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          Levon Lundy and Joseph LaFiamma shuffled slowly through the Major Crime's squadroom, their shoulders sagging.

          "How'd it go?" Lieutenant Joanne Beaumont asked from her office doorway.

          Lundy dropped into his seat first.  "'Bout like you'd expect," he drawled.  "Dean Corman's dirty, but the Defender's paintin' a real different picture for the jury."

          "Somebody ought to take a real close look into that man's activities.  All of them," LaFiamma grumbled, shifting forward to rest his arms on his desk.

          "You don't know Corman's dirty," Brady Ryan challenged form his desk across the room.

          "He's dirty all right," LaFiamma snapped.  "He took a helluva sweet payoff to keep Stoller out of that gun-running investigation… from me.  That was no misunderstanding."

          "Stoller's just a man who wants to be prepared," Ryan threw back.

          "For what?" Lundy asked.  "Armageddon?"

          Ryan shrugged.  "Maybe he's got some peculiar ideas, but maybe some of 'em are the right ideas, Levon."

          Lundy shook his head, LaFiamma not bothering to waste the energy.

          "Not right according to the law," Joanne challenged Ryan, who shrugged.  "Which is all we care about.  Why don't you two go home?" she suggested.  "Get some rest.  This trial's going to take a few weeks."

          "Sounds like a good idea," Lundy said, standing.

          "Levon, you don't really think Corman's guilty, do you?" Ryan demanded.

          "He's got a long record of service," Joe Bill added.  "Commendations and the medal of valor."

          Lundy settled his hat on his head, then leveled a hard glare on the detectives.  "The man took a bribe.  That's dirty in my book.  How dirty we don't know, yet."

          The muscles in Ryan's jaw jumped.  "Corman's a good Christian family man.  He's a good Texan."

          Lundy shrugged his jacket on with an angry jerk.  "I don't care if he's Sam Houston's favorite grandson.  He took a bribe."

          Ryan stood, leaning over his desk, his gaze locked on LaFiamma.  "He's the only one accusing Dean."

          "That's right, and it's good enough to put the man away for three to five," LaFiamma growled.

          "That's enough," Beaumont snapped from her doorway.

          Lundy stepped past his desk, ignoring the seething detective as Ryan dropped back into his seat.  His partner followed, tipping an imaginary hat to Ryan as he passed.

          Lundy stopped short a few steps from his Jimmy, LaFiamma side-stepping to keep from trampling the Texan.

          "Lundy!"

          The blond turned.  "Sorry.  I just remembered – someone's got to stop and get the cake."

          LaFiamma's eyes rolled.  "Great, just great.  We're gonna be late, you know."

          Lundy grinned.  "Not us," he corrected.  "You.  I promised Jamie I'd pick her up in half an hour."

          "Me?"

          "You, LaFiamma," Lundy said, slapping his partner's shoulder, then climbing into his truck.  "See you at Chicken's."

          "Yeah," Joe grumbled, turning to back to his own car.  Fishing out his keys, LaFiamma unlocked his door.  A sharp poke in his back stopped him from climbing in.

          "Get in," a voice hissed.

          LaFiamma opened the door, catching a glimpse of Ryan in the window glass.  "What do you want?" he asked.

          "Just get in," the man said, nervously glancing around as he reached out to press the automatic door-lock.

          That done, Ryan slid into the back seat as LaFiamma sat behind the wheel.  The cold barrel of the detective's revolver settled against the northerner's neck, just under his jaw.  "Drive," he ordered.

          "Isn't this just the tiniest bit obvious?"

          "Ain't nobody here."  Ryan slapped Joe's neck with the barrel of the gun.  "Go."

          Joe turned the key, the engine purring to life.  "Where to?"

          "Out, turn left."

          LaFiamma did as he was told, wondering if he was going to live long enough to make it to Chicken's party.  "This is stupid."

          "No, stupid is turnin' on a good man like Dean Corman."

          "So what are you gonna do?"

          "Shut up and drive."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Chicken laughed as he held up his next present, a new apron that read: Caution, Three Alarm Chili.  "Thanks, Lieutenant," he said, shaking his head.

          Lundy laughed, then glanced around, wondering what was taking LaFiamma so damned long.

          "Where's the cake?" Joanna asked.

          "Joe's pickin' it up now."

          The lieutenant checked her watch.  "He'd better hurry.  There's only a small stack of presents left."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ *

 

          "Get out," Ryan ordered after Joe pulled in and parked in front of a small, nondescript whitewashed cabin.

          "Look," LaFiamma said, "I don't know what the hell you think you're doing, but—"

          "Shut up and get out," the detective growled, snapping the butt of his revolver up to strike the back of LaFiamma's head.  "Now, fag."

          A cold shard of fear lanced through LaFiamma's gut and he jerked and climbed carefully out of the car.  He tuned to face Ryan and stared at the Texan.  The detective took a step forward and Joe forced himself not to reach up and touch the back of his head, but he could feel the blood working its way through his thick dark hair and down his scalp.

          Two men stalked out of the cabin and grabbed him, disarming him while Ryan kept his revolver pressed tightly against LaFiamma's chest.

          The detective laughed, a bitter snorting cough, then shook his head.  "I can't believe it.  A fuckin' fag like you was goin' to turn in Dean Corman.  That ain't justice."

          "He's dirty," LaFiamma said through nearly clenched teeth, wondering just how much the man knew about his relationship with Lundy.

          Ryan backhanded Joe with the butt of his revolver, the northerner's head snapping back with the force of the blow.  Ryan followed up with a quick, hard kick to LaFiamma's groin with the pointed silver-tipped toe of his cowboy boot.

          Joe dropped to his knees, trying to suck in enough air to keep the exploding white and yellow spots from stealing away his consciousness.  Pain engulfed him like a tight fist.

          The two men jerked him back onto his feet, but had to hold him there.  "Corman is a good man," Ryan hissed into LaFiamma's ear.  "And so is Stoller.  They're just preparing for the inevitable.  One day the world's goin' to rise up against the sinners – the liberals, the feminists, and the fags like you, boy."

          Joe shook his head, wanting to argue, but unable to find his voice.  Ryan's fist pounded ruthlessly against his ribs.

          "Don't try t'deny it, LaFiamma," Ryan breathed into his ear, his name sounding foul.  "I know, I know you got yourself a lover… a fuckin' male lover… some pervert that likes to stick his dick up your ass."

          Another blow pounded into LaFiamma's abdomen and Joe heaved, the last remnants of lunch spilling over his lips and running down his chin and onto his shirt.  A knee found his groin a second time.

          Joe felt himself falling, a man caught in a slow motion nightmare of pain.  The beating continued, blow after blow falling until the sweet respite of total blackness enveloped him and carried him to safety.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "Damn," Lundy breathed as Chicken and the rest of the party guests looked to him.  He smiled.  "Uh, my partner's runnin' a little late," he explained.  "Guess pickin' up the cake was too much for him."

          Chicken chuckled.  "LaFiamma probably found somebody who needed help more than I need a cake," he said, patting his spreading midsection.  The guests laughed, with the exception of Lundy.  "Look, I got some cobbler in the kitchen, and plenty of ice cream—"

          "I'll help you," Joe Bill volunteered.

          Estaban moved over next to Lundy, leaning against the counter.  "This is not like LaFiamma."

          "Tell me about it," Lundy replied quietly.

          "He's not mad at you, is he?"

          Levon's eyes widened slightly.  Did Estaban know?  "No, and even if he was, he wouldn't pull out on Chicken."

          "Just checking," the detective said.  "He's been short-tempered."

          "It's the Corman case," Levon explained.

          Estaban nodded.  "It's not easy, testifying against a fellow officer."

          "It is when the man's dirty," Lundy countered defensively.

          Estaban shrugged.  "There are some who do not believe that."

          The blond's eyes narrowed.  "Well, you can believe it," he said softly, but with enough intensity to brand the words into wood.  "LaFiamma was there.  He said the man's dirty.  The man's dirty."

          Estaban took a step back, his hands coming up in a gesture of capitulation.  "You don't have to convince me, my friend.  I believe him."

          Levon nodded curtly.  "I'm goin' to go check on my partner.  Tell Chicken I wished him a Happy Birthday."

          "I'll do that," Estaban promised.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          LaFiamma groped his way back to consciousness like a blind man in an unfamiliar, cluttered room, bumping into a new agony at every turn.  He forced himself onward, struggling through the pain until he surfaced in murky blackness.  He lay immobile, trying to remember what had happened.  When no memories emerged he rolled onto his side, then struggled to sit up.  A burst of searing torment flamed through his groin.

          Ryan, he remembered, reaching to gently cup himself.

          Licking his lips dislodged several crusted flakes of blood, and Joe spat them off the tip of his tongue.  Glancing around, he could see that he was underground.  A cave or mine, he reasoned.  The air was cool and smelled old, like his grandmother's basement.  With effort he pulled himself to the wall and climbed painfully to his feet.  His knees turned in, and he walked pigeon-toed around the small enclosure, searching for a way out.

          What light filtered in from the full moon overhead did so through an opening alongside a foot square timber that had once served to shore up the roof.  Now snapped, it rested, half still partially embedded in the dirt of the ceiling, the other half jutting down into a pile of debris.  LaFiamma knew that if he tried to dig his way out that the rest of the crumbling ceiling would come down on his head.

          A thick wooden door blocked the other obvious exit.  He leaned against it but heard and felt no give.  Panic flashed through his mind, and he pushed back the sudden tide of panic.  Lundy would be looking for him.

          An image of the Texan smiling at some private joke they'd shared comforted him.  Levon, he called silently, I need you, partner.  I need you now.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Lundy's first stop was the bakery where they'd ordered Chicken's cake.  The young woman working the counter pulled the pink box off a shelf and slid it in front of Lundy.

          "Want to take a look?" she asked.

          Levon shook his head, already fishing into his back pocket for his wallet.  "Did anyone come in asking about this cake?"

          "Nope," was the reply.  "That's twenty-three, please."

          Lundy paid and took the cake.  He dropped it off at the restaurant for the party-goers, then headed back to Reisner.  LaFiamma's car was gone.

          Climbing out of the truck, he walked over to the mechanic on duty.  "Hey, Bob, you seen LaFiamma?"

          The older man shook his head, busy with the carburetor he had scattered across his workbench.

          "Did you see him leave?"

          "Nope."

          "Thanks," Lundy said, heading inside.  A quick canvas of dispatch and desk sergeant turned up nothing.  He returned to his truck and climbed in.  LaFiamma was headin' for his car when I left, Levon reconstructed.  He was goin' to pick up the cake and meet me at Chicken's.  If he left Reisner, then something had to have happened between here and the bakery…

          He started the truck and pulled out, picking the route he guessed Joe must have used.  His gaze swept the streets as he passed, but there was no signs of an accident, no sign of the car.

          Back in the Bakery's parking lot, Lundy climbed out and walked over to the payphone in one corner of the lot and called home.  The answering machine picked up.

          "LaFiamma, you there, boy?"  Lundy waited a minute, then hung up.  "Damn," he sighed.  "Where the hell are you?"

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          By the following morning Lundy was beard-stubbled and glassy-eyed.  Lt. Beaumont caught sight of him and waved him into her office.  "Lundy, what—?"

          "LaFiamma's missing."

          "Missing?" she echoed.  "Are you sure?"

          "Of course I'm sure," he snapped.  "I'm sorry," he immediately apologized.  "I'm just worried."

          "I understand," she said gently.  "Where have you checked?"

          "All the stations, hospitals, the morgue, jails, home, his place, even Chicago."

          "Chicago?"

          Lundy shrugged.  "I thought his Uncle Mike might've come a'callin'."

          "And?"

          A shake of his head.  "Everything's fine back home."

          "Did you check his usual haunts?  Girlfriends?"

          "Everywhere and everyone I could think of," the detective drawled.  "Not a damn thing."  He looked up, his eyes moist.  "I'm scared, Joanne."

          She sucked her lower lip in and chewed.  "What about recent releases?"

          Lundy shook his head.  "I checked.  Nobody's out."

          "Pendings?"

          Another shake.  "The only thing Joe's workin' on right now is the Corman case, and Dean's under protective custody.  I checked."  He leaned forward, his voice dropping and his eyes bright with barely suppressed anger.  "But it might be someone who's tied to the Corman, or the Stoller case.  Who else could it be?"

          "Levon, you and I both know that LaFiamma's made a lot of enemies since he got here.  It could be—"

          "But why now?"

          She paused.  He had a point and it wouldn't hurt to check.  "Okay," she said, watching Lundy stand.  "But don't you do anything that might endanger this case, Levon.  I don't want Stoller turned into some kind of martyr."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          The morning sunlight forced LaFiamma awake.  He was cold, hungry, and in pain.  He coughed and noted the tightness in his lungs.

          With the additional light he could make out the details of the small room, carved out of the ground like a basement, but this one appeared to be set into the side of a hill.  The broken timber was just one of three set in the ground above to help shore up the ceiling.  There was no furniture, no windows, nothing to tell him where he was or why.

          Too stiff to stand, he rolled over and stared at the closed door.  He swallowed, half-choked and longed for a drink of water.  Closing his eyes, he rolled onto his back, tears building at the corner of his eyes.  He was in trouble.  Serious trouble.  And if Lundy couldn't find him… he was dead.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Lundy stalked into Beaumont's office, his face a haggard, grim mask.  She looked up and knew it was going to be bad news.

          "Levon?" she asked softly.

          Without a word the Texan tugged his badge out of his pocket and tossed it on her desk.

          "What?" she demanded.

          "I quit," he said shortly.

          "Levon—"

          "Look, I'm goin' t'find my partner, and—"

          She held up her hands, palms turned toward Lundy.  "Stop.  Don't say anything else.  I don't want to know.  If I don't know I can't take any action."

          "You're right," the Texan said lowly.  "You don't want t' know."  He turned and started for the door.

          "Lundy!" she called softly after him.

          He stopped and turned back.

          "Please don't do anything stupid.  You're a good cop, remember that."

          The Texan's jaw muscles jumped.  "I'm just goin' to do what I have to, Joanne."

          "I know.  But LaFiamma wouldn't want you to throw away your career."

          Lundy turned and left.  Beaumont reached out and tapped the abandoned badge, then hid it safely in the back of her drawer.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Somewhere in the course of his all-night search the situation had become clear.  His task completed, citizen Levon Lundy drove to Chicken's and parked.  Climbing out of the Jimmy, he slipped his handcuffs into a front pocket and stalked inside.

          The large black proprietor looked up from the morning paper.  "Any word?" he asked.

          Lundy gave him a short shake of his head, his gaze scanning the sparse morning crowd.  He spotted the man in a booth, working on a plate of homefries, bacon, and eggs.  Without a word Lundy proceeded to the table.

          "Mornin', Levon," Ryan greeted.

          Lundy extended his hand, and the detective gave him a dubious smile.  "What?"

          "Congratulations," Lundy said, a humorless smile breaking across his chiseled features.

          Reacting on social instinct, Ryan reached out to take Lundy's hand.  The blond effortlessly pulled the handcuffs free and captured Ryan's wrist.  With a jerk, he pulled the detective to his feet and turned him, snaring the man before he could react.

          "Hey!" Ryan barked.  "What's the matter with you?"

          Lundy spun the man around and pulled him away from the table.  Chicken blocked their path.  "Levon, what's—"

          "Get out of my way, Chicken," the blond growled.

          After a brief analysis of the stubborn determination in Lundy's eyes, Chicken stepped aside.

          "You didn't see a damned thing," Lundy said as he passed.

          "Nope," Chicken replied, his voice rising to follow them. "I didn't see a damned thing – except a good cop who's walkin' a fine line!"

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Ryan stood in the dusty corral, his arms extended and tied securely to the fence.  He fought against the restraints, but there was no give.  His feet were free, but he couldn't do anything more than lift his knees and keep his balance.

          Lundy stepped out of the barn carrying a baseball bat in one hand and a length of chain in the other.  Ryan's eyes widened.

          "Hey, Lundy," he stuttered.  "What're you doin'?"

          "You're goin' to tell me where my partner is," the blond replied matter-of-factly.

          The emotionless tone of Levon's voice ratcheted Ryan's fear up another notch. "Listen, man, I don't know what you're talkin' about."

          Lundy stepped closer, swinging the bat so it contacted soundly with Ryan's shin.  He cried out, his leg coming up to try and escape a second attack.  "I don't know—!"

          Lundy swung the bat a second time, connecting slightly harder with the other shin.

          Ryan screamed.  "You're crazy, man!"

          Driving the end of the bat into Ryan's solar plexus, Lundy stepped back in time to avoid being splattered by the man's breakfast when he heaved.

          Using the opportunity of the sudden disorientation, Lundy stepped up alongside the detective, wrapping the chain around his throat.  He tugged the man's head back and to the side.

          "I've got all day.  All the day long," Lundy drawled lowly, letting the bat fall against the man's groin.

          Ryan's panicked gaze fixed on Lundy's and he knew.  Levon Lundy was LaFiamma's lover.  "You fuckin' fag," he challenged through gritted teeth.

          Lundy cinched the chain tighter.  "You're goin' t'tell me, boy," he hissed.  "Or I'll cripple you – slow."

          "You'll never get away with this."

          Lundy smiled.  "This is a big place," he almost purred into Ryan's ear.  "One body buried out here with a little lime… nobody will ever find it."

          Ryan swallowed convulsively.  "No," he begged.  "Levon, please."

          "Where's my partner?" Lundy asked, pulling the bat up for another blow.

          "Okay!" Ryan wheezed past the chain.  "I'll tell you."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Lundy bolted from the Jimmy before Estaban came to a complete stop.  The Mexican officer had demanded that he drive to Stoller's isolated cabin retreat.  The sign they passed at the gate that sat across the dirt road read: Meditation Center.

          He shook his head sadly as he climbed out and followed Lundy, his revolver in hand in case of trouble, but it appeared that no one was presently using the facility.  He climbed the three steps to the porch of the cabin and followed Lundy inside.

          A quick but thorough search of the cabin turned up nothing.  "Maybe Ryan lied," he ventured.

          Lundy shook his head.  "LaFiamma's here – somewhere," the blond said, his gaze sweeping over the area.  "Let's try the barn."

          The pair moved to the weathered but serviceable structure.  Nothing.

          "Damn," Lundy breathed as they stepped back outside.  Maybe Estaban's right. Maybe Ryan did lie.

          "Lundy," the detective said, grabbing the blond's arm and pointing to the three wooden doors set into the hillside.

          Without a reply Levon headed for the doors.  All locked.

          "Maybe I can help," Estaban offered, jogging back to the barn.  He returned a few moments later carrying two short lengths of baling wire.

          Kneeling, Estaban inserted the wire into the first lock, manipulating them until the lock gave way.

          Lundy patted the man's shoulder.  "I'm not goin' to ask where you learned that trick," he said.

          Estaban grinned.  "In some of the poorer towns some of the jail cells could only be opened by such a method."

          Lundy shook his head.  "If you say so."  He pushed the door open on an empty room.  "Try the next one."

          Repeating the trick, Estaban pushed the second door open.  In one corner a body lay curled up in a fetal position.  Lundy pushed past the detective, dropping to one knee when he reached the man.

          "Joe?" he called softly as he reached out, checking for a pulse.  "Get me a life flight chopper out here – right now," he ordered Estaban, but the man was already on his way to make the call.

          Lundy stripped off his jacket and draped it over LaFiamma's shoulders.  "Hang in there, Joe," he encouraged softly.  "It's all over."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Lundy turned in mid-pace and nearly collided with Joanne.  "How is he?" she asked.

          Lundy shook his head.  "They haven't said."

          She took Levon's arm and led him to the large sofa in the waiting room.  He sat and ran his fingers through his hair.  "The paramedics said he looked pretty bad.  He took a helluva beatin', Joanne.  Dehydration, exposure, shock…"

          "He's going to make it, Levon," she reassured, sitting down next to him.  Opening her purse, she offered him back his badge.

          He looked at it but didn't take it.  "Joanne, I—"

          "No," she interrupted.  "Don't tell me.  It's none of my business.  You and Estaban took a day off and went for a drive.  You got lucky, that's all."

          Lundy nodded and took the badge back, slipping it into his back pocket.  "I've got something I have t' take care of," he said, standing.

          "Take Estaban," she ordered.  "He's on vacation, too."

          Lundy nodded.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          The two detectives arrived at Lundy's ranch only to find Ryan gone.  The blond raced back to the Jimmy, calling Joanne, while Estaban made a thorough search of the house and barn.

          "Levon, what—?"

          "It's Ryan.  He's going to come after LaFiamma," Lundy interrupted.

          "Ryan?" she echoed.  "All right, I'll have security be on the watch for him, and the officers on the door warned."

          "Thanks, Joanne."

          "Find him," she ordered.  "I want this stopped now."

          "We'll do our best," he assured.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Ryan walked casually up to the nurse's station and smiled charmingly at the young woman on duty.  "Hi," he said, showing her his badge.  "I'm Detective Lundy, could you please ask the officer standing outside's Detective LaFiamma's door if he could please meet me in the cafeteria.  We found the man we were lookin' for and I need someone to run him into Reisner."

          "Certainly," the nurse replied.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          "Excuse me," the nurse said.

          The uniformed officer standing outside LaFiamma's door smiled.  Mid-twenties, blonde, petite, with large green eyes and dimples, she was decidedly cute.  "Yes, ma'am?"

          "A Detective Lundy asked me to tell you that he found the man you were looking for in the cafeteria.  He'd like you to meet him there and take him to… Rei—"

          "Reisner," the officer finished for her.  "Great."  He flashed the young woman another smile, then asked, "Are you married?"

          She shook her head.

          "I'll be back," he said, heading for the elevator.

          She watched him go, giggling.  She wouldn't mind at all if the officer came calling.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Ryan watched the officer leave and the nurse return to her station.  The hallway empty, he crossed and slipped through LaFiamma's door.  The detective lay in bed, unconscious, IVs running.  He crossed to the foot of the bed, wondering what would be easiest.  Suffocating the detective seemed to be the quickest method, but as soon as LaFiamma started to go the alarm would ring at the nurses' station and he wasn't sure he could make it out of the room in time not to get caught.

          He studied the IVs.  If he could introduce an air bubble, that would give him time to sneak out and it would look like an accident.

          Moving to the pole, he took the thin tubing and twisted it into a loop.  Pinching the side closest to LaFiamma, he cut off the flow.  Fishing into his pocket, he removed a small knife and pulled the smallest blade out.  At the top of the loop he inserted just the tip of the blade, then let up enough where he held the flow stopped to draw in the air.  When there was about an inch of space, he unlooped the tubing and let the flow resume.  The IV pushed the air along, the tiny incision not enough to disrupt the capillary action.

          "So long, fag," he said as the door opened.

          He turned to find Lt. Joanne Beaumont.  She reached into her purse as he bolted for the door, slamming her against the jam as he shoved past.  She staggered into the hall as Lundy and Estaban flashed past, following Ryan through the door marked: Stairs.  She rushed back into LaFiamma's room, grabbing for the IV.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Ryan charged down the stairs as fast as he could, the sound of two pairs of boots pursuing him followed.

          "Ryan!" Lundy yelled.

          The detective forced himself on faster, the knee that Lundy had bruised earlier giving way.  He fell, slamming into the wall of a stairwell.  Struggling around, he managed to free his revolver and started to lift it.

          Lundy and Estaban fired in unison.  Ryan slammed back against the wall, then slumped over.  Dead.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          Lundy started awake, for a moment unsure where he was, but the concerned face of the nurse reminded him: the hospital.  LaFiamma.

          "Huh?" he asked groggily.

          The nurse smiled indulgently.  "The doctor said he'd like to see you in Mr. LaFiamma's room."

          Lundy climbed clumsily to his feet, and pushed his hair off his forehead.  "Much obliged, ma'am."

          She nodded and left.

          Tucking his shirt in and combing fingers through his hair left him looking presentable, if not completely respectable.  Those chores accomplished, he forced himself to LaFiamma's room.  He entered without knocking.

          The doctor glanced over her shoulder and smiled.  "Mr. Lundy, thank you for joining us."

          Lundy met his partner's gaze for a brief moment, the swelling and bruises making it hard to read the expression buried there.  LaFiamma had woken for the first time yesterday evening, almost forty-eight hours after Ryan's death.  The pain medications had made his brief excursion into consciousness nothing less than incoherent.  However, when Levon arrived this morning, the nurse told him that Joe was awake and lucid, but that he'd have to wait for the doctor to finish with her examination.  He'd dropped into an over-stuffed chair in the waiting room and promptly dropped off to sleep.

          "You look—"

          "Terrible," LaFiamma finished for him.

          "That's an understatement," the Texan countered.  "A jackrabbit trampled by buffalo would look better than you do."

          "Thanks," Joe replied, a small smile lifting one corner of his healing split lips.

          The doctor ignored the exchange, scribbling several lines onto LaFiamma's chart.  That done, she slid it back into the holder attached to the footboard.  "Mr. LaFiamma told me that you and he are lovers," she said matter-of-factly.

          Lundy felt the blush that colored his cheeks and turned his ears a bright red, but he nodded.

          "Don't worry, Mr. Lundy," she assured.  "This all falls under the rubric of doctor/patient confidentiality."

          "I'm not ashamed of it," Lundy replied defensively.

          "Cut the lady some slack, Levon," LaFiamma growled.  "And while you're at it, how about pouring me a glass of juice?"

          Lundy shook his head, his expression caught between a smile and a pout.  He poured a glass half-full of apple juice and handed it to LaFiamma as the physician explained.

          "I'm Dr. Matthisen.  Joe and I have talked.  He sustained some serious trauma to his penis and testicles," she explained clinically.  "I don't believe that the injuries will render him impotent, but there could be difficulties for a while.  I have some suggestions for exercises and techniques that I think might help, but they'll take an effort from both of you."

          "Whatever I can do," Lundy said softly, his gaze flickering to LaFiamma's.

          The Italian looked relieved.

          "Good.  Now, I'd like to set up a series of appointments with both of you."

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          LaFiamma relaxed in the leather chair Lundy had pulled over closer to the snapping hearth.  The ranch was still Lundy's.  The very structure itself radiated the Texan's presence.  It felt homey… safe.

          Joe studied his reflection in the half-empty glass of wine.  The bruises were gone, the swelling disappeared, the muscle aches and pulls healed.  He was perfectly fine.

          He snorted softly.  Fine.  Except he couldn't sustain an erection.  Lundy didn't seem to mind, or if he did, it didn't show.  But LaFiamma wanted to make love.  He want to give and get pleasure and his body wasn't cooperating.

          Lundy walked into the living room.  "Hey, you plannin' on sittin' there all night?"

          LaFiamma drained the glass and stood.  "Nope."

          "Good, I've got better plans," Lundy drawled.

          Joe felt the warmth creep into his groin, and hastily carried the glass into the kitchen and left it on the sink counter.

          Lundy reached out, resting a hand on his partner's shoulder, his thumb rubbing against the soft cotton material.  "Know what I want?"

          The burning blue eyes made the answer obvious, but Joe wasn't going to make it easy.  "What?"

          Lundy's hand slid down LaFiamma's back, thumb hooking into the belt.  "Let me show you."

          LaFiamma felt his heart kick and pick up speed.  He was already getting hard, but he knew it wouldn't last.  He nodded silently.

          Lundy led the way to the bedroom they shared, closing the door behind them.  Joe glanced around the room.  It radiated Lundy, the order and serenity.  Masculine.  Even with the Italian's possessions scattered around it still felt like a part of Lundy, and right now that was exactly what he wanted.

          Sitting on the edge of the bed, Levon slipped off his boots and socks.  Standing, he carried the shoes to his closet, then detoured through the bathroom to deposit the socks in the dirty-clothes hamper.  Standing on the cold tile, he unbuttoned his flannel shirt, adding it to the basket as well.

          Clad in jeans, he returned to the bedroom.  LaFiamma stood in front of the old dresser, looking down at the picture of the two of them and Mother Minnie.

          "We should go see her," Lundy said.  "Take some flowers, make sure they're tendin' the grave."

          LaFiamma nodded, watching the reflection of Lundy stepping out of his jeans.  The blond folded the pants and slid them on top of the dresser.

          Joe turned, his gaze dropping to the swelling bulge in Levon's BVD's.  Lundy took advantage of the distraction, stepping up and unbuttoning the man's shirt.

          "Tonight I'm doing the work," he said softly.

          "Oh?"

          "Yeah."

          "Okay."

          Finishing with the buttons, Levon pulled the soft silk off Joe's shoulders, hanging the shirt on the back of the desk chair.  LaFiamma took the opportunity to slip his fleece-lined slippers off.  Lundy reached out and unhooked Joe's belt buckle, then drew down the zipper as slowly as his needy fingers would go.

          LaFiamma stepped out of the pants and folded them, laying them on top of Lundy's.

          Levon reached out and caressed LaFiamma's bare shoulders.  The northerner moaned, swaying slightly with the motion of Lundy's hands.

          Lundy guided him to the bed, and Joe fell back, following a playful push.  Hands wandered up his legs, then brushed lightly across his crotch.

          "Scoot up on the pillows," the blond commanded.

          Once LaFiamma was leaning against the fluffy supports, Lundy started at the feet, rubbing and squeezing, drawing a long moan of pleasure from his partner.

          "Just relax."

          "Mmm."

          Lundy grinned, working his way up the calves, letting his fingers slide through the soft dark hair, and tickling behind the knees.  LaFiamma sucked in a sharp breath, then sighed with pleasure.

          Levon stroked down the muscled thighs, alternating hard and soft.  The muscular legs fell open, giving him more room to maneuver.  He reached in, teasing at the edges of the silky briefs Joe wore.  LaFiamma's head rolled slowly from side to side, fingers curling into the bedspread.

          He let his fingers brush feather-light over Joe's groin, rewarded by the hips which pressed up slightly.  Levon moved to a hand.

          "That feels so good," LaFiamma said.

          "I know."

          He pulled fingers, massaged the palm, then worked up the arm before transferring to the other.  That done, he kneaded into the sensitive underarm, and was rewarded with a groan.  Lundy's hands turned next to the lightly quivering belly, and he pushed and pulled, first hard, then soft.  He pushed up the ribs, then brushed and pinched both hard nipples.

          "Oh, God," Joe moaned.

          Reaching under LaFiamma, Lundy raked the broad back with his fingertips.  Joe arched up and Levon bowed his head, the tip of his tongue brushing under the man's chin, winning him another, more desperate moan.

          Lundy moved to the shoulders, knowing he would not be able to keep up the same slow pace much longer.  His own needs sped his hands as they eased up Joe's neck and rubbed across his face.

          They were both breathing hard when he finished, his head bowing again, this time to LaFiamma's slightly parted lips.  He arched up, pressing his mouth firmly against Lundy's.

          Soft kisses followed, raining over LaFiamma's face and neck. Levon shifted to the collarbones, then back to the aching nipples.  Tongue-tip circled, then pressed, he sucked, then nipped gently, and LaFiamma tossed his head, his body flushing a soft pink.

          "Lundy," he groaned.

          "All in good time, LaFiamma," Lundy countered.  "Some things are worth waitin' for."

          "Says you."

          Lundy watched the swelled cock straining under the fabric of the silk briefs.   He traced a finger along the thick length, and Joe moaned, his hips bucking.  Reaching down, Lundy carefully removed the underwear, then slipped out of his   own. That done, he let his hands roam over LaFiamma's body, touching, squeezing, scratching, rubbing, until the cock stood, red and pulsing, a milky white drop at the tip reflecting the candlelight.

 

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

 

          So far so good, he thought, trying to remember all the tips the doctor had given him in their private sessions.

          "Turn over."

          "Lundy," Joe moaned.  "Come on, before I lose—"

          "Turn over."

          With a sigh and a groan, Joe did as ordered, easing himself down carefully.  When he was settled, Lundy eased himself to the foot of the bed and started on the feet again.

          The massage proceeded quicker, and Lundy moved quickly to the inner thigh, reaching in to caress the weighty balls.

          "Ahh," Joe moaned, his voice muffled by the pillow.

          He skipped over the butt, rubbing and scratching LaFiamma's back and shoulders first, finishing with the back of the neck.  With a grin he blew softly down the crack of LaFiamma's ass.

          Joe's head popped up with a startled grunt that turned into a moan as Lundy kneaded the two cheeks, pressing them together and pulling them apart.  One finger targeted the sensitive sphincter and pressed.

          LaFiamma choked back a cry, his hips coming up off the bed.  Lundy turned him over.

          "Now, we get serious," he said softly.

          "Serious?" was the thick reply.

          He leaned over and kissed LaFiamma, running a teasing tongue over teeth and lips.  They parried, reveling in the taste of each other.  Lundy's hand teased at one nipple, then the other, then trailed down to squeeze the dark-red shaft.  LaFiamma's hips lifted and together they created a rhythm of pleasure and need.

          Joe's hand reached out, closing on his partner's, and he scooted closer so Lundy could pump him.  "God, that feels so good," he whispered.

          Lundy glanced at the mirror above his dresser, catching sight of his partner, head thrown back, hips driving, hand wrapped around the Texan's own engorged cock.  He stopped and squeezed, pushing Joe back from the brink of orgasm.

          They both panted, and LaFiamma turned passion-drowned blue eyes on Lundy. "I don't want to screw this up."

          "You won't."

          It was time they both got what they wanted.  He moved, giving LaFiamma access to his cock, while he started to work on the man.  He almost stopped as teeth nipped carefully on the head of his cock and fingers worked their way to his balls, pulling and squeezing.

          Lundy reached to cup LaFiamma, but decided on a different approach.  He felt the pillar of flesh in his mouth quiver and knew he'd found what he wanted.  He pressed, sending his finger further into the soft warmth.

          "Ahh," LaFiamma mumbled around his own mouthful.

          Lundy pressed in deeper, sucking at the same time.  With a strangled cry his partner humped forward, come erupting like a geyser.  At the first salty taste Lundy felt himself explode in LaFiamma's mouth.

          Joe's arms stretched out and Levon shifted around to lie next to him.

          LaFiamma giggled.  "We did it," he said softly, one arm wrapping around Lundy and pulling him closer.

          "Sure did."  Lundy gave his partner a slap on the thigh and LaFiamma rolled out of bed long enough for Lundy to pull back the covers.

          The pair climbed back in, resting comfortably in a shared embrace.  "And that's just the first treatment," Lundy said.  "I've got a few other techniques I've gotta try."

          LaFiamma chuckled.  "You've been talking to the doctor again, haven't you?"

          Lundy shrugged.  "Sometimes it takes an expert to help move heaven and earth."

          "Do you hear me complaining?"

          "Didn't think I would."

          They lay quietly, LaFiamma delighting in the sense of completeness he felt.  Ryan was dead, his hynchmen were in jail, Corman was convicted, and Stoller was next on the Fed's hit list.  He was healthy again, and with a little help from Lundy, well on the road to a full recovery.

          "Lundy?"

          "Yeah?"

          "Was that heaven or earth?"

          "Keep that up, boy, and I'll have to show you all over again."

          "Promise?"