne and told her they were following up a lead on Sonders -- explaining that it dealt with herd business and might not become official.

She'd let them know that if it meant Sonders was put out of business, she'd consider it a good day's work.

David had been fed and was napping when Duke arrived.

Joe let him in while Levon was checking on the boy.

They waited until Levon returned with David. David tensed when he saw Duke, but there was no longer any fear in his eyes. He held onto Levon's hand, however, and followed him to the couch.

Duke smiled reassuringly at David then turned to the matter at hand. "So tell me about this Rustin. If I'm going to fight him, I'll need to know as much about him as I can."

David sat upright, blinking in surprise. "You're gonna...?" He paused, then answered slowly at first. "Rustin's mean. He hits you rather than talk to you if you don't do what he wants. He killed Drury last month because he was in Rustin's way. Drury was only a year old. And he's been doing some sort of business with a human." David glanced at Joe, uncertainly.

But he continued. "And the guy's dead now, but they were doing something awfully bad. I don't know what -- but four of our fillies ran away from him and haven't ever come back because of it."

"They're safe, kid," Joe put in. "Ended up joining another herd." He exchanged looks with Levon, the memories of exactly how the four fillies were rescued still fresh in both of their minds.

David nodded, reassured. "He isn't very old, only 23. He took the herd from my dad three years ago. He was all right at first. Not really nice, but he didn't do anything bad. The mares said he was good enough to be herd stallion. Last year they started talking about who might take over. There weren't any in the area that wanted to do it -- most of them were too old, the rest we didn't know where they'd moved to."

Probably didn't want Rustin to be able to track them down and eliminate them, Joe thought privately.

"So the mares would accept an outsider taking over?" Duke asked intently.

David nodded enthusiastically. "I mean, not if you're--" He stopped, glanced guiltily at Levon, and continue hesitantly. "If you're as bad as Rustin."

Levon grinned.

"Well, he might forget his manners at dinner sometimes," Joe teased, "but Duke's all right."

"Gee, thanks LaFiamma," Duke replied sarcastically. "Though I don't know how much weight that glowing endorsement is going to carry."

Joe shrugged. "So get Taylor to vouch for you." He paused. "He *would* vouch for you, wouldn't he?"

"Oh, yeah, he would," Levon answered. Joe realized that, for the first time he could recall, Levon sounded nothing but sincerely respectful of his relation. All the teasing and verbal jostling was gone.

"Then you'll come take us?" David asked, leaning forward. He bit his lip. "I can come back, can't I?"

Duke nodded solemnly. "Yes, David, you can come back. You shouldn't have been forced to leave in the first place."

David leapt off the couch and jumped into Duke's arms.

The stallion hugged David tightly then looked at Joe and Levon over the boy's shoulder. "Can you keep an eye on him while I make the travelling arrangements?"

David asked softly, "Are we gonna fly? Sonders flew me out here and I didn't like it at all."

The look in both the stallions' eyes at that did not bode well for Sonders' continued breathing should either get their hands on him. And, Joe had to admit, the man didn't stand much more of a chance if it was him that got hold of him either.

Despite the anger apparent in Duke's eyes, his voice was gentle when he answered David's question. "No, no flying. We'll take the train, okay?"

David nodded and rested his head against Duke's chest. "Good."

"We could ask Jesse to watch him," Levon said. "Joe and I need to deal with Sonders." He was looking at Joe, the question in his voice clear.

Joe nodded. "I'll go give Jesse a call," he said getting up. "Then we go hunting."

Joe spoke to Jesse, then Duke took David next door. Before he left he told them he'd call -- once before he left town, and again, if he won.

Joe and Levon went to go hunt down Sonders.

Hours later, they were hot, tired, frustrated, and no closer at bringing Sonders down. They'd tried every angle either of them could think of, but nothing had paid off. To all intents and purposes, as far as the law was concerned, Sonders was squeaky clean.

They'd been having this trouble with the man ever since he'd gone into business in Houston. Moving stolen goods was his specialty, anything from watches and radios to... well, centaurs.

But he was very good about hiding his trail and involvement. Today was the closest they'd come to being able to even put Sonders officially in the same room as something he hadn't been supposed to have.

And they couldn't do anything with it.

"This is going nowhere." Joe leaned back in the seat of his car and rubbed his forehead. He was getting a headache. "Maybe we should just call it a day."

"Might as well. Sonders sure ain't going anywhere."

The man had gone back to his office -- his legitimate one -- and remained there doing nothing they could even ticket him for.

Levon sighed. "I wish we could just...."

Joe shot him a sharp look. "We're cops. We're supposed to arrest the bad guys, not execute them."

"I know. But you have to admit, it'd be a hell of a lot simpler. Less paperwork, too." Levon grinned.

"With our luck, we'd get assigned the case and have to arrest ourselves."

Levon began laughing.

Joe smiled a little in return.

Levon shook his head and calmed down. "I wouldn't, Joe," he said seriously, though he was still grinning. "I *would* like to find something we can get him for. Man deserves a 8 by 10 set of concrete walls."

"No arguments, partner. We just got to keep on him. We'll get him eventually."

Levon nodded and settled back in his seat. "What now? Stake him out in hopes he does something stupid?" It was obvious Levon didn't like the idea, but they'd done everything else they could think of.

"Yeah, but I doubt he'll do anything stupid for a week or so. Not when he knows we're breathing down his neck." Joe sighed and rubbed his forehead again.

"Guess we can only wait and hope he makes a mistake sooner rather than later."

"Yeah. Sucks, doesn't it?

"Mm-hm," Levon agreed. "How about we call it a day and go home?"

Joe glanced down at his watch; when the time registered he sat up straight in a mild panic. "Shit!"

"What?" Levon was sitting up as well, looking at him with concern.

"Damn, I'm sorry Levon. I meant to talk to you about this before, but we kept getting sidetracked..."

"About what? You have plans again with Linda?" he asked mildly.

"Well yeah. Sorta. Actually *we* have plans with Linda. I invited her to the house for dinner." He looked at Levon worriedly. "Is that okay with you?"

Levon smiled. "Yeah, that's fine. Which one of us is cooking?" he asked, sounding as if he knew the answer.

"Well considering I'm supposed to pick her up in half an hour, neither of us. Figure we can pick some takeout up at Chicken's instead."

"You don't think she'll mind authentic Texan cuisine?" he teased.

"She's adventurous," Joe replied dryly.

"Joe? If we're picking her up... where is she gonna sit?"

"I'll have to drop you off at home first. Can you go get the food then when I go get Linda?"

"Sure."

It would've been simpler just to pick up Linda and the food on the way but such were the disadvantages to driving a two seater. Joe drove them back home and stopped by the Jimmy to let Levon out.

"Hey," he said as Levon opened the door.

"Yeah?" Levon stopped and looked back at him.

Joe leaned over, grabbed Levon's shirt, pulled him down and kissed him. Thoroughly.

Levon half-crawled back into the car, accepting the kiss and holding on to Joe.

"I needed that," Joe sighed when they finally parted. "Thanks."

Levon looked back at him, eyes slightly glazed over. He made no move to leave the car. He did, however, grin.

Joe grinned back and shook his head. "I love you."

"Love you, too."

They sat there for a moment.

"Levon?"

"Yeah?" His eyes were still half-glazed.

"You have to get out of the car before I can go pick up Linda."

Levon scooted backwards, and stood there, looking down at him. The car door was still wide open, with Levon standing in the way. He shook his head and half-grinned. "Shouldn't kiss me like that if you're in a hurry."

"Sometimes kissing you like that is more important than being in a hurry," Joe replied with heartfelt honesty.

Levon smiled warmly. He moved back and shut the car door.

"Meet you back here in about twenty minutes or so."

"Will do." Levon headed for his truck.

**************

Linda was waiting for him in the hotel lobby when he arrived. She'd dressed to impress -- not fancy, but in a dark green shirt and white jeans that flattered her exceedingly well.

She smiled when she saw him, then came forward for a hug.

Joe hugged her back but let go faster than was his usual wont, feeling somewhat flustered and guilty. "Sorry I'm late," he said, with a smile the felt pasted on.

"Relax, Joey. I don't mind -- you cop types keep busy." She grinned. "So am I going to meet your partner?"

"Yeah. Levon'll meet us at the house."

She held his arm as they went back to the car. "You're living together?" It wasn't quite a question, but it was slightly doubtful.

He stopped and turned and faced her. "Levon and I are married in every way but in the eyes of the law, Linda." Joe hesitated and then added seriously, "If you're not going to be okay with that, maybe we should call the evening off."

She blinked, obviously taken off-guard. She stared at him speechless for a moment, then shook her head, determined. "Joey, I'm not opposed to it, but I can't say I'm going to be okay with it right off the bat. I promise not to say anything horribly offensive," she teased. "I just never expected this from you and it's going to take me some time to get used to it. I can *see* that you're happy. But... well, it's unexpected."

Joe shrugged. "Welcome to my life. Unexpected is pretty much the norm."

"So you'll give me a chance to get used to it?"

"Nothing horribly offensive huh?"

"Not intentionally, anyway."

After a moment, Joe nodded. "All right." He opened the door of the car for her.

They managed to talk of inconsequential things on the drive home; Linda told him all about her new job which required her to travel a lot. She told him she'd be in Houston several more times this year, and hoped they could continue to meet.

Joe was non-committal in his answer; he wanted to keep Linda in his life as a friend, but only if she could accept his life... and Levon's place in it.

When they arrived home, Levon's truck was parked once again in the drive.

Linda looked around, impressed. "This is some spread. How far back does the pasture go?"

"We've got 35 acres," Joe responded with a grin for her reaction.

Her eyes popped. "35? My god... Joey, he's rich?"

"If we were rich you think we'd still be busting our butts as cops?"

She looked at him. "Joey, you could be rich as Croesus and you'd still be out there, busting your butt."

"What, I'm just that stupid?" he asked, his grin dimmed to a mere ghost.

"No." She shook her head. "You care that much. You always did."

Levon stepped out onto the porch then, and stood there, waiting.

Joe led Linda over to meet him. "Linda this is my partner, Levon Lundy. Levon, this is Linda Douglas."

"How do you do," Levon said in his most polite tone, tapping the edge of his hat.

"Thank you for inviting me for dinner," Linda said. "I've been looking forward to meeting you."

Joe stepped up onto the porch and casually slipped an arm around Levon's waist. "Get the food?"

"Yeah," Levon said and gave him a kiss. Linda said nothing; when Joe looked over she simply looked thoughtful.

"Barbecue everything I bet," he said, relaxing slightly. Maybe this wasn't going to be a complete disaster after all.

Levon looked startled. "You said you wanted a nice meal. What else would it be?" He led them back into the house.

Linda raised her eyebrows at Joe. "Tell me you haven't changed so much you're eating barbecue instead of pasta?"

"Only on special occasions. It's taking a while to wean Levon off the barbecue."

His partner shot a look over his shoulder that said everything. Linda, for her part, laughed.

They went into the kitchen and, without thinking about it, Joe and Levon worked in concert to set the table and get the food dished up. Joe noticed Linda watching them with a faintly amused expression. Levon seemed to ignore it.

As they sat down, Joe noticed that neither Linda nor Levon were making much effort to talk to one another.

Which left him doing all the talking, as he tried to draw both of them out. He wanted this to work but it wasn't looking good.

Linda and Levon both responded easily enough to him; for his part, Levon didn't seem anything more than subdued. Linda, however, just seemed to have nothing to say. They both laughed at his jokes, but when Linda tried to respond in kind, they were jokes only she and Joe understood.

After the third such, she smiled apologetically at Levon and stopped making them.

By dessert even Joe's determined chatter had dwindled away into an awkward silence.

"You gonna be in Houston long?" Levon asked.

Linda looked startled, but smiled. "Only a couple more days. But I'll be back in two months, and every other month after that, for awhile."

"You might actually get to like the place," Joe joked halfheartedly.

Linda smiled. "I hope so."

Silence once again descended, and Joe found himself wondering why he ever thought this was a good idea.

"You got plans for the rest of your visit?" Levon asked again, after a moment. Joe shot him a grateful look for continuing to try.

"I haven't decided yet," Linda said. "It sort of depended on Joey."

"Me?"

"Well, I was sort of hoping," -- she shot an uncertain look at Levon, -- "that we could spend some time together. Catch up on old times." She shrugged as if she didn't expect to do so, anymore.

But she also seemed hopeful that they could.

Joe felt torn. He did want to spend time with Linda, she was a good friend if nothing else, but he didn't want to leave Levon out. And after tonight, he knew that would be exactly what would happen.

"I don't know, Linda," he finally hedged. "Depends on work."

The glance he got from Levon told him that his partner knew what he really meant. The lack of comment told him...

He could do whatever he wanted and Levon wouldn't say no.

"Do you think you might get a little time off? One evening, or lunch? Surely they don't work you that hard." Linda didn't seem to notice anything odd in Levon's lack of response.

"Harder than you might think," he replied, with a forced laugh.

She frowned. "Well... I hope we can get together again. I mean, if you *want* to."

"I-"

Linda looked at Levon. "You don't mind, do you?"

Levon looked startled and shook his head. "Hell no, I don't mind. I can see him whenever I want to." He grinned. Joe couldn't tell if it were forced.

"Maybe I can sneak away from the station for lunch again," Joe finally admitted.

Linda's face lit up. "Wonderful! Are there any good Italian places? Or are we stuck with steak and seafood?" She suddenly looked abashed. "That wasn't horribly offensive, was it?"

In spite of himself Joe grinned. "Nah, just mildly offensive."

She laughed. Levon smiled, and again Joe couldn't quite read what his partner was feeling.

He was going to have to have a talk with him after Linda left.

With dinner over, Linda seemed ready to leave.

Joe grabbed his keys to take her, pausing to kiss Levon good-bye. "Wanna go for a ride when I get back?" he asked him, too low for Linda to hear.

Levon grinned, and nodded.

Joe grinned back. "Be back as soon as I can," he promised, and leaned in for another kiss.

He took Linda directly back to the hotel. She chatted more freely with him alone and laughed at herself for the difficulty they'd had at dinner.

It was actually sort of nice.

He dropped her off with a promise to go to lunch again the day before she left.

Then he broke the speed limit driving back home. To Levon.

He found Levon outside, cleaning Fooler's back hoof and giving her a good-natured hard time about it.

"Like I haven't had to do that for you on occasion."

Levon glanced up at him. "Yeah but do I complain about it?" He frowned as Fooler tried to move. "Hold still or I'll leave it there."

Joe moved closer, leaning one elbow against the stall. "No, you usually don't complain," he answered, making it clear he wasn't just talking about hoof cleaning.

Levon dropped the hoof and patted her hindquarters as he moved around behind her. "That's just because half the time I can't talk." The rejoinder wasn't as heartfelt as his teasing normally was.

Stepping forward, Joe pulled his partner into his arms. "There are times you want to, though."

Levon just shrugged, returned the embrace briefly, then stepped backwards with a look of apology before he bent to check Fooler's other hoof.

Joe sighed heavily. "Levon..."

Levon gave the hoof a quick look, and set it down. "Yeah?" He moved past Joe to Fooler's front leg.

"We need to talk about this." He paused and then added with raw honesty, "*I* need us to talk about this."

Levon looked up, his expression closed. But he looked at Joe and waited.

"Tell me what you're thinking," Joe asked softly.

Levon shrugged. "She seems nice. Don't see why you don't want to have lunch with her." He absently began petting Fooler.

"Don't you?"

"An old friend, who you haven't seen in a long time? You obviously like her, and you seem to get along. What is lunch gonna hurt?" He moved around and found one of Fooler's brushes and began working on her side, away from Joe.

Joe followed, until he was once again standing beside Levon. He reached out and touched his back. "You tell me, Levon."

Levon looked over his shoulder. "It ain't gonna make a difference, Joe. She's your friend; you can't stop spending time with your friends just because you're married."

"It makes a difference to me if doing so is hurting you!"

Levon glanced back over in surprise. "It ain't you having lunch with her that--" He stopped as though he'd realized what he was saying.

He turned back around and continued brushing the horse.

"That what?" Joe reached over and took the brush from his hand. "Go on, finish the sentence."

"Does it matter?" Levon asked softly.

"Of course it does."

"Even though I know nothing is gonna change?" Levon looked at him, expression undecipherable. "You aren't gonna leave, you aren't gonna... make unreasonable demands. Does any of the rest matter?"

Joe suddenly heard what was behind those words. Pain. Deep, undeniable, suffering pain. So bad that Levon, apparently, was willing to simply endure it rather than speak it.

"It matters because it's bothering you. What you feel matters to me, Levon. It matters a hell of a lot."

But Levon just shrugged again. "Ain't nothing to be done about it, Joe." He stepped back and leaned against the stall, looking down at the ground. "I just wonder...."

Joe reached up and caressed Levon's cheek. "You wonder what?" he asked softly.

"If you wouldn't rather be...." He stopped again, whether unable or unwilling to continue, Joe couldn't tell.

He looked lost, now, still not looking Joe in the eye.

Joe's eyes widened as it dawned on him just what exactly Levon was trying to say. "Oh no," he breathed, pulling Levon into his arms and holding onto him tightly. "No, Levon. Never."

"Why not?" came the soft question, and in it Joe could hear all Levon's pain and fear. "Everything you wouldn't have to deal with -- questions, your aunt and uncle treating you like... seems to me you'd be happier." Levon buried his head against Joe's shoulder, muffling his final words.

"Without you?" Joe murmured, swallowing against the ache he felt at his lover's pain. "Happier?" He shook his head and tugged gently on Levon until he looked up. "Levon, without you, I don't know if I could breathe, much less be happy."

Levon didn't look swayed. "You gonna tell me everything's fine? That you're perfectly happy with the way things are? From dealing with stupid questions from Joe-Bill to hitting your head against a wall sometimes when I act like a centaur instead of human?"

"I *am* happy," Joe insisted, shaking the other man lightly. "Sure we have problems, but everybody does. You're worth working through them. *We're* worth working through them."

"Seems like...." Levon paused, and tried again. "Seems like lately it's been more problems than not. I haven't heard you laugh in eight days until tonight. Until Linda."

Joe didn't have a ready answer for that. Had he really been that miserable lately?

When he didn't answer, Levon moved past him again to stand beside Fooler. He patted her absently, then finished checking her hooves.

Joe reached out again, laying his hand on Levon's shoulder, instinctively knowing that if they didn't clear this up now it would hang between them for a very long time. Could maybe even ruin them. "I *am* happy with you," he repeated, willing Levon to believe him. "If we've been through a rough patch lately it's at least partially my fault. I'm the one who's been holding things in. You blew up at me because of just that."

Levon didn't look up, concentrating for the moment on his task. "So you're happy," he repeated, finally.

"You sound like you still don't believe me."

"I do." Levon set the third hoof down, and went for the fourth. "But what am I supposed to think when you act unhappy? And don't tell me why?"

"Levon, I'm Italian." Joe tried to lighten up the conversation, just a little. "I'm *supposed* to be moody."

When there was no immediate response from his partner he sighed. "Look, sometimes I just gotta work through things in my own head before I can talk about them. I gotta figure out exactly what's bugging me before I can talk about it. It has nothing to do with you or my feelings for you, okay?"

Levon looked up at him. "So what's been bugging you?"

"I-" He sighed again, trying to get his thoughts in some sort of order. "Nothing. Everything. It bugs me that I have to choose between the old and the new. It bugs me that I seem to keep hurting you even when I don't mean to. I guess I have been wishing that our lives could be simpler..."

His partner was crouching now, on his heels, still looking up at him. His expression was one of patience, though, and attention. "Simpler how?" he prompted.

Joe thought before answering, trying to figure out himself what the biggest problem was. "Mostly, with the way others see us. My family, Linda tonight, hell even Joe-Bill at work, it's like we're so alien to them that it's totally outside their frame of reference. I just wish we didn't have to work so hard at being accepted."

"Must be hard, now that more folks are finding out about me. Not that the rest wouldn't have been bad enough." Levon looked at him quizzically, then. "Does it bother you about other folks knowing? I mean, what I am?"

"No," Joe answered instantly, a bit surprised at the question.

"Even when they ask you stupid questions?"

"The stupid questions bother me, not that they know what you are." Joe shrugged. "Stupidity in general bugs me. And it's not just the centaur thing, or even mostly the centaur thing. Most of the frustrating conversations I have with people are about the fact that we're both men."

"You've never told me about those." Levon stood up, and added, "Know about how your family feels. Didn't realize other folks were giving you a hard time."

Joe shrugged. "It's not a hard time, really. Just, like Linda tonight. Treating it as some sort of... thing, that we shouldn't talk about."

There was silence for awhile, then Levon shrugged. "Don't know what I can tell you, Joe. Folks'll be that way no matter what we do. Terry used to complain about it all the time, and in all the time she and Maggie were together, it never got much better from what I could tell."

"I know that. I knew that going in, knew that the first time we kissed, knew that when we stopped trying to hide us from everyone. I came into this with my eyes open, Levon. You're worth it. We're worth it." He turned away slightly, absently reaching out and stroking Fooler's coat. "But I still get frustrated and angry sometimes."

"So why not say so, and save me the worry of wondering what the hell's wrong?" Levon asked mildly, though Joe could hear the anger and hurt. Not too angry, not too hurt, but there all the same.

"I should've," Joe acknowledged quietly. "I'm sorry. I don't know why I didn't."

"Next time will you?" His tone was softer, anger gone.

Joe wanted to say yes but he wasn't sure if he could promise that. "I'll try," he finally said.

Levon nodded. "All anyone can ask." Then he frowned slightly. "Old and new what?"

"Huh?"

"You said that it bugs you to choose between the old and the new. Wondered what you meant by that."

Joe shrugged. "You name it. Family, friends, lives."

"Gave 'em all up when you came here, when you married me? Old friends and family?" Levon's tone and expression were unreadable.

"No." He caught and held Levon's gaze. "Gave them up when they asked me to give *you* up."

"They didn't all, you know."

That made Joe grin. "I know. Wouldn't have made a difference if they all had though. I still would've chosen you."

Levon regarded him. "So you okay now?"

"Depends. Are you?"

"Reckon so." He moved forward, a bit hesitantly, but opened his arms to embrace Joe.

Joe took the step forward he needed to be in his partner's arms, his own tightening around Levon's waist, hands gripping tightly at Levon's shirt.

They held each other tightly, neither seeming to want to let go first.

Finally, reluctantly, Joe pulled back enough to see Levon's face. "Bed?" he asked. "Or riding?"

Levon kissed him. "Don't care. Both." He kissed Joe again, then whispered, "I need you."

A bolt of pure desire shot through Joe's body and he shivered, realizing he needed Levon just as badly. "Bed," he said decisively. "Definitely bed."

Levon nodded, eyes already losing their focus.

Joe laughed. "Why do I get the feeling we're not going to make it that far?" he asked, leaning in for another kiss.

"Depends on whether you keep kissing me in Fooler's stall," Levon replied.

"You want me to stop?"

"You wanna get stepped on?" Levon nodded towards Fooler, then kissed Joe's neck.

"We should move then." But he stayed in the same spot with Levon in his arms.

Fooler butted her head against Joe's back and whinnied. Levon laughed but didn't let go.

"I think she's trying to tell us something."

"Tell her to get her own stall," Levon muttered, hands moving to Joe's waist and pulling at his shirt.

Joe chuckled again. "This *is* her own stall," he reminded Levon, his own hands doing some roving of their own.

"Mm-hm." Levon tugged Joe's shirt free and raised his head, eyes wide and glazed as he moved in for yet another kiss.

Another head butt from Fooler finally propelled Joe into movement, shuffling backwards out of the stall, Levon shuffling along with him, intent only on keeping his body in contact with Joe's.

In fact he seemed unaware of their surroundings, or at least completely undisturbed. Not like they hadn't made love out here before, but not with a horse watching. Fooler whinnied again and tucked her head over the railing, ears forward.

"Levon..."

"Mmm."

He tried a more commanding tone. "Levon."

"Mmmm?"

"We can't do this here. Fooler's watching us."

"Okay," Levon responded, but vaguely. Joe realized Levon hadn't registered his words.

He reached up and stopped Levon's wandering hands and pulled away slightly. "Levon. Not. Here. House. Bed. Okay?"

"Okay." Levon smiled at him... eyes still seeing only Joe, nothing else. Certainly not the barn, the horse still watching them, or the frown Joe was trying to hold in place long enough to penetrate his partner's fogged brain.

'Centaurs,' he thought with fond exasperation as he tried to lead Levon out of the barn and across the yard to the house.

It was actually rather easy, once he started moving. Levon followed willingly, even quickly once Joe got a step ahead of him.

The distance didn't stop Levon from groping him, of course.

Not that Joe minded that very much.

They made it inside, and all the way to the bedroom -- by virtue of Joe's not stopping until he got to the bed.

When he did stop and turn to take up the embrace once more, Levon plowed into him and tumbled them both over. Levon laughed. "Feel better she can't see us now?"

"I see your brain is working again," Joe replied, grinning up at him. "And yeah, I do."

"Don't care she can hear us?"

"Do you want to get laid or not?"

Levon grinned. "You mean I might not?"

Joe growled, "Just shut up and kiss me."

Levon did, still grinning.

*******

Things seemed back to normal -- or what passed for it -- the next morning. There were no more silences between them, no more hidden looks. They went for an early morning run and laughed and teased each other the entire time. It was as if the talk the night before had lightened the atmosphere, banishing all the dark thoughts and feelings Joe had been having lately.

A call from Duke did nothing to detract from the lightness. He was about to leave town with David and wanted to wrap up the last of his personal business in Houston.

Joe had handed the phone to Levon, and whatever 'personal business' Duke had, had made Levon laugh, then wish him the best.

"Going to share the joke?" he asked when Levon hung up the phone.

"Said it was a hell of a way for me to get him outta my way." Levon came over and put his arms loosely around Joe's waist. "Town's all mine, now."

Joe smiled. "That make you Houston's head stallion?"

"Well, as long as Alexander don't get early parole." Levon didn't sound upset at the notion.

"So what does that make me?"

Levon tilted his head, regarding him thoughtfully.

"Breakfast?"

Joe had laughed and pounced, leaving it up to debate who was whose breakfast.

Somehow they managed to get to work on time.

Even a day's worth of paperwork sitting on his desk wasn't enough to dampen Joe's good mood.

When they headed for their desks, Beaumont came out of her office and gave them each a level stare.

"What?" Joe asked, surreptitiously checking to make sure both he and Levon had everything button and zipped that should be.

"In my office, both of you."

Exchanging perplexed looks, they followed her in. Levon shut the door and they waited.

"What's up Lieutenant?" Joe asked as Joanne took her seat once again.

"I just got a report. I haven't decided yet whether to ask you if you know anything about it."

"What report?" Joe asked, exchanging looks with Levon.

"Sonders' body was found a couple of hours ago. His neck was broken." She looked at them steadily.

"He what?" Levon spoke first.

"It wasn't us," Joe said a half second later.

Beaumont didn't reply right away.

"Joanne, we had nothing to do with it. And we ain't just saying that to keep you from *having* to know," Levon added. "We followed Sonders around yesterday, yeah, hoping to catch him with something we could book him on, but he was still breathing when we called it off."

"I'm wondering if I should ask if you have any ideas who might have done it," she said absently.

Again Joe exchanged looks with Levon. They both had a very good idea about who had killed Sonders.

Beaumont eyed them closely, then said, "Homicide has the case. If you have any information you think they ought to have, share it. Otherwise...you have your own work to do."

With that, she dismissed them.

Joe didn't head back to his desk right away, instead making for the coffeepot.

As he poured the coffee, Joe-Bill walked up with his mug. He gave Joe a nod and a smile. "Morning." He sounded nervous.

"Morning," Joe replied levelly enough, determined not to let the other man ruin the rest of his good mood. Though finding out Sonders was dead hadn't exactly filled him with grief.

Joe-Bill stood there for a moment, not saying a word. Then he poured himself a cup of coffee and walked off again. Joe watched as he headed for his desk, giving Levon no more than a brief nod.

Sighing, Joe poured another cup and took both them back over to his desk. Handing one to Levon he remarked, "He still isn't comfortable around you.

"Yeah," was all his partner said. Levon set his mug down and began digging through folders. After a moment he cursed and picked up his phone. Joe listened as he called up Records and asked for a file he was missing -- rattling off file number, date, and every pertinent bit of information they needed to pull it.

He was still frowning when he hung up.

"Problem?" Joe asked.

"Stupid way to run a police station, if you ask me. Spend more time arguing with paperwork then we do pulling criminals off the street." Then he sighed, and rubbed a hand through his hair. "I'm all right." Joe saw him glance backwards towards Joe-Bill, who was ignoring them both in favor of his own work.

"You sure?"

Levon nodded. "I'll be fine."

Which meant he *wasn't* entirely fine right that second. Joe glanced over at Joe-Bill irritatedly, lips thinning into a frown.

"Morning Lundy, LaFiamma." Joe's thoughts were interrupted by Esteban's cheerful greeting.

"Morning," Levon returned it, sounding nearly as cheerful.

"Morning, Esteban," Joe replied, eyes on his partner. But Levon's cheery mood seemed genuine.

As did Esteban's, for that matter. He stopped by their desks. "I heard something interesting about someone none of us will miss," he began, smiling.

Levon grinned. "Ain't it sad?"

"Oh, very," Esteban agreed.

"Couldn't have happened to a nicer slimeball," Joe threw in kind, finally beginning to relax.

The End