Centaur Target

By James Walkswithwind and Wolfling

Joe closed his eyes and leaned back in his seat with a weary sigh as his partner drove them home from the station. It had been a hell of a long day but considering they'd finally managed to nail Richards it had been worth it. Both Joe and his partner had taken great satisfaction in reading the man his rights and hauling him in.

But by the time they'd finished all the accompanying paperwork it was well past suppertime and all Joe wanted was to go home, eat, shower and go to bed.

"Joe? Mind if we do a couple errands before we go home?" Levon asked as they climbed into the truck.

Joe opened one eye to stare at the other man. "Now?"

Levon had the grace to give him a slightly apologetic look. "It won't take long, and most of what I need to do is drop stuff by Judy's place and Jesse's. I could drop you by the house, I reckon...."

Joe's inherent sense of fairness kicked in and he shook his head. "Nah, you've had just as long a day as I have."

"How about if we split 'em up?" Levon asked. "You can head to Jesse's place, I'll go to Judy's. Shouldn't take long that way."

After a moment's consideration, Joe nodded. "Okay. You want me to head home from there or are you going to swing by and pick me up?"

"I don't know. If I haven't come to get you by the time you're ready, then I'll meet you at home." Levon gave him an easy grin.

"Sounds like a plan." Joe yawned and leaned back in the seat, closing his eyes again.

They stopped once, at the post office closest their house. Levon went in with the yellow package slip Jesse had given him the day before. Their neighbor had his hands full with his nephew, Jack, and couldn't spare the time it took to stand in line to get his mail.

Joe stayed in the truck while Levon went in, taking the opportunity to change the radio station to something other than country. Not that he fiddled with the radio nearly as much as he used to since Levon had told him about the whole dominance thing. Somehow it wasn't as much fun when he knew he could always win the argument in the end.

It wasn't long before Levon came back out, large brown-paper wrapped box in hand. He set it in the back of the truck, then headed them towards home. Halfway down the block he glanced at the radio, and gave Joe a stare.

"Hey if I have to help you run errands when I'm much rather be at home in bed, I'm going to at least listen to some decent music while we do it." Joe spoke without opening his eyes.

"Did I say anything?" Levon asked. Joe couldn't decide if he was being teased, or if Levon really *meant* to sound that sincere.

"I'm not changing it back."

With a laugh, his partner asked, "Did I ask you to? Was just wondering why you waited 'til I was out of the truck, that's all." Levon gave him another smile.

"Because that's when I felt like changing it, okay?" Joe said defensively. Sometimes he really wondered exactly who this dominance thing benefited the most.

"No need to get defensive, love." Levon turned his attention to the traffic, and appeared to drop the conversation.

"I am *not* getting defensive!"

Levon laughed, sounding truly delighted. But he didn't say anything more. Once in a while he would glance over at Joe, smile, and still say nothing.

Finally Joe couldn't stand it any longer. "What?" he demanded.

Levon looked at him with a startled expression. "Huh?"

"You keep *looking* at me." Even as he said it he realized exactly how juvenile it sounded. But damned if he was going to back down now. He was supposed to be the dominant one after all.

Levon gave him a short, almost-shy grin. "I like looking at you." Then the shy look vanished and his face was the same, guileless smile. "D'you mind?"

"Well no... but-" Joe began.

"Make you nervous?" Levon asked, as he looked over, again. Gave Joe the once-over. Smiled.

"Makes me wonder what you're plotting."

"Plotting?" This time he sounded honestly surprised. He gave his lover a slight frown, and turned back to face the street. "I was just looking."

'Great,' Joe thought. After a moment or two of feeling guilty, he reached out and changed the radio station back to Levon's preference.

In a hesitant voice Levon asked him, "Does this mean I can look at you, too?" When Joe glanced up to reply, he found Levon grinning at him, mischievously.

Almost against his will Joe found himself smiling back. "You're lucky I love you, cowboy," he said, shaking his head fondly.

Levon winked. "Wouldn't have it any other way."

As they neared Jesse's house, Levon said, "Can I drop you and the package off while I head to Judy's?"

Joe nodded absently. "Wonder if Jesse has sent his nephew home yet," he said speculatively.

"Lord, I hope so. He was supposed to head out today, sometime." It was obvious what Levon thought of the young man in question.

"Why Lundy, one would almost think you didn't like the kid," Joe teased. The glare he got made him laugh.

"Joe, in all my years as a cop I've only seen kids like that in one of three places -- jail, the morgue, or on their way to either. I have yet to see a kid with *his* attitude straighten up and make a decent contribution to human society."

"Hey it does happen," Joe protested, thinking of some of the kids he'd hung with when he was young. Hell, remembering how easily he could've turned out like that.

"Maybe," Levon said, doubtfully. "I don't understand it, though. Not even--" He stopped as he pulled into Jesse's driveway.

"Not even what?"

With a sigh, Levon explained. "Not even when they *do* turn out all right. I don't understand what makes a person like that. Rebellious, or just -- hell, I don't know what to call it. We aren't *like* that. Even the ones who cause trouble do what they're told. Trouble comes from not being told not to do something...." He shook his head. "I don't know why someone would *want* to be that way."

Joe paused, trying to find the words to explain. "It's not that they want to be that way," he finally began hesitantly. "They usually don't know what they want to be. They just know what they *don't* want to be and so they do the exact opposite of that." He shrugged. "Almost every kid rebels at least a little when they're growing up. Some are just better at it than others."

"Huh." Levon sat quietly for a moment. "Mother Minnie tried to explain it to me a lot of times. Back in high school I saw a lot of it. I know why it happens -- what can drive a kid to be that way. I just don't see why the kid would chose to react by causing so much trouble." Levon shook his head. "It just doesn't make *sense* to me. Like it doesn't make sense to you about my feelings about my mother dying."

"I don't know if I can explain it any better, but I'll keep trying if you want." He reached out, brushed the back of his fingers against the side of Levon's face in a quick caress. "You kept talking until you got through to me. I may not totally understand your feelings about your mother but I do accept them."

"I know." Levon suddenly leaned over and gave him a kiss. "Maybe some night you can sit me down and try to explain it. Right now, though, we've got Jesse wondering why we're sitting in his driveway."

Joe grinned. "He probably thinks we're making out." He kissed Levon back. "Which isn't such a bad idea."

Levon scooted a little closer, accepting a third kiss with his mouth open. When Joe finally pulled back, he saw the shine in his lover's eyes that said if *anything* useful were to be accomplished that evening, they'd have to stop now.

With a resigned sigh, Joe opened his door and got out. Leaning back in to grab the package he warned, "Don't take too long at Judy's."

Levon suddenly grinned. "Shouldn't."

"We'll continue this at home then."

"Be home before you know it," his lover promised.

Joe stepped back and watched as Levon pulled away, with a sappy grin on his face. 'Man, I have it bad,' he thought, shaking his head at himself in amusement. Composing his expression he headed up the drive to Jesse's house.

"Evenin'!" Jesse stepped out onto the porch. "Wondered when you was gonna wander in. Levon headin' out?"

"Yeah, he has some errand over at Judy's to run," Joe answered as he walked up to the older man. "Here's your package."

"Thanks very much, Joe. Would you like to come in?" He asked it hesitantly, as if aware that Joe might prefer to say no.

Before Joe could answer, though, a young man dressed in torn jeans and a black concert T-shirt stepped up to the screen door. "Oh jeez, the *cops*!" He said in a snide, sarcastic tone.

"I thought you were leaving this afternoon Preston," Joe said, not letting his distaste filter into his voice.

"Oh, did you?" The boy sneered. "Sorry to disappoint you. Maybe you and your fa--"

"Jack! Get back in the house," Jesse interrupted. He gave his nephew a glare that would have sent any kid ducking for cover.

Joe watched as Jack muttered under his breath and shot the two adults an angry look before obeying and going back inside. "Gotta tell you Jesse, I don't know how you've managed not to kill that kid."

The old man grinned, but shook his head. "I haven't a clue. Fostering those boys all those years... didn't prepare me for this. But I suppose since I have nothing to lose -- and he knows it -- I won't hesitate to do whatever it takes to maintain order. Tie him to a chair, if need be." He laughed. "Did that once, a long time ago. Had a boy too headstrong for his own good, didn't think a mere hu-- well, didn't think I had what it took to keep him in line." With another, reluctant shake of the head, he added, "But Jack's headin' home, for whatever good it'll do. Whatever his momma wanted him to get being here, I don't know that I was able to give."

"Can't say I'll be sorry to see him go," Joe admitted. Looking at Jesse's downcast expression, he tried to cheer the man up. "Who knows? Maybe he'll wake up one of these days and stop walking around with that chip on his shoulder." He hesitated, then added diffidently, "I did."

"He might." Jesse gave him a grin. "Find it hard to believe *you* were ever as bad as him."

"I had my moments," Joe admitted.

"I think we all did. I got my pants tarred at least once a month for three years."

The old man seemed tired, as he glanced back towards the house. "I just don't know what we're going to do with him. The kind of trouble he's getting into...."

Joe reached out and laid a hand on the other man's arm in support. "You've done all you can for him. You can't make him change his ways, he's got to do that on his own."

"I know. I just have a bad feeling he's going to choose something that will leave him no future at all. He doesn't believe us, when we try to tell him. By the time he learns it on his own..." Jesse looked at Joe, as if debating whether to finish. Whether he had to. "You know it'll be too late. I just hope he doesn't hurt anyone else."

Well there wasn't much Joe could say to that. He nodded solemnly and handed the package over. "I... uh... should be getting home...Levon will be back soon."

"Yes, I imagine he will." The gleam that came into the man's eyes made Joe wish that centaurs had, somewhere along the line, learned discretion. No doubt living in a herd, where everyone could see what you were up to, had something to do with it.

He could feel his face heat and knowing he was blushing only made it worse. "Yeah, well..." he stammered. "It's been a long day."

"Gonna be a long night?" Jesse asked, then took pity on him. "Thanks for dropping this by, Joe. I'll see you boys around." He turned, and headed in the house.

"Hey Jesse," Joe called out just before the man disappeared inside. When he turned back around Joe asked, "Think you can give us a call when the kid has left?"

Jesse nodded. "I will."

"Thanks. Thought we might go for a late night run," Joe said in way of an explanation.

Jesse winked. "I kinda figured. You boys been runnin' every day, seems like, these last few months."

Joe shrugged. "Making up for lost time."

Jesse nodded, slowly. "You boys... I don't know what your families have to say about the two of you. But I think -- I know you've been good for Levon. Watched him ever since he came to Houston. You've been real good for him. Hope he's been the same for you."

Joe couldn't keep the smile off his face. "You don't know how good Jesse. Talk to you later." He turned and headed down the drive.

He walked down the drive and headed home, seeing Levon's truck parked in front of the house. The light was on in the living room; Levon must have already headed in.

"Levon?" he called out as he entered the house.

"In here!" His lover called back from the kitchen. As Joe headed that way, he heard something strange. Sounded like scratching?

He walked down the hall and through the kitchen door... and stopped dead. His lover was down on his knees on the kitchen floor, playing with two small bundles of fur.

Levon looked up and grinned slowly. "Hey. Judy's cat had a litter about two months ago. I thought we might take a couple... if you like 'em." Despite his obvious delight with the tiny kittens, his tone reminded Joe that *he* had the final say.

'And even if I said no, he'd just guilt me into changing my mind,' Joe thought ruefully. It was a good thing then that he had no intention of saying no. How could he when he saw how much his lover wanted them?

'The fact that I think they're cute has nothing to do with it.' "Hey, it's your house," he said casually. "It you want two balls of fur climbing the furniture and curtains, who am I to say no?"

Levon froze, then carefully picked up the kittens. Quickly he said, "I told Judy we might not want them. She has plenty of folks wanting them." Joe saw that, unlike earlier that evening, Levon was *not* playing mind games with him this time. Levon ducked his head as he started by.

"Hey." He reached out and stopped Levon with a hand. "I like them," he said softly.

Levon looked up, kittens mewing in his hands. In a whisper he said, "You live here too, Joe. If you don't want 'em--"

"I *do*," Joe said emphatically, trying to convince his lover of his sincerity. "I was just... hell. I was being an idiot."

Levon didn't move, either to set the kittens down or take them away. "Are you saying that because you want 'em, or because I want them?"

"The fact that you want them makes me want them." Before Levon could protest he added, "But yeah I want them." He reached out and petted a tiny head with a finger. "I had a cat when I was a kid," he offered casually.

Slowly Levon smiled. "You did? Never had any pets of my own -- taking care of the horses wasn't the same."

"It wouldn't be would it? I got Pouncer from my dad as a Christmas present when I was six. It was the last thing he ever gave me. He died two months later." Joe kept his eyes on the kitten he was petting as he spoke, managing to keep his voice calm and steady.

"Err," Levon managed, then asked carefully. "Your dad or the cat?"

Joe looked up, startled. "My dad," he answered, his lips twitching as he fought to keep from smiling. It wasn't funny. Not in the least.

Levon started to smile, then shook his head in apology. "I'm sorry, Joe." He choked back a laugh.

"You should be," Joe shot back, just before he lost the battle and a chuckle escaped him.

Levon laughed aloud this time, and tried to explain. "I didn't wanna offer sympathies and find out... it was for the wrong one...."

"Well," Joe offered, "my mom used to wonder if my dad was tomcatting around..." He couldn't continue, he was laughing so hard.

Levon leaned against him, holding them both up as they laughed. Finally, in response to the protesting mews, he handed over one of the kittens.

Joe automatically cradled the small creature against his chest. Two yellow eyes blinked up at him curiously.

"Mew?"

His smile turned gentle. "Cute little guy," he commented to his partner.

"Yeah." His lover gave him a grin as the kitten quickly, and expertly, wound the man around its paw. It blinked again, then yawned, showing all of its tiny baby teeth.

"You got somewhere set up for them to sleep?"

"Depends on whether they're gonna be barn cats or housecats. Didn't know which you'd prefer." Levon started playing with the kitten in his hands, letting it bat at his fingers.

"Won't help with mice in the attic if they're out in the barn," Joe pointed out. "Besides, if they lived in the barn they wouldn't exactly be pets would they?"

"They'd keep Fooler company." Levon gave him a leering smile. ""Sides we spend plenty of time in the barn...."

"Levon, trust me on this. You said you haven't had pets. I have. Pets belong in the house."

"Ok, they'll be housecats." Levon's tone was matter-of-fact, but Joe saw the look in his eye. Excited, like a young boy.

He couldn't help smiling at the look, wanted to make it last for as long as possible. "What are you going to name them?"

"What am *I* gonna name them? They're yours too. What do you call cats?" He looked over the one in his hands, as it tried to find out if his thumb was a good chew toy. "We always named the horses after their ancestors... don't know these guys' grandsires."

"Usually you name a pet after some personality quirk or physical attribute. Or just a name you like the sound of. It doesn't have to be that complicated." With an extreme effort Joe managed to keep from laughing at the seriousness with which Levon was taking this. Absently, he shifted the kitten he held as it started kneading his sweater.

"They both look the same - can't name them both 'orange cat' can we?" Levon laughed. "Would 'Boots' be too obvious for this one?" He held up the kitten to show its white feet.

"Boots works." He was momentarily distracted as the kitten gave up on kneading and was now trying to climb up the front of his sweater.

He heard Levon laugh again. "So what do we name that one? Rockhound? 'Cept it's you he's trying to climb."

Joe gently disengaged the kitten's claws from his clothes, grinning at the protesting mews. "Looks like this one is going to be trouble."

"No Joe, how can you say that? It just wants some attention." Levon moved a little closer. "You never complain when I do that."

"Who's complaining? I was just suggesting a name: Trouble."

Reaching over to rub the kitten's nose, Levon frowned. "You ain't worried about him living up to it?"

Joe couldn't help but smile at his partner's expression. He looked so earnest! "I'm used to living with trouble," he teased.

He watched as Levon's expression changed, so smoothly, from earnest to wide-eyed, grinning surprise. "Boy, if you weren't holding a kitten in your hands..."

"Promises, promises."

With that Levon reached out and took the kitten from Joe. Holding both kittens firmly in his own hands, he leaned forward. Just as he was about to kiss Joe, Levon changed his angle and landed on Joe's neck. Joe yelped as Levon bit him.

One hand raised to his throat, he glared at the Texan. "Jeez, Levon, if you're that hungry..." He tried to hold onto his grim expression but found he couldn't in the face of the dancing mischief in his lover's eyes.

"If they're gonna be house cats, where're they gonna sleep?" Levon was suddenly all-business, again; Joe could just see the grin that was still shining in his eyes.

"That depends." Joe sidled closer.

"On what?"

"On whether you mind them sleeping on our bed."

"Didn't mind Shensen, did I? How much trouble can two kittens be?"

Joe was saved from replying by the phone's ringing. "I'm going to remind you you said that," he warned, before turning to pick up the phone. "LaFiamma."

Jesse's cheerful voice brought a very welcome message. "Joe? Wanted to let you know Jack's gone. Left about five minutes ago."

"Thanks, Jesse." Joe couldn't keep from smiling as a little thrill of anticipation ran through him. They could finally go riding again!

"You're welcome, Joe. You boys take care now, hear?" With that Jesse hung up. From behind him Levon asked, "What's up?"

"That was Jesse. Preston's finally left."

"Oh yeah?" The tone of his lover's voice was clear.

"Yeah." Joe moved closer, and pressed himself up against Levon's back, his arms going around the other man's waist. "You know what that means right?" he whispered in his ear.

"Means we gotta find someplace to stash these kittens for an hour or so."

"Put some food and water down and we can leave them in the bathroom." He paused for a moment, just thinking of something. "They are housebroken aren't they?"

"Judy said their momma taught 'em how to use a litter box. Course we don't *have* a litter box for them."

"We'll have to improvise until we can get out and buy one. You did get food for them though?"

Levon gave him an exasperated look. "Of course I got food! Judy gave me some of the kitten food she's been feeding them. It's in the kitchen. Go get it and I'll find something for a litter box and let's get the hell outside!"

"Yes sir," Joe teased, then headed to the kitchen to get some food and water for the cats. 'Looks like I'm not the only one who's missed our runs,' he thought to himself, smirking.

It didn't take them long to get the kittens situated in the bathroom. A box with sand and hay from the barn served as a litter box, and a crumpled piece of paper served as a kitten toy. The kittens began mewing when they shut the door and walked away; Levon stopped for a second then continued towards the front door.

Joe also found himself hesitating at the sound. 'They're fine,' he told himself firmly. 'You're not going to be guilted by two furballs, are you?'

Fortunately Levon glanced back at him, and the look on his lover's face was enough to overcome any guilt for the kittens he felt. Levon was, in fact, already shedding his jacket and hat.

"What, you going to change in here? I thought you didn't want to get hoofmarks on the floors..."

"When did I ever say that? I just didn't want Fooler gettin' the idea she could come in the house." Levon took another step towards the door and stopped long enough to heel off his boots.

Joe didn't answer. He hung back a step or two, smiling as he watched his lover strip.

With a glance over his shoulder, Levon began unbuttoning his shirt. As soon as he dropped it, he opened the door. "You coming?" His jeans hit the porch seconds after he stepped outside.

"Not yet but chances are good that'll change," Joe replied, following.

A moment later he reached up and removed the underwear that had been flung at his head. He grinned, letting his eyes wander appreciatively over his lover's naked form. "Have I mentioned how much I love this part?"

"You have. Even if you hadn't, I could tell," Levon nodded towards Joe's lower half.

Joe shrugged, not in the least bit embarrassed. Why should he, when his lover was standing before him, completely naked? Levon grinned, and changed. Carefully he stepped down off the porch into the yard.

Joe followed, stopping when he stood beside his partner. He ran a hand in a brief caress over Levon's coat. "I've missed this," he confessed with a sigh, repeating the caress.

He felt the muscles beneath his hands shiver, and then Levon said, "You wanna run? Or you wanna just pet me?" His tone was serious; either would be perfectly okay.

"Run first, pet later," Joe replied, giving Levon one last stroke before grabbing Levon's hand and swinging astride the centaur's back.

It took only a moment to get settled, then Levon was heading out towards the pasture. Fooler gave them a nicker as they drew near; Levon went around to the gate to let her out to join them.

Joe was silent as Levon released the horse, then started walking towards the field. "Can I ask you something without you getting defensive?"

Levon gave a laugh. "You know, when you start a conversation like that, you're just asking for trouble." He broke into a fast canter. "Go ahead, ask me."

Joe's hands tightened slightly as he automatically adjusted his seat. "Why the kittens?"

For a moment there was no answer, then Levon said quietly, "Saw 'em when I dropped off the clothes we'd borrowed."

"That was a couple of weeks ago," Joe said, surprised.

"I know. They were too young then to leave their momma."

"So you've been thinking about it for that long?"

"Been tryin' to talk myself out of it."

"Why?" Joe asked, mystified.

"Don't know a thing about taking care of cats, do I? Didn't want to just bring them home because they were--"

Levon sped up slightly.

"What?"

He heard his lover sigh, and knew it meant he was about to confess. Joe grinned -- like pulling teeth, sometimes. "Thought they were cute," came his lover's low voice.

He hugged Levon tighter. "They are."

Levon ran for a few moments, then asked, "You really don't mind I brought 'em home?"

"No. Surprised me some, I admit. But--" he trailed off, not sure he could accurately describe what he was feeling.

Levon turned his head, slowing quickly and stopped as he focused on Joe. "But?"

"I'm glad you got them." Joe shrugged. "It's such a domesticated thing to do, get a pet..." Again he stopped. Then, in a quiet voice. "I like that feeling."

Levon grinned. "Being domesticated?"

"Yeah." He glared at Levon. "You got a problem with that?"

"Not at all! I just..." Levon turned back around and began moving again. "I like it too. Making a home...."

"Yeah. Though, technically, you already had a home, partner."

"A house ain't the same thing, Joe. A home ain't a building. It's having someone around who loves you. Could live in a open-stall in the field and still be home if you--" He stopped, and glanced briefly back. "If you were with me it'd be home."

Joe smiled, once again remembering why he loved this man. "Same here, cowboy. Same here."

They ran in silence for a moment, then Levon sped up. Soon they were galloping across the field. Fooler paced them off and on as they made a long circuit of the field.

Joe sighed with regret as they started back. "I think we need a bigger field," he complained.

"Well, you save up a couple thousand dollars and maybe we can buy some of Turnstein's place when he kicks off."

"I'll have to talk to Uncle Mikey, see if I can get another stock tip or two..."

He had to grab on as Levon gave a small crow-hop. "Watch it!"

"Watch what?" He heard Levon, sounding like pure innocence.

"If I fall and break something vital..."

"Nah. If you fall from that you'll land on your head."

Joe dug his fingers briefly into Levon's ribs. "You're just asking for it, aren't you?"

Levon danced a step sideways, as if reflexively trying to get away from Joe's hands. "Careful, there. Tickle me and you *will* get thrown."

"I won't be on your back forever," Joe reminded him. "And Italians are notorious for their long memories..."

Levon glanced over his shoulder again. "This from the man who forgot he was supposed to meet his partner for lunch?"

"I didn't forget. I just got held up. I told you that."

"Uh-huh. Got held up because you went downtown 'cause you forgot you had to be someplace else." Levon slowed down again, as they neared the barn. Fooler headed into the corral, aiming for the water trough.

"I had time to make it there and back. How was I supposed to know the bank was going to get robbed when I was there?"

"Time to make it back? From down--"

>CRACK<

Joe was off Levon's back and on the ground even as his brain registered what he'd heard. Rifle shot. His hands went for the pistols he wasn't wearing. Peering around Levon's legs he looked into the trees where the shot had come from.

"Levon?" His lover hadn't moved. He glanced up, and froze.

Levon was standing completely still, staring forward. Blood was streaming from his side.

"Shit!" He jumped as another shot hit the ground near their feet. Instincts and training kicked in, overcoming the panic that was surging through his system at the sight of his lover's blood. 'First things, first. Get under cover.' "Levon?" No response. "Can you hear me partner?" he asked, his worry increasing exponentially the longer Levon remained unresponsive.

Finally Levon's eyes shifted, ever so slightly, until he was looking at Joe. He still hadn't moved, not even to dodge the third bullet which, Joe was relieved to notice, flew far of any mark.

A tiny fission of relief ran up Joe's spine. "We've got to get under cover. Think you can make it to the barn, cowboy?" He kept his voice steady but didn't try to hide the urgency of the request.

Levon didn't answer, but as Joe leaned back, he moved a half step forward. His eyes were riveted on Joe although Joe had the feeling that Levon wasn't really seeing him.

That didn't matter right now, as long as Levon kept moving. He'd worry about the rest when they weren't in danger of getting their heads blown off.

Step by step they made their way to the barn's entrance, Joe half-expecting the shot that would end one or both of their lives any second. But it never came, and finally they made it inside.

Levon stood still as he slammed the door shut, not even flinching as the wood banged loudly. Joe was suddenly faced with the problem of what to do now -- he had a wounded centaur, whom he couldn't take to a hospital, and a shooter outside someplace while he was unarmed.

He looked around, to verify -- the only thing he could use as a weapon was a shovel and a rake. He moved them near the door, then returned to Levon.

The wound in his side was still bleeding freely. Upon closer inspection Joe was able to determine the bullet had gone clear through. One less thing to worry about. The thing he had to do now was help staunch the bleeding somehow. Pulling off his sweater, he placed it against the wound.

He heard a soft whimper as he added pressure, and was reassured. At least Levon wasn't so far gone into shock that he couldn't even feel the pain. Grabbing his belt with one hand, he awkwardly worked it into place, using it to bind the sweater in place.

Standing up, he walked around until he was in front of the centaur. He reached up and took hold of Levon's face, looking him deep in his eyes, willing him to hear and understand. "I gotta make a dash to the house -- I need the first aid kit and to phone for help. I'll be right back, I promise. You hang in there until I get back, okay partner?"

For a long time there was no response. Joe began to feel afraid -- and ignored it. There wasn't time for that now. Then, in a half-strangled whisper, Levon said his name. "Joe?"

Joe briefly closed his eyes in relief. "Yeah love..."

"Joe?" Levon repeated himself; Joe realized that Levon was still mostly in shock. He leaned up and gave his lover a kiss -- one sure way of letting Levon know he was there.

"I gotta go, love," he whispered, then kissed him again before releasing the grip he had on his lover's face. Opening the door of the barn, he glanced out. Seeing nothing, he took a deep breath and ran for the house's front door.

Thankfully, no gunfire accompanied his mad dash.

Once inside, Joe immediately went to the phone and dialed one of the emergency numbers posted there.

"Sunrise Veterinary, this is Cerese. How can I help you?"

"I need to speak to Dr. Maggie Lundy. It's an emergency. Tell her it's Joe LaFiamma calling."

"One moment, sir." There was silence for several seconds, then a woman's voice came on the line.

"This is Maggie. Joe, what's wrong?" She was calm, and her voice was strong and confident. Joe strangely felt better, just knowing she was there to help.

"It's Levon. He's been shot," he told her, feeling the horror of the situation hit him anew.

"Where are you? He's in form, I take it?"

"At the house. Yeah he is. We were just getting back from a run..." Joe swallowed, willing his voice to steady. "I left him in the barn. The bullet went clean through but he's losing a lot of blood. And he's in shock. Barely knew I was there."

"Calm down, Joe. You've applied something to stop the bleeding?"

"Yeah, jury-rigged a pressure bandage with my sweater and my belt. Going to head back out with the first aid kit as soon as I finish here."

"Good. Is he still standing?"

"He was when I left him." Damn, he had hated to do that. But it hadn't been like he had any choice...

"That's fine, he'll probably be able to stand for a few hours but if you can get him into a clean stall, well-padded with clean hay, and get him to lay down it'll slow the bleeding a little. Don't worry if you can't, just keep him warm either way. A thick blanket will be enough. No water, no food, and just talk to him and try to get him to focus on you. I will be there in twenty minutes."

Joe closed his eyes. Help was on the way. "Thanks Maggie."

He hung up and dialed again, this time a number he knew by heart. As soon as the line was picked up he said, "Joanne, we've got trouble."

He explained the situation quickly, and she promised to be there as soon as she could.

Sparing a brief prayer of gratitude that he wasn't dealing with this alone, Joe hung up the phone, went and grabbed the first aid kit and his guns, then headed back out to the barn.

He found Levon right where he'd left him.

"How you doing partner?" he asked, once again making eye contact with Levon.

"Hurts."

A brief surge of elation at the response. Levon was still with him. "I know it does, Levon, I know it does. I called Maggie, she'll be here soon."

Joe spun, pistols out, as he heard someone call his name. He recognized it as Jesse, though, and called back. A moment later the man opened the barn door, looking older and more tired than he'd even seen him. That expression changed to alarm when he saw Levon.

"Good lord..."

"Get in and close the door!" Joe ordered. "Someone was taking pot shots at us. One connected."

"Yeah... I know." Jesse walked quickly over, eyeing Levon and the situation. In a defeated voice he said, "It was Jack. I hit him with the shovel I was fixing... I think he's dead."

'Good.' It was his first thought, and he almost said it aloud until he looked at Jesse's expression again.

"How can I help, Joe?" Jesse seemed to be in shock, nearly as bad as Levon. He needed something to do, to keep his attention focused.

"Maggie said to try and get Levon to lie down in a stall that's been padded with clean hay. Can you get it ready? I need to..." He gestured with the first aid kit to where his now blood-soaked sweater was being held against the centaur's side.

"Sure, I can do that." Jesse moved to the stall which Fooler *didn't* use, one which Levon kept relatively clean and clear. Joe had never learned why -- but now he was glad they didn't have to muck a stall. Maybe that was why. Jesse began breaking a bale of hay, spreading it along the floor into a bed.

Joe turned back to his lover, opening the first aid kit and preparing the largest bandage he could. "Talk to me Levon," he urged the centaur as he worked, hoping that shock hadn't dragged his partner under again.

After a bit he was able to coax a response from Levon, and his lover slowly looked around. "Joe?"

"Yeah." He managed a smile up at his partner before turning his attention back to what he was doing. "I'm going to change the bandage now," he warned, as he began to work lose the fastenings on his belt. "It's probably going to hurt."

"Okay," was the faint reply. Levon remained absolutely still as he worked, though he could feel his lover flinch every so often.

Jesse came up beside him. "Stall's ready, whenever you are, Joe. You got anyone coming to tend to him?"

"Yeah. Maggie's coming out. Should be here soon." Finished attaching the new bandage, Joe regained his feet and walked around to stand in front of his partner. "You think you can walk a few steps, Levon?" he asked softly, reaching up and caressing the pale face.

Levon stepped forward, once, then again as Joe encouraged him took a second step. Levon's eyes never left Joe's face, staring at him as if the sight were the line that led him. The trust, the love that was implicit in that wrenched at Joe's heart. He vowed silently as he had many times before to be worthy of the faith Levon put in him, even if it killed him.

Finally, they managed to get Levon into the stall. "Okay, partner," Joe said, keeping his voice from trembling by a force of will. "You did great. Now all you have to do is lie down and then you can rest..."

Slowly and painfully, Levon managed to get down first to his knees, then all at once he collapsed onto his left side. Joe did what he could to guide him onto the bed of hay, trying to make Levon as comfortable as he could.

Joe lowered himself until he was sitting by Levon's head. Shifting slightly, he maneuvered them both until his partner's head was in his lap. Stroking the golden hair gently, he whispered, "Hang in there, Levon. Help'll be here soon."

It seemed like forever before he heard Maggie's voice. "Joe? Joe, can you move over a bit?"

He looked up and saw the woman behind him, holding a doctor's black bag. She was a vet, here in Houston. Back home, though, she had been the herd's doctor. A centaur lady who had left the herd, so she could be with the woman she loved.

Joe shook himself and moved back enough to let her into the stall, but he refused to leave Levon.

Quickly she bent over and began working. First she removed the bandages, checking the wound. The bleeding had slowed, but not stopped. Refastening the bandage, she began taking Levon's vitals, calling them out softly to Jesse, who wrote them down in a small notebook.

"How is he?" Joe asked, when Maggie paused, unable to keep silent any longer.

"He'll be all right, Joe." She looked up and smiled at him gently. "He's bad right now, but he's only bleeding, which I can sew up. We'll keep him quiet and calm for a few days, and he'll start to heal. He'll be fine," she repeated.

The force of his relief staggered Joe. His muscles trembled with it, his breath ragged with repressed sobs. Unable to say anything he just nodded, then bowed his head over Levon's, resting his cheek on his lover's blond hair.

Levon was going to be all right. He hadn't lost him.

"It's all right, Joe." He felt Maggie's hand on his shoulder, then she returned to Levon's wound. He heard her asking Jesse for equipment from her bag but he didn't pay attention. Instead he watched Levon, waiting for the glazed expression in his eyes to clear.

He was so focused that he didn't even register Joanne's arrival until she touched his shoulder and called his name.

"Joe? Maggie told me he's gonna be all right." Her face was tight with worry, overlaid with a professional cop's working demeanor. Unofficially, at least, there was a shooting to deal with.

"Yeah." He dragged his attention off of Levon's face and forced himself to remember what he had to tell the lieutenant. "Sniper hit us just as we were heading for the barn after a run. Jesse," he nodded at the older man, "caught who was doing it. Kid name of Jack Preston. He whapped him over the head with a shovel."

"I know, he's already told me. I'm on my way to check it out but I wanted to make sure... you're okay? You weren't hit?" She asked carefully, as if knowing Joe might well ignore a minor wound in the face of Levon's more serious one.

"I'm fine," Joe waved off the concern, his attention already being drawn back to his partner.

Levon was still staring blankly, unaware of the conversation. Joe felt Joanne touch his shoulder before she stepped away. He heard her quietly questioning Jesse, heard the old man's tired whispers in reply, but they were just so much background noise. The only thing he wanted to hear right then was Levon's voice.

As he focused on his lover's face, he was dimly aware of Joanne and Jesse leaving the barn. Maggie, too, was moving around nearby. None of it meant anything. Especially not when Levon's eyes turned his way.

"Levon?" he asked softly, hand resuming stroking his partner's hair after freezing for a second.

"Joe?" Levon focused on him; it was obvious he was in pain, but he leaned his head towards Joe with a contented sigh.

Some of the remaining tension Joe was feeling eased slightly. "You gave me a scare there cowboy," he said, trying to force a light tone into his voice but unable to pull it off.

He felt Levon weakly wrap one arm around his waist. "You all right?" he asked, softly.

Joe swallowed, unable to answer for a moment. 'He's worried about *me*...' But he knew if their positions were reversed that would have been his first question as well. "Now that I know you're going to be all right, yeah," he finally answered.

"What happened?"

"What do you remember?"

He heard a very faint laugh. "I remember everything up 'til the point I blacked out. Someone shot me, and now I'm here in the barn with you and Maggie. Joanne and Jesse were here?" He added, uncertainly.

"Yeah. They went out after... It was Jesse's nephew. Preston."

"Oh lord..." He felt Levon begin to push himself up, to struggle to his feet. "He got away?" The fear was evident in his voice.

"Stay put!" Joe grabbed Levon, pulling him back down again. When Levon had settled again, he added, "No he didn't. Jesse put him down."

"Down?" Levon looked at him, confused, even as he stopped trying to get to his feet.

Joe nodded. "Saw him shooting at us and hit him over the head with a shovel. Jesse thinks he killed him."

At that Levon settled, eyes going wide. "Did he?"

"Don't know. Wasn't about to leave you and go check. That's what Joanne and Jesse are doing now."

"Go check, Joe. Please?" Now Levon turned pleading eyes on him.

"I-" He hesitated, not wanting to leave his partner but unable to resist the plea he saw in Levon's eyes. "Okay," he finally said. He leaned over and gave Levon a brief kiss. "I'll be right back, okay?"

Levon gave him a half-grin, though his eyes were still scared and worried. "Promise I'll behave." Levon lay still, as if to reassure him.

Joe smiled back, even if it was a bit forced. "First time for everything," he teased as he gently disentangled himself from Levon and stood up.

"Don't worry, Joe, I'll keep an eye on him." Maggie stepped up beside him. "He'll be on his feet soon enough, but not before I tell him." She said the last to Levon, with a stern glare.

The smile this time was freer. "Thanks Maggie."

"Go on, now. He'll be fine in the five minutes it takes you to go check on Jack." She shooed Joe towards the barn doors.

With one last look at his lover, Joe obeyed, heading outside. He paused for a moment to get his bearings, then headed in the direction the shots had come from.

It wasn't too long before he spotted Joanne and Jesse coming back towards him, their expressions grim.

They walked over to him, and Joanne said bluntly, "He's gone."

Joe froze. "Gone as in dead, Lieutenant?" he asked, hoping that's what she meant.

"No." She shook her head once, sharply. Beside her Jesse looked both relieved and just as worried as Joe felt. "He wasn't there. I'm going to put out an APB on him -- have to think of some reason why...."

Joe didn't hear anything else that was said. Preston was still alive and he'd left Levon and Maggie unprotected. Without a word he turned and ran back to the barn.

His fear turned out to be unfounded as he burst into the barn and found both centaurs alone. Maggie was standing outside Levon's stall, alarmed by his entrance. "What's wrong, Joe?"

"Preston wasn't dead. He's missing." He kept his voice low in answering her.

"Oh, no." She also kept her voice low, but they both heard the unmistakable sound of Levon, scrambling to his feet.

"Levon-" Joe started, moving forward to confront his partner.

Levon remained in the stall, but on his feet as well. "He got away?" Joe saw how his lover was covering his fear.

"Yeah." He reached out and placed a steadying hand on his partner's back and felt the muscles tremoring with fear and leftover shock. "Joanne's putting an APB out on him. We'll get him. Don't worry."

Maggie stepped up to the stall's railing, and Joe glanced over in time to see her give Levon a fierce glare. "Levon, you should not be on your feet."

Levon just shook his head. "We gotta find this guy -- Maggie, you know as well as I do-"

Maggie turned to Joe. "You tell him."

Joe moved so he could look Levon in the eye. "You heard her Lundy, you should be lying down. You want to start bleeding again?"

Levon glanced away, and for a moment Joe was reminded of Shensen, frowning when he finally gave in. But Levon took a hesitant step backwards and gingerly eased himself down onto his knees, then laid down on his side.

Joe followed him down, sitting so Levon could lay his head in Joe's lap. He reached out and started stroking Levon's hair again, trying to ease the tension and fear that were so evident.

"Joe, you gotta find Jack." Levon gave his hand a weak push.

"Joanne's looking," he said stubbornly, not meeting Levon's eyes. He didn't want to leave, not now, not yet.

He heard Levon take a deep breath, then relaxed as he let it out, curling up as best he could against Joe.

Maggie crouched down beside them, and laid her hand on Joe's shoulder. "He needs to be off his feet for at least the rest of the night. If he has any trouble breathing, of course, he should get up."

"Is that going to happen? Him having trouble breathing?" Joe's hands unconsciously pulling his partner closer.

Maggie gave him an indulgent smile, reminding him of an elder Aunt who knew all, had seen all, and was humoring you because she knew she could. "It isn't likely. I just wanted you to know the only possible reason why he ought to get up before I tell him it's OK."

Joe nodded. "Thanks, Maggie."

"Tell her she's a trouble-maker," Levon muttered from where he was resting comfortably in Joe's lap.

That brought a fleeting smile to Joe's face. "Takes one to know one, cowboy."

"I'm going to stay here the night, boys. I need to go make some phone calls though. Do you need anything from the house, Joe?" She obviously knew Joe wouldn't be leaving the barn unless absolutely necessary.

Joe started to shake his head 'no', then remembered. "There's two kittens in the bathroom. Can you check on them? We hadn't planned on keeping them locked up all night..."

"I'll tend to them." Her smile made Joe suspect she was, herself, a cat-person. "Have you two eaten? I can bring you out something if you're hungry."

"I doubt I could eat anything right now."

"All right." She brushed her hand lightly across his hair, giving him a gentle smile. "He'll be fine, Joe." With that she left, heading for the house.

"Picked a hell of a day to bring the kittens home, didn't I?"

"Guess we should've stayed inside and played with them after all." Joe tried to force a lightness into his voice that he didn't really feel without much success.

Levon didn't reply. After a moment he asked, in a small, scared voice, "Joe? What if they don't find him in time?"

"They will." 'They have to.'

"What if they don't? A kid like Jack... he'll talk, Joe. He'll tell everyone he knows...."

Joe was silent as he warred with himself. He knew Levon was right, they couldn't take a chance of Jack getting away. But going after him meant leaving Levon alone. Well not alone, Maggie was still there, but...

Sighing, he said softly, "You want me to go after him, don't you?"

Levon squeezed his arm tighter around Joe. "I want him caught... but...."

"But?"

"I need you here."

"Good." Joe tightened his embrace. "'Cause I need to be here."

Maggie found them, fifteen minutes later, sitting in that same position. She deposited two tiny, mewing kittens in the hay beside them.

"Maggie wha-?" Joe was already reaching for the two little balls of fur even as he spoke.

"They can't stay the night inside, alone. They'll be fine here, with you." As if to prove her point the kittens pounced on Joe's outstretched hand.

"Guess they're going to be half barn cat after all," Joe remarked.

It didn't take long for the kittens to discover that they were in a brand new place, suitable for exploration. Fortunately for Joe, who was more or less trapped by his lover, the kittens didn't find the stall door.

He watched their antics as they stalked each other through the hay, tentatively approaching and sniffing all the new, unfamiliar nooks and crannies of their surroundings.

Joe looked down and saw his lover watching the kittens. He noticed how his lover was slowly relaxing, growing more tired as the pain and worry ebbed. "Why don't you try and get some sleep?" he asked, as he reached out and plucked Trouble off his sweater again.

"You reckon Joanne'll be back soon?" He heard the stubborn desire to find a reason to stay awake, even as his lover fought to keep his eyes open.

"Don't know. Probably. She said she'd keep us posted. But she's not here now," Joe pointed out, "and you need to rest. Stop fighting it."

"You'll wake me up when you hear anything?" This was little more than a stubborn mumble, though Levon opened his eyes and looked up at him one last time. Joe was surprised to suddenly see a startled half-grin, and followed Levon's gaze to see a kitten valiantly trying to climb up onto Levon's side.

"Want me to get him?" he asked.

"Nah, he's fine. Claws ain't long enough to do any damage... can barely feel 'em." Levon laid his head down again. "Just make sure he doesn't fall and hurt *himself*."

"He won't." Joe reached out and caressed Levon's cheek. "Cats always land on their feet."

Levon didn't answer; Joe saw that he had finally fallen asleep. The kitten made its way to the highest point of Levon's side, between his belly and withers, and curled up in a tiny ball. Joe grinned -- now he could guarantee Levon wouldn't get up, at least for a while.

Who would have ever thought of using a kitten as a sitter?

Anyone who'd ever shared a bed with a cat, Joe realized. He looked around for the second kitten, and found it nestled up beside his leg. Maggie came back into the stall and handed him a wrapped bundle.

"What's this?" he asked, trying to open it without jostling either his lover or the kitten.

It turned out to be a blanket, one of his pistols in its holster and a thermos. "Some things I thought you might want." Maggie replied.

"Thanks." He lay the gun and thermos aside, and struggled to spread the blanket over his lover.

He heard Maggie laugh, once. "I brought that one for you, Joe." He looked up and saw her holding a second blanket, unfolded, ready to drape over Levon.

"Oh." He subsided, letting the blanket fall to the side.

Maggie knelt down, and arranged the blanket carefully over Levon -- making a small tent where the kitten was sleeping. Then she took the other blanket and pulled it around Joe. "I figured you'd be sleeping out here with him. Wasn't sure if you need anything more?"

Joe shook his head. "Everything I need is right here," he said, eyes once again focusing on his partner's face.

Maggie said nothing; he heard her walk away and begin moving about the barn. She said something softly to Fooler but he didn't try to make out the words.

He didn't think he would be able to sleep, but as the tension finally left his body, his energy went with it and it wasn't too long before he dozed off.

"Joe?" It seemed like only seconds later when Maggie's voice woke him. "Joe? Your lieutenant's on the phone."

Struggling awake, Joe opened his eyes and blearily looked up at Maggie. "Time?" he asked as he tried to figure out how to disentangle himself from kittens and partner without waking any of them.

"It's nearly three am," Maggie answered. "Here, let me." She sat down beside him and helped hold Levon as Joe eased himself away. She smoothly took his place, not even waking up the kitten curled up against Levon's shoulder.

"You're good at that," Joe observed as he stood and stretched, trying to work out the kinks from sleeping in such an unusual location.

"I've done it before. Terry used to fall asleep outside with the animals we were taking care of all the time."

Joe smiled. "You'll have to tell me about it some time. I'll be right back." With that he headed over the house and inside to answer the phone call.

Joanne explained the situation quickly, and calmly. "We have him holed up, about fifteen miles down the road. Jesse says the place used to belong to the Wilcombes. He's in the barn -- I'm going to need backup to go in after him."

"I'll be right there, Lieutenant." He hung up the phone and took a deep breath. Levon was not going to like this. He would insist on trying to come along.

If Joe woke him up and told him about it, that is.

'If I don't, he's going to kill me later,' Joe thought as he headed back out to the barn. But by then, at least, the danger would be past.

"What is it?" Maggie asked quietly. She frowned, as Joe made no move to reclaim his place.

"Joanne's got Preston cornered about 15 miles from here. She needs backup. I gotta go." He leaned over and picked up his gun, hesitated, then kissed Levon lightly on the forehead before straightening up again. "Hopefully, I'll be back before he wakes up."

"Be careful, Joe," was all she said as he left.

Ten minutes later Joe was parking the cobra by Joanne's car. Hopping out he ran over and joined the Lieutenant where she was crouched, watching the building.

"That didn't take long," she commented in a whisper.

"What -- you expected me to stop for coffee and donuts on the way?"

"I was hoping you would stay on the streets at least." She shook her head and turned back towards the barn. Jesse was standing behind Joanne's car, safely out of the way. "Jesse tried talking to him, but it didn't help. He says he wants free passage out of here, or he'll shoot the rest of us."

Joe's expression turned black as a murderous rage swept through him at those words. "Like hell he will."

"Joe. Joe!" Beaumont grabbed his arm. "You're still a police officer, LaFiamma."

A quiver of conscience tried to make itself heard but Joe ignored it. "But can we arrest this punk, Lieutenant? Without exposing Levon and the rest?"

"Would anyone believe him if we bring him in and he's talking about centaurs?" She looked doubtful, even as she said it. "Joe, I can't justify going in there and killing that boy just because--"

The quiver of conscience was back, much stronger. "I know," he finally said, shoulders slumping a little in defeat. "But you didn't see Levon's eyes when I told him that Preston had gotten away."

For a long moment Joanne surveyed the barn before them. There was no movement from inside, no sign Jack was even still there except there was nowhere for him to go, except past them.

"LaFiamma, I cannot endorse a cold-blooded killing... I *know* what's at stake. I've known Levon longer than you have, known what he is... and I can't just go in there and shoot that boy. And I can't stand here and let you do it either. We have to try to arrest him, talk him into giving up."

"You better do the talking then Lieutenant. Because I don't think I'd be very convincing."

Before she could say anything, Jack screamed at them. Most of what he yelled were profanities, but what frightened Joe were the ones he used to describe the 'perversion of nature' that had to be 'eradicated from the face of the earth'.

"I'll eradicate you, you little..." he muttered, then glanced at the lieutenant. "Sorry," he said, sounding not at all repentant.

"This isn't going to work--" Joe heard her whisper, under her breath. Before he could call her on it, a shot was fired from the barn. The same rifle he'd used on Levon.

Without even thinking, Joe had his weapons drawn and was firing back.

Beside him, Joanne had done the same. The rifle fired again, from the same position as before. Two more shots from the police-issue pistols, and there was silence.

After a moment, Joe warily lowered his guns. "What do you think?" he asked, glancing at the woman beside him.

"Let's go check. You take the left."

In moments they were in position on either side of the door. There was still no sound from inside. Joanne poked her head in, then stepped inside. Joe followed.

They both saw the body of Jack Preston lying on the ground, rifle still in his hands.

"Cover me." Beaumont ordered.

Joe nodded, and held his guns on the teenager as Joanne slowly edged forward and kicked the rifle out of Preston's reach. He watched as she knelt down and checked for a pulse.

She looked up, her face unreadable. "He's dead."

Letting out a sigh, Joe lowered his weapons.

Beaumont stood up, and holstered her own weapon. "I'll go call it in. We can report shots fired, and a stolen weapon and leave Levon out of it completely."

Joe nodded absently, eyes still on Preston's body. "Thanks Lieutenant."

She moved away, past him and out of the barn, without saying a word.

After standing there for a moment longer, Joe turned and followed her out. He didn't feel anything but an enormous sense of relief.

It was over. Levon and the other centaurs were safe.

*********

That relief lasted until he got back to Levon's place, and, as he pulled up to the house saw Levon standing just inside the barn door. Maggie had a hold of his arm, and was arguing with him. She had changed, no doubt to give herself better leverage in keeping the other centaur inside.

"Where the hell do you think you're going?"

Okay. So it wasn't the most diplomatic of greetings but all of Joe's fears for his partner had come rushing back when he saw Levon standing, struggling with his doctor.

"Joe! What happened? Where's Preston?"

Maggie continued to grip Levon's arm tightly, even as Levon stopped trying to move forward.

Levon looked awful -- pale, exhausted, and if he hadn't been on four feet he no doubt would have fallen over.

Joe reached out and took hold of Levon's other arm. "You're not supposed to be up," he scolded.

"Where's Preston?" Levon asked again, stern tone not completely hiding his fear. He didn't move.

"Dead."

Levon stopped struggling against them, but still didn't retreat into the barn. "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure. Checked the body myself." He reached out and stroked Levon's coat soothingly as he spoke.

He felt Levon begin to calm down, saw the fear dimming slightly from his eyes. "He didn't talk to anyone before he died?"

"Nope. He was holed up in the Wilcombes' barn." Surreptitiously he looked down at the dressing on Levon's wound and thankfully saw no tell tale red that would indicate he had started bleeding again. "Now will you stop acting more like an mule than a centaur and go lie down already?!"

Levon took a step backwards, moving away from the door, then stopped. He looked down at Joe, fear once again clear. "There's a convenience store between here and there -- they've a pay phone. Did Joanne say if he had time to stop there?"

Joe froze for a split second. He didn't know, and was fairly sure from what Joanne had said that she didn't know either. But there was no way in hell he was going to tell Levon that.

"No," he lied smoothly. "He didn't." The relief he saw in Levon's face was justification enough.

With that, Levon let them take him back into the barn. Maggie dropped his arm, but stood guard -- towering over Levon by nearly two hands -- as Joe took his lover back to the stall.

They found the kittens looking around, blinking in sleepy confusion.

Levon tried to step over them, but when one tumbled sideways off a pile of straw he froze, one hoof in the air.

Joe grinned and stooped down, catching a kitten in each hand and lifting them clear of any danger of being accidentally stepped on.

Levon returned his smile -- a genuine smile for the first time since he'd been shot, Joe realized. Levon moved into the now-empty stall and settled himself back down. Maggie walked up behind Joe, back to human form and redressed. "You're to stay off your feet <,> this time, until Joe or I say otherwise. Understood?"

Levon looked at her, looked at Joe, then sighed and nodded.

"Good," Joe said, as he settled down beside his partner, still holding the two wriggling kittens. "Saves me from having to hog-tie you."

"Joe--" Levon began arguing again. "I feel fine. All things considered. I ain't gonna keel over just from walking around a bit."

Joe turned and called over his shoulder, "Maggie, you think you could find me a rope?"

"Sure, got some right here in fact."

Levon gave him a fierce glare – its effect lessened by the fact that he was obviously, and quickly, growing tired.

Joe glared right back. "So you going to behave or do I have Maggie hand me that rope?"

Levon continued to glare, despite blinking a few times as he grew even more tired. "You wouldn't."

Shifting both kittens to one hand, Joe turned around again and held out an arm. "Maggie..."

She handed him the rope. Levon's eyes grew wide, and Joe saw a whisper of fear return.

It was that fear that was Joe's undoing; he couldn't stand to see it on his lover's face for any reason, and could stand it even less when it was directed at him. He sighed and lowered the rope, still juggling the two squirming kittens.

Which gave him an idea. "No," he told Levon, throwing the rope to the side. "I've got something better."

"What?" Levon's eyes narrowed in suspicion, though he had relaxed when Joe dropped the rope.

Grinning, Joe dropped the two kittens onto Levon's side, where they promptly curled up and fell asleep. "That." He grinned.

Bending at the waist, Levon looked down at the kittens. "What if I have to get up?" He asked, plaintively.

"Don't," Joe advised, still grinning.

With a short sigh, Levon gave the kittens another look and laid back down. "Where are you going?" He asked almost sharply. It was clear he was about ten seconds away from being sound asleep, if he would just be quiet and lie still.

Joe looked down at him consideringly. "You know, you are a really lousy patient."

This time Levon frowned at him, very nearly a pout. "I didn't ask you, did I?"

"I'm telling you just the same."

This time Levon closed his eyes, and settled his head on the blanket there. He was still frowning, and after a moment said, "Don't have to stay then, do you?"

Joe sighed, as he rose to his feet, wondering when his lover had regressed to Shensen's age. "I'm not going anywhere," he said patiently. "Just need to remove my guns. They're not the most comfortable things to sleep in." He suited actions to words, shrugging out of the holsters and laying them within easy reach before settling back down beside Levon.

Levon made no move to give Joe room to scoot in underneath him, where he had sat before, holding Levon in his lap. The expression on his lover's nearly asleep face was one of tempered stubbornness. Or was it stubborn temper?

Maggie whispered over Joe's shoulder. "I don't know if you've ever nurse-maided for Levon before, but he's going to be this way for a while. Until he gets better, he'll be a real handful."

"He's a handful even when he's not sick," Joe said dryly, trying to make himself comfortable in the cramped space that Levon had left him. Almost as an afterthought he added, "Worth it though."

He sat there for a minute or two, trying to stay close to Levon in a somewhat awkward position. Then Levon shifted in his sleep, pulling Joe closer in to cuddle.

"Let me know if you need anything. I've a bedroll outside." Maggie whispered, before she tiptoed away.

"Thanks Maggie," he replied equally softly then turned his attention back to his lover. For the longest time he just lay there watching Levon sleep, listening to him breath, thankful that he still could. Today had been way too close. He couldn't stop the shiver that ran through him at what would've happened if Preston had had a bit better aim.

He didn't want to think, either, about what might happen if Preston *had* used the phone, before being killed. Who would he have called? Would he have been believed? He realized he could have the calls from that pay phone traced, find out if any had been made during that short time he'd been missing. But he didn't really want to leave, didn't want to wake Levon and try not to explain where he was going.

Joanne would probably have already taken care of it, anyhow. He'd just call her in the morning and find out. Until then, all he had to do -- all he wanted to do -- was stay by his lover's side.

With a sigh that turned into a yawn, he settled down more comfortably, resting his head against the top of Levon's. Once he closed his eyes he was asleep in seconds.

******

He felt Levon moving against him. Ordinarily that would have been the perfect way to wake up -- but this time Joe felt the stiffness in his neck and back as he woke, which told him they *weren't* in bed. That bit of awareness led him to notice that Levon's motions weren't the sort he could have hoped for, either.

He opened his eyes to see Levon trying to reach the kittens to remove them from his side.

"What do you think you're doing?" he asked quietly, but with an underlying threat in his tone.

"I gotta get up," was the matter of fact answer. His voice was stronger than it had been any time during the night.

'Didn't we just have this argument?' Joe thought. "Why?"

His lover gave him a flat look. "Well, unless you'd rather go get me a bucket...."

Joe was considering doing exactly that when Maggie approached. He nodded towards her. "If she says you can get up I'll move the kittens. Otherwise I'll find you that bucket."

"Good morning, Joe, Levon." The doctor gave them both a nod. It appeared that she had been up for a while already.

"Morning Maggie."

She glanced down at Levon and hid a quick grin. "So, how are you feeling this morning, pais?"

He glared at her. "I ain't a child, Maggie. I feel fine, except for needing a clean patch of ground."

Joe grinned. "Can he get up or should I find him that bucket he's been asking for?"

Maggie laughed. "We'll let him up for a bit. Let him stretch his legs -- but not for long. Half an hour -- less, if you feel tired or dizzy." She gave him a no-nonsense stare, then turned to Joe.

"Would you mind telling him?" She asked him. Before Joe could respond Levon interrupted.

"You don't have to make him order me around, Maggie."

"You going to be sensible and do what she tells you?" Joe asked, even as he reached for the kittens.

"Maybe," came Levon's cheerful reply.

Joe's response was equally cheerful. "Then *maybe* I do have to order you around." Small protesting mews were heard as he lifted the kittens from their resting-place.

As soon as they were gone, Levon struggled to his feet. He gave Joe an apologetic look as he steadied himself immediately. "I'm just a little stiff," he offered. He made no move to leave the stall, however, as if waiting to see if Joe would order him back down.

"Thought you need to find a clean patch of ground," Joe said, hiding a smile.

Levon smiled at him and walked out, brushing against Joe as he went past.

Joe watched him go, but didn't follow, giving him a little privacy. He turned to Maggie, to find the woman smiling at him. "He'll behave," he said confidently.

"I'm impressed, actually. I wish you could have been here when he had a broken leg. We had a hell of a time keeping him off his feet long." Her face darkened, slightly. "Wasn't anyone around he'd listen to."

"He's probably one of the most stubborn people I've ever met," Joe agreed, trying not to imagine the pain his lover must have felt with that injury. And *definitely* not thinking of what they did to horses that had that kind of injury.

Maggie laughed again. "That's typical, for males. After growing up having a herd full of women order them around, they get a little... extreme in refusing to do as they're told, once they leave." She gave Joe a very direct, thoughtful look. "It's rather amazing he's let you dominate him. He must really trust you."

"We're partners," Joe said with a shrug. "Trust kinda comes with the territory. And don't let him fool you. Levon may say I'm the dominant one, but more often than not we seem to end up doing what he wants anyway."

With a shake of her head and a brilliant smile, Maggie said, "That's because you can't stand to see him pouting. Don't deny it, Joe. I've seen the way you melt when he looks at you." She winked.

Joe felt himself blushing. "Yeah, well..."

"Don't worry, Joe. I was the same way with Terry. She'd smile at me, and I'd fall over myself trying to make her happy." Maggie's smile became slightly dreamy.

"You miss her."

"All the time." Maggie nodded, but her smile only faded a tiny bit. "I don't regret any of it, though."

Silence fell between them then until Joe stirred and craned his head towards the barn doors. "I think I better go check on him," he said worriedly. "It shouldn't take him this long..."

Joe grinned, when he saw his lover. Levon was out by the corral, talking to Fooler. She was obviously trying to entice him into going for a run. As Joe drew near he heard Levon saying, "If I even look like I'm gonna go anywhere, Joe'll have my hide. Maggie'll go run with you, if you ask her nice."

"I just want your hide in one piece." Joe almost absently ran a caressing hand down Levon's back.

"Oh yeah?" Levon looked over and smiled. He moved a half step, leaning closer to Joe. "Mind if I take my hide for a walk?"

"How far a walk?"

Levon looked surprised, and pleased. "How far can I get away with?"

Joe considered. "To the end of the corral and back?"

With a sigh, Levon replied, "That ain't very far." Then he gave Joe a hopeful, little-boy look. "You coming?"

"'Course I am." Joe tried to sound irritated but knew that his expression was giving him away. You don't grin when you're irritated.

Slowly Levon turned, and they began to walk along the corral's fence. Levon gave a sigh, sounding happy and content. "Feels good to be moving around."

"You really hate being confined." It wasn't a question.

For a moment Levon didn't respond. Then he nodded, slowly. "Ain't too bad, being in a stall for a while. It's not being able to leave, not being able to go outside that I don't like. Feel the ground under my hooves...."

Joe nodded silent for a moment. "That why you were such a pain in the butt when you broke your leg?" he finally asked.

"Who told you--!" Levon whirled, eyes wide with accusation. When he saw Joe's expression he shook his head. "Joe, they had me off my feet for three *weeks*. Wouldn't let me up unless Maggie and Duke were on either side of me, practically carrying me along."

"A broken leg is pretty serious for a horse."

"For a horse, yeah. Centaurs heal a bit better, and a bit faster. Besides, the only reason it's so serious for a horse is because you can't *make* them stay down until they're healed. They'll walk on it if you let 'em." Levon sounded subdued as he explained.

"Yeah," Joe agreed. "You'd think a centaur would have more sense..."

Levon began to nod, then stopped in his tracks, looking at Joe accusingly. "Is that supposed to be an insinuation, boy?" His flare was fierce, but Joe saw the grin he was trying to hide.

"Just stating a fact, that's all," Joe said in his most innocent of tones.

Levon continued glaring at him, and finally shook his head. "If I weren't hurting right now I'd toss you up on my back--"

"Promises, promises." Joe grinned.

"Don't tempt me." Levon started walking again, brushing once more against Joe -- this time a little harder than before.

After another moment's silence Joe asked curiously, "How did you break your leg in the first place?"

Levon grinned at him. "You hoping it'll be something embarrassing?"

"Is it?"

"Nope. We had a mare here that Maggie'd been treating and needed a place to keep while she recovered. She'd been whipped pretty badly, was shy of humans. Didn't mind being tended by a centaur, though, so I took her in. Had her out in the corral one morning, trying to get her to walk around a bit, and she went haywire. While trying to get her under control, she kicked me in the leg."

Joe winced. "Ouch." Then he thought of something. "Wait a second -- you were here alone when this happened?"

"Caroline had gone up north to stay with her sister for a couple months. She'd had a baby, then her husband walked out on her."

"So you were alone?" Joe repeated, aghast at the thought of what his lover must have gone through.

"Maggie came out pretty soon after, Joe. Wasn't alone long."

"How long?"

"Wasn't long, Joe."

"How long?" he repeated. "A minute? An hour? Two hours?"

Levon sighed again. "And you think *I'm* stubborn?" He spoke again quickly, as Joe opened his mouth. "Four hours. If it makes you feel any better, Flame -- the horse -- felt awful about it afterwards."

Four hours. Joe imagined what it must have been like to be lying there in the coral, in pain, most likely in shock for four hours. He shuddered.

Levon's voice broke through the horrible visions he was seeing. "If you want, I'll let you pamper me now to make up for it."

He looked up at his lover and saw the grin Levon was wearing. It helped banish the last of the pictures. He smiled back. "You'd actually have to sit still long enough for me to."

"With that for motivation, I could do it. Long as you let me get up *sometimes*."

Joe reached out and caught hold of Levon's hand. "Consider yourself motivated," he said in a low voice.

With a happy smile, Levon let Joe lead him back towards the barn.

*******

Joe leaned back against the wall of the stall and watched Levon pace. "Calm down," he advised. "Maggie'll be here soon."

It was several weeks since the shooting. Levon had shown steady improvement during that time, and after their talk the morning after, had even obeyed medical orders without causing too much of a fuss. They were waiting now for Maggie to arrive and examine Levon, to judge if he was ready for the next step in his recovery.

"You've been saying that for the last hour, Joe. How soon is 'soon' gonna be?" Levon continued pacing, stomping heavily on the ground once or twice. His entire body spoke of his impatience, even his tail swished angrily back and forth.

"She'll be here when she gets here."

He glanced around the barn, wondering what he could do to sooth his lover's agitation. Then his eyes lit on the brushes. "You want me to brush you? Help you mellow out?"

Levon groaned. "Joe, you start brushing me *now*, after I haven't been able to make love to you for weeks, and I swear one of us is gonna regret it. Maybe Maggie, when she *does* walk in on us."

"Then *calm down*," Joe reiterated emphatically. "You're this worked up when she gets here, she just might decide you need more recovery time."

Levon stopped pacing, and tried visibly to control himself. Then he shook his head. "I can't! Joe, if I don't get outta this barn I'm going to go nuts!" The look he gave Joe was nearly heart melting.

Joe considered for a moment. Maggie had asked them to wait in the barn but Levon was very close to literally trying to kick a wall out. If a little fresh air would help calm him down... "I suppose we can wait out by the corral," he offered.

That's when they heard the noise of an engine, as someone drove up to the house. They both turned; Levon looked like he was ready to race out of the door.

Joe went to the door of the barn and looked outside.

Maggie jumped out of her truck, then turned and waved. "Hi!"

"Hi," Joe replied with a grin. He went outside to meet her. "He's a little... hyper," he advised as he escorted her back to the barn.

"I'll bet!" She laughed. "Hopefully, if everything checks out--"

They stepped into the barn, and found Levon practically on top of them. "Maggie! It's about damn time."

"Give her some room to walk, cowboy," Joe said. "You're worse than Trouble and Boots put together..."

"Who was complaining about being woken up four times during the night, just yesterday morning?" Levon looked at him, but backed up enough to let them enter.

"Like I'm going to get any more sleep if she clears you."

Levon smiled at him. "You better not." Then he turned to the doctor. "Maggie, please...."

"All right, Levon, calm down. Let me get my bag opened at least." She had set her black bag on a bench, and now began pulling typical doctor's paraphernalia from it.

First she examined the entry and exit wounds, which had been left uncovered for the last week. The scars were fully closed, and their color had faded.

"Felt any pain in the last couple of days?" She asked, as she began to take Levon's blood pressure.

"No."

Maggie glanced to Joe, to confirm.

"Not that I could see."

Levon groaned again. "Maggie, would you stop asking him to confirm everything? I'm not lying… it doesn't hurt, hasn't hurt for days, and I just wanna get *out* of here."

Maggie didn't answer him until she finished taking the readings. "Well, I'd say you were a little agitated. But otherwise, you seem to be doing fine." Both Joe and Levon waited for her to say it.

She smiled. "All right, Levon. You can change back. *And* you can start running again -- but only one circuit of your pasture, and only once a day until your strength is up."

Levon let loose a yell, and grinned triumphantly. A split second later Joe had his arms full with a very humanoid, very naked, lover.

He wrapped his arms tight around Levon, for a brief second reminded how close it had been to him never being able to do this again. Hugging his partner even tighter, he glanced over Levon's shoulder at the woman who stood watching them with a smile. "Thanks Maggie."

"You're both welcome, Joe. Now, were you going to invite me to stay for lunch? Or am I to be politely encouraged to get my tail out of here?"

Joe grinned at the man in his arms. "What do you think Levon? Up for some lunch?"

Levon replied by kissing Joe on the neck, carefully and insistently, planting slow, loving kisses there. He tugged the top of Joe's shirt open, and began laying kisses along his collarbone.

Joe caught his breath, as he felt his body respond immediately to the attention. Struggling to hold onto his brain for a few seconds more, he looked again at Maggie. "We'll give you a rain check on lunch," he said, then groaned as Levon nipped at a particularly sensitive spot.

"If you're sure," she teased, then she gave a half-wave and left. Levon was still attacking his shoulder, and Joe could feel his lover trying to unbutton more of his shirt.

Taking a deep breath he managed to push Levon slightly back. Before the other man could protest, he kissed him desperately. "Let's take this inside," he said when they finally came up for air.

Levon kissed him again, then when Joe figured he might be too late, his lover nodded. "Sounds good to me." He didn't let go, however, all the way out of the barn and into the house.

*******

Epilogue

Something was ringing.

Blearily Joe reached out and groped for the alarm clock. The ringing didn't stop.

"Try the other one," Levon muttered, and buried himself deeper into the blankets and Joe's snuggle. They'd fallen asleep after making love for the rest of the morning -- Levon had asked for more, but Joe hadn't wanted to let him exhaust himself.

Other one? Joe thought dazedly about that for a few seconds. Oh. The phone. Right.

Changing the direction of his groping reach, he snagged the receiver and brought it to his ear. All without opening his eyes.

"LaFiamma," he mumbled.

"Joe?" It was Taylor.

"Yeah." Still more asleep than awake.

"Are you all right? You sound-- oh. Did I call at a bad time?"

"Huh? Oh, no. No." Joe's brain was starting to fire on all thrusters again. "What's up? You want to talk to Levon?"

"No. Actually, I have something for you, Joe." Taylor sounded happy, though he spoke with a slightly guarded tone.

"What?"

"I spoke with Hensen -- herd stallion up in Illinois. He owed me a favor. I've called it in." There was a pause, then he said, "The contract has been cancelled, Joe. You can go home whenever you want."

Joe froze. "Could you repeat that?" he asked in an odd little voice, part hope, part disbelief.

"The contract has been cancelled. Gillia owed Hensen a considerable amount for reasons I won't go into. I spoke with Hensen last week, and he called back this morning. The contract is off. You can go home."

"You're serious?" Joe couldn't let himself believe. Not yet. It would hurt too much if it wasn't true.

"I am serious, Joe. If you like, I have Hensen call you, himself." There was a pause, then in an amused tone he added, "I might even be able to get Gillia to call."

Beside him, Levon finally stirred, looking up at him. When he saw Joe's face, he grew concerned. "Joe? What's wrong?"

Joe found himself believing. "Tha-that won't be necessary," he said, unsurprised to hear the hidden tears in his voice. "Taylor, thank you."

"You're welcome, Joe. Tell Levon I'm glad he's recovering so well."

Beside him Levon sat up. "Taylor? Joe, what's going on?"

Numbly, Joe hung up the phone. "Levon," he said, "how would you feel about taking a trip?"

END