Disclaimer: Characters belong to Stan Berkowitz. No copyright infringement intended.

Author's Note: My i Houston Knights /i stories are not new. This is the first time, however, that I will be able to archive all of my stories (over different fandoms) in one place. I'd still love feedback. So drop me a line and tell me what you think!

I Go First

Really, Lundy, I can't understand why you're dragging me to Gilley's again. Once was enough." Joey LaFiamma complained as they strolled down the sidewalk.

"LaFiamma, we need to get you some culture," Levon Lundy replied.

"Culture?!" LaFiamma asked, incredulously. "You call a cowboy, honky tonk bar, culture?"

"Texan culture," Lundy elaborated. "You're seriously missin' out on an important part of your Texas education."

"I'm sure I am," LaFiamma looked dubious, shrugging leather-clad shoulders.

"'Sides, it's our anniversary." Lundy continued walking even as his partner stopped short.

"What are you playing at, Lundy?" Joey rushed to catch up. "What the hell are you talking about?"

Lundy stopped and turned toward the dark-haired man. With infinite patience, his Texas drawl becoming more pronounced, he spoke as if to a dim-witted child. "LaFiamma, you've been in Houston a year. And while you haven't seen fit to change your ways..." Lundy looked from his partner's expensive Italian loafers to his silk shirt and leather jacket. "I've got to do my duty as a Texan and celebrate."

"Celebrate, huh?" Joey looked skeptical. "Right."

"Hey," Lundy said, "We Southerners are known for our hospitality."

"Uh-huh," There was a smile in Joey's voice. "You Texans...any excuse to have a party."

Lundy hooked his thumbs in his pockets and leaned against a telephone poll. "We don't need an excuse."

LaFiamma nodded, knowingly. "Just remember what happened the last time we were at Gilley's. If it occurs again, you're paying for my dry cleaning."

Lundy grinned, remembering their fist fight in the first few days of their acquaintance. "That's what you think, LaFiamma."

Shaking his head, Joey began walking again. "At least the walk was a good idea."

Lundy snorted as he fell in step beside his partner. "We didn't have much choice. Charlie Daniels is performin' tonight as a favor to Mickey. We're lucky we parked as close as we did."

LaFiamma nodded. "Who's Charlie Daniels?"

The native Texan rolled his eyes. "Boy, LaFiamma, you sure had a deprived upbringin'. Looks like I'm gonna have to fix that."

There was a pause. Then both broke into laughter. The cutting sarcasm of the early days of their partnership was still very much a part of them. Underlying the biting words, though, was affection. A fact they would both deny. Antagonism toward each other was part of their reputation. Only those close to them knew the truth--that there was a deep abiding friendship based on mutual respect.

The two Houston police officers continued to walk quietly. Gilley's was still a block away and neither was in much of a hurry. They were content in each other's company and were loathe to have the silence broken.

Of course, as it was in times like these--peaceful, tranquil--their quiet didn't last long.

Lundy stopped suddenly and grabbed LaFiamma's arm. Despite their short association, they had become so in tuned with each other no explanations were needed. Each understood the other well and it saved time.

LaFiamma followed Lundy's gaze across the street Scanning the area, he took note of the shops. The small shopping center included an ATM, Claire's Ice Cream Parlor, The Boutique, Diamond Jim's, and a local post office. Frowning, Joey wondered what his partner had seen which had suddenly made him so tense. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary to him.

"The jewelry store!" Lundy muttered harshly, reading his partner's mind.

Joey swung his gaze back to Diamond Jim's and watched it closely. Eyesight straining through the darkness, he still couldn't detect anything wrong. Silently, he shuffled forward. Peering intently at the jewelry store, he was finally rewarded with what Lundy had seen.

The beam of a flashlight bounced off of the glass door and display units on either side of the entrance...from the inside. It continued in another wide arc before disappearing once again.

Eyes widening, Joey turned to stare at his partner. "Never a dull moment in Houston is there?"

Lundy snorted and rolled his eyes. "You've been here long enough to know we don't know the meanin' of the word dull." He indicated the store. "Let's move in."

LaFiamma held back. "Just a second, Lundy. Let's plan our attack."

Lundy considered him for a moment. "Fine. Let's not take too long, though. I have a hunch it's Dalton and McGillicuddy."

"Dalton and McGillicuddy?" Joey asked sharply. "They were last spotted in San Antonio."

Lundy nodded. "Yeah, they were responsible for the rash of jewelry heists down there. One of my snitches told me there was a rumor they were headed here."

Joey stared at him. "And you're just telling me about this now?"

"I was gonna tell you, LaFiamma." Lundy pulled his gun from his holster. "Just hadn't gotten around to it is all."

The Italian gave an irritated sigh, but made no comment. "Think we should call for backup?"

"No time," Lundy replied tersely. "We gotta take 'em down now."

"All right," LaFiamma pulled out his two guns. "I'll take the front. You take the back."

"No," Lundy disagreed. "Old Jim Rolston didn't believe in back doors. Said it was too much temptation for crooks. He only had a fire exit installed to meet the fire codes of the city. If the thieves go that way, they risk setting off the fire alarm and drawing attention to themselves. We both take the front." He took a few steps in the direction of the store.

LaFiamma grasped his arm and in a tone which left no room for argument, he hissed. "I go through the doors first."

Levon sighed, knowing it was useless to say anything, but his standard, "Be my guest." He knew Joey still carried a lot of guilt for the death of his previous partner who was killed in Chicago. In fact, the incident had been the catalyst which had sent LaFiamma to Houston for his own protection. Lundy allowed himself a moment to ponder his partner's obsession with going through doors first. 'One of these days,' he thought. 'I'm gonna have to put a stop to this. Joey can't go on blamin' himself forever. I won't allow it.'

Resolving to talk to Joey at the first opportunity, Lundy turned to the problem they currently faced. He followed LaFiamma to the front of the store. Crouching low before the front door, they glanced at each other. The lock had been picked and from the signs of it, the burglary alarm had been disabled. Upon closer observation, they noticed two people in the store and from the looks of it, they were pros. It appeared as if their Dalton/McGillicuddy theory was true. The two detectives only needed to arrest them in order to prove it.

In wordless communication, they eased up until they were standing. Taking up position on either side of the door, guns ready, they tensed in readiness. Lundy nodded at his partner.

As LaFiamma slowly reached for the door handle, something caught Lundy's eye. With horrifying clarity, he realized they had been spotted. One of the thieves in the store had pulled a gun and was aiming it at the front door...straight at his partner.

No thought, no hesitation slowed Lundy's movements. Concern for Joey's safety was paramount and his next actions were instinctive. Giving a startled cry, the Texan tackled LaFiamma as the gun from within the store went off.

Joey fell against the glass display on the edge of the doorway. He didn't hear the shattering glass or feel the broken pieces cutting into his back. He was too busy cursing. "Damn it, Lundy, get off a me. They're getting away!" LaFiamma shoved ineffectually at his partner. "Lundy!" He tried again, his voice suddenly full of panic. His friend wasn't responding and he was a dead weight, pinning Joey down.

The two thieves temporarily forgotten, Joey ran hands across Lundy's back, looking for signs of injury. "Shit!" He cursed again as he touched Lundy's shoulder and felt blood.

Lundy began to moan.

"Levon," Joey's voice was urgent. "Come on, help me out here. Don't do this to me. Please." He slid down with his partner's body clasped to him, ignoring the slight pain in his lower back as a piece of glass cut through his jacket and dug tenaciously into his skin. "Levon," he whispered, his voice thick. "I--please--I need for you to open your eyes. Talk to me. Please be okay."

The wail of an alarm finally penetrated Joey's desperate pleas and he realized the two men must have left through the fire exit. Sighing, he felt a moment's relief, knowing backup would be arriving soon and they could get an ambulance for Lundy.

Until that time, though, LaFiamma would look after him. Cradling Lundy to his chest, Joey could feel the painfully slow thudding of his partner's heart. It tore at him to know that it was his fault. He should have gone first, it should have been him. Closing his eyes at the phantom pain of a past death made real all over again by the too still body he held in his arms, Joey slipped his hand under Lundy's jacket and pressed it against the bloody wound.

LaFiamma was still in the same position minutes later when help finally arrived.

An hour later, Lundy was still in surgery and LaFiamma was pacing the waiting room. Occasionally, he would stop and gaze out the sole window at the Houston skyline as if pondering on the origin of the universe...and his place in it.

The only other occupant of the room watched him. "Joey," Lieutenant Joanne Beaumont said softly. "Why don't you sit down?"

LaFiamma spun around and stared at her. "I don't wanna sit down, Lieutenant. I want that doctor to hurry up and tell me what's going on!"

The lieutenant tried again. "Levon's going to be all right. He's tough. You just have to let the doctors do their job."

"That's the standard line, isn't it?" LaFiamma began pacing again. "It seems like every bad cop show on television uses that line at one time or another." He paused, looking down at his blood soaked shirt. It was Lundy's blood staining him, permanently etching the memory of the horrifying evening in his mind. "Well, Lieutenant, it doesn't work that way. Levon shouldn't even be in there." In sudden despair, he leaned against the wall and stared upward as if expecting someone to reach down and assuage his guilt.

Joanne looked at her detective in concern. She had noticed the brief pain which had fluttered across the handsome face, knowing Joey hadn't even realized it. "Is your back bothering you? Did you get a doctor to look at it?" She had been briefed by the uniforms and detectives who had responded to the robbery alarm. And as she had waited with Joey, Joanne had managed to get a somewhat abbreviated story out of her detective.

LaFiamma flashed her a look of irritation. "Yeah, just a few cuts. No big deal." He began tapping his foot. "Where the hell is that doctor?"

"Joey," Joanne began. "You aren't doing Lundy any good by losing control."

"That's right," LaFiamma interrupted her. "I didn't do any good. I lost control and Lundy ended up with a bullet in his back." He ran a hand through his hair in agitation. "You weren't there, Lieutenant. There was so much blood." He tried to keep the anguish out of his voice. "If only he'd listened--" He turned away. "I always go through the doors first."

"That's enough, Sergeant." Lt. Beaumont snapped, hoping her authoritative tone would penetrate LaFiamma's guilt-ridden fog. "You were both doing your job. You can't blame yourself."

"Oh yeah, just watch me," Joey muttered under his breath before turning to his superior. "Lieutenant, no matter what happens, from now on, I work alone." He straightened to his full height and gave his boss a look of determination.

Joanne stared at him in shock. "You can't mean that. Look, just wait until Lundy gets better. Things will be clearer then."

Joey shook his head. "Alone." His voice was cold and final.

The lieutenant opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted by the arrival of the doctor. As Joey began questioning the physician, she had only one thought. 'Lundy, you better hurry up and get well. You're the only one who can talk some sense into your partner because if you don't, he's gone.'

"Lieutenant," Joey spoke, interrupting her thoughts. "Lundy's out of the woods. Looks like it was only a shoulder wound. He's gonna have to stay here for the rest of the night, but he'll be able to go home sometime tomorrow." The tone was full of relief.

Joanne smiled. "See, Joey? I told you he was going to be fine."

LaFiamma's expression closed and he stared stonily at her. "Nothing's changed, Lieutenant. I'm not losing another partner. I work alone."

"It's a little late for that. Don't you think, Sergeant?" Beaumont replied, meeting his expression head on.

Joey scowled. "I'm gonna go see him." He followed the doctor out of the waiting room without a giving Beaumont a backward glance.

She watched them go. "You do that, LaFiamma." The lieutenant said softly. "See what you'll be missing." Grabbing her purse, she decided to give the two detectives some time together. Partners usually needed time alone after an ordeal such as this in order to process what had occurred, and to reassure each other they were both fine. LaFiamma and Lundy needed it the most especially now their partnership had reached a critical stage.

Beaumont left the hospital, thinking of her best team and hoping things would work out.

Joey entered the hospital room quietly. He stood by the door, afraid of moving forward. Taking a deep breath, he allowed his eyes to settle on his sleeping partner.

"I'm sorry, Lundy," Joey whispered, noting the bare chest partially covered with white bandages. "It shouldn't be you there. It should be me."

Sighing, he walked over and pulled a chair close to the hospital bed. The young sergeant sat and watched his partner.

Lundy was still and pale, his face gentled by sleep and painkillers. The natural air of intensity which usually surrounded him was gone. He was way too still.

"You're gonna make it, man," LaFiamma whispered, laying a hand on Lundy's arm. He didn't know when they had gone form being just partners to friends. They still hassled one another and got in each other's faces, but it was the way they communicated best. Joey was going to hate leaving his partner, but he was doing Lundy a favor. 'Is that what you think you're doing?' A little voice taunted inside his head. 'Face it, LaFiamma, you're just chicken. You don't want to lose another partner, another friend.'

He rubbed his forehead, trying to dispel his guilt and maybe shut up the little voice. "I hope you understand, Lundy." The words echoed in the quiet, sterile room. Still, the other occupant did not stir.

Joey laid his head down on the bed, his hand still on Lundy's arm. Somehow, the connection made him feel better. "Please don't fight me on this." Closing his eyes, Joey wondered who he was kidding. Lundy wasn't going to take the break-up of their partnership sitting down. Aw, well, he'd cross that bridge when he came to it.

Joey drifted into sleep, not having the willpower to struggle against the large issues he suddenly faced.

The moan issuing from deep in his throat roused him from slumber. Opening his eyes, he blearily glanced around and noticed he was in a hospital room. He took a ragged breath when memory came flooding back. With it, came worry.

Where was Joey? Had he gotten to him in time? It was then Lundy felt the hand on his arm.

The Houston detective moved slowly as not to wake the fiery pain in his shoulder. There was LaFiamma leaning forward uncomfortably, his eyes closed. Lundy watched him for a few moments, grateful Joey was all right. It had been way too close.

"LaFiamma," Lundy spoke softly, his throat hoarse. "Come on, wake up."

The other man shifted in his sleep and mumbled something intelligible.

Lundy shook the hand on his arm and instantly regretted the movement. Hissing in pain, he lay back amongst the pillows and tried to control his breathing. To busy trying to get the throbbing in his shoulder to subside, he was unaware of a pair of sleepy blue eyes staring at him.

"Levon?" LaFiamma asked. "You okay?"

Gritting his teeth, Lundy could barely nod. "I'm fine."

"Damn it, Lundy!" Joey swore. "Cut that out. I know you're hurting, man. You don't have to lie about it."

"Shit, LaFiamma," Lundy ground out. "If you knew how I was feelin', why'd ya ask?" He swallowed as each beat of his heart sent waves of pain throughout his body. "That must have been some bullet. It hurts like a son of a bitch."

Joey abruptly stood and turned away. "I'm gonna go get a doctor."

Despite his debilitating condition, Lundy eyed his partner in suspicion. He knew LaFiamma well enough to know something was wrong. "Don't bother. I been shot before. All they're gonna do is give me some pain medication. I don't need it."

Back still to Lundy, Joey replied, "Maybe you do. I'll be right back." He took two steps toward the door when he was stopped by a command.

"Hold it right there." Lundy was exhausted by this little bit of action. It seemed to take huge amounts of energy to even have a conversation, especially when said conversation was between himself and his stubborn other half. Joey was holding something back from him and he wasn't going to rest until they had cleared the air. "What the hell's wrong?" He asked.

Joey spun around to face his fallen friend. "What's wrong? You have some nerve, Lundy." Anger sparked his blue eyes.

Frowning, Lundy let his gaze travel over the Italian. Blood stained his wrinkled clothes. He swore. "Were you hurt? What the hell happened?" Panic lightly touched his words. Joey was standing and talking. Whatever wound he had suffered couldn't be that bad.

Joey ran a hand through his disheveled hair. "No, man, I didn't get hit. Thanks to you. I'm fine."

Momentary relief flooded through Lundy's system until he remembered his partner's strange behavior. "If you're okay, then what the hell's goin' on? You look like a scared jackrabbit lookin' for a place to hide."

LaFiamma was shaking his head. "I don't know what you mean. I'm okay. It's you who's been shot."

Irritated with his partner, Lundy made a move to get up. An involuntary gasp shot from his lips as he jostled his shoulder.

Eyes narrowing in anger, Joey was by his side before he had time to lie back down. "Damn it, Lundy! You wanna tear those stitches? It took the doctors a couple of hours to get you back for what passes for human. Relax." LaFiamma gently lowered him to the pillows.

"I would relax, LaFiamma, if you'd tell me what's goin' on," Lundy retorted through whitening lips. "I wake up to find my partner asleep on my hospital bed, covered in blood. On top of that, you've been itchin' to get out of here since I woke up. So speak up, boy, what the hell's wrong."

"You really wanna go through this now?" Joey looked down at him.

"So you admit there's something wrong." It was a statement not a question delivered in a smug tone. Lundy had him.

Joey strode angrily to the window and peered out, the early morning sun causing him to squint. He wasn't looking at anything in particular anyway. What he was seeing was his own guilt. It was eating away at him. "It's nothing important," he spoke quietly.

"Nothin' important," Lundy repeated, staring at his friend's back. LaFiamma's body was stiff with tension. "If that's the case, then I guess you won't mind tellin' me what's going on."

LaFiamma turned. "Give it a rest, Lundy. Now's not the time to talk." He tried to keep his tone calm and low. It was an uphill battle. Under the best of circumstances, he was a volatile man. It just wasn't in his nature to be serene when he could be raging at something. Unfortunately, the person he wanted to rage against was lying in a hospital bed, weak and helpless. Well, maybe not helpless. The word just didn't seem to apply to his partner.

Lundy's eyes narrowed, assessing the man before him. If he hadn't been convinced there was something wrong before, he was now. Watching LaFiamma control his temper when he so obviously wanted to rant was almost more painful to watch then taking a bullet in the shoulder. "Talk to me, Joey," he said softly.

LaFiamma's fists clenched and unclenched as they hung loosely by his sides. Arguing with his wounded partner wasn't an option. Lack of a descent night's sleep added to the guilt and worry made him aware he wasn't in full control either. This conversation had to wait. "Listen, Lundy, you need to get some rest. We can talk about this later." He hoped his tone was reasonable.

Lundy gave an exasperated sigh. "It's like pullin' teeth." He muttered to no one in particular.

"Now listen, man--" Joey started.

Eyes widening as he finally understood what his partner wasn't saying, Lundy interrupted. Lord have mercy, LaFiamma, you aren't blamin' yourself for what happened, are you?" The slow flush creeping up Joey's face was the only answer he needed. How could he have not realized this sooner? "Dammit, Joey, if I have to get up from this bed and knock some sense into you--"

"You'll have to answer to me." A new voice threw in.

Both looked toward the door and discovered a doctor standing there.

Joey remembered her as the doctor he had spoken to briefly the night before. She was Lundy's physician. He walked toward and flashed a tired smile. "Hey, Doc."

The tall, red-haired woman raised a brow. "Don't 'hey, doc,' me. Flashing those baby blues won't save you from the lecture I'm about to give you. But first, my patient." She walked over to Lundy. "Good morning, Mr. Lundy. I'm Dr. Gina Santos. I'm the one who stitched you up."

"Terrific job, Doc," Lundy said easily. "When can I go home?"

She frowned at him. "In a couple of hours. Right now, I want you resting. And..." Santos managed to glare at both of them. "The scene I stumbled upon didn't seem conducive to that. May I ask what exactly you two thought you were doing?" Hands on hips, she waited for an answer.

Joey looked sheepish. "Sorry about that, Doc. We weren't talking about anything in particular."

"Yeah," Lundy drawled, directing a glare of his own toward his partner. "And that's what the problem was."

Santos looked from one to the other and sighed. She didn't understand any of the subtext, but she knew they were really close friends and something was wrong. For her patient's sake, the doctor hoped they would solve whatever problem it was.

"We'll talk about it later, Lundy. It can wait." Joey replied. "The doctor's right, you need rest."

"Thank you," Dr. Santos interjected drily. "Now I suggest you leave and let me examine my patient. Why don't you go home and get cleaned up? He'll still be here when you get back." She added. "And then maybe you can take him home."

LaFiamma exchanged looks with Lundy as the doctor took her patient's pulse. "I'll be back in an hour."

"Make it three," Santos said. "He's going to be going back to sleep soon. You wouldn't be doing any good here."

"Yeah, LaFiamma. Why don't you take it easy for awhile and then come back." Lundy agreed, his eyes a steel blue.

The other man shivered slightly. He heard the unspoken words, 'Take it easy because you're gonna need all the strength you can get. This argument isn't over by a long shot.' Nodding, he acknowledged the silent message. "Later, Lundy."

As he left, he could hear the doctor telling Lundy that he shouldn't have moved his injured shoulder too much. LaFiamma felt bad about that. Just another thing to add to the pile of guilt he seemed to be carrying around these days.

"Hey, Joanne," Lundy greeted his first visitor since LaFiamma had left two hours ago. "How're things going?"

"Shouldn't I be asking you that?" His boss smiled as she neared the bed.

Lundy chuckled. "I'm doin' all right. As soon as my partner gets here, I'm free to go."

Beaumont's brow wrinkled. "So he's still willing to talk to you?" She sat down in the chair her other detective had slept in the night before.

"What do mean, Joanne?" Lundy asked, a puzzled look on his face. "Do you know what's goin' on with him? When I tried talkin' to him this morning, he was more skittish than a newborn colt."

The woman nodded. "I'm not surprised. I bet he's wondering how to tell you."

Lundy shifted in his bed to face her more clearly. He was mindful of his shoulder wound. "Lieutenant, why don't you fill me in on exactly what's goin' on? I know he feels guilty over what happened, but we haven't gotten a chance to talk about it yet."

Beaumont ran a critical eye over her wounded officer. Lundy was pale and tired, but his eyes were still sharp. Taking a deep breath, she replied, "Joey does blame himself for getting you shot. Lundy, he's decided to work alone from here on out."

Lundy's reaction was explosive. "What the hell does he think that's gonna accomplish!" His voice rose as he tried to sit up. Oblivious of the pain, he swung his legs over the side of the bed before the lieutenant could stop him. "It makes no sense at all. I need a partner to back me up." He cursed some more as his shoulder screamed out in pain. Clenching his teeth, he waved the woman away as Joanne tried to ease him back down among the pillows. "No time for that now. I've gotta find Joey. Straighten this mess out."

"Sargeant." Beaumont's tone was stern. "He'll be here. You just need to relax until then." She tugged ineffectually at Levon's arm. "Don't make me get the doctor. If you work yourself up into a state, she just might make you stay here another day."

Lundy glared at her. "Listen, Joanne, you don't know LaFiamma. I may have been the one shot, but he's the one who's hurtin'. I've gotta talk to him."

Beaumont's gaze softened. "Look, I do understand. You're just not in the best of shape for this right now. It can wait until you're better."

The weak man leaned back against the pillows, trying not to make anymore sudden movements. He would have to learn to control that if he were going to be able to talk to Joey. "Lieutenant, it can't wait. It's already been too long. I know if I could talk to him, I could get him to understand." His voice was twinged with pain, but the woman could hear determination behind it.

"You'll get a chance," she said softly, placing hand on his arm.

"Get a chance at what?" LaFiamma asked as he entered the hospital room.

"A chance to talk to you," Lundy responded. He was pleased to note Joey had changed clothes and had apparently gotten some rest. The haggard, drawn appearance of this morning was gone. LaFiamma was far from peaceful and serene, but he looked more in control.

Joey crossed his arms and leaned against the wall near Lundy's hospital bed. "What's there to talk about?"

"You know damn well what I wanna talk about," Lundy said between clenched teeth. He spared a glance at their lieutenant. "I know what you're plannin' to do, LaFiamma, but you can just forget about it. I'm not gonna go through the trouble of breakin' in a new partner just because you're scared." He hoped for a reaction to his intended slur and got it.

"I am not scared, Lundy!" Joey practically shouted, standing away from the wall with a snap. He had gained control for all of an hour. Minutes in his partner's presence and he had lost it.

"Of course you are," Lundy said softly. "And that's okay."

LaFiamma stood there unable to respond. He stared passed his partner and his lieutenant, not wanting to see the look of compassion and concern on both their faces. It would be his undoing. He couldn't admit he was scared to lose the best partner--closest friend--he'd ever had. Nor did he want to tell Lundy that it pained him to leave. There was no choice. Joey was bad luck and he knew it. So he set his face in a grim mask, careful not to show what he was truly feeling.

Lundy stared at him for a moment, instinctively knowing what must be going through his partner's head. Turning to his lieutenant, he requested, "Joanne, you mind givin' us a minute?"

Glancing from the man lying in the bed to the other staring into space, she nodded. "I'll be right outside if ya'll need me."

"Thanks," Lundy murmured as she left. He turned to look back at his partner who hadn't moved. "Joey, sit down for a minute." He was meant with grim silence and no movement. With a sigh of exasperation, the Texan sat up. The other was still, tension radiating from him like heat on asphalt. "Look, man, you've been carryin' this around since you left Chicago. It's time we deal with it."

The silence lengthened until finally LaFiamma replied, "There's nothing to deal with, Lundy. I'm going to start working alone and you'll get a new partner." His voice sounded flat, dead. No trace of emotion was evident.

With determination, Levon swung his feet over the edge of the bed and stood. He was going to be leaving soon, might as well get used to maneuvering. "What if I don't want a new partner? Didja think of that?"

LaFiamma shrugged and finally turned to look at his partner. "You need someone to watch your back, Lundy."

"And you don't?" Lundy shot back in irritation. "You were nearly shot and killed in the first week you were here. Or did you conveniently forget that I saved your ass."

Joey flushed. "No, I didn't forget." He shook his head. "Right now, that's not important."

"Are you saying you aren't important, LaFiamma?" Lundy's tone had dipped dangerously low. Eyes narrowing, he watched his partner.

"Dammit, Lundy!" Joey began to pace. "Can't you just leave it alone? That's not what I'm saying."

"Then what are you saying?" Lundy asked, his voice still soft, still full of anger. "Why don't you just spit it out." 'Come on, Joey. Talk to me. Let it all out.'

Joey stopped and faced the other man. "Fine, you asked for it." He took a deep breath. "When I lost my partner in Chicago, it was like...like a piece of me had gone with him. We'd been through so much together--both on and off the job. To know I could have prevented his death made it worse. I vowed to myself that there wouldn't be a next time. I was gonna put the safety of my partner first." He was looking at the floor now, unable to meet his partner's gaze.

Lundy slowly walked forward and placed a hand on the other man's shoulder. Giving it a slight squeeze, he said, "I know how you feel, LaFiamma. Cuz I feel the same way. My partner's life is just as important as my own and I would do anything to protect him."

LaFiamma looked up into blue eyes so much like his own and saw only concern and sympathy. He felt the warmth of friendship creep through him and he visciously shoved it away. It was already too hard to do this. "Then you understand why I have to go solo."

Lundy shook his head. "Actually, I don't. It's all wrong, don't you see that?" He paused, searching for the right words. "You think that if you left, then I wouldn't have to deal with an incompetent cop for a partner who may get me killed."

"For someone who doesn't understand," Joey interrupted drily. "You sure explain it well."

"Quiet and let me finish," Lundy ordered. "There's two problems with that. One, you aren't incompetent. You're one of the best cops on the force. Yeah, you may be a little hotheaded, but we all have our quirks."

Joey rolled his eyes. "What's the second thing?"

"Did you ever stop to think that if you left this partnership, it would leave me more vulnerable? With no one to watch my back, I might as well have a bull's eye painted on my forehead."

"You could always get another partner, Lundy." Joey suggested.

"And that's the biggest problem of all." Lundy sat down on the bed, still looking at his friend. "A partner is someone you can trust. Not only to guard your back, but to support you when the cards are stacked against you. I already have someone who fits those qualifications. I don't want anyone else, I don't need anyone else." He paused. "You're the only one I trust."

Joey swallowed and his eyes were suspiciously wet. "It still doesn't change the fact that you wouldn't have gotten hurt tonight if it weren't for me."

Lundy cocked his head as he considered his friend's words. "How do you figure that?" He asked finally. "If you hadn't been there, I would have gone on my own and still have gotten shot. It just turned out you were there." He pierced his partner with a gaze. "And make no mistake, I made the choice to take the bullet. You didn't force me. No one was at fault, LaFiamma. It happened, now we get over it."

"Just like that." Joey snapped his fingers. He was still angry. "It's not that simple, man. If you hadn't been looking out for me, you wouldn't be here now."

"That's enough, LaFiamma," Lundy responded sternly. "That's what partners do. Look after each other. You wanna make it worse by splittin' us apart so that neither one of us has any back up. Where's the logic in that?"

LaFiamma sighed and let his shoulders slump. He felt suddenly defeated. "There is no logic. It's how I feel. I'm really tired..." The Italian sat down on the bed next to his friend.

Lundy threw an arm around his shoulders. "I know you are, Joey. I know." He paused. "This really isn't about me. It's about Szabo. What happened to him wasn't your fault. You didn't pull the trigger, you didn't kill him. He was doing his job the same as you."

"And that's supposed to make me feel better?" LaFiamma asked bitterly.

"I didn't say it to make you feel better." Lundy corrected. "You lost a good friend and partner and it hurts. Nothing's gonna change that. What I'm telling you is the truth. It's time to move on, partner. He wouldn't want you wastin' your energy over something you couldn't control to begin with."

"It's just...it's not so easy, you know?" LaFiamma ran a hand through his hair.

"I know," Lundy murmured. "We've all lost people we've care about. We just have to do the best we can. And the best way is through friendship."

Joey looked at his partner. "Friendship," he repeated. "I guess you're right."

Lundy patted him on the back. "Of course I am. Have you ever known a Texan to be wrong?" He smiled. "Seriously, Joey, friendship is what it's all about. So don't go tryin' to destroy ours. Got it?"

For the first time that day, LaFiamma smiled. "Got it." He still felt bad about what had happened to both his partners, but he was beginning to understand friendship counted a long way towards defeating the guilt. "Come on, man. Let's get outa here. I hate hospitals."

"That's the best thing you've said all day." Lundy stood up. "Get me my clothes."

"Bossy, aren't you?" LaFiamma moved toward the closet.

"Someone has to keep you in line." Came the dry retort.

"Back to normal," Joey murmured. "Back to normal."

The End.