Joe followed his partner into the house, sharing the heart-felt groan Levon gave.
He watched as Levon hung his hat on the hat rack, and wandered towards the kitchen. "You need any ice?" he called back.
Rotating his right shoulder, only to stop with a wince as he felt something pull that wasn't supposed to, Joe replied, "Yeah, I better."
With several more winces he carefully removed his jacket, grimacing at the bloodstains on the front. He'd send it to the dry cleaners but he didn't hold out much hope of it not being ruined. "I liked that jacket too," he muttered to himself.
"We'll get you a new one," Levon grinned as he continued heading into the kitchen, rubbing at his wrist.
"Ow, dammit," Levon muttered, a moment later. "We gotta stop chasing perps over fences, Joe. Gotta stop catching them, too," he teased. "Getting too old to trade that many punches in one day."
Joe froze, feeling a cold shiver go down his spine, just as it always did whenever the subject of age was brought up. "Nah," he said in a forced light tone. "You've got plenty of more punching years left in ya, cowboy."
Levon laughed. "Don't tell *them* that. Here." He handed Joe a freezer bag full of ice.
"Thanks." He put it on his shoulder and slumped down onto the couch with a groan. "You know a hot tub would feel awfully good right now..."
"Yeah, reckon it might," Levon responded, looking apologetic. "But I *still* don't see were we'd put it." He took a bag of ice for himself and put it on his thigh. "Hope this ain't as bad as it feels," he complained. "I don't aim on losing my morning runs for two days because some car thief decided to wear steel-tipped boots."
Joe peered at him worriedly. "Maybe I should call Maggie..." He half got up to go phone the centaur doctor.
"Nah, I'll be fine. Nothing she can do except tell me to rest, put ice on it, and stop getting kicked." Levon leaned back on the couch and sighed. "Lord, it feels good to stop moving."
"Yeah," Joe replied, leaning carefully against his partner's shoulder. "Just sit here... and ache."
Levon snickered. He shifted slightly and repositioned the bag of ice. When the phone rang, he leaned sideways and grabbed for it, dropping the receiver once.
Joe closed his eyes and prayed it wasn't the station calling them in. He did *not* want to have to get up off this couch in the foreseeable future.
"Hey, Carla! What's up?"
One eye opened again at that. Joe wondered what the mare would be calling for. Maybe to invite them down for the weekend? His lips curled up slightly at the thought. A weekend away from the city would be great. Even if privacy among the herd wasn't exactly easy to come by. He and Levon always seemed to manage.
"Oh." Levon's tone flattened.
Joe's smile faded and he sat up straighter, aches and pains forgotten. Something was definitely wrong for Levon to use that tone.
"No, I don't think we can. We're in the middle of a case."
'Don't think we can what?' Joe wondered, watching his lover intently as the phone conversation continued.
"Okay, Carla. We will. Thanks for calling."
There were brief good byes, then Levon hung up the phone.
"Lucinda died this morning," Levon said, matter-of-factly.
Joe blinked, remembering the cheerful mare who had, on occasion, shared stories of Levon's childhood with him. She had always seemed so full of life it was hard to believe she was gone.
"What happened?" he asked. "Some kind of accident?"
Levon looked mildly startled. "No. No, she just died of old age. Heart gave out on her."
Old age? That couldn't be, Joe thought. Lucinda had only been... He frowned, suddenly realizing he hadn't known.
Levon would, though, he knew. "How old was she?"
"She was 63." Levon was giving him a concerned look. "Carla said the funeral is gonna be tomorrow. Told her we couldn't make it, but if you want...?"
63. The number sent another cold shiver down Joe's spine. He didn't want to think about this. Didn't want to *know* this. "She seemed so young," he said inanely.
Startled, Levon shook his head. "She lived a long time, Joe. Longer than most centaurs manage. Few enough die of old age."
'Longer than most centaurs manage.' The words echoed in Joe's head, over and over. The shiver this time was visible.
He blinked up at his lover, eyes haunted. "No," he said, an instinctive denial. What he was thinking wouldn't happen.
"No what?" Levon was looking at him, confused and a little worried.
"It won't happen," Joe said, staring at Levon, willing him to agree. "It won't happen to you."
Levon's eyes went wide, and he moved forward and took Joe's hand. "Joe... calm down. I ain't gonna be old and gray for years, yet."
Joe reacted by pulling Levon forward into his embrace and holding onto him tightly. "Not enough years," he murmured fiercely. He suddenly thought he knew how Levon must've felt in Chicago, when he, Joe, had been presumed dead. The thought of going on for years, decades, without Levon, alone....
He shuddered violently and held on tighter.
Levon hugged him back without a word. Joe gratefully accepted the comfort, and tried his best to stop thinking.
It wasn't working. He shuddered as the reality hit him again.
"I'm sorry, Joe. I wish there was some way I could change things," Levon whispered. He leaned back, taking Joe's face in his hands, and studied him for a moment. "I wish I knew what to do for you," he finally said.
Levon smiled sadly. "I wish I could promise you that, Joe. I really wish I could."
Suddenly angry, Joe shoved his partner away, got to his feet and began pacing the length of the living room. "You made me promise you that," he said half heatedly, half petulantly.
Levon watched him, jaw dropping. Then he was on his feet as well. "You were *dead*, Joe. When I asked you that, I was half out of my mind!"
"And I'm not allowed to be scared?" Joe shot back, frustration and fear coming out as anger. "I always have to be in control? Is this another part of being dominant? Because if it is, it STINKS!"
Levon had stepped back while Joe was shouting, then he held his ground and spoke more calmly. "I didn't say you had to be in control, Joe. I just meant it was a pointless promise to make. Neither one of us can promise not to die--"
"*I* did!!" Joe knew he was being irrational but he didn't care at the moment. Being angry felt a hell of a lot better than being terrified.
"Fine! I promise not to die. Is that what you want?" Levon glared at him fiercely.
"Yes!!" Joe yelled back.
Levon pulled back, looking startled, then he glared again. He started to walk away and winced as he put weight on his bruised leg. "Dammit!" He picked up the bag of ice, then threw it on the floor.
Joe jumped back as the bag shattered at his feet. "What the hell are you doing?"
"Nothing," Levon snapped. He picked up the bag, catching as much of the ice and melted water as he could in its remains.
Catching Levon's wince as he straightened up made Joe feel guilty at starting this. But it also brought back the fear of losing his lover, which made him cling to his anger all the harder. "I'll do that," he said testily to Levon, snatching the shattered bag from the other man's hands.
Startled, Levon let him take it and watched him walk away. "Joe?"
"What?" he snapped.
"Nothing," Levon said again. He turned and headed for the front door. "I'm gonna tend to Fooler," he said over his shoulder.
Joe headed toward the kitchen with the dripping bag. "Fine. You do that." He heard the door bang open, then bang shut.
Leaving him alone with his thoughts. Which was exactly where he didn't want to be.
Throwing the ripped bag into the sink, Joe leaned against the counter, trying to get himself back under control.
What had just happened here? He was afraid of losing his lover so instead he got mad and pushed him away. 'Brilliant LaFiamma,' he told himself. 'There's logic for you.'
He gave himself a few moments to try to calm down, before he went and apologized. Levon probably needed some cooling off as well, he reasoned. The way he stormed out....
He frowned and replayed that scene in his mind again. No, he hadn't been wrong, Levon *had* been limping as he stalked out. A feeling of unease grew at the thought and Joe found himself heading for the barn even before his mind had made the decision to do so.
Looked like he'd be apologizing sooner, rather than later.
He saw Fooler in the corral, but no sign of Levon. Joe headed for the barn. He stopped when he got to the door.
Levon was standing there in centaur form -- hanging onto the stall's railing so tightly his hands were turning white. From his expression, he was in a hell of a lot of pain, and trying hard not to make any noise.
Joe was instantly at his side, reaching out and laying a tentative hand on his back. "Levon?" he asked softly, letting his concern be clearly heard in his voice.
"Oh gods it hurts, Joe." Levon didn't look up at him, didn't move at all.
"What's wrong?" Joe asked, quickly running his eyes over Levon's form, looking for any injuries. "Should I call Maggie?"
"I needed to run... thought the bruise wasn't that bad...." Levon tried to inhale, and Joe heard the shuddering of his breath. "It hurts." Levon still had his head down, bent at the waist and, Joe noticed, had his right foreleg off the ground.
"What can I do to help?" The words were uttered even as he was kneeling to get a better look at the right foreleg.
"I don't know."
'Why doesn't that surprise me?' he thought with a sigh. Aloud he said, "Guess I'll just have to make it up as I go along then, huh?" Reaching out, Joe gently ran his fingers along Levon's leg.
Levon hissed in pain as he touched a certain spot, just above his knee.
Roughly analogous to where Levon's thigh had been bruised in human form, Joe noted. "That the only place that hurt?" he asked as he straightened up again.
Levon nodded. "Hurts worse, though."
Knowing when he was out of his depth Joe said, "I'm going to go phone Maggie." He reached up and cupped Levon's cheek. "I'll be right back okay?"
Levon nodded, still hanging on tightly to the railing.
Joe hesitated for a second longer, then turned and ran for the house. He burst through the door and skidded to the phone, scaring the cats who had been investigating the water and ice still on the floor.
Dialing Maggie's number from memory, he waited for her to pick up.
"Hello, Sunrise Veterinary, this is Cerese. How can I help you?"
"I need to speak to Maggie," Joe said. "Tell her it's Joe LaFiamma."
"One moment," the bright, cheery voice replied. A moment later Maggie's calm tones came over the line.
He quickly explained the situation to her, leaving out only the details of their fight. "So what do I do Maggie? Levon's in a hell of a lot of pain. Hell, he didn't seem to be hurting this much when he got shot!"
"Save me from stubborn stallions," she muttered first. "Put some ice on it, and tell him not to change back until it's stopped hurting. He might have torn something when he changed."
The words did not exactly instill Joe with confidence. "Torn something?" he repeated alarmed, wondering if that was as serious as it sounded. "And ice? That's all? There's nothing else I can do for him? He's *really* hurting Maggie."
"I'm sure he is, Joe. But he can't have done himself much damage from a bruise. Give him some bute, or whatever you keep around the house. Keep him off the leg and tell him not to do something so silly again."
Joe took a couple of deliberate deep breaths to calm himself. "Okay," he answered. "Thanks Maggie." He hung up the phone, then went and got some ice out of the freezer before heading back out to the barn.
He found Levon standing right where he'd left him. Still in as much pain, though this time he looked up when Joe came in.
"Maggie said to put ice on it," he told Levon, even as he was kneeling beside him and applying ice to the injured area.
"Great," Levon muttered. "Eight years of medical school and she says use ice."
"She also said that you may have torn something and not to change back until it stops hurting."
"Figured that on my own," he snapped. "Sorry," he said in a more subdued tone.
Joe was silent for a moment. "I'm the one who should be sorry," he finally said, staring at Levon's leg and the ice pack he held, refusing to look up.
"You?" Levon sounded surprised. "Don't recall you giving me the bruise."
"But I picked the fight that got you riled up enough to need to go running."
"Wasn't your fault, Joe," Levon said again. "I knew not to try to change. I-- It ain't your fault," he finished.
"Would you have tried to change if we hadn't had that argument?" Joe asked bluntly.
Levon didn't answer.
"That's what I thought."
"Joe...." Levon began, and Joe knew what he was going to say. Absolve him of the blame, because *he* could do anything he wanted, and not be wrong. He was the dominant one, after all. He could never be wrong as far as Levon would ever be concerned.
"Don't," he said softly. "Please. Just accept my apology." This time he glanced up and met his lover's eyes. "I *am* sorry Levon."
Levon nodded, but looked away. He lifted his leg as if testing it, and grimaced.
"Is the ice helping at all?" Joe asked, catching the expression.
Joe sighed and reached up to stroke Levon's side. "I wish there was something more I could do to help," he said softly.
Levon shrugged. "I'll be all right. Won't do this again, that's for sure."
The vehemence in Levon's tone brought a ghost of a smile to Joe's lips. "I'm sure Maggie will be relieved to hear that. She had some rather creative curses for 'stubborn stallions'."
"Not surprised," Levon replied; this time his tone was more half-hearted.
"I like my stallions stubborn," Joe told him, trying to keep his lover from seemingly sinking into a brooding depression. "Well one stallion stubborn anyway."
"You telling me I should do this again?" Levon asked sarcastically.
"I said I liked my stallions stubborn. Not stupid."
At that, Levon grinned. Faintly, but finally.
Feeling relieved at seeing the expression, Joe finished adjusting the ice pack, making sure it would stay in place, then straightened, running one hand lightly down Levon's back. The way the muscles twitched at his touch gave him an idea.
"Levon?" he asked.
"I was wondering... would it help if I brushed you?"
Levon slowly smiled, widely and eagerly.
Joe found himself smiling back. "I take it that's a yes?"
"I can't see how it could possibly hurt," Levon replied. "Long as you don't--" he glanced down at the ice pack, wrapped around his leg.
"I think I can manage to avoid that," Joe replied, moving across the barn to where Levon's brushes were kept.
Levon waited for him, his attention now clearly on Joe, rather than his leg.
Walking back over, brushes in hand, Joe paused for a moment and just looked at Levon, realizing once again how lucky he was to have him.
'Yeah and the next thing you know, I'll be bursting out into song,' Joe thought, snorting at himself. Shaking off his brief reverie he moved back to Levon's side and began brushing him.
It didn't take long for Levon to relax, though he didn't relax as fully as he usually did. He was keeping his weight off his injured leg, and that seemed to keep him focused.
"Better?" Joe asked after a while.
"Yeah," Levon sighed. "Leg still hurts, but I don't care anymore."
Joe chuckled softly and continued brushing. "You're amazing you know that?"
That made him laugh again. "You are, you know."
"'Bout what?" Levon asked, somewhat dazed.
Smiling Joe shook his head. "I'll tell you later. When you're capable of thought again."
"Okay." Levon nodded, and closed his eyes.
Joe continued brushing Levon until he was sure the other man was asleep. Then he went and curled up with a blanket in the nearby stall. He sleepily regarded his mate, getting some things resolved in his mind.
When he finally drifted off to sleep, he had come to terms with his fears and had planned a course of action.
Joe woke slowly, tightening his grip when his husband tried to move. As he began to drift back to sleep, Levon stirred again. Joe frowned and tried to snuggle closer, thereby keeping him from moving again.
He heard Levon laugh.
"What's so funny?" he grumbled, still with his eyes closed. Or at least that's what he meant to say, what he actually said bore little resemblance to the actual words. Some part of his brain was pointing out that talking coherently usually involved opening his mouth; the rest of his still dozing brain growled at that part to stop being a smartass.
He felt Levon shift again, and this time something about the situation penetrated his brain as being... odd.
Shifting himself, Joe tried to pull his lover closer, his hands sliding down Levon's back as he did so. It was when they came in contact with the sleek coat of his lover's centaur form that memory finally caught up to him, and he sat up quickly, suddenly wide awake.
"Get bit by something?" Levon asked, sounding as if he were wide-awake and had been for some time. He was lying on his side on a bed of straw.
Joe stared at him, giving him an intent once over. He *seemed* better this morning. "How's the leg?" he asked, his voice still hoarse from sleep.
"Better. Ain't about to try changing back, yet." He smiled, happily.
"So it still hurts?" Joe persisted, even as he wondered what exactly Levon was so happy about.
"Yeah." Levon was still lying there, propped up on one elbow, looking at him.
"So if you're still in pain why are you so cheerful this morning?"
"Like watching you sleep."
Joe raised an eyebrow at that, but didn't comment. He had, after all, watched Levon sleeping last night until he himself had drifted off.
"Glad I could entertain you," he finally muttered, but his voice didn't hold any heat.
Levon grinned. "You wanna entertain me some more?"
"What, go back to sleep?"
"Nah. Give me a hand up, and feed Fooler while I see how well my leg can hold weight."
"Sure." Yawning, Joe climbed to his feet and held out his hands to his partner. Not that he would ever be able to haul Levon to his feet in this form, but he could provide a steady object for Levon to brace against.
Which got him thinking. "How'd you get down there without hurting your leg in the first place?" he asked.
Levon looked slightly abashed. "If you weren't looking so cute, and so cold last night, I coulda slept on my feet." The abashed look was ruined by the tiny smile. Levon grabbed his hands, though first he grabbed something else.
"Don't even think about using *that* to haul yourself up with," Joe warned darkly.
Levon chuckled, and stood up awkwardly -- groping Joe again twice in the process.
"You are definitely feeling better," Joe muttered, unable to keep the laughter out of his voice.
"Weren't my hands that were hurt," he pointed out.
"Or your libido apparently."
Levon just smiled. He steadied himself on three feet, and warily put the fourth down.
Joe watched his partner's face intently. "Well?"
"Well I can walk on it," Levon said more or less decisively.
"Good," Joe replied with only slightly forced humor, "because a hobbling centaur is not a pretty sight."
"Knew you only loved me for my gait."
"Your gate, your fence and the rest of the ranch, yep," Joe shot back, grinning, feeling more lighthearted than he would've ever expected the night before.
Levon gave him a startled look, then grinned -- and lunged for him.
Only to stumble when his injured leg buckled slightly. Joe steadied him then gave Levon a look.
"Oops? Guess I ain't ready for that just yet." He regained his balance and looked down at Joe. "You realize you're gonna have to go looking for Matthews without me, today." His frown told Joe that his husband was *not* pleased.
Joe sighed. He wasn't exactly pleased about it himself. Not that he was worried he couldn't deal with Matthews -- the man was strictly smalltime, only important for who he could lead them to -- but he was worried about leaving Levon here all day alone and injured. And in centaur form.
"I could always call us both in sick," he began, inwardly wincing at what the Lieutenant would say if he did.
"I think we'd be better off if you didn't. You know how many sick days we have left between us?" Levon was testing his leg again as he spoke, and after a moment placed his foot solidly on the ground and left it there. "I'll be all right, Joe. I've spent the day by myself before," he teased.
Joe knew Levon was right, but that didn't make him worry any less. "You sure?"
"I promise to behave. I won't talk to any strangers, and I won't track much mud in the house."
"You sure you can walk on that leg?"
"I can walk. I won't be running or playing horseshoes. But I can walk. I *can*, Joe," he added when Joe continued looking at him doubtfully.
"If I come home and find you collapsed somewhere..."
"You'll lecture me sternly, then tend to my every need."
"And make sure to get you a sitter the next time," Joe threatened. The grin on Levon's face told him exactly how little effect he was having though.
Levon stepped forward -- apparently without any trouble -- and leaned down for a kiss. With a resigned sigh, Joe obliged him, wrapping his arms around Levon's waist at the same time.
When the kiss lengthened and Levon made no attempt to let him go, Joe nudged him back. "You gonna be okay?" Levon asked.
"I'll be fine. Matthews isn't smart enough to be a problem."
Levon looked at him searchingly. "I meant about the rest of it."
"Rest of it?" Joe asked puzzled, then realized Levon was speaking of his panic the night before. "Oh. That. I'm fine. Really."
And he was, the decision he had come to before falling asleep had resolved the whole issue for him.
He just knew he couldn't tell Levon what he had decided.
"You sure?" Levon looked doubtful.
Joe smiled at him. "I'm sure."
For a moment Levon's doubt didn't fade, and he continued looking into Joe's eyes searchingly. But then he nodded.
"I wouldn't lie to you about this Levon," Joe said, not wanting his partner to worry over something that he had got settled in his mind and his heart. The way Levon smiled then told Joe he had done the right thing. Levon wouldn't worry about it, not unless Joe gave him reason to.
He'd just have to make certain he didn't give Levon reason to.
"You think I could get you to bring some breakfast out here?"
"I think that can be arranged. Anything in particular you want?"
Levon grinned lecherously.
Rolling his eyes, and trying to hide his grin, Joe rephrased, "Anything in particular you want that won't make me late for work?"
Levon sighed. "Nah. Whatever you wanna make. I'm gonna see to Fooler." He took a few steps away from Joe, then looked over.
Joe raised an eyebrow in question.
"I love you."
Without conscious thought Joe was once again in front of Levon, pulling his head down into another kiss. "I love you, too," he said when he released him, knowing he was grinning like an idiot and not caring.
"Pancakes it is," Joe agreed, chuckling at the hopeful expression accompanying the word.
"I'll go feed Fooler," Levon said with a tiny note of triumph.
Muttering under his breath about centaurs, even as he relished the feelings just being in his lover's presence engendered, Joe headed out of the barn and across the yard to the house.
It was a good life, he thought as he started the preparations for breakfast, even if it was more than a little weird by normal standards. Even if the most he could look forward to was another 30 years, instead of the 40 or 50 he might have expected if things had been different.
But they weren't and yelling at Levon about it wasn't going to change anything. He wasn't about to waste the time they did have in pointless bickering. Instead he was going to do his best to remember to relish every moment they had together and when those moments finally ran out...
He would kiss Levon good-bye and then... then he would follow. Absently he raised one hand and touched one of his guns in their holsters.
Content with his decision Joe went on with making pancakes.